Category Archives: comedians

Mr. Don Knotts

Being a child of the ’60s and also being fifty percent raised by the television set, it was my privilege to witness and learn from the master comedian of self-deprecating humor and ultimate humiliation. And there is no better preparation for becoming a Texas public school teacher than to learn how to be laughed at from Don Knotts.

I have spent a goodly number of hours during our recent COVID quarantine watching old DVDs of Don Knotts movies. The last four nights I viewed, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Shakiest Gun in the West, The Reluctant Astronaut, and The Love God. If you have never seen them, they come with the highest of Mickian recommendations, “They made me laugh so hard I cried.”

Of course, my favorite Don Knotts movie of all time is The Incredible Mr. Limpet.

Knotts always seems to play a character put upon by life in general, yet always believing that he has the inner something to make himself into a huge success. Every time he gets knocked down he quivers with frustration and throws a punch at his tormentors that invariably hits nothing unless he hits himself. In Mr. Limpet, we find a man so frustrated in his inability to help in the war effort that he throws himself into the sea, turning himself into a fish… a fish that helps defeat German U-boats. He makes himself into a hero, He even finds love among the fishes.

Knotts found the perfect comic partner in Tim Conway as they made The Apple Dumpling Gang and its sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. Slapstick antics and serious battles against the laws of physics somehow manage to win out over real bad guys with real guns and horses.

I guess the thing that makes Don Knotts such an important part of my television-sourced education is how much I identify with him. Life is a never-ending parade of humbling defeats and blush-inducing humiliations. I have spent most of my life being one with the little-guy within me, the put-upon fellow who has never quite overcome all the little hurts incurred by a desire to overcome the gravity holding me down.

And in a Don-Knotts world, based on a Don-Knotts movie script, things eventually turn out all right in the end. Mr. Chicken is proved right. Abner Peacock ends up marrying the beautiful girl who is the perfect one for him. The dentist who is mistaken for a gun-fighter still gets to be the hero in the end. So, there are worse things than living a Don Knotts sort of life.

Rest in peace, Don Knotts. For though you are no longer with us, you will always live on in my heart… and the hearts of many other Don Knotts wannabes.

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Filed under art my Grandpa loved, autobiography, comedians, education, empathy, goofiness, humor, movie review, nostalgia, strange and wonderful ideas about life

The Case for the Clown

The criminal was led into the courtroom in chains and forced to sit in a box made of metal bars so his influence would not reach out and harm anyone by drawing their sympathy in.

“Mr. Prosecutor,” said the learned judge, “what terrible crime has the perpetrator been charged with?”

“The alleged perpetrator!” objected the defense attorney, a mousy old man who looked like a cross between Santa Clause and Robert E.Lee because of his white beard, stern face, and a twinkle in his eye.

“Shut up please, Mr. Badweather. You will have your turn to speak.” The judge banged his gavel smartly to emphasize the shut-up-ness of his overruling.

“Your honor,” said the prosecutor, “Mister Pennysnatcher Goodlaughs stands accused of being a clown.”

“The people of the State of Texas, home of the free, land of the brave, and place where cowboys can hang their hat on the antlers of a moose they shot in Canada, will prove that Mr. Goodlaughs did willfully, and with malice of forethought, commit acts of supposed humor in order to make people laugh. And we will further prove that in a time of very serious things, he intentionally made light of very serious matters and the very serious men who try to turn those serious things to their exclusive… err, sorry, I mean… everyone’s benefit.”

“Your honor,” said the defense attorney, looking like a cross between Mark Twain and Colonel Sanders, “I would like to request a new venue for this trial. My client will not get a fair trial here.”

“Sir, your stupid request is rejected on the grounds that Mr. Goodlaughs cannot get a fair trial anywhere. We are all conservatives, and are therefore incapable of having a sense of humor. Continue, Mr. Prosecutor.”

