Wednesday, May 03, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: The Laugh Track Will Tell You When to Be Amused

Sometimes, I'm dead certain that I'm not particularly funny.

A lot of people can say this, but they don't necessarily feel the pressure to be funny. I, on the other hand, have placed a lot of pressure on myself to be amusing. So to not be funny is a pretty large shortcoming. Like a tone-deaf opera singer.

I made the decision to be a funny person back in high school, when I had the sudden realization that my original approach -- to be insufferably earnest to the point of righteous anger -- wasn't working. Every now and then, I break out that old people-pleasing technique, and I'm immediately reminded what an epic disaster it was. So I had a road-to-Damascus moment in the 10th grade, and decided that I was going to get a lot further in life if I tried to be funny, with a healthy dose of self-deprecation for seasoning. (I still vividly remember Steven Shiflett's contempt when I announced that I was going to be "self-depreciating". Details matter.) The effect was almost instantaneous.

I've ridden the funny-guy thing for a long time, but it definitely came to a boil when I got into the world of improvisation. Too many people still make the mistake of calling it "comedy", which I would argue is unfair, since it limits the potential to make true theater in an instant. But the fact is, comedy is harder. Anyone can make instant anguish, but it takes real talent to compel an audience to laugh with something you just made up. Remember, there was never a game show called "Make Me Cry". (Although if there was, you could definitely catch reruns on Lifetime.)

The thing about being in the world of improv is that you run up against people who are unquestionably funnier that you are. People for whom the ability to create comedy is more innate, more readily accessible. One of my colleagues, Jordan, is funny with staggering ease. I'm almost positive that he's not even trying. One of his lines that I quote most frequently ("Get to the point!") is not funny in any sense of the term. In fact, it was genuine exasperation. But in that situation, with his timing and level of frustration, it was downright hilarious. He's got a gift. Maybe it would backfire if he were testifying in court, but on a stage, it's the real deal.

My approach is quite different. I seem to specialize in jokes that are greeted with a puzzled silence, only to be followed about two minutes later by closed eyes and a mournful nod. My jokes are slow burn. I've mastered the craft of time bomb comedy. I've mostly come to accept this, although I still pine for the laugh. Imagine telling a rock band that the moshing will really get going once the set is over.

Spending almost 48 straight hours with the members of my improv troupe, Whirled News Tonight, was a stark reminder of something that I know deep down, but often hate to acknowledge: these people are a damn sight funnier than I am. Particularly during the 12 hours we spent in the confines of a converted FedEx delivery van (the rental car company obviously thought we wouldn't notice the old paint job), I laughed myself silly at the witticisms of fellow performers. My triumph, on the other hand, came in a challenge to name all the films of a given actor. And that's the comparison: Shane knowing obscure Joe Pesci films? Impressive but freakish. Alex every single time he said the words Sense and Sensibility? Comedy gold.

It was in the presence of these comedy legends that I got the latest proof of my non-funniness, in the form of a podcast. It goes something like this:

- The Chicago improv community has a bulletin board to exchange messages and whatnot. (This board screwed me over bigtime, but that's another story.)
- One of the board administrators set up a toll-free number where people can call in and leave random messages.
- These messages are then stitched together and posted on the web as a weekly podcast.
- I don't know why. Just because.
- At dinner on Friday night in Cincinnati, Steve got the idea leave a message that sounded like we were calling someone who couldn't join us. So we literally passed a cell phone around the table.
- You can hear the finished product yourself. The podcast in question is right here. We start at 11:45 into the program.

I played it for my wife last night, because I remembered being quite amused by the whole thing. And indeed, it's pretty funny, considering the humor consists of saying non sequiturs into a cell phone. I could list all the highlights, but then I'd really just be listing everyone.

Except me. I'm the third voice, and I've got nothing to say. I mean, I can tell what I was going for. I'm obviously trying to be unintentionally insulting. But it's just not funny. We're all doing the same bit. We're all going for a dry, underplayed, Gould-and-Sutherland-in-M*A*S*H delivery. And everyone pulls it off, except me. I've suspected this for a while, but now there's actual recorded proof. That's a little disappointing.

I may have to rethink my whole approach, because as much as I enjoy trying to be a humorous individual, I don't have enough self-confidence to accept that I'm not actually achieving the desired end. So I either need to get funnier, deal with my unfunniness better, or channel my efforts differently. Fozzie Bear, I cannot be.

The punchline should go here. Dammit.


Paul Winston said...

Punchlines are overrated - just ask Larry the Cable Guy