Saturday, April 23, 2016

Funny You Should Ask for a Tuna Fish Sandwich



 Challenge is better at being a verb than a noun, but not by much, and in either case, noun or verb, it is a vital tool for the writer.

First and foremost, challenge in noun form is the spark of vision, perhaps no more than an overheard sentence at a social gathering or workplace. You can recall one such set of circumstances where you sat with a group of individuals who were, like you, laboring under the challenge of being funny.

This is a regular gatghering, a regular meeting of individuals who, at length, are in effect called to order by someone they all recognize as a lesader or, you could say, a chairperson, running a meeting with a loosely agreed upon Roberts' Rules of Order kind of govering procedure.  The difference is that the leader says, barely a question, "Anyone got anything?"

He means by this, and the group understands it, "Does anyone have anything funny to start with?" You look at the others in the group; they, in turn, are looking at you. In effect, everyone at that meeting is accepting the challenge, which is to say something that is either funny on its face or can be worked into a situation that produces laughter.

The noun turns to a verb in the silent moment where you and the others are struggling to do something that seems on its face to be impossible, which is to be funny without having a specific target. In that long moment before you and the group will be working to develop something funny out of nothing, you recognize you are at the moment the youngest in a group of dyspeptic men and one woman, all of whom have credits for funny, which is to say each of them has been a writer for a comedy show or a specific comedian.

Emboldened by the fact of this group of individuals in a room, setting off to fulfill one of the more difficult challenges, you say something in a manner you have taught yourelf to dislike; you blurt. You are not the kind of writer who works in this manner. You work alone or in noisy coffee shops. You blurt not because of your eagerness to say something funny or bond with the writers in this writers' room, rather to take a lead in something you know quite well is precarious.

"Tuna fish sandwich," you say. 

There is a silence, where all about the table react as though they have heard the antithesis of funny.

"What did he say?" one of them, with curly gray hair and a noticable wire from a hearing aid draped over one ear.

"He said 'tuna fish sandwich.'"

"Funny," a man with a muted Hawaiian shirt says, reminding you of a man who regularly beat you at rotation pool in a pool hall on Santa Monica Boulevard.

"I was thinking that the other day at Nate and Als," the woman said. "I was wondering how it would sound if someone came into a deli with a sincere desire for a tuna sandwich."

"He said 'tuna fish,'" a man wearing bright red suspenders said.

"He's right. Tuna fish is funnier than tuna."

"Where is this getting us? Are we going to have a waiter at a deli?"

Satisfied you've been an engaging rather than disruptive factor, you speak up, this time sure enough of yourself not to blurt. "Got to be a waitress. Waiters in delis are not funny."

"Who the hell is this kid?"

"Friend of the producer," you say.

"Now that is funny. Too bad we can't use it."

There was a time in the early 1950s, epic in nature, when the ruling weekly spot for television funny was Sid Caesar's Show of Shows. Some of the individuals in the writing room included Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Lucille Kallen, Danny Simon, and Sylvester "Pat" Weaver. 

It is still possible to see some of the results of the writers room for that show by consulting variously Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Nanette Fabray, and Howie Morris, captured on YouTube segments, therein to see how funny began, how, week after week, it was developed, dramatic in nature.

Perhaps your favorite single skit from this era, which surely had its origins in that fabled writer's room, was an intense pantomime involving Caesar as a beleagered husband coming home late to a suspicious wife, the skit and its movements synchronized with the opening movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. 

Not a word of dialogue. And Caesar and Fabray were superb performers who could well have been the origin of the skit. Of all the fabled instances and moments of that past you'd like to have been a fly on the wall attendee at, the writers' room at Show of Shows.

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