“We will show numerous instances of Mr. Goodlaughs putting paint on his face to hide his true features or assume the identity of a character not his own. He has repeatedly used false noses, large shoes, and floppy hats to exaggerate his flaws and scare young children. He repeatedly wears polka-dotted clothing to simulate terrible taste and ridiculous lack of fashion-sense. He employs pratfalls and slapstick humor in his performances, things that, if any school-age child would imitate the behavior, might lead to serious injury or even death. And he has even dared to make fun of our glorious leaders, implying that they make mistakes and may even have hurt people. That they act without thinking about anything but their own pocketbooks. In other words, this clown has knowingly made jokes in order to get people to not take things seriously.”

“Your honor, I object to this jury. I object to the fact that it is made up of fifty percent rednecks and fifty percent kangaroos! My client demands a new, more impartial jury!” cried the defense attorney, looking like a cross between Captain Kangaroo and Ronald Reagan.

“Has anybody noticed?” asked the judge, “that this attorney looks like he could influence this jury unfairly? He looks like two people who could lead the two halves of this jury to the wrong conclusion. Bailiff! Take the defense attorney out back and execute him by firing squad.”

After the entire courtroom heard the gunshots go off, the judge then turned to the prisoner.

“It seems, Mr. Goodlaughs, that the defense’s opening statement is now entirely up to you. Do you have anything to say in your own defense?

“I do, your honor. Ladies and gentlemen, kangaroos and Reagan Republicans of the jury, I submit to you that I have never actually been a circus clown, or wore face paint. Not that I wouldn’t if the opportunity presented itself. I merely claim the right to laugh at anything I think is funny… or can be made funny. Whether I am being what you call a clown, a humorist, a cartoonist, a comedian, a fool, a village idiot, or a witty fellow, I believe I have the right to make light of anything. Life is always better when you can laugh. Especially if you can laugh at yourself.”

“I’ve heard enough,” said the judge. “What say you, jury?”

“Guilty!”

“Yes. And I preemptively waive the prisoner’s right to appeal. Sir, you are guilty, and you shall be executed immediately.”

Everyone in the courtroom breathed a long-awaited sigh of relief.

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Sundays at Walmart

I figured today was going to be a bad-luck-sort-of day because the signs and omens were all against me. I forgot to buy dog food yesterday. And I also forgot yogurt for the Princess’s breakfast in the morning. Not only that, the Simon’s Cat game on my phone made me lose the daily challenge three times and the phone ran out of charge before I beat the stupid thing.

George Appleby and his wife (Red Skelton’s Hen-pecked Husband sketch)

Time out for a word from our sponsor;

The promotion ends at midnight tonight.

What’s worse, the first and only thing my wife said to me this morning was, “Michael, stop looking at me with such an angry face!”

I admit I wasn’t smiling. But I was not mad about anything. Should I have been?

“I’m not angry. Are you just saying you think my face is ugly?”

“You said it. I didn’t.”

Yes, the signs and omens were not in my favor today.

What is destined to go wrong?

Car accident on the way to Walmart?

Didn’t happen.

The price of yogurt went up to the point that I could no longer afford it?

Nope, again. But the bill at Walmart had 13 dollars on the front of the price. !!! 13!!! The unluckiest number? I added a candy bar to get the price up to 14 dollars. The candy bar was 88 cents. The total= $13.95. “Oh, no!!! An impending stroke when I carry the dog food into the house!”

Nope. Didn’t happen there either. Is bad karma building up on me for my next teaching job?

Maybe. We find out with 6th graders on Tuesday.

Or maybe I am just fixated on the bad signs and omens too much. If I worry too much about it, I might become George Appleby.

But then again, my wife probably deserves to be covered in toothpaste.

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Talking for Dummies

The secret to this essay is that the title is a pun. And yes, I know you probably don’t find it very punny. But I wanted to talk about the difficulties of portraying the difficulties of communication in a talk-a-lot-sometimes-talk-too-much world.

