Analyzing comedy is a largely fruitless affair. If you could come up with formulas for laughs, TV and the movies would be bursting at the seams with brilliant comedies. Do I need to tell you that isn’t the case? Humor is profoundly subjective, bound up in cultural rhythms, a mysterious art.
HBO’s “Talking Funny’’ puts Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Louis C.K., and Ricky Gervais around a coffee table together to dissect their profession. But the value of the hourlong special, tonight at 9, has little to do with their nuggets of wisdom about being funny. The show is all about the personalities of these men, each of whom has been on HBO, and how they deal with one another in a summit scenario. If you’re an avid fan of any of them, there’s probably something here for you, especially if you like to monitor subtext. When a comedian talks to a talk-show host, the exchange is controlled by talking points, but when four of them shoot the breeze, they are more apt to accidentally reveal themselves.
Seinfeld is clearly the royal prince at the table, with C.K. — who opened for Seinfeld at the Paradise in Boston as a young man — his biggest admirer in attendance. But Seinfeld earns the reverence: He agrees to tell one of C.K.’s jokes, and he thoroughly “Seinfelds’’ it, giving it a sharp focus and a quick turn. It’s impressive. Seinfeld is the clean comedian among the potty-mouthers, and he recalls the only time he ever used the f-word in his standup act.
Not the case with C.K., who is all about pushing the taboos of language. He has a stage bit about the phrase “the N-word,’’ and how he hates the indirection of the phrase (the clip is on YouTube). And so tonight he uses the word itself repeatedly once Rock uses it, something that will offend many viewers. His white colleagues seem a little shocked, or maybe just concerned about being implicated because they’re at the same table with him at that moment. But C.K. is undaunted, as fearless and unedited as ever.
Rock comes off as the more self-censored member of the group. He says the least of them all, and it’s hard to get a fix on whether he wants to be there or not. While the others enjoy the overlapping conversation, he holds back. At one point, he gives Gervais a little knock for not having worked his way up as a standup comic. Fallout from Gervais’s Golden Globes slights of Hollywood royalty? Who knows. At another point, he puts down comics who out celebrities as gay — but earlier in the hour he does that exact thing. Go figure. Rock does trigger the biggest laughs, though, as the guys examine what is either the worst joke in the world or the funniest, a play on Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.’’
Gervais is the most tightly wound, occasionally making confused points. But he is the most entertaining, as he laughs hard and in a high pitch at the slightest hint of a joke. He laughs freely and frequently, far from that point in a comic’s career when the thrill is gone.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.