Comedy and factual honesty have always had a love-hate relationship. On one hand, brutal honesty towards people or events in your life can lead to hilarious stand up routines, yet on the other hand, oftentimes a 100% factually honest retelling of an event will not be the funniest. In Hannibal Burress’ “Hannibal Takes Edinburgh”, a camera man follows Burress around Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, as he attempts (and succeeds) in doing 27 stand-up comedy shows in 27 days. Although the documentary functions well to document Burress’ mental stamina and fortitude (a show every day for a month is a challenge even for comedy legends, and by the end of the event Burress’ mental energy is clearly spent), it works just as well to showcase Burress’ comedy chops. Burress’ comedy routines are frequently stories from his life, and the contrast between following Burress through his trip to Scotland and watching him perform on stage had me asking questions about just how “true” his comedy routines are. One of his jokes goes like this:
Everyone in security, they get weirder and weirder man. When I fly out of New York, I hand em my ID and my boarding pass, they say “what’s your name, where’re you going?” C’mon dude, yall can do better than that. Sometimes I say a fake name just to see what they’ll do. I hand him my ID he says “what’s your name?”, I said “Michael”, he said “nope”, I said “Hannibal”, he said “enjoy your trip”. I guess America is all about second chances!
Just how honest is this? Is this joke a piece of fiction or nonfiction? It’s hard to say. We can almost guarantee that a similar process to the one Burress has described takes place at airport security lines. That much is not a large stretch of the imagination. But did this event actually take place? It’s kind of hard to picture a man on a security line giving an actual wrong name compared to the one on his ID, and walking away after getting it right on the second try. But who knows if it actually happened? I guess no one besides Burress and the security officer. I would think that what brings the humor to the joke is inherent in the questionable factuality of the joke itself. All the underlying information to the joke is true. Very true, and widely known information held by the public as “the case”. Yes, security is a hassle, and of course they could be trying harder. They only ask for a name! The set-up of the joke is undoubtedly non-fiction.
Or is it? How many of us know for certain that this IS the process when you step up to a security line? Is it just that a “fed-up” attitude towards the efforts of airport security is a common one? Could it be that Burress just emotionally checks in with the listener, so that the humor of the joke can rest on a bed that’s emotionally true, but factually shaky? I know I honestly wouldn’t be able to list the steps that security takes when they check a boarding pass and ID, even though I fly probably once a year on average. I can definitely say it’s a process I don’t enjoy, and in this, Burress taps into the emotional truth of the situation.
In my mind, the set-up of the joke can be labeled as “emotionally non-fiction” and “factually plausible”. But now for the joke itself- is there a chance Hannibal actually told the officer a wrong name, corrected himself, and walked away scot-free? It’s not so out of the ordinary, one might think, but at the same time I’m curious just how likely that is to happen. Does it matter if it didn’t happen? Obviously according to the humor of the situation, it’s funny whether it actually took place or not. “I guess America is a place of second chances!”
It’s unlikely that we will ever know for certain whether any given stand up routine is factually honest or not. What seems to matter more is whether it could be, and whether it emotionally strikes a chord with the viewer.