Yes, he’s narcissistic, irresponsible, drug-addled and a bad father, but all that is a byproduct of his intense desire to elicit laughter from everyone he encounters. He’s just more committed than the rest of us, loses focus elsewhere, and eventually becomes a victim of his own success.
It’s clear after reading The Funny Man that Warner is an author who spends a lot of time reflecting about comedy and its place in our culture. That’s self-evident to those familiar with Warner’s previous work as a comedy writer, satirist and editor at large at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, but here it goes deeper. Though darkly funny, The Funny Man doesn’t go for the rapid-fire punchlines one could reasonably assume would be a comedy writer’s stock-in-trade. Here, Warner’s objective isn’t so much to make you laugh, though it bears repeating to say that this is a funny book, but instead to make you think about the business of humor — the obtuse notion of why someone would expose themselves emotionally on stage, and if the lengths people will go to attain stardom are worth it.
The novel begins with Warner’s anonymous Funny Man as a middling comic working the club circuit. Offstage he’s sardonic and genuinely funny, but he’s not going anywhere with his act. That’s until he comes up with his “thing,” which is doing impressions with his fist in his mouth to the wrist.
Like any novelty appealing to the lowest common denominator, the Funny Man’s “thing” takes off and soon he’s playing theaters, selling out tours and starring in a schlocky blockbuster.
The book satirizes the pitfalls associated with celebrity, culminating with the idea that ‘not guilty by reason of celebrity’ might someday be a plausible defense to manslaughter. The anonymous Funny Man shoots a would-be robber on the street, and his preparation for the manslaughter trial is a running subplot that, like the rest of the book, alternates between first and third person each chapter. The conceit works because the first person allows Warner to frame the third-person action in a way that provides a little mystery and suspense.
Warner, who credits Howard Stern and Artie Lange in the novel’s Acknowledgments and said much of his understanding of stand-up comedy comes from listening to guests on Stern’s program, peppers his book with clever asides that themselves could serve as stand-up bits.
The Funny Man’s lawyer, Barry, for example, has a witty diatribe about how emergencies are never really emergencies, and the Funny Man gives an inspired breakdown of luck vs. fortune. But these serve more as comic relief to the book’s provocative theme of being careful what you wish for. The Funny Man’s “thing” is a monster from which he can’t escape. The gimmick that made him a star is also the catalyst for his depression and downward spiral.
He finds redemption in a reality-bending send up of New Age wellness centers catering to the rich and famous. Or does he? The last third of the book is ambiguous, but serves as a meditation on therapy, the afterlife, and connecting with a kindred spirit.
It works because like the rest of the novel, it’s the biting social commentary that Warner is going for, not wrapping things up in a bow.
In case you couldn’t tell, Phil Davidson hasn’t reviewed a whole lot of books.