Art is a dog. Dog is art.
Nothing that can make one feel like a stranger in a strange land more than witnessing a homeowner release a rooster in his backyard. The homeowner spotted me walking my dog after opening the backdoor to let his rooster outdoors. I tried to look away quickly. My hope was that he might consider it plausible that I didn’t see him do it. By avoiding eye contact, I hoped to avoid an exchange that might lead me to search for a comment. I also didn’t want to share that uncomfortable smile that occurs shortly after witnessing another act in an embarrassing manner. Just before I could look away, I noticed the homeowner offer me a wave. I looked back, it was a warm, small town wave strengthened by a pleasant smile. The man’s smile and the wave suggested that letting a rooster out in the backyard was routine for him, and there was no reason for me to stress out about the moment. I returned the smile, waved back, and continued walking my dog. The rooster did not relieve itself after the man retreated inside, but it did rush the fence when it saw how close my dog and I came to its territory. The rooster eyed my dog, and it was a foreboding eye. The rooster did not cockle doodle doo us, but its actions suggested that that was the next logical course of action.
I forgot about this incident soon after the walk ended. I considered a “you had to be there” story where so many stories go to die. Yet, the story made me uncomfortable, and when someone else told me their uncomfortable story, I brought this one up to top him. After receiving a reaction to this story, I began telling it so often that it became my story. I told it so often during the next year, that when I returned to the locale I began telling it again without foresight.
“That’s my brother Harley,” a man said. “He has a pet rooster.”
Harley’s brother interrupted me in full story mode. He locked me up. I couldn’t think of anything to say. It was equivalent to driving down the street at eighty miles an hour and slamming on the brakes.
My favorite stories are the “strange but true” varieties that don’t require creative add-ons. Stories like the-rooster-that-thought-it-was-a-dog are my favorites, not because they’re hilarious, but because they’re so true that they leave the listener with that “All right, but what do you want me to do with this?” reaction. When I’m in the middle of one of these stories, and someone interrupts me after I’ve worked hard on my timing and my emphasis, it annoys me. When that interruption deflates me story, I become visibly flustered.
I had a finger in the air, and a smile on my face, as I prepared to launch into my critically acclaimed punchline. This man’s intimate familiarity with the rooster’s owner brought me to that screeching halt. I froze. It locked me up so bad that for the next couple of guilt-ridden moments I wondered if there was a colloquial antonym for verbal diarrhea. I considered the term verbal constipation, but I wasn’t sure if that captured it.
“Harley had two dogs,” Harley’s brother added. “They died. That rooster is the only thing he has left.”
There was compassion in the man’s words, and I assumed he directed at his brother. The more I thought about it, however, the more I began to believe that he might have been directing his compassion at me, and the mean case of verbal constipation he gave me. He might have noticed how much I enjoyed telling this story before his interruption, and he might have recognized that he had taken one hell of a good story away from me.
Whatever the case was, the man provided me an answer for why a homeowner would release a rooster in his backyard. The rooster grew up around dogs. The rooster either mimicked the patterns of the dogs for so many years that it couldn’t stop them after they passed, or the rooster thought it was a dog. I did not ask if the rooster scratched at the door when it wanted to go outside, or if it saw my dog and I approaching and began doing canine circles around Harley, until Harley recognized the visual cues the rooster learned to give him when it wanted outside. I didn’t ask about Harley, and if Harley participated in this because he missed the dogs so much that continuing the routine was therapeutic for him? I didn’t ask if Harley thought the rooster’s actions were kind of cute, or funny in the beginning, and he ended up doing it so often that whatever drove him to do it in the beginning was gone by the time I saw the routine of the act on his face. I wish I asked some of these questions, just to fill out the details of this story, but Harley’s brother caught me so off guard that I had a mean case of verbal constipation.
The Art of the Nod
A speaker began speaking about himself. He began informing us of his talents, what he planned to do with them, and all of his subsequent dreams and expectations. His life story was interesting in the beginning, but he spoke for too long. I did manage to maintain a polite intrigue for the speaker, and this led me to become the center of his attention. When that happened, maintaining interest became more of a chore for me.
