How to be funny and not die
My parents are funny people. Recently, my 85 year-old father broke his neck, which is, of course, terrible, but he survived. On a recent visit, I was trying to say something daughterly and encouraging so I remarked that his hair was getting so long he “looked like a poet.”
“Yes,” my mother added, dryly, “a poet coming out of a drain.”
This was in reference to the neck brace he was wearing and remarkably accurate while quite insensitive which is the killer combination, cruelty combined with an eye for detail. My mother is a master at that. Upon meeting my newborn baby, who had subjected me to 72 hours of back labor, she remarked, “With that much head you expect more body.” I wept. Yet, I also laughed. Because no one could deny my son’s head, perfectly round and yes, perfect, was impressive.
Humor, a fast rejoinder, an original, witty and thorny remark was the birthright of Oscar Wilde and my family. Years of teaching teenagers helped me appreciate the practical side of this inheritance. I could tell my students strange and wonderful stories of a personal nature while forcing them to confront their own biases and assumptions as readers of fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. I would lighten my criticisms of their work ethics with amusing stories of my own failures in high school. One year I had two best friends in different classes who kept a running online correspondence focused on funny/weird comments I’d made that day.
Readers of my novels observed they were funny while also being very sad. Some people found this annoying. “Make up your mind,” one woman scolded. “Tragedy isn’t a joke.” But her opinion isn’t completely accurate. Strong emotions produce, well, strong reactions. Fits of giggles are not unusual at funerals.
This, I believe is the best method of all, make someone cry and then laugh. This is, I believe, is the best of what it means to be Irish. Years ago I had a Dublin boyfriend who used to describe his father chasing his mother with a knife on Christmas Eve. The children were screaming, the knife sharp, the father drunk and yet, it was incredibly funny. Like Angela’s Ashes a memoir that blends unbelievable tragedy, dying babies and alcoholism, with what the Irish call the “craic”. That thing that makes you double over with tears in your eyes, laughing so hard you can’t breathe.
Still, I was an amateur until I braved the dysfunctional, oddly childish, often unfunny world of stand-up comedy. It was a whim at first. I had been told by so many people that I was hilarious I thought I’d make it official and follow in the footsteps of Rosanne, Sandra Bernhard, hell, Phyllis Diller, and take a stand-up comedy class.
My son, he of the formerly too big head, rolled his eyes as only a sixteen-year old can and said, “You’re not funny.”
“Some people think I am,” I replied, trying not to become embroiled in one of those awful adolescent versus middle-aged loser conversations.
“Your students said that because they wanted good grades,” he said with a sad shake of his head. “You are pathetic.”
That did it. He had thrown down the proverbial gauntlet and I was going to challenge the prevailing trend in humor that featured men who were pretending to still be in college telling gross bathroom jokes. Never mind that these same men dominated the talk shows being told by the hosts how funny they were or were featured in respected newspapers as “comic geniuses.”
I am a very brave person. I finished a full triathlon; appeared on cable television in Delaware and drove my VW Beetle cross-country twice, alone. (Brave? Stupid?) Anyway, the point is, nothing was as terrifying as this stand-up comedy class. The room was dimly lit and sadly reminiscent of the setting for a play about people who spend their lives waiting for the Iceman. Actually, it reminded me of the bar in San Francisco where I was an incompetent cocktail waitress listening to the drunk accordion player’s version of “Lady of Spain” throughout the night while I lost money trying to figure out change. And everyone was so young! Except for the guy hunched down in the corner wearing the Grand Funk Railroad t-shirt furiously writing something on a pad of paper. A joke, probably. An unfunny middle-aged man joke about his bathroom habits. After a few minutes, the teacher arrived. He was a younger version of the Grand Funk guy; bad haircut, glasses, holding a bag of Goldfish, apparently our class treat.
“Okay,” he said, holding up that day’s free local paper. “Everyone take a page and write a joke about something in the news.”
Huh? I ended up with sports and so I wrote a joke about how all the Chicago teams sucked. I was booed. The other people didn’t even follow instructions. Their jokes had clearly been rehearsed and had nothing to do with the local news. There were jokes about Sarah Palin, Barack Oboma, and, the class favorite, Catholic priests molesting children. Not only were the jokes unfunny, they were horribly offensive. I mean, seriously, I lived in New York City for years and my parents were very filthy minded and these jokes shocked me. The teacher loved them.
“How was class?” my nice husband asked. “Tasteless” I said. “Disgusting.”
“I think you’re funny,” he said, patting me. “Tell the joke about the cats.”
I did not. But I kept going even though people disappeared and the assignments the teacher gave us made little sense. Perhaps he was trying to help us understand the brutal world of stand-up but I did not appreciate his texting while I attempted to use his latest exercise, writing the introduction to a punch line.
“Excuse me,” I snapped, “could you pay attention?”
“Good job,” he said, not looking up.“Except it’s not funny.”
This was the effect of stand-up comedy class. I lost my sense of humor. I became self-conscious and hypercritical. One day we had a class on heckling and I nearly burst into tears when someone screamed: “Take it off!” and someone else screamed, “No, don’t!”
“Stop going,” my husband said.“You aren’t having fun.”
“Fun? Fun?” I glared at him. “Stand-up isn’t fun. It’s brutal!”
And then it was time for graduation. Each of us would get six minutes onstage in front of a live audience. We were encouraged to invite friends and family. I wrote a set that included a tasteless joke about adopting Chinese babies. A teacher friend asked me to show her what I was learning. The Chinese baby bit brought on tears.
“I have friends with adopted Chinese babies,” she wailed. I stopped and tried to explain it was a joke but she remained offended. This should have told me I had finally hit pay dirt, instead I felt even more afraid. I began to have nightmares. Adam Sandler was heckling me, the cats were sitting at a table, not laughing, and my son was trying to become an emancipated minor. My husband was wearing earplugs.Finally, the evening arrived and I was completely sick with nerves. My fellow comedians made encouraging noises when I asked them what would happen if I didn’t say anything when my set started. I stood in the backstage space and could not recall a single second of my routine. My mouth was dry, my palms were sweaty, and I wondered whether my parents had found me on the porch with a note pinned to my chest: “Take this baby. She isn’t funny.”
The lights were blinding. I started to talk. There was a pause and then I heard laughter. Not just my husband and friends but strangers. No one heckled. I continued. People kept laughing. Someone actually chortled. I was no longer afraid. I showed the audience my napkin with all the jokes written down. “Here is the only thing I learned in stand-up class,” I said. They roared. No one cried when I went into the adopted Chinese baby spiel. I felt drunk with success. I told them about my sister getting my mother and me to buy matching outfits. They roared, someone applauded.
On the way home my husband shook his head. “I was sure you were going to be terrible,” he said. “But you rocked.” I smiled at him, looking forward to seeing the cats and annoying my son with a detailed description of my triumphant debut. Yet I knew two things without a doubt: I was funny and as god is my witness, I would never do stand-up again.