Being funny (on purpose) is serious business

I’m probably the last person to get in on the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien situation.

Call me old school but when Johnny Carson left late-night television that was it for me too.

But I understand O’Brien, who is certainly talented, had to give up his time slot with nothing more to soothe his hurt feelings than several million dollars.

O’Brien said he worked for NBC, which stands for Never Believe a Contract.

Well, O’Brien said that but somebody else wrote it.

I have a little experience in writing stuff that’s trying to be funny. In fact I tried to do that last week with a column about wind-chill factor.

Several people have actually called me and said it was funny. I thanked them and said it was intended that way.

Hey, being funny, on purpose, is a very serious business.

Anyone can be funny accidentally. Most people can be funny once in a while but only a very few gifted people can be funny “on demand.”

Here’s what I mean. A writer I respect once said he gets off about three really funny lines every month or two and people say things like “You ought to write for Leno or Letterman.”

This is a sharp guy and he knows how serious being funny is. “Look,” he wrote. “I might come up with a half dozen really good lines every six months.”

“The people who write for Leno and Letterman have to come up 30 or so every single day. Those are pared down to 10 or 12 that end up on the show each night. Seventy percent of those had better be funny or somebody is out of a job the next morning.”

See what I mean?

No less an accomplished comic writer than Woody Allen often got anxious about his work. Ralph Rosenblum, the noted film editor, once found Allen lying on the floor, sobbing, afraid the jokes in “Take the Money and Run” weren’t funny enough.

I understand that. Every time I’ve really sweated bullets before a public appearance has been when I consciously tried to write funny stuff.

The serious stuff is much easier. For the past couple of decades I’ve been the guest speaker at an annual Fourth of July picnic.

It doesn’t call for a great deal of humor.

In fact the humor there is usually directed the other way. Once a lady whom I’d known for years came to the picnic.

After I’d spoken she came up to me just beaming. “Mike Brown,” she said. “Until tonight I never knew you had any sense.”

Uh, thank you.

So I don’t try to be funny every week and that’s why.

Besides there’s so much unfunny stuff in all our lives. First week in January, I came down with gout while visiting in Missouri and had to drive home, 670 miles, with a toe joint swollen so large I could not take my shoe off.

When I was re-telling this I told someone I wished my late father had suffered from the same malady.

“Why?!” I was asked.

“Well,” I replied. “So I could say ‘I want a gout, just like the gout that harried dear old dad’.”

Look, I warned you humor was painful.

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2010-01-28 digital edition

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