Book review | The Funny Man by John Warner
If there’s one thing that the transcendent sitcom Louie has shown us, it’s that not even successful comedians are very happy people. But the funny man in Warner’s debut novel—we’re never given a name—is really unhappy. He’s an open-mic standby until one day he decides to do all of his bits with his fist shoved in his mouth. The act takes off, catapulting him to fame, inking him a movie deal, tearing apart his family and putting him on trial for shooting a man. His attorney declares him not guilty due to celebrity.
Warner, managing editor for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and coauthor of the very funny My First Presidentiary, turns his satirical saw on celebrity culture. But that’s the thing about celebrity: There’s not much there to cut. Certainly, a middling comic enslaved to his gimmick is both a cautionary tale and a showbiz tragedy—in idle moments one could wonder what happens to Carrot Top when the cameras shut off—but as a lens turned on celebrity in general, it’s not a particularly focused one. When the funny man dreams up a reality show called Kick in the A$$, in which contestants get kicked in the ass for $$, it comes across as neither clever nor meta-clever.
More so than Louie, the obvious pop-cultural corollary here is Judd Apatow’s 2009 film Funny People, in which Adam Sandler’s comedian alter ego slowly destructs after making too many execrable films. Apatow gave up trying to make that character empathic about halfway through the film, and Warner deserves credit for trying to inject some heart into his funny man—the domestic scenes are well drawn. But the book lacks the tightness—and poignancy—of a good joke.