back to the Black Table
  We are a generation raised on comedy. It is the default state for any of us. In a tough social situation? Crack a joke, preferably one that's harmless, ironic, self-referential yet universal. We have been raised on television and the Internet, where we produce and are fed  

more humor on a daily basis than any previous generation. We have our own blend of comedy, the product of limitless information and commentary. It's difficult to find an inside joke anymore; the minute you've discovered something funny, whether it's a film or an article or just a wacky link, chances are that all your friends will know about it within an hour. We value wit above all else; a somewhat disengaged wit, preferably, commentary just outside the action. Our humor is organic too; what was funny yesterday likely won't be funny tomorrow. There is always something new new new.

The foundations of our


generation's singular sense of humor are vast, and disparate. Trying to single out any specific influence, any major contributor, to young people's collective funny bone is like trying to isolate DNA; it's all intertwined. It's all one big petri dish, with everything swimming around together, coagulating into one glorious mass mess.

Nevertheless, we're gonna go ahead and try. Following is The Black Table's entirely subjective list of major influences to what We Find Funny. The list is culled from the same sources anyone's sense of humor comes from: All of them, from television to movies to music to the Internet. To make this list, something had to not only be funny; it had to be important, it had to be something original whose influence spread like a cold, it had to be something that mattered, something that made a difference. These are moments that you might have forgotten about but reverberate in everything we see and do and, most important, laugh at.

This list is in no order; it is just What We Found Funny. And it still cracks us up.

-- BT


Bill Cosby: Himself

Bill Cosby: Himself is one of the first -- only -- standup comedy films that your parents found just as funny as you did when you were 10. Cosby is such a skilled comedian, his riffs on a visit to the dentist, going through childbirth with your wife and recovering from a night


of heavy drinking pretty much destroyed the topics for future comedians; no one was going to top Cosby, and everybody knew it. And this is not the sanitized Fat Albert Cosby either. When he talked about believing, up to the age of 12, that his brother's name was "Jesus Christ!" and his name was "Goddammit!" because the expletives were the only ways his father ever referred to them, the laughs had real bite. Twenty years later, it's a shock to see Cosby talking about parental abuse, alcoholism and, most memorably, cocaine ("See, the thing is," he recalls a man telling him, "cocaine enhances my personality." Cosby responds, "Yeah, but what if you're an asshole?")

Years of Jell-O commercials have filtered Cosby in the public consciousness into a crotchety,


Cardigan-sweatered kids-do-the-craziest-thing caricature, but he was the pro's pro. Even more than longtime nemesis Richard Pryor, he was an influence on every comedian who followed him. And though it might seem corny, Cosby told truths that every family had faced, unsanitized but still clean, smart without ever pandering. Long live The Breathing Cosbys!


Hugh Gallagher's College Admissions Essay

For many writers, the Web has served as a gateway to mainstream career opportunities -- write the perfect witty essay and then the big media publishers will come courting. Or, at least, that's how it's


supposed to happen. The legend that surrounded writer Hugh Gallagher's beautifully absurd college admissions essay fanned many of those dreams for would-be humor writers. It won first prize in the humor category of the 1990 Scholastic Writing Awards. It appeared in the May issue of Literary Cavalcade and then Harper's reran it, which caught the attention of John F. Kennedy, Jr. Kennedy invited Gallagher for a beer at the venerable White Horse Tavern and then put him in contact with Rolling Stone publisher Jann


Wenner. At 19, Gallagher was then on his way to literary stardom. Off he went. A few years later in the mid 90's, the essay received a second wind thanks to its ubiquitous presence on the Internet, unveiling the vital power of the e-mail forward and dangled the possibility of turning aspiring writers into folk heroes over night.


Frog Baseball

In 1992, a short called "Frog Baseball" appeared on MTV's "Liquid Television" and changed everything. The animation was crude, to say the least, and the plot consisted of two early-teen boys hitting frogs


with baseball bats and grunting. But there was something about it that nailed prepubescence and all its zitty glory; it was a very smart short about very stupid people, which is to say, it was about the way we all were, once, maybe still.

Mike Judge had been a small, mostly undiscovered artist in


Austin, Texas, whose career highlight had been a goofy short on Saturday Night Live called "Milton," about a socially stunted office worker petrified that someone would steal his stapler. But when "Frog Baseball" crossed the desks of MTV, "Beavis and Butthead" was unleashed upon the world.

Like any piece of art that is true only to itself, it offended the feeble minded and shortsighted immediately. Parents demanded MTV pull it off the air, pundits accused it of the ignorance it cheerfully mocked and certain sections were cut when MTV got cold feet (most notoriously, Beavis' shrieks of "Fire!" were eliminated after a real-life Beavis actually set a trailer home ablaze). But what made "Beavis and Butthead" brilliant was that it was intelligent without waving it in your face; our dim-witted heroes were simultaneously cautionary tales and dead-on satires of, well, everything. (People say Nirvana killed hair metal, but once Stuart showed up in that Winger T-shirt, that band and every band like them were *toast*.) And as any guy can tell you … at some point in our lives, we've all been Beavis and Butthead; there isn't a man alive who didn't look at a girl in junior high and disguise his own confusion and fear with a, "Heh-heh, she wants it, heh-heh … and I'm gonna give it to her."

