When I was nine, I noticed a panel in a Woody Woodpecker comic book that made me stare and laugh and stare some more and then throw back my head and laugh even harder. That epiphanic encounter could very well have been my comedy awakening.
For all I know, this could be a very old joke, first carved on an obelisk by a funny engraver, or on sketched on a wall by some irrepressible cave-clown – the best comedy is timeless – but I was introduced to it through Woody Woodpecker.
Okay. It’s a skiing scene. The ground is covered with snow. A large tree stands in the foreground of the cartoon panel. Woody, the skier, has stopped on the hill below the tree, and is looking back up. And what Woody Woodpecker observes is this:
There’s a visible ski tread in the snow around one side of the tree. And a second ski tread in the snow around the other side of the tree, thus indicating that
somehow, Woody Woodpecker had skied around the tree. On both sides!
And he’d made it!
The look on Woody’s face reads: “How did I do that!”
The look on my nine year-old face reads, “How did anyone think of that!”
I was amazed – tickled and delighted too – but mostly amazed. Somehow, someone had imagined something that, in reality, can not happen, and, through his drawing, had made it appear eminently possible. From that imagining came – at least from me – a spontaneous eruption of unstoppable laughter.
I know I didn’t think this out loud, or even consciously, but somewhere in my thought- registering apparatus, I made an asterisked and underlined note to myself that said,
“That’s a good job.”
Somewhere, inside, I had the desire to delight people the way that comic book artist had delighted me. And I kind of knew I could do it. I had done it in life.
When I was seven, in art class, we were asked to paint an outdoor sporting scene. I can’t draw – and I especially can’t draw people – so what I painted was a badminton-playing scene, containing a backyard badminton set – a net, suspended on two poles, with four rackets and a “birdie” lying on the ground. That was the whole picture. When my art teacher, Miss Sternberg, peering over my shoulder, asked
“Where are the people?”
I pointed to the ominous strip of sky at the top of my painting and explained:
“They went inside. It’s going to rain.”
Miss Sternberg let this go without further comment. But even at seven, I could sense that she couldn’t wait to crack up the other teachers with this story at recess. And to recount it again to my mother at the next Parent-Teacher Night. Which she did.
Sometimes, the “Funny Bell” rings not because of something you say, but from something you hear.
In Tenth Grade, we were discussing the population problem in our history class. This was in Canada where, at the time, our entire population was twenty-two million people. Referencing the over-population situation in China, one student suggested the solution of relocating ten million Chinese people to Canada. To which Mr. Coulthard, our history teacher, replied:
“If we brought ten million Chinese people to Canada, it would change the complexion of the entire country.”
My “comedy ear” told me what Mr. Coulthard had said was funny. Unfortunately, I was the only one in my class with a “comedy ear” and I wound up sitting in the principal’s office.
Comedy – at the risk of being boringly pedantic – is primarily about surprise. The Woody Woodpecker cartoon surprised the heck out of me. My “people-free” badminton scenario caught Miss Sternberg by surprise. And Mr. Coulthard’s play-on-words “complexion” reference surprised me, but not Mr. Coulthard, because Mr. Coulthard lacked a finely tuned “comedy ear”. Maybe he laughed when he got home.
As an appreciator of comedy, I laugh most, not at punchlines, especially insulting ones, or at broad exaggerations, but at well-observed moments, offering an unexpected, often surreal, twist. Neil Simon is a fabulous joke writer. But some of his jokes are too deliberate for my delicate comic sensibilities. Once in a while, however, he’ll hit me with a startling line that I’ll continue to laugh at for forty years. At the risk of your not laughing at either of them, I will offer up two examples:
The musical Sweet Charity
After being dragged out of the river following a failed suicide attempt, a crowd gathers around Charity’s seemingly lifeless body. A member of the crowd observes:
“She looks dead to me. Does she look dead to you?”
To which, another crowd member replies:
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen her before.”
Sid Caesar starred and played seven parts in another Neil Simon-written musical.
World War One prisoner of war Noble Eggleston receives a personal package from his girl back home. Eggleston unwraps the package and looks inside:
“Oh. She made me some socks. (HE TAKES ANOTHER LOOK) No, they’re cookies.”
I’m not a fan of dissecting comedy – you end up with unfunny comedic entrails – but in these two examples, Simon started with an identifiable moment and, somehow, that moment triggered, in his imagination, a surprising and therefore explosively funny left turn. My experience tells me there’s a good chance that the writer himself didn’t even know the joke was coming. Suddenly, it’s just there.
Bruce Jay Friedman has written novels, plays and the most wonderful short stories. In this case, for me, the laughter stems from Friedman’s selection of tiny details. In Black Angels, a team of black repair people help a fellow named Stefano fix up his house. Along the way, they present him with a series of repair bills that are inappropriately low. This was Stefano’s response.
“Loving the breaks he was getting, Stefano threw them bonuses, plenty of sandwiches, all his old sports jackets, Venetian blinds that had come out of the attic and books of fairly recent vintage on Nova Scotia tourism.”
The first time I read “Nova Scotia tourism”, I said a prayer to the life-affirming miracle of comic invention. I don’t know if it was or not, but at the moment I read it, the choice of “Nova Scotia” as the venue for the fairly recent tourist books seemed outrageously effortless. And correct. He could have said “Pennsylvania” tourism books, but “Nova Scotia” was where the money was.
Admiration and awe. That’s how I felt when I read “Nova Scotia.” To paraphrase Butch Cassidy, what came to mind when I read “Nova Scotia” was:
“I can’t do that. Can you do that? How can he do that?"
(The truth is, I can do that. Just not as often.)
I’ll write about comedians and sitcom inspirations another time. My appreciation for “half hours” like The Jack Benny Program, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show – which I eventually worked on – had nothing to do with a funny line or a comic situatio. It was the reliable feeling of the entire undertaking. You were in good hands with those programs, and you sensed it. They’d never insult you, and they’d always make you laugh.
My final tip of the hat today is to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Oh, my God. “The Dead Parrot.” “The Ministry of Silly Walks.” “The World’s Funniest Joke.” “The Man Paying For An Argument” – my own personal favorite – and the extended run in Holy Grail that begins with the king instructing the jailor:
“You stay here. And don’t let him out until I come back.”
to which the jailor immediately responds:
“Right. I’ll go with you.”
Once again, the situation starts real, and then…whoops! – you’re somewhere else. Somewhere magical and sublime. A wonderful place, where anything can happen.
You can even ski around both sides of a tree.