They say comedy is subjective, that a sense of humor is personal, indefinable, unique like a snowflake. That’s bullshit. Comedy is universal. Everyone laughs and everyone is funny. Some jokes (and people) are funnier than others, some jokes are funnier to certain people than others and some jokes are funnier when certain other people aren’t around, but everybody laughs at something. Usually, we’re laughing at each other.

“Comedy aims at representing men as worse … than in actual life,” said Aristotle in his Poetics, describing the kind of comedy one might have encountered at a theater in Athens circa 350 B.C. He goes on to explain that comedy almost invariably involves poking fun at someone, a “lower type” of person who’s ugly or defective. Think: the bumbling idiot, the court jester or the half-goat, half-man with a perpetual hard-on. In comparison to fellows like these we feel superior (except for maybe the hard-on guy), and through their pain, we find mirth.

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Modern comedy isn’t much different. And, as shows like Jackass have proved, few things are as funny as watching an idiot get hurt. Mel Brooks puts it simply: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Aristotle, two millennia before Brooks, surmised comedy originally came from Sicily, but didn’t know for sure because even then nobody took it seriously enough to keep track. This is most likely a Hellenic conceit. What, were Assyrians not funny?

Today, whether it came from Sicily or not, comedy is everywhere, a new universal language, printed in the newspaper, in magazines, broadcast on television, filmed in movies, spoken aloud at the water cooler, printed on T-shirts and digitized on the web, which seems to have evolved a second or third life as “comedy delivery system.” Yet since the web has changed almost everything else about how people interact – eradicating written letters, evolving language, eliminating privacy – in studying comedy on the web, I wondered if the web had changed it. If the comedies of Aristotle’s peers were somehow unrelated to what we now consume. If the generations of comedians and their new media had somehow altered the core element of the thing itself, made it less … human.

To get some answers, I went to the source. Not Sicily: the comedians.

The Guildmates
First I talked to the cast and creators of The Guild, a comedy series about a group of friends who spend their time playing, and interacting through, the 9-million-player mega-game, World of Warcraft.

“The show is not about the game,” says Felicia Day, The Guild‘s creator and star, “it’s about the characters.” In The Guild, the characters go by their online names, even when they’re not playing. Day’s character is called Codex. She’s a healer who prefaces each episode with a webcam monologue, setting up the joke with a self-martyring, self-deprecating mini self-analysis, as if to say no matter what happens next, it’s somehow her fault. Codex’s shy vulnerability alone makes the show worth watching.

As Day says, even though the show is ostensibly about WoW, the characters are what make it work. Characters like Zaboo, the obsessive Warlock with a heart of gold, who stalks Day’s Codex, hunting her down at her home and moving in. I asked Sandeep Parikh, the actor who plays Zaboo, what makes a good comedic character.

“I think if people can identify with the character in terms of their wants and desires, then the comedy comes easy,” Parikh says. “Zaboo wants Codex. Everyone gets it. Now we can make ridiculous jokes about how he goes about doing so (i.e. stripping to boxer briefs, rubbing his hairy chest and asking if she wants to go on a magic carpet ride).”

Vincent Caso, who plays Bladezz, The Guild‘s sarcastic Rogue, says good characters should compliment each other. “Good comedy in a show comes from good teamwork.” Bladezz, a young, conceited, horny teenager, represents some of the strongest gamer clichés, but even he has extra layers and hidden vulnerabilities.

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“I definitely didn’t want to make fun of MMO players,” says Day, although her show, at first glance, does exactly that, updating Aristotle for the modern age. It’s through the mockery and self-immolation, however, that the true message comes through: The Guild is all of us. “I wanted [The Guild] to be a spoof of some of the things that hardcore gamers like myself know as universal. Hollywood sees the average gamer as a 14-year-old punk, or a lazy dude in his 20s who lives in his mom’s basement, and any gamer knows it goes way deeper than that. I have sympathy for all my characters, and I hope that makes people laugh with them, rather than at them.”

