When professor of graduate education Peter Desberg interviewed comedy writers from the golden age of television to the present for his new book, “Show Me the Funny: At the Writers’ Table with Hollywood’s Top Comedy Writers,” he and co-author Jeffrey Davis, a professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University, had the opportunity to ask the age-old question, “What’s so funny?” The answers surprised them.
As a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in treating stage fright, Desberg has worked with numerous stand-up comics. He says that many of the writers he and Davis interviewed had experience as comedians and that they learned what was funny as a survival instinct.
“The book shows how differently comedy writers look at the world,” says Desberg. “Elliott Schoenmann, who wrote for ‘Home Improvement,’ told us a story about how he and his sister recreated the cab ride his father took on the way to his suicide. He said it was a very dark, serious moment for him. Yet on that ride, he remembered that his father was cheap and wondered how much his father tipped the driver on the way to his own suicide.”
In order to write “Show Me the Funny,” Desberg and Davis gave all of the writers the same premise for a comedy script. The book’s interviews take the reader through the creative process of such writers as Leonard Stern (“Get Smart” and “The Honeymooners); Sherwood and Lloyd Schwarz (“Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch”); Yvette Bowser (“Living Single” and “A Different World”); and Mark Breckman (“Saturday Night Live” and “Monk”). Desberg says that he and Davis were also surprised to learn that conflict was typically the main element used to drive a story.
“We were curious to see if it was story or character and found out that it was neither,” he says. “[Conflict] is what drove everything. Stories were compelling when there were serious obstacles to overcome and characters were created that had intense conflicts with other characters. Charlie Peters, who wrote ‘Three Men and A Baby,’ said that in most stories, the hero would be happy if the story ended on page two.”
Despite the levity of his subject, Desberg finds humor a serious subject. Last year, he presented three papers at the annual conference of the International Society for Humor Studies, which took place at CSU Long Beach. His topics included a study of how employees regard their supervisors according to the sense of humor they display, a presentation on “Show Me the Funny,” and a paper on a new interactive software program that Desberg developed with Greg Dean, a stand-up comedy instructor, that teaches people how to create jokes.
Desberg says that in his clinical psychology practice he often uses humor as a way to address difficult issues with his clients.
“Humor can have a facilitative effect on coping with painful emotions,” he says. “In psychotherapy, one of the most difficult tasks for a therapist is making interpretations. I use jokes as a way to illustrate situations, and after the people I work with laugh at the absurdity of a behavior, we look at how it applies to them.”
Desberg’s interest in humor goes back to his early days of teaching at CSU Dominguez Hills, when he took courses and read everything he could find about the psychology of humor. He conducted research on the effects of humor on learning and retention and began teaching a class on instructional humor through the College of Extended and International Education for public speakers who wanted to learn how to use humor to emphasize their messages.
Desberg says that he now utilizes comedy in the classroom because it helps students retain concepts better.
“I get students who come back after years and repeat examples that have stuck with them,” he says. “There is now a good deal of research showing that students remember the content of jokes better than other lecture material, so finding humorous examples makes content easier to encode and retrieve.”
Desberg also participates in a humorous music ensemble, Peach Face Love Birds (PFLB) as the lead guitarist and writes all their songs. The group has given benefit performances for various educational causes, and has performed for functions hosted by the CSU Dominguez Hills music department and the School of Education (formerly the College of Education). He says that the humor in PFLB is obvious to everyone but his audiences.
“I can summarize our essence in one word if you don’t count ‘the’: the accordion,” quips Desberg. “We have written songs in almost every genre that is associated with the accordion. And if that isn’t funny enough, our drummer Joe Braun used to be the dean of the College of Education.”
When asked about the funniest thing that happened while he and his co-author were researching and writing “Show Me the Funny,” Desberg says that while no one event stood out, they laughed their way through every interview.
“In many cases, the writers asked us to bounce ideas back and forth with them,” Desberg recalls. “[Others] worked alone with incredible facility, and several others worked with writing partners. Each interview had us amazed at their creativity and doubled us over with laughter.
“It’s interesting to note that these top writers, in many cases icons, all reported feeling anxious during the interviews,” says Desberg. “Although they had given many prior interviews, the fact that they had to create, on-the-spot…knowing that they would later be compared to their peers, was a pretty difficult position to walk into with no preparation. Everyone exceeded our expectations.”
Desberg has taught at CSU Dominguez Hills since 1970. He received the Lyle E. Gibson Distinguished Teaching Award in 1995 and the Presidential Outstanding Professor Award in 2009. He teaches students to create instructional software, hypermedia and multimedia, and also teaches child development, and the psychology of learning. He has developed software on task analysis and public speaking and has written and co-authored 20 books and numerous articles on teaching with technology, reading pedagogy, and overcoming stage fright. He is frequently quoted in national publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, Psychology Today, and Cosmopolitan.
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