Yesterday I Learned … IV

Yesterday, I learned that taste is so relative that it must be impossible to make any money trying to appeal to it. “If you want to write a best seller,” experts say, “read through some books already on the list. If you want to make a living at this game, you need to know the trends.” The word flavor should have a capitalized ‘f’ attached to it in this article, for it focuses on the wide spectrum of taste. Food and drink have a flavor of course, but so do music, literature, and all of the arts in the sense that some of it creates the same but different tingles in the brain.

Yesterday, I thought I had a universal sense of humor. Today, I realized that most appreciation for humor is conditional and polite. If our audience is predisposed to find us disagreeable, they will not laugh at anything we say. Humor and laughter also involves a certain quid pro quo agreement that calls for us to laugh at their attempts at humor. If we fail to live up to our end of the agreement, they will not even laugh politely at our attempts to be humorous. Toddlers and other kids are not a part of this agreement. Kids are the very definition of honesty, and they have no agendas, especially the ones we’ve never met. If we’re behind one in our local Wal-Mart, we might try out our best “baby laugh” material to see what kind of reaction we receive. They will turn away at some point, but if nothing else distracts them, we’ll get a second glance followed by a reaction. If we don’t get a second look, or a subsequent reaction, we can go ahead and assume that we’re probably are not as funny, or as charismatic as the polite and conditional reactions led us to believe.

Yesterday, I thought people people were so unusual. “I’m just a people person,” they might say when we ask them why they enter a business enterprise just to chat with some of the employees. “I don’t know why, I just like being around a lot of people.” Today, I found the term people person an unusual, accepted description healthy men, and women, use to describe themselves. We all enjoy speaking with other people, we do it all day, but some people go out of their way for some quality conversation. 

When I was much younger, I hung around my friend’s liquor store, and I worked in restaurants, and hotels. I saw a wide array of people people who walk into an establishment and just start talking to whomever would speak with them. These people “stick around” for a chat that can last hours. They even endure long lulls, hoping that some provocative conversation will weave its way through it all. They just stand there silently, trying to think up something interesting to say. My first thought was that these conversations sprang up in a more organic manner, until my friend said:

“Nope! He stops in here, every other day, and talks my ear off about the most inane stuff.”

Some men would walk into the restaurant where I worked, alone, and ask for a table in their favorite waitress’ station. Most of them didn’t have a newspaper or anything to busy themselves while they waited for her to chat with them. They usually entered after the breakfast rush and before the lunch crowd, so the waitress would have a couple of minutes to chat.

“Why do you stop and chat with these guys who seem to be a little creepy,” I asked one of the waitresses.

“You can tell he doesn’t have anyone,” she said, “and he’s harmless … trust me. Plus, he adds a couple bucks to the tip when I take the time to chat with him.”

I thought they were wrong. I thought they underestimated these guys. I didn’t want anything to happen to them. They were my friends. I was wrong. I over-estimated these guys. They were, in fact, harmless, insofar as nothing ever happened in my time there. These men weren’t just alone in life, they were lonely, and they had holes in their soul. Some of them were old, but most of them were men in their prime who would get dressed up, perhaps sprinkle on a little cologne, and get regular, fashionable haircuts for the purpose of fostering the belief that they might have a chance to spend some quality time, between the breakfast crowd and the lunch crowd, to speak to young, attractive girls.

If the traveling businessmen who frequented our hotel were lucky enough to time their entrance into our hotel, so that one of the cute, young women on staff checked them in, they would remain at the front desk long after their check in was complete. They just wanted to chat with some young women, and hopefully make them laugh a couple times. I intervened in these conversations multiple times, but they made it clear they had no interest in speaking to me. They weren’t rude, but I was obviously not the purpose of their chats.

“So how you doing?” they would ask these women with all of the urgency removed from their voice. They, too, were harmless individuals who just wanted someone to speak with young women. Most of them didn’t want to date these girls, or see them in varying stages of undress. They just wanted to chat. They wanted these girls to think they were people people. They were so alone that they just wanted a couple of minutes of that girl’s time to break up the quiet, tedious monotony of their lives, and have just one attractive, young female on God’s green earth say:

“Hank Schwertley, how are you doing? How’s that God forsaken Cutlass Supreme holding up for you?”

Business needs often ended these conversations abruptly, and when they interrupted the conversations, I could see the beaming smiles on the customers’ faces collapse. Their face went back into the more customary expression of fatigue, sadness, and loneliness that the muscles in their face were used to supporting.

The customers at the hotels and restaurants appeared to be normal men, with normal and pleasant dispositions, and it seemed impossible to me that they couldn’t get some woman to pay consistent enough attention to fill that gap they needed filling.

