Sunday, July 13, 2014

Classroom Assignment

While cleaning out the overstuffed, disorganized drawers in my roll-top writing desk, I found some relics that distracted me from the mission at hand. The story collection from 3rd grade was expected; I've carried it from home to home for nearly 40 years, a reminder that the most constant relationship in my life has been the one I have with words. Behind its faded purple construction paper was an unmarked manilla folder; inside, a dozen English Comp assignments from my senior year of high school. Tucked among compare/contrast, incident and example paragraphs was the following:

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Buster Keaton, thought to be one of the best comedians of the silent film age, spent his childhood being brutally abused in his parents' vaudeville show. He made his fortune by suppressing his pain behind a dead-pan, unreadable face. The Marx Brothers, comedy's first family, had many painful years of altercation, yet created some of the funniest moments in film history together. These men, as well as such greats as Fanny Brice, Lenny Bruce, Freddy Prinze and John Belushi, knew how to transform their hard knocks into knock-knocks, their punches into punch lines and their troubles into cream pies. Someone once said that humor is the instinct for taking pain playfully. The comedians most responsible for keeping America laughing seem to support this statement. Despite personal tragedies such as child abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse, mental breakdowns, marital problems and suicide, the humor keeps coming out from within them. When I see Pierrot's painted face with a tear resting in the corner of its eye, I can truly appreciate his playful antics, knowing it is his pain that keeps my smile in place.

Besides proving that my level of pretension hasn't changed much over the years, it was still a bit surprising for me to read what I had written and turned in for grading on May 29th, 1984. I know I've loved comedy for as long as I've loved anything, but I thought my compulsion to analyze it, to write about it, came later in life. Came maybe from my friendship with Tiny or my first time meeting in person a comic I'd only known from television (Tom Rhodes, who is pure magic and whose weekend in Rochester will always be among my top ten live comedy experiences). I thought One Girl's Giggle was a place to keep notes for something seemingly more relevant than a blog, that these brief pieces were all just put here to pin them down in time, to make sure the thoughts were accessible when I had a higher purpose for them. The early reviews aren't even well written, because I wasn't thinking of them so much as anything that needed to do more than recount a show. When my friend Anna said some of the pieces made her feel like she had been there, I was flattered. And then I felt it was important to do better, to not only share what I'd heard, but also how those jokes moved or maddened me.

Finding this paper was a reminder that comedy has held value and meaning for me for a long time, and trying to communicate that with others isn't a recent development. Sure, it wasn't a very deep analysis. Who was I to call the Marx Brothers “America's First Family of Comedy?” That title went to the Wayans in 1990, and seems to have stuck. Recently, Judd Apatow and his wife, Leslie Mann, have been called comedy's first family in an article or two. But there I was, in 1984, bestowing it with absolute certainty, to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and the other one. Ok, I know it's Gummo, who stopped performing with his brothers before they hit Broadway, but had a lovely career after his release from the Army as a woman's dress/cloth salesman, and followed that up by becoming a talent agent who successfully represented his brothers for many years.

I loved the Marx Brothers. I remember watching Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races and Room Service with my father on our console TV, an awkwardly twisted wire clothes hanger standing in for the antennae one of us kids probably broke off and hid somewhere. My father was not the most emotional of men, though not unusual for his generation. Our Saturdays were full of the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the Keystone Cops, and Benny Hill. Nearly all the memories I have of his 6' 3” frame shaking from laughter are associated with those movies. And Hee-Haw, but that's a whole nother story.

I have always been able to express my opinion on a topic with certainty, with a resolute belief in whatever I am saying. I just wasn't aware, until this morning, that I had applied that single-mindedness to comedy so early on. Even in such an innocuous piece, written as a weekly assignment for a class I'd long since forgotten.

By the way, my final composite stanine score was 9 out of 9, and the teacher wrote “Very Good!” in what is now faded red ink. You all know how much I love that positive reinforcement!

More blogs coming, I promise.

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