Killing Themselves To Laugh
by Julia McCloy
A year ago a friend tackled me in a snowball fight. It was all fun and games, but I tore my ACL and pretty much made salsa out of my knee. I spent a couple of months on crutches. Not only did I look pathetic, but I sounded pathetic too. I made these horrible crutch noises any time I entered a room. Like I was constantly hitting the rim of a snare drum gently and out of time. I had just cut my blonde hair very short and that paired with my small frame gave me the appearance of Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. And America loves that kid. No one wanted to see him on crutches dressed like a 31 year old woman. Which is the way I dress since I am both 31 and a woman. And not in fact Macaulay Culkin. I got a lot of attention. I got a lot of questions.
People I didn’t know constantly asked me how I hurt myself. If there were anything positive that came out of my torn- up knee, it was jokes that I could make out of my appearance. So when people asked me how I hurt myself, I would lean my weight onto the tan rubber at the top of my crutches and I would look at them straight in the face, then I’d say “My boyfriend found out I was pregnant… he pushed me down the stairs.” Then I would shrug my shoulders, look down, and crutch slowly away.
I did this to be funny. But I had a specific audience I was playing to. It was my friends whom I would tell the story to later. I chose to make myself look either demented or more pathetic (or both) for a laugh that I wouldn’t even get to have until I was balancing uneasily on a barstool or with a phone pressed hard against my face. My audience is my friends. I want their appreciation and I am more than happy to freak out a few people to get it. Appreciation in the form of laughter is pretty close to love. I want either/or. Appreciation or laughter. I am willing to feel pain for the cause too.
I am not the only one who feels this way either. Gilda Radner famously broke her rib in rehearsals for SNL by running again and again into a closed closet door, because that what her character was supposed to do. Radner then had her rib taped and proceeded to perform in the show.
Lucille Ball was once knocked unconscious during the taping of The Lucy Show. She was wearing roller skates and was instructed to skate under a table as men lifted the table into the air. She didn’t duck low enough and hit the table straight on. With her head. When she came to she told the screenwriters, “It was my fault; I mistimed it. You just keep writing ‘em, I’ll do ‘em, don’t worry. That is what we do here.”
Ball continued with these shenanigans through her life and made a Times critic uncomfortable with her physical antics in the1980s when she returned to TV. The critic claimed (and correctly) that viewers were more likely to “wince than giggle. When the person slipping on a banana peel turns out to be elderly, the threat of a truly serious injury overwhelms the joke.” We like our old people mellow, fully insured, and wearing foam caps that say, “I don’t give a shit. I am retired.” We also like it when we are pretty sure they don’t know that they are wearing this hat. Because they are wearing it during church.
There is a place in a joke where the joke teller puts the audience at risk. It can be at the onset, the end, or the whole damn thing. If humor is just the presence and then the release of anxiety, then the joke teller must gauge how much anxiety your mere existence causes in order to gauge what kind of potential your joke has. Old people scare Americans. Real bad. And not just because we saw a whole lot of them making out with aliens in Cocoon. Although that certainly didn’t help.
But the elderly are not the only people who scare us gentle Americans. Foreigners and men who wrestle women (or play with gender roles) are the hell out of us too. Andy Kaufman proved that again and again. He was happy to put people in both physical and emotional peril to make a joke. In turn he endeared himself to an army of annoying twenty something males who love to ruin parties by loudly explaining to everyone in earshot that “you have to be smart to get Kaufman. If you don’t get him maybe you’re not smart enough, or know about WHAT IS FUNNY. But whatever it is, if you understood humor then you would think he was funny.” I don’t think he is funny and I have received this lecture several times. Eventually I just starting roofie-ing myself at the onset of the lecture at parties with hopes that I would forget the whole lecture ordeal. If I woke up with my underwear on –well, that was just a bonus.
The above sentence never happened. I have never roofied myself and generally I know where my underwear is. But it is a joke I am willing to make. It falls into the spectrum I am willing to joke about. Very little falls outside of this spectrum, including physical stunts. I want people to laugh at me. And I am more than willing to tape up a jammed finger or make a stranger grimace to get it. Before you judge me, I would ask you to ask yourself what is the craziest thing you ever did for a person that you had a crush on (have you ever written bad poetry, snuck into some place you are not supposed to be). Whatever it is probably much more humiliating than I have ever done. It is probably much funnier as well.
Julia McCloy is a contributor to This Recording. She lives in Memphis.
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