Sylvester (Volume 5)

There was a single staircase that came up from a tiny entranceway next to the hardware store, and to many, it seemed spooky.  It was lit by a single light bulb that had been flittering for at least twenty years.  This led to Lincoln Square Lanes.  “The Alley,” as I’d called it my entire life, had become my normal bar of preference for what were primarily sentimental reasons.

The Alley was important to me.  I’d spent my adolescence there.  This wasn’t a bowling alley where little kids had birthday parties, this was a bowling alley where unemployed people drank beer and played pinball.  It was like the “Townie” bars I’d known in college, where people went to shut up and drink.  Most afternoons after school from sixth to eighth grade, I went to The Alley and bowled.

I wasn’t drinking yet when I used to hang out at The Alley, I just went there to pass the time.  I guess I liked bowling, or anyway the soundtrack of pins tumbling down was distracting.

In grade school, though I had a few close friends, we never really did much.  I was pretty lonely most of the time.  That evening at Sonia’s open mic, things would be different.  The Alley was no longer going to be a monument of isolation.  That day, there was a chance it was going to get me laid.

As I climbed the staircase to The Alley, I wondered, excitedly, what Sonia’s open mic would be.  I’d been to open mic’s in college, maybe even participated in a few (I couldn’t be sure either way), but those were mostly comprised by stoned singer-songwriters.  This was a mic Sonia had earlier that day assured me was “Just for comedy.”

Comedy open mic’s are events that occur mainly in bars, and give aspiring stand up comedians the chance to test out and advance their material.  I wondered about what it would be like.  What kind of jokes would these open mic comics tell?  I thought about about the standup comedy that I’d loved in the past.

I’d once loved Emo Phillips, and I thought about my favorite bit of his: “I saw an old school friend yesterday, Jimmy Peterson, I hadn’t seen him since third grade, and I slapped him on the back, saying ‘why Jimmy, how the hell are you?’  Jimmy started crying and screaming, “Mommy!  Mommy!” and I realized that if that were really Jimmy Peterson, he would’ve grown up too.”  Halfway up the stairs I burst into laughter considering this bit.

I loved the absurdity of the routine, and the way it told the story of an adult striking a child with wit and lightness.  That day, since the time I’d been with Sonia, I’d been trying to think of something similar; a fractured way of seeing the world.  I thought about my own childhood, and the ways I’d thought.  This was the joke I came up with:  “I like that Beethoven guy, well, the beginning of the fifth symphony, anyway.”

The moment I thought of this joke, I knew I didn’t feel strongly about it.  Anyway as I stepped up to the bar I told myself that I wasn’t going to perform that night, even if asked, as I had work in the morning.

On the other side of the wall adjacent to a row of bowling alleys there was a small, roughly one foot high platform, and on it stood a mic stand.  Behind this “stage,” Sonia was at work setting up an amplifier.  She switched it on, stood on the platform and began to perform a mic check.  “Hello everyone, is this microphone on?  Is everything cool?”

Sonia gave the bartender a curious look as he placed a bottle of cheap beer before me.  The bartender nodded and gave a thumbs up, saying “Yeah it’s good, no louder.”

“Cool,” she said, extending the microphone past its stand before pulling it back into its regular position.  She noticed me, and lowered her head to hold it just in front of the mic.  “And we have a new guest, Sil, who I’ve only recently met and has already turned me down for sex, give him a hand everybody.”  She raised her hand towards me, holding her thumb up and fingers out, like a model on The Price is Right.

For a moment I was stunned, preparing to feel humiliated.  I hadn’t turned her down, I thought, we’d just had a missed connection.  I was going to jump up onto the stage, pull Sonia close, and explain what had happened between us.  I would explain that had been my fault, and that I was still totally into her, but several sharp cackles cut the air between us.

There were four people at the bar, all of them seemed like teenage boys.  Despite the fact that they were all wearing baseball hats and jeans, I figured they were in their mid-twenties.  These boys all sort of reminded me of myself at their age, or they made me imagine the way I might have been, if I’d had a “Crew” of “Bro’s” like they did.  I pondered it, but couldn’t picture it.

As I pulled a stool out from the bar to take a seat, the white boy nearest me seemed to yell with a booming voice, “What were you thinking, man?”  He had a goofy face, and he seemed to be opening his eyes as wide as he could.  He had loose curly bright red hair that popped out the back of the bandana he was wearing like water from a fire hydrant.

