“Don’t be silly.”
A dismissive comment. A put-down.
Years ago, I was chatting with Eric Idle of Monty Python fame. His daughter and my son attended the same pre-school in Los Angeles. He’d just read a screenplay I’d written with Boyd Hale and Tom Wolfe, Edwards & Hunt: The First American Road Trip, later filmed as Almost Heroes. He said, “This script is very silly.”
Being a rabid Python fan, I knew ‘silly’ was flattering, being a highly valued quality in the group. Recall John Cleese and the Ministry of Silly Walks. Recall the Python Election Night Special sketch, tabulating votes not only for the Silly Party, but also the Slightly Silly Party and the Very Silly Party (third party candidates).
A Python said my work was silly. How wonderful.
Here are some other dismissive comments I would take as compliments. I have the highest admiration for the artists I reference here. They’re mostly British. Americans will get their due in future blogs.
British literary nonsense was popularized by Edward Lear (1812-1888), author of The Owl and the Pussycat, and many other poems for children. Lewis Carroll continued to carry the torch. His poem Jabberwocky is considered a nonsense classic, and is the only poem I can repeat by heart, aside from a limerick about Nymphomaniacal Jill.
Fast-forward to the twentieth century. The British writer Frank Key was described by the Guardian as being “one of most prolific living writers of literary nonsense.” (Sadly he passed away in 2019).
He was insanely prolific. His self-published story collections include the delightfully titled Unspeakable Desolation Pouring Down From The Stars and We Were Puny, They Were Vapid. Key himself did the narration for the animated cartoon of his story Recipe for Gruel. https://vimeo.com/80218060. I made a cash donation to Key for his podcast, “Hooting Yard,” and I cherish his response: “Thanks for the moolah.”
When I think of absurd, I don’t necessarily think Theatre of the Absurd. Not that there aren’t laughs to be had in the Theatre of the Absurd (Samuel Beckett can be funny; likewise Harold Pinter). But give me absurdity with more laughs and fewer artistic pretentions, like:
The Goon Show, absurd British radio from the 1950”s. Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers. (“I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas”).
Peter Cook, master of absurd comedy, and his classic character E. L. Wisty (“I’ve always been after the trappings of great luxury. But all I’ve got hold of are the trappings of great poverty. I’ve got hold of the wrong load of trappings, and a rotten load they are too, ones I could have very well done without.”)
Reeves & Mortimer. Vic Reeves (real name Jim Moir) and Bob Mortimer. Primetime British TV absurdists. Mortimer is especially delightful on the panel show, Would I Lie to You?, spinning tales of his childhood mates with names like Ron Waffle, Sergeant Bytheway, and Gary Cheeseman (“He had an enormous head. A Sniper’s Dream, we called him.”)
“This is surreal.”
One can imagine this phrase spoken by a 19-year-old girl with vocal fry, forced to wait twenty minutes for her latte at Starbucks. I don’t want to say she doesn’t know what surrealism is—but she doesn’t.
Surrealism was an artistic movement that developed in Europe after WWI. Surrealists sought to liberate the unconscious, using a variety of techniques, including dreams. They weren’t necessarily seeking comedy, although I find much of the surrealists work funny. Dali. Magritte.
For several years I kept a dream journal. I noticed many of my dream descriptions made me laugh out loud. It was a laugh generated, not by any traditional oberservational/set-up/punchline/joke structure. It was simply—surreal.
For a surreal comedic experience, have a look at the “Find the Fish” sequence from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.
“This is dada-istic.”
No one says this, although if the 19-year-old girl at Starbucks did, I’d respect her more.
Before surrealism came dadaism. The dada movement was more deliberately satriric, targeting modern capitalistic society.
Dada inspired one of my favorite comedic musical groups, the Bonzo Dog Dada Band, later becoming the Bonzo Dog DooDah Band, eventually landing on the Bonzo Dog Band. I was introduced to one of the creative forces behind the Bonzos, the brilliant and charming Neil Innes, by my friend Emo Philips. And I can’t mention Emo in a blog about absurd comedy without sharing a couple of his jokes:
“Probably the toughest time in anyone’s life is when you have to murder a loved one because they’re the devil.”
“When I die, I want to go quietly in my sleep, like my grandfather – not screaming, like the passengers in his car.”
So. Silly, nonsensical, absurd, surreal. For others, dismissive. For me, cherished comedic adjectives. I would also add pointless. Pointless as a Giant Banana Over Texas.
Here’s the late Norm Macdonald: “Compared to politics, I think sports is funnier, because it’s inconsequential. And politics can be real important and all that. The more pointless something is, the funnier it is, you know?”