My friend, a third party in this conversation, was not as successful in her efforts to purport interest. She nodded off. I was, presumably, the only one that saw her nod off, and I was the only one to witness her artistic recovery.
When she nodded off, her head went down and some instinctual part of not wanting to appear so bored that she fell asleep took over, and she jerked her head up. The art of this nod occurred a second later when she nodded down again. This second nod was not a result of falling asleep, but an attempt to rewrite any theories we might have had about her falling asleep in the first place. She performed the second, voluntary to re-characterize the first one as nothing more than the first in a series of nods of agreement.
She even added a “Yep!” to characterize the hearty series of nods further.
She had no idea what she was agreeing to, but she got away with it. I looked out at the faces of the others in the room. No one else saw it. I was impressed. I looked back her, and she had not only maintained her agreement, she strengthened it, until she was garnering more attention from the speaker than I was.
In the halls of social protocol, I considered this art.
I all but applauded her for this reaction when I asked her about it later. I mentioned that I didn’t think a person could carry something like that off once, that it was too artistic, and that it required practice. I wanted to know if she did this to me. She said she hadn’t. She said I was never that boring. I was grateful for that comment, but I had to know how often she did that. She said as far as she was concerned it was the first time. She had no other explanation for it, other than the fact that she was trying to avoid appearing rude. She tired of my questions after a while, and she stated that the moment embarrassed her, and she asked that we move onto other subjects.
Old people? Old people? Let me tell you something about old people. Old people set the parameter. If it weren’t for old people, your nuance would have no contrast. All that rebellion you cherish, that avant garde comedy, would just be blather. Old people. Have you ever watched the movie Caddyshack? Did you find it humorous? Uh huh. Ask anyone that knows anything about comedy, and they’ll tell you that that movie would not have been half as funny as it was, were it not for the old person in that production, Ted Knight, providing contrast. Without contrast in comedy, the movie is just a bunch of buffoons standing around reciting lines to one another. Contrast provides the pivot point for comedy, and that old man in Caddyshack, that fuddy duddy as you call him, set the standard for the role that straight men would play in comedy for the next four decades. The straight men set the parameters for other players to bounce off, and that’s what we old, boring types do. We set the parameters for the rest of you to be funny, cool, hip and sexy. Try writing a cool, hip, funny scene without a Dean Wormer, and we’ll see how far you get.
Like Boxing for Writers
Some writers believe that what they write is witty, humorous, or a display of their as of yet undiscovered talent in the art of comedy? We’ve all watched them write about clouds and trees, and we’ve all let that go, because we know all writers have to preen themselves every once in a while, but when they attempt comedy some of us think these writers need an intervention. One of the dangers inherent in comedy is that it’s relative, and every audience member should acknowledge that before they castigate another’s attempt at being humorous, but some attempts at humor are so bad that I want to say that we can all see the writer’s haymaker coming. When the author writes about a disagreement they had with their daughter about what television show to watch, we know to put our laughing galoshes on. We also know that every author, if they are male, will provide exhaustive detail about how they regard their daughter a superior intellect. They will provide us with eyewitness testimony of their daughter’s brilliance, and for some authors this will last for about a quarter of the story. At this point, many of us envy those that can start a story and ‘X’ out of it when it fails to intrigue them. Those who are able to find their way through the maze of the author’s shame, apologies, and qualifiers are introduced to a flurry of jokes that are intended to impress the judges. There’s no power behind the punches, because the author doesn’t want to offend the reader, their daughter, or any judge that might happen upon their story. We see their effort dangling, and as the joke plays out we all learn what not to do when we’re looking for a laugh. The author is the butterfly that floats merrily through our head without the fear, or the need to fear, the bee sting. They’re the Pernell Whitaker, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Floyd Maywhether of the writing world that gets points from the judges, but bores those of us that don’t understand the art of boxing. We want something exciting to happen, the judge can call it blood lust if they want, but if the reader wanted to witness the majestic art of dance, they would’ve attended the ballet.