The funniest line I ever heard was in a scene from The Music Man. Marian Paroo, the winsome librarian who is very mistrustful of men, has just declared her love for Prof. Harold Hill in song on a footbridge overlooking a pond.
“Excuse me,” the professor replies after a long smooch. “I’m expecting a telegram from Rudy Frimmel. This could be it.” Then he exits stage right.
When I tell people I think that is a riot, they usually do one of two things: (1) ignore me, or (2) ask who Rudy Frimmel is. That’s when I excuse myself with the same telegram line, although I change it to skype.
Unfortunately, this has left me questioning my sense of humor. So, I end up making all sorts of rationalizations and decide that I am funny even if no one else thinks so. I developed this technique over years in the classroom, where I often play to an audience of one. Actually, what happens in the classroom is infinitely more complicated. It’s as if you are shaving with a group of bystanders in the bathroom. It’s intimate but in a voyeuristic way.
Mark Twain was a humorist. He was funny, certainly witty. Would he have gotten the humor in the Rudy Frimmel line? Would David Sedaris? And what must life have been like for the poor schlemiel who wrote it, Meredith Wilson? I bet he would think I am funny, maybe even want to collaborate on the sequel, The Music Person, minus the phallic trombones, of course.
I have spoken about this to that stand-up phenomenon, Bobby Bronco. He tells me that after his debut at the Gotham Comedy Club in Chelsea, which had everybody patting him on the back, he experimented with his sets only to discover that he, too, was not funny. At least he thought he wasn’t.
“My problem was balance,” he said. “Too much set-up, you bore the audience. Too little, you confuse them. It’s all about getting the right balance between what I call the ‘dabble and dwell.'”
Finally, “BB,” as I call him, fought back, reminding critics that Seinfeld started doing stand-up in 1975 and that it takes about a decade to find your groove, which makes it more like a fissure. And that’s after doing more than a thousand sets a year. Run the numbers. You could easily spend more time on stage than on the toilet, which would turn anyone into a Jackie Burke-type assassin, the character Robert DeNiro played in The Comedian.
Still, all of that may work for BB, but not for me. It would make my head spin. I am old enough to remember when Made in Japan was a joke and grapes had seeds. I don’t want to spend another ten years giving people what they want after spending twenty years giving students what they need. It would be exhausting.
BB and I are similar in another way, since neither one of us tells jokes. I talk about business scandals like Wells Fargo Bank and Volkswagon and lob witticisms like Wehrmacht hand grenades into the middle of the room. He tells shaggy dog stories, relying on facial expressions and timing to get a laugh. Now that I think of it, he would have made a great silent film comedian.
Picture it: a comedian who doesn’t need to talk, because he doesn’t tell jokes.
Now, is that funny, or what?