Friday, March 5, 2010

"You're Not Funny"

When I was in High School, I read an essay by a Canadian writer named Stephen Leacock, making the point that you can tell a person they’re stupid or unattractive and they can generally handle it, but if you tell them they don’t have a sense of humor, they’ll get noticeably upset and may even do injury to your body, more or less proving they don’t have a sense of humor, but you’re better off not telling them that, because of the likelihood of their hurting you even more.

People are touchy about their senses of humor. And Stephen Leacock was writing about civilians. How much more touchy are the people who do, or would like to do, humor for a living.

Hearing “You’re not funny”, especially from a credible source in the “funny field”, can end your dream of a career in comedy right then and there, the logic on the matter being sparklingly clear:

“The comedy business is for people who are funny. You are not funny. The comedy business is not for you.”

The trouble is, though the logic may be sparklingly clear, the evidence on which the conclusion is based is not, the problem being, “How can you accurately designate whether a person is funny?”

Does everybody have to laugh, before a person can be declared “funny”? Not necessarily.

COMEDIAN: “Everybody laughed.”

HIS CLEAR-EYED BEST FRIEND: “Not the owner of the comedy club.”

If the person that matters remains stone-faced, you are classified: “Not funny.”

COMEDIAN: “But everybody laughed.”

OWNER OF THE COMEDY CLUB: “I didn’t.”

So that’s one way to be “not funny” – if you’re not funny to the person who matters. Another way to be “not funny” is by doing material that’s not appropriate for the audience.

COMEDIAN: “I don’t understand it. My ‘I ran over a dog’ story always gets screams!

HIS CLEAR-EYED BEST FRIEND: “Not at a PETA convention.”

Then, there’s the timing issue. Not the joke-telling timing, the when-you-tell- the-joke timing.

Too soon:

“Did you hear? The “Challenger” just blew up.”

“I guess they weren’t up to the challenge.”

Too late:

“Speaking about Jayne Mansfield…”

“Who?”

I’m sure there are other reasons for being incorrectly labeled “not funny”, which I have neither the time nor the inclination to come up with right now. The point is, “funny” is a delicate business. I, for one, have always been aware of that.

Let’s, for the moment, say that I’m funny. I don’t want a debate on the matter. For the following anecdote, it is necessary to assume that I’m funny. We can have a referendum on it at some future time.

Okay, I’m funny. And I’m working on this CBC (Canadian national television) series called Music Machine, as the “funny music critic.” (Would they hire a not funny guy to be the “funny music critic”? So – proof – I’m funny.)

We’re sitting in the Dressing Room before a taping, “we” being the show’s band, the eponymous Music Machine, and myself. (I believe I used “eponymous” correctly. But I could be wrong.)

Having pre-recorded their musical numbers earlier in the week, the band has no further duties, other than to lip-sync to the pre-recorded soundtrack in front of the cameras. As a result, the band is totally relaxed. And smoking pot.

They offer some to me. I say, “No, thank you.” Not out of principle, but because I did not pre-record my hilarious monolog. I have to perform it live, in front of the cameras, as well as an assembled studio audience. Understanding that “funny” is a delicate business, I require that my “funny apparatus” remain unencumbered by mood altering substances. I need my brain exactly the way it is.

And I was right. During my performance, I found myself accessing my brain on numerous occasions, always grateful it was available to me, rather than humming distractedly, or intensely considering where I could score some Cheetos.

I always knew “funny” was a delicate business, but I was not aware how delicate, till I visited to a Northern Ontario mining town called Sudbury. I’m sure you’ve all been there.

A friend of mine was teaching English at a community college in Sudbury, and he hired me, I think, for a hundred dollars plus expenses (which, I believe, is what Rockford used to get) to come up and talk about comedy writing to a gathering of future miners. I said, “Sure.” You don’t turn down an opportunity like that.

I was scheduled to speak to nine classes over two days. And here’s what happened. I’d talk to one class about what I do (which, at the time, was writing a weekly column for a Toronto newspaper), and the kids are howling. I am on fire! I mean, I’m doing Bill Cosby imitations, and I didn’t even know I knew how.

At the end of the period, as they changed classes, I overhear a departing student tell an arriving student, “You’re gonna love this guy. He’s really funny.”

The new class comes in, I start again, and…nothing. Not a laugh, not a titter. I’m bombing in front of the Miners of Tomorrow. The kids are staring at me, thinking, “I thought he was supposed to be funny.”

I felt dumbstruck and shocked. I mean, you knock it out of the park with one class, and minutes later, before a not discernibly different other class – a dribbler to the mound.

As Fred Willard declared in A Mighty Wind, “Wha’ hoppin’?”

One thing that “hoppin’” is a lack of experience. Professional comedy people can be funny more consistently. And they have tricks to “save” themselves when they’re in trouble. I relied on my natural abilities. The results of my efforts? Decidedly mixed.

Decades later, in some Sudbury tavern, fistfights will still break out on the subject.

“The guy was funny!”

“The guy was crap!”

The truth is, I was both. Though I hope the guy on my side got in some good shots.

Hey, I flew up to Sudbury. The least they could do was chuckle.

4 comments:

bbot said...

Future miners, and current minors, eh?

And for everyone else who had to look it up: Wikipedia is telling me that Jayne Mansfeld is a 50s actress, who died in a car accident in 1967.

A. Buck Short said...

This is precisely why I restrict all of my appearances to Jewish mining towns.

Actually isn't the opposite more frequently true? It's generally better when people expect you to be funny, and the worst is when you attempt to foist your funny unto them when they didn’t want it or were there to see/do something else? Even though “foist” can also be one of the funnier adverbs left over from Vaudeville and the Three Stooges.

Another thing. I’ve had some opportunity to interact with some veteran famous big name comics, in various social or work situations – not just assault by a fan. I have been sort of disappointed that some, though certainly not all, did not seem very interested in being funny for or with me personally. Sometimes almost the Adam Sandler character in “Funny People.” Mostly either all business or just wanting to move on after a rather nonresponsive pleasantry.

Is it just funny fatigue? That funny can be less fun when it’s a business? They care so much about funny that any interaction with it becomes work, and when you’re not working funny it should be your day off? That they get enough positive reinforcement from other venues? That they’ve really honed down the number of individuals they either want to impress with their funny or care about being funny for? (Wasn’t “honed down” some sort of social gathering on ”Best of the West”?) That there’s really room for only one person either that ego-driven -- or that needy – at a time? Why waste even you “D” material on only one person? What was your experience before you became a person people likely cared about being funny with?

One of the great intros of all time. Jack Paar: "Ladies and gentlemen, here they are -- Jayne Mansfield."

waystead said...

Four Clicks and I found you, Earl.

Waiting to testify FOR Marylanders being able to buy wine online without fear of jail, yesterday, in Annapolis, I thumbed through the latest New Yorker. The one with the clever Oscar-themed cover and the back cover featuring an iPhone apps ad, including a free subscription to Variety.

The most expensive ad page.
The Variety teaser included a tickle to Earl Pomerantz.

I pitched my Pro bill spiel, and drove three hours back home to my farm on the Eastern Shore and opened up a bottle of California Zinfandel to celebrate my having nailed my testimony.

And downloaded the Variety app to my iPhone, and started reading your blog.

I'm hooked, Earl.

Thanks for your wit, your age, your wisdom.
I'll follow you 'til your fingers can't key anymore and you switch to voice recognition stenography to post your stories.

Have a great resta yer life.
And keep me posted.

Andrew said...

Actually, Jim Rockford got $200/day plus expenses.