“You want to be a traveling salesman?” one of these men, a traveling salesman who stayed at our hotel so often I knew his whole life story said when I expressed some polite, conversational interest in his profession. “The first thing you’ll need to do is forget about ever having a family,” he said. When I asked why, he added that, “It would be unfair to any woman, much less the children you produce, to be on the road about 200 hundred days a year.” My shock was obvious in his expression, as he sought to lessen the blow, but he could not redefine the impact of his statement. Prior to his cautionary description, I considered this man a successful, self-defined man. After it, I saw how lonely he was. From that point forward, I realized he was a second fiddle. I finally saw him as the Stan Laurel, Bud Abbot character he was, who bounced off the more charismatic centerpiece of the conversation. Even in the polite, time-filling conversations we had with him at the front desk of the hotel, this man was always a second fiddle.

When we have such conversations with the people who orbit our lives, they remind us how fortunate we are to have people who enjoy being around us. I’ve felt lonely before, but I’ve never felt so alone that I went into an establishment just to speak to someone for five minutes.

Who are these people, and what do they do in life to gain some separation from the lives they selected. They want moments in life to help them make it to Thursday, and they want to find someone to notice them long enough to achieve some level of companionship, even if it’s only for five minutes. My experience in the service industry also taught me that they are a lot more common than most people think.

Rilalities VIII

lonely man“You’re afraid of your own opinion,” I told a friend of mine.

His ever present, sanctimonious smile would assure me that he was smarter than I am.

“Just because someone disagrees with you … ” he would say.

“It’s not that,” I said.  “It’s the way you frame your statements.  It’s your qualifiers.  I never heard anyone qualify everything they say before, until I met you.  It’s like your running for office.  Do you qualify notifications that you’ll be using the facilities, in fear of someone, somewhere finding offense?”

Most people qualify provocative thoughts, because they know that most people like qualifiers, and most people want most people to like them.  I’m not going to say that I am immune to this, but I prefer the thought-provoking ideas I hear to standalone.  I prefer that thought-provoking, somewhat productive idea that hits people in the jugular and divides them.  Most people cannot do this, but the people that lie on the opposite side of spectrum drive me insane.

“I have nothing against food gatherers, but … ” one has to imagine that one caveman said to other caveman to introduce his provocative thoughts regarding males that decided to gather rather than hunt.  The point is that the need to qualify, to keep friends, is endemic to human nature, but in this age of Human Resources and PC language, most of us are afraid to speak, or to give voice to a thought that may be deemed offensive by someone.  The human need to be liked is too overwhelming and too ingrained.

My friend’s whole life appeared to be an effort to prove Abraham Lincoln’s quote wrong in that he thought he could please all of the people all of the time.  I will admit that when this guy spent thirty seconds qualifying everything but his trips to the restroom, it lent his opinions greater importance, but by the time he concluded a thought, I couldn’t help but think he never said anything of import.  Everything he said was milquetoast dressed up in a carnival barker’s set of qualifiers.

And he could say nothing for long stretches of time.  The few breaks in monotony this man provided his listeners were the qualifiers.  He would qualify at the beginning of his oration, he would qualify throughout, and he would then find a way to wrap a bow on his thought with a qualifying wrap up.  It was tedious.

Somewhere along the line, I’m guessing, this man was rewarded for his speaking skills.  Whether he attended a broadcasting class, where he was asked to stretch it out, or a speech class where there were points given for bringing a speech to eight minutes.  Whatever the case, the man developed an ability to cover for his inability to say something profound by clouding it in qualifiers that suggested there was something profound nestled in all those qualifiers, and if you couldn’t find it that was on you.  Implicit in his tedious orations was an invitation for you to fear that you weren’t smart enough to understand it.  My friend never said this, but it was more than implied.

The Unfunny, Influential Comedy of Andy Kaufman

At one precise moment on the timeline of comedy, the subversive nature of it was so comprehensive that it became uniform, conventional, and in need of total destruction. Although the late, great Andy Kaufman may never have intended to undermine and, thus, destroy the top talent of his generation, his act revealed his contemporaries for what they were: conventional comedians operating under a like-minded banner. In doing so, Andy Kaufman created a new art form.

Those of us with a seemingly unnatural attraction to Kaufman’s game-changing brand of unfunny comedy now know the man was oblivious to greater concerns, but we used whatever it was he created to subvert conventional subversions, until they lost their subversive quality altogether.

Those “in the know” drew up a very distinct, sociopolitical definition of subversion long before Andy Kaufman’s variety. They may deem the art form of Kaufman’s making evidence of his certifiable comedic genius now, but they had no idea what he was doing while he was doing it. I can only guess that most of those that saw Kaufman’s act in its gestational period cautioned him against going through with it. 

