Laughs are not given, they’re earned. But Frank Oz, a man who has received more laughs than he could count, couldn’t tell anyone how to earn them; he doesn’t know a thing about comedy, and honestly, he doesn’t want to.
Oz, a director, producer, writer, actor and Muppet performer, gave his lecture, “I Don’t Know Anything About Comedy,” at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater, continuing Week Six, “What’s Funny? In Partnership with the National Comedy Center.” A majority of Oz’s lecture was moderated by Stephen J. Morrison, Emmy-nominated executive producer and showrunner of the CNN documentary series “The History of Comedy.”
“If one knows, one cannot discover,” Oz said. “Knowing could mean uninspired, so on purpose, I approach things not knowing.”
As someone who doesn’t know anything about comedy, to be comedic, Oz said he had to acquire a “toolbox.”
“Your craft in that toolbox is years of trying things and failing, trying and being embarrassed and humiliated; trying, trying, trying,” he said. “The larger that toolbox is, the more able you are to stand on the cliff of the abyss and just trust that you don’t know. That’s where the good stuff comes from.”
Oz has performed with or directed stars such as Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Morrie Schwartz, Julie Hagerty, Joan Cusack, the Smothers Brothers, Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers and Carol Burnett — and the list goes on, and on and on.
“Why did I tell you that?” Oz said. “It’s because I realized that all of these people that I’ve worked with take their comedy very seriously. The other reason is, I was trying like hell to impress you.”
Oz believes in the “seriousness of the preparation” of comedy. According to him, the underlying intent is always to get a laugh, and rigor is needed before that laugh is earned.
“If one knows, one does not go the distance, one stays safe,” he said. “I always say to my actors, ‘If you don’t make a fool of yourself, you’ll make a fool of yourself.’ I also say, ‘The safest thing is to be risky, the riskiest thing is to be safe.’ ”
Morrison started the discussion with the week’s theme, asking Oz, “What’s funny?”
“If I could tell you, that means I would know, and by knowing, it would not be as funny,” Oz said.
“Got it,” Morrison said.
The two could agree on one thing: Comedy is subjective. But Oz needed to make a clarification — comedy is not just “one thing.”
“It always bothers me, especially selling comedy, when people think comedy is one thing,” he said. “Comedy is from high wit to low buffoonery, and everything in between. It’s odd to me when someone says ‘comedy’ as if it’s a car — there are a lot of cars.”
Oz started in comedy at 10 years old, using puppets as armor from judgment.
“I was a kid with very low self-esteem. I didn’t think much of myself at all, and puppets allowed me to take a chance, a risk, and not feel rejected,” Oz said. “The puppet would be rejected; I would not be rejected. I didn’t have the courage to be rejected.”
Oz performed with puppets until he was 18, and stopped to focus on becoming a journalist. However, six months into journalism school, he was approached by Jim Henson, who saw Oz perform years prior. Henson needed a fourth person for his Muppet group and thought Oz would be a perfect fit.
“Somehow, whatever chemistry that was between Jim and I, Jim somehow brought out the comedy in me, and that was the beginning of how I got into comedy,” he said.
For the first four years of working with Henson, Oz was too scared to perform in different voices. Eventually, Henson forced him to try it out.
“In the dressing room I was so frightened that I looked in the mirror and told myself an old anecdote in show business, ‘If you can’t be funny, be loud,’ ” he said.
Oz went on to voice characters such as Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, Grover, Bert, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam the Eagle and Yoda, all unique in their sound and backgrounds.
Working on shows like “Sesame Street” gave Oz an opportunity to try things over and over until he got them right. But with the trial came error, and Oz said he has a collection of “dead Muppets,” or characters that didn’t work.
With Bert, Oz said it took him over a year to think of a storyline because the character was so “boring.” Eventually, Oz decided to run with what made him boring: Bert’s favorite color is gray, he loves collecting bottle caps and all he wants in life is to be left alone.
With every character Oz creates, he said it’s important for them to have a “want” like Bert’s. For example, Cookie Monster was originally called “Monster,” until a segment aired where he won a quiz show, and when presented with the choice of $10,000, a new car, a Hawaiian vacation or a cookie, he chose the cookie.
“It’s not intellectual, it’s in (your heart),” Oz said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be happy with just one thing?”
In terms of creating the characters’ voices, Oz said there’s no code to crack — the voices come on their own.
“I’m a peasant, like everybody here. We all have our basic, universal feelings,” he said. “You don’t go for a voice, you get the character right and the voice comes — period.”
Out of the many mistakes he has made throughout the years, Oz said he has learned the worst thing a comedian can do is write out their material.
“What I used to do with characters is totally ad-lib,” he said. “I would have no lines whatsoever, but I would start with a strong attitude, and from that attitude we could riff. It’s a different kind of rigor — it’s a rigor of prepping yourself with something so you can feed off of it.”
As Oz got older, he realized he no longer needed the puppets that used to protect him, and so he tried his hand at a lifelong dream: directing. Morrison played a clip from “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” a film Oz directed in 1984.
In comedy, Oz said reactions are more important than actions. In “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” Oz was trying to get Joan Rivers to laugh at his character, Miss Piggy. When Rivers couldn’t produce the guffaw Oz wanted, he bought four gin and tonics — two for Rivers and two for himself — and said the rest of the scene came “naturally.”
“Necessity is the mother of all invention, right?” Morrison said.
According to Morrison, directors are many things — they are storytellers, problem solvers, producers and therapists. More than any of that, Oz said directors are “hopers.”
“You have all of these casts you put together, you have all the crew you put together, you have decisions as a director, you have decisions in wardrobe, you have decisions every single day,” Oz said. “At the end of the day, you don’t know if it’s going to work, so when it says, ‘Directed by Frank Oz,’ it should say, ‘Hoped by Frank Oz.’ ”
In addition to directing, Oz has acted in many films. Oz said he takes roles to become a better director.
“The reason I do those roles is not for acting; the reason I do those roles is to remind myself how frightening it is for an actor to be on camera,” he said. “I realized how naked one feels and how frightened one feels as an actor.”
Morrison played a scene from Oz’s 1988 “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” The scene involved three characters: Freddy, played by Steve Martin, Lawrence, played by Michael Caine, and Inspector Andre, played by Anton Rodgers. In the scene, Freddy is in jail and trying to recall Lawrence’s name for Inspector Andre. The entire scene was improvised by Martin as Oz was crouched out of camera range. When Oz felt that Martin had gone as far as he could with the improv, he tapped Rodgers on the foot to signal him to interrupt.
“A very high-tech and scientific solution,” Morrison said.
“What it says about the process of comedy is that it’s so much by feel,” Oz said. “It is so much from inside, so that’s why I don’t work intellectually.”
Morrison played a clip from “Bowfinger,” a film Oz directed in 1999, that taught him about the importance of rhythm in comedy. Oz said he made the mistake of interrupting his actors too many times.
“My biggest tool as a director is rhythm and to not think,” he said.
Morrison said he couldn’t imagine trying to direct Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Edward Norton in one film.
To that, Oz said: “Next.”
As Oz reflected on his extensive comedy career, he said there are still things he wants to accomplish. But there are no specifics; as long as it’s “good work,” he’s in.
“Number one, whatever I do is honest,” Oz said. “I like being a bit rebellious, to go underground and be a bit dark at times.”
Morrison closed by saying that some refer to comedy as “tragedy plus time.”
“I never understood what that meant,” Oz said.
“No, the tragedy is that we are out of time,” Morrison said.