Yes, my current work in progress, Fools and their Toys, is about a man who can hardly talk at all because of undiagnosed autism who suddenly, miraculously finds a voice through ventriloquism, and then finds himself needing to communicate to a boy who is deaf and only speaks sign language and another boy who is profoundly distracted with ADD and bipolar disorder. He needs to communicate desperately because he knows things that have been locked up in his head for years that may help the FBI stop a cereal killer. No, that is a pun again. Shame on me. The murderer commits multiple murders of young boys, not breakfast food

Danny O’Day… not mine, but very much like mine.

I chose to write this rather insane novel about how not to communicate with real people because I, myself, as a kid was given to all kinds of communication theatrics and tricks of entertainment. I was also a shy kid after the age of ten for very sinister reasons.

It is important to realize that you absolutely have to communicate with others in life. Even if something is preventing you, like my own bout of self-loathing brought on by a sexual assault committed against me by an older boy. I got a ventriloquist’s dummy for Christmas near the time of the terrible event. It was Danny O’Day from the Montgomery Ward’s Christmas catalog. I taught myself to do ventriloquism. And then I gave it up when I realized the puppet would say things I didn’t want anyone to hear.

Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy, and Mortimer Snerd

Never the less, I continued to be fascinated life-long with ventriloquists and the little people they created.

Edgar Bergen was often in movies on TV during the Saturday afternoon matinee on Channel 3. I often saw his lips move. I was actually a better mouth-still ventriloquist than the old master.

Jerry Mahoney, Paul Winchell, and Knucklehead Smiff

Paul Winchell used to have a TV show in the 50’s which I saw on re-runs as a boy in the 60’s. He was also the voice of Tigger, Dick Dastardly, and Gargamel. (If you don’t recognize any of those cartoon characters, I mourn for your inadequately-filled childhood.)

Shari Lewis, Lambchop, and Charlie Horse

And, of course, I was fascinated and enthralled by Shari Lewis and Lambchop any time they were on TV, especially Sunday nights with Ed Sullivan.

Learning about ventriloquism never solved any problems for me. But it gave me a way to talk to myself that simulated having real friends. It helped me survive the dark years of being a teenager.

It is, of course, Jeff Dunham who fascinates me now.

Ventriloquism, humor, made-up characters, and the ability to talk with them is what I am chiefly concerned with now. My life and my current novel is taken up with talking, though not the normal talking of normal people. Talking with the voices that come from strange locked trunks inside you, the secrets you always meant to keep, but sooner or later have to be said out loud by someone. And maybe that someone is a dummy.

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The Secret Life of Clowns

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The clowns of Sing Sad Songs; Mr. Dickens, Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Disney, and Mr. Poe

The truth is, clowns are rarely happy people under the greasepaint and the manic grin.  An underlying feature of every funnyman is a background of hardship, suffering, and sadness.  There is a reason why Robin Williams committed suicide and Lenny Bruce died of a drug overdose.  If you listen to the comedy of George Carlin in his last few years, he became a horribly bitter and cynical man.

The reason for all this wearing of clown masks and underlying sadness is really based on a very simple equation.   Living a hard life, but dealing with it with the power a sense of humor gives you, yields wisdom.  And how do you best deliver wisdom to all the people out there?  A sugar-coated candy shell is just the thing.  A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine to go down, to plagiarize Mary Poppins.  Say your wise words like a wise guy and say it with a smile.

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So why am I so clown-happy and therefore clown-posty today?  Well, I have used clowns in a very metaphorical way in the novel I am now finishing, Sing Sad Songs.  Clowns are definitely on my mind.  And I have a sneaking suspicion creeping up on me that maybe… just maybe… I am myself a clown.

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The Sardonic Solliloquy

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The homeless man wandered onto center stage just as the spotlight went on.  He shaded his old eyes against the brightness and looked outward into the dark  theater.  It was probably some kind of mistake.

“Oh, so now it’s my turn to talk, eh?”

There was no response.

“Well, if you’re expecting something funny to come out of my mouth, good luck with that.  More than half of what I say that makes people laugh is the result of depression, ill health, and just plain ignorant stupidity.  And the other half of it is not meant to be funny, but is because I don’t always understand what I am saying.”

