The Forever Smile

“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”

It’s an old show-biz saying, and it’s true.  You may be able to tell jokes that crack up your girlfriend.  You may be able to tell jokes into the mirror that elicit huge mental bellylaughs.  You may see yourself as the funniest man alive.  But until you go up onstage and see how a real audience reacts, you’ll never know how difficult comedy really is.

When I was learning the ropes in comedy, I studied a number of comics and learned from them.  Steve Martin, Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton, and David Letterman are but a few.  But in that top five, I must squeeze in a man who starred in his own TV comedy sitcoms for nearly 20 years, and who insinuated himself into the heart of a generation with his buttoned-down mind, Bob Newhart.

The best thing I learned from Newhart was the deadpan.  Because I am who I am–open, disclosing, honest–I tend to laugh at my own jokes.  Some people like that, okay.  But jokes are always funniest when they’re delivered deadpan.  Here’s what happens:

Comic tells a joke.

Audience laughs at the ludicrous concept that was presented.

Audience realizes comic doesn’t get how ludicrous it is.

That makes it even more ludicrous.

Audience laughs even harder.

Not only that, but Newhart reminds me of my Dad.  Looks like he works in a corporation as a cog within a wheel.  Never dresses ostentatiously.  Never calls attention to himself.  Never acts wacky.  So in some ways, Newhart was a father figure to me.

Donald Groves in the kitchen 1b smaller

That’s what Dad would look like if he were a comic genius.

There were other father figures from that era.  David Jantzen.  Pernell Roberts.  Rory Calhoun.  Burt Lancaster.  Jeffrey Hunter.  But among that select group was certainly Bob Newhart.  In fact, a funny thing happened a few years ago when I saw Newhart in the movie Elf.  I was enveloped in sadness.  Funny as Newhart was in that movie, it was obvious that he was aging.  I hung my head.  My father had died a couple decades earlier, but once again, the daylight was fading from my father’s sky.

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About five years ago, I was hired to perform a magic show at the Bel-Air Hotel.  Believe me, it’s a palace.  Every cubic inch of that place oozed quality and expense.  From the landscaping to the swans to the ultraexpensive cars to the antique furniture to the huge fireplace to the ever-smiling faces of the employees, this club was not something you belonged to if you had to wash your own dishes.  To top it all off, it was the holiday season, so there were wreaths, Christmas trees, and red and green everywhere.  I was a little nervous walking in, as if I might break a tree ornament and immediately be in debt to them for $850,000.

“I’m the magician,” I told the organizer upon arriving.

The huge room was being prepared, but there were no guests as yet.

“You’re early,” she said, her brow furrowed.

Two hours early, to be exact.

“I like to be early so I can prepare,” I said with a smile.

So I set to work, making sure all my props were set.  To be honest, it wasn’t a big show, but instead, just a small parlour show in a corner.  There were about 40 seats set up in front of me, and around the corner, other entertainment was set up, as well.  There was a huge dancefloor and catering tables set up with the most fabulous delicacies.

When the time came, I started my show on time.

Are you ready for some real magic?  Give me a yeah!

Yeah.

Give me a yeah!

Yeah.

There were no exclamation points at the end of their yeahs, and that’s sometimes the problem with wealthy audiences.  They’re sometimes a bit of mystery to me.  Seriously, I came from the middle of the middle class.  I don’t know what bores the rich.  I don’t understand why boredom is such a currency in their world.  I don’t always get the details right when it comes to clothing or haircuts or faux pas.  And wealthy humor is a huge mystery, trust me.  When it came to this audience, they were fabulously dressed, but they had seen it all before, and even if they hadn’t, that was the way they were going to play it.

And while performing my show, I must confess that I was thinking about deadpans, because it’s one of my challenges, not laughing at my own jokes.  I wonder if it’s because smiles and laughter are important elements in my social toolkit.  You smile and people melt.  You laugh and everything’s okay.  I learned that early on and it opened a lot of doors.  To be honest, it takes a lot of effort to turn it off.  So I was working on my deadpan skillset, trick by trick, joke by joke, when suddenly, I spotted somebody in the back of my audience.

He was standing.  His arms were folded.  And amazingly, he was laughing.  Bob Newhart was laughing at my jokes.

I’ll tell you, it was like a train suddenly passed through me.  I smiled, and to be honest, my deadpan was gone for the rest of the show, because my smile was plastered on my face permanently, like, forever permanently, like there’s probably still some of that smile left after five or six years.  Newhart’s presence didn’t make me nervous, though.  It was just something great that was happening, and I pushed it, I played it.  With my show, if I speed up the pace a bit, it always gets better, and that’s what happened on that wonderful evening, it just kept getting better and better. And suddenly, it didn’t matter that the audience was a dud, because Bob Newhart was laughing at my show!

Finally, I reached the grand finale of my show, which you can see in another context, below.

It’s the knockout punch of my show, and the audience finally showed their love for me and I was considered a hit, and in no small part because of who had showed up in the back row.  And when it was all over, I had a slight bead of sweat on my brow and the audience was dispersing and I was looking around for my father, but to my dismay, he was nowhere to be found.  Some lovely people came up and congratulated me on my show, and one even asked for my autograph, but my father never showed.  I scanned the ballroom, looking over everybody’s heads, scanning for that one face that was burned into my memory from years of watching it on television.  But the ballroom was large and crowded, and in the end, I had a lot of packing left to do.

It’s okay, though.  It was enough just to see him laugh.  Standing in the back, his arms folded, Bob Newhart laughed at my jokes.  Wow.  I will never forget it.

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