The Funny Man

When asked, focus groups describe the funny man as “untalented, successful, bad husband and father.” He had been at the top, but is now heading toward the bottom. An excerpt from John Warner’s forthcoming novel, The Funny Man, published by Soho Press.

On the small nightclub stage, the funny man says funny things to the small audience arranged around the small tables before him. As the laughter fades between these funny things, the funny man hears ice shift in cocktail glasses and throats being quietly cleared. Toward the end, someone lets loose a big, wet cough that sounds tubercular and a drunk man orders his next round loud enough to drown out a punchline. All in all, though, a damn good night. This is maybe the five or six hundredth time the funny man has tried his hand at this and “damn good” is a significant improvement over his initial attempts. The number of people he has performed for has varied from none to slightly more than none, to seven (including three bachelor party revelers who were unconscious, greening upchuck crusted to their shirtfronts), all the way up to 125 when he was scheduled on a night when there was a rumor that a “comedy legend” would be doing a rare club appearance to work on new material. The legend never appeared because it was the funny man who started the rumor, maybe the cleverest thing he had done in his life up to that point.

Six years the funny man has been coming to this club, from the moment he was old enough for his parents to trust him to drive alone into the city, fueled by an indestructible belief that he was indeed funny and that someday people would pay to hear him say and do funny things. The funny man doesn’t know where this belief, or the seemingly inexhaustible fuel that accompanied his desire to have others agree with this self-assessment, came from. This belief remained unshaken despite the number of times someone, unsolicited, had shouted up to him on the stage, “Fuck you, you’re not fucking funny.” (Forty-nine.) The funny man had been told to “eat shit,” to “die,” to “eat shit and die,” and to “eat shit and die horribly,” which actually made him laugh. Shielded by the stage lights blocking the funny man’s view, patrons had yelled at the funny man to fuck himself, to fuck his mother and to fuck himself with his mother’s dick, and yet at every opportunity he climbed on to the stage, hopeful each time that it would go, if not “damn good,” at least “pretty good.” If you want to call that a sickness, that’s your business.

The club is the only venue that matters, the place where all of the famous funny men (and women, though there aren’t that many women) have been spawned. They come to the club as embryos and the stage is where they gestate and careers are either birthed or aborted. The club is small and ugly and certainly not the kind of place that should be seen in daylight under any circumstances, but it is and always has been the place. The hopeful funny people come to bomb until the day they no longer bomb and then they are said to have “passed,” at which time you are allowed to perform on a Friday or Saturday night and you earn twenty dollars for the privilege.

But this night, for the funny man, no bombing, only applause, or mostly applause among the usual indifference. One of the things the funny man has come to realize during his times on stage is that the people in the club who are not shitfaced into oblivion want to laugh. They are almost desperate to laugh, having paid their Funny Man fifteen-dollar cover charge and drunken their required minimum of drinks. They are like cans of soda shaken up, ready to explode and all it takes is to open them. It is the funny man’s job to unearth the funny things they already hold in their brains, they just don’t know it yet. And yet, so many of the prospective funny people bomb, or tank, or flop, because the wannabe funny people are equally desperate to get them to laugh and the mutual desperation meets like two magnets tuned to the same poles, pushing each other farther and farther apart until there is only silence, or even worse, a comic who turns on the audience, seeking laughs in that guy’s mole, or her oversized breasts, blaming them for his (it is always a he) own shortcomings, the most significant of which is that he just isn’t funny.

Upon finishing, the funny man thanks the audience for having him and tells them that they’re really too, too kind. As is custom, he introduces the next performer and steps from the stage lights into darkness and wipes the sweat from his brow and this moment always reminds the funny man of the moment after orgasm where just instants before you were thinking that this is the best thing ever and then all of the sudden it’s all, “what’s the big deal?” and then two minutes later you feel kind of dirty about the whole thing. Near the bar, a man loudly claps two fat hands together, whistles with his fingers at his lips, and then claps again, repeating the sequence long after the rest of the room is silent. The man is round and dumpy like those toys that can’t be knocked down. He gestures the funny man backstage. The funny man follows. The man’s neck is thick and wrinkled like a Shar-pei.

“You just need a ‘thing’ now. That’s the clincher. A thing. The arrow through the head, the inflated surgical glove, watermelons and sledgehammers, crazy hair, screeching, turtlenecks, obesity, something.”