Buoyed by his "Beavis and Butthead" success, Judge directed his own film, a tiny odd duck of a movie that flopped in the theaters called Office Space. Thanks to video and DVD, though, Office Space has become such a large part of our cultural lexicon that a day doesn't go by where someone in any office in America -- likely the very people the film satirized -- doesn't quote the film directly … in on the joke, but not really. And it all started with two cartoon dolts with braces, setting ants on fire with a magnifying glass.


Jeffrey Ross' Friars Club Roast Appearances

Shlubby-faced stand-up comic Jeffrey Ross did for Comedy Central's Friar's Club Roasts what ESPN did for The World Series of Poker. His


ability to freshen up stale, Vegas-style lounge routine shtick (On Jerry Seinfeld's absence at a roast: "He had to fuck a model on a pile of cash", On Dr. Ruth: "Dr. Ruth is so old her pussy has mice") has established him as the most unconscionable, awful, and brilliant master of verbal cruelty at Comedy Central's annual revamping of the hundred-year old New York Friar's Club event.

His rhythm, his delivery, and his merciless jokes at the expense of anybody within earshot solidified him as this generation's ultimate comedy plunger. Just ask Bea Arthur. The silver-haired actress of "Maude" and "The Golden Girls" sat horrified after she was skewered at the roast of Jerry Stiller in 1999. After a remarkably


strange and uncomfortable rendition of Heart's "Magic Man" by roaster Sandra Bernhardt for the dumb-founded Stiller, Ross took the dais and fired off what was to be the joke of the evening: "I wouldn't fuck Sandra Bernhardt with Bea Arthur's dick." The camera panned to the blushing Arthur and a stitched panel of comedy giants welcoming a new king.


Norm MacDonald Hosting The 1998 ESPY Awards

The jokes were rampant throughout office parties and the Howard Stern show, but many in the entertainment industry still shied away


from poking fun at O.J. Simpson after being acquitted for the 1994 murder of his wife, Nicole, and waiter Ron Goldman. Norm MacDonald, who was making a name for him self as a groan inducing anchor on Saturday Night Live was one of the first.

While hosting the 1998 ESPY Awards in front of a roomful of the world's most famous professional athletes, many of whom were Simpson's peers and friends, MacDonald unloaded. After the University of Tennessee's Peyton Manning received the award for college football athlete of the year and stepped away from the podium MacDonald congratulated Manning's on-field success and his


Heisman Trophy award to which he quipped that the award was something that could never be taken away from him--unless, of course, Manning "killed his wife and a waiter". The room was silent. The panning shots of the crowd by ESPN revealed unanimous disgust (a close-up of former Dallas Cowboy's running back Emmitt Smith was classic). From then on, the flurry of O.J. jokes that referenced the murder directly began to be commonplace for late night talk show hosts and into the cultural landscape. Praise MacDonald. Blame MacDonald. But what were once considered tasteless, insensitive jokes about O.J. Simpson were never going to be stifled by mainstream performers again.


Roger & Me

These days, Michael Moore is a polarizing figure; either you are swept up in his populism and activism, you find him too loose with the


facts in the sake of an admittedly good cause or, if you're a Bush voter, you just think he's a damned pinko. But back in 1989, Michael Moore was just a regular guy, wearing a mesh cap that said "I'm Out For Trout," with a one-man camera crew, trying to figure out what had happened to his hometown.

The premise of Roger & Me is deceptively simple. General Motors, the main employer of once-bustling Flint, Michigan, has closed down its major automobile manufacturing plant there, shipping those jobs out of the United States to save on labor costs. Moore, publisher of a local alternative weekly, sees Flint turning into a ghost town ravaged by poverty and crime. He sets out


to find GM CEO Roger Smith and force him to explain himself. Along the way, he chronicles the sad souls left in GM's wake, selling plasma for cash and, most memorably, offering up rabbits as "pets or meat."

Moore often comes across as self-promotional in his current films and television appearances, but in "Roger & Me," he's a blue-collar champion and heartland humorist, a portly Mark Twain in beaten up blue jeans. His anger in the film, often over dramatized in films like Bowling For Columbine, is subtle but palpable. His style of allowing the weasels at GM to hang themselves with their own words, on camera, has been copied relentlessly, from reality shows to "The Daily Show" to Moore himself. He was smart enough then to realize that the way to an audience's hearts and minds was through humor; he was laughing so that he would not cry.


Sarah Silverman's July 11th, 2001 Conan O'Brien Appearance

Yes, it may have been a cheap racist joke, but, in this case, the message wasn't important. The messenger, however, was. Chatting


with Conan O'Brien on his late night talk show stand-up comedian Sara Silverman described receiving a notice for jury duty. "My friend is like, why don't you write something inappropriate on the form, like 'I hate chinks, '" Silverman said, adding that she didn't want people think she was a racist. So, she said, "I wrote 'I love chinks' -- and who doesn't?"

