Monday, June 06, 2011

When people tell me I'm not funny...

This happens to me all the time.

I’m at a party. I make the mistake of telling someone I casually meet that I’m a comedy writer. If they don’t launch into what they think is wrong with television (as if it’s all my fault), they’ll invariably say, “Really? A comedy writer. Say something funny”.  Just like I'm a trained seal. 

I want to say to them: “What do you do”? “I’m a doctor”. “Really?  Do a tracheotomy”.

(Alternate version: I tell the person I’m a baseball announcer. “Really? Let me hear you call something”. What I'll always say is, “Low, ball two”. What, I’m going to launch into a big home run call in the middle of a crowded room?)

These party people are always disappointed. I sure don’t seem that funny. I’ve even had one or two actually say that. I ask what them what do they expect. I’ll get answers like Robin Williams or Steve Martin.

I’ve met Steve briefly and used to do improv with Robin. And I can honestly say, these are two of the unfunniest human beings I’ve ever met – when they want to be – which is most of the time. Yes, they can turn it on and when they do there’s no one more brilliant, but those are usually reserved for TONIGHT SHOW appearances. After improv workshops when the whole class would go out for coffee, Robin usually just sat there, quiet as a church mouse.

And here’s the thing – when really funny people are not just constantly doing their schtick – they’re doing you a favor. A big favor.   Because even if someone is unbelievably hilarious and can make five great jokes a second, after about ten minutes you want to shoot him. There are some comedy writers and comedians who are always “on” and they are insufferable! The desperate need to be the center of attention and to be loved truly sucks all of the air out of the room.

Imagine being trapped in a Volkswagen driving across the country with Gallagher. You'd pray for The Rapture.

Mindy would have turned Mork over to the authorities in one week.  

If you’re really funny you don’t have to prove it. You don’t have to always “top” someone when they say something funny. You don’t have to fill up every silence.

So when I’m at a party and the person I’ve just met says I sure don’t seem very funny I usually say “thank you”. And then ask him for legal advice, computer tech support, or free plumbing supplies, whatever it is he does.

50 comments:

Gregory said...

Wow, great post. I too hold a grudge against that guy at the party who always has to prove how funny he is. People I admire more are those who hold it in until when the time is right, dropping a subtle bon mot or two where appropriate. If I want to see someone who's trying to tell a joke at every opportunity, I'll go to a comedy club or turn on a network three-cam. If I'm at a party, I don't want anyone trying to grab the attention of the entire room.

Mark Caldwell said...

I've known Doctors who claim to be other things because "I’m a doctor" leads to "I have this pain in my..." without even a "Really?"

Richard Y said...

I remember when Danny Kaye was holding a sit-down interview with several reporters, for a movie premiere or something I don't recall. But one asked him to say something funny and he went into this long and serious tirade about what it takes to be funny. (I do not know why I remember this bit.)

The Milner Coupe said...

Oh brother.

Mac said...

It's weird. No-one would ask a playwright at a party to say something that creates dramatic tension, or say something that shows character development.
I remember a comedy writer saying if he gets asked to say something funny he replies "Sure, just
give me a laptop and half an hour. Where do I send the invoice?"

Jim S said...

For many years my father worked for one of the Big Three car companies. Now in Detroit, that's no big deal, but it became a problem when we moved to New York for a few years.

He learned to ask what car a person drove before telling strangers what companey he worked for.

I work as a journalist. When people learn that, they lay into me for the sins of The New York Times, Fox News and the local shopper. It's sometimes easier to just say I'm unemployed.

MikeBo said...

With me, it was always, "say something in your radio voice." If I told them I was a newsman...see Jim S' comment. And my cop buddies? They always heard about someone's last speeding ticket.

Mary Stella said...

I'm a romance writer. Strangers at parties ask me how I research the sex scenes.

Anonymous said...

But the tracheotemy line is pretty funny, so wouldn't you just be doing what they asked if you said that?

I know, I'm missing the point.

Mike Barer said...

One TV writer I know gets innundated with advice for new TV shows and gives the same analogy. Good post.

Sardine Mama said...

I'm pretty sure that meeting me in person is a massively underwhelming experience.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Laurence Olivier had a great response for when someone asked him for a line of Shakespeare or a piece of a soliloquy; "Oh, no," he'd say with disarming politeness, "you have to pay money for that."

Tom said...

Great post, which got me thinking of one of the lines in the classic episode of All in the Family where Sammy Davis Jr. pays a visit. At about the 5:30 mark of this clip is the scene where Archie asks Sammy to perform, and Mike's great response. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-b5jSzWff0&feature=related

Michael said...

I'm a history professor. My specialties are the Civil War era and the American West. But if I'm somewhere and I say I'm a history professor, someone will ask something like, How many elephants did Hannibal have when he crossed the Alps? Look, there's some information I carry around in my head, but why should they think a history professor knows ALL history?

