The Unfunny Comedian


“I love to eat. Who here loves to eat?” Barry Becker said to open his show in Waukee, Iowa. “You’re applauding politely. Most people do. Very few people applaud that line wildly. We all eat, and we all enjoy it, but we’re not going to hoot and holler a joke about it. Especially, if we’re on a first date. Nobody lets their lover see them naked with a line like, “You like what you see? Enjoy it while you can, because it’s all going to end soon. It’s only a matter of time before this becomes a big mess of Frito’s and Skittles. I love to eat babe.

“I’ll tell you who does hoot and holler. Skinny people. Yeah, they don’t mind sharing it with the world. “I love to eat!” Really, well, you obviously don’t love it as much as I do. I’m here today to take it back for we, the people. “I love to eat!” Shout it loud. Shout it proud. I like to sleep, and I like to sit and do nothing for hours at a time, but nothing compares to eating. 

“Have you ever had a friend say, “Let’s go get something to eat.” Their presentation is so mundane and routine. They act like eating a meal is just something that we should do, so we can get it over with and do something else. Hey, hey, hold on there little doggie. I don’t know what you plan to do after the meal, but the meal is the event to me. I’m getting old, and keeping these beautiful curves ain’t as easy as it used to be, so I’m not into ‘Let’s just get something to eat’. If I’m only going to be able to eat one meal a day, and you’re going to tell me to cut back on snacks, then you better get your A-game out if you’re going to ask me to have a meal with you. Use your words. Dadgumit! Seduce me.

“I ate a big, beautiful ribeye the other day. It was an event for me when the waiter placed that big old thing before me. This is what I planned for all day. It was just gorgeous. I could hardly see any plate. I wish I would’ve enjoyed it more, but I had to get down to eating. Then it was over. The event I looked forward to all day was gone. It was so hot and so good that I ate it too fast. I didn’t chit chat, and I didn’t look around the room too much. I even forgot I had someone sitting across the table. I hate reaching the end of a meal and having to force down the last few lukewarm bites. So, I eat those big, beautiful looking ribeyes so fast that I can’t remember how good they are.

“It’s my dad’s fault that I eat this way. The man taught me how to eat. He did not allow for chit-chat at the dinner table. We were there to eat, and like a huskie on a dog sled, if we didn’t have our utensils locked and loaded in a timely manner, our musher would start making those kissing sounds. Barry! Barry! Mmh mmh mmh!”

“My dad didn’t actually make kissing sounds, but what if he did? What if the Iditarod was so popular in our country that its tradition of making kissing sounds to get huskies to go faster influenced our parents to make kissy sounds at the table when we wouldn’t eat?  

“When we think about all of the quirky and odd traditions, is it really such an insane notion? My mom used to read to me every night, she’d tuck me in, and give me a kiss. Then, right before she’d close the door she’d say, “Good night. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

“She did not intend to introduce horrific thoughts into my already creative mind of course. It was a tradition that she passed that line down to me, because her mom passed it down to her, and I passed it down to my kid, and we do this without really thinking about what we’re saying to them. We think it conveys sentiment. I love you, and have a good night’s sleep. Oh, and don’t let the bedbugs bite. She did it so often that by the time I started thinking about what it was she was saying, it was already an accepted part of our parting ritual at the end of a night. I also think she just liked the phrase, because it rhymes, “Good night, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” If we take a step back and think about what we’re saying before we close the door, immersing our kids in total darkness, where their unusually creative minds spin just about everything we say into some horror that causes them insomnia and nightmares, we might want to give some thought to ending that tradition.

