Coming Off the Funny Bench

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I don't get a lot of help here with the funny. Mostly it's just a lot of old guys telling me I can't use my column to write about sex. Luckily, they're so old they fall asleep before the magazine gets sent to the printer. Forced to find outside help, I turned to the Comedy Coach. I called Neil Leiberman, whom I found at, and listened to his answering-machine message, which included not only "I'll get back to you quicker than you can say 'Scandinavia'" but also "Leave me a message and I'll buy you a car." I am still not sure why he isn't the Komedy Koach.

I went to Leiberman's apartment in San Francisco, where, after I paid him $725, he sat me down in a tiny school desk in a room with an ON AIR sign and a wall full of 8-by-10 glossies of all his students, two of whom were posing with puppets. Leiberman has a salt-and-pepper ponytail and a vanity license plate that reads BE FUNNYR, and counts Heidi Fleiss among his clients. It used to be so much easier to meet Heidi Fleiss.

"If I can't think of something to write about," he said, "I'll open the Yellow Pages and go through them." He also suggested that I repeat national television commercials verbatim. "It's our job to say, 'Look, fog people — look how ridiculous life is.' The fog people are sitting on the couch, drinking the water, eating the chips — they don't notice the commercials. So repeating it to them is funny."

We continued our course over the Internet. I sent Coach a few rough drafts of columns, but his suggestions didn't seem that strong. In a column about how my grandmother doesn't love me, Coach's notes included, "Needs an example of how wonderful the airline meal was." And after my sentence, "She's suddenly clued in to the fact that I am here to replace her," he added, "Which is ridiculous because I could never make a hamantashen with a crust as flaky as hers." Coach worked a little ethnic for my taste.

I turned out to be a very bad student, rarely completing my assignments. Coach was very encouraging about the few jokes I did send him. Though he didn't like my bit on how we should drill in barren Alaska instead of Texas, where they have people and baseball teams, he liked the ones about how only tiny women play the harp, why hotels give you shower caps and sewing kits but no toothpaste, and how bathroom signs are the only places in society where a thin, barrel-chested man can be next to a dumpy woman shaped like a triangle. I was feeling pretty good about myself until he complimented me on the joke I sent him months ago, when Gary Condit's publicist hinted that Chandra Levy slept around: "Ever since Condit accused Chandra Levy of being promiscuous, I am much, much more interested in finding her." I didn't need the old guys to tell me this wasn't even Bob Saget-quality stuff.

At the end of our eight weeks, Coach told me I had potential. He also recommended "trying to write a column without using any celebrity names in it." In my final evaluation, Coach wrote, "Joel writes incredibly well, but some faces were meant for the printed page." I may not be any funnier than before I went to Coach, but I have learned that if I am ever fired from this job, I can charge people $725 to make fun of them. Which is just a little more than I'm making right now.