Boredom And Comedy

Yesterday the dog woke us up at 6 a.m. with diarrhea (the previous night I had patted his butt and said to Gary “I think we got the best one” in the voice of Nic Cage in Raising Arizona, so obviously God has to punish you when you jinx yourself like that, word to the wise), so we went ahead and started our day in the clear sweet light of dawn with the birds squawking like the damn dickens.

Maximizing profits to excel our data, we spent the unexpected additional hours of our morning discussing comedy. This happened because I am reading (sort of) Arthur Koestler’s truly magisterial and enormous book THE ACT OF CREATION, in which he argues that all creative acts stem from the laughter impulse. After giving several astoundingly un-funny examples of jokes, Koestler mentions in passing that although Freud’s theory of humor holds that repressed sexual instincts are at the root of laughter (duh), repressed boredom can also generate it, as evidenced by this weird list of things that recently made anonymous undergraduates laugh in 1964, including “a dog came in during lecture” and “a study of H.G. Wells’ sex life written by a priest” (those were heady days, the 60s).

Anyway, repressed boredom! This had never fully occurred to us but now I am seeing the issue as a multi-faceted gem, connecting so many dots and shedding a glorious light on so many previous un-theorized things.

Repression of sex and death–Freud’s two great bugbears–is at the root of so much comedy. The intrusion of something unexpected, often sexual, scatological, or dark, into a mundane reality is basically what a lot of comedy is. Louis C.K. names the unspeakable, the repressed knowledge of the darkness and horror in life, and that’s the basis for a lot of what makes him so amazingly funny. His monologue about how, when it comes to relationships, the “best case scenario” is that you find your soulmate, you’re blissfully happy together for forty years, and then one of you dies, and the other one is all alone in the world, schlepping grocery bags down the wintry sidewalk, “waiting for your own turn to become nothing.” That shouldn’t be funny, because it’s horrible, but somehow naming it and saying it out loud is so shocking that it causes what Koestler would call “the laughter-impulse.” Or how Louis C.K. flips off his daughter in that one episode. Return of the repressed!

Repressed sex stuff is obviously the root of a lot of comedy too, both good and bad. Standup comedians are caricatured as men who get up onstage and talk about their penises, e.g. “My wife is so fat” jokes. etc.

But repressed BOREDOM. We realized that from the return of this repressed thing comes SILLINESS. And that silliness can’t really be identified with sex or death in the same way as other types of joking can. Silliness comes from boredom–hence the “pillow fight in the dormitory” entry on Koestler’s list. So many of the times I peed my pants laughing in high school occurred when my friends and I, bored out of our skulls, basically just started running around shrieking, putting underwear on our heads or whatever.

So there’s a gentle silliness that comes from normal boredom. But then there is a more extreme silliness that comes from a deeper, more existential boredom. And that gets really interesting!

I feel like this is the root of so much of my favorite comedy–comedy that is so hard to explain to people who don’t like it. The driest humor. Stella for example–I mean, pretty much the entire output of those guys, but lets just talk about Stella–their comedy stems almost totally from repressed boredom busting out of creative energetic people who, I would argue, are using silliness and absurdity as a means of staving off despair. Theirs is not just a passing boredom, it’s a boredom about society, social rules, middle class values, the clichés of the culture industry, etc. etc. It’s nihilistic and surrealist! It rejects the real world completely! It’s like the 19th century fantastic or Dada soirées or those avant-garde events where somebody just sat onstage smoking a cigarette and called it their “new ballet” and everyone went crazy and threw ink at them or whatever.

[Needless to say, almost none of the following clips are Safe For Work, but in particular the ending of “Pizza” has a classic Stella dildo-shocker that I don’t want you to get mad at me for not warning you about]

In this classic Stella short, our heroes explore boredom of all kinds: the inanity of dating, various filmic/televisual clichés (impressions of Meet The Parents; the stereotypes about Brooklyn and Brooklyn pizza, “Live from New York it’s Saturday Night”), even the boredom of trying to move past THEIR OWN PREVIOUS WORK (“I wanna dip my balls in it!” One time I saw Stella live and drunk idiots kept yelling “I’m outta heeeere” at Showalter and finally he yelled something about that being 20 years ago and why won’t they let him grow, and he meant it to be a joke but it was a little too real) (sorry I can’t figure out how to embed some of these):


I love how the satire of the kind of final-sitcom-moment of “The pizza! You guys!” gets spun out to this absurd meaningless regurgitation of nothingness, managing to express boredom with dating, the formulae of mainstream narrativizing, even the idea of writing jokes to begin with. Not to mention pizza.

Every single Stella short arguably stems from this primal fount of existential boredom, but sometimes it’s more explicit than others, as in the following, aptly titled “Bored”:


Like, this one opens with David Wain cutting his throat because of how bored he is. It’s amazing! They somewhat hatefully return again and again to these themes—the stupid things people do to pass the time before death (singing around the piano; reading mass-market children’s fiction; playing games). The way they walk and talk, flopping around and being gross, is like they’re resisting even just the most basic normal social behaviors. They want to live in a world where the unexpected can actually happen, but they don’t, so they create it.

In many other Stella shorts you can also see a boredom with even some of what we might consider the fundamental building-blocks of culture itself. Their constant gender-bending for example: many shorts involve some version of a woman having a huge penis and exciting/penetrating various men. They also have an obsession with incongruously-sized and -colored dildos, and with men masturbating like women, as though they don’t have penises. However, this silly (sometimes hysterically so) rejection of even the most basic biological/genital expectations doesn’t seem to come from the same kind of repressed sexual stuff as a lot of mainstream comedy does. I associate your average sex humor more with flirting with the taboo/naming the unnameable in a Louis C.K. manner (like Amy Schumer’s show) or more straight-up stuff like homophobia and sexism (the vast majority of all comedy ever). Stella’s sexual obsession is different–I think the idea of trying to escape boredom at the deepest levels (boredom with being a man/woman; boredom with the whole sexual endeavor itself and all that it entails) is much more compelling an explanation. I’m also sure it helps that Michael Showalter’s mother is literally Elaine Showalter. How I would love to know what she thinks of her son’s oeuvre. Many of these shorts were filmed in her back yard.