I see what you’re trying to do. I do,” I imagine them saying, “but I don’t think it will play well in Omaha. They’ll just think you’re weird, and weird doesn’t play well on the national stage, unless you’re funny-weird.”

Many of them regarded being weird, in the manner embodied by his definition of that beautiful adjective as just plain weird, even idiotic. They didn’t understand what he was doing.

Before Andy Kaufman became Andy Kaufman, and his definition of weird defined it as a transcendent art form, being weird meant going so far over-the-top that the audience felt comfortable with the notion of a comedian being weird. It required the comedic player to find a way to communicate a simple message to the audience: “I’m just acting weird and that’s all.” Before Kaufman and those influenced by his brilliance broke the mold on the word, comedians relied on visual cues, in the form of weird facial expressions, vocal inflections and tones so that the so-called less sophisticated audiences in Omaha could understand the notion of a comedic actor just being weird. Before Kaufman, comedic actors had no interest in unnerving audiences. They just wanted the laugh. 

One can be sure that before Andy Kaufman took to the national stage on Saturday Night Live, he heard those warnings, but for whatever reason he didn’t heed them. It’s possible that Kaufman was just that weird, and that he thought his only path to success was to let his freak flag fly. It’s also possible that he had enough confidence in his act that he was able to ignore the advice offered by those in the know. We admirers must also consider the idea that Kaufman might not have been talented enough to be funny in a more conventional sense. Whatever the case, Kaufman maintained his unconventional, unfunny, idiotic characters and bits until those “in the know” declared him one of the funniest men who ever lived.

The cutting-edge, comedic intelligentsia now discusses the deceased Kaufman, in a frame that suggests they were onto his act the whole time. They weren’t. They didn’t get it. I didn’t get it, but I was young, and I needed the assistance of repetition to lead me to  the genius of being an authentic idiot, until I busied myself trying to carve out my own path to true idiocy, in my own little world.

Andy Kaufman may not have been the first true idiot in the pantheon of comedy, but for those of us who witnessed his hilariously unfunny, idiotic behavior, it opened to us a completely new world. We knew how to be idiots, but we didn’t understand the finer points of the elusive art of persuading another of our inferiority until Kaufman came along, broke that door down, and showed us all his furniture.

For those who’ve never watched Andy Kaufman at work, his claim to fame did not involve jokes. His modus operandi involved situational humor. The situations he created weren’t funny either, not in the conventional sense. Some were so unfunny and so unnerving, in fact, that viewers deemed them idiotic. Kaufman was so idiotic that many believed his shows were nothing more than a series of improvised situations in which he reacted on the fly to a bunch of idiotic stuff, but what most of those in the know could not comprehend at the time was that everything he did was methodical, meticulous, and choreographed.


Being Unfunny in Situations


Like the knuckleball, the manner in which situational humor evolves can grow better or worse as the game goes on, but eventual success requires unshakeable devotion to the pitch. Some will hit home runs off your knuckleball, and you will knock out an occasional mascot with a wild one, but for situational jokes to be effective, they can’t just be another pitch in your arsenal. These pitches require a commitment that will become a concentration, until it eventuates into a lifestyle that even those closest to you will have a difficult time understanding.

“Why would you try to confuse people?” they will ask. “Why do you continue to say jokes that aren’t funny?” 

“I would like someone, somewhere to consider me an idiot,” the devoted will respond. “Any idiot can fall down a flight of stairs, trip over a heat register, and engage in slapstick comedy, but I want to achieve a form of idiocy that leads others to believe I am a total idiot who doesn’t know any better.”

For those less confident in their modus operandi, high-minded responses might answer the question in such a way that the recipient considers us more intelligent, but they obfuscate the truth as to why we enjoy doing it. The truth may be that we know the path to achieving laughter through the various pitches and rhythms made available to us in movies and primetime sitcoms, but some of us reach a point when that master template bores us. Others may recognize, at some point in their lives, that they don’t have the wherewithal to match the delivery that friends employ, particularly those friends with gameshow host personalities. For these people, the raison d’être of Kaufman’s idiot may offer an end run around traditional modes of comedy. Some employ these tactics as a means of standing out and above the fray, while others enjoy the superiority-through-inferiority psychological base this mindset procures. The one certain truth is that most find themselves unable to identify the exact reason why they do what they do. They just know they enjoy it, and they will continue to continue it no matter how many poison-tipped arrows come their way.