I must have looked confused, as my mouth was slightly open and my eyebrows were knit tight.  “Um. . .” I spoke, trying to think of something funny to quip, and hopefully reduce the tension of this interaction.  I pulled a stool up close to the bar, sat on it calmly, and told the truth.  “I don’t know.  I was scared, I guess?”

The young man laughed and clapped in a way that seemed to be more at me than with me.  I ignored what I might have considered a slight as I felt Sonia’s arm lay across my upper back.  She wrapped her palm around my shoulder and brought it tight against my bicep, squeezing me harder than I’d have expected.  “Sorry about that.  I just saw you, and I’d had a few and I was holding a microphone.  So, ya know?”  She shrugged adorably.

“No, no, it’s fine,” I said truthfully, as it really was fine.  Sonia hadn’t embarrassed me by blurting out into a microphone that I’d refused her offer of sex.  Just the opposite, it made me seem quite the gentleman.  “I just wanted to come up and see, uh, what’s goin’ on.”

Sonia went about showing me the list of comedians and explaining its workings with a simple summary.  “I put the list up at eight, and it’s pretty much first come first serve, but if you wanted to go up early I can slide you in.”

“The list?  Slide me in?”

Sonia chuckled putting her hand on her hip.  “Slide you in just means put your name on the list to perform tonight.”

I would’ve probably objected, saying that I couldn’t possibly go up tonight, but I was caught by Sonia’s eyes.  I figured it was probably some obvious touch of makeup, like a dusting of blush or rouge wherever, but her eyes were stunning and they caught me; I was helpless.  From the wit in her eyes I could tell that she expected me to fumble, but I held strong and acted cool.  “Yeah okay, I’m in.”

Smiling and clapping, Sonia picked up a pen and the clipboard that held the list of that night’s performers.  The numbers one and two were blank, but the numbers three through fourteen were filled with names.  I turned to Sonia, as I was not quite sure what to do, but she told me that I didn’t need to put my name on the list, because she’d get me up whenever I was ready.

“Bullshit!”  The kid with the fire hydrant hair waved his arms and stomped his feet.  “He turned you down though, Sonia, fuck him.”

“You’ve already met Cali,” Sonia said with flippant disregard, “I guess you can tell he’s a shithead.”

“Shut up, bitch,” Cali responded quickly, and they each moved on.  It seemed like they’d been joking, or at least had some sort of prior understanding.  I laughed neither nervously nor excitedly.

Sonia introduced me to the three remaining young white boys.  “And that’s Jerry, Nathan, and Bob,” she said, pointing to each in turn.  “They’re awful too, like we all are, but they’re nice at least.”

The lad in the middle, Nathan, raised his hand as he called out.  “I’m not awful, I’m awesome.”  He was the one who seemed oldest, as his face was a bit pudgy and his hair seemed to be receding.

All the comics laughed, and Sonia put her shoulder to Nathan’s and leaned against him.  “That’s right,” she said, extending her lower lip out past her chin, “Nathan’s our favorite.”

Nathan laughed, shyly nodding his head as he did so.  “That’s right I’m awesome.”  Nathan squeezed his eyes shut in a mock sob as he lowered his head.  Both Jerry and Bob patted him on the back, offering their own condolences.

Open mic comedians, in my experience, are a strange bunch.

 

“Hello and welcome to this, the second edition of: The Bowling Microphone!”  Sonia stood in the center of the small, makeshift stage that rose only two feet up from the ground.

“It’s a straight first-come first serve, you can put your name and only your name on the list.”  She raised a single finger and wiggled it side to side, telling me that she wasn’t really that serious.  “Your time is four minutes.  You get the first light at three, this is the light.”  She opened her cell phone and held it above her head, “This means wrap it up.  If I’m waving at you and flipping you off, get off the stage.”

She finished her opening spiel in a way that seemed very practiced, and as she wrapped up by announcing the night’s drink deals, she moved on to her comedy.  As it would happen, most of her hosting set was spent discussing me.  “Okay, gang, so here’s what happened,” she bugged her eyes out a little and chewed her bottom lip, “I met a boy.”

