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.
“Did you hear? The “Challenger” just blew up.”
“I guess they weren’t up to the challenge.”
“Speaking about Jayne Mansfield…”
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.