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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 10, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Comedy and Fruit Drinks

Nothing is harder than comedy.

Not brain surgery. Not nuclear physics. Not air traffic control.

All those things can be taught, and the more intensely you pay attention, the harder you try ... the better you get.

Comedy, on the other hand, thrives on inattention. If it ever looks like you're trying to be funny, you aren't. If you ever reveal how the joke is constructed, it collapses.

With brain surgery, to work more precisely you merely slow down. But in comedy, you can't slow down. Timing is everything, and if you pause too long -- or not long enough -- funny turns to amusing, and amusing turns to dull.

And of all forms of comedy, the hardest of all is stand-up.

That's because there's an inherent contradiction in stand-up comedy. Humor works best when it comes as a surprise -- when we don't know a person wants us to laugh.

In a play or movie, the comedy arises out of situations or character. No matter how lame the story might be (one thinks of The Jerk or Water Boy), it has to be there so we'll pay attention to that and let the gags sneak up on us and take us by surprise.

But when a stand-up comic walks out on stage, there's nowhere to hide. Nothing to distract us from the fact that here's a guy who is supposed to be funny. He's going to try to make us laugh.

OK, buddy. Start with the ha-ha stuff.

I can't imagine any task more difficult.

Except maybe teaching seventh graders.

So when a group of us went to The Comedy Store in Los Angeles ($20 per person, two-drink minimum, no smoking), we had very high -- and very low -- expectations.

High, because this is, by reputation, one of the three best comedy clubs in one of the three best comedy towns in America (the other two being New York and Chicago).

Low, because we had never seen any of the comics on the bill. And since we're all assiduous watchers of HBO comedy and the Comedy Channel, we had to figure that anybody we didn't know about couldn't be very good.

All our expectations were fulfilled.

Charles Fleischer was the voice of Roger Rabbit, but that's hardly a qualification. What makes him the funniest guy I've ever seen in person (and I've seen Dennis Miller, Rita Rudner, Jay Leno, and other lesser lights in their live shows) is the absolute brilliance of his wit.

Wit is in rare supply in stand-up comedy. Most comics tell jokes or stories. Both are hard, but they're also memorized and rehearsed. You walk out there onto the stage knowing what you're going to say.

But when Fleischer walks onto the stage, except for a few set bits, he has no idea what he's going to say, because his show consists almost entirely of working the crowd.

He's not an insult comic like Don Rickles. He simply takes whatever the audience member says -- or doesn't say -- and then reacts to it with the most hilarious, erudite, bogus verbal pyrotechnics I've ever seen.

And at the end of his set, he walks to the piano (which he plays very well in noodling lounge-act kind of way) and makes up songs about the people in the audience that he's just interviewed. Songs which rhyme and are hilarious and you want him to go on all night.

This is an act you'll never see on Leno or Letterman, for two reasons. First, Leno and Letterman never let anybody else work their audience -- and for good reason, because once you've seen Fleischer do it, you'll realize how bad Leno and Letterman are at that part of their job.

Second, because things move too fast in Fleischer's show for the TV audience to follow it. Things have to be framed, slowed down, clarified for television. And if Fleischer slowed down and clarified he wouldn't have an act.

The other hit of the evening was Bobby Lee, a Korean-American comic who is currently on MadTV, a show whose badness years ago has kept me from even checking in on it in recent years. I'll be looking at it again now, you can be sure, in hopes of glimpsing this brilliant young comic.

At core, he's a storyteller, with brilliant takes on his immigrant father. But in style, he's as manic and free with his body as Chris Farley used to be.

The other comics ranged from pretty darn funny to pretty lame. We learned a few things. First, the statement "I'm just trying out new material" is no better an excuse for being a bad comedian than "My dog ate my routine."

Second, if you screw up the setup to a joke, it ain't gonna be funny when you get to the punchline, so you might as well throw in the towel and move on.

Third, if the audience doesn't laugh, it's not because they're not smart enough to get the joke, it's because you either have no punch line or you delivered it wrong. Only a fool blames the audience and abuses them for not laughing.

The evening ended -- for us at least -- with a ventriloquist who apparently had never seen another ventriloquist and so he didn't know that all his "dummy" jokes were old when Arizona's Vonda Kay Van Dyke won the Miss America Pageant with ventriloquism as her talent.

He actually assume that when no one laughed at "Deja vu all over again" it was because we didn't understand the joke, not because we'd all heard it so much that it has become a figure of speech.

His act was so embarrassing that we couldn't stay in the room. Being nondrinkers, we weren't drunk enough to be amused that we were watching a fellow human being so utterly humiliate himself.

Even though there was one more act on the bill, we could only conclude that he was even worse than the ventriloquist.

When comedy is good, there's no entertainment better. But when it's bad, it's unbearable.


In the produce section of Harris-Teeter, go to where they have fresh juices on ice and try out some of the Naked fruit smoothies.

The name, of course, is a contradiction. Only a few of the drinks are actually naked fruit. Most of them have additives that I don't want, and the names reflect it. Protein this and healthy that, with herbal additives tossed in willy-nilly.

But except for the soy, which is unspeakably bad, the additives don't affect flavor much. Blending fruits together to make a thick, milkshake-like concoction is almost a no-lose proposition, though some mixes are better than others.

Besides Naked, there are other brands around. The best I've found is Odwalla, but I've never seen that one in Greensboro. Just one more reason to visit California now and then.

And if you want a fresh smoothie, the best chain is Jamba Juice -- I've had their smoothies in LA and Honolulu, but the chain is growing.

The secret is not to let them put yogurt or ice cream in the mix. Oh, they can make for a good fruity milkshake, but for the best smoothies, all you want is the pure fruit.

This summer, if you want an absolutely brilliant punch, try blending some bananas with orange juice and adding it to whatever punch you would ordinarily be serving. It makes it fresher and a little thicker.

I never make the same punch twice, but here's a sample recipe for the first two batches of punch I made for a recent wedding:

In a punch bowl, combine a half-gallon of Tropicana not-from-concentrate tangerine-orange juice, a couple of bottles of Looza brand pear or apricot or peach nectar, a two-liter 7-up. (Sometimes I put in a bottle of V-8 Tropical Splash instead of one of the juices.)

Then blend together (with one of the juices as a starter) three bananas, half a papaya, and a handful of blackberries and raspberries.

It's as delicious as anything you'll get from Naked or Odwalla or Jamba Juice.

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