She almost giggled, putting her hands over her waist and bending her knees slightly.  I giggled a bit too.  Her impish grin melted away in an instant and she pointed at me, saying plainly, “It’s him, so. . .”  She shrugged, “I’m not, ya know, wild about it.”

I burst into laughter so hard I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt its like.  I was able to keep my composure, so this guffaw was short-lived, and Sonia continued her set.  From this opening quip, she segued into written material.

“I’ve done a lot of research, and I believe I can say, with confidence, that without a doubt, the itchiest spot of the body,” she let the joke draw out smoothly, like a master calligrapher.  “Is the taint.”  She then took her free hand and inserted it between her legs, scratching the spot where they were stitched together with her nail.  As she at least pantomimed digging her nail into her crotch (though I think she probably actually scratched), she let out a soft groan.

Huoawhoah,” she sounded satisfied, releasing rather than creating her own unique call.  “This is one of the most important things in life, the little pleasures.”  She stood and looked out over her audience, moving swiftly on to the next joke.  “When I was a kid I thought the world was speaking to me.”

I was confused by the way Sonia’s material seemed to meander around.  “Like you know the sound of a stomach growling?  I used to think it was a little voice saying “stomach.”

Sonia was able to manipulate and shrink her voice such that while it did sound a lot like the sound your gut makes when it’s empty.  “You know, ‘cause I thought it probably knew what I called it.”

After just these few opening bits, Sonia retrieved the list and read the first name off of it.

“Uh oh, this first comic, this guy’s trouble, Lyle the Cutter.”

A tall, pudgy, clumsy-footed man with what I used to call a buzz-cut ambled onto the platform and faced his audience.  “My name is Lyle and the doctors told my parents to make sure there’s nothing I can strangle myself with at our house, I guess it was because I cut myself a lot.”  Lyle spoke in a monotone, varying the distances between his words very little.

This manner of speaking was unsettling to me.  It sounded as though he might have some kind of mental disability.  This consideration left my mind as soon as he told his first joke: “No seriously, I love to draw but they took my pencil away ‘cause I stabbed myself with it.”

I cracked up.  It was hilarious, and I didn’t consider even for a second how tragically honest Lyle the Cutter may have been.  The open mic comics who’d seen Lyle many times before laughed, with several of them also cheering and hooting.  Other than that, the three or four regular bargoers chuckled nervously and glanced at each other.

From there, Lyle’s act devolved into near-robotic recitation of facts and lists.  His joke about stabbing himself with the pencil really made me laugh a lot.  As I thought about it, most of the humor of this statement seemed to come from the lack of a comma between “away” and “‘cause.”  If you pronounce the joke like that, I felt, it would be like you were reading the joke like a news bulletin, and that there was nothing odd about it.

After Sonia and Lyle kicked the show off with a very weird pair of sets, the mic was off and running.  To tell the truth, I’d admit that the majority of these comics were forgettable, but there were a few standouts.

One guy, Bob Avaro, whom I’d sort of been hanging out with at the bar with just prior to the start of the mic, seemed to do his best to bring down the energy of the room.  He held the mic in front of his chest, lowering his head to meet it.  “I usually wake up pissed cause I don’t wanna go to my work, but then I remember I lost my job yesterday, and that calls for a celebration drink.”

After Bob, both Jerry and Nathan, his two compatriots from the bar went up in direct succession.  Their acts were sort of hackneyed, blatantly obvious, and distinctly forgettable.  The same could not be said for the comic who went up soon after them, Malcolm, “cali” Kavanagh.

Cali, who I’d met earlier and had made an annoying impression on me.  His long, curly red hair, as well as his obnoxious demeanor, made me want to push the palm of my hand into his face.

His “jokes,” if they could be called that, meandered from reflecting on the fact that he was performing at a bowling alley to noticing the people in the audience that looked weird.  At one point he even said “Get a load a’ this guy, what’s with his head, right?”

As Cali performed in this way, each “joke” only earned only silence and derision from the audience, until he turned to me.  As he looked over his audience, groping for something funny to say, his eyes locked on me and he smiled wide.  He pointed at me, “And did ya hear?  This guy turned down Sonia, what the hell man, she’s a milf!”

I raised my hands, pointing my palms to the ceiling, trying to think of something to say.  Cali’s mention of Sonia and I had garnered the only laughter his comedy had received so far, so  I knew he wasn’t likely to just move on without getting my response.  I wasn’t fast enough at it, though, as before I could respond to him, Cali resumed aggressively questioning me.

