Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Naturally Funny"

“That person is naturally funny.”

I’ll tell you what.

It’s not that simple.

“Funny” is a funny animal.  If a person were considered “naturally beautiful”, most everyone would feel the same way about it. 

Not so with “funny”.

You know that if you agree with a comedian’s point of view, you’re more likely to find them funny than if you don’t.  The bizarre wrinkle here is that the same comedian – the same person – you have so far been finding funny can suddenly stop being funny the moment they change topics. 

I have noticed this with Chris Rock.  When he talks about racial issues – “No white person would ever change places with no black person.  No white person would change places with me.  And I’m rich!” – I marvel at his comedic incisiveness.  Then he switches to male-female relationships, and I’m looking for the exit.  The same guy!  And he’s not funny anymore.  At least, not to me.   

You probably also know that if you’re familiar with a person, or at least their background – “Anyone here from Joisey?” – you’re more likely to find them funny than if you never heard of them before, or if their background is alien to you – “Anyone here from the French Cameroons?” 

“Funny” can be geographically subjective.  A comedian “kills” in the French Cameroons.  They come here, and they can’t make a living. 

There are other determinative factors as well.  A few examples:  A comedian has a bad night.  A comedian has a bad audience.  A comedian’s trying out new material that he has not quite assimilated yet.  A comedian just had a tooth pulled.  A comedian just got dumped.  A comedian knows that sitting in the audience are his fiancee’s parents/two “leg breakers” seeking payment for his gambling debts/a comedian he stole all his jokes from – 

Are they funny? 

Less likely, in those cases.  It depends on when you saw them.

A notorious documentary following comedian Shelly Berman captured a nightclub performance where a backstage telephone rang in the middle of his act.

“Was he funny?”

“In the beginning.  But then he seemed kind of angry.”

Comedy is a delicate apparatus.  Experience and preparation notwithstanding, in the “elusiveness” context, it’s a little bit like luck, the concern reflected in the Guys and Dolls song, “Luck Be A Lady”, which went…

You’re on this date with me
The pickings have been lush
And yet before the evening is over
You might give me the brush

That actually happened to me once. 

The pickings were lush. 

And then comedy gave me the brush.

You wouldn’t think this would happen if I was naturally funny, but it did.  And, at the risk of retroactive sweats and stomach cramps, I will pass it along.

A guy I had met years ago at camp was teaching “Writing” at a community college in Sudbury, a Northern Ontario mining town, which was once the world leader in nickel mining.  Since I had the appropriate credentials – I was writing a weekly newspaper column cleverly entitled “Where It’s Near”; please remember, it was the sixties – my friend asked me if I was interested in flying up to Sudbury and talking to his classes for a fee. 

The invitation included one out of three things I was interested in – and it wasn’t flying up to Sudbury or talking to his classes.  It was reflective of how things were going for me at that juncture, that “one-out-of-three” was all it took.  I packed my bags and I winged to a remote Canadian city, to share my writing wisdom with future miners and metallurgical engineers. 

As I was driven to my lodgings, in not polar but “you can see your breath” weather conditions, my inviter handed me an itinerary, delineating my upcoming workload.  I quickly realized that it had been arranged for me to speak to nine classes in two days.  When I secretly calculated what that meant in terms of my stipend, I was making about eleven dollars per class.  Which was actually pretty good.  When I tutoring my cousin Joey in Spanish, which I’d been doing to supplement my meager column-writing salary, I was only getting five. 

I remember facing my first class.  It did not seem encouraging.  Our backgrounds were completely different.  To my knowledge, no one in my family had ever worked below ground. 

Amazingly, I connected.  I have no idea what I said to them, but after an initial “feeling out” period, I inexplicably broke through.  The students, none of whom would ever be on television unless, God forbid, there was a cave-in, warmed to whatever it was I was saying – I imagine it had something to do with writing – and in a surprisingly short time, I had them rolling in their desks.   

I do recall, at some point when I was really cooking, emphasizing my point by breaking into a recognizable Bill Cosby imitation.  This, of course, was years before I worked on The Cosby Show, but it clearly demonstrated that if I ever advanced from lecturing in Sudbury to working in show business, I would be really good at writing for Dr. C.

I remember the time racing by, and before I knew it, the class was over, and the students were filing out, laughing and enthusiastic, and thanking me as they left.  I have the distinct memory of overhearing a departing student tell someone from the arriving class that I was really funny.

The next class came in, I began to talk…

And I was not funny at all.

It seemed like I was saying the same stuff to a class not that different from the previous one – people who, in their futures, would become inordinately familiar with nickel – and yet…

Nothing.  They just looked at me. 

Wondering, I am sure, where the “funny guy” went.

During the next seven lectures that completed my assignment, sometimes I was funny – occasionally equaling my first effort on the “ha-ha” meter – and sometimes I was not.  And I could not for the life of me understand why.  I realize I lacked the professional “chops” to accommodate and adjust, but it was almost like I was two different people.  One of whom was dying in Sudbury.

Am I “naturally funny”?

There are indicators that I am.

But as a guaranteed predictor –

It is not something I can count on.

1 comment:

Mac said...

And the minute you start to doubt whether you're funny, you will cease to be. I swear to god the audience can see the self-belief gauge starting to empty. And they think, "well if he doesn't think he's funny, why should we?"