I’m a New Yorker. It’s in my blood.
I never lived there. My parents moved from Long Island to Minneapolis a month before my birth. Imagine my surprise, looking out the window of the nursery, expecting to see the Empire State Building or at least the Statue of Liberty, but seeing only snow.
Talk about bait and switch. Did I mention snow?
My heart always longed for New York City, land of Brigitte Bardot and Gina Lollobrigida.
Don’t get me wrong. Minnesota is a great place to live, if you like ice.
The wind rattled our eves while I sat and watched charming, beautiful, happy people amusing each other in that oasis of civilization, New York City.
Back then most television was broadcast from NYC. It seemed like such a happy place. Who wouldn’t prefer living amidst great entertainers like Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs?
In fourth grade, inspired by these two geniuses and Mad Magazine, I wrote a series of mock commercials to perform for my class. I wanted to make people laugh.
I enlisted a few class mates to assist me and secured time from our teacher Miss Hudson, to perform the skits during class time. Miss Hudson didn’t even demand rights of approval over my script.
The students in the class accepted the diversion but without enthusiasm. My fellow performers went through the motions but without a spark of understanding. My project was completely out of their experience, or interest.
This was not the “I have a barn! Let’s do a play!” fantasy come true. Everyone had a barn and everyone knew what barns were for, by golly!
Their indifference might have discouraged another. But I had a vision. I was unfazed.
The idea of a nine year old attempting to recreate ’60s style television sketch comedy, before “Laugh In,” would be implausible to most. That I did this, multiple times, in a small farm town in central Minnesota is preposterous.
Why did it seem so natural to me?
How did I know where the Catskills were? Why would mentioning the names Phil Silvers and Shecky Greene start me laughing?
While playing with my sister one day, my parents heard me exclaim “Oy vey!” They asked where I heard that expression. Indeed, where would a Catholic kid, from corn country, learn Yiddish?
Stop with all the questions, already!
Laurel and Hardy were on TV every Saturday morning. I knew all their work. Exposure to W. C. Fields, Chaplin and Buster Keaton came later. Harpo Marx never knew what a devoted fan he had.
I incorporated slapstick humor into my every day life. I would plan and execute prat falls, in public, for my own amusement. If anyone else laughed, all the better. Friends gave me funny hats. I carried props in my army surplus trench coat.
Soon, I realized that my efforts to entertain the world were largely unappreciated. People surround themselves with a wall of predictability and anything disrupting that is seen with suspicion. I couldn’t understand why such antics were hilarious in a movie, but not in real life.
But characters in my favorite comedies didn’t laugh either. It is the audience who laughs. In ‘real life’ there is no audience, except for friends.
Timing. I needed to work on my timing.
In the ‘90s, I attended an Emmy Awards Ceremony where Sid Caesar was a guest host. During a lull in the proceedings, I approached him and thanked him for all the laughs he’d given me in my life. We spoke for a moment and he graciously shook my hand.
In 2002, to cure my sleep apnea, I submitted to an outpatient procedure by an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. He removed my tonsils, adenoids and my uvula on a Wednesday.
The following Sunday was Father’s Day and I planned to spend it with my two children. I expected to be my usual chipper self after four full day’s recovery. Nope.
That Sunday morning the doctor informed me that the pain would now get worse. Much worse. For days I felt like a toothpaste tube, squeezed dry and abandoned at the bottom of a cluttered drawer. Now my throat felt like a hot coal I could neither swallow nor spit out. Thanks Doc.
But I promised my kids. I wasn’t going to let a little pain squelch my Father’s Day plans. Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” was playing at the Silent Movie Theater. They hadn’t seen Chaplin before. This was perfect.
And really, how much worse could it get?
Having the foresight to ask a neighbor to drive, we picked up my kids and had lunch. I couldn’t eat. The pain pills were useless, so I took more. I knew curling up for a nap under the table was not an option. The kids were unaware of my descent into a zombiehood.
We got to the theater. Though I wanted to see the movie, sitting in the dark for two hours was the greater attraction.
The manager of the theater came out on stage to introduce the movie. Soon the lights would dim and I could sink into oblivion.
What? My son and daughter were nudging me. What? A Charlie Chaplin imitation contest? Me?
How could I refuse? It was Father’s Day after all.
I found my way to the stage. Others had performed already. The manager gave me a cane and a derby hat and whispered not to poke a hole in the screen. Screen? What screen?
While doing a little “Chaplinesque” dance, I mustered all my slapstick chops and ‘accidentally’ put the hat on the cane instead of my head. Conspiring with the cane, the hat eluded my grasp. I spun around and grabbed the hat. Then the cane started walking me and pulled me off the stage.
There was applause.
Was it the pain pills? Was I funny? Would Chaplin have approved?
I don’t know.
But I won the contest.