“So what’s the deal man?  You gonna hit that or what?”

I just stared up at him and watched him point the microphone at me.  Having no response, I looked at Sonia, and she was jumping up and down, waving an open cell phone in the air; I pointed to her, “I think your time’s up.”

“Just when I was finally getting laughs!?”  Cali gesticulated with his hands, pretending to hurl the microphone on the floor, and then placing it gingerly on the top of the stand.  “I apologize, as always, for everything I’ve said into this microphone.”

Cali dropped his head as he placed the mic back on its receiver and lowered his head.  Looking out over the audience, which by that point was comprised almost entirely of aspiring comedians, and then sat on the stool to my right.  As he was doing this, Laura resumed her hosting duties.  “That was our main man Cali, give him a hand.”

At 11:43 PM, I was feeling tipsy, so I decided it was time for him to go home.  I considered heading out, and I remembered that I’d told her I would perform I would perform that night.

Will she hold me to it?  This thought wrapped itself around my head and would not let go.  What would she do when I told her he didn’t want to try standup?  Would she make fun of him?  These open-mic comic people seemed to be pretty quick and nasty with the insults, what would they say?  What if they pressured me to perform after all?  It could become a very embarrassing situation, and I hated those.

As the second-to-last comic was just about to come to the mic, I feebly sidled up to Sonia.  “I don’t think I’m gonna go up, actually.”

I’d spoken shyly, as though ashamed of my cowardice, and I expected her to denigrate me.  Or worse yet, she could’ve acted disappointed, hanging her head and shaking it slowly.  However, in response to my cowardice, she smiled and spoke with a warm voice.  “Oh no problem, maybe you’ll do it some other night.”

Hearing Sonia say “some other night,” excited me, as it indicated she was already planning to spend more time with me.  “Yeah maybe I will,” Sonia responded, switching off one of the microphones on her PA system.  She walked over to me, laying her wrist on my shoulder.  “You stickin’ around?  We’re almost done.”

“I got work tomorrow, sorry.”

She fired back like she’d been ready.  “At least stay to the end, you’re almost there.”

I agreed.

Sonia stepped to the mic, holding her eyes on me.  “And now, here we are, the last comic of the mic, let’s hear it people.”  The seven or eight people that were still listening clapped and hooted half enthusiastically.

It was an eighteen year old with lame jokes whose name I don’t remember, but during his entire set, Sonia and I were ensconced in the “looking” game.  This is the game that occurs between people when there is both a mutual attraction, and a public shyness shard between two people.  I would stare at her until she looked back at me, then I would avert my eyes.

We did this until Sonia noticed that she should’ve called the comic off the stage a minute ago, and she jumped on the stage, closing the show up as quickly as possible.  As she did this, she added a bit in the end that caught my ear.  “And so, thank you for coming to this, the second installment of The Bowling Microphone, now let’s all get laid!”  The significance of this quote from Back to School was not lost on me, and I smiled wide because of it.

After she slid the microphone into its place on the stand, she stepped off the platform towards me, cutting the distance between us to almost nothing.  She stood before me, our noses almost touching, for what felt like a long time.  Though it was not at all like me, and afterwards I was never able to adequately explain to myself where I gotten the courage to try such a thing, I kissed Sonia.

It was not for more than a moment and it was very sweet.  We flowed into each other, as it seemed our energies fed off of the inspiration of the other.  At least that’s what I felt, and Sonia seemed to feel the same.  We made out a little before traipsing down the staircase to the street.  When we left The Alley into the deep dark starless night, Sonia took a left when I’d have taken a right, and I followed her.

I thought about the reasons not to go with Sonia, from the fact that I’d promised my mother I’d return to the fact that Mondays are often a hectic day at Harvest Time, but none of them received precedence.  I was with a groovy chick at 12:39 on a Monday morning, and we were going to have sex.  I forgot everything else I could possibly have been thinking at the time.  I was about to have sex

Sylvester (Volume 5)

Zen Comedy 7: Timing

The Zen Comedian, upon hearing reference to the cliché; “timing is everything,” responded with the use of another cliché from the immortal Vince Lombardi: “timing isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  With this lesson, the Zen Comedian meant that timing is not only the most important aspect of each and every joke, but is in fact the true substance of all comedy.  I learned this lesson very powerfully when I was around ten years old, from comedy’s greatest master of timing, Jack Benny.

