“Funny: The Book” begins, as the reader might expect, with a joke.
“ ‘Guy goes to a doctor, doctor says, ‘You’re gonna die.’ Guy says, ‘Oh my god! How long do I have?’ ‘10.’ ‘10 what?! Weeks? Months?’ ‘9 … 8 … ’ ”
It’s dark, but it also makes people laugh about a topic as serious as death — an art form that elevates humor above mere entertainment, according to author David Misch.
“Comedy is always perceived as lesser than drama, and I think that’s wrong,” he said in an interview. “I think comedy is just as challenging and rewarding as drama, and I think it’s time it took its place as an equal partner in the arts.”
Misch’s goal is to “dissect comedy,” which his book does by touching on a wide range of topics, including neuroscience, Kant, television sitcoms and vaudeville. It delves into history, mythology, theology and other areas to identify the origins of humor.
The author will appear at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek on Nov. 3 as part of the Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival. Expect Misch — who has been a screenwriter, comedian and teacher — to analyze comedy while staying true to his calling: being funny.
“Basically it’s difficult for me to be entirely serious for a long period of time,” he said. “It’s hard for me to even write more than three serious sentences in a row.”
“Funny” focuses on American humor, and Misch, who is 62 and identifies as culturally Jewish, devotes entire chapters to Woody Allen and the Marx brothers.
So why are Jews funny? In a chapter titled “The Jewish Question,” he says it is grounded in part in religious tradition.
“We are the people of the book and the examination of words [in the Bible] is a central tenet of … the comedian,” he said. “Comedians pick words apart and figure out what is tricky and funny.”
Misch writes that Jews also are funny because of their history. “Jewish thinkers for eons have said the best way to deal with tragedy is humor,” he said. “Jews have had their share of tragedy, and I think they’ve had more than their share of humor.”
Misch describes the extent to which Jews have influenced American humor — “I still don’t understand how Steve Martin doesn’t have a Horowitz at the end of his name,” he quipped — and attributes it to a shared identification with the underdog.
“That sense of the little guy standing up to authority is a key element of Jewish humor and of the American identity,” he said. “Generally speaking, comedy people are not tall, dark and handsome — they’re short, dark and pushed around.”
Misch grew up in the Chicago area and began performing satirical songs while attending Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. A few years after graduating, he got a big break when he became a writer for “Mork and Mindy,” the Emmy-nominated sitcom starring Robin Williams.
Misch said it was an “honor” to write for Williams, whom he called “one of the greatest comedians in history.” Misch described how the comic actor’s body language, timing and “hipness” carried the show’s script, but he said that despite what many think, Williams did not improvise much during the show.
“I was up until 4 a.m. writing those ad libs,” he joked.
Misch went on to compile an impressive résumé. He has written and/or produced shows for nearly every network and many cable stations, as well.
He lives in Southern California and teaches at UCLA and University of Southern California. Much of the material for his book comes from a comedy course he’s teaching at USC.
Misch, who remembers filling pages with funny drawings and jokes when he was just 7 years old, said he’s been in comedy “as long as I’ve been around.”
In his book, Misch underscores the idea that comedy, his life’s passion, can play an important and profound role.
“Tragedy reminds us that if not for our flaws, we could be strong, principled, and heroic,” he writes. “Comedy celebrates what we are — weak, corrupt and frightened … but raucously, outrageously alive.”
“Funny: The Book — Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Comedy” by David Misch (160 pages, Applause Theater and Cinema Books, $18.99)
David Misch will appear Nov. 3 at Congregation B’nai Shalom, 74 Eckley Lane, Walnut Creek. www.jfed.org/bookfestival