Monday, May 20, 2019

"Cry Me A Punch Line"

At a recent wonderful lunch with gifted writers a generation my Junior, to which I was generously invited – and by the way, once again, unlike meals with creaky contemporaries, there was no mention whatever of health issues – I injected a question I was curious about, for which I was sure this trio of scriptorial wizards would provide valuable input.

My question was promted by this.  (As I thought you may possibly like to know that.)

I have been watching John Mulaney concerts on Netfliks, three specifically in number, performed by Mulaney at age 28, 31 and 35, and I have thoroughly enjoyed them.  

It is illuminating to watch him mature in his demeanor and subject matter.  I told my daughter Anna about Mulaney, and, listening to her Dad – and what a wonderful sentence fragment that is – she checked him out, enjoying him thoroughly as well.  It was actually her observation that Mulaney’s onstage persona had solidified through time and increasing experience.  (So we listen in both directions.)

Here’s the thing, though.

It’s about comedy.

In one of his concerts – I cannot recall which, though I have spent some time “fast-forwarding” three concerts to no uncovering avail – Mulaney tells this story about a family “road trip”, in which, the kids, spotting the distinctive “Golden Arches” in the distance, begin chanting “McDonald’s!  McDonald’s!  McDonald’s!” from the back seat, urging their Dad to stop there so they can enjoy a signature sumptuous repast.

To their elevating excitement, the Dad pulls into the McDonald’s, rolls up to the Drive-Thru Window…

“... orders a black coffee for himself… and that’s’ it!  

“Black coffee!” Mulaney adds, as the payoff –

“The one thing on the McDonald’s menu kids have no interest in whatsoever.”

I repeat that story to my lunching companions, and they laugh.  Which spoke to the entire point of my telling it.

To me that’s a terrible story, about a mean and malicious family patriarch.

But, apparently, it is also hilarious.

I have no problem with people but not me finding that particular joke funny.  My primary interest, as a great stand-up comedian in my mind, is… well, imagine this scenario.

A comedian’s sitting in his room, or wherever, working on material for his act.  And suddenly, he goes,


“I’ll tell that story where we went to McDonald’s on a “road trip” and my Dad got black coffee for himself and nothing for us!”

And so he does.

And it works “Gangbusters” with the audience. 

My question is,

How did he know that story was funny? 

One lunching writer mentioned “audience identification.”  He then revealed that his own Dad stocked their refrigerator with Cokes but no one was permitted to drink them but him.

Look at that!  A precise parallel to the McDonald’s debacle.  From a sampling of three. Indicating there is more bad parenting going on than I could have possibly imagined.  Providing a substantial audience of “identifiers.”

Another lunching writer, drawing from a practical perspective, proposed that the comedian had tried the “McDonald’s bit” out in a considerably “lower stakes” venue, heard the audience laughter, and promptly promoted it to the “big stage” of televised concerts.

I learned a lot from that question.  I had no idea so many Dads were so jerky.  And I totally got “trying it out.”


The comedian, in his room, or whatever, must have at least suspected the story was funny.  Perhaps it was funny to him, the universal ticket for inclusion – in scripts, stand-up comedy acts, or casual gatherings where you’re being ignored and need something “sure-fire” to make it “all about you.”

In the end, it is entirely about judgment.  A judgment reflecting a cultural “sea change” in comedy.

In the past, the majority comedians went exclusively for laughs, though, starting in the 60’s, the element of “personal discomfort” was involved with the best of them.  Shelley Berman did a phone routine, in which he played his father, being informed by “the younger Shelley” that he intends to become an actor.

Funny, and moving.  (“Oh, and Shelley…… don’t change your name.”)

Richard Pryor’s career evolved to where he mined comedy gold from his recent heart attack – where, bargaining with God for his life, he promised he would no longer eat pork – and made comedic hay out of burning his face up, trying to smoke “Crack.”

This story is different.

Okay, so the kids don’t get “Happy Meals.”  But the demonstrated behavior I mean, I tell stories about people are messing with me one way or another. 

But this was their father.

The question is – and feel free to weigh in –

How does a comedian distinguish between stories that are painful and funny and stories that are just painful?  Instead of “Ha!” they might instead garner an “Aww.”

“Confessional comedy” – groundbreaking, but risky.

Courageously, John Mulaney took the chance.  Who knows?  Maybe this was belated “payback” for a childhood misfortune, the laughter of strangers, the ultimate revenge.

A reminder for parents:

Kids can’t fight back.

But comedians never forget.


YEKIMI said...

He told the story but that doesn't mean it's true. I look at it as if the audience is expecting to be regaled with the tale of his kids eating Happy Meals or something similar and he took a sharp left turn and made a joke about just getting coffee for himself.....something the audience may not have been expecting. If it really happened, his next story may have been about him getting home and the kids go crying to mommy telling her that "Daddy was a real asshole to us, he stopped at McDonald's and got coffee for himself and nothing for us!" and that his wife preceded to beat him severely about the head till he fled to the nearest McDonald's and got something for them.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

So much also depends on knowing what material works specifically *for you*. The same story, in other hands, might have failed completely. (Personally, I think he was doing his kids a favor by not buying them McDonalds food, but I may be an outlier in this.)


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