“I heard another tradition that we’ve passed down for generations when I picked up my kid from school. Some kids, somewhere on the playground, began singing the borderline horrific rhyme Ring around the Rosies. I smiled when I heard it. “Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies, ashes ashes, we all fall down,” they sang. Apparently, there are numerous versions of this song, and some of you might know a different one, but that’s the one I know. That’s the one we know right? For as many versions as there are, there are almost as many interpretations of its lyrics. Most of us sang it just to sing something while we did something else, but some folklorists suggest the lyrics ‘ring around the rosie’ might have developed as a result of kids teasing other kids anytime they had a red owie on their arm. The theme of their teasing was that owie probably means that you have the plague that was killing over 100,000 Londoners in 1665. The ‘pocket full of posies’ lyrics, some suggest, were to mock those who thought that carrying flowers in their pocket was a homeopathic remedy to prevent the onset of the plague. “Even though you had a pocket full of posies, you still caught the plague, sucker!” The conclusion of the song might be the most horrific, as the “Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down” lyrics suggest that the tormentors relented that we’re all probably going to get the plague anyway, and we’re all going to die en mass. One would think that in the age of COVID, we might want to give some thought to ending that tradition too. 

“I’ve heard that that folklore that arose around these interpretations of the lyrics might not be true, but even the most obnoxious fact-checking, internet sleuths will have to admit that there’s enough speculation among folklorists who’ve examined the lyrics of the song that we should probably stop teaching it as a sweet, pleasant “sing-along” rhyming song our kids can sing on a playground. I mean, how can anyone spin “Ashes ashes we all fall down?” as anything other than a relatively disturbing image? A creative young mind might even spin the lyrics as a warning for all participants to prepare for a nuclear winter?

“In that spirit of the odd, decidedly less violent traditions we pass on, let’s say we meet our friend and his kids out at a restaurant, and he starts mushing his kids with the kissy sounds that can often be heard in an Iditarod. “Aiden, Aiden, mmh mmmh!”

“Why are you doing that Cliff?”

“The kid won’t eat,” Cliff says. “He gets distracted by every little thing, and if I don’t continually mush him, we’ll be here till eight o’clock waiting for him to finish.”

“So, you accomplish that by making kissy noises at him?”

“I guess I never put much thought into it before,” Cliff laughs. “My dad did it to me, and I kind of do it now without thinking when the boys here get to playing with their food and junk. My grandfather raced in the Iditarod, and I think he took that mushing sound home with him. My dad did it to me, and I guess the practice just made its way down to me.” 

“Okay, but you might want to reconsider doing it in the middle of the Olive Garden,” we say. “People don’t know your story, and I don’t think the Child Protective Agency will understand your family tradition.”

Guy no Logical Gibberish II


1) “If you can’t create, you perform; if you cannot perform, you teach.” Those who have no talent to create, perform, or teach, critique those who can. Those not knowledgeable enough to critique in a constructive manner, make it their lifelong goal to crush all of the above. They kill the butterfly, because they cannot fly. They knock it down, smash it into the sidewalk, and twist their foot on it for good measure. Their favorite shows run clips of the errors, mistakes, and bloopers of the accomplished, for the enjoyment of who could never create or perform. When the successful fall, it makes them feel more comfortable in their quiet, sad corner of the world. They never tried to accomplish anything outside their comfort zone, and anyone who does should know they’re subject to scorn and ridicule. Creators know that any time they create, they invite these types to treat them like a piñata, but we move on from our failed or subpar creations with the knowledge that they still have to live with the idea that they can’t create anything worthwhile. They’re stuck in that, and they laugh at those who struggle to achieve flight. They don’t remember how it started, and they don’t know why they enjoy it so much. When they started pointing out the errors creators committed, and ridiculing them for those errors, it just felt right.

2) How many us spend most of our time trying to justify our existence? When an employer hires us to find errors in another employee’s work, we find them. Some errors require notation, constructive criticism, and possible retraining, but most of the errors we find are trivial, and we know it, but finding them justifies our employment.

When someone suggested that I was “brutally honest” I tried to live up to my billing. I enjoyed this characterization so much that I eventually worked my way to “You’ll say anything”. I loved it. Others loved it too, and they wanted to be around me on a “You never know what he is going to say next” basis. I lived by the credo, “It’s not funny, not truly funny, unless someone gets hurt.”

Two consequences of this pursuit soon emerged. People stepped out of their woodwork to get me back. Otherwise, sweet people made it their goal to get savage with me. They capitalized on my every mistake and they searched for my vulnerabilities. I considered myself a victim without reflecting on how I brought this house of cards down around me. I also hurt some peoples’ feelings. Some people seek offense at every corner, but there are others. The others are innocent victims leading otherwise inoffensive lives. They have vulnerabilities. We have vulnerabilities, but the “brutally honest” who “will say anything” don’t have any regard for feelings. We might have been joking when we said something brutal about someone, because no one else would, but how many of those who are brutally honest with us are only joking? 

