My old writing partner, Mike Davis, said you can’t talk about comedy and still be funny. He’s probably correct, though I’m going to do it anyway. This would not surprise him.
I was addicted to the written word from my earliest memory, but my journey as a comedy writer began in middle school. In eighth grade, stuck performing in a short play that was a Cinderella rip-off about the four food groups, I asked my Home Economics teacher if I could “punch up the dialogue a little.” I don’t know where I came up with the audacity to ask this woman if I could re-write her script. I also don’t know why she let me. When we finally performed this re-worked gem titled “Vegetabella” for parents on an in-service night, the crowd roared at what we had added to the show. We were ASKED…not told, but ASKED…if we would perform it the next day for the entire student body. We quickly agreed.
It was in high school that I met Mike, my co-author for four comic plays, though those days were more than ten years into the future in 1979. Our friendship began in the backstage area, waiting for our cue to enter the tense drama we were performing in. While our audience sat in suspense, Mike and I tried to make the other laugh at jokes most folks would find inappropriate. The rest of the people would find our jokes merely puerile and immature. Hey, you gotta start somewhere.
I remember attending a party with Mike where he pulled a magazine insert out of his pocket and announced to the whole room that he was going to fill out a profile for a ‘computer dating service’. As he answered the list of questions with deliberately screwball responses, the crowd around him grew, as did the volume of the laughs. His ad-libbed lines were well rehearsed. I was green with envy and marveled as he worked the room.
People ask me how Mike and I got good enough to be published as playwrights. My response is always, “By writing badly for a number of years.” And we did. There were flights of fancy that went off in all directions. We weren’t good right away, but we had finished a screenplay by the time we were seventeen. Our formula was simple, you had to make the other guy laugh because that in itself wasn’t easy. It was never easy. That’s how we knew we were learning. It was close to impossible to make Mike laugh, but I never quit trying. When you got a good belly laugh out of him, it was like heroin. I would say or do virtually anything to make him laugh.
Flash forward a few years, to 1986. We are out of college and keeping the old gang together by hosting weekly poker games in my parents’ basement. I’m a big baseball fan from way back if you weren’t aware. I read in the sports page that catcher Steve Yeager had been added to the Seattle Mariners roster. I remember thinking that he should have been retired. He was an injury magnet, once breaking his leg in a home plate collision in the first inning of a minor league match-up and staying in the game. He had pieces of protective equipment named after him. The ‘Stevie’ protected a catcher’s throat, a devise created after he had his esophagus pierced by a shard from a broken bat. In addition to all of the other scratches, strains and fractures, let’s just say he was no stranger to the disabled list. His cousin Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Steve broke everything else.
I decided to start a gambling pool with my betting brethren. Because it seemed like a foregone conclusion, we put down hard cash on a chart, each of us picking the date when we thought Steve Yeager would go on the disabled list. We skimmed money out of the initial poker antes and bought prizes for the winning guess. We didn’t have to wait long, it was mid-May if memory serves. He was limited to 50 game appearances for the year, his final days in the major leagues.
Late in the season, I traveled with my friends to Michigan & Trumbull for a Tiger game against the Mariners. I had the chart in tow and weaved my way down to the visitor’s dugout from the shitty seats we had in the outfield. I caught Steve returning from the bullpen where he had been warming up the day’s starting pitcher. I got his attention pretty easily, as he had been below the radar for a few years. When he came over to the railing, I showed him the chart and explained the wager. Then I asked him to sign a couple of baseball cards for the winner. He absorbed what he had just seen and heard and then…though I’d given him no reason to…he chuckled and signed a couple of baseball cards. The man was the MVP of the 1981 World Series and I felt entitled to make fun of him. I’m lucky he didn’t feel entitled to adjusting my dental work.
Wait, I know you’re a little horrified by what I just told you. But I’m not done.
