I remember that Ken Jennings was pretty good at Jeopardy. I didn’t see any of the shows, but his name was everywhere when he had that hot streak that earned him millions. Was he the last (and biggest) game show celebrity? I went to Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company last night to hear him discuss his new book Planet Funny. It turns out he’s also a good writer and can land a solid punchline.**
Most of Elliott Bay’s author talks are downstairs. I’m not sure if the room has an official name. Downstairs or basement really aren’t appropriate. It’s a cool, intimate space with good acoustics and an interior design that will make any book lover happy. It was packed for the Jennings reading. I’ve been to several talks there, and last night was the first time I’ve seen them have to bring out more chairs.
I stood at the back to get pictures. I watched Jennings waiting at the back as Elliott Bay introduced him. After the introduction he jogged toward the podium. I don’t think many people saw that. It reminded me of a contestant running out to meet a host on a game show. It also seemed very genuine. I suspect that Jennings tackles things with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm.
He opened his talk by going after some low hanging fruit. (These quotes are close, but I was typing notes into my phone. Let’s call them paraphrased.)
“You’re all going to miss Jeopardy.”
“Spoiler about the title Planet Funny. Like Planet of the Apes, it’s about Earth.” I laughed, but Jennings must have heard some groans because he said quietly, “…don’t do that joke again.”
Jennings explained that Planet Funny is a love letter to comedy and humor. Comedy was something of a defense mechanism for him growing up in the 80s. He wasn’t the popular captain of the football team. Comedy and humor offered some security, a shield of sorts as he made his way through childhood and the school yard. I went right back to my childhood when he discussed the comedy environment in the 80s. There wasn’t enough of it. You had to seek it out on Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, and Eddie Murphy albums. You had to conserve it. There weren’t podcasts or YouTube, so you’d listen to your albums again and again. (I blame a lifetime of being a night owl on Letterman, and I can still hear Eddie Murphy’s voice from those albums.)
Jennings then compared that to today, where comedy and humor are everywhere, all the time.
“It started to feel oppressive. It’s like the Rowdy Roddy Piper movie They Live. You put on those glasses, and suddenly you realize it’s everywhere. I remember when airline safety briefings got funny. I thought, hey, this is serious business, why the need for a comedy sketch. Churches even got into comedy with their signs.”
Jennings pointed out that with this explosion of comedy, especially on platforms like Twitter, it has become more participatory. We’ve all become a bit savvier with humor. We might not all be funny, but we’re more familiar with the mechanics or the structure of it. So much so that some of the funniest things on Twitter are from everyday people, not the professional comedians. The downside is that perhaps we are enjoying comedy less. It’s all pervasive, denser, and faster, with the constant pressure to escalate.
Jennings closed out his talk by reading from his book, a chapter in which he looks at the rise of humor in politics. When politicians, including presidents, first started going on talk shows, it was criticized as being undignified. Compare that to now. We have a reality show star as president, and politicians regularly appear on all sorts of talk shows. They have to.
Jennings covered this topic well by recounting a discussion he had with Scott Aukerman about working to get President Obama on the Funny or Die show Between Two Ferns. Aukerman and Zach Galifianakis didn’t think they stood a chance of getting Obama on the show. It’s not a spoiler to say that they eventually did, but I’ll stop there and let you read the rest in the book. I thought it was really interesting, and a nice, unexpected insight into the Obama White House and into how comedy shows book guests.
** Shortly after I posted this article someone contacted me on Instagram and pointed out that Jennings has fired off a few awful tweets. I vaguely recalled Jennings writing a tweet following the Kathy Griffin – Trump tweet controversy in which he mentioned Barron Trump. While I don’t think Jennings was mocking Barron Trump, I do believe that there’s almost never a good reason for mentioning children in tweets. Barron Trump didn’t ask to be in the limelight, and he deserves the privacy that we’d all want in similar circumstances.
I also read reports about Jennings tweeting about a woman in a wheelchair and the death of a Star Wars fan shortly after seeing one of the movies. They’re bad tweets and not funny. I recognize that Jennings’ Twitter account played a part in his writing and thinking about the role of comedy in society. I’d like to think the tweets were poor choices he made while exploring that realm. I also recognize that I don’t know the full context of the tweets. But jokes that exploit power dynamics or humiliate aren’t funny.