So the repression of existential boredom leads perhaps to these attempts to break free of the fetters of mundane reality, which Stella accomplishes via the cultivation of a pretty complex and fully-articulated world of silliness. I’d argue this is the same place something like Tim & Eric is coming from, but with a really interesting difference, which is that while the guys in Stella are clearly experiencing joy in their friendship, in their collective battle against boredom, Tim & Eric’s comedy is much more purely nihilistic and misanthropic, and even self-loathing, and is more like a total submersive EMBRACE of boredom than a fight against it. I mean, I obviously think those two dudes love each other and have fun together, but the brand of comedy they’ve developed is so brutal and full of hatred. While Stella evinces a boredom with the clichés of modern life, Tim & Eric I think actually HATE those clichés, that life, themselves. There’s such a darkness, a barely-restrained violence, in so much of their work, that I don’t think is there in Stella. So even though they make incredible stuff like this, which is pure distilled silliness born of repressed boredom (the computer/cubicle concept!):

They also make stuff like this:


And, holy crap, like this:

So much of their work rides this razor-thin line between funny and terrifying. There’s a barely-restrained hatefulness in that Kitchen Tips skit. The way he stirs the disgusting mixture with the blank look on his face, with the horrible close-mic squashing noises? That combo of blankness with a ridiculous action seems like such a dark commentary on life in this American dystopia. The idea that millions of people watch TV shows on which someone shows them how to eat food.

That’s why the movie The Comedy is so brilliant. You know how Paul Thomas Anderson said he wanted to make a classic, quintessential “Adam Sandler movie,” and that’s what Punch Drunk Love is, but you don’t notice it at first because PT Anderson made it, but when you actually think about it and diagram its plot and characters, wow, it is indeed a stereotypical Adam Sandler movie? I think The Comedy is based on the exact same model. I think Rick Alverson wanted to make a Tim Heidecker comedy sketch but without the signifiers of that tradition. Everyone was so into how “dark” Heidecker’s character is, but actually he is playing almost exactly the same character as he does in so many of his skits–blank, joyless–it’s just that surrounding context of silliness and hyperreal absurdity is stripped away, and we’re forced to look at who that character really is–a completely hollow, sociopathic monster who hates himself and has nothing in his life because nothing in all of contemporary Western culture has anything to offer him.

This isn’t the clip I would most like to show you but it’s the only one I can really find. Still, you get the idea. The whole movie is like this but most of it is meaner and more excruciating:


I’m noticing this kind of half-scary, ultra-dry, boredom-based comedy more and more now, and it’s usually my favorite kind. I can’t wait to see the scholarly book that gets written 100 years from now about this comedy trend in the waning years of American global supremacy. David Rees’ brilliant My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable digs into this same exact well of boredom, coming up with absurdist flights of fancy as a means of escape.


In Rees’ brutally dry office-clip-art-based office comedy (which he made while working a temp job in an office cubicle), characters speak in office-mumbo-jumbo about nothing, while fantasizing about their own deaths, the deaths of their co-workers, etc. Sometimes fantasy actually takes over, as in the series where a worker excels his data to such a degree that his spirit leaves his body and goes running down the hall while his body yells “you’re so lucky! where are you going!” after him.

In the incredible new show “Catherine,” made by people such as the brilliant Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer Camp, I feel like there’s a combination of elements reminiscent of Stella, Tim & Eric, and David Rees, with some David Lynch thrown in:

That sandwich order absolutely kills me. I laughed so hard the first time I saw it I basically had a seizure and started coughing wildly and my husband ran in thinking I was dying. There are twelve episodes and they seem to build toward some sort of creepy or scary conclusion but, perhaps needless to say, nothing really ever happens, exactly. The office dialogue and action are so surreal (“my husband loves the mountains.” “my husband loves the sea.”), the office-speak so inane, the roles and tasks of the characters so oblique and meaningless. And as Steve pointed out–why did Catherine leave the office the first time, and why does she come back? What was she doing during her time off, in her heinous suburban home and completely empty fishtank with single tiny fish in it?





Comedy is so important! It’s insane to me how denigrated it is, especially in my world. It’s such a powerful tool for social commentary and critique, and for performing pretty high-level critical thought (sometimes). I mean, for the lord’s sake, what about SOCRATES. Dude was doing Stephen Colbert 5,000 years ago, and was EXECUTED BY THE STATE for it! Real talk.

Anyway see you

This entry was posted in Opinion. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Boredom And Comedy

  1. dalas v says:

    Excellent Stella analysis. Remember how David Wain sent me a disc with all the shorts and then I made that Vimeo account for him and it’s my greatest contribution to human culture?

    I think one major aspect of Time & Eric is how excruciatingly frustrating it is to even just do the boring, status quo crap. Like, you’re just trying to do a simple cooking show, but the onion dip is blorping out of the bowl and getting all over your shirt. It shouldn’t be so hard to do the boring and expected, but somehow life is still a constant struggle, even when you try to “coast through” and it drives us all crazy, so we identify with Tim’s frustration (he always has trouble even speaking) and laugh.

    The “Catherine” shorts always remind me of this “soap opera” style series we had to watch in high school Spanish class, which was very similar in it’s extremely dull dialogue and delivery.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *