"Smoking kills. If you're killed, you've lost a very important part of your life," —Brooke Shields, during an interview to become Spokesperson for federal anti-smoking campaign.
Who knows why you pick up a book…you remember 'oh, I've been wanting to read that' or the cover looks interesting or you like the author. Then you might leaf through it standing there in the library or at the dollar stand on the sidewalk in front of a bookstore or the 50cent pile at a garage sale. So, yeah, I checked out 375 pages of a 'who and why of Comedy in the 50's & 60's' and it propelled me back through decades of my life. Now I'm in the vortex.
Part of the sad reality I've had to embrace regarding my childhood is that my parents' idea of what was funny or not funny really didn't jibe; that shouldn't be a surprise since they were culturally 180 degrees apart. If they ever on rare occasions did see eye-to-eye, it was with a definite slant toward the European—she being French—so such performers as Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Laurel & Hardy, Jacques Tati and Fernandel or films like Grand Illusion (with its undercurrent of sly humor) all would be snug under the umbrella of 'funny'.
American things that would have my father in pain—Mark Twain or Pogo—for her: not funny. British stuff would make him howl, but for her—Alec Guinness? 'Non.' Peter Sellers? 'Non.' Although part of this is simply a matter of temperament: my mother never laughed freely about anything for more than a few seconds and my dad was like me—sometimes you start & it's like a torrent that can't be blocked. That makes me triste, since I always wanted my folks to get along, always wanted to fix whatever was wrong (middle kid, 'natch) and certainly thought that you could quantify how something became funny. You lay it out on the table and examine its parts. If it has X, Y & Z, it's funny. If it don't, it ain't.
My book from the library, while not a dissertation, still delved deep enough into the lives of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Steve Allen, Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters, Allan Sherman, Shelley Berman, Smothers Brothers, Nichols & May, Joan Rivers and some other important ones, to make solid cases for the arcs of their careers. I would be fine with a little of Mort, a bit of Lenny, very early Cosby, maybe ein bissel Berman, certainly Mike, the first half gets some credit, and Rivers—yoick, no thank you. I'll tell you right now what are my big picks: 3, 4, 6, 7, 9 and the second half of 10. All I have to do it sing or even think 'Sarah Jackman, Sarah Jackman, how's by you?' to make me almost unable to type. I know, I know, it can wear thin, but even so, you see how not having parents who could agree on these things tore me apart.
Why, why, why? I accept that the worst & the best are all mish-mashed together when a child is produced, especially one who observes firsthand the glazed boredom of Mommy in the face of the elation of Daddy. In my case it seemed always to be in that order. My mother's sense of humor, while rooted firmly in French classics, lost its way in English. But how does this explain her love for Buster Keaton? Oh, yeah…he doesn't talk! Okay, but how about, uh, well, you know…Nope, there aren't any. She simply does not believe in her heart that English is funny. Period. It can't be.
Now that my dad is gone, of course there are no more arguments, no more stalemates between them. My brothers and I don't sit in front row seats watching our parent's melodrama anymore. But caller ID notwithstanding, we still have to pick up the phone once in a while, or even worse, go head-first into the jaws of the dragon, right there in her lair.
Case in point: maybe four or five years ago, someone in my mother's circle of friends passed her a hard copy of one of those annoying email lists of 'amusing' quotes—the kind that appear in your inbox recounting third grade children's remarks on quizzes, or senior memory problems or ways God loves you. These quotes were loosely show biz related and so she, being the eternal grad student that she is, proceeded to study and rate the quotes, one by one, on a scale of funny-ness, just as an exercise.
This was not enough, however. Where's the interest in research when you can't share it? Over the next few months, each friend, acquaintance & family member was exhorted to look through the list and then were asked to identify, and hopefully comment upon, which ones were 'not funny'. (She says she just does this for the joy of 'sharing', but let me tell you, on this one I would bet that nobody remembers any of it including #12. It's all about #17.)
I was at her place one night on another mission—going over bank statements or some such item on her short list of ways to get you over there & have a little 'bite to eat'—and she handed me something to 'take a look' at and tell her what I thought. I had a full stomach & it was getting late. I'm a fast reader. It didn't take more than a minute or so. Not realizing that I was being blind-sided, I think I went 'Yikes! Hahahaha', or something of the sort, and then passed it back to her.
She couldn't let it go. She wanted to know specifics, like what I thought of #12 which happened to be from a famous baseball player.
'It's okay, not great.' I shrugged, but I was starting to get a prickly feeling on the back of my neck. There were handwritten asterisks on the list and she was hovering. My first answer had not pleased.
'What about this one?' she said, tapping impatiently with one long fingernail next to #17.
I read it again.
'Hilarious.' I said 'Best of the bunch.'
'But—it is not funny…'
'Sure it is.'
'No, no, no! That is not correct!'
'Hang on a sec. Don't I get an opinion here?'
'When someone is killed, especially by a disease, it is not funny!'
'Ma, what do you mean? It's a classic…it's a set-up. The payoff, the rhythm. Plus 'K' is funny.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'You know; Walther Matthau in The Sunshine Boys. 'K' is funny. Pickle is funny.'
There was a long silence. 'My God.' she intoned. 'I simply. Do. Not. Understand. Americans!'
Often when I am caught unsuspecting by events or people, such as, say…my mother, or others, I become aware of a strange tunnel-vision kind of phenomenon that kind of takes over my vision, until the danger or threat is passed. It's a very uncomfortable sensation and I don't particularly care to go through it even though I've always survived intact. This time, however, I wasn't having any of it. The ghost of my long-suffering, theater-thwarted, utterly inept, but deeply humor-loving father arose from my guts. I wouldn't back down. I had had enough of the old protecting and fixing and smiling and nodding.
For the next twenty minutes my deeply French mother and I went back & forth, trading blows: me telling her she was taking it way too seriously and her pulling out a sheaf of notes gathered from lung cancer resources. She even had a rough tally of how many people had agreed with her, including the pastor of a local church. It did not occur to her that they might have been being polite.
I reminded her of the long history of music hall & vaudeville theater traditions. Straight men & comics, shtick & yiddishisms.
She waved me away.
I tried the soft approach 'You know, sometimes innate French syntax can interfere with one's sense of English…'
She told me not to patronize her; she's been speaking English longer than I have.
She bemoaned the tragedy of Brooke's youth & innocence.
I replied 'She's a Hollywood brat!'
She 'brown-eyed' me with The Look; said I went too fast-- had not given it a proper reading.
I responded 'It's one and a half sentences, Ma!'
She said she had studied the issues.
I retorted 'Okay. So tell me about Yogi Berra.'
This was some toxic shit.
Finally I gave her a hug and a kiss and said goodnight. I got a right to my own view of things. I can live with wrong, even if I am right. But I know families. They all have their rollercoasters.
To this day, what we have is a matriarch with a heart condition and nobody in the family with the balls to mention Brooke Shields.