On Comedy, Baseball and Good Writing

A digression from the usual to talk about comedy and other stuff. Hey, at least there's funny videos!

Friday seems such a good time for a digression, doesn't it? The Astros haven't done anything interesting lately. February just started up. You're probably just whiling away the hours at work before making a sprint down I-10 to get to all those fun New Orleans Super Bowl parties.

Allow me some time and space to make a point about baseball, baseball commentary and then, this site. Promise I'll at least be brief and you may actually get to see some funny things.

Comedy has always fascinated me. One of my favorite books growing up was SeinLanguage by Jerry Seinfeld. It was a collection of his best material from stand-up routines, but it just killed me. I must have read it 15 times in high school (it's a short book, not trying to brag).

I try to search out all sorts of comedy. Stand-up. Indie movies. YouTube projects like The Guild or Legend of Neil. Sometimes, I don't get it, but most times, the laugh is worth the wait. Movies like The Hangover sit right next to Blazing Saddles in my DVD collection, funny for entirely different reasons. The kind of humor doesn't matter as much as whether the joke lands.

That's what always made the Abbot and Costello "Who's On First?" routine so great, because it never gets old. The cadence, the way they both sell it in different ways. It's brilliant.

One of the worst things you can do to comedy, though, is to explain it. If you have to tell someone why it's funny, or undo the timing of a great punchline...well, you're probably a writer for Two Broke Girls. Good comedy is not improved by explanation, it's often ruined by it.

That's what was so fascinating about watching Jerry Seinfeld and Bob Costas sit down on MLB Network a while back and talk about this very routine. Hearing a very accomplished comedian break down all the things that made it great was really entertaining and a learning experience for me, but it didn't make the clip any funnier. Lou Costello's foot stomping still gets me, even as Seinfeld made me realize just how long the timing of that bit had to be refined before it became so good.

At the same time, getting someone like Seinfeld, an expert in his field, to talk about a very famous piece of stand-up comedy/vaudeville is one thing. Having me explain all the reasons why Chris Farley's first Matt Foley sketch makes me ROFL LMAO is less so.

Seriously, watch that thing. Stinkin' hilarious without me talking about the genius of Farley's physical comedy married to his natural ebullience and the great dialogue. I just showed this clip to my 20-year old cousin, who doesn't have the nostalgia of watching it when it was still fresh, and she cracked up.

I think about that when we talk about baseball, sometimes. Commenters or emailers or baseball fans or even sportswriters will talk about baseball and be dismissive of stats, of complicated analysis like we do on this site. Baseball is a simple game, right? Hit the ball, throw the ball, catch the ball, all that? Why do you want to talk it to death.

In fact, maybe baseball is just like comedy. Maybe talking about it too much ruins the pureness of the game. If you can't enjoy it by just sitting and watching some of the best athletes in the world go toe to toe, as a man tries to hit a round ball hurtling at him at 90+ MPH with a conical bat and hope it goes just where he plans, well, then, you might as well be a blogger.

But, I think there's value in thinking about baseball while also enjoying it for its essence. Watching a baseball game will always be magical on some level for those who love it, just like watching that Who's On First bit never gets old. Listening to someone who has studied the game and has some insight into it only enhances the experience, deepens the understanding. So what if the knowledge comes from statistics or first-hand experience?

Analyzing baseball works best when you're using that analysis to tell a story. There has to be a point, or you're just throwing numbers out at random. I don't know too many people who write that way, and I'm sure no one on this site or anywhere else in the Astros blogosphere does. But, you can't get the message across unless your words carry it past the stat barrier.

Comedy lies in this weird place, where it's funny for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes, it just can't be duplicated. I could get up on a stage for a talent show and act out that whole Farley skit (had a friend who did just that in college), and it'd still be funny. I could recite Monty Python's Holy Grail and crack up anyone who like those British antics.

But, could I get away with anything like the Word Association sketch from SNL's early days? I mean, I still can't believe THEY got away with it.

Such a simple premise, played so well by Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase. Words tossed around with so much context behind then that there doesn't need to be much other setup. Just watch the reactions, the tension build and Pryor seethe at the end before breaking it up by exaggerating his facial expressions.

That whole sketch derives its humor from language. If the Internet is still a thing in 100 years, will people find it funny, or will the slang they both use have fallen out of favor enough that you have to look up meanings, like in those Shakespearian plays where people get called hobby horses.

Louis C.K. does some equally great bits about words on his second standup album. He revels in them and gets about 10 minutes of material out of how words are used, then he masterfully returns to them at various points in his set like most excellent writers return to a theme.

Language has power if we use it right. Writing can help us understand things, it can delight us, it can weave a story around any topic. Language can elevate baseball above the visual game and make it much, much more.

Jayson Stark linked to this study the other day, that talks about how the brain is stimulated by writing. There are ways they've found to enhance writing by using a few steps. You'll notice in reading through these that most good writers already do them.

  1. Create scenes. The combination of characters in action, dialogue and evocative settings lies at the heart of what novelist John Gardner called "the vivid continuous dream" that captivates readers.
  2. Dig for details, the more specific the better. If you want to get a reader’s mind to visualize what they’re reading, a "cherry-red ’67 Mustang convertible" does a much better job than "a car." "The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose," Tom Wolfe wrote in "The New Journalism." "It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature."
  3. Choose vivid action verbs. "Michaela grabbed her umbrella and dashed into the rain" triggers the motor cortex. Strong verbs are not just words on the page. They represent action in the reader’s mind.
  4. Avoid passive verb forms. "The body was found" is not only a flabby word choice that robs the verb of energy and fails to ignite the brain. It usually signifies weak reporting. "A seven-year-old newsboy found the body" heightens the senses.
  5. Cultivate a "a nose for story." Consider the power of the scented details in this sentence by Anne Hull of The Washington Post: "Apartment 27 smelled like years of sweat and Lemon Pledge and perfect bacon." The brain’s olfactory bulb not only lets us smell. It also triggers memories in the hippocampus. "Hit a tripwire of smell," Diane Ackerman writes in "A Natural History of the Senses," "and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth."

Creating scenes. Digging for details. Doing good writing, instead of just informing readers of facts.

Analyzing baseball through numbers alone is boring. Ever looked at a Baseball Reference or FanGraphs page and immediately been swept away by the majesty of the game? Well, yeah, a few of you have, I'm sure, but when you were doing it, you were probably imagining a picture in your head. Staring in awe at the number of home runs Lou Gehrig hit or how many straight games he played.

If I were looking for a mission statement for TCB, it's somewhere right in there. Just like comedy, we can crush the fun out of baseball if we get bogged down in the details. But, if we use the gifts our enormously talented writers have, we can spin a tale of baseball out of so many different moments. We can share your triumphs when the team we all follow so closely does well. We can commiserate when that team lets us down.

This site is about community, and as such, we should strive to use the power of that language to paint vivid pictures of this team, this season, this game. We should be creative, even as we're being analytical. We should be serious, even as we're writing about comedy. We should always, always, always try to make following the Astros here an enjoyable experience for all of you.

Not every article will be able to do any or all of those things. Heck, I've written some pretty dreary Three Things just in the last month, I'm sure, that didn't fit any of those categories. But, that doesn't change the mission. If we're going to write about baseball, we need to strive to do it well.

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