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Posted at 12:01 PM ET, 05/25/2010

COMEDY: Eight Things You Can Learn from Twain Prize's TINA FEY

By Michael Cavna

We here at The Post have internal "bio" pages, on which employees reveal interesting (or quasi-interesting) morsels about themselves. My own page has long cited several comedy names past and present who prove a continual source of inspiration when attempting humor. One name is Mark Twain. Another is Tina Fey.

Twain and Fey might seem a comedic night-and-day in some ways -- the "headwater of American fiction" and the first female headwriter of America's enshrined "Saturday Night Live" -- but there is one commonality that strikes undeniable: As scathing satirists, each can spin the most withering of one-liners.

Twain, of course, is one of the greatest writers ever to satirize racism and international politics; Fey is a brilliant contemporary commentator on, among other things, corporate and gender politics. But what both arguably satirize best is the frailty of human character. So it is not surprising that the Kennedy Center is announcing today that Fey will receive the next Twain Prize for American Humor. (The award -- which has gone to such others with "SNL" ties as Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin and Billy Crystal -- will be presented Nov. 9.)

Twain's impact on American humor has filled entire sections of campus libraries, scholary tomes and websites. Fey just turned 40, though, and her influence on American humor is still being continually developed and enhanced. (For a photo gallery of Fey's career, you can check out this. And for a Post poll on whether Fey deserves the Prize, you can go here.)

So it is that Comic Riffs offers Eight Things You Can Learn About Comedy From Tina Fey, based on her own words. If this helps any of you aspiring humorists who are planning to enter The Post's "America's Next Great Cartoonist Contest," all the better:

1. The sharpest satire involves an element of transgression.

" 'Shark farts' was one that we ad-libbed and ended up leaving in. The studio asked us not to leave it in, but we left it in."
-- TINA FEY, on the writing of one bit.

Whether it's Jonathan Swift modestly proposing his own recipe for "baby back ribs" or Dave Chappelle spewing racist vitriol as a blind, black KKK leader, supreme satire has that "Oh-no-you-didn't" quality. Something's at stake, and the stakes have been raised. Even if it's just "rebelling" against a would-be authority figure like the studio. (Bonus: Kids go giddy for aquamarine flatulence -- if not, well, all forms of flatulence.)

2. Know thy audience -- and thy demographics.

"I would shut down any Mayor McCheese reference. People under 35 don't know Mayor McCheese."
-- FEY, speaking to Esquire magazine about being head writer at "SNL"

Whether playing her would-be doppelganger Sarah Palin or her "30 Rock" character Liz Lemon, Fey has a keen sense of the "room." (Although even the Emmy-winning Fey has joked that "30 Rock" and its network, NBC, have the audience size just slightly below the Golf Channel.) She well knows: Some of the same people who embrace "shark farts" do not even know of the Hamburglar, let alone the storied Mayor McCheese. From Second City to "SNL," "Mean Girls" to "Date Night," Fey's got a superb sense of what will "play" in what context.

3. There's a reason dress-up animal acts are as old as vaudeville and the circus.

"QUESTION: Animals in people's clothing: Funny or not? TINA FEY: Always funny!"

"The Far Side" was far from the first cartoon to depict animals as people (and sometimes, tellingly, vice versa), and "Argyle Sweater" won't be the last. Cartoonists, especially, take note: Anthropomorphized critters will indeed always be funny. (Although even with an anthropomorphized animal, we still can't quite see "SNL" attempting the sketch "Land-Shark Farts.")

4. The word-play's not always the thing.

"QUESTION: Are puns funny? TINA FEY: Only in porn titles."

Someone recently sent along two cartooning puns. One was "Apocalypse Cow" -- a pun so dreadful (and so tired) that it rendered unfunny even the bovine dressed in people's clothing (rendering Rule No.-3 null and void). Another was Shakespeare as a beekeeper uttering: "Two bees or not two bees!" -- the only thing painful about the stingers being the punchline itself. (Bonus: Fey knows that "porn titles" sounds "tee-hee" tongue-in-cheek transgressive -- thereby reinforcing Rule No.-1.)

5. Know the difference between thy audiences, to boot.

"If you want to make an audience laugh, you dress a man up like an old lady and push her down the stairs. If you want to make comedy writers laugh, you push an actual old lady down the stairs."
-- FEY (also attributed to others)

A variation on good ol' Rule No.-2. What gets a big laugh in the writers' room may fall flat (as it were) in performance -- and vice versa. The same goes for cartooning -- what "plays" to a group of like-minded friends like a "you had to be there" joke may not translate. Show those gags to at least some people who have senses of humor somewhat different from yours. (The other takeaway: Comedy is cruel, and jaded professional comedy-writers can be the "cruelest" crowd around.)

6. Study the greats -- and respect even the "pretty-greats."

"The first time I went to see a Second City show, I was in awe of everything. I just wanted to touch the same stage that Gilda Radner had walked on. It was sacred ground."
-- FEY

Whether it's Walt Disney or Walt Kelly, George Herriman or George Carlin, studying and respecting your comedy and cartooning history will not only invariably deepen your work. It will also provide deep-rooted inspiration.

7. The truthiness shall set you free.

"Saudi Arabian police arrested seven teenage boys for leering at women. In accordance with Saudi law, the boys will be whipped and the women will be stoned to death."
-- FEY

Speaking in terms of satire, it's richer to steer toward the truth -- or at least Stephen Colbert's "truthiness" -- when mining for deeper laughs. As Pixar director/animator Bob Peterson ("Up," "Finding Nemo") told Comic Riffs: They'll throw out a thousand jokes if they get in the way of an emotional truth.

8. Be fearless about bombing.

"I was a presenter at the SAG awards recently, and my joke just bombed. It's almost a joyful free fall when you learn to embrace it. Let it wash over you like a septic-tank leak."
-- FEY

Just as laughter ebbs and flows, so, too, does joke-writing inspiration. Which means cartoonists, like other types of humorists, will bomb mercilessly sometimes. Let the sheer awfulness of the moment wash over you -- and then continue through the minefield.

What's the old line: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice, practice."

Well, the same goes for the Kennedy Center. And the Twain Prize.

Tina Fey got there fast -- not two decades removed from the University of Virginia -- by being a comedy writer first who's smart about how to attack a target for satire. And, of course, by being a self-described comedy nerd who's long had a lightsaber-like focus on her craft as she's practiced. Practiced. Practiced.

The new trailer for "Megamind," starring the voice of Tina Fey. The film will open in November -- right about the time Fey is picking up her Twain Prize.


The 'Riffs Interview: "SNL's" BILL HADER embraces his inner nerd.

The 'Riffs Interview: "SNL's" ROBERT SMIGEL on the show's best short films ever.

COMEDIANS OF CLOUT: "SNL" and Comedy Central shows raise question: Can political satire sway a voter?

By Michael Cavna  | May 25, 2010; 12:01 PM ET
Categories:  The Riffs  | Tags:  Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Saturday Night Live, Tina Fey, Twain Prize for American Humor  
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I've heard the quote "If you want to make an audience laugh, you dress a man up like an old lady and push her down the stairs. If you want to make comedy writers laugh, you push an actual old lady down the stairs." before, but it was Groucho Marx who said it.

Posted by: allenofwoodhaven | May 25, 2010 7:04 PM | Report abuse

>> allenofwoodhaven:

I've also seen that line attributed to W.C. Fields.

And I first saw it attributed to Tina Fey in 2003, by The New Yorker:


Posted by: cavnam | May 25, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

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