“When you think you’re the toughest kid on the block, someone is going to come along and beat the tar out of you,” my dad said when I told him the story about how one of my best friends beat up one of the toughest guys in school. I told him that my friend was now the talk of the school. In some strange way, I thought my dad might be proud that one of my best friends, someone with whom the two of us dined, was now considered one of the toughest kids in school. He wasn’t proud. “Tell your friend that his worries aren’t over now. They’re just beginning. Kids are going to come out of the woodwork to challenge him now, and your friend will learn that there’s always someone tougher.” When I argued that point a little he added, “There are no Queen’s rules of order when it comes to fighting. There’s always someone nastier, meaner, and dirtier. They might even pull out weaponry. There are no rules of war, and some kids will do whatever it takes to win.”

Due to the fact that I never tried to prove I was the toughest kid in the school, I didn’t think that advice applied to me. It didn’t apply in this way it was provided, but when my good friends started dropping all these characterizations at my feet, I discovered that there’s always someone smarter, funnier, quicker, and meaner and nastier. I also learned that people came out of the woodwork to take me down. They capitalized on my every mistake, and they searched for my vulnerabilities to hit me where it hurt. My fighting friend never learned the lesson my dad thought he would, but I did.    

After I learned my lesson, one of the vulnerable teed me up by telling me “Where it hurts.” I didn’t know the guy that well, and he’s telling me where he’s most vulnerable. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought it was a test. It wasn’t. I held my fire, and left comedy gold at that lunch table. I could’ve had a moment at the his expense, and people lived for the moments I created, but I let my people down by letting the moment float by without comment.  

3) “Never tell them where it hurts.” We make this mistake all the time. We’re with friends, and we get to talking. Somewhere along the line, we reveal a vulnerability. We also reveal our vulnerabilities to those with whom we feel most comfortable, and we also “get vulnerable to ourselves to potential friends. When they use this information to crack a harmless joke, we get defensive.

“Ah, come on, I was just joking,” Marvin says. “Don’t be so sensitive.”

“Okay, but I just told you that I am very sensitive about that.”

Marvin is not a bad guy. He’s not overly insensitive or mean, and we did not make a mistake when we chose to befriend him. Marvin is simply a victim of the “don’t think pink” paradox. The paradox suggests that the moment after we say, “don’t think pink”, pink will be the only thing on the mind of everyone we warn.

Marvin probably didn’t even know why he cracked that joke, but when we revealed our sensitivity to him, he saw pink. He never noticed how large and glaring our flaw was, until we told him about it. Every time he sees us now, he sees pink, and we’re all pink on the inside. 

If you want to debate how prevalent this predilection is, try telling someone how sensitive you are about the size and shape of our left eyetooth? If you have no such sensitivities, tell a trusted friend that you are extremely sensitive about it. They might not say anything about immediately, but they will eventually crack a harmless joke about it. They will eventually see pink. Should we think less of them in the aftermath, or should we view it as a challenge similar to the don’t think pink challenge, or the challenge we experience when we have a sore in our mouth. We know touching the sore with our tongue will only irritate it and make it worse, but we’re obsessed with it. When we see all of this for what it truly is, it shouldn’t concern us as much as how often we forget to cover our wounds when we meet new people. Never tell them where it hurts.  

4) “How many time do I have to forget these these lessons before I finally learn them?” we might ask ourselves the next time someone exploits our weaknesses. “If someone taught me such principles, I might not make them so often.” Were our parents this incompetent? Are we incompetent parents? How do we prepare our kids? Should we? Do they have to learn such lessons on their own, or can I prepare them better to help them avoid the lessons I keep forgetting?  