An acquaintance of mine learned of my devotion to this method when she overheard me contrast it in a conversation with a third party. What she heard was a brief display of intellectual prowess that crushed her previous characterization of me. When I turned back to her to continue the discussion she and I were having prior to the interruption, her mouth was hanging open, and her eyes were wide. The remark she made in that moment was one she repeated throughout our friendship.

“I am onto you now. You are not as dumb as you pretend to be.”

The delicious moment occurred seconds later, when it dawned on her that what she thought she figured out made no sense in conventional constructs. Most people pretend to be smart, not the other way around. No one pretends that they are dumb or inferior. As she looked at me, her expression changed, as it dawned on her that her revelation was not as comprehensive as she first believed.

The pause before her second sentence gave birth to an expression every idiot strives to achieve, as the pride of figuring me out faded, and she realized that everything she thought she figured out only brought more questions to the fore. I imagined that something of a flowchart developed in her mind to explain everything I did and said to that point, and that each flowchart ended in a rabbit hole that once entered into would place her in a variety of vulnerable positions, including the beginning. She pursued me after that, just to inform me that she was onto what I was doing, until it became obvious that she was the primary audience of her pleas.

I’ve never thrown an actual knuckleball with any success, but watching her flail at the gradual progression of my situational joke, trying to convince me that she was now above the fray, cemented my lifelong theory: Jokes can be funny, but reactions are hilarious.

The point is that if you devote yourself to this mindset, and you try your hardest not to let your opponents see the stitches, you can convince some of the people, some of the times, that you are an idiot.

The Idiostory

Some present and future idiots purchased every VHS tape, book, and album that carried Andy Kaufman’s name, and we read everything we could find about him online, trying to unlock the mystery of his effect on us. We wanted those who knew him best to tell us why he chose to go against the advice of those in the know and if it was possible for us to follow his indefinable passion to the end. We followed his examples and teachings in the manner of disciples, until it became a lifestyle. Andy Kaufman led us to believe that if we could confuse the sensibilities of serious world just enough, it could lead to some seminal moments in our pursuit of the idiotic life.

If our goal were to be funny, we would’ve attempted to follow the trail laid by Jerry Seinfeld. If our aim was only to be weird-funny, we would’ve adopted weird-funny voice Steve Martin used in The Jerk. If we wanted to be sardonic or satirical, we would have looked to George Carlin for guidance. We knew we weren’t as funny as they were, but we reached a point when that didn’t matter to us. When we discovered the unfunny, subversive idiocy of Andy Kaufman, however, it filled us like water rushing down the gullet of a dehydrated man.

Most of our friends considered it being weird for the sake of being weird, but they didn’t recognize the depth charges until they detonated. Some didn’t see any humor inherent in our bits even then. Some of them didn’t want to have anything to do with us after repeated displays, and others were so confused and irritated that they found themselves confronted, once again, by the question of why we do it. It’s possible that the majority of us will never be able to answer that question to anyone’s satisfaction, least of all our own, but we know we like it, and we know we will continue to do it.


The Disclaimer


If the goal of the reader is to have others consider them funny, following this advice will only lead to heartache and headaches. Instead, they should put acute focus on the beats and rhythm of their delivery and learn how to incorporate them into their responses. Quality humor, like quality music, must offer pleasing beats and rhythms that find a familiar home in the audience’s mind. To achieve this level of familiarity, there are few resources as great as the sitcoms and standup comedians everyone knows and loves. If the joke teller leads into the punchline with a familiar rhythm and lands on the line in a familiar beat, the audience’s reward for figuring out that beat will be a shot of dopamine, and the joke teller’s reward is the resulting laughter. 

If, however, the goal is to be an unfunny idiot that receives no immediate laughter, the joke teller still needs to follow the rules of comedy regarding the beats and rhythm of humor, and they may need to know them even better than truly funny people do. As any gifted practitioner of the art of idiocy will tell those willing to listen, it is far more difficult to find a way to distort and destroy the perception of conventional humor than it is to abide by it. This takes practice and practice in the art of practice.

The rewards for being a total idiot are far and few between. If we achieve total destruction or distortion of what others know to be the beats and rhythm of humor, a sympathetic soul might consider us such an idiot that they might take some time out of their day to advise us about our beats and the rhythm of our delivery. For the most part, however, the rewards idiots receive are damage to their reputations as potentially funny people. Most will dismiss us as weird, and others might even categorically dismiss us as strange. Still others will dismiss us as idiots who know nothing about making people laugh. “We don’t,” we will confess. “That’s why we’re here.” Most will want to have little to nothing to do with us. Women, in particular, might claim they don’t want to date us, declaring, “I prefer nice, funny guys. You? I’m sorry to say this, but you’ve said so many weird things that … I kind of consider you an idiot.”

What’s So Funny?