The backlash from the comment resulted in a written apology from O'Brien's show to Media Action Network for Asian Americans president Guy Aoki, but it also showcased Silverman's formidable


talent as a comedian that was capable of being edgy comedian -- who just happened to be female. From there, Silverman's appearances on any talk shows were heavily monitored by FCC guardians, but also watched by many non-bureaucrats eagerly anticipating what this petite, soft-spoken woman would say next.
Racist jokes are not breaking any new ground, but Silverman's soft-spoken, unassuming delivery is what sells her to a generation weaned on political correctness and cultural sensitivity. She does the jokes many comedians wish they could execute, but can't pull off.


A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Forget everything that has happened since then, the backlash, the angry self-defeating screeds against book critics, the eventual (and


perhaps inevitable) slide into literary elitism and isolation. When Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius hit in 2000, it seemed like a new world had opened up. Here was one of us, a regular guy from a public school in the Midwest, a guy who had languished at Web sites that barely paid him, an idealistic dreamer who had launched his own hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show! magazine whose failure was as noble as it was preor/dained.

He was a nobody twentysomething who had an incredible, unfathomably sad story to tell, and he spun it into a bestseller while seeming apologetic about it. Here was a guy who opened his book with a scene of spending his last moments with his dying mother


watching "American Gladiators." Eggers was like any of us; obsessed with celebrity and "The Real World," incapable of making sense of relationships, doomed with a search for purity and truth in a world eager to provide neither. That Eggers was able to tell his story without insufferable self-aggrandizing is one thing; that he could be so funny doing it is a small miracle.

Eggers' book was one of the first instances where someone from our generation broke through simply by doing his own thing, the only way he knew how. And he made it look so easy; not a single person under 30 read "Genius" without thinking: "Hey … I could do this!" Every blogger, every memoirist, every up-and-coming writer who's more comfortable writing about Gilligan's Island than Dante's Inferno owes a huge debt to Eggers... The Gawkers, the Klostermans, the VH-1s, the Wet Hot American Summers, none of them could have existed had Eggers not blazed that trail first.


The Madonna Monologue in Reservoir Dogs

Eight thugs are sitting at a diner, all dressed alike, looking like they're, well, like they're about to rob a bank. We have seen


hundreds of heist movies and have a rather clear understanding of how these movies work, which is why it's so strange to see them, apropos of nothing, engaged in a lucid discussion of the meaning of Madonna lyrics. They're talking like stoned college kids trying to be funny at a party; they're talking as if they, like us, were weaned on television and pop culture.

Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs wasn't the phenomenon Pulp Fiction was, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who graduated from college before 1999 who hadn't seen it dozens of times on video -- often stoned at those same parties -- and not able to quote countless lines from memory. What mattered about Reservoir Dogs was that its


characters talked the way we talked, only more eloquent and a lot tougher. Its characters weren't self-contained criminals; they learned to be criminals by what they saw in the movies and on television. They were products of pop culture. It was the type of movie you felt like you personally had discovered, like it had tapped into your own personal cool.

It of course led to endless imitators, most of which didn't have its heart or attention to detail. And it started with that riff on Like a Virgin. Yeah … that song could be about big dicks. The rules changed instantly. A movie had to bring more to the table after that; it not only had to be entertaining, it had to be self-aware. A bunch of criminals, talking like cultural sociologists on opium; it is a measure of Reservoir Dogs' influence that something so preposterous could not only make sense, but also seem entirely logical.


The Onion's 9/11 Issue:

There has never been a moment nailed so perfectly. Issued on September 26th, with the country still heartbroken and hollowed out

  from the terrorist attacks, it appeared anything remotely mood-lightening was years away from ever having relevance in the scary new world we woke up to Sept. 11, 2001. Irony was declared dead and Bill Maher was being reprimanded for unpatriotic commentary and here we were: a soulless, sad, misguided world we never knew before. We were handed sheepish sentimental yearnings from the rest of our      

generation's comedy greats as the country attempted to return to "normalcy". Letterman did it with dignity and grace, Conan O'Brien stammered, Jon Stewart blubbered, and Saturday Night Live played nice-nice to Giuliani. But The Onion's first issue after the attacks proved that its own brand of poignancy would resonate louder and make more sense during a time when nothing did.

The Onion made no disclaimers and did not diffuse any of its parody for the sake of a grieving nation. It just did what it does better than anybody else and was the first thing to crack the stone faces of so many during the most uncomfortable and unfathomable period of time. "Holy Fucking Shit!" the headline exclaimed, a variation on many of the headlines used to commemorate wartime in its historical parody best- seller "Our Dumb Century". But this wasn't an attempt to revile history; it was a reality that we all shared, could connect with, and be thankful that we were still capable of laughing.