Tickling the Funny Bone

A young Bernie Sahlins

Bernie Sahlins died over the weekend at 90. He was co-founder of Second City, Chicago’s famous comedy club, and is known for propagating great comedians like Gilda Radnor, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live.

Sahlins was a close friend of a cousin of mine, Sheldon Patinkin (yes, Mandy Patinkin is also a cousin).

When I read Bernie Sahlins’ obituary I realized a link between improvisational comedy and what I do for a living.

The improv comic takes a word, a situation, a hint, and builds a sketch on it. If he or she is a Belushi or a John Candy they take funny and build it into pathos or a belly laugh with a gesture or word. The key is connection to the audience and boldness. They have to be willing to be stupid and fail outrageously to be crazy funny.

I feel the tug of improv in the used my machinery business, Graff-Pinkert. Every deal starts with a clue, a sniff, a subtle hint of possibility. I swallow the clue and let my unconscious pick up on the trail. The great improv comic also absorbs the clue. If she has a partner they toss the idea up like a balloon in a light breeze and follow it joyfully together around the stage. They make laughs out of nothing but their zigzagging playful imagination.

When I’m clicking in my work I’ve also connected to my unconscious mind, because that’s where the creativity lives. When I go to “what if” land I access the mind that can make deals where there are none.

This may sound goofy and a long way from engineering and machining, but I think the joy of improv has a place in every business and endeavor. What if the next time you get a batch of prints you say to yourself, “if I could do this stupid and wrong, how would I approach it?” You just might find some nutty insight that could start a new business.

In business, the exciting deals are the ones that make us feel uncomfortable. A smart guy once told me, “you never get a good deal until you feel it in your gut.” Then you know you’ve pushed into the discomfort zone where big things happen.

At Second City, Bernie Sahlins helped establish a culture where comedians were rewarded for both taking chances and playing ball with their peers. Second City is not for soloists. It is an ensemble. So is business. Even the virtuoso needs a good band to play with.

My two sons have both done improv. They even did it together. I think every person should take an improv class just to access their funny bones for once in their lives. It’s a way to stretch. We all need that.

Question: Who is your favorite comic? Why?

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9 thoughts on “Tickling the Funny Bone

  1. AvatarJeffrey Kopp

    Wow how does anyone have one favorite comic? My most recent favorite is Ron White, you must go now and rent buy or Hulu his “A Little Unprofessional”, I saw this past week and literally couldn’t breathe I was laughing so hard! Old school pick: Jonathon Winters; most outrageous: Sam Kinson; Best Clean Comic: Bill Cosby; But my all time favorite?? Steve Martin, based on standup and a major reason would be movies like the Jerk, LA Story (one of my all time fav movies) etc etc; keep up the great and entertaining prose!!

  2. AvatarJohn "Jack" Frost

    Of the moderns, Cosby is the first banana. I have LPs of his club shows that are rib breakers. The all time comic is Will Rogers. His characterizations of politics and politicians was of the finest order. The appearance of Bruce and his ilk of potty mouths took the laugh out of laughter. Today, I get most of my comedy out of the CNN and mainline news casts. Minsky’s of the ’30 was a hellovabetter show than the best of todays improvs.

  3. AvatarChad Oxender

    Bill Cosby without a doubt. He actually is funny. Much more than I can say for about any other stand-up type. Bill is clean AND funny! I don’t find much “funny” in most “comedy”. I grew up with “200 MPH” and “To Russell” and can about follow word for word to this day.

  4. AvatarJosh Weaver

    Oh man this is tough. George Carlin is the king. I’ll say it again, George Carlin is the king. There are many other greats however. Bill Hicks was really good. Mitch Hedberg was also fantastic and also taken from us too early. Louis CK is really hot right now and deserves every bit of fame he’s achieved, although I understand his humor might not be for some. John Mulaney is a writer for SNL and his stand up is really great, if you get a chance look up his bit on midgets. Another young guy who demands mention is Anthony Jeselnik but he can be brutal, not filthy, but brutal. Conan O’Brien isn’t a standup but he’s one of the funniest men on television. Bill Burr is an absolute riot. Aziz Ansari has his own very humorous style, but it is more likely to be appreciated by younger folks. I could keep going for too long, there are so many awesome people out there right now; Doug Benson, Hannibal Buress, Jim Gaffigan, Patton Oswalt. Well, for anyone interested you’ve got a list of various and varied comedians and styles there. I guarantee one of these guys will have you busting a gut.

  5. AvatarGreg Hale

    You gotta give Jerry Seinfeld a nod. He co-wrote and starred in the funniest, witiest, most ingenious sitcom of all time!

  6. AvatarDonna

    Tim Conway would be one of my top choices. Loved the Carol Burnett show with Tim and Harvey Korman, they all played off each other so well. Carol Burnett was also fantastic, I will always remember her ‘Gone with the Wind’ dress with the curtain rod still coming through the shoulders of her dress! Lucille Ball was another great female comedian. Steve Martin will always be a favorite tool. . . from his arrow through the head and pharaoh routine to the many wonderful movies he has made. They all bring a smile to my face when I think about them.

  7. LloydLloyd

    I love Seinfeld as a TV comic. Bob Newhart was amazing early in his career telling stories. Bill Cosby great storyteller. George Carlin for a monologue. For movies you gotta love Bill Murray. For profane riff Chris Rock.

  8. AvatarDick Crosby

    Conway & Korman. Especially Tim. Harvey was the straight guy, and, I don’t think anyone played it better. The Carol Burnett Show has to be found somewhere in “funny heaven”. She and her sidekicks were usually broken up, which was, in itself, funny.
    The Dean Martin roasts could/would break you up too. How about Abbott & Costello?
    Or Red Skelton. Bob Hope. Cosby, of course. Jonathon winters! Dick Vandyck. Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin. Steve Martin. Lucille. I don’t remember any of the above as being gross, which in my generation, was not allowed in/for public persentation.
    Some of it was suggestive, but profanity and vulgarity wasn’t necessary to get laughs. The kids today (Anyone under 40 ???), seem to think gross is funny. It’s a sick society!
    But then, I’m a dinosaur!


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