Saturday, December 27, 2008

There's a Banana on You Head!

Here’s one of my son’s jokes:

Kiernan: Knock, knock.

Anyone: Who’s there?

Kiernan: Um…banana!

Anyone: Banana who?

Kiernan (beat. Looks around, thinking, then): There’s a banana on your head!

Of course, it’s a nonsensical punchline to every person in the world but he and I. I can trace its exact origins to a Richard Scary book I used to read for him. In one panel, the French Police cat is chasing a dog jewel thief through a busy restaurant. The patrons and waiters are all upended in various ways with food and plates flying. Though not scripted, I would provide the dialogue for each character, including the final, unfortunate customer who correctly stated: “There’s soup on my head.” This deadpan acknowledgement always got a laugh from Kiernan and I would sometimes repeat the scene three, four or five times that night. Kiernan is now synthesizing the joke into his own routine – one that misses the adult mark, but kills in the four year-old demo.

I walk the stage tonight at Universal Studios essentially repeating the same process Kiernan does, possibly on a more elevated scale. I’ve been called into perform at the Special Effects Stages during the holiday week. As a newcomer, I’m low on the roster, 44th to be exact, so many, many people need to be on vacation to put me in the theme park and on the stage. Christmas time is that time and as a result, I’m struggling to remember the 17 pages of dialogue and cues that come with this job. But I’m also playing the role of scientist tonight. Comedy scientist.

The show is unique in that it is scripted, but you are encouraged to add your own jokes. It’s also unique in that you are supported by three different rooms of amazing special effects displays. Giant screens show clips, huge turntables spin volunteers and monsters come to life. If a joke flops, you just push a button and the next amazing thing happens, erasing that momentary gaff. If your joke succeeds, you bask in it for a moment, but you eventually still push the button. Honestly, you support the show as small, possibly funny bridge between the multimillion-dollar multi-media.

So this show has become a sand box, a place to truly experiment with the endless variations of comedy. The material can either be my own freshly minted jokes, or I can cherry pick any of the other 50 people’s routines…some honed over the last 6 years of this show’s existence…and synthesize it to my own patter. I can experiment with rate and tone, long sets or fast gags. The possibilities are endless.

Example: You switch between “Host” and “Briefer” roles each show. The Host runs the first two rooms, the Briefer falls into running the third room after the Host is ‘removed’ from the show. You are briefly (Ha!) introduced at the beginning of the show and how you present your self is entirely up to you. Some are flamboyant, some are macho, some just wave and smile. The choice is yours.

Having played with the first two for a while, I finally settled on just the smile and a wave. I’m ditching the quick laugh in exchange for a bigger payoff when the host leaves in the second room. My reactions are my strong suit and if the audience sees me as pleasant and possibly unsure initially, then when I realize I’m suddenly in charge, I not only have a big laugh at my doorstep, but also the audience’s favor. I might still have those if I try for the flamboyant or the macho introductions, but I could also obfuscate the joke as people try to reconcile (consciously or unconsciously) my previous bravado with my current lost look.

Another Example: The Briefer exits the second room twice, terrified. It’s a funny bit, but I’ve never managed to maximize it. Some just follow the prescribed routine, running out and pretending to hit a wall backstage. Others ham it up with the audience before exiting, not hitting the at all. Both versions get a laugh and while I’ve been experimenting with the hammy version, again it pushes into the payoff reaction.

Final example: When the Briefer reaches the third room, he is in charge. He is responsible for placing several guests on stage at different stations and getting them to perform tasks. He also scores big comedy points by making fun of those guests at various points. It’s good-natured fun, but it also plays better if you have a bit of an edge. I play this pretty well, but at the cost of ditching the nice guy routine from the first two rooms. Suddenly the wide-eyed rube shifts into wise-cracking smart-ass. I could stay in character, but the alternative yields so much comedy fruit that it sustains the 8 minutes I have to hold that room. Considering also the fact that the last room also has the fewest effects and relies the most on the Briefer being funny, the math dictates the switch until I figure out a transition.

This all seems tiny and insignificant, doesn’t it? In the long run, it probably is. Again, I could just read the lines like a phonebook (do they still make those) and the flashy images and effects would dazzle most people into enjoying the show (and it should). This “Butterfly Effect” of comedy is primarily academic, and secondarily only useful to comics and bloggers, right?

Yeah, probably. This is really nuts and bolts stuff and I might not even be a certified mechanic to talk about it. But as always, if you can talk about the experience in terms of how it affects you, then you ‘re always right.

Twenty years ago, I would have done everything I could to reduce the variables for this show and maximize the comedic potential. In fact, that’s exactly what I did when I worked at Cedar Point and Sea World in my twenties. I polished my act, observed the results and then honed it again until I had the routine that statistically yielded the highest number of laughs per show. It was, to borrow the Lexus motto, a relentless pursuit of perfection. Even worse, I would often fume when co-workers got laughs from their own material. I would seethe at them and devise ways to top them or negate their jokes. It was ruthless and competitive and it squeezed all the fun out of being funny.

But nowadays, it seems different. Age has made me wiser or wearier, and in either case I can now accept the limitless permutations of a comedic moment and not doubt or regret the path I choose. The stream of funny is wide and vast; you can see the other jokes float by you. The difference is that I no longer pull out my paddle and try to beat them all to a shore that never appears. I still want to be funny, I guess now I can see that there is no perfect joke, just different ones.

It brings me back to my son’s knock, knock joke. I make it a point never to tell him that the punch line makes no sense. Further, he can sometimes go on a long riff of ‘knock, knock ‘jokes created on whatever is in his line of sight but with out any standard comedic payoff and I don’t correct. The number of knock, knock jokes is limitless and given the variables of time, audience or location, Kiernan’s jokes have the potential to be side-splitting and insightful.

Or they could simply be factual. Someday, we may all wind up with bananas on our heads.

It’s possible.

1 comment:

Joan said...

Hey Mike,
Remember me....Joan McC.(Openmind). Long time, eh..... had some rough years and totally left the loop. Wonderful to hear Kayden joined the clan! And the IMan became a region 1 dvd set! Your Xmas card is adorable. The boys are quite handsome little lads.
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