Day’s acting credits include stints on Monk, various films and a recurring role as vampire slayer trainee, Vi, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it’s safe to say her multiple-award-winning web comedy is setting a new trend for entertainment media and is her breakout hit. The secret to comedy, according to Day, is finding “what’s universal in all of us. Comedy is an expression of an individual’s mind-view, a window into a neurotic psyche.”

The Brothers
The Guild, with its webcam-using, game-slinging characters may be an evolution in comedy, but it’s not exactly non-traditional. Each three or four minute episode plays like a sitcom in miniature, Friends for geeks. To dig a little deeper, get closer to the new world order in comedy, I talked to two men who make videos starring action figures.

“As teenagers we realized that we were lame geeks who still played with their GI Joes even at that age,” say Benny and Rafi Fine, creators of the wildly popular LOST parodies. “After crying about not having girlfriends, and making out with each other … we realized, why not combine our love of film and toys into one?”

The result was a series of movies starring action figures, culminating with G.I.Joe: The Epic Saga, which was subsequently shut down by Hasbro. They’ve since moved on to other projects, like LOST, a parody of the popular television series starring action figures of the show’s characters and a variety of special guests, and their infamous Harry Potter Sex video, which broke new ground in awfulness, depicting the adorable characters from J.K Rowling’s young adult fiction performing barely describable sex acts … with wands. The Fine Bros. say their strict upbringing is to blame for their offbeat sense of humor, and their proclivity for homosexual incest … with each other.

“Growing up strict orthodox Jews, we experienced a lot of shunning and one-mind thinking,” say The Fine Bros. “Things like homosexuality and incest [were] frowned upon for some reason. Besides, with us it’s not about being gay … it’s about family. One of our many mottos remains ‘It’s not gay if it’s family.’ [Our upbringing] created at an early age the want to break against the norm, and we find the best way of doing that is through comedy. To truly be the people that provide the escape in life from the mundane and troubles of life, is a great feeling.”

Benny and Raffi say the secret of comedy is “having a heartbeat behind it. Anyone can stand up and yell about things we all relate to in life, but good comedy has a message behind it, regardless of how fucked up it may seem. The real secret is finding the way to present it that will appeal to those just looking for the laugh, as well as those that can see that heartbeat behind it.”

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A good comedic character, say The Fine Bros., has “layers, layers, layers. Having a subtle story arc into a character that can re-reference itself as you see the character more and more is the true heart of a character. Giving the audience pieces of a map to understand who this person is and why they are as they are, can even make a pedophile relatable and even likeable. (We have a web series that proves that!)”

The Fine Bros. have moved in new directions since their ambitious beginnings with action figures, producing a number of video series on their site ravenstake.com, a few of which star the creators themselves. But they always come back to action figures. “It’s due to the figures being so loyal to us, willing to work at all hours without a single word of complaint that always brings us back to them,” they say. The Fine Bros. are currently working on several new projects.

What’s Funny?
So maybe the Greeks couldn’t have imagined a comedy starring action figures fornicating with wizardry, or a group of underachieving social misfits who are more comfortable interacting across miles of fiber optic cable than in the same room with each other, but today’s modern web comedies are nevertheless funny. Have we changed, or has the comedy? Or both? What makes comedy funny, anyway? How do you know, as a comedian, if you’ve struck gold?

“If you’re performing a joke live, it’s all about whether people laugh. Period. The good Lord made it easy that way,” says Parikh, whose career as a standup comedian has informed his role as Zaboo on The Guild, and led to the creation of his own website, effinfunny.com, and a web video series, The Legend of Neil, a parody of The Legend of Zelda. “If you’re writing a joke or doing it on the 10th take, clearly people aren’t going to laugh. You’ve got to believe in your own reaction to it. I guess I ultimately trust myself and what I think is funny. I think you have to. “

“I think your reaction to the material that you’re going to perform is super important,” says Robin Thorsen, who plays Clara the Mage on The Guild, “because if you don’t believe in the joke it’s going to be a flop! They can tell if you aren’t 100 percent confident in your performance.”

The Fine Bros. agree. “You start to get a pulse for what works and what doesn’t. That said, it’s always your own reaction that matters most. If you don’t find it funny, it won’t be funny.”

