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Richard Price’s The Breaks details the life of Peter Keller, a troubled young man fresh out of college and trying to find his calling in the world. Throughout the novel Peter has trouble
defining himself and what he should do with his life. While transitioning through many jobs such as a telemarketer, postal office employee, and teacher, it is not until he declares himself a
comic that he achieves some self-definition. However, is this self-definition as a comic true to Peter’s characteristics? Would he even succeed as a comic? The text supports the argument
that while Peter has a knack for witty banter, it is not comical enough or befitting his nature to become a stand-up comedian.
In part one, Peter is out of college and is back to living with his parents when the reader first sees his doubt and contemplation on becoming a comic. He is sitting in his living room watching Johnny Carson’s guest comedian, Herman Contardo, and contemplating what his friend said to him at graduation about becoming a comic. Peter thinks about this, telling himself, “I couldn’t be a comic. A class clown does not a comic make” (Price 25). He acknowledges the fact that it is one thing to make friends laugh in a casual and familiar setting and another thing entirely to entertain on stage in front of strangers. Yet he seems unable to make up his mind if he is good enough to be a comedian, later stating, “I was Speedo, as fast as a fuck. I could always crack people up if the time and place were right” (Price 37). But to be a successful comedian, he cannot rely on a certain time or place to make jokes; he must do a routine in front of a crowd. He then says that he would, “fold like a jackknife” (Price 25) which foreshadows his stand-up routine’s reception in New York.
Peter’s debut into the world of stand-up comedy comes about in a New York bar that supports actors, performers, and singers that are taking classes. It is a community of fellow entertainers that understand the pressures of entertaining a group of unfamiliar people. It is essentially a safe haven for inexperienced entertainers. Peter starts by saying, “This is my first time up here” (Price 348) which clammed up the crowd. He continues with an awkward explanation of his previous employment as a telemarketer, which is not well received by the crowd (considering only one person was laughing), and towards the end he gives up his planned routine and improvises. He goes straight into a story of how he was molested, a topic that pushes the line for most people. After his improvised routine the reader could mistake the crowd’s applause as approval but upon close reading it could be viewed as an act of pity on him. He imagines watching his own act and states that “it would be rude not to applaud” (Price352). The bartender wouldn’t take his money when he ordered a drink and a woman he started talking to “looked pained and awkward. She wanted me to go away” (Price 352). After telling a very personal and controversial story, the crowd seemed sorry for him, and gave him accolades as a sort of consolation, not because he was exceptionally hilarious.
Peter’s wittiness and comical behavior is mostly acknowledged by people close to him. Upon visiting his old fraternity, Peter runs into a current member who knows him as the “funny
guy”. He remembers his time in the fraternity and how he graduated from “Class Clown to Insult Comic, Cracking everybody up with dead-on impersonations” (Price 130). While this
would seem to support his aspiration to become a comic, he states that it was not as great as it seemed. Peter felt “more like a visiting caricature artist than a brother-which was not great”
(Price 130). This statement shows that Peter’s desire to be a comedian is not so much his dream, but what is of expected of him by his friends. To his friends he is “Speedo – the funny
guy” and expected to entertain them with impressions and commentary on television shows. Peter’s banter and comments are not always well received, even by people he is close
to. While living at home after college watching TV with his parents, Peter “exploded with a half-dozen responses in ten seconds” (Price 30) to an episode of “N.Y.P.D.” which causes his father
to miss some of the lines of the show. His outburst is received with irritation and Vy has to recite the lines to his father. Peter gives up on this routine that used to cause laughter among
his friends. Even his comical dialogue with Kim’s mother went unacknowledged and unappreciated by her. When talking about their respective families, Peter states that at the top
floor of the hospital in the distance is the V.D ward, in which his “father’s very big there…East Coast distributor, he had about three hundred people under him” (Price 402). While funny, this encounter shows that his humor is not what people expect or can relate to and yet again, he gives up his attempts and leaves.
Peter Keller’s character has his moments of comedy and sarcastic remarks are prevalent throughout the novel; however his successes in making people laugh is few and far between. His desire to be a comedian revolves around the fact that his friends viewed him as such, not that he viewed himself to be. His failed attempts at comedy show that he would not be successful as a comedian. His uncertainty in his decisions and continuous contemplation of his funniness show that he cannot truly define himself as a comedian, and definitely not a successful one.
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