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“Now THAT’S Funny!”

Two of the most difficult things to do in this world (besides hitting a major league curveball) are playing a well-constructed, swinging jazz solo and succeeding as a stand-up comic.  Both call for experience, the will to transcend fear of failure and the ability to learn from mistakes.  Additionally, and perhaps most important, they require an exquisite sense of timing and rhythm.

It is for this reason musicians and comics generally hit it off well socially.  Comics recognize and admire the timing that music requires and so look for musicians’ respect.  They also know experienced musicians have heard scores of professional comics perform and can distinguish funny from unfunny.  Thus, if they can make the guys in the band laugh, their jokes are probably solid.  It is not surprising that a number of successful comedians—e.g., Jack Benny, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Pete Barbutti, Marty Feldman, Morey Amsterdam, and Dudley Moore—began their careers as musicians.

During my 30 years as a working musician, I had occasion to back many professional comics.  If you watch a “physical comic” (one who relies on slapstick) backed by a musical group, the drummer is often asked to accent his key physical movements and punch lines.  The manner in which a drummer accents the comic’s punch lines can make the difference between an audience merely chuckling or actually laughing out loud.  Such interplay between a comic and a drummer is a subtle dance, and once a comic trusts the drummer, he will loosen the reins and allow more drum interplay because it strengthens his act.

I have a reputation as an amusing storyteller among my friends and family but I have discovered that getting a laugh from those who love us is a lot easier than getting one from a professional comic.  I learned this the hard way while working with comedian Pete Barbutti. A funny and creative guy, Pete is also a talented trumpet player and pianist.  I enjoyed working with him because his humor is very hip.  His act included quirky things like playing “jazz broom” which he “tuned” by pulling out pieces of straw.  He also did a bit called “A Bad Magician with a Good Drummer,” during which he would imitate all the typical, slick professional magicians’ hand moves while accomplishing no magic.  While he did this, my job was to busily highlight his movements by playing a host of accompanying drum rolls, cymbal crashes and bass drum bombs.  I sometimes laughed so hard during this bit that I struggled to play the drums.

One evening, over coffee, I foolishly tried to tell Pete a joke I thought he’d appreciate.  When I finished, Pete looked at me without smiling and in a level voice said, “Now THAT’S funny.”  I knew immediately he had not found the joke at all amusing.  He had used a tactful technique for getting around the difficult alternative of manufacturing a phony laugh.

Some months later, I made the same mistake (I am a slow learner) while sitting over coffee with another talented comic, Jackie Gayle, whom I was backing in the lounge of the Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel.  Like Pete, he listened patiently to my joke, and when I finished, he said with a straight face, “Now THAT’S funny.”

At that moment, it dawned on me that comics talk among themselves about how to deal with non-comics who tell them unfunny jokes or ruin good jokes with bad delivery.  Apparently, back in the day, a professional funny man came up with the line “Now THAT’S funny!” as a workable solution, and it has been passed down through generations of comics.

How does this relate to friendship? At one time or another, we are all faced with handling someone’s clumsy attempt to entertain or impress us.  How we handle it is a reflection of how we choose to relate to others.  We can be charitable or we can be brutal.  I have tried to take a cue from my comic friends who, upon hearing my weak attempts to be funny, let me down gently and respectfully. 

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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