Read an Excerpt
Timing Is Everything
I'm a comedian. And I get a lot of work, actually, except at funerals. You see, before I was a comedian, I was a singer. My sister-in-law, Doris, and I had been passing out business cards for a while. She'd play the organ and I would sing. Funerals or Weddings, the card read. But I don't do funerals anymore. My last gig didn't go so well.
This day the funeral director, a man with hair the color of cotton, led us to a back room barely big enough for a piano and a microphone. "You'll work here," he said. "We'll pipe the music into the parlor. That way the people won't be distracted by watching you and wondering how you fit into the family."
Okay. Fine. Just pay us when we're done.
I must admit, Doris played her heart out. And I sang the old gentleman right on into heaven with a stirring rendition of "Nearer My God to Thee." (Wasn't that the same song they sang as the Titanic was sinking?)
We finished our selections and then waited, because we were supposed to sing one more song at the end of the service. We waited and waited. The room seemed to grow warmer and smaller, and I got bored. So I started practicing stand-up for my future career as a comedian. Apparently, I had a great audience! She loved me, she really loved me! I was on a roll!
Have you ever seen someone trying desperately not to laugh? The look on Doris's face that day was as if she were in pain and needed to relieve the pressure . . . or else. But not a sound, not a peep. Believe me, a peep would have been much better than the big blasting snort that finally broke loose.
That was it.
We lost it.
My laugh, on the other hand, is like a cackle -- loud and long. So there we were -- snorting and cackling, cackling and snorting. We couldn't stop!
We may have gone on like that for a long time, but in poked Cotton Head, the funeral director. He was waving both hands, trying to get our attention. "Ladies!" he called in a stage whisper, "that microphone is still on!"
Cracking the Comedy Books
I've been a student of comedy for many years now. (It sure beats chemistry -- I made terrible grades in chemistry.) One of my favorite "textbooks" is a book called Comedy Writing Secrets by Melvin Helitzer. It has a banana-yellow cover with big letters on the front and even looks funny on the shelf. Mr. Helitzer explains a few of the terms, or formulas, used when writing a funny joke, terms like stupidity (that one comes pretty easy for me!), double entendres (play on words), reverse (switching the point of view), slapstick (catering to our delight in someone else's misfortune, like a pie in the face or laughing at someone's funeral), and triples (a sequence of three actions that build up the tension to an exaggerated finale). Speaking of triples . . .
I was in the fourth grade and living near the ocean in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina where my father pastored a small church. My little sister, Cheralyn, was three years younger than I and always tried to do everything I did on the monkey bars -- even hang upside down. She was the first to break a bone. After the doctors had wrapped her leg in a cast that reached from the top of her leg to the tip of her toes, the folks from church lined up just to sign it. (One even wrote, "Never listen to your sister!")
A few days later my big sister, Charlotta, who was four years older than I, fell at the roller-skating rink. (Good Christian teenagers couldn't dance, but we were allowed to roller skate.) Charlotta really was graceful -- on or off roller skates. But whenever she was skating there always seemed to be a lot going on: boys flying past, trying to impress her; bratty kids zipping past, teasing her about all the boys flying past. I don't really remember who caused her to trip and fall on her hand. How would I know? I was on the bottom of the pile -- minding my own business.
In the emergency room the doctor explained to us that she had broken her thumb in two places. And since Charlotta was the piano-playing future of our church, the doctors wanted to be sure the break would heal properly. That meant her cast -- for a broken thumb -- covered her entire hand and extended way up her arm and past her elbow.
And then I had my "big break!"
It happened at the "big game" -- the one where the coach had announced I was the shortstop, and then he told me there were only enough gloves for some of the infielders and some of the outfielders -- unfortunately, I wasn't in that group. No problem. After all, this was softball. Why did we need gloves?
The first batter stepped to the plate. She was four times bigger than I (but then again, everyone at that age seemed to be four times bigger than I). Yet I straddled the X the coach had marked in the dirt and watched the softball move in a nice, slow arc from the pitcher to the batter. SWING! CRACK! And then the ball was coming at me -- like a bullet! With my best athletic move, I planted all forty-eight pounds of me right smack dab in front of the ball.
My plan worked. Sort of. The ball smacked me in the crook of my right arm. I smothered it with my arm and the rest of my body as I dropped to my knees. What a catch! I was a hero! We won the game! Or did we? Everything after that was a blur! But when I got home, my injury was hard to hide. "Not again," Mother said, with just the slightest tinge of exasperation. "They're going to start asking questions!"
My parents decided that I should have x-rays. So Mother, Cheralyn, Charlotta, and I all piled in the car and drove to the emergency room. The x-ray confirmed Mother's worst fears: I'd broken the radius in my right arm. I'd have to wear a cast for twelve weeks. I sat quietly and watched as the white-coats wrapped my arm in strips of plaster and gauze -- as if they were making a piñata.
Soon I joined Cheralyn and Charlotta in the waiting room. Cheralyn hobbled up pitifully to meet me. Charlotta adjusted her sweater, trying to hide her cast. But I waved my cast proudly -- my battle scar -- a war trophy!
Mother led us down the hall, a train of mummified body parts. As we passed a sitting area, I noticed a lady who had noticed us. She was well-dressed and sat with excellent posture. As we passed by I heard her say -- very quaintly, very Southern -- "Oh my, it's a complete set!"