Let’s go to Community Theatre, 1994. I’m performing as Charles Condomine in “Blithe Spirit”, a Noel Coward comedy that is going to be a bit too long and somewhat dated when performed by tremendous actors. In part, we lacked those actors. In particular, I played against a young woman who lacked experience, preparation and timing. On closing night, she was still lacking in preparation and timing. In an incredibly repetitious play, she routinely threw out lines that were spoken in a previous scene or act, requiring someone to pick up on what she was talking about and bring us back to the current scene. It happened every night. We made it through without confronting her angrily as we did not want to make it a bad experience for this young lady. She was, despite her utter lack of talent, a very nice person. She was almost entirely unsuited to acting and, certain we would never work with her again, we let her think she was terrific.
Maybe three months after the show closed, I got a call from one of the board members at the community theatre. The report I received was about the young woman I spoke of in “Blithe Spirit”, who had gone to her doctor for overdue tests. When the results came back, the diagnosis was cancer. It was advanced and there was nothing the doctor could do. They gave her a month or six weeks to live and she almost made it that far. She died, leaving her mother stunned. The daughter, who had been the female lead in a play in the spring, had died before the leaves fell in the autumn.
The board member knew that my parents videotaped the show. Was there a possibility that we could furnish this grieving mother with a copy? I assured the board member that it was not a problem. I was willing to give her my copy. I had no attachment to the show. I would leave a copy in the theatre office the next time I went by. This was not a problem for two weeks…fourteen days when I forgot all about what I had meant to do. The board member called back and asked if I remembered my commitment. Yes, I replied testily. I remember. I’ll drop it off. Two more weeks passed. What she didn’t know was that in the days between the first phone call and the second, I had quit smoking. I was a smoker whose mouth had made the commitment to quit before the brain was allowed into the discussion. The result was weeks of nastiness. I was sick with my addiction to cigarettes and sick of myself for the weakness. I was still in this state when I got a third phone call from the board member.
She knew nothing of my situation, of course. But having called me two times previously, she felt the need to add additional pressure. She lectured me about this mother’s loss. Remember when I talked about saying or doing ANYTHING for a laugh? Yeah. That becomes second nature. I looked for the punchline in everything. When under pressure, I simply tried harder for the joke. When my lack of nicotine came up against this sweet woman’s begging for a videotape, I screamed at the board member…
“LOOK...SHE’S STILL DEAD, ISN’T SHE?!”
Of course, she was still dead. Like that joke. Dead on arrival. I found the videotape of “Blithe Spirit” and left the house. I bought a pack of cigarettes on the way and left the cassette in the theatre office. I held that board member in great esteem and considered her a friend. But I lost her as a friend that day and deservedly so. I could blame it on cigarettes, but that wouldn’t be true. My real addiction was to the joke.
Hey, I’m not expecting forgiveness. I’m not even asking for it. I’m just telling you that your favorite comedian, no matter who it is, has said things in their own circle of friends (likely other comedians) that would make your mother blush. They might make your father blush. Hell, I’m blushing right now and I wasn’t even there.
People that work in comedy are going to push it every chance they get. They will push the envelope, push the boundaries of good taste, they will practically push an old lady down the stairs to get a laugh. We live in a time where we have seen it all and heard it all and you often have to shock an audience to get a response. If that’s what we have to do, we will do it. Either it will work or it won’t. Even if it doesn’t work, in private we will laugh about it later.
The problem is that so much humor comes from hostility. We rarely take the time to ask if a joke came from a good place or not. The point is moot, as there is no instrument with which to measure it. But rest assured, if you possess buttons, comedians will continue to push them. They don’t know any other way. Perhaps their controversial words will start a national conversation, but more likely outrage will rule the day. Dennis Miller, before he became a Republican talking head, said that we will not be truly free until we can make fun of anybody for any reason. He might be right.
Perhaps I could push Dennis Miller down a flight of stairs and test his theory. Just to be safe, I’ll push an old lady too. With comedy, you can never be too careful.