For the young, aspiring comic, the dream of being “the funniest guy in the room” could well surpass any dream of celebrity or wealth. Anybody might get rich or famous, but respect within this competitive, idiosyncratic profession is at a real premium. So comedians hope to make fans of each another. They riff in green rooms, take wild risks on stage and throw all into their craft.
It’s rare to watch a scene with the great Jerry Stiller, who just passed away at the age of 92, without thinking, Yeah, that’s the funniest guy in the room. Yet where comedic talent may easily become a path to vanity or domineering style, this was never the case for Stiller, who turned his hot-tempered humor into generosity: He fed a jolting electricity to his co-stars, who then raised their own game. One of his secrets, I suspect — at least in his beloved elder statesman roles as the irascible Arther Spooner and Festivus-celebrating Frank Costanza on The King of Queens and Seinfeld — was never cutting up as a clown while playing the grumpy sitcom dad. Instead, he inhabited them as volatile old men who behaved according to a totally serious inner logic. Stiller had a stone poker face, and he didn’t let you see that he aimed to make you laugh.
If you’re just passingly familiar with Stiller’s presence, you might assume his shtick was 50 percent volume, 50 percent Brooklyn accent. It’s true that he was often called upon to yell — Seinfeld’s “Serenity Now!” plotline being a favorite example. These moments where he “snapped,” however, were also a testament to his fine control: Stiller would simmer along with a terse, halting, quiet voice, only to erupt at an unexpected word or syllable when he reached his character’s breaking point. Of all the quotable bits from Zoolander, I doubt if there’s a line that’s stuck with me like a simple declarative of his at the climax. On an awkward one-sided phone call with his wife, he starts out calm and collected, the frustration gradually creeping into his voice until he cannot contain it. “For Christ’s sake, Sheila, it’s a casserole, it’ll stay!” he bellows at last.
Maybe it was having a career renaissance in his mid-60s, after many years of winning on-screen collaboration with his wife Anne Meara (they even shot a commercial for the single-payer health-care movement), that allowed Stiller his egoless poise on the TV shows for which he’s best remembered. Allegedly, he never spoke an unkind word or profanity when not performing. It’s almost reflexive, especially now, to see comedy as mercenary and victimizing — that you have to scale its heights by stepping on everyone else. Instead, he did the selfless work of enhancing a purposefully contrived reality. Is there any explanation of George Costanza without Frank? Who are we but children of parents? Much as his fellow cast amused, they needed Stiller to show them where they came from, and how the pieces came together.
Does one have to be humble to succeed? Of course not — and it’s often a liability. We can thank Jerry Stiller, then, for being a model of hilarity who did not insist on his own greatness, nor others’ smallness. He merely stepped into his opportunities and made them count, fully believing in whatever gag it was, and that the joke lands best if it doesn’t sound like a joke at all.
This, it turns out, is what made him the funniest guy in the room: leaving us the space to react.