MR. FUNNY PANTS
By Michael Showalter
Grand Central Publishing, $24.99, 288 pages
Reading “Mr. Funny Pants” brings to mind the dramatic final scene of the 1974 film classic “Chinatown.”
In a highly charged confrontation with J.J. Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) keeps repeating, “She’s my daughter. She’s my sister.”With each chapter of “Mr. Funny Pants,” and sometimes even from one page to the next, I reflexively found myself thinking, “I love this. I hate this.”
On the dedication page of “Mr. Funny Pants,” author Michael Showalter writes: “For Amelia, my lovely wife of forty years” and then lists by name his “beautiful children, chocolate Labrador, all seventeen of our chickens.” Anyone who knows Mr. Showalter (writer-star of Comedy Central’s “Michael & Michael Have Issues” and cast member of MTV’s “The State” from the mid-‘90s) knows he only recently turned 40.
I love his faux but heartfelt dedication that, like much of “Mr. Funny Pants,” is a vehicle for an incredibly quirky sense of humor. From the very first page, we realize we are in for a totally different reading experience, augmented by the author’s own stickmanlike drawings.
So, what’s not to like? Several opening chapters are devoted to figuring out how to write a gripping opening chapter. This is potentially an interesting device - reading a book that is in the process of being written. But, as in the case of Mr. Showalter’s multiple “Prefaces,” the best he achieves is a tired silliness. Many chapters begin as setups for jokes that never quite materialize.
Structurally, the humor in “Mr. Funny Pants” follows a bell curve: The earlier and later chapters are flat, grasping attempts at humor; the middle chapters satisfy, albeit intermittently. Early in “Mr. Funny Pants,” laugh-out-loud moments catch the reader by surprise - actual punch lines appear as if by accident. Unfortunately, Mr. Showalter’s intentionally rambling style raises the question as to whether or not he is also intentionally not being funny.
Not until midway through the book, in his chapter “The Joys of Streaking,” does Mr. Showalter somewhat consistently hit his comic stride.In part of a chapter series titled “My Morning Routine,” Mr. Showalter demonstrates his habit of creating about five comic ideas a day.However, late in the book, absent crass, sophomoric or vulgar situations and language, his morning-routine observations are still no wittier than, “There is no way to look cool while holding an ice cream cone.”
Even so, this first-time author’s offbeat style excels when he writes about actual events from his high school and college years using a story-within-a-story format (e.g., Stephen King’s “Misery” or John Gardner’s “October Light”). While bemoaning several failed dates from his past - lamenting that most women he pursues have dinner with him first, only to confide later that they already have serious boyfriends - Mr. Showalter’s current live-in girlfriend continuously interrupts, drawing his attention to cute sleep-poses struck by their many adorable cats.
Mr. Showalter’s command of the movie industry, especially when it comes to pitch meetings and scriptwriting, is on display in “How to Write and Sell a Hollywood Screenplay - Chapter Four.” His pointed advice on troubleshooting scripts reveals clever secrets from a writer who has obviously “been there, done that” and suggests devices common to many formulaic Hollywood movies: “The wrong boyfriend doesn’t like to dance.” “In order to defeat an evil spirit, you have to scream at it.” “The cop’s wife wants him to spend more time at home.”
At best, “Mr. Funny Pants” is a hip mix of a “Monty Python” sketch, mid-1970s National Lampoon magazine article and any later-season episode of “Seinfeld.” At worst, the writing is herky-jerky, hokey-jokey and in much need of a brutally honest editor. (Mr. Showalter’s seemingly absentee editor is named Ben, a recurring character throughout the book.)
Will you love “Mr. Funny Pants” or hate it? My guess is you’ll answer as I did: Both.
Albin Sadar, author of “The Men’s Underwear Repair Kit,” lives in New York City.