Why do we laugh? Why do we cry? “Confusion,” suggests author Kurt Vonnegut. “Laughter is similar to crying,” he said, “in that, in some cases, these are the only reactions we can find to react to that which otherwise confuses us greatly.” How many times have we laughed at something without taking the time to figure out the gist of the joke? How many times have we laughed and followed that up with a “Wait … What?” How many times have we gone so far as to ask our joke teller to repeat a joke that we didn’t completely understand?

“What’s black and white, and red all over?” was a joke I found on a Bazooka Joe wrapper. “A newspaper!” I repeated that joke a number of times. I went into the punchline with what I believed to be the perfect pitch, and I hit that punch line perfectly, but I had a little secret: I didn’t get it. I asked those in my inner circle –those that I believed would gracefully illuminate me without attaching the public ridicule I probably deserved– to explain it to me. They couldn’t. They didn’t get it either. One person told me that they thought the ink newspapers use comes from a red-base. It didn’t think that was funny, but I was relieved that I finally had something of a foothold on the joke. It wasn’t until years later that I finally realized that the joke involved the homophone spellings of red and read. Read, as in the in the past participle read, as in while a newspaper may have a white base, and black print, it is read all over, as opposed to the color red. If you got that joke right off the bat, congrats, but I assume that there has to be at least one joke that you retold that you didn’t get. The point is that we may actually laugh harder at jokes we don’t get than those we do, and that laughter may be an instinctual, fallback position to those things that confuse us.

How many of us asked a joke teller to explain a joke? We hate to do it, because we know it reveals us, and we hate to ruin another person’s joke by asking for an explanation, but some of the times, we need explanations. How many times has the explanation confused us more and led to more laughter? Were we using this laughter to cover for the fact that we didn’t get it, or were we –as Vonnegut suggests– laughing more in conjunction with our confusion? Has this progression ever led us to find a joke genuinely hilarious without ever understanding it in the first place?

The relative nature of humor is obvious to anyone that has attempted to crack a joke, but the extremes are noteworthy. There are some universal truths to comedy, but for the most part comedy may be our most subjective art form. Individual experiences lead us to finding relative humor in a subject, but it would be impossible for a comedic artist to try to relate to all of his audience members. Thus, it is incumbent on a qualified comedic artist to create funny.

Falling is funny. There is no confusion about that. Seeing Chevy Chase do what he did in the 70’s was a brand of humor he never had to explain. Stupid is funny. Abbot and Costello, John Ritter, and the Airplane/Naked Gun writers proved that by creating timeless humor with people falling and doing stupid things. Most comedians began their careers by falling, doing stupid things, and imitating famous people, but most of them realized, at some point, that they could only do those things for so long before they started to become a parody of themselves.

I was too young to see Richard Pryor’s gestation cycle in comedy. I didn’t know the middlebrow, Bill Cosby-like Richard Pryor. I only knew the racial and radical comedian that launched himself from the pack to the stratosphere of comedy, but that didn’t mean I understood his brand of humor. I didn’t understand George Carlin or Cheech and Chong either. Knowledge and experience have taught me that Carlin and Pryor are funny, but how did I arrive at that answer? I have to imagine that Pryor and Carlin struggled to reach audiences when they first attempted to stretch their comedy beyond the border. I have to imagine they experienced pratfalls on their road to the hip, cool, dangerous, and edgy titles that their work would eventually assume. There had to be an inclusive group that “got it” that everyone wanted in on. Those people then had to teach other people, until those other people taught my people, and my people taught me that I if I didn’t “get it” too I faced ostracizing.

Cheech and Chong followed Carlin and Pryor through the doors they opened. They introduced some of their own elements to the brand, but for the most part, they owed a deep debt of gratitude to Carlin and Pryor. I learned these comedians were funny by watching my friends and my friend’s parents watch them. I was young and impressionable. I wanted to be hip and cool, and I wanted to understand adult humor. I learned that this material was innovative, and a tour-de-force and I learned that if I wanted to be all that I was hoping to be in life, I would have to laugh to tears at the things Cheech and Chong did.

“Man, you have got to see Up in Smoke,” my friends would say, “That thing is hilarious.” I watched it. I didn’t get it, and I put a lot of effort into getting it, because I didn’t want to be that naïve, little kid that didn’t understand. Later, while watching it with friends, I made sure to laugh in all the right places. I still didn’t get it, but they didn’t have to know that. They didn’t have to know I wasn’t hip or cool. It was my little secret.

I learned that drugs and sex were funny. Cussing was even funny after a while, because cussing was naughty. I became an adult, I had my own individual adventures in life, and I eventually learned that cussing, sex and drugs were funny because they were naughty. Naughty is funny, but it is playground funny. It is base humor, and some are satisfied providing base humor, but an artistic comedian needs to make it situational.

