Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Someone came up to me at a party, and said,

“I hear you’re a comedy writer.”

I quickly corrected them.

“I’m a writer.” I replied, “and it comes out funny.”

This (meaningless to others) distinction is important to me. “Comedy writer” suggests funny hats and “the life of the party.” A comedy writer is an instant “ha-ah” machine responsible for delivering bellylaughs on demand.

“Mr. Hope needs three more Angie Dickinson jokes.”

“Mr. Leno needs three more Paula Abdul jokes.” (It’s all the same. Only the targets change.)

Instant punch lines. Fast and funny. I have absolutely no aptitude in that direction. (Unless, I’m in a room, competing. And then, look out!)

It’s not a moral thing – “I’m better than that.” It just isn’t my style. Also, unless they’re original in their formulation or point of view, that stuff never makes me laugh.

For me, comedy is simply the dialect I speak in. There’s “guy from another country”, there’s “Southern Belle”, and there’s “You make your point, but the way you express yourself makes people laugh while they’re listening to you.” That third one is me.

When it’s working.

That’s the next point. Nobody’s funny all the time. (Or to their spouse, ever.) It’s a question of batting average. You make people laugh more often than you make them go, “I have no idea what you’re talking about”, and you’ve earned the right to be called a funny guy.

But it’s never sure-fire. Which is a bit of a mystery. My older brother, known to many as the funniest person they’ve ever met, will on rare occasions misfire with his comedic spontaneity. His perplexed response to the misfire? “It felt just like the good ones.”

There’s a lot of pressure on people expected to be funny. If I were be totally honest, that’s probably the reason I balk at being called a comedy writer. I’m resisting the expectations that come with the label.

If I say, “I’m a writer, and it comes out funny”, I’m making nowhere near as dangerous a comedic claim as, “Get ready to pee in your pants.”

If my pronouncement turns out not to be hilarious, I can say, “It wasn’t a joke. I was just talking.” I can get away with it because I deliberately avoided the joke formulation. Comedy writers can’t do that. They’re identified by the traditional structure, and are obliged to live up to it. There’s nowhere to hide. If their concoction bombs, they’re exposed to the claim, “That joke sucked!” And by the way, “You suck too!”

The last point I leave to philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Without going into detail, one of Locke’s beliefs was in primary and secondary qualities. Locke viewed color as a secondary quality. The apple, he argued, is not actually red. However, its substance has to power to produce the impression of redness in the observer.

It’s the same with comedy. The funny is not out there. The “out there” may trigger the funny. But the actual funny resides in the consciousness (or unconsciousness) of the receiver. Or it isn’t. If a comedian starts a story saying, “This is really funny,” and a heckler shouts, “We’ll be the judge of that!”

They’re right.

Nothing’s funny until somebody laughs.

Unlike the apple that emits the same signal to everyone (unless you’re color-blind), the funny signal is highly subjective. You can tell the exact same joke, and one person might laugh, another say, “What?”, another go, “That’s lame” and another, smack you in the face. And I’m sure there are other responses as well. All to the exact same joke. You prepare the best way you can – sharpen your material, perfect your delivery – but in the end

It’s not in your hands.

Comedy is a really tough town. Even for the best of them.

Richard Pryor, my favorite stand-up, certainly of his day, would always open his act with a four-word mantra slash prayer.

“I hope I’m funny.”

Hoping we’re funny.

It’s the best we can do.


cuttybob said...

Along the same line, I've always been slightly irritated when an actor who has been in comedic offerings is called a comedian as opposed to a comic actor or even just an actor who had a role in a comedy or comic presentation.

A. Buck Short said...

”Or to their spouse, ever.” Truer words were never spoken. So what’s up with that? My saver is usually something like, “Hey, I’ve got no place else to break this stuff in. What am I going to take it to New Haven?”

Now on to our epistemological segment. If a tree fell on Pauly Shore in the forest, and there was nobody there to see it, would you still get a laugh later in the emergency room? BTW, another reason I enjoy your blog, there’s hardly anybody doing John Locke comedy anymore.