Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Springtime For Screwloose

I can’t remember which comedian did it, maybe you remember, but someone put a track on one of their albums that was a piece of pantomime.

So, of course, all you heard was the audience’s reaction: a series of laughs that culminated in a huge roar at the end, but you had no idea what the audience had witnessed.

It was a disorienting thing to listen to, this disembodied laughter without any context.

I was reminded of it recently when I noticed at work that many of the employees were obviously listening to the same morning radio show on their headphones.

The laughs all come at the same time, from across the aisle and across the room, but they’re all different. Some linger, as if to savor the experience, others seem to be ahead of the pack in anticipating the joke to come.

It’s almost hypnotic, like watching the ocean. It ebbs and flows and you have the sensation of listening to one giant hive mind.

Now my usual reaction to this is to think that laughter so consistent and so regular every day must be the result of a couple of motormouthed deejays pandering to their audience with a sad excuse for wit and humor.

It’s possible I have misjudged them.

Upon realizing that I would need some remarks to deliver at the wife’s recent birthday party, I figured I would come up with the sort of funny but sentimental, irreverent yet heartfelt thing that I inevitably produce. To be fair, these bits of oratory usually go over pretty well, and I do my best to deliver them in a way that will maximize their effectiveness.

Now when it comes to putting anything like this together, I am a composer of instinct.

I try to shake a few things loose, see if they have any potential and juggle them around to see if they fuse. If the disparate parts start to speak to each other, I know I’m on the right track and the thing usually starts to create itself with little help from me.

It’s an instinct I usually trust.

It tells me what works and what doesn’t. It solves problems and offers alternatives. It helps me sand off the rough edges to make a pleasing aesthetic whole.

This time, though, I could tell that this instinct was going a slightly different way this time. It was creating something a little, I suppose, “edgier” than usual and although I was straying a little outside of my usual province, I felt confident that it would work.

When I finished it I could see precisely where the laughs would appear, from the benign chuckles to the involuntary belly roars. I could see where the pauses and beats had to go to wring the tears of mirth from their eyes. It was all so obvious how well it would go over and I couldn’t wait to debut it.

Let me repeat that I have a good track record with these things. So to fail, not in a small or subtle way but in an immeasurable and catastrophic way, at an event meant to honor the wife as she was surrounded by friends and family, was more than a little mortifying.

To know about 15 seconds in when the first joke crashes and burns to the ground in a hail of gunfire that you have to now make your way through the rest of it, knowing full well than the audience is only going to react with even less enthusiasm, is like finding a pit in the pit of your stomach: you didn’t know there was anything that far down.

There had been some lovely testimonials prior to my talk. Stories of adventure and loyalty and times gone by, told with gusto and affection.

Let me explain what I was aiming for:

I had two overriding concepts guiding the speech. One was that the narrator would talk a good game about how entering this stage of Life was a beautiful thing, etc., but he would do it in a way that featured descriptions of the drawbacks of old age presented in the most unpalatable way possible, the idea being to face the thing head on and thus disarm it, rather than engaging in tired homilies about age and wisdom.

The other comedic axis consisted of an omnipresent layer of sexual perversion, which is to say that the narrator would frequently lapse into unappetizing innuendo and sleazy suggestion without realizing how offensive he was being.

These two strands flirted and danced around each other like strands of DNA, dipping and diving like the players in some garish and depraved mating ritual.

Somehow, someway, my instinct leading the way off the cliff, never marching more confidently or flying its flags more brilliantly, it had seemed to me that this, this hymn to decrepitude and unwholesome appetites, this wholly inappropriate paeon to piercings and perversion, it had seemed to me that this would be terribly, terribly funny.

Next: Making A Sick Hearse Out Of A Slow Fear


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few years back, a friend of mine turned 40. She has a great sense of humor. When card shopping, I came across one whose front image was of a victorian era woman laughing heartily. The message inside read, "Whenever I think of how old you are, I laugh myself sick. Happy 40th!" I got as far as the counter before I somehow got the sense to turn back. No matter how good a sense of humor one has, 40 (and older) is no laughing matter. As I'm not known for my tact, it was a banner moment for me.

Monday, November 26, 2007 3:32:00 PM  

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