Situational humor is the: “I can’t believe he did this while doing that?” brand of humor that we all have to learn in life if we want to be cool and hip. Sex is funny, especially if you do it wrong and you’re willing to be self-effacing about it in front of a group of people. Farting is funny no matter where it occurs. Most of our most embarrassing biological functions are funny, because we all do them, and we can all relate, but if you can mix in a dash of the “Doing that while doing this?” element to the story, you can achieve hilarity. Stories of drug abuse are funny, as long as the provocateur is not currently doing it. We’ve agreed that it’s sad if someone is currently chasing demons, but if they say they did it in the past “while doing that” the next thing they will have to do is hire a manager to handle their bookings.

The guy under the Darth Vader mask, David Prowse, once admitted that he did more cocaine during the filming of the Star Wars movies than there is snow on Hoth. That’s not great comedy, until you factor in that Darth Vader was a character kids adored, and that Prowse did cocaine while playing the character … that’s funny. Really? Why? Is it because Prowse pulled the ultimate naughty … doing drugs while doing that? If someone says a joke about a mean mama, and your mama was mean, the comedian can reach you on your level, but how many of us have snorted a line of coke, or injected heroin in our veins, and why do we laugh so hard about that? The current strain of “doing that while doing this” involves adult comedians cussing in front of children? We, apparently, love this taboo breaking practice in our movies, judging by the number of times they now do it comedies. We also love to see men make lustful jokes about other men. We love it when our comedies break taboos, but George Carlin once provided a warning about breaking taboos. He basically said that societal standards should always be respected and taboos should be carefully and gradually broken down, for once they’re all obliterated comedians will have nothing left to mock.

“If I fall down a manhole, that’s not funny. If you do, that’s funny,” Mel Brooks once said.

Jay Leno once mused that he didn’t understand why social, highbrow comedians felt a need to shake their audiences’ foundations and breakdown barriers. He said that he didn’t understand comedians bringing high-falootin’ sensibilities to their comedy. He said being a comedian is a wonderful profession that has two basic components: telling jokes and getting paid for it. “Well,” Larry David responded, “You (Leno) can think that, because you were good at it.”

Bob Hope and Jack Benny told jokes and got paid in their day, but theirs were different jokes, safer jokes, that appealed to fathers and sons alike. Benny and Hope did not seek to break boundaries or expose the culture’s sensitive underbelly. There were no sensibilities brought to their brand of humor. One would think that they would probably have a lot of trouble breaking through the ranks today. Hope told some risky jokes about Raquel Welch and Loni Anderson, but they were never so bold that they would offend a parent. Benny’s self-effacing humor would land him gigs in Omaha and Des Moines, but if he wanted in the upper echelon, he probably would’ve have to do some border stretching today. The difference between a Bob Hope and a Sam Kinison, or an Andrew Dice Clay, shows that humor evolves and changes over time.

Richard Pryor started out wanting to be the next Bill Cosby, but he realized there were limits to that, so he carved a niche out for himself. His primary goal was to tell jokes and get paid, but there came a point in his career where he realized that ultimate success could not be achieved through those traditional avenues. George Carlin was also one who could’ve stayed safe doing zany weathermen, but he realized there was other territory out there for him to mine. Jim Carrey was a master impersonator, but he saw an end game to it, so he reinvented himself and his comedy. Andy Kaufman could’ve never made the stage with traditional comedy sets, so he decided not to be funny, and he hoped that we would laugh instinctively at the confusion he created.

These comedians, and others, have broken down barriers in our society. They’ve shaken our sensibilities and made us laugh at ourselves, and they’ve shaped our politics, our views on religion and music, how we treat our children, what we think of our parents, how we define our sexual mores, and if we were going to have a puritanical or a more permissive society. One could say that the power comedians wield in our society dates back to court jesters and beyond. Yet, even those court jesters had a pecking order that divided the talented from the untalented. We can assume that some of those jesters were so talented that they could tell a joke and get paid. Others recognized that they weren’t as talented, and they needed to carve out a niche for the untalented that didn’t rely on imitating and falling, and they most likely had to teach the king a new brand of comedy that relied on the natural human instinct to laugh when confused.

He Used to Have a Mohawk

“Mark is a good man,” the best man said, before raising his glass in a toast, “but he used to have a mohawk.”

The maid of honor echoed the best man’s sentiment, “I like Mark. I found out he used to have a mohawk, and I found out that he even colored it blue at one time. I couldn’t believe it. He seems so nice.”

