It's no secret that successful comedians are, by and large, horribly dysfunctional human beings. As a friend, Tina Dupuy, says: "Comics are all incredibly fucked up...The unfunny hacks seem to be pretty level headed, however." Well, here's an open secret: I'm an aspiring comedian. So would I be funnier if I could just hate myself a little more?
I just finished reading Richard Lewis's memoir, The OTHER Great Depression. Here's a surprise: Richard Lewis is really, really screwed up. The book is actually surprisingly good, though not all that funny (except for a brilliant extended daydream of Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Woody Allen, Jackie Mason, and Rodney Dangerfield trying to talk him out of jumping off a bridge), but most of all nakedly, poignantly, strikingly honest about his own failings. He's a recovering alcoholic, so the book is part of owning up to his own demons, neuroses, and addictions; basically, everything that he made hilarious onstage, he suffered from offstage.
Other than Lewis's paperback catharsis, which probably belongs in the alienated, dyspeptic Jewish-American canon along with Philip Roth, Henry Roth, Lenny Bruce, and all the rest, comedians' memoirs tend to be pretty breezy -- and very short -- reads. Richard Pryor describes, in more detail than regret but not much of either, his serial womanizing. Rodney Dangerfield tells about his molestation by a next-door neighbor and complete neglect by his mother in huge type, but moves on quickly and starts cracking wise. In even bigger type, Don Rickles sees nothing wrong with his life whatsoever, but I never found him funny, either.
So, are personal problems necessary for hilarity? I hated a lot about myself in high school, but I don't think I was very funny then, either. Maybe that's because I didn't know how to channel my unoriginal adolescent self-loathing into a traditional setup-punchline format. (At least, that's what Judy Carter, author of Stand-Up: The Book, might say.) Neuroses aren't funny in themselves unless you can sell them -- no one really likes to be around people who are cripplingly neurotic, unless the social and mental pratfalls caused by their painfully miswired brain also happen to be hilarious.
Of course, neurotic isn't the only kind of funny: there's a frat-boy type of socially comfortable funny that I've never totally been able to master, try as I might. It's heavily reliant on inside jokes, nonsensical catch phrases, and an extended circle of friends who find it hilarious. Then there's traditional male buddy humor, which is almost entirely scatological and homoerotic in nature. A bottomless well of inspiration, to be sure, but nonetheless a bit limiting.
Maybe this is what a quarter-life crisis is. I'm too socially comfortable to be funny, and not funny enough to be successful. I'm not suicidal, I'm not extremely short, fat, or ugly -- frankly, other than being Jewish, I don't really have anything in common with most successful comics. But I'm still too anxious about that to be well-adjusted. So this brings me back to the question I've been asking myself ever since I knew how to think: Am I normal?
And if not, can I make a living off it?