Funny is Woody Allen saying: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.”
Funny is Steven Wright saying: “I have large collection of seashells. I keep it on beaches all over the world. Maybe you’ve seen it.”
Funny is a young Larry David saying: “I want to break up with my girl friend but I don’t want to hurt her feelings, so I’m waiting till she dies.”
Celebrated people who aren’t funny lack such distance. They are just too busy being themselves. So when one of the famous but unfunny utters something amazingly witty, it is a moment worth celebrating.
Howard Stern isn’t funny. Howard Stern is a fourteen-year-old-in- Queens operating in a fifty-five year old body. I know what this means because I was once a fourteen-year old in Queens. But that changed. It changed when I turned fifteen. But for Howard Stern, it never changed, and he has turned the unfunny adolescent vulgarity of fourteen year olds in Queens into pure gold. But he did once make an enormously funny observation about rock n roll musicians.
He said bass players only have to play four strings, but they get laid just as much as guitar players.
Tina Brown isn’t funny. She’s simply not brilliant enough, beautiful enough or dazzling enough to become what she so desperately aspires to be: the wow girl at the throbbing heart of the media universe. She began as a hyper-ambitious British gossip girl who married well and stormed New York in the eighties. She successfully elevated Vanity Fair to a niche in the buzz pantheon and managed a controversial but not unsuccessful stint as editor of the hallowed New Yorker magazine, eventually leaving that mecca of wit and writing panache without having permanently damaged it. Then she floundered, and is floundering still, trying digitally and desperately to be the “innest” of them all. Desperation is not funny, especially British desperation. But she did say something funny once.
George W. S. Trow, author of a bizarre and quirky cultural commentary called In the Context of No Context (which is an inspiration to this column) was one of the posse of posh and precious writers around the New Yorker who saw her celebrity-obsessed ascendancy as the death knell of The New Yorker. So he quit. Whereupon Tina Brown sent Trow a note: “I am distraught at your defection, but since you never actually write anything, I should say I am notionally distraught.”
Frank Sinatra wasn’t funny. His swinging songs and “Ring-a-ding-you-bet-your-bippie-send-in-the-broads” swagger was a million miles from genuine humor. But once, as a young architect working on a casino in Atlantic City, I heard his performance at Resorts International and he told the following joke.
A man enters a monastery where he must take a vow of silence, but every seven years he’s allowed to say two words. So he labors silently in the garden for seven years, whereupon they tell him he can say two words. “Bed hard,” he says. They nod and he returns to work, another silent seven years and they tell him he can say two words. “Food stinks,” he says. They nod and back he goes for another seven years of silent labor. Finally they say he can say two words, and he says: “I quit.” “We’re not surprised,” they tell him. “You’ve done nothing but complain for 21 years.”
Donald Trump isn’t funny. Only in America could a real estate developer become a cultural celebrity, and not a good real estate developer at that. After all, he never masterminded a Rockefeller Center or a United Nations or a Central Park, or even a South Street Seaport. He never built a building of any architectural distinction or helped an iconic architect plant a treasure in the skyline of New York. He simply made his name and made money. Some even dispute that, but figuring out Donald Trump’s pay grade is way beyond mine.
But Donald Trump did say something funny once….wait a minute. He never said anything funny. Sorry.