The clapping man claps the funny man on the back. Regular people are not allowed backstage, so the funny man knows this man is irregular. He is part of the industry. “That was killer,” the man says. “You killed. That slayed me. Funny, funny shit. I’m dying here.” The clapping man leans on a chair and breathes heavily as he hands the funny man a card. “You’ve cracked the code. You just need a ‘thing’ now. That’s the clincher. A thing. The arrow through the head, the inflated surgical glove, watermelons and sledgehammers, crazy hair, screeching, turtlenecks, obesity, something. Call me when you get one,” he says. “I’ll take you places.”

The funny man looks down at the card as he massages the back of his own neck. The other hopeful funny men lounging around the broken-down couches sucking on beers and smoking themselves into early graves look at him with deep and intractable loathing. Talent Agent the card says, with a number below.

“Where?” he asks, looking up, but the man has already left. On the way home he rolls this word around his head: Talent. “I have talent,” he thinks. “Talent talent talent.” At home, in the apartment, the funny man spoons gray mush into the child’s mouth. The child laughs and claps his hands. “More?” the funny man asks the child. He can’t imagine wanting more of the stuff. It looks unbelievably disgusting. A new bit begins to form in his head, something about feeding babies high-end pureed food if we want to get them to eat, but as the child stretches his mouth as wide as it will go, the funny man must concentrate on aiming the spoon and the bit is lost. “He can’t get enough,” the funny man says to his wife.

“Tell me about it,” she replies, lifting a heavy breast with the back of her hand. The funny man laughs and she smiles back at him. The wife finishes tying the apron portion of her waitress uniform around her waist. She tucks a pen and order slip into the appropriate slots. She looks old-fashioned and hot to the funny man. A real throwback, this wife of his.

The funny man and his wife first met in the library at their college when the funny man’s future wife scanned his books for checkout and she smiled at him. The child was conceived in the very same library only a few weeks after they first met and mere days from their graduation, which meant the wife was fat with the growing child at the hasty fall wedding, but despite this, despite both of their mothers weeping copiously and constantly throughout the ceremony, and the whispers and her belly pressing against each and every guest as they were greeted in the receiving line, at that moment in the kitchen, neither the funny man nor his wife regretted squeezing themselves into the narrow shelves and giving in to what called them. The funny man knows he is no prize, can imagine his wife’s father saying, “He wants to be a what?” “When?” and “You’ve got to be kidding,” when they were told of his life’s dream, the wedding, and the gestating baby all in one conversation.

As she’s on her way out, the funny man shows his wife the clapping man’s card.

“What do you think?” he says.

“I think that Mrs. Kowalski is wondering where our rent is.”

She kisses the funny man long and well on his mouth. The funny man’s hand lingers on her backside as she walks away and leaves for work and he thinks about how when she arrives home he will unwrap her apron, spinning her like a top back into his arms, and that maybe it’s time to do the next stupid thing, like make another baby.

In the living area, the funny man places toy blocks back into the toy chest and imagines the voice-over for his television biography that one day will air on one of the high-numbered cable channels: Like many of the great funny men, the outward mask of laughter hid a complex and private nature. He feels neither complex, nor private, so that is something he will have to work on. He knows he is a simple man with a simple wish. He has had this wish for as long as he remembers and he has not been shy about announcing it to anyone who cared (or didn’t). There is a home movie of the funny man at Christmastime, age five or six, and he has been given a microphone that amplifies through a radio turned to the proper FM frequency. In the movie he marches around the house, intermittently shouting into the microphone. It is clearly the best toy ever. The camera shakes a little because his father is laughing at the antics. The child funny man looks up into the camera and his father asks him what he wants to be when he grows up, and the child funny man holds the microphone to his mouth, and even though he doesn’t even really know what it means and is simply saying it because it is the answer his parents gave when he asked them whose job it is to make people laugh, he says, loudly and clearly, “a comedian.”

The funny man pledged to take care of the child, “as if he were my own,” which got quite a good laugh from the funny man’s wife since they both knew full well where the child came from.

The funny man next thinks of the off-Broadway play that he will one day write and perhaps produce as well after he is already a famous funny man. The play will have a “laugh out loud” opening, but the second half will contain an unexpected act of violence that will cause the critics to call the play “important” and “intriguing” and “unexpected.” There may be brief nudity as well. The funny man may even star in it with an actress most known for her sitcom work who is trying to stretch creatively. The play will cause people to expand their estimation of the funny man. No longer will he just be the funny man, but the funny man who wrote an off-Broadway play that filled every single one of its folding chairs. The funny man rolls the child onto its back and tickles its belly. The funny man notices that the skin at the child’s joints is wrinkled like the back of the talent agent’s neck.

