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Black Lamb


Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.


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House of mirth

It runs in the family

January 1st, 2016


Television comedy writers are often asked how, where, and when they first learned to be funny. (The second and third most frequent questions are, “Why do all network comedies blow?” and “Can you get me free cable?”)

Many writers will say they didn’t discover their ability to make others laugh until they entered school, where they quickly found that their skills as class clown grew in proportion to the number of times they served detention. While I acknowledge the value of our educational system as a training ground for comedy (if for nothing else), it was my own experience — and that of dozens of other writers I know — that funny, just like charity and neurosis, begins at home.

womanlaughinginrockerWhen you’re brought up in a funny family, funny is really a sort of language you learn to speak, a lingua franca with a lexicon of puns and a grammar structured by Groucho glasses. A spit-take is a complete sentence, with a subject and a predicate. Equally as important as the ability to produce funny is the faculty for understanding funny when one hears it, sees it, or steps in it.

The roots of my family funny-tree run deep. My mother was the child of immigrants renowned back in Kiev for coining the phrase “The Czar we know is always better than the Czar we don’t know, as if anybody asked our opinion.” However, their funny was not confined to mere bons mots; as their arrival in this country three days before the October Revolution of 1917 indicates, they were also well-versed in that attendant comedic concept known as timing. Visits to my maternal relatives were splendid occasions of story-telling and joke-building, a middle-class Algonquin Round Table with Schlitz and pierogi standing in for dry martinis and lobster Thermidor.

My father’s family was a slightly different story. Half the line descended from dour German Protestants who’d signed on as mercenaries during the Revolutionary War. There was no documented or anecdotal instance of familial funny until 1872, when the other line — Irish — stumbled down the gangway, hailed Mary for their safe deliverance to the New World, and promptly made for the nearest public house. It was my great-grandfather’s subsequent introduction to the labor union movement that laid the groundwork for an acidic, politically astute, and pitch-dark brand of funny, which his sons and grandsons began practicing themselves as soon as they were big enough to outrun the parish priest.

When I contemplated beginning a family of my own, I was overtaken by a nameless and unshakeable fear that my children might, through some strange and cruel genetic travesty, not be funny. So I stacked the DNA deck by marrying a fellow comedy writer. Since my husband had also grown up in a funny-fluent home, we reasoned that our offspring would be cracking wise before we left the hospital.

As first our son and, later, our daughter, progressed from blob stage to pre-verbal, we anxiously awaited signs that would confirm their funny pedigree. It did not bode well that the boy, who started off with a bang by making the raspberry sound at the precocious age of five months, suddenly turned his attention to decorating walls with cereal. Yet my concern ultimately proved unjustified when, at age five, he made his first quip, a twist on “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.” In his version it became “That’s the way the chicken farts.” Huzzah!

It is in our teenaged daughter, however, that we’ve found the distilled essence of all those generations of comic spirits. Her television debut (an amusing portrayal of Girl Trick-or-Treater #3 in the Halloween episode of a popular sitcom) confirmed her inbred talent for acting funny; but it wasn’t until we read her response to a first grade “empowerment” exercise that we realized she also had the gift for speaking funny. Upon being posed the Talmudically phrased question, “All by myself, I can be a _______,” she crayoned, “All by myself, I can be a princess, but first I need a prince to marry me.” Rim shot! Double-take!

Over the years she’s developed funny chops that most grownup thespians would give their facelifts for. Indeed, it’s her ambition to create and star in her own half-hour comedy series. And if she happens to need a couple of older, experienced, funny writers, she can call our agents. •

This essay first appeared in the January 2003 issue of Black Lamb.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: 13th Anniversary Issue, Gendelman | Link to this Entry


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