What must it be like to be on one of those improv shows like Whose Line is it Anyway? You’re fed an idea and you have to go somewhere funny with it right now. Spectacular fun for the audience when it works, but it must be terrifying for the performers, no?
At this week’s Vancore meeting three veterans tested their own chops on the comedy high-wire. In Table Topics, each got a “one-liner” to riff on. These weren’t particularly funny one-liners. They were stale old chestnuts. For the contestants this was a good thing: there was nowhere to go but up.
“Why,” Susan asked Borzo, “did the chicken cross the road?”
Borzo, first out of the chute, had no real context for this exercise, and he took a few seconds to find his feet. He began thinking aloud. Why would a chicken be so ambitious? What would drive such a high-risk maneuver? Clearly this was a chicken with mental-health issues.
Within seconds, Borzo was on fire.
“I know that chicken,” he said. “It was run over by a bus. My wife works at Translink. The whole thing created a real PR mess.”
Jonathan got, if possible, an even hoarier joke: “Why do cows have bells? (Answer: Because their horns don’t work.)
Away he went. He painted a scene. Picture if you will, Toronto, circa 1830. Hogtown. “Also cowtown – a lot of people don’t know that.” Cows roamed freely. Pastureland encroached on the city and its prestigious law school Osgood Hall. You have to understand, University was different then. Studying was serious business. You didn’t want to be distracted in the quad by some cow suddenly in your face. “That’s why they put bells on ‘em.”
It was Kate’s turn. Question: If drinking-and-driving is a no-no, why do bars have parking lots?
This was the hardest question of all. It was more a Zen parable than a joke. Also: Kate was supposed to find the funny in driving-and-driving?
Somehow, she did. After some early meandering around with stories of drunken shenanigans in her own family, she got down to business.
“No, no no: seriously. Those spaces are for the designated driver. And who is the designated driver? Usually the loser of the group. You know, the one who’s the least-fun drunk.”
It is a thing of beauty to watch an experience toastmaster take a deep breath and just go for it. They trust that a “money line” down there somewhere, waiting to be dug out.
This is how the Drew Careys and Colin Mochries of the world are born – in trials-by-fire very much like one, falling flat as often as they killed. There has to be something at stake, a real audience, even a friendly one like ours. The stakes bring the tension that brings the magic.
Alone in front of the bathroom mirror, you could try to find that money line.
But you’d be trying till the cows come home.