Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Comedy By The Numbers: Book-On-Tape-On-CD!

At the end of the new Comedy By The Numbers audio book—a mock academic breakdown of comedy constants like dick jokes and movie spoofs, taken from the 2007 McSweeneys tome of the same name—there’s a debate between Bob Odenkirk and Sarah Silverman. She doesn’t understand what’s supposed to make the book funny; Odenkirk, a perpetual CBTN champion and the CD’s executive producer, explains that authors Gary Rudoren and Eric Hoffman have not only written a hilarious book, but have actually successfully broken down comedy. But others, like Silverman, just won’t get it.

Therein lies the dilemma associated with CBTN, the most meta of meta-comedy material—though Rudoren and Hoffman found an ingenious way to present it. They gathered an impressive smattering of alt-comics at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in Los Angeles (Odenkirk, Paul F. Tompkins, Tim Heidecker, etc.) and had them read chapters in front of the live audience; others, like Patton Oswalt and David Cross, joined later. Random “comedy facts” were thrown in, as were a few departures from the book. Matt Walsh, for instance, performs an inspired, hacky comic routine for “Old School.”

But more than most straight-up stand-up albums, CBTN is dogged by the question of whether dissecting comedy is actually funny. The answer, given the book’s much higher hit-to-miss ratio, is “sometimes.” While some readers contribute brilliantly—Tompkins nails the necessary over-the-top bravado)—others treat the lines too straight and the jokes don’t track. Some chapters transition seamlessly from page to stage, like Rudoren and Hoffman’s “Funny Names” list (including “Crackersnatch Fancypancer”); others, like Cross’ “Cursing,” read funnier than they sound (“Not in my wild-cocksucking-est dreams could I imagine the J-O-pissingmyself-Y that I feel today!”). Still, even those cold to the authors’ professorial approach to the material will be hard-pressed to deny the collection’s genial charm; the comics clearly had a blast putting this together; Odenkirk can be heard snickering during “Hippies.” And as taught in “Pathos,” emotion can be a powerful persuader.