"Halfway through the act I said to myself, 'I can't do this anymore,' " Miller says. "So I get the guy to go along with me, and I get a butter knife and I put it to his throat. I drag him out into the bar and I shout, 'Don't anybody move or I'll kill the audience.' " He then prodded the man into a cab at knife point and the two of them rode off, laughing like crazy.
"I think you're kind of an animal up there," he says. "It's very primal. I mean, I was a shy boy. I was like everykid. And it's very liberating up there. I'm sort of a wise ass-up there, but a wise-ass who looks like he's in control of being a wise-ass. A quirk of my mind allows me to mix up arcane references with colorful language and some sort of angry, cathartic point of view. And the blend works for our time."
He catches himself. "No, it doesn't work across the board, but when people pull up to my pump, they know what octane it's gonna be," he says. "I mean it's comedy. How dare they tell me I can't say f-- in my act. If somebody gets hung up on that . . . I mean, it's Morey Amsterdam. He's a sweet guy, I've met him. But, in all aspects, our culture has taken its tuxedos off."
Much later, at Hollywood's most famous landmark of humor, the Improv comedy club, Kevin Rooney, bald enough for Miller to refer to him as Remulak -- after the home planet of the hairless Coneheads -- listens to my Hollywood School dream and smiles.
"You know the joke about comedy writers," he says, "is that you take all the dropouts from high school and they're making a quarter-million a year out here, because they're too dumb to get a regular job."
He has paid his dues with a decade working the stand-up comedy-club circuit, and now, at 43, is regarded as one of the funniest behind-the-scenes comic minds in Hollywood. Still, the guy he envies is a plumber friend in Saratoga Springs, a very funny guy, he says, with a family and a regular circle of steady friends. Roons, as he is known to everyone out here, dreams of breaking free of the Hollywood grind someday, buying a farm in New England or taking an extended trip to Ireland and a crack at some serious writing.
"Because you realize you're just a joker, the court jester, the guy with bells on," he says. "It's a classic thing to be tortured about, that you're not doing something important. It doesn't have the gravitas of the guy who is trying to find a cure for cancer or someone who wins the war."
He takes a hit from a Marlboro Light and sighs one of those who's-he-kidding sighs.
"Of course, you'd end up going to a local pub in Ireland and hanging out and when it came time to talk about something, the conversation would get to be goofy and after awhile someone would say 'Hey, you're pretty funny.' And you'd be known as the funny guy."
The curse of comedy.
"I suppose comedy writing is a good thing," he says. "You don't hurt anybody. I'm not creating anything that has a poisonous byproduct. It's just like at the end of that Woody Allen movie where the aliens confront Woody and tell him 'You want to help mankind? Write funnier jokes.' "
The next day at a Sunset Strip restaurant called the Source, I have lunch with Greg Dean, who runs a school for stand-up comedians. A veteran of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey clown college as well as the comedy-club circuit, he describes himself as a comedy clinician. In the next two hours I begin to realize the wisdom of E. B. White when he suggested dissecting humor was like dissecting a frog: complete goosh.
"My basic piece of theory," he begins, "is that all comedy happens in the human mind."
"Ah," I nod.
"Information comes in, we do something with it, we kick it back out as a joke."
"Ah," I nod.
"I'm saying all jokes shatter some assumption. There's people's expected assumption and people's unexpected assumption. The unexpected assumption leads you to the punch line. They get the second story, which is more of a reinterpretation, and they realize their initial interpretation was shattered."
"Ah," I nod.
"You know what happens then?"
"Ah," I nod, but catch myself. I shake my head. "Uh . . ."
"Then people laugh."
"Ah," I nod, sensing the peanut at last. "And they laugh because . . ."
He looks puzzled.
"I have no idea."
I stop nodding.
"Now we're dealing with a why question and I don't care why," he says.
"You don't care why?"
" 'Why' leads you into psychology," he says. "If there's a 'why,' it's a playful way of dealing with negativity or pain. That's the probable 'why.' It doesn't interest me."
"Ah," I nod, signaling urgently for the check.
And so I drive, at last, to 922 N. Vine, the address printed on my dozen books from the Hollywood School of Comedy Writing. I have fantasized for years about what the campus must look like. Would there be a huge portico that emits laughs when you drive through? Is the school football team called the Comedians?