When I was a child, I collected cassettes of classic radio comedy, and though I had many favorites (The Bickerson’s, Fred Allen, Abbot & Costello) Jack Benny, who will be referred to as Zen Master Jack from here on, was my favorite.  Zen Master Jack’s most dominant character trait was his stinginess, and likely eighty percent of the jokes on his radio show revolved around this aspect of his character.  He even had an underground safe in which he kept his massive fortune, like Scrooge McDuck.  On one of his trips to this safe, he was accosted by an assailant who held a gun to his face and demanded: “Your money or your life!”

At this Zen Master Jack said nothing for a very long time.  I remember listening to the audience bristle, ready to erupt as the pause went on and on.  I could envision the burglar’s frustrated expression as I listened to the sounds of laughter from the live audience grow louder and louder.  Eventually the burglar had enough waiting and yelled “Well!  Your money or your life!” to which Zen Master Jack responded almost immediately “I’m thinking it over!”  The crowd roared with laughter, not at the joke itself, because it was even then a simple and predictable gag, but simply because of the way it was timed.

Though the live audience at the recording of this classic bit had the advantage of watching Zen Master Jack’s vaguely effeminate annoyed expression, most of the crowd and all listeners at home laughed simply at their own imaginations.  Many listeners at the time I’m sure didn’t even know what the face attached to this voice on the radio even looked like, but they laughed at the anticipation of a response.  The Zen Comedian tells us that if the audience is offered an effective set-up, even if it is extremely simple, they can fuel their laughter with their own anticipation.  Searching my own comedy for the places I most make use of this lesson, I recall the punchline to my “Burger King Confessional” joke.

The concept of this joke is that to expedite the penance process, Burger King has merged with St. Ignatius (a Chicago Catholic church) and created the worlds first Drive-Thru/Confessional.  The punchline to this joke comes after the fast food patron confesses to molesting his nephew.  The Priest/drive-thru operator begins by repeating the order, “Large Fry, Medium Dr. Pepper, Whopper Jr. and,” and then pauses for a good length of time.  After I’ve allowed the audience to anticipate what they well know will be a joke, perhaps even to the point of laughing in expectation, I drop it on them.  “Hey who hasn’t?”  I’ve learnt (or believe I have) from Zen Master Jack that the greatest laughter comes from anticipation, even if it is anticipation of the laughter to come.

Zen Comedy 7: Timing

Zen Comedy 5: Always Have a Pen

The Zen Comedian’s wisdom is not relegated to the ethereal and philosophic, for he has practical counsel as well.  The Zen Comedian’s practical advice, as I attempt to simultaneously understand and invent it, comes down to four words only: always write it down.  Whether or not you are the type of comedian who slaves over his bits and concepts before bringing them to the stage or you are the type comedian who prefers to work on his or her feet, the pen is your best friend.

For the first type of comedian, who molds and shapes his or her bits as would a blacksmith at a forge, this is obvious.  This type of comedian, it would seem to me, would have extensive notes.  For an example of this, I point to Joan Rivers, one of the most prolific and consistently hilarious joke writers in history.  As was featured in the entertaining documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Joan has in her office a cabinet stuffed to bursting with notecards on which every joke she has ever told is written out.  For this type of comedian the pen is their constant companion and help-mate, but even for those who work more on their feet the pen is indispensable.

For the comedian who relies on sudden inspiration to create his routines and begins a set unsure of where it will go exactly, the pen is an absolute necessity.  This is because for this comedian, any time of the day or night, inspiration may strike, and he or she should be ready.  If in the supermarket this comic hears a precocious youngster tell a lady she looks like a water balloon, and finds it hilarious, he or she should absolutely retrieve a scrap of paper from his pocket (keep all your receipts, you’ll need scratch paper) and scribble something like “fat lady = water balloon” on it.

The Zen Comedian teaches us that whatever type of notes you create, whether they are Joan Rivers-meticulous or sloppy and simple, always be creating notes.  It is important to not at this point to recognize that no type of note is definitively superior to any other type, but the taking of notes is absolutely vital.  The exercise of taking notes is not only a source of material, but it is also vital training.  The more you take notes, the more you will become accustomed to considering all situations comedically, and jokes will start  to occur to you more often.

