Talking Funny

Talking Funny debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.

For a while, the commonly held belief about comedy was that the more you talk about it, the less funny it becomes. Interviews with comedians were basically meaningless: They had a gig to promote, and we wanted to hear them say a few funny things. Neither side was interested in delving into things like "process", and a question about a comic's history never delved past, "When did you first become interested in comedy?" There was a magic to stand-up comedy, and it wasn't worth discussing for fear some of that magic would dissipate. That's certainly not the case today, where podcasts like WTF With Marc Maron and How Was Your Week? explore the life of a working comedian like it's an episode of Radiolab. Because comedy has become such a nuanced thing—where performers seek to find a loyal audience and not just a "broad" one—there are infinite shades to explore and be curious about. Comedy is inclusive, comedians are accessible, and the magic is still there. Because it turns out the closer a conversation gets to the heart of what makes comedy fascinating, the more magical that undefined quality becomes.

Talking Funny is not the first show to prominently feature comics discussing, at length, their process and senses of humor, nor will it likely be the last. But it succeeds in ways that, say, Green Room With Paul Provenza doesn't. Talking Funny is framed as an intimate discussion between four of the top working comics today—Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Louis CK, and Ricky Gervais, who's also its producer—and there's nothing that distracts from that. The four comics sit on a living room set with no audience (other than the behind-the-scenes crew, obviously), and the discussion is rarely edited, never censored. It's a conversation in its purest form, proving that if you put a bunch of talented people together and get out of their way, some real magic can happen.

The first 10 minutes are unlike the rest of the 50-or-so minutes. Discussion is just getting underway when the show begins, and one-at-a-time, the comedians share the floor, speaking in pithy bursts. Louie talks about the way a joke works in his repertoire, comparing it to fruit on a tree in that it needs time to ripen, but eventually it'll rot. Seinfeld is quick to offer up his complaint that in order to be a comedy critic, you must understand what an "act" is—which sparks discussion about what constitutes an act for each comic. Louie reveals that when writing his act, he handicaps himself by taking his closing bit and opening with it, so he can force himself to come up with something even better to end with. I'll stop there, but the idea is that the points come rapid-fire and crystal clear, and for a while I worried Talking Funny would be far too staged to bring about anything interesting.

But nothing changes. The ideas are just as salient, the banter just as witty. These guys are just that good, have simply figured so much out. Their ideas make sense because they've been tried and tested to infinity. The caliber of talent on Talking Funny is astronomical, and there doesn't seem to be much ego involved. At one point, Ricky Gervais posits his reasoning for never saying the word "fuck": It's an easy laugh. The rest of the guys disagree on what he means by "easy," and the ensuing discussion—with occasional talking over each other, so you know it's legit—is courteous, insightful, and hysterical.

It's incredible just how tickled the comics are by one another, and how moments of genuine surprise are so much more powerful when shared by masters of the craft. Louie tells the story of how he was once at a tiny club, and saw a pretty terrible, bombing comedian sing a song parody to "Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay." I don't want to mention what it is, but it's pretty ridiculous how dumb, yet imaginative it is. The guys start dissecting why Louie found it so funny: Was it the irony he inadvertently heaped onto the joke-teller? The fact that he told it with no irony at all? Was the guy secretly a genius? The more they talk about it, the more they laugh—at each other, at the original joke, at everything. Soon they're all giggling like little kids, having foregone discussion entirely, simply enjoying each other's company and the shared love of a good joke. No explanation for the laugh is necessary. It's pure magic.