Historically, the easiest place to be real funny is in a bar. All you have to do is walk in and say something. For example, you might say, “They fired me!” and then curse, and then ask, “Can you believe it?” This gives other people in the bar, especially the bartender, the opportunity to respond with invigorating, often humorous comments of their own, as they prepare you, or “set you up,” for your punch line.
—from How to Be Real Funny,
by Hector Schechner ?(SchechnerBooks, 2001)
BEFORE HECTOR SCHECHNER BECAME RICH and famous by creating a mediocre television series, before he hired me to waste the last 10-plus years of my life writing his biography, Schechner was a standup comedian, and I was a bartender at a West L.A. comedy club called Igby’s Comedy Cabaret.
Physically, Igby’s was a dive, but a good dive, without pretense. The indoor-outdoor carpet was chewy with ancient spills. Each industrial filter full of red-can diner-style coffee was topped with a thin layer of cinnamon, for that swank-o-matic bouquet. Halfway between the stage and the bar, a mirrored disco ball still hung from the ceiling, lurking, left over from the room’s prior incarnation as a ’70s discotheque.
The bar jutted into the main room from the back, stopping just behind the last row of the audience. I had the best seat in the house. I learned to concoct delicious, dangerous drugs quickly and quietly. I learned to growl softly when the checks got stuck in the Depression-era cash-register slot. I learned that comedy-club patrons were the most brazenly scented demographic group in all of the Milky Way. I learned to breathe through my mouth. I learned to mop and wipe and blend and wash and rinse the Igby’s way.
There were two sinks behind the bar: wash and rinse. The wash sink was outfitted with heavy-duty motorized rotating bottle brushes, but unfortunately, the motor made too much noise to use during performances. I’d let the dirties pile up and wash between shows.
Far louder than the bottle-brush motor were the blenders. The blenders posed a serious threat, and had been confined to their own special room — a small, dank storage closet in the back, about 12 feet behind the bar, where there was just enough room to stand with one’s finger on the blender button and wait for something to be real funny.
THINGS WERE STRESSFUL AT HOME, mostly because I didn’t have one of my own. I had kind friends with couches, a car with a suitcase in the trunk and enough income to pay for a storage space, but it was my first truly difficult stretch of adulthood. I wasn’t particularly surprised by the arrival of nightmares.
Every night, variations of the same dream: Scary monsters manifest as high-tension, high-speed repetitive Igby’s tasks, in utter silence. Wash glasses, rinse glasses. Wash glasses, rinse glasses. Wash glasses, rinse glasses, place on rack. Wash glasses, rinse glasses. Wash glasses, rinse glasses. Wash glasses, rinse glasses, place on rack. Wash glasses, rinse glasses. The fluorescent sink light flickers violently, like a storm over the raging sinkwater, Ty-D-BolT blue. The room’s filled to capacity, but no one’s onstage. The audience is backward, facing me, waiting for me to break something, waiting for something to break the silence. And the waitresses bring more glasses, more and more and faster and faster and faster, and I feel like I’m the bolts that Chaplin’s tightening on the Modern Times conveyor belt, as if I’ll never be on the other side of the bar.
* * *
In the above example . . . someone might respond by inquiring, “Why were you fired?” This is your signal to reply with something that is real funny. If you know something real funny to say, this is when you say it. If you do not know something funny to say, you might wish to consider a prop.
WAITING IN THE BLENDER ROOM for the comedian to say something real funny, so the audience will laugh, so I can hit the switch. It generally takes three to four punch lines to make a pitcher of margaritas.
It’s been months. I’ve been trained. It’s a pleasant challenge, really, this Igby’s blending. Concentrating on the rhythm of the act, determining the precise moments to start and stop the motor, escaping from Carrot Top . . .
When someone was truly bombing, though, it was damn near impossible to make a decent daiquiri.
BEFORE I TOOK THE JOB, I’d heard a few of Schechner’s recordings, was familiar with his cadaverous articulation, his wigs, artificial mustaches and so on. I’d conjured a hybrid of Tony Clifton and Steven Wright, but I really didn’t know quite what to expect.
About three months into my tenure at Igby’s, I finally got to see Schechner perform. It turned out that he was older and taller than I’d imagined, a gangly middle-aged white man wearing a shiny black toupee over a full head of short gray hair. A fake mustache, also shiny and black, covered the top half of his gray goatee.
Schechner took the stage slowly, sipping his coffee. He opened his notebook and, placing his coffee on the stool beside him, began reading from what would later become his first best-seller, How to Be Real Funny.
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“Fuck or Die,” Schechner read somberly. “When addressing a room filled with patrons who have inexplicably dowsed themselves in a depressing array of the world’s most vile perfumes and colognes, one should approach the situation from one or both of two perspectives: Fuck, or Die.
“First, try Fuck. Say something like, ‘That smell — it makes me want to fuck.’ If the audience does not respond favorably, try Die. Say something like, ‘No; wait. It does not want to make me fuck. I forgot. It makes me want to die. Yes, immediately, die, rather than inhale another molecule of your Old Calvin Klein Polo Chanel Lagerfeld Gray Flannel Gucci Spice.’
“If the audience still does not respond favorably . . .” And here Schechner closed his notebook and, apparently following its advice, finished his coffee and walked offstage.
The audience went nutz. The waitresses brought dirty glasses. I washed them in silence, and rinsed them and placed them on the rack.