“I gave birth to you, what more do you want?” was the philosophical answer provided by the Rosanne Barr School of Parenting. It was a line she delivered on her hit show Rosanne. It was a joke. We don’t know if she believed it or not, or if it was just something she said to be funny. Students of comedy tell us that clever humor can hit the laugh-or-meter, but if the purveyor of comedy wants to hit that rarefied air of hilarious, the joke needs an element of truth that the audience can relate to their life. It was a joke, but it obviously resonated with some of us.

When our kid was born, it was the most glorious moment in our lives. The kid was life, and no matter how anonymously some of us live, this kid will provide proof that we were here. Then it happened. Parenting got all hard and stuff. The kid didn’t appreciate us as much as they should have. The kid talked back, the kid wanted things they couldn’t have, and we weren’t always right. A line like, “I gave birth to you, what more do you want?” let us off the hook. We did our job. It’s their job now to do something with it.

“If you have to ask,” Adam Carolla once said on his podcast, “then you’re probably doing it right.” If you feel the need to call into a show or read a book for answers, and ask other parents for advice, you’re probably what they call a good parent, because it shows you’re trying. We’ve all heard the phrase parenthood is the hardest job in the world, and we often put parents on pedestals, but parents aren’t good people just because they become parents. Some parents know this, and they struggle to find the best way to raise their child. “The very idea that you just called into a national call-in show to ask that question probably means you’re a good parent,” Carolla added, “because it shows that you care.” Carolla then went onto answer the caller’s question for the benefit of all of the “I gave birth to you, what more do you want?” parents who might be listening in.

Don’t Bend. Stay Strange


“Don’t bendStay strange.” –David Bowie

“All children are born artists, the problem is to remain artists as we grow up.” –Pablo Picasso.

“We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it.” –Ken Robinson said to further the Picasso quote.

“Don’t bend. Stay Strange,” is such a simplistic and beautiful quote that if we heard it earlier in life, some of us might have stitched it out on oven mitts, T-shirts, and flags.

“What’s it mean though?” we young people would’ve asked Bowie if we had the chance.

David Bowie answered with an appearance on a 70’s show called The Midnight Special. It’s difficult to capture the effect this weird, strange, and just plain different appearance had on me all those decades ago. I was floored. I was flabbergasted. I craved the weird, strange and just plain different, even when I was young. Even before I knew the totality of what embracing the weird meant, I was attracted to it. I thought it was shtick when he first walked out. I waited for David Bowie to engage in some kind of monkey dance, or some kind of Steve Martin-ish routine, and then he started singing. I realized that this commanding voice was not an affectation. It was a full-on embrace of the weird. It made me uncomfortable and excited, and confused. I was so young, and so confused, that I considered his appearance unsettling, and I needed my mom to help me deal with it.

“He’s just weird,” she said. She was trying to comfort me. Her message was he’s so weird that he’s probably being weird for the sake of being weird. I argued that I didn’t think so. “If that’s the case,” she said, “we probably don’t want to peel that onion.” She said we should dismiss him, without saying those words, and I did. I didn’t want my mom to consider me weird, and I didn’t want anyone else to think so either. Yet, I couldn’t look away. It was obvious by the man’s appearance, and the way he moved and sang that he embraced the weird. I never knew anyone who embraced being weird at that point. Weird was what we whispered when we saw it walking down the street, and we walked a lower case (‘b’) around it.

Those of us who were weird, strange, and just plain different in our youth, would’ve loved to embrace the weird, if for no other reason than to have some measure of resolve in our fight against the pressure we felt from our peers and our authority figures preaching that we be more like them. We weren’t confident enough to embrace the weird yet though. Most boys and girls, aged 7 to 18, aren’t. Athletes and cool kids rarely have to face such pressure. They’ve always been normal, and they engaged in normal pursuits that every normal boy and girl should’ve pursued. They achieved good grades, and they pursued athletic excellence. They were everything everyone wanted to be. We were just weird.