MikeFab said...

It seems like we humans are hardwired to make inane comments when confronted by something or someone that takes us out of our comfort zone. I was a uniformed cop for about 20 years. Man, it never failed....anywhere I was at with that uniform on, regardless of what the situation was, somebody would idiotically put up their hands and say, "I didn't do it". I guess they were hoping for a belly-laugh from me. Sheesh!

William C Bonner said...

If someone tells me they are a particular profession, I'm more likely to ask if they enjoy their work then to ask them to reproduce it. The other question I come up with is how they got into it.

In the case of anything artistic, which I don't consider myself to be, I might ask if they've got examples of their work that I might be familiar with, but hopefully the first two questions would have distracted us into more interesting topics.

I've met and enjoyed talking with some people who are rock stars in their particular field simply because I didn't know or harp on their status.

Anonymous said...

I can only imagine what Porn stars get asked to do.

Anonymous said...

At the Beatles' first press conference in the USA, a reporter asked them to sing something. John Lennon replied "No, we need money first."

Eduardo Jencarelli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eduardo Jencarelli said...

It's not surprising really. Cracking jokes nonstop can get tiresome.

I'm actually eager to watch this Conan O'Brien documentary called Conan O'Brien can't stop. It ought to shed some interesting light into the matter of people who need to be the center of attention, making others laugh.

By the way, the guy at the top picture looks an awful lot like David Silverman.

tamarapaulin said...

My husband, lucky boy, got to meet Matthew Perry in our retail store, and helped him pick out a party game.

Mr. Perry was making jokes and being generally hilarious the entire time, which surprised (and delighted) my husband.

We also sold a chess set to Robin Williams, who was very polite.

Dr. Rervorkian said...

If a man asks, you're a proctologist. And if a woman asks...well, neither of them will ask for proof.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Reeder said...

Rather than admitting the truth and having to "say something funny" or give insights into what some sitcom star is really like, I have occasionally invented another occupation for myself.

I once responded to a guy on an airplane that I was a life insurance salesman and asked if he'd like to discuss "what will happen to your family when you die?" That shut him up for the rest of the flight. OK, a little mean maybe, but effective.

Brian Phillips said...

I appreciate the post and concur that there are just some occupations that bring out these kind of folks.

Working in IT, you can be ANYwhere and someone will ask you to fix their computer; this includes my niece's birthday party, the post office and just after a funeral. Nowadays, I try not to wear shirts that imply that I know something about hardware.

Usually if I meet someone in entertainment, I just say, "I enjoy your work", if and only if they start a conversation. When I was a teller, Pat Corley was a customer of the bank. He wasn't rude, but he was perfunctory. After I finished his transaction, I said, sotto voce, I enjoy your work on "Murphy Brown". The next time he came in, he came to my window and even cracked a joke. Nice fellow.

I saw Patton Oswalt at an airport once, and we made eye contact. He gave me look which said, "Yes, it's me, glad you noticed, but I'd rather not talk". He got the privacy and I got the thrill of seeing Patton Oswalt in person. Win-win.

WV: cizidies - Spanish for "take ten"

Gary said...

I heard the interview w/Greg Halman on yesterday's pre-game show. I'm not familiar w/his background and wondered where he's from as he had a unique accent. Then he gave us a new word to use: answering a question about what makes Guti so good, he said, "he preparates." Hmm, there's an excellent word! I'm not making fun of it, I do like the word. (I've since learned that he's from The Netherlands so if I am asked about him, I too have preparated.) And as long as he continues to hit like he did yesterday, the whole team should be sharing his preparating routine. Go M's!

Please Don't Eat Me said...

"When you pay me, I'll be funny."

tb said...

Best was Elvis demanding some seat covers for his car from the jerk who made him sing in..."Lovin' You" was it?

YEKIMI said...

I was in NYC for a friends wedding and after the hoopla was over everyone from out of town decided to go sight-seeing. We're on the subway and while they were chattering away I noticed a guy wearing a ball cap sitting alone in a corner of the subway car looking down at the ground. Didn't think anything of it till he looked up and he looked familiar to me and it dawned on me that it was Ethan Hawke! The look of recognition must have showed on my face cause he just put a finger to his lips, the kind of move you make when you want someone not to say anything and he went back to ground staring. I just shrugged and went back to looking around while my friends kept on talking, not noticing him. About three stops later he got off, looked back at me, smiled and mouthed the words "Thanks!" I told my friends just after he got off and they were all pissed that I didn't say anything while he was on the car. I was like "What did you want me to do, yell 'Hey Ethan, do some acting for us!'?"

Steven E. Gordon said...

The comedians I've met tend to be the most depressed people I've ever come across and the level of their depression seems to increase with the level of their success. I've never met Martin or Williams so I can't say if this applies to them as well...

As an artist, when someone learns what I do, I usually get the my nephew is the best artist in the world could you look at some of their work and help them...

wisekit said...

If you want a buzz kill then you have to admit you are a neurosurgeon. My husband was told by a mechanic that an automatic gear box is exactly like the brain, if you can fix that you can fix the brain. That was the end of our party. Currently when we meet new people he is in security. Before that he was a medical rep.

Philipp said...

when i tell people that i am working as a camera-operator for television and corporate-video they always turn their eyes down an mutter something like "oh"
I dont get this, anything embarrassing or sinister about my work? or do they all just know that the pay is bad? :-)

Mike said...

Apparently, according to a previous commenter, Olivier and I were of the same mind -- because I came in here to suggest that if somebody asked you to "be funny", I'd ask them if they brought their checkbook.

Mr. Hollywood said...

Having done hundreds of interviews with every imaginable celebrity, one thing I've never said to a "comedian/comic" is ... do something funny. In fact, I have found people who do comedy to be amongst the most serious I have ever interviewed. Neil Simon, George Carlin, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Steve Martin ... very intelligent, very perceptive ... but not a yockfest!

RCP said...

One of great things about your blog is that you can frequently be hilarious but it doesn't feel like you're "on".

Andres M. du Bouchet said...

I'm a comedian, and I like to think I'm good at what I do onstage, but in person I'm a fairly dull guy. Whenever I meet someone new and they tell me to "say something funny", I have a really clever response that always works: "No"

BigTed said...

I remember reading that Bob Newhart often made the same complaint. The former accountant -- whose persona was that of a regular guy surrounded by insanity -- hated it when people expected him to be "on" in real life.

RyderDA said...

Robin Williams needed improv classes? Wow...

I hung out for a while with some of the Kids In The Hall when they still did improv and were not famous. While they were not funny all the time, they were continually making hilarious commentary as they observed things. Mark McKinney would be "crushing your head" to people. Bruce McCullough would come up with the most strange and warped statements out of the blue. And it took very little to set them off being downright crazy and silly. Their minds just worked differently than most people.

Robin Williams occasionally snowboards at a resort I frequent. On the chair and on the slopes, he's all about the riding and the conditions, but he's always obviously having a great time, without doing any schtick whatsoever. I've never ridden with him personally, but know lots of people who have. I don't think folks asked him to be funny, though. I don't get the impression he's door-mouse quiet when he's having fun riding.

Tom Mason said...

"Low, ball two."

I would love to have heard that at a party.

Tom Quigley said...

Ken, if someone asks you to call something as a baseball announcer, I would expect a great comeback would be: "And the Giants win the pennant!" -- especially if the person asking is a Dodger fan...

Johnny Walker said...

In Michael Palin's diaries he talks about meeting Steve Martin in the early 1980s. Apparently he found it a great relief that Martin was not one of this "always on" types, and so Palin was able to enjoy his company a great deal.

Debby G said...

When I told people I was a lawyer, I always got asked for legal advice. I specialized in appellate bankruptcy law, but got asked about dog bites, tenant disputes, labor law...

Now that I write books for children and teens, I get asked to refer people to my agent, or look at people's writing or their idea for a sure to be bestselling book or their son's/wife's/friends's idea for a sure to be bestselling book. So I often just say I'm a mother of three, which is true.

When I gave a class on how to write humor, some of the students complained afterward that I wasn't funny enough. I now preface my lectures with: "Don't expect me to be funny. If you want funny, watch me do stand-up at a club some time or buy one of my books. If you want to learn about the Rule of Three and callbacks and such, this is the class for you."

Sebastian said...

Yeah...

a couple of years a go a buddy of mine gave me a T-Shirt. Greatest gift ever.

It has

"No I will NOT fix your computer"

on it.

So stop whining, funny man ;-)

Some internet smartass said...

Please Don't Eat Me said...
"When you pay me, I'll be funny."


But is it a sliding scale? What if I pay for "Frasier" funny, but only get "AfterM*A*S*H"?

Joe said...

good stuff

Joe said...

good stuff

MattA said...

If someone says they work at a profession that I could avail myself of, I'll ask for a business card and leave it at that. They know, then, that if I want to continue a business relationship, I'll do it on a paying basis. But if they ask why, they've given me permission to continue the conversation about their profession as it relates to me personally. They usually don't which is fine with me.

mike said...

Me: Hi, I'm Mike.
Joe: Joe Jones. What do you do?
Me: I'm a comedian.
Joe: Say something funny!
Me: Joe Jones!

Ruth Harris said...

I'm a NYT bestselling author & people will ask, "Have I ever read anything you wrote?"

As if I would know.

BTW, it's not just me. Lots of writers get that question. Probably not Stephen King, tho.

cadavra said...

I once met a woman who said she was a stunt double. I replied, "Really? What would I have not seen you in?" Amazingly, she'd never heard that one before and completely cracked up.