The single key to making someone laugh is not to say funny things but to say things funny. That foundational brutal truth has supported comedians throughout time and shows no symptom of stopping or slowing down to accomodate the less-witty dullards who fancy their own finite sense of humor as underappreciated. Too many people rely on some funny phrase, laugh track or collision of circumstances resulting in odd observational images to evoke a reactive but shallow laugh but only a few people can take what looks like humdrum and standard events of the day and turn them into a solid twenty minutes. Furthermore, if you want to make someone laugh, the joke or routine needs to be sprinkled with some familiarity to allow for valid resonation based on context. If one makes fun of Lear Jet mechanics at a VFW open mike night, one will be washed over with indifference silence but if you riff on a few drinking adventures or observations about bowel movements, you will be rewarded with enthusiastic but ignorant gusto but a sincere laugh is still a laugh. And if you are in Coeur d'Alene, making fun of people from Lewiston is spun comedic gold so know your room.
Speaking of Coeur d'Alene, or as known by the locals as CDA, the only places to do decent stand up comedy is not in Coeur d'Alene but down the road. Ever since the nearby Brickwall closed, the comedy scene in Coeur d'Alene became non-existent with any local talent going to the Funny Bone in Boise or Uncle D's Comedy Underground in Spokane to find a paying gig. These facts were known very early in the career of Coeur d'Alene's best stand-up comedian, Meyer Carlson. Meyer was a twenty-five year old comedy historian who cobbled his act together by extracting small bits from other comedian's acts and blending it together into his own mash-up of what he felt was comedy. During the day, he was a six-year veteran of the Street Maintenance Department and is credited as the author of the department's credo of "Great Service Begins with Great People." Fresh off the success of that milestone, Meyer decided that stand-up comedy was going to be his focus. He immediately began writing jokes by altering famous one-liners from history only to be disappointed in his inability to string them together for a single, coherent set of worthy insights.
After work one Thursday night, when a majority of the Street Maintenance staff had descended at a local bar, Meyer walked up to the small stage and declared himself ready to provide the assembled workers with a taste of his comedy stylings. The staff had been drinking for awhile and Meyer had the credibility due to the "Great Service Begins with Great People" meisterwerk, so the time was right. He allowed the crowd a moment to focus on him, standing under a lone spotlight and when the time felt right, he tapped the microphone to assure it was hot and took a deep breath.
"Settle down," said Meyer. "Hey, CDA. Do you know what is bugging me?"
The audience was not yet privy to his likely opening catchphrase so the room grew silent. Meyer instinctively repeated the phase and one audience member made the daring move to respond.
"No, what is bugging you Meyer?" His comment placed the emphasis on both "bugging" and "Meyer" which raised the tension to a tension not felt in that part of Idaho in a long time. No one ever said that CDA comedy was pretty but one had to work with cards presented.
The crowd burst into laughter and Meyer took the positive energy square in the chest. His planned catchphrase was even more powerful the second time around and as he waited for the laughter to subside, Meyer knew he was in the zone, CDA was now his for the taking. While he wanted to crush a response back right away, he waited a few moments to let the laughter die down a bit before he jumped back in. If he had responded right away, his well-practiced answer would have been lost deep in the din. Meyer finally saw the room catch its collective breath and then he pounced.
"What's bugging me?" Meyer screamed. "Everything!"
The increase of both volume and tone sent the crowd to respond in kind. His friends and unknown patrons got pulled into a collective crowd vortex of exaggerated reactions and Meyer felt as he was surfing over the top of it all. Everytime he called out some minor annoyance or social inconsistency, he would end each sentence with a powerful and arm-waving, "that's what bugging me" and the crowd would cry out for more. While he was only on stage for ten minutes, it felt that he had been up there for hours; his list of ten annoyances had to be parceled out carefully to keep the flow going. And the end of number ten, Meyer put his hands on his hips and surveyed the room and knew this was time for the perfect exit and just opened his mouth as he was going to hit them with another one and he paused and said, "That is what is bugging me, I feel better now." His totally unscripted exit was perfect, it caught the audience off guard and got them demanding more. Meyer was smart enough to shake his head, confident in his total victory and assured of a return trip to the stage. He walked off to thunderous applause and many slaps on the back. At that moment, he was Idaho's Funniest Comedian and the feeling was without boundary or limitation...it was a complete success. He was the creator of humor, biting insights were his tenor sax, comedic Armageddon his melody.
