The Humor Survey: Susan Isaacs

I thought it would be fun to get some insight into the heads of some of my favorite funny people. When operating on their brains was ruled out as a viable option (what can i say? tough economy.), I decided to subject them to a series of questions about humor, faith, and swordfights. The result is The Ramblings and Such Humor Survey.

I will never get over the fact that Susan Isaacs had speaking lines in a Seinfeld episode. She could cure hunger, create a publishing house just to sign me to a 5-book deal, and save my family from a burning building and I’d still want to her to tell me about the time her and Elaine talked outside of her apartment. Sorry Susan, I’m a nerd like that.

Truth be told, Susan is more than just an actor who’s appeared on Seinfeld, My Name is Earl, and lots of other stuff. Her debut book, Angry Conversations With God, is a hilarious and riveting memoir. (Perhaps you remember me giving it +4 Cannarfs a few months ago). This fall she’ll be touring with Donald Miller. She also was on Seinfeld.

Here’s Susan…

1. What were a few of the things you remember laughing at the most as a kid?

SI: Saturday Night Live, Monty Python, Steve Martin and The old Beatles movies. I started watching Python in high school, and they just blew me away. No one was doing what they were doing, this strange mix of high brow intellectualism and absurdist dada. Like the Killer Sheep, Twit of the Year, Ministry of Silly Walks. I still show “Constitutional Peasant” scene from Holy Grail as an example of great comedic writing. I used to love Woody Allen, but — after his personal debacle his films lost relevance, humor and sympathy.

2. What about now as an adult? What specific things do you find funny these days?

SI: The Colbert Report, Eddie Izzard’s live shows, particularly Dressed To Kill. Ricky Gervais’ “Extras” and “The Office” on BBC are terrific. Gervais’ main characters have the perfect blend of human horror and pathos. Especially with Extras. Don’t miss the 90-minute series finale. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. True genius. I’m not such a fan of the American “Office,” But I do like Steve Carrell. I love “30 Rock” and am looking forward to “Glee.” SNL hasn’t been good for years but I love watching the best of Chris Farley and Will Ferrell. More Cowbell.

3. Conversely, is there something that lots of other people find humorous that never really makes you laugh?

SI: Ok I admit I loved “The 40 Year Old Virgin”, and even liked “Knocked Up.” There was a blend of gross out humor and sincere sweetness. But the ensuing parade of man-boy gross-out films is wearing thin. I just saw “I Love You Man” on a plane and I thought, what’s the big deal? Hollywood finds a formula and wears it into the ground. Come on, “Zack and Miri Make A Porno?” Just cause Seth Rogen wrote the thing doesn’t mean it’s going to be good. “Superbad” was ripped off from an indie film a few years ago. I can’t handle Sasha Baron Cohen for more than two minutes. It’s laughter at someone else’s expense. Sure, some of those people need to be exposed, but some of it is downright mean.

4. Do you think Christians are afraid of humor?

SI: Oh yes we are. Christian bookstores freaked over my book. Because it was too angry, because to them “jackass” was a cuss word. Well OK, the inside book flap contained the phrase “Lutheran slut”, but it was buried deep into a paragraph, and that wasn’t how the story ended. It didn’t matter; ‘slut’ was in print. I think Christians are afraid of humor, because humor is inappropriate and messy. More than that, though, humor exposes us. That’s what the surprise is: it exposes our expectations, weakness, embarrassments and OK — sin. Even the simplest joke is about leading us along in a verbal word play, only to surprise us with a different ending. We laugh because we’ve been taken off-guard. We laugh when we recognize ourselves in the main character. We laugh when someone does something inappropriate. Just watch Chris Farley when he does “Matt Foley Motivational Speaker” or the Chippendales dancer audition.

I think Christians work so hard at being holy that any attempt to expose our failure or sin is a threat. 40 year old virgin is inappropriate because of the sexual content, and some of it was unnecessary, but the overall sweetness of the story made it tolerable for me

5. How do you think humor can be useful to Christianity?

SI: We need to get over ourselves. We are never going to be “holy” in the sense that we’ll always have flaws. Humor is a great way to see our foibles, not as a way to condemn us but to enlighten us. And lighten us up.

6. In your opinion, how is humor different from sarcasm/cynicism?

SI: Well, there’s sarcasm in the bible. Like when Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal. And I think some of Jesus’ retorts to the pharisees are sarcastic. But sarcasm stil has hope left in it. Cynicism on the other hand, is hopeless.

7. At what point in life did you really start to embrace the idea: “wow, i think I might be funny.”?

SI: When I was 8 my parents celebrated their 25th anniversary. A snooty couple gave them a set of silver goblets. When Mom opened it I said, “Great, now we can have communion at home.” It got a huge laugh.

8. Why do you want to be funny?

SI: Part of it is just natural. It’s how I see the world. Someone says or does something, and a reply just comes to my head. Sometimes this gets me in trouble. More often than not it’s fun, people enjoy themselves and I get a giggle out of it.

9. Have you ever tried to do stand-up?

SI: I tried stand-up at the Comedy Store and other venues. There’s a lot of anger and emotional darkness in those places, it depressed me. Not to mention the fact that I wanted to do jokes about the fall of the Soviet Union, and the drunks wanted to hear boob jokes. I went into improv and sketch comedy from there. But a lot of what I do now, solo show work and public speaking, involves some of the elements of stand-up, like setting up jokes.

10. Do you have a favorite quote (or joke or story) about comedy, humor, and making people laugh?

SI: John Pattison included a quote in his Relevant Magazine’s Summer Reading Guide. “Columnist Red Smith said that writing is easy – just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” To that I would add that humor is best when there’s an element of tragedy or vulnerability in it.

Thanks for playing along, Susan!

If you want more Susan, you can check out Angry Conversations with God at the book’s official site, read her blog, follow her on Twitter, or go buy the 7th season of Seinfeld.

Past Humor Surveys: Chad Gibbs