If Bowie dropped this quote on me, as a kid, it might have helped me through the swamp, but I don’t think Bowie would’ve dropped such a line on a kid. Rock stars are generally impetuous creatures, but I would hope that David Bowie wouldn’t be so reckless as to advise a child to embrace the weird. I think he reserved such notions for relatively stable, confident adults. If he followed that impulse, I think he knew it might cost that kid some happiness, for the world is so confusing to a kid that they need to embrace normalcy until their minds are strong enough to embrace the weird. I also think such a quote might mess with that young person’s artistic cocoon. I think Bowie knew, from firsthand experience, that the struggle to maintain the weird defines the artist in constructive, creative ways. To paraphrase the Picasso quote above, the problem isn’t how to become weird, strange, and just plain different. The problem is to maintain it as we work our way through the mire and maze of childhood.

Most of us from relatively stable homes were trained to avoid being weird by the old guard. They refuted our passion with words like, “I know you think you’re onto something, but that isn’t the way to be.” We didn’t see this as a good thing at the time, and we rebelled and all that, but we now see it differently. We see it differently, because when we were finally ready to let our freak flag fly, we did so with one foot firmly entrenched in the normal world. This perspective is particularly vital to writers, as it gives them an outside perspective from which to report on those who followed their passion throughout life and embrace the weird, strange, and just plain different.

***

Some scholars, like Sir Ken Robinson, want us to violate these theories by changing school curriculum to recognize the weird, strange, and just plain different. In his popular Ted Talk speech, he cites anecdotal evidence to suggest that we should change the curriculum to recognize the unique and special qualities of weird, strange, and just plain different students.

I know I stand to lose my membership in the halls of the mildly creative, weird people with this question, but shouldn’t they have to learn the rules first? Most writers were wildly imaginative kids, and when our kids flash their unique fantastical worldview before us, we remember how weird we used to be. We remember how imaginative and creative we used to be, and we remember those years fondly. Our kids reignite that internal, eternal flame in us. We remember how special it was to be imaginative without borders, but we also remember how unstable and confusing that time was. We were impulsively and instinctively imaginative without borders, and we smashed through whatever borders they put in our way, but most of the results of our beautiful and wonderful childish creativity was gobbedly gook.

We didn’t know what we were talking about because we were kids. We didn’t do anything worthwhile, even when we were wildly creative, because we didn’t know what we were doing. We were kids. When we think of the rules, we often think of some humorless school master enforcing discipline at the end of a ruler, but we often forget how many little, seemingly inconsequential matters we learned along the way to help form our thoughts into mature creativity, and how a stew of those little, relatively inconsequential matters and our wild creativity made us who we are today.

There will be prodigies. There will always be prodigies, but what percentage of the population do we consider prodigies? For the rest of us, there is a special formula to achieving final form. This painfully methodical process involves rebelling against our individual establishment, succumbing to it, recognizing its inherent flaws, and returning to our rebellion with an informed mind. As I wrote in the Platypus People blog, “one of our first jobs as a future rebel is to learn the rules of order better than those who choose to follow them.” The idea that the manner in which school curriculum deprives, stilts and discourages creativity is a strong one, but do these scholars remember how confusing the adolescent years could be for the kids who weren’t prodigies? Lost in this discussion is our need to understand that which we now deem unreasonable, irrational, and in need of change. Why does this work, how does that work, and how and why should we change this and that? One typical response I heard often from a number of teachers was, “I welcome your complaints, but if you’re going to complain, you better have a solution.” How can we have a solution to the complaints we create, in artistic forms, if we don’t first understand the problem better than those who are just fine with it?

The perfect formula, as I see it, is for the creative artist, as Pablo Picasso said, is to remain weird after learning the curriculum and surviving the need to conform. When we learn how to read, write, and arithmetic, we use them to fertilize the science of creativity. If an artist can maintain their fantastical thoughts after learning, they might be able to employ the disciplines they need to enhance their creative and innovative mind to artistic maturity.

We don’t know many specifics of Sir Ken’s dream school, but one of the fundamental elements he theoretically employs is the need to play. The creative mind, he says, needs time and space to play. Throw them a block and let them play with it, and we’ll see their ingenious minds at work. He dots his speech with humorous anecdotes that serve to further his thesis. We know that Wayne Gretzky spent much of his youth playing with a stick and a hockey puck in every way he could dream up, and we learn that other kids develop their own relatively ingenious little theories by playing. We cannot forget to let them play. It is a well-thought out, provocative theory, but it neglects to mention how important discipline is in this equation. The discipline necessary to figure out complicated mathematical equations and formulas might seem frivolous to a dance prodigy, for example, but Geometry works the mind in many ways it otherwise wouldn’t.

