Wednesday, 13 February 2008
Sunday, 3 February 2008
How the pathbreaking comedian got his act together
The act tightened. It became more physical. It was true I couldn't sing or dance, but singing funny and dancing funny were another matter. All I had to do was free my mind and start. I would abruptly stop the show and sing loudly, in my best lounge-singer voice, "Grampa bought a rubber." Walking up to the mike, I would say, "Here's something you don't often see," and I'd spread my mouth wide with my fingers and leap into the air while screaming. Or, invoking a remembered phrase from my days working in a magic shop, I would shout, "Uh-oh, I'm getting happy feet!" and then dance uncontrollably across the stage, my feet moving like Balla's painting of a Futurist dog, while my face told the audience that I wanted to stop but couldn't. Closing the show, I'd say, "I'd like to thank each and every one of you for coming here tonight." Then I would walk into the audience and, in fast motion, thank everyone individually.
The new physicality brought an unexpected element into the act: precision. My routines wove the verbal with the physical, and I found pleasure trying to bring them in line. Each spoken idea had to be physically expressed as well. My teenage attempt at a magician's grace was being transformed into an awkward comic grace. I felt as though every part of me was working. Some nights it seemed that it wasn't the line that got the laugh, but the tip of my finger. I tried to make voice and posture as crucial as jokes and gags. Silence, too, brought forth laughs. Sometimes I would stop and, saying nothing, stare at the audience with a look of mock disdain, and on a good night, it struck us all as funny, as if we were in on the joke even though there was no actual joke we could point to. Finally, I understood an E. E. Cummings quote I had puzzled over in college: "Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement." Precision was moving the plot forward, was filling every moment with content, was keeping the audience engaged.