Being Funny | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
(Joe McNally)

Being Funny

How the pathbreaking comedian got his act together

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In the late 1960s, comedy was in transition. The older school told jokes and stories, punctuated with the drummer's rimshot. Of the new school, Bill Cosby—one of the first to tell stories you actually believed were true—and Bob Newhart—who startled everyone with innovative, low-key delivery and original material—had achieved icon status. Mort Sahl tweaked both sides of the political fence with his college-prof delivery. George Carlin and Richard Pryor, though very funny, were still a few years away from their final artistic breakthroughs. Lenny Bruce had died several years earlier, fighting both the system and drugs, and his work was already in revival because of his caustic brilliance that made authority nervous. Vietnam, the first televised war, split the country, and one's left or right bent could be recognized by haircuts and clothes. The country was angry, and so was comedy, which was addressed to insiders. Cheech and Chong spoke to the expanding underground by rolling the world's largest doobie on film. There were exceptions: Don Rickles seemed to glide over the generation gap with killer appearances on "The Tonight Show," and Johnny Carson remained a gentle satirist while maintaining a nice glossary of naughty-boy breast jokes. Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, two great comic sketch actors working for the affable genius Carol Burnett, were deeply funny. The television free-for-all called "Laugh-In" kept its sense of joy, thanks in part to Goldie Hawn's unabashed goofiness and producer George Schlatter's perceptive use of her screw-ups, but even that show had high political content. In general, however, a comedian in shackles for indecent language, or a singer's arrest for obscene gestures, thrilled the growing underground audience. Silliness was just not appropriate for hip culture. It was this circumstance that set the stage for my success eight years later.

In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it. I didn't quite get this concept, nor do I still, but it stayed with me and eventually sparked my second wave of insights. With conventional joke telling, there's a moment when the comedian delivers the punch line, and the audience knows it's the punch line, and their response ranges from polite to uproarious. What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song.

A skillful comedian could coax a laugh with tiny indicators such as a vocal tic (Bob Hope's "But I wanna tell ya") or even a slight body shift. Jack E. Leonard used to punctuate jokes by slapping his stomach with his hand. One night, watching him on "The Tonight Show," I noticed that several of his punch lines had been unintelligible, and the audience had actually laughed at nothing but the cue of his hand slap.

These notions stayed with me until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh.

To test my idea, I went onstage and began: "I'd like to open up with sort of a 'funny comedy bit.' This has really been a big one for me...it's the one that put me where I am today. I'm sure most of you will recognize the title when I mention it; it's the "Nose on Microphone" routine [pause for imagined applause]. And it's always funny, no matter how many times you see it."

I leaned in and placed my nose on the mike for a few long seconds. Then I stopped and took several bows, saying, "Thank you very much." "That's it?" they thought. Yes, that was it. The laugh came not then, but only after they realized I had already moved on to the next bit.

Now that I had assigned myself to an act without jokes, I gave myself a rule. Never let them know I was bombing: this is funny, you just haven't gotten it yet. If I wasn't offering punch lines, I'd never be standing there with egg on my face. It was essential that I never show doubt about what I was doing. I would move through my act without pausing for the laugh, as though everything were an aside. Eventually, I thought, the laughs would be playing catch-up to what I was doing. Everything would be either delivered in passing, or the opposite, an elaborate presentation that climaxed in pointlessness. Another rule was to make the audience believe that I thought I was fantastic, that my confidence could not be shattered. They had to believe that I didn't care if they laughed at all and that this act was going on with or without them.

I was having trouble ending my show. I thought, "Why not make a virtue of it?" I started closing with extended bowing, as though I heard heavy applause. I kept insisting that I needed to "beg off." No, nothing, not even this ovation I am imagining, can make me stay. My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh. In other words, like the helpless state of giddiness experienced by close friends tuned in to each other's sense of humor, you had to be there.

At least that was the theory. And for the next eight years, I rolled it up a hill like Sisyphus.

My first reviews came in. One said, "This so-called 'comedian' should be told that jokes are supposed to have punch lines." Another said I represented "the most serious booking error in the history of Los Angeles music."

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