Comedy Equals Tragedy Plus Work

Question: Is humor writing or standup comedy harder?

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Joe Randazzo: Standup comedy is definitely harder. I mean, I like being onstage. That’s always been fun for me. Better than a… It’s like people ask how do you go up on stage, I don’t think I could ever do it and my answer is like well I’m having trouble talking to you right now. You know it’s like for some reason some people just have it in their genetic makeup that it’s easier to go up and interact with a group of strangers than it is to have any kind of meaningful interaction with a person whose eyes you have to look into and I’m not saying that I’m a cold, heartless monster, but a little sick, but standup is harder because it’s just you on your own. The great thing about The Onion is it’s so collaborative. You know it’s you almost kind of take on this group mind there and people are really willing to sacrifice their own personal pet headlines or their own preference on a joke for the good of The Onion, for the good of the product. I don’t think either that standup informs my work at The Onion very much or vice versa because they’re pretty different in style. The standup tends to be a little more of a… a little more of a… I kind of do this kind of character who… that exaggerates all of my own nervousness and neurosis and they tend to be a little more conceptual like as an eight minute set than telling a joke and then telling an unrelated joke and then telling an unrelated joke. I can’t… I sort of can’t write jokes that way personally. I have to think about how do I want this eight minutes to feel so that it is as awkward for the audience as possible while also being funny and then sort of write to that as opposed to this is a good joke that I will expand on and then find a segue into something else. For me I just can’t… It’s really hard for me to do that.

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So one thing The Onion has sort of taught me, though, is how to actually like write material and how to hit a joke as hard as you possible can relentlessly until it’s near to the point of being too much, so having that sense is something that I’ve really gotten from working at The Onion over four years, but the two are actually pretty unrelated. You know I do have website that I keep up as well. It’s called The Joe Randazzo Association, which is now that I’m saying it, it’s this sort of large, heartless corporation and it’s the kind of goings on at the office, messages from the HR representative and schedule of events for the seminar and what the lunch menu is going to be and it’s those kinds of things. So the writing for that has definitely been influenced a lot by my time at The Onion just in how to really write a joke, but it’s my own personal stuff because sometimes you just need to write your own personal stuff as well.

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Question: Is comedy fun?

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Joe Randazzo: It’s fun, but it’s also horrible. Anybody who has to… Well I don’t know if anybody, but when you have to sit down and write something it’s just the most dreadful feeling in the world for me anyway, but it’s also really fun. It’s just you forget. When you’re having the fun you forget how dreadful it is and when you’re in the dreadful you forget how fun it can be and you have to write something in order to be able to have material to perform and that’s when the fun is, so I guess I sort of actually force myself to do it and I’ve listened to other… There is this great podcast I listen to called The Creative Screenwriting Magazine where Jeff Goldsmith is his name, he is the senior editor at the magazine I think and he interviews different screenwriters every week and he always asks them if they… what do they do to… do they get writer’s block and do they… what do they do to get rid of it and every time I’m like how… I always have writer’s block. Writer’s block is the default position for me. It’s like such a struggle to get these ideas out, so they don’t want to come out even though they’re in there driving me crazy. But it’s also just incredible to be able to have a career out of making people laugh and or a job anyway. I don’t know if it’s going to… if it will be a career. Where you sit around in a room and make people laugh and then put together something that’s so great that you know I can be so proud of and you know when you see people on the street reading The Onion it’s a really… It’s a really wonderful feeling and I always want to tell them you know I’m…Look at the masthead, that’s me. I work there. So I’d say it’s got to be that the fun outweighs the dreadfulness for sure, yeah, but it’s work. It’s work.

Recorded on November 30, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Why standup comedy is harder than humor writing, and why comedy itself is fun if you like misery.

Scientists discover how to trap mysterious dark matter

A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.

Surprising Science
  • Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
  • Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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