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San Diego Theatresports: The Funhouse (6822 El Cajon Boulevard) When: Fridays at 7:45 p.m. Saturdays at 7:45 p.m. Saturdays at 9:45 p.m. “A cross between improvisational comedy and Family Feud, the Funhouse combines improv with competitive scene-making, with the audience awarding points to the winning team. Purists might balk at the odiousness of comparisons used in this format, but the ‘game show,’ on Fridays, is a kick. The 90-minute evening offers different bits. The winner gets a banana, the loser a ‘forfeit.’ Some attempts went nowhere (improv is tough: I did it in my, as hindsight reveals, callow youth). Others made amazing twists and turns. The group has more hits than misses, and their guru, Keith Johnstone, wrote one of the very best books I’ve read about making theater. They put his pearls to good use. Their motto: ‘Remember, when it’s not funny, its art.’”

This is taken directly — in all its anonymity — off of an events page on the Net. So much comedy listed, so little in my life. Maybe that’s why I’m snuffling around events pages. Oh, it’s my job and I’m trying to do it — not with one hand tied behind my back, but with one elevated and broken foot in a cast. I can’t go anywhere except vicariously. Still, I suspect I knew subconsciously that humor lurked behind these Web addresses. Maybe it is enough to know that it is going on somewhere nearby. And while one can only speculate on the degree of hilarity in store, the above paragraph offers one very promising morsel in its last line.

I say this/type this despite the fact that I not only found Family Feud to be unfunny every time I checked, but pretty much all game shows except in deliberate comedy contexts. Saturday Night Live, for example, riffing on some game show (I forgot which) renaming whatever it was Damn, You’re Grizzled! No idea who came up with this one, but it was perfect for guest/host Robert Duvall, who won the final round with the penultimately grizzled statement — and I must paraphrase: “On that day at Omaha Beach in Normandy in June of 1945, never did I want so badly for a God to exist; never was I so certain he did not.” I’d say art and comedy dovetail perfectly right there. Another was on Sesame Street with a self-explanatory title: “You Bet Your Life, Really.”

Which brings me to my own Chuck Barris–like Gong Show concept, a cross between the game show and reality television, again with a pretty self-explanatory title: “Things Can’t Get Any Worse.” This is an evolved, television version of the book I was compiling in the early 1970s until I was overwhelmed with what a mother lode I had tapped. The book was “Why Dwell on It? 1001 Depressing and Little Known Facts.” I got 46 or 47 facts written down before I went into hibernation for the rest of the ’70s, only to reemerge and find that Ronald Reagan was actually the president of the United States. The seemingly endless supply of microbiology truisms alone that I had stumbled across in a scientific encyclopedia under “parasites” had left me paralyzed. And then, at just about that same time, John Updike came along with The Witches of Eastwick and a passage where Daryl Van Horne, as the devil, gives a guest sermon at a New England church, taking as his text the exact pages I had been copying from. I decided this information was better off in the hands of Updike and could be easily dismissed as grisly fiction, thus preventing epidemic suicides.

“The Funhouse,” it says above, “combines improv with competitive scene-making.” What an opportunity for a certain ex-girlfriend. Angie would qualify, I’m sure, as a highly competitive scene-maker, and as far as improvisation, she could reinvent the past in astonishing detail as if she were a refugee from Orwell’s 1984. I have not heard from her in ten years, but that wording above somehow triggers a paranoia that I would run into her at the Funhouse and God knows how she remembers that salad-tossing incident at sea with the aerobics instructor, Tina, in 1989. She probably has it all worked out by now that it was my fault.

Rereading the promotional ’graph above, another concept occurs to me, courtesy of Sesame Street. What about Family Feud, Really!? This would involve real family members pitted against each other, rather than two rival families; in other words, not the Hatfields and McCoys but Hatfields vs. Hatfields or McCoys vs. McCoys. Ideally, the contestants would be unarmed or at least ostensibly unarmed. It would be artfully arranged every week that one or more family members produces a secreted shiv with which he may stab a sibling, spouse, in-law, or parent in the back. This would be a surprise every week just as eruptions of violence on Jerry Springer are a surprise every week. Of course, the stabbings (or throttlings or beatings or kickings) are the raison d’etre for the game, but we conspire to pretend they are not.

A sample of this dynamic at work would be as follows:

Host: All right. Team A. First generation. You go first. Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?

Dave (captain of team A/older generation): That would be the Dewey Decimal System, Bob.

Gladys (Dave’s wife and team A member): You stupid son of a bitch.

Biff (team B captain and son of Dave): Look out, Dad. She’s got a knife! (Reaching for it.)

Dave: Aaarrrgh.... Get me my razor, son. Back pocket.

[And so on. Theme music swells: upbeat, goofy, and very funny.]

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Comments

EricBlair Feb. 20, 2008 @ 1:38 p.m.

What's the old saying? "Dying is easy; comedy is hard." I tried improv myself, John, back in the Day. I had one good night on stage, and for the rest of them, I died, big time. The one good night never recurred, so I didn't try it again.

The thing I never "got" was that comedy was decidedly not about telling jokes.

If you haven't read Steve Martin's recent autobiography, it is worth your time. Personally, I never got his "humor" (arrow through the head, etc). But I sure enjoyed how he used humor to insulate his soul.

I enjoyed your post, as always.

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John Brizzolara Feb. 26, 2008 @ 9:36 a.m.

Eric -- Testing yet again. Come in. You read me? Over. -- Brizz

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John Brizzolara Feb. 26, 2008 @ 9:44 a.m.

Mr. Blair, -- I have successfully re-established my ability to post comments at the end of my own column. I felt banished for a while there and then an idea occurred to me: why not follow directions that the Reader homepage suggests? I know it was a whacky idea but I've never done anything like that and wondered what it would be like. Next thing you know, I'll be voting. Thanks for your comments. What was the name of the Martin book? When it comes to the concept of redemption that humor offers, your name is bound to occur to me high on the chain of associated ideas. All best, -- Brizz

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