The next day at work, his pals showed him a new respect: Meyer nodded to his growing list of friends and began to deflect the questions of when was his next performance. There was no question that he was going to return to the stage and now with his new reputation, the stakes would be much higher. Anyone, with little or no expectations, can slide underneath a collective assumption and knock a few laughs out of the park. This next gig would be met with increased awareness and thus, the crowd was not going to be surprised. The element of surprise is a great spark to light an initial fire and combining that element with alcohol, Meyer surfed through his first set untouched and unbruised. The audience would be prepped for him next time; he couldn't recycle his material; they would be demanding new material and a longer set. Meyer had to plan his return and would only get back on stage when he was good and ready.
Luckily the weekend was upon Meyer; he had every confidence he could sit down and cobble together a fresh fifteen minutes and get back on stage next Wednesday. The bar had a legitimate open mike night on Wednesday and if he concentrated and put together some new material, he could have another great night in front of him. He didn't want to rely on the "what's bugging me" vehicle so soon after his legendary Thursday performance. That is a nice topical piece of the puzzle to fall back on once he got established but he needed to show the audience that he was a triple-threat, multi-dimensional comic so he started writing out a few narratives to test with his friend Nancy. He spent the entire day, working diligently on the computer, composing one page joke foundations which he could easily riff several minutes per page. He didn't see the direct straight line-funny line elegance from his earlier work but had every confidence he could connect the dots with his stage presence. He called Nancy and left her a message; he wanted to see her on Sunday to be his first test audience and he assumed she would love to come over and help.
It was strange that Nancy didn't immediately return the phone call so Meyer took it upon himself to stand in front of his living room mirror with each joke foundation condensed into recipe cards. He intentionally shuffled them into a random order and decided if the joke stood the this initial test, it would survive into the second round for future consideration. At best, he needed five good ideas to expand and contract as necessary and when factoring in the obvious audience laugh time, the goal of fifteen minutes appeared well in hand. He needed to establish a strong bond early with his audience; a foundational lingua franca bridging between his laser-like observations of the human condition and the audience's rather myopic view of everyday activities. The pressure was beginning to build and his act was not even crafted, much less honed, and the show time continued to draw closer.
As he stood in front of his mirror, he continued to wonder when Nancy would appear while wondering if he could recreate the lightning-in-the-bottle magic which happened just a few days ago. The time gap between the initial event and where is was currently was growing larger and he stood there, trying to riff on a work-in-progress which gave a litany of slang terms to describe throwing up when it hit him. He could no longer trust his memory on what was real from the stand-up success and what was contrived by his imagination. The longer he went without feeding the desire to get another rush from the audience, the harder it was to trust his ability to think on his feet and more importantly, make people laugh.
"Where in the hell was Nancy?," he thought to himself. "She always calls back right away."
As he studied his cards, Meyer was fast coming to the realization that he didn't have a strong set. He had a few choices to make: he could trot out his newly minted "what's bugging me" warhorse or go off on a new direction, trying to lampoon the human condition in another masterful way. Nancy would have already set him straight on his direction but as he waited, the ideas and concepts on the cards were looking less and less desirable. He had no interest in bombing on the very stage that he met his greatest success but he knew audiences are a fickle bunch and he had to stay a few steps ahead of their collective comedic appetite. The CDA crowds were tough and he needed to keep them wanting more and the "what's bugging me" strategy was not going to last forever. Where was Nancy?
Time continued to drag on and the conundrum of relying on his ability to adapt was becoming more and more the favored strategy. He may have been lucky the first time but no one ever went broke beating the same drum over and over again; he might not be the greatest but he would keep delivering those lines and he could learn how to become funnier before his next performance; if Jeff Foxworthy could do it, so could he.
It is fascinating what you see when you are not looking for anything in particular.
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