“Why do I have to learn this?” we all asked in Geometry class. “What are the chances that I’ll use this knowledge in life? If I grow up to be a vice-president of a bank, what are the chances that knowledge of the Alexandrian Greek mathematician Euclid’s theories will come into play?” One answer to the question arrives when we meet a fellow banker who knows nothing but banking. For whatever reason our fellow banker knew she wanted to be a bank vice-president at a very young age. Her focus was such that she had the tunnel vision necessary to succeed in the banking world, but everyone who knows her knows the minute she clocks out for the day, she’s lost. She might be successful by most measures, but she knows nothing about the world outside of banking, because she never needed any knowledge beyond that which exists in banking.  

“How can you report on the world, if you know nothing about it?” is a question I would ask the twelve-year-old prodigy who wrote a fantasy novel. The kid’s story fascinated me, because writing a 200 page novel is so foreign to my concept of what it means to be twelve-years-old. I was trying to make friends and be happy at twelve-years-old. I read the news article about this kid with great interest, and if I ever ran into him, I would encourage him to see his talent to its extent, and I would applaud him for what he did, but I would never read his novel. I don’t think a twelve-year-old’s vision of the world would do anything for me.

Sir Ken Robinson doesn’t say that he wants to do away with the curriculum directly, but in his idyllic world, we need to cater it to the talents of people like this twelve-year-old prodigy, the dance prodigies, and all the other as of yet unrecognized prodigies around the world.

We’ve all heard tales of these uniquely talented creative people and prodigies with tunnel vision. We marvel at their tales, but we’ve also heard tales of how former prodigies don’t know how to fit in the world properly. They’ve reached their goal by producing a relatively prodigious output, but they’re now unhappy. Something fundamental is missing in them that they’ll never square properly. Being on the proverbial stage is the only thing that gives them joy, and they understand this as little as we do. It might have something to do with being in the spotlight their whole lives, but it might go deeper than that. It might have something to do with the fact that their authority figures never allowed them to be normal, and they never had to learn the basic, core answers the rest of us learned by working through all of the pointless exercises that our core curriculum forced us to figure out. So, if I take a Geometry class, I’m going to be less confused about the world? No, but if you learn how to learn how to use your brain in a wide variety of ways, it might help you arrive at answers that help you cope with the otherwise random world a little better.

Robinson might be onto something when he suggests that if we feed into a prodigy’s creative instincts, we might have more of them, and they might be happier people as a result. His thesis suggests that most people are unhappy because they have untapped talent that we neglect to foster. Let them play, he says. Fine, I say, but why can’t we let me play at a dance school, in art class, or in a school band? Why can’t we just throw a block at them in their free time? Do we have to devote our entire curriculum to helping them recognize their talent? A strong, confident adult is so difficult to raise that as much as I would’ve loved devotion to recognizing my weird talent, I think I would’ve ended up deficient in so many other areas that I would’ve been miserable. Devotion to recognizing my weird talents would’ve made me happier in the short term, as I think I was always heading down a certain road I didn’t recognize for some time, but I think I’d probably would’ve ended up more confused than I already am.

How many of us think that we could’ve been prodigies if someone came along, recognized our talents, and coached them up? How many of us think we wasted so much time in school learning things that didn’t matter? Robinson feeds into these fantasies with some anecdotal evidence that suggests if we would’ve just danced more, we might have discovered that we were dance prodigies. He suggests that if we, as parents, learn how to feed our child’s talent, they might be happier. If the child’s interests are satisfied, they might be more satisfied. Possibly, but if we devote our entire curriculum to dance, creative writing, painting, or one of the other art forms, how many failed upstarts might we have? Students mature at different rates, and while developing schools devoted to encourage more creativity, it will likely result in unequal amounts of misery among those we considered prodigies based on their wild imaginations, but they were actually engaged in nothing more than child-like gibberish.