Answering machine comedians

LAST night I hung up on Humphrey Bogart. Oh, he was polite enough, instructing me to ``leave a message after the beep or you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of your life.'' Before he had a chance to remind me of our swell times in Paris, I bravely but firmly replaced the receiver. I just couldn't deal with one more AMC -- Answering Machine Comedian. They're everywhere these days. It's as if there's now a social stigma attached to leaving the standard I'm-not-at-home-please-leave-your-name-and-number-and-I'll-get-back-to-you message on a recording machine. Such directness might suggest the phonee is at best, well, dull and at worst inhospitable. If a caller is gracious enough to ``reach out and touch,'' his efforts ought at least to be rewarded with a snappy one-, two-, or three-liner!

So the socially conscientious phonee records paraphrases of Bogart or Shakespeare (``To be here or not to be here, that was the question'') or provides extravagantly imaginative explanations of his whereabouts (``Nancy asked us to pick up a pizza on our way to the White House'').

If stand-up comedy is a chancy profession, call-up comedy is not; the next gig is never more than a ding-a-ling away. Visualize, please, the eager Answering Machine Comedian poised over his Touch-Tone. It rings but he doesn't move to pick up the receiver. Perspiring as freely as if he were waiting to go on stage in Vegas for the first time, he lets his answering machine kick on. He's trying out new material today, a routine that begins, ``A funny thing happened on the way to the phone . .MD NM .'' and suggests that most callers hang up without leaving a message because ``I get no respect.''

The typical Answering Machine Comedian learns his craft quickly. His early recordings may be embarrassingly stiff (``This is Bruce. Please. I am not at home. Please leave a message when you hear the beep. Please. Thank you. Please''). But he's soon doing an ersatz Jack Nicholson (``Hieee. This is Nicholson. Bruce has given up podiatry to make pictures with Spielberg. They're off on location today, but I'd consider it a deeply personal favor if you'd. . . '').

For the incurably timid of tongue there are, of course, commercially produced answering tapes, notably a series by Rich Little and Julie Dees, which treat callers to answerings by the likes of Shirley Temple and Frank Sinatra.

But a purist Answering Machine Comedian is a born do-it-yourselfer. He creates home-grown humor that ranges from the awful (a category including most ``Godfather'' impressions, some of which sound more like Gary Coleman than Vito Corleone) to the sublimely clever. One rabidly antiathletic single woman leaves a message telling callers she's off playing golf with Tom Selleck. After a well-timed pause, she demands to know what they doubt -- that she's out with Selleck or playing golf.

Hearing her message for the first time, I laughed so hard I couldn't blurt out the reason I'd called and had to re-dial in order to get a second shot at her beep.

Derailing callers' trains of thought, by the way, is only one of many hazards faced by the too, too successful Answering Machine Comedian. Another is that callers may be so intimidated they refuse to leave a message at all. I mean when the phonee has been hysterically funny, a phoner feels downright doltish asking how many eggs go into the chocolate mousse cake.

Worse, acquaintances begin a weird form of phone abuse: Call a rising young Answering Machine Comedienne when they know she isn't home just to get a good yuk. She later checks the message counter on her machine and notices she's heard from lots of callers who hung up without saying a word. She's annoyed she's missed a call from Mr. Right when, in fact, she's only been phoned by Mr. Bored.

After a few months of hot performances on the Ma Bell circuit, our Answering Machine Comedian realizes that nobody wants to talk to him anymore. On occasions when he answers his phone ``live,'' he detects disappointment in the voice at the other end of the line. The caller was hoping for something more, shall we say, impersonal.

Equally disturbing, the Answering Machine Comedian notices that he avoids making calls himself in fear of dialing a recording that's funnier than his own. He suspects friends are rating this month's message against last month's and finding it lacking. He arrives for lunch with two friends, and as he approaches the restaurant table is convinced they're panning his Qaddafi impression.

The performance anxiety builds. He can't eat. He can't sleep. Worst of all he can't think up any fresh ideas to record on the machine. The device that was supposed to be a convenience is now inconveniently ruining his life.

Then one bright blue day he knows what he must do. He heads toward a neighborhood print shop where he orders a box of custom-printed announcements:

``Your friend Charlie proudly announces that he has discovered the ultimate in communications pleasure. He has given away his answering machine. From now on when Charlie's home, he'll answer the phone. When he's out, he's gonna just let the sucker ring.''

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