I don’t have a bucket list. I don’t want to climb Mount Everest, swim to Cuba, or sleep in a yurt (or with a yak). However, I find the idea of pitching an inning in a major league baseball game exciting. If that sounds like the dream of an eight-year-old, that’s what happens as we get older. The child becomes father to the man, as Wordsworth noted. So, when I tell people I do stand-up comedy, I have to follow immediately with, “It’s just something I wanted to try. It’s not a bucket list thing. I won’t die without it.”
Actually, I already died with it, as in bombed. And that was in comedy class. My line is that my jokes were so bad I got heckled in comedy class, which is pretty funny. Who gets heckled in comedy class? Moi.
My problem is that I don’t tell jokes. I know one joke, which I have used effectively only once, with a guy from Ireland: “Two Irishmen pass a bar” (pause) “Hey, it could happen.” A joke like that depends on timing and delivery. The key is the pause between the setup and the punchline.
As our course instructor, an accomplished comedian, pointed out one night at Manhattan Comedy School, I seem to be all setup and no punchline. I wanted to respond with a clever joke about foreplay but couldn’t think of an ending.
I’ve tried different things, from a tasteless joke about lesbian casinos to a George Carlin-like rumination about the difference between row as in row your boat (‘ɹoʊ) and row as in a noisy argument (‘ɹaʊ). The problem is that it wasn’t funny. So, the following week I added roe as in fish eggs, which is when I got heckled. They told me to sit down.
“Do we have to tell a joke?” I asked. “Only if you have one to tell,” the instructor answered. I don’t think she was trying to be funny.
There is a subtle but crucial difference between writing humor and performing it. In writing, you can spend time on the setup, leading the reader blithely down the path of a shaggy dog story. The punchline is more of a tap, a nudge, a slight tickle of the ribs. On stage, you must find the balance between what I call “dabble and dwell”; that is, between giving too little and too much information. Then you drop the punchline like an anvil in a Road Runner cartoon. And you have to drop a lot of them.
I am more lost now than at the beginning of the course. I am not even sure what’s funny anymore. I listen to the somewhat manic delivery of younger students and recognize that that style is not for me. Robin Williams used to wear me out. I’ve even tried props, which I think are hysterical, but in the end they get in the way. The instructor said I reminded her of Dick Cavett, but I watched him on YouTube and fell asleep. I tried not to take it personally.
At first, I was worried that I wouldn’t have anything to write about, but I have thrown out more material than I ever thought possible. Some of it, like inviting an audience member on stage and teaching them dirty phrases in Latin, was questionable at best. Still, I kept the notes in case I ever have to teach a Latin class. You never know.
There are parallels between stand-up and teaching, although I wonder whether stand-up’s rhythm is too quick and unnatural for me. I should probably do what I did in teaching, which is to find my own rhythm.
Stand-up is about telling funny stories. That’s good news, because I have a lifetime of them. It started when I was that eight-year-old kid and told a joke in the cafeteria that made a friend pass an entire cup of milk through his nose.
You’ve been great. I’m here all week.
Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli.