They’re Dying Up There

At last a TV series about comedy. Not of comedy, but about comedy. Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here premiered last Sunday, and took viewers back to 1970s Hollywood to follow the lives and loves of a group of standup comics as they struggled to achieve comedy’s golden ring, a spot on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

The show is based, in concept at least, on William Knoedelseder’s 1994 nonfiction book, I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era. Leave it to Hollywood’s infinite wisdom (read: pandering to puerile tastes) to turn an excellent work of reportage into a formulaic, predictable, and hugely overacted (I lost count of the exclamation points in the teleplay after fifteen minutes) paean to drugs, booze, cheap sex, and the word “fuck.”

Steve Martin produced an album in 1979 titled Comedy Is Not Pretty! Apparently it’s not funny anymore either. True, the show’s focus is dramatic, but it is also about comedy and features many scenes of comics performing. In fifty-plus minutes I got three grins, one chuckle, and zero real laughs.

Too bad. The premise had promise.

But I’m not writing this review/blog to skewer the show (although it is fun to expose the self-proclaimed “tastemakers” for the ratings suckups that they are). Instead I want to pose a question about the timeframe of the show. Before it even aired I wondered, why the 1970s? That’s almost fifty years ago, and whether or not that decade truly was the “golden age of standup,” hardly anyone remembers, especially the under-fifty crowd this show seems to be aimed at.

As always, I have a theory (not a conspiracy theory, just a regular one).

Good humor is (or was) largely absurdity or irony. Popular humor of today, however, seems a lot like popular film and books today, which I find increasingly polemical. The premise too often seems not to be that something doesn’t make sense, but that something is wrong and someone else (or some group) is to blame.

What passes for comedy these days on TV are political shows (which is ironic in its own way). I’m talking not only about The Daily Show, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, and even good-old Saturday Night Live, which has experienced something of a renaissance now that it has some true political targets to lampoon, but also the supposedly mainstream political shows like Hannity and Hard Ball, which take themselves far too seriously to be anything but comedy.

It’s all part of a cultural shift in the last couple of generations that has moved away from humorous concepts and focused instead on targets of derision[1]. It’s fostered by that relentless corporate marketing strategy that tells every man, woman, and child in America, regardless of education and experience, that your opinion matters and that however crappy your life is, it’s not your fault. (Okay, so it is a conspiracy theory.)

What I think is that maybe producers Jim Carrey and David Flebotte missed those old days when humor was about stuff and not enemies, and that’s why they cleaved to a twenty-year-old nonfiction book’s nostalgic take on a tough business, rather than try to portray standup from the perspective of the 21st century. I’m probably wrong about that, but it’s nice to hope.

 


[1] Yes, there are exceptions in both times, but I’m talking about general trends.

Urgent Humor, or Why I (Try To) Write Funny Stuff

Why, with the world in the shape it’s in, do I write funny stuff?

I suppose I should be angry, like so many other people these days, but I just can’t. Sure, I care about the injustices that seem to be everywhere, but I wonder about the best way to address them. That’s where the humor comes in. I see it as kind of a way to open a dialogue, and make people comfortable, and once you’ve got them involved you can start to sneak in little absurdities. If they’re creative, they make people laugh, and if they’re poignant, they make people think.

Speaking of absurdity, you might be surprised at how many of our disagreements are simply language issues.

Case in point, here’s a recent phone conversation I had with a medical center receptionist. (It’s edited for brevity.)

Me: We recently switched insurance, and I need to see a doctor. So I need to get a new primary care physician, right?

MCR: Yes, however, there’s only one doctor in your area who’s accepting new patients.

Me: Well, that’s fine.

MCR: But she doesn’t have any appointments available until August.

Me: Umm, but I need to see a doctor sooner than that.

MCR: You should go to Urgent Care.

Me: But it’s not exactly urgent. Just a neck pain.

MCR: Oh, that’s okay. Urgent Care is for things like colds and strains; it isn’t really for urgent matters.

Me: So that’s why they call it Urgent Care.

MCR: Huh?

Me: So can I just drop in at Urgent Care?

MCR: Yes, but you may have to wait an hour or two to be seen.

Me: What if it was really urgent?

MCR: You’d have to go to the emergency room of course.

Me: Why don’t they call that Urgent Care?

MCR: Then what would they call Urgent Care?

Me: How about, I Can’t Wait Three Months for an Appointment Care?

MCR: Huh?

I can’t guarantee that the MCR got my point, but at least we didn’t get in each other’s faces (metaphorically speaking), and it lessened my pain and anger to get a laugh out of the situation.

That’s one of the great things about humor, in general—it lessens the pain and anger. What pain and anger? Whatever you got.

I suppose I should tie this into my forthcoming novel. Here goes: Mr. Neutron—the book I wrote that is the motivation for this series of blogs and which is coming out in the spring of 2018—is a satire. So it’s full of pain and anger-lessening yucks that are designed to make a point.

The History, or Should I Say the Pre-History of the Neutron

Many great and successful novelists worked for years to produce their critically acclaimed books. My path to publication is just like theirs—except remove the words “great,” “successful,” and “critically acclaimed.”

I started writing Mr. Neutron in 2006. That first attempt bore no resemblance to the novel you will see in 2018. The title and characters were all different, it was a mainstream, plot-driven novel, and had no science fiction, fantasy, or satirical elements as the published version will. In other words, it was a complete mess—my first try at creative writing after careers in journalism, politics, and graphic arts (allow me to do the math—I’m actually 108 years old).

It was a starting point, though. I’d had enough of politics, and wanted some measure of revenge for all the grief the candidates I’d worked with put me through. So I started writing, not really having any idea of where the story would go, only that I would skewer the people I knew by turning them into characters and caricatures in the book, which back then was called All Politics is Local.

I remember reading excerpts to my MFA teachers and classmates on Whidbey Island. I cringe now at the memory of forcing them to listen to such drivel, and actually thinking they should have been impressed. Guys, I am sorry.

My hero then was a guy named Charlie Marco, a thinly-disguised version of moi. He wound up solving a citywide corruption scandal, and, of course, getting the girl at the end.

I actually found, on an old CD, a Word file of the book from 2007. I now endure my embarrassment to share some of that early writing, as this may, in its own way, be funnier than the published book, which is supposed to be funny. Actually, it sounds remarkably like much of the writing that I receive as a fiction editor, submitted by people at that naïve stage of their fiction careers, filled with explanations and weak attempts at cleverness. Here’s the opening paragraph:

If there were to be a legitimate opportunity for Charlie Marco, it would occur because he had worked to create it, not because serendipity had graced him. And when the telephone call he’d anticipated came, he knew it was because he had worked so hard and so long to reach this point in his political career. “I’ve got us a candidate,” she said. He leaned back in his chair and smiled. He’d told her he was ready to move up and run a campaign. No more assistant consultant. No more apprenticeship. He had the experience now, and the timing was right. In his heart he believed he was ready take charge of a campaign.

Ouch. Well, every writer knows you have to get the bad stuff out of your system.

So much better now to have a protag named Gray. Here’s a snippet from the book on how he came to be:

But he was Gray. Dull as a sunless, rainy afternoon. A product of his mother’s promiscuity and dyslexia. She had meant to honor her father, Gary. But it went down as Gray, and burdened him with all the dreariness the word implies. And Davenport to boot, as in, Ms. Davenport, are you sure of what you wrote on the baby’s registration? And when she answered yes, Gray Davenport was sentenced to a life as a blandly upholstered sofa, something to be sat upon by asses of all weights and configurations.

I’m going to go melt down that CD now. Better yet, I’ll keep it and open the file every time I start thinking I’m a great writer.

A Little Something About the Neutron

I suppose, three weeks into the Year of the Neutron, I ought to tell you something about the book, Mr. Neutron. (Keep in mind that time, neutron-wise, is not the same as time in our world, which is the best excuse I can come with for this oversight.)

Here is part of the query letter I sent out. Make that query letter number four, the one that actually worked:

So if someone created a Frankenstein’s monster today, it would probably be to pose as a political candidate—the posturing, the meaningless utterances, the dim-wittedness—who could tell the difference? Only one man, it turns out: a second-string political hack and lifelong loser named Gray Davenport. Gray lives a fantasy life to keep him from dwelling on his failures. But when he realizes just who, or what, the eight-foot-tall man dominating the campaign is, his imagined world becomes all too real.

That’s all I can tell you about the plot for now. I’ll add that it’s a satire, some of which is based on experiences I had while working in the political world (as a second-string political hack), which I think is self-explanatory. The rest is my fevered imagination.

For comparison purposes, you might want to think about A Confederacy of Dunces, the novel by John Kennedy Toole, which was published in 1980. It’s a little odd that I would compare my book to his, since I really disliked Dunces. But the similarities are stunning, as they say, so what the heck.

For starters, Toole’s story is about a lifelong loser (Ignatius J. Reilly) as well. It’s got a cast of crazies like mine, all of whom are determined to keep the protagonist from achieving any of his goals. His book was supposed to be funny. So is mine. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, although a lot of people didn’t think it deserved it. I guess that’s another similarity—nobody thinks mine will win an award either.

Like Toole’s, my manuscript was turned down by every agent and publisher from New York to LA before someone with the guts to print it came along (and thank you, Leland Cheuk of 7.13 Books). Of course, Toole’s book was published eleven years after he’d given up on making it as a writer and committed suicide, so let’s hope the similarities end there.

What’s So Funny About That?

My wife was watching one of those Sandra Bullock comedies recently, The Proposal, she says. I was nearby, earbuds oozing jazz while I wrote—such is family time at La Casa Ponepinto. And she was laughing at this scene: Sandy B carrying a little dog and trying desperately to conduct a cell phone call, when a hawk swooped down and carried the dog away. She managed to save the dog from the bird, but in the process dropped her phone, which the bird snatched up. Frantic at losing her conversation, Sandy tried to convince the hawk to exchange the dog for the phone.

Funny?

My wife thought so. Maybe I’d missed something in the dialogue by listening to music.

Flash back to a week before, when we went to a performance by John Cleese, the now 79-year-old comedian best known for his part in the 1970s BBC series Monty Python, and the troupe’s movies of the next decade. During the show he screened a variety of clips from the old shows and movies, including one from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which King Arthur faces off against the Black Knight in his quest for the grail. They battle until Arthur hacks off one of the knight’s arms. Undaunted, the knight keeps fighting and Arthur is forced to dismember him, limb by limb, down to a head and torso. Still the knight taunts the king to come back and fight.

Funny?

I, and the rest of the audience howled, in part from the memory, but also because, yeah, it’s hilarious.

Why one and not the other?

As Cleese explained, the Black Knight, despite his loss of limbs, exhibits not the slightest pain. A garden hose of blood spurts from his wounds, but all he can do is fight on, mindlessly. But should the injured party show pain, the dynamic shifts from absurdity to cruelty. I’m not so sure about offering a small dog to a ravenous hawk. Maybe that’s what made the Sandra Bullock scene unfunny for me—no way the dog wouldn’t feel the bird’s talons embedded in its flesh. No way it deserved that treatment. The Black Knight? Well, he started it.

I also think the pure absurdity of the scene has something to do with it. The Black Knight’s reactions are so far from reality that they can’t be taken seriously. In the Bullock scene, the danger is exaggerated, but not to absurd proportions (except perhaps for the fact that a 10 pound hawk cannot fly off with a 20 pound dog).

But who knows? There are so many types of humor, so many styles of funny, and so many different tastes. What’s funny to one person might be stupid or insulting to another. I’ll take a look at that aspect of humor in future posts.

The Year of the Neutron, Episode One: Is It Okay to Laugh?

Lately I’ve begun to feel guilty when I laugh. These are no longer the carefree, fun-loving times of days gone by. So much anger, so much despair and mistrust now in our country and our world—justifiable considering current events—that it almost seems criminal to chuckle, giggle, guffaw, or even smirk; seems as though our society has become so dour and dissatisfied that a cackle or snort in a public place demands a charge of misdemeanor, or a psychiatric examination.

And yet, how can we go on without humor in our lives? It’s a basic human necessity, right up there with air, food, water, shelter, and online porn. It’s one of the things that completes us, that separates us from the lower forms of life. Laughter reduces stress. It calms us, defuses us, sometimes brings us together. It is the antidote to our current violence.

I am here to assure you that it is still okay to laugh. You may have to do it in private, in your own home with the doors locked and the shades drawn, bingeing on old Seinfeld reruns, but yes, you can laugh. And I happen to have another reason for you to do so.

All this is a roundabout way of introducing the novel I wrote that will be published by 7.13 Books in the spring of 2018. It’s called Mr. Neutron. It’s a comedy. It’s a satire. It’s a science fiction-political-mystery-Frankensteinian-literary mashup…or something.

Over the next year I’ll be blogging on a semi regular basis about the book, the publishing process, great comedians, and humor in general. I will do my best to be funny, to give you some reason to forget our current tsunami of crises. All I ask is that you visit when you’re in a good mood…oh, and buy the book when it comes out.