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Funnier Than Thou

Mar 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Robin Williams. Steve Martin. Billy Crystal. Ray Romano. Jay Leno. Jerry Seinfeld.
What do they have in common? According to Entertainment Weekly magazine, they are not currently among the 25.5 funniest people in America.
So who did make the list? How about Augusten Burroughs, Scot Armstrong, Demetri Martin and Kelly Ripa.
Yes, that Kelly Ripa. The ever-perky blonde who sits next to Regis and stars in freshman sitcom “Hope & Faith.” Now, she may be sweet, pretty, talented, a good mom and even a bit amusing, but is she really funnier than, say, Martin Short, Jim Belushi, Chris Tucker or even Howard Stern, none of whom made the list?
“Ripa is the Conan of the coffee klatch,” declared the magazine, which placed her at No. 25.5 on the list of 25-their idea of an inside joke.
The problem is this entire list is my idea of an inside joke, and apparently I’m not the only one who isn’t laughing. That is what I learned when I called the magazine, which put staff writer Josh Wolk on the phone to defend what I consider one of the worst power lists ever published by a major magazine.
“You should see the people screaming about this,” Mr. Wolk chuckled. “We’re getting tons of mail. This is one of those topics everybody has really strong opinions about.”
It may say on the cover next to a picture of No. 1 pick Chris Rock that the list is of the 25 funniest people in America, but there should be a footnote that tells the truth: This is the list of the funniest people who are not excessively popular or, god forbid, mainstream.
“This wasn’t a poll of America,” Mr. Wolk told me. “If we tried to make a scientific poll, we would poll a sample group or a large number of people. But it wasn’t. It was us saying it, the same way we have movie reviews in the back [of the magazine]. This is our opinion.”
Except it is never labeled as opinion or analysis. And there is no warning that it’s opinion with a special filter. Consider the case of Steve Martin. He had a smash hit movie at Christmas and has a best-selling book and a critically acclaimed play. Could there be anyone hotter or more hip in comedy?
Yes, he had a hit, agreed Mr. Wolk, but “That’s the commercial aspect. A lot of us didn’t feel strongly about it. Here was this mainstream thing with Steve Martin. Not as good as his earlier works like, say, `Bowfinger.’ Or some of his older films. We don’t feel he’s doing his funniest work right now.”
Too mainstream? Apparently that is what also kept Jay Leno off the list, but not late-night rival David Letterman, who, Mr. Wolk said, invented his Top 10 lists as a way to mock all lists.
“We think we’d be doing a disservice,” explained Mr. Wolk, “if we only said, well, like Robin Williams and pulled out the really mainstream and established comics, as opposed to, `Here’s a guy, he’s new. And he’s really, really funny. You will see him soon. We will be proven right.”’
EW loves to do lists, from cult movies to its annual Hollywood power rankings. The comedy list began with about 15 reporters and editors suggesting names. Those were discussed at a meeting in a Manhattan conference room. That list was then revised over about three weeks.
A disclaimer: TelevisionWeek does lists as well. I am not a big fan of these concoctions, even though they do focus on a specific area of interest and often stimulate healthy discussion. I prefer lists based on quantifiable data, like box office, TV ratings or how much money they have. The key is to act in good faith, draw a wide circle of opinion into the mix and make it as intelligent as possible.
That is not the case with the EW list, in my opinion. Of course, humor is not easy to quantify. But that is not a license to be stupid. If this were a list by some blogger sitting in his bedroom dazed by too much TV, too many Twinkies and an overload of DVD extras, it would be one thing. However, this is a mainstream magazine that purports to know who is hot and who is not.
“The list,” wrote EW, “features all kinds of comedians who do one thing brilliantly: create their own material, be they scathing social commentators, improvisatorial movie stars or flat-out scandalous rubber dogs.”
So why didn’t Ray Romano make it? He has a highly rated TV sitcom, which he helps write, and even Mr. Wolk admires him as a stand-up comic.
“Ray Romano. Yeah, he’s funny,” said Mr. Wolk. “He’s got a great show. We used to write about him all the time. I had friends who would ask me, Do you have stock in `Everybody Loves Raymond?’ because we wrote about it so much. But people were going on and off the list [as it was discussed] and he just didn’t make it.”
In other words, in their rush to be hipper than thou, they chose not to include him. All of which shows me that this flawed and unfunny list is little more than the musings of an insular group of self-appointed wannabe-hip journalists and editors in New York.
“We know not everybody is going to be happy with this list. Just as everybody who reads it is not going to be happy with everybody [on the list],” Mr. Wolk said. “It wouldn’t be much of a list if we said, These are the 25 funniest people, kind of, but there’s room for argument, blah, blah, blah. A wishy-washy statement.
“Yes, it’s subjective,” he added. “There are people who think Robin Williams is the funniest person in the world. They think there will never be, nor has there ever been, anybody as funny as Robin Williams. A lot of people here don’t agree with that. Yes, he is funny, but they don’t feel strongly about him.”
So Jimmy Kimmel’s up-and-coming-but-still-obscure girlfriend Sarah Silverman makes the list, but Mr. Kimmel, the epitome of hip (at least to certain ABC executives) does not. It can’t be that he is too popular or mainstream. We’ve seen his ratings. That isn’t the problem.
I guess he’s just no Kelly Ripa.