As for what makes the comedians laugh, “repetition based humor,” say The Fine Bros. “repetition based humor, repetition based humor, repetition based humor, repetition based humor, repetition based humor, repetition based humor, repetition based humor, repetition based humor.”

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“I really love seeing actors who can make you laugh without words, just on their facial expressions, like Steve Carrell,” says Day. She also laughs at “farting and pooing and falling. I’m not that sophisticated.”

Parikh asked his girlfriend what makes him laugh: “She says, ‘You make you laugh; I’ve never seen anyone crack themselves up so much.’ Thanks for making me look an ass, honey.”

Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard
They make it sound easy – wake up, make some jokes, get a laugh and go home – but it isn’t. For every joke that connects, there are a thousand more that go nowhere. Everyone thinks they’re funny, and everyone is, but telling jokes at the water cooler, you may have an audience of five or 10, all people you know. Telling a joke to that crowd is a walk in the park; you know what they like and don’t, and they’ve got a vested interest in making you feel like your efforts are appreciated. Especially if you’re the boss.

But when you’re telling a joke to hundreds or thousands of people – and getting paid – the expectations are higher. As are the challenges.

“Oh, there have been so many times on stage where a bit falls completely flat,” says Parikh. “Countless. Each time it’s a painful, painful experience, but what I’ve found over the years is that it’s all about letting the audience know that you know it fell flat and being brave enough to bounce back without losing energy, without bailing on your character.” He says the trick is to have confidence in yourself and your abilities, although he admits this can be tough when they’re throwing rotten tomatoes.

Being funny on film, even though the audience remains well out of throwing range, also has its difficulties. It’s not all fun and games.

“Having fun doesn’t necessarily equal fun on film,” says Day. “Sometimes we’re having the best fun on set, but the funniest take in editing is the one where we were all in a food coma or not on the lines.”

“When filming, there are certainly days on set where you feel like you totally suck. And you probably do,” says Parikh. “That’s when you have to rely on the notion that everything is going to be edited anyway, so that you don’t kill yourself.”

Yet in spite of the difficulties, most of the comedians I interviewed wouldn’t dream of doing anything else.

“I can’t picture myself doing anything else,” says Thorsen. “Comedic acting just came natural to me. I wouldn’t … couldn’t do anything else.”

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Day says she finds joy in comedy. “Life is short … unless you’re living your joy, life is meaningless. I want to be on my deathbed and happy with what I did with my life.”

She adds, resurrecting Aristotle, that she’s usually uncomfortable with attention, but when people are laughing at her, it’s OK. “If I’m making a fool of myself, it feels like I’m deflecting people’s judgment. Also, laughter brings everyone together. There’s no denying a group-feeling of togetherness when you’re snorting at a fart joke.”

Parikh says his love of comedy has more to do with a life quest than a personal philosophy. “At this point, I have to succeed in this business,” he says. “Getting a ‘real’ job will mean that I’ve lost. … I’m sure after I ‘succeed’ in comedy I’ll move on to something else, like saving the Earth, writing the great Indian American novel, or becoming a gymnastics coach, but not a second before.”

Are we any closer to a definition of modern comedy? Is Aristotle still applicable? I think so. The Guild certainly pokes fun at “lower” people, the stereotypical gamer nerds, but raises them up in the process, elevating them to our eye level so we can see them as mere reflections of ourselves. As for The Fine Bros. action figure characters, well, it’s hard to get further removed from a man than a satirical caricature starring a plastic doll of him. And yet, even in The Fine Bros. actions figures, we find pieces of ourselves, laugh at our own foibles and become better people as a result. That hasn’t changed. Perhaps it never will.

“It’s really the best way to cope with life and the terrible things that can happen to you,” say The Fine Bros. “Nothing in life is going to be awesome forever, so when it falls apart, pick yourself up and laugh about it. Make fun of yourself and your situation. Everyone else wants to make fun of you already; you might as well let them know it’s OK.”

Russ Pitts has written and produced comedy for television, film, theater and the internet. He once wrote a play starring a ball of tinfoil on a stick and served a two-year stint writing daily comic monologues about personal computing. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com

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