It is still happening, and it still feels good.
(Now, now. We are talking about writing here.)
I recently read a review of master comedian Eddie Izzard’s performance at the Hollywood Bowl, in which the reviewer quoted some snippets from the comedian’s act.
One of them involved the derivation of human sacrifice, which Eddie Izzard described as the “logical behavior of scared human beings trying to impress invisible people who are behaving as if they’re not there.”
The rationale for human sacrifice: “Look, the crops have failed, the weather’s bad. The gods obviously hate us. So, yes – let’s kill Steve.”
Besides laughing, an immediate companion response arose in my mind.
“I recently wrote that exact same thing.”
(Only I scarily personalized it so it was “Let’s kill Earl.” Which, in a way makes it better, though that is hardly the point. And while we’re in brackets, I may have cribbed that idea from an earlier Eddie Izzard concert, which I attended. Though it is a better story if I didn’t. And I actually may have come up with it on my own. Which is how I am choosing to remember it. And now, let’s go back.)
“I recently wrote that exact same thing.”
I’ve been reading the script of master playwright Michael Frayn’s (“Noises Off”) Matchbox Theatre, a revue made up of thirty individual comedic vignettes. In one of them, entitled “Contraphonium”, a percussionist in an opera symphony orchestra is desperately counting down the 973 bars before he has to come in to play “three bars of straight G halfway through the Second Act.”
Reading it, what illuminated brightly in my “Think Box” was:
“Last time I was at Disney Hall, I had precisely the same idea about the cymbals player.”
(I am doing this chronologically backwards, though I cannot exactly explain why.)
Back in 1972… or was it 1973… I can’t remember; they were both over forty years ago… I am sitting in a friend’s basement on another dateless Saturday night, laughing hysterically at an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
At the time, there was no identifying reprise similar to “I wrote that too” or “I had exactly the same idea.” But there was, in fact, this.
Watching the Mary show, I felt an undeniable certainty… okay, let’s not go crazy here… I felt an undeniable near certainty… not that I could do what the writers on The Mary Tyler Moore show were doing, but its still admirable Second Cousin:
I understood what they were doing.
(Like some math whiz who may not have solved the equation himself but could intuitively follow the reasoning. Yes, I was a math whiz at half-hour comedy. Or maybe I just watched a ton of those shows, and the appropriate “moves” eventually subliminally sank in.)
The common denominator of the three aforementioned anecdotes:
“I ‘got’ it.”
I cannot tell you how reassuring that was for me. (And still is.) To spontaneously relate to the comedy. The way I do not spontaneously relate to anything else. I wrote a post once about how I drove my Geography teachers nuts trying to explain to me how it was “tomorrow” in another part of the world. My brain could not – and to some degree still can’t – assimilate that concept. And many other concepts as well. A number of them involving various “Instruction Manuals” I have frustratedly given up on.
On the “up” side:
There was this tribe. It was the “Comedy Tribe.” And I was almost certain I belonged to it. (And by the way, that really mattered to me.)
The confirmation of my inclusion:
I innately “got” what they were doing.
And then, I experienced this “transformation”.
I have written elsewhere of how in 1972 – or was it ’73 – I was watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show in my friend’s basement. And then, in 1975, it was like I had gotten up, I had miraculously stepped through the screen, and there I was, on the other side of the screen, writing for that exact same show.
No longer was I just “getting” what they were doing.
I was actually doing it myself.
It is not a big step from “I know what they’re doing” to “I know what I’m doing.” And if you want to make a living as a writer, you must inevitably ascend to that step.
How could you possibly put anything on paper if you were unable to determine what belonged on that paper and what didn’t? You have to believe that you know what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’d be paralytically incapable of doing it.
In time, you become a professed – or you keep it to yourself – expert on “What’s funny.” Either way, you steadfastly believe that you know.
To the point of believing that the comedy itself is speaking to you, telling you, for example,
When a pitched joke includes “Too many words.”
Do you see how I tied it all in there? A little secret: That was always where I was going.
The thing is – and here’s my “little turn” for today, there is more than a single, unilateral modality of comedy. Okay, I don’t know what modality means. But what I am saying is, there is more than just one kind. And there always was.
Today, comedy is demonstrably more fragmented – due to a proliferation of outlets, and an inflated attention to the “Youth Market.” But even when it was more “mass appeal” and homogenized, there was still, simultaneously, comedy provocateur Lenny Bruce (“Every day, people are straying away from the church and going back to God”) and sad sack comedian George Gobel (“Did you ever feel as if the whole world was a tuxedo, and you were a pair of brown shoes?”)
Both funny. Both diametrically different in their approaches.
Leading to an important reminder about humility.
“Too many words”?
For me, perhaps.
But not necessarily for comedy.
(See: Spy. Where the audience went crazy, and I did not laugh once. Okay, I maybe laughed once.)