Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Funny Man" ("Afternoon of the Hero")

"Welcome to televisionland -- where famous faces wear other faces, where girls are pussycats, bikinis are business suits, and kings run scared."

"Funny Man" appeared in the May 21, 1966 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, only two months before it showed up as the final entry in John D MacDonald's first short story anthology, End of the Tiger and Other Stories. Included under a different title -- "Afternoon of the Hero" -- it seems to be one of the two stories in that collection that were written especially for the book. "Triangle" appeared two months after the book hit the stands in July -- in the men's magazine Cavalier -- while "Funny Man" was published before Tiger, yet the magazine's table of contents makes reference to the collection's forthcoming publication. The story's change of title shouldn't seem odd, as probably over half of MacDonald's published stories had their titles changed by magazine editors over the years, yet for it to happen so late in his career is a bit curious, especially since it seemed timed to help promote the book. "Funny Man" was one of the last short stories JDM would ever write and it reflects the writer's maturity and craftsmanship as an author of short fiction, as well as representing a turn toward more adult themes and subject matter.

It's a character study with little resembling an actual plot, focusing on a popular television comedian named King Noonan. We join him as he awakens in his "half-acre of bed" in the "shadowy expanse of bedroom," part of his large estate located we-know-not-where. He's hung over and it's already late morning, but as he crawls to the bathroom he clowns to himself, a comedian always "on," audience or no. As the curtains open and the blinding light floods the bedroom, he covers his eyes and pleads in a mock-Balkan accent, "No, Andreyev, not the torture of the lights, comrade, I beg you." He pushes a few buttons to bring up music, enters his vast six-head shower, then rings for his personal assistant Robbie. Clearly King Noonan is someone who has made it.

Or not... MacDonald uses the device of a recent magazine article within the story to instantly give not only King's background, but to also establish the character's motivation and hint at how the story will be resolved. He reads it to himself after he has dried off from his shower:

"It would be too trite to say that King Noonan, one of the most fabulously successful comics of our time, is underneath his exuberant exterior, a lonely and complex fellow. And perhaps it is no longer fashionable to look for the basic motivating force. But, if backed into a corner, I would say that the King's engine is fear. He is not lonely -- not with that permanent retinue. Nor is he complex in the ordinary meaning of the word.

"King Noonan runs scared, and thus he runs very hard indeed. He is afraid of the effects of the abuse he inflicts on his big, durable body. He is terrified of death. He is afraid to think of the probable reasons for the failures of his marriages, the failures in friendship. Failure is indeed his demon. Failure professionally, personally, socially, emotionally. And so he drives himself in the pursuit of a perfection which will make failure unthinkable, and we are the ones who gain thereby.

"One day one of the demons will catch him. But, in the meantime, we are privileged to watch the chase and enjoy the by-product of his fear: that great comic art -- sometimes vulgar, sometimes as sensitive and delicate as great theater, always competent. Fear is the engine, and laughter is the long, bright road."
Noonan makes no comment, interior or otherwise, on the article but tosses the magazine across the room, then goes to pick it up and put it back on a desk. He looks outside and sees some of his "permanent retinue" out by the pool, along with a couple of bikini-clad young women he doesn't recognize. His assistant Robbie enters and they immediately begin going over his schedule for the day. Robbie seems a bit reserved, but that's only because King fired him several times the night before, acts the King can not remember. He also doesn't recall calling up the author of that magazine article and giving him holy hell. It's clear from the brief actions and descriptions we are given that King Noonan is not a nice fellow. He a brash, demanding and ruthless performer who treats his staff like serfs and masks his insecurities with gallons of alcohol. He gets a rubdown from his private masseuse, then meets with his television agent to discuss the next season of his television show.

After a few telephone calls he heads down to the pool and clowns around on the diving board. The new young women there are actresses brought over to audition for a bit in his Chicago show, the "stewardess act," and after he's done in the pool he meets with them individually. The first is Adele Bowen, "a blonde, young, wise-eyed, with a lot of facial business, conversational extravagance, the choppy gestures of the industry." Still poolside, he forces her into a lightning round of expressions, reactions and emotions, all done quickly, professionally and without a moment's hesitation. Then he asks her about her competition, the other young lady there, Priscilla Wendell. Adele speaks honestly when she says that, despite Priscilla's knockout of a figure, she cannot think of her as a pro. King tells her to wait around while he auditions Priscilla, only this audition is going to take place indoors, in his bedroom study. Priscilla tries to play it cool, "but her eyes swiveled too much, and her hands were damp, chilly and trembling..." He tosses her a script from his desk, already knowing that Adele will play the part...

"Funny Man" takes place in a world of talented yet insecure people, where friends and business associates are addressed as "baby," "sweetie" or "rat fink," and where verbal abuse is the expected norm. MacDonald visited this world at least once before, in his 1954 novel All These Condemned, where the character Judy Jonah is a similar yet far more sympathetic comic. She's the star of her own television series and a celebrity who has already reached the apogee of her fame. Judy lives with the same fears and insecurities, yet she is all-too ready to leave it behind for a more traditional role. In "Funny Man" King Donavan is riding high, loving every minute of power and glory, yet afraid to look down for even a second. When he eventually does, even for the briefest of moments, he turns it into a joke and reverts to form, back into his own comfort zone. The story is somewhat atypical for MacDonald up to that point in his career, yet it prefigures the kinds of more mature tales he would begin penning for Playboy the following year, those adult short stories that would make up his second anthology S*E*V*E*N.

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