What an odd, seemingly contradictory, thing to say, I thought when Mark’s friends finished their introductions. The best man was presumably one that Mark listed as one of his best friends, and the maid of honor clearly had a spot in her heart for him now, after presumably spending time around him as one of the bride’s best friends. Yet, these two chose to introduce us to Mark in a manner that suggested that there might be something wrong with people that have their hair cut into a mohawk, but not Mark. He’s nice. It was the theme of their intro and they added to it throughout the toast. We found out that not only did Mark have a mohawk at a time in his life, but he also colored it blue for a time and at another time, he spiked it eight inches high. No matter what form his hair took, however, he was always nice, and he would talk to you just like any other feller.

Mark appeared to take this all in stride. Either he agreed with the sentiment of the theme, or he didn’t hear the underlying condescension. Whatever the case, Mark appeared to miss the associations, the looks, and the reactions back in his mohawk days.

I attended this ceremony at the behest of my uncle, who was quite fond of the bride. He did not know the man that used to have a mohawk however. As such, he did not know if the haircut was a result of some sort of an identity crisis, or the psychology that chased Mark after he relented to chop it off and begin mingling with common folk again. My uncle only met Mark a few times, but he assured me that the man was nice.

Based on the idea that my one conduit into Mark’s mind was almost as unfamiliar with him as I was, I was forced to draw on personal experience with like-minded souls to try and dig into Mark’s essence. The obvious goal of adorning one’s body with an attention-drawing tattoo and hairstyle is to gain attention, but hearing all that I heard at this wedding reception and watching Mark react to it, I realized that might only be half of it. I thought Mark’s goal might have been to change the perception he had of being a wallflower that sits in the corner of a party and leaves such a poor impression that no one recalls them ever being there.

To distinguish themselves in the beginning, those that Mark reminded me of tried to establish some sort of association. They might start by displaying a fiery temper, so others might say, “Don’t mess with Jed, he’s insane.” If that display doesn’t work, they feel compelled to provide a visual to promote it with a quick mean-faced punch. I’ve even witnessed some going so far as to say such things about themselves with the hope of kick starting such a reputation. They don’t conclude this with “Tell your friends,” but the end game is obvious to those on the receiving end. If this chain of events does not produce the desired effect, the plan B of ornaments of self-expression begin to appear, that take the form of physical shouts of ‘I am here!’ from their otherwise anonymous corners.

I’ve heard some mohawks speak of sitting in front of a mirror, for over an hour to gel those eight-inch spikes up just right, to achieve a perception that is exclusive to an eight-inch Mohawk. The unspoken goal is to entice someone, somewhere to look at them. Some consider them strange, but at least they’re looking. Some ask questions, but at least they’re asking. Some might even ostracize them, but even that is evidence of a concerted effort directed toward them.

“For God’s sakes, Helen, the boy’s got a blue mohawk!” a senior citizen, unfiltered by social graces might say to his wife. The rest of us whisper it for fear that a mohawk man may hear and feel further estranged, but in my personal experience, they love it all. Mark, I can only speculate, was no different.

“It turns out Mark has a great heart,” the best man said to complete the circuit of the clichéd best man toast, “Who would give you the shirt off his back.” At one point in his toast, the best man said that he was, “Attracted to Mark, because Mark used to have a Mohawk. It wasn’t one of those flat, more acceptable Mohawks either. This one was spiky, and eight-inches high. It was even blue at one point. This was a Mohawk!”

The best man laid a deft, joke teller’s emphasis on the words ‘was’ and ‘mohawk’ to punctuate the joke. He received some laughter for the effort, but there was nothing raucous about it because there was nothing raucous, shocking, or rebellious about Mark anymore. The mohawk was gone.

Men with sensible haircuts now felt so comfortable with Mark that they felt free to laugh at him without fear. They thought they were now laughing with him, and he had to sit there and take it, nodding in silent vulnerability from his proverbial corner of the room. His nod had an unspoken “Yep!” to it that suggested either Mark regretted giving up the mohawk, or that he regretted trying it out in the first place. My money was on the former.

In the years since this wedding, I’m betting that Mark still tells people, “I’m an old, married man now, but I used to have a Mohawk, and it was eight inches high, and it was even blue at one time,” when they ask him questions about himself.

The ceremony that preceded those odd, contradictory toasts was also unorthodox, but one look at Mark and his bride, Mary, should’ve informed any observer that they were, at the very least, in for something unorthodox. Then again, most of the attendees were unorthodox too. The church was unorthodox, and it appeared to have seen its best days thirty years prior, but unorthodox can be quaint, and quaint can be romantic, and colorful, and the best way for two people to express their unique, and unorthodox love for one another in a quaint, memorable way.