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There was an embarrassed chuckle somewhere in the darkness.

“I mean, you can’t expect too much from me. I’m a bum.  I have no money.  I have no job.  Not having any work to be bothered with is kinda good.  But the other thing kinda sucks.

And all the great comedians that used to stand on this stage and try to save the world through humor are dead now.  It’s true.  Robin Williams died recently.  George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, and Bill Cosby are all long gone.”

There was some nervous laughter in the theater.

“Oh, I know, Cosby only thinks he’s dead.  But he kinda killed the character delivering the wisdom in the form of observational comedy, didn’t he.”

 

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“But most of them old boys tried to come up here and tell you the truth.  And the truth was so absolutely unexpectedly wacky and way out of bounds that you just had to laugh.  And the more wicked the humor, the more you just laughed.  You didn’t do anything about the problems they talked about.  But you sure did laugh.”

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“It seems like the more they told you the truth and the more you just laughed about it, the more old and bitter they got.  Sardonic?  You know that word?  Not sardines, fools, but sardonic.   Bitterly humorous and sadly funny.  Seems like a lot of them old boys got more and more bitter, more and more depressed up to the end.  More and more sardonic.”

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“I mean,  Carlin was calling you stupid right to your face at the end.  And you just laughed it off.”

The theater had grown eerily silent.

“But it ain’t all bad, is it?  I mean, at least you all can still laugh.  Only smart people get the jokes.  The ones Carlin moaned about were laughing because everybody else was laughing.  Those weren’t the ones we were talking to.  There’s still life out there somewhere.  Maybe intelligent life.  Maybe aliens ain’t located any intelligent life on Earth yet, but they’re still trying, ain’t they?”

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“You shoulda listened more carefully to what they were saying.  Life and love and laughter were bound up in their words.”

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“So I guess what I’m really saying is… just because I happened to get a rare chance to say it to you all… learn to listen better.  The voices are quiet now.  But the words are still there. And laughing at them is still a good thing.  But remember, you need to hear them too.”

The theater suddenly filled with the roar of a standing ovation.  The old man bowed.  And this was ironic because… the theater had always been empty.  No one at all was there now.

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I Love to Laugh

“Mickey, why can’t you be more serious the way smart people are?”

“Well, now, my dear, I think I take humor very seriously.”

“How can you say that?  You never seem to be serious for more than a few seconds in a row.”

“I can say it in a high, squeaky, falsetto voice so I sound like Mickey Mouse.”

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

“I can also burp it… well, maybe not so much since I was in junior high.”

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“I distinctly remember getting in trouble in Mrs. Mennenga’s third grade class in school for pantomiming pulling my beating heart out of my chest and accidentally dropping it on the floor.  She lectured me about being more studious.  But I made Alicia sitting in the row beside me laugh.  It was all worth it.  And the teacher was right.  I don’t remember anything from the lesson on adding fractions we were supposed to be doing.  But I remember that laugh.  It is one precious piece of the golden treasure I put in the treasure chest of memories I keep stored in my heart.”

Groucho

“I always listened to the words Groucho Marx was saying, even though he said them awfully fast and sneaky-like.  I listened to the words.  Other characters didn’t seem to listen to him.  He didn’t seem to listen to them.  Yet, how could he respond like he did if he really wasn’t listening?  In his answers were always golden bits of wisdom.  Other people laughed at his jokes when the laugh track told them to.  I laughed when I understood the wisdom.”

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“Laughing is a way of showing understanding.  Laughing is a way of making yourself feel good.  Laughing is good for your brain and your heart and your soul.  So, I want to laugh more.  I need to laugh more.  I love to laugh.”

 

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David Mitchell is Genius!

Yes, David Mitchell is a very smart man… a very smart English man.  (That isn’t to say that his genius is any less genius than an American Genius.  Just that he is a genius who also happens to be English)

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And I, of course, don’t mean this David Mitchell either, though this David Mitchell is also a genius and also from England.