The pen, for the comedian, is not necessarily purely physical, but is also a state of mind.  Just yesterday I did a show at a comic book store, and it occurred to me that the crowd would respond positively to mention of the fact that they were surrounded by valuables that were not tied down in any way, and they could in my words “just walk away with some of this shit.”  When I inserted this idea as a makeshift opener, the crowd reacted very positively, and I was off to a strong start.  So, in the end, the Zen Comedians counsel is very simple, whether it is the physical object or a state of mind, always have a pen.

110965_sundance-preview-movie-clips-joan-rivers-a-piece-of-work.jpg

Zen Comedy 5: Always Have a Pen

Zen Comedy 14: Endless Possibilities

The Zen Comedian offers no specific advice to aid in joke writing, because he says that every comedian’s jokes must find their genesis in his or her own soul, without outside input.  However, he does offer sage counsel to any victims of writers block: “The comic mind is an infinite palette, combine colors to create infinite potential.”  A palette, for those who don’t know, is that thing with a thumbhole and all the different colors of paint on it that artists used to mix colors, and I think that this is an excellent metaphor for the writing and the performance of jokes.  Two Zen Comedy masters that make excellent use of all colors on their personal palettes are both very different and almost seemingly interchangeable, Emo Phillips and Steven Wright.

Both of these comics use unexpected and weird punchline-oriented comedy, which could become tiresome in fairly short order, but their performance styles are each unaccountably compelling when combined with the substance of the jokes they tell.  Steven Wright delivers his jokes in a flat monotone, moving very little and leaving a worn expression on his face as if he is very tired.  This aspect works extremely well in combination with short bits like “I bought some powdered water but I don’t know what to add,” because his palpable lack of enthusiasm blends well with a skewered take on reality and the English language.  Emo Phillips is almost the opposite, with his ludicrously high-pitched voice and habit of constantly moving his body, he seems like a ball of nervous energy.  In one of my personal favorite bits, he describes slapping someone whom he mistook for an old classmate on the back before he realized that “if that’s really Jimmy Peterson, he would have grown up too.”  These are each brilliantly weird bits, and when combined with unconventional performance style’s as they are, they make the routines they are part of engrossing and hysterical.

I am not proposing that these offbeat performance styles are necessarily beneficial, only that they demonstrate the value of the Zen Comedian’s wisdom.  Zen master’s Phillips and Wright simply perform in the ways most beneficial to the jokes they’ve written.  Wright’s jokes are deadpan absurdist observations, and Phillips’ jokes are the inner monologue of a madman, so each of their styles complement these qualities perfectly.  So translating the Zen Comedian’s wisdom into practical advice, I’ll say that when working on a new bit, a comedian should experiment with different ways to tell their jokes, as well as constantly altering the substance of all material.

In my own stand-up, I’ve for years been using a bit wherein I share what I feel is great wisdom I’ve learnt from my car accident and subsequent time in the hospital, boiling it down to three simple truths.  These truths are: 1. love will not save you, 2. happiness is temporary, and 3. you will die before you are ready.  I realize that this does not read as comedic, but this type of blunt cynicism can be very funny, as long as I perform it correctly.  I believe I’ve learnt that the most effective way of delivering this joke is to be flippant, as though I think that these facts should be plainly obvious to everyone, but I don’t fully understand why this is the best way to tell the joke.  I will therefore continue to experiment with this joke, uncovering more of what the Zen Comedian calls “infinite possibilities,” and just maybe, someday I’ll find one I can be satisfied with.

600full-steven-wright--wicker-chairs-and-gravity-screenshot.jpg

emo2

Zen Comedy 14: Endless Possibilities

Zen Comedy 7: The Only Thing (repost)

I am here reposting an earlier Zen Comedy article of mine.  If you seek to read this blog in its original form, I’ve included the link here.  From this link, you can read any of my previously logged Zen Comedy posts.

https://thezencomedian.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/zen-comedy-7-the-only-thing/

 

The Zen Comedian, upon hearing reference to the cliché; “timing is everything,” responded with the use of another cliché from the immortal Vince Lombardi: “timing isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  With this lesson, the Zen Comedian meant that timing is not only the most important aspect of each and every joke, but is in fact the true substance of all comedy.  I learned this lesson very powerfully when I was around ten years old, from comedy’s greatest master of timing, Jack Benny.