Those of us that put some thought into it found that unorthodox core and appreciated it for what it was. We believed that we grasped the individualistic statement Mark and Mary wanted to make to one another and their friends and family. We thought there was something unique and beautiful about the ceremony, and that something influenced us to think about the ways in which we could make our own individualistic statements in our own ceremonies. I must admit I went through all of that, but my appreciation of what Mark and Mary accomplished ended when two singers stepped to the mic stands positioned at the side of the altar.

The songs performed by two teenage girls sang weren’t Gershwin or Schubert. They were as hip and nice as Mark and Mary wanted the congregation to believe they were. They were informal, and the best way Mary could find to express her love for this man who used to have a mohawk. The songs were also terrible.

A song can provide a brief, abridged interlude to any ceremony. In such a special ceremony, a song can add to the overall theme that the bride and groom are trying to establish in their ceremony. The best-case scenario, learned by way of the contrast offered by Mark and Mary’s union, is to condense those songs to the meaningful lyrics, or the meaningful portion of the song, that the couple hopes will capture the essence of their ceremony.

Wedding architects should maintain focus on the song’s refrain to establish some familiarity with the audience, but these same architects should avoid including the entire song. I’ve been there. We all have. As an enthusiastic music fan who regards some songs in the devout manner some view religion, I have a list of songs that I regard as unique definitions of who I am. I’ve fantasized about using them in my ceremonies, to provide my friends and family members a window into my soul. Common sense has prevailed upon me though, and logic tells me these moments might not be the time or the place to proselytize on the virtues of the undiscovered, aberrant songs I enjoy.

Mark and Mary obviously did not receive such objective perspectives, and the audience had to listen to songs that these tone deaf, teenage girls sang in a kitschy, wonderfully amateurish, and endearing, and embarrassing manner. I could hear their earnest effort, but it didn’t work for me. I can’t sing, and I do harbor some empathy for anyone attempting to do anything artistic in a public forum, but that display made me cringe.

“But, it was sung from the heart,” a sympathetic listener might have said, in an effort to give this rendition of whatever song they sang endearing qualities. “Fine,” I would say, “Keep it under two minutes.”

“But this was Mark and Mary’s ceremony,” they might have countered, “and even if it was unorthodox, it was unorthodox to your conformist orthodoxy, and who put you in the seat of professional critic. Get over yourself man!”

The duet sang a second song, ten minutes in. The second song was as painful as the first, yet another interruption the flow of the ceremony. It was agony for those of us that didn’t know Mark and Mary, and it altered a moment the bride and groom were supposed to cherish into the introductory segment of American Idol for all of us to try to avoid becoming frustrated, mean-spirited Simon Cowells.

Bereft of Brevity

The groom was so shaken up during the wedding ceremony that he couldn’t maintain his composure while reciting his vows. The evidence that Mark wanted this moment was so palpable that all but the cold-hearted felt it. I was so into this ceremony, and so deep into my effort to understand this man from afar, that his tears moved me. I considered the idea that Mark thought if he could get this one moment in his life right, it might help him move beyond whatever drove him to get a mohawk in the first place. I thought about those precious few moments we all have to rewrite the course we’re on, and I thought about what we do when they arrive. I also thought that if such a moment did exist for Mark, it was gone. In its place were two four-minute songs that the bride selected for this ceremony, to attempt to make the moment even more seminal than it might have otherwise been.

The bride, the groom, and the priest stood up there like jackasses, staring at one another while those two songs dragged out to four minutes each. Four minutes may not seem long, unless you’re the one trying to make more of this moment than it might otherwise have.

Less is more when we’re seeking a moment, I realized, watching as all of the moments failed to accumulate into something seminal. A seminal moment occurs when one is engaged in a moment, and no amount of choreographing will move it there. We can try, and we shouldn’t fall prey to the less-is-more principle to a point that we do nothing, but as we continue to add moments in the hope of achieving the seminal, we encroach upon a tipping point.

That tipping point may never become apparent to those who choreographed their moment. If it does become apparent, that clarity often arrives soon after it’s too late to change, and the only people who learn anything from it are those who witness the fact that brevity allows all participants to define the beauty for us, and with us, through the contrast of our efforts.

When we lose our moments, or see them redefined, we try to take them back. Cheesy, choreographed lyrics about tenderness, togetherness, love, and always being there for one’s partner, appear beautiful and thematic on paper. In reality, they’re show-stopping, moment stealing, and over-wrought ideas that we later come to regret, even if we refuse to admit it. We find ourselves trying to disassemble and reassemble our moment any way we can, until our ability to take it back and relive those seminal moments lead us to ache for the days when we used to have a mohawk.