“Laugh,” he says to the child, and the child does. Kicks the air too.

The funny man’s wife supports this habit of going to the club at night and trying to induce drunk strangers to laugh by waiting tables because her degree in Spanish does not translate into a higher paying job and the funny man pledged to take care of the child, “as if he were my own,” which got quite a good laugh from the funny man’s wife since they both knew full well where the child came from. The funny man remembers the moment like it was just a year and a half ago, which it was. Money is tight and the best meals are ones his wife carts home cold from her work, but the funny man, despite his visions of future grandeur, cannot imagine wanting anything more than this apartment in this, the best city in the world, this woman, this child, which is of course why he can put so much focus into making all these impossibly large dreams happening.

On the future televised biography of the funny man’s life, they will interview a host of lesser funny men to talk about the career of the funny man. The funny man vows that he will never appear in one of these televised biographies about someone else, because only people less famous than the subject at hand agree to be interviewed for them. It is like volunteering for the junior varsity.

The funny man imagines one of these lesser funny men being filmed in his Coral Gables living room while sitting in an ugly, floral-print easy chair. “Who shot the curtains, right?” this lesser funny man will say to the camera operator as the lighting is adjusted. “But what are you going to do? It’s the wife’s taste and you’ve got to keep her happy.” The camera operator will smile wanly and ask this lesser funny man if he’s ready.

“Does the pope shit in his hat?”

On camera, the lesser funny man will gesture with his hands, and talking about the funny man say something like, “You’ve got to understand that the best humor comes from a dark place, and if you spend a lot of time in that place, your head’s going to wind up being a little farchadat.”

The funny man has heard this often, mostly backstage at the club where there is a kind of competition for who is the most fucked-up, who is darkest, who is most despairing, who has the worst tales of early abuse that have marked them for the self-flagellation that is professional comedy. Early on, the funny man tried playing these reindeer games, but he was making stuff up, stories borrowed from characters in the soap operas he would watch instead of going to class and deep down he knows that his mind is not even partly cloudy, let alone black and stormy. This is one of his biggest concerns, actually, that he is not screwed up enough to have anything interesting to say.

The best thing about the child is that recently his little personality has begun to emerge. Early on, the funny man found the boy distressingly inert, a warm, sleeping, crying, pissing, shitting lump that was a pleasant couch companion when watching the game, as long as he was sleeping and not shitting or crying. The funny man started calling the boy BP, short for baked potato, because he was often swaddled in a silver blanket that looked like foil. The funny man’s wife frowned at this in a way that said she thought it was adorable. It got ninety seconds in his act. But now, the child can no longer be contained by the swaddling. He loves to thrash his arms and legs, and above all, to wave them in front of his own face before trying to see how many he can stuff inside his mouth, which the funny man finds absolutely hilarious. A chip off the old block.

Inspired, the funny man continues to tickle the child with one hand while trying to shove his other hand entirely inside his own mouth. The child’s eyes shut he laughs so hard. The funny man feels his knuckles scrape past his teeth. There is a clicking noise in the back of the funny man’s head that tells him either something important has happened or he has unhinged his jaw. He fights the urge to gag. Still laughing, the child thoroughly wets its diaper. The funny man removes his hand from all the way inside his mouth and smacks his lips together into a funny face that the child enjoys tremendously as he is carried to the changing table, dripping all the way.

After changing the baby, the funny man calls the number on the clapping man’s card, and as it turns out, the clapping man had told the truth, though about something different than the funny man hoped. “He’s dead,” the voice on the line says. “He was dying and now he’s dead.”

“He told me I should call. He was going to take me places,” the funny man says.

“He mentioned you,” the voice replies. “He was my partner, said he’d seen a real funny man. I asked him if you had a ‘thing.’

He said, ‘not yet, but he will.’”

“I do. I have a thing now,” the funny man says. “I’m sure of it.”

“You should come by then. We’re mourning right now, but we’ll have to wrap that up soon. Tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry to hear…” the funny man says.

“Yeah, well, we all knew it was going to happen at some point or another. We’re all stamped with an expiration date,” the man on the other line says before hanging up.


TMN contributing writer John Warner’s first novel, The Funny Man was recently published by Soho Press. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is co-color commentator for The Morning News Tournament of Books. More by John Warner