More than once in your life, you've probably been told you're funny... looking! Hoo boy, I got a million of 'em. From the watercooler next to my office to the cubicles at the end of my hall, America agrees: I am hilarious.
(But sometimes a man craves a more objective X ray of his funny bone. That -- and the prize of an NBC development deal -- is what drove Brown to Texas to audition for the Peacock's talent contest, ''The Last Comic Standing: The Search for the Funniest Person in America.'' The show wraps up Tuesday, Aug. 5 -- here's how our critic fared.)
Yes, Texas. Auditions were also held in Chicago, New York, L.A., and Atlanta, but as we all know, those places aren't really America. And it turns out there are funny people in the Lone Star State, some of them intentionally so. Take Fred Bothwell... please! (Man, that never gets old.) A self-declared ''comedian savant,'' this husky thirtysomething was the first to arrive at Houston's City Streets club, located in a strip mall. ''I look like a moron,'' Fred explained. ''I guess people underestimate me.'' On stage he performs what he calls ''a hootenanny,'' in which he makes sounds and invites the audience to join in. ''Don't reveal to anybody that I'm special,'' he cautioned.
By now, other hopefuls had begun to bunch around the club entrance. As advertised, all the comics were standing -- there was no place to sit. Several beefy Texans commented on the slender, black-clad crew guy who wrangled us into a line. ''He looks a little... sweet,'' observed one. Added another: ''That's how they all look in L.A.''
Charming, regionally excusable homophobia aside, the atmosphere was collegial. Everyone was eager to try out material. One comic agonized over whether to use his ''Cast Away''-inspired ''Wilson!'' line, while a pierced, punked-out dwarf summarized his act: blaming Disney for emasculating his people. ''Walt made this movie about how seven old men shacked up with this woman, had her knocked out -- and didn't do s---!'' he seethed. His bold dream of recasting Dopey as a date rapist brought tears to my eyes as I backed slowly away.
About 90 people arrived for the audition, which consisted of a two-minute routine delivered to the show's talent scouts, Bob Read and Ross Mark. One by one, comics went in, grinning, joshing, nervous. One by one, they came out, ashen-faced -- and without a callback bracelet. Reactions varied: ''The big guy doesn't laugh''; ''It was too short, too short''; ''I'm gonna go smoke a joint in my car.''
Finally, I mounted the stage, a crude wooden dais erected in front of a giant mock-up of the Alamo (an inauspicious backdrop for comedy, as Fred pointed out after getting rejected). I'd written my first stand-up act a week earlier, an insult-comedy set aimed at suburban Christians. (Like they say, write what you know.) It was the Mormon jokes, however, that seemed to win the scouts over: ''You got any Mormons down here, Houston? You don't see many this near the equator. They're so blond, they melt.''
''We've got a young Woody Allen on our hands,'' Ross said.
''I've always aspired to be the world's first WASP nebbish,'' I replied, beaming.
''I was just kidding,'' he said.
Despite this miscommunication, they asked me back for another five minutes of material. I told them I didn't have any more material. They thought that was really funny and dismissed me.
I now had fewer than three hours to cook up a new batch of ha-ha. The Christian angle was played out, unless I could find something funny in the Apostles' Creed. What was left? SUVs? Bushisms? Sniglets? To be honest, I can't really remember my act, which was scribbled on Marriott stationery -- though I will admit to getting desperate, going blue, and equating missile defense with gay porn. I also distinctly recall uttering the phrase ''Jesus is the new black.''
''You really weren't joking about not having any more material, huh?'' asked Bob.
Of the 14 callbacks, two of us were told we were advancing to the Los Angeles round, where celebrity talent scouts and producers would make the final cuts: Marsha Kelly, a bespectacled girl who delivered body-image jokes in a Garofalo-esque monotone, and Quint Hatch, a chain-smoking white guy who paced maniacally while muttering observations about race.
''We'll see you two in Los Angeles,'' Bob announced.
''Are you paying for that?'' grunted Quint, who made his living as a waiter. ''Because I ain't got s---.''
I, on the other hand, had hard, cold evidence that I was not, in fact, the funniest person in America. Perhaps if I'd had the guts to steal that dwarf's date-rape material, I'd still be in this thing. Anyhow, you've been great, folks. I'll be here all week, between the watercooler and the cubicles.