Three Comics Walk Into a Bar: Did You Hear the One About ... ?

A Film by Robert Campos & Donna LoCicero
NR – 90 min – Documentary / Comedy

By John Bennison, Director, Mountain Shadow Film Society
This film was featured by the Society in November, 2014

     “Humorists of the ‘mere’ sort cannot survive. Humor is only a fragrance, a decoration.” - Mark Twain

When I was a boy we had a harmless “I dare you” kind of game. We would face off, stare another kid straight in the eyes, and with a straight face recite the line, “If you love me honey, smile.”  The other person had to keep a sober look on their face while answering, “I love you, honey, but I just can’t smile.”  If they cracked even the slightest smile – let alone broke into a giggle or laugh – they lost. More often than not, I won.

Now a comedy club in Barcelona, Spain, has begun an experiment, only charging customers each time they laugh. For real. The Teatreneu Club uses facial-recognition software installed in tablets that are attached to the backs of each seat.  Each laugh will cost you 0.30 euros (38 cents), with a maximum of 24 euros (about thirty bucks) for the whole show. The businessman who operates the club says profits are up, but if I was one of his patrons he’d probably lose their shirt. When it comes to comedy, I’m a tough crowd.

That’s probably why I was surprised to find myself actually laughing my way through a documentary, of all things. At first I thought making a film about the history of comedy in San Francisco would be a little like watching an instructional video about sex. It may be educational, but you’re not necessarily supposed to enjoy it. But Robert Campos and Donna LoCicero’s film made me smile honey, and I loved it.

The funny bone is probably the most elusive part of the human anatomy. For the comedian who considers their self a professional, finding the right way to tickle it is a quest not for the faint of heart. And for those aging comics who’ve been at it for 3-4 decades, their career paths are not unlike any of us who’ve found and followed a passion that can be “intoxicating.”  

That’s the way Will Durst describes the connection he’s sometimes able to find with his audience. “When it works, it’s better than anything,” he says. And like everything else, it seems, it has a life of its own. This film tells such a story; how the stars once aligned over the San Francisco skyline in the eighties. And that nothing lasts forever.

There was the age of youthful innocence leading imperceptibly to a golden era, where everything just clicked, and everyone seemed to just ride the crest effortlessly.  Then came the plateau. But plateaus are as much defined by the cliffs that surround them as they are by the limits of their own boundaries. 

So next comes the descent, disappointment and disorientation. But if humor is defined more by our sorrows than our joys, as the great American humorist Mark Twain once said, this tale seems to have followed the natural order of things. So what’s next? 

There are those wistful reminiscences, and even regrets. I watch the film and see with amusement those early clips from The Holy City Zoo of a young comic genius, even before he became Mork from Ork. Then my heart sinks a bit when I see an old man with a salt and pepper beard in a recent interview for this film, shortly before his death.  

How did these guys get so old, I ask myself, scratching my own gray head that has its own receding hairline? Like wisdom that comes with age, sorrow tempers humor with the kind of sobriety that makes a laughing matter something to be respected.  As a grade-schooler, Larry “Bubbles” Brown discovered it could all be more than a little depressing. And then you die. “Life is very sad,” he says now, making a career out of self-deprecation and the absurdity of it all, “so we might as well at least make it funny while we’re here.” 

Success for a comic is simple, says Steele. It’s when everybody laughs. But nowadays, trying to be successful and make a living writing and telling jokes is both a business to be marketed and a craft to be honed. So Steele acts as a coach to aspiring comics, Durst is his own agent making cold calls trying to book gigs, and Brown is only too eager to accept whatever warm-up acts he’s offered for a headliner like Dana Carvey.

Perhaps the funniest scene in the film shows “Bubbles” on a road trip with Carvey. They’re headed for a string of one-night stands in Medford, Redding, Grass Valley and Turlock.  Oh-oh, I think to myself.  The boys from what was once described in its hey-day as the “Left Bank of comedy” are headed for the land of yahoos.  Maybe you can take the comic out of Paris, but can you take the Paris out of these stand-ups?  

But while the car rolls along the interstate, they begin jostling with one-liners and come-backs that are whacky and downright hilarious. It’s that kind of spontaneous, impromptu humor you can’t necessarily bottle up or manufacture at will; even if you’ve got an entire team of joke writers, and all you have to do is read the lines off the cue cards in front of a camera when, and if, you ever make it to the big time. 

Instead, it’s “vaporous” as the way Johnny Steele describes it elsewhere. Like that dissipating fragrance Mark Twain once referred to long before them in his own autobiography. 

Or, as Will Durst describes it, “For a moment it’s like surfing across the clouds.”

 © 2014 by John William Bennison, All rights reserved
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.