When a work hinges on an implausible premise or an annoying concept, a doubtful set-up or a poorly assembled criticism, can it recover? If its foundation is faulty, can anything that comes from it avoid failure?
John Warner’s debut novel The Funny Man seems like it was written only to provoke—and emphatically answer—such questions.
The premise is rather simple: there’s a middling stand-up comedian (referred to in the prose only as the down-style “the funny man”) who achieves incredible, unprecedented, and unexpected overnight success because he finds what his prospective agent—known as “the clapping man”—refers to as a “thing,” a distinctive trick, a bee in his comedy bonnet that sets him apart from the other comedy club jockeys, a ticket to the mainstream.
The funny man finds this when he realizes—while playing with his little boy—that he can shove his fist inside his mouth. This, somehow, becomes his “thing,” as he does performs this “thing” for an agent (not the one who told him to develop a “thing,” that guy died the next day—because, really, why not have some guy show up and drop dead in the first thirty or so pages?)
At the offices, the clapping man’s partner sits behind a desk with arms folded, face silent and stony as the funny man demonstrates his “thing.” Despite the assurances of his deceased partner, he appears skeptical when it comes to the funny man’s charms. His look says, “I’ve seen your kind before.”
The funny man rolls his head around his shoulders and blows out his cheeks and shakes out his arms before pausing and saying, “Jimmy Cagney with his hand all the way inside his mouth.” He has decided to dispense with any patter. The “thing” is the “thing” and he doesn’t want anything clouding this fact.
The funny man turns his back, puts a trench coat on, turns up the collar and shoves his hand all the way inside his mouth. The funny man turns back around and says, “You dirty rat,” only it sounds like, “Whool arghl whab,” because his hand is shoved all the way inside his mouth. The clapping man’s partner does nothing. Face stony, arms still folded.
But “the clapping man’s partner” eventually relents, laughing his ass off when the funny man dispenses with impressions of John Wayne (relevant!), Richard Nixon (topical!), and Captain Hook (BUT WAIT HE HAS A HOOK NOT A FIST!).
Let’s set aside the fact that this premise is appallingly stupid. Let’s also ignore the fact that The Funny Man asserts that achieving mainstream comedic success requires little more than the sort of party tricks that would make frat boys from the Merrimack Valley howl the first time, chortle the second time, and impolitely say, “That’s fuckin’ stupid, dude!” the third time. (Even guys like Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia and Jeff Foxworthy—guys hated for their seemingly undeserved meteoric success—had material.)
And we’re setting this stuff aside because, in the early going, there’s potential for this line of plot development to transcend its essential half-baked inanity, to improbably become a farce or a satire or a parody, a commentary about the state of comedy or celebrity in this country.
But Warner misses that altogether, opting for on-the-nose humor instead of sharper, more subtle criticism. What Warner doesn’t seem to get is that the best, most potent parodies or farces or commentaries tend to make hay out of actual, plausible, real-life situations. That, or the pendulum has to swing far in the other direction—full, “Idiocracy”-style, farcical takedown. Warner eschews this.
Chapter to chapter, Warner travels through time, navigating the pre-fame, mid-fame, post-fame existences of the funny man. This presents problems: there is no flow. The narrative seems disjointed, truncated at what should be meaningful moments. Whenever any momentum gets going in the mid-fame stage, we’re back in post-fame. By the time we’re back in mid-fame, we’re enchanted by something that happened in pre-fame (after mid-fame) that won’t come up again for thirty or so pages.
To make matters worse, Warner’s writing is rife with strange usage, grating politics, and a poverty of metaphorical logic. On page 85, Warner notes that, “like all creative people, the funny man’s politics are liberal so he doesn’t throw these words around lightly, but he feels it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he is ‘enslaved’ by the thing.” Later, an avalanche is said to roll down a “hill.” And then there’s this:
This latest move was quantum, logarithmic, hyperspacial, like his first level of fame was akin to traveling to the moon by train and this one was like being faxed to Glaxo-23 in the Rglyplyx Nebula.
People aren’t faxed. People don’t go to the moon by train. And going to the moon by train does not pale in technological comparison to being faxed to a new galaxy; in fact, both are outdated modes applied to—never mind.
What makes The Funny Man so disappointing, however, is that it’s a significant waste of potent subject matter. Stand-up comedy is as strange and unparalleled a universe in entertainment, and I initially hoped that Warner would focus more on the ins and outs of grungy comedy clubs, joke-stealing, joke-writing, pettiness (which, to Warner’s credit, kind of plays a weak role in the opening chapters), etc.
Instead, Warner flies over the entire concept, broadly talking about jokes and material without showing much. We’ve got the funny man’s “thing” routine, which is offensive in its putridity and general unfunniness. But what about the stuff that made him middling? Some jokes are talked about in passing, but what about an actual scene of him performing? How are we to believe he sold out by shoving his fist in his mouth if we cannot judge for ourselves the integrity of his material?
Perhaps I’m asking for too much. I can’t blame Warner for not writing the book I wanted him to write. I can blame him, however, for taking no narrative risks, for writing a book with a flimsy premise, for clinging to a tepid and tired critique of show business.