When I was a child, I collected cassettes of classic radio comedy, and though I had many favorites (The Bickerson’s, Fred Allen, Abbot & Costello) Jack Benny, who will be referred to as Zen Master Jack from here on, was my favorite.  Zen Master Jack’s most dominant character trait was his stinginess, and likely eighty percent of the jokes on his radio show revolved around this aspect of his personality.  He even had an underground safe in which he kept his massive fortune.  On one of his trips to this safe, he was accosted by an assailant who held a gun to his face and demanded: “Your money or your life!”

At this Zen Master Jack said nothing for a very long time.  I remember listening to the audience bristle, ready to erupt as the pause went on and on.  I could envision the burglar’s frustrated expression as I listened to the sounds of laughter from the live audience grow louder and louder.  Eventually the burglar had enough waiting and yelled “Well!  Your money or your life!” to which Zen Master Jack responded almost immediately “I’m thinking it over!”  The crowd roared with laughter, not at the joke itself, because it was even then a simple and predictable gag, but simply because of the way it was timed.

Though the live audience at the recording of this classic bit had the advantage of watching Zen Master Jack’s vaguely effeminate annoyed expression, most of the crowd and all listeners at home laughed simply at their own imaginations.  Many listeners at the time I’m sure didn’t even know what the face attached to this voice on the radio even looked like, but they laughed at the anticipation of a response.  The Zen Comedian tells us that if the audience is offered an effective set-up, even if it is extremely simple, they can fuel their laughter with their own anticipation.  Searching my own comedy for the places I most make use of this lesson, I recall the punchline to my “Burger King Confessional” joke.

The concept of this joke is that to expedite the penance process, Burger King has merged with St. Ignatius (a Chicago Catholic church) and created the worlds first Drive-Thru/Confessional.  The punchline to this joke comes after the fast food patron confesses to molesting his nephew.  The Priest/drive-thru operator begins by repeating the order, “Large Fry, Medium Dr. Pepper, Whopper Jr. and,” and then pauses for a good length of time.  After I’ve allowed the audience to anticipate what they well know will be a joke, I drop it on them.  “Hey who hasn’t?”  I’ve learnt (or believe I have) from Zen Master Jack that the greatest laughter comes from anticipation, even if it is anticipation of the laughter to come.

jack_benny1.jpg

 

Zen Comedy 7: The Only Thing (repost)

Zen Comedy 25: Jokes with Heart

The Zen comedian says: “The joke teller must always be smiling in his heart.”  Personally, I find this to be extremely practical and valuable advice.  Taken most simply, this counsel could mean that every joke one writes must first make him or herself laugh, but that is only one possible meaning.  The Zen Comedian’s advice is not so simple, and is open to a myriad of interpretations.

First of all, I find it important that The Zen Comedian’s advice, in this case, is directed to the “Joke teller,” and not the comedian.  Not every comedian tells jokes per se, as there are many comedians that tell stories, rather than crafting jokes.  For the comedian that tells a story, especially a story that would normally be considered sad, an inner smile is not necessary, and may not even be helpful.  When the Zen Comedian speaks of the “Joke teller,” I believe he is referencing a certain type of comedian, most clearly typified by the likes Mitch Hedburg, Emo Phillips, and the man who showed us what standup comedy could be in the hands of a performance artist, Steve Martin.

Steve Martin had a joke that he did at least near the beginning of countless performances.  In this bit, Mr. Martin would simply step to the microphone and say “here’s something you don’t often see,” after which he’d pull his lips apart with his fingers and yell while jumping up and down at least three times.  It is such a simple joke that it may elicit more eye rolling than laughter, but when he was fully energized, his spirit was infectious.

The standup comedy of Steve Martin gets right to the center of what the above lesson teaches us.  What is most evident in Steve Martin’s standup, and what made his unconventional style loved by the largest crowds that any standup act had ever seen at the time, was the joy he took in each piece of it.  The joy you feel telling jokes that make you laugh will spread to your audience, and they will join you.

Addendum: The Zen comedian does not encourage laughing out loud on stage at your own material.  He gave me no specific lesson on this, as he felt it obvious.

never-athens-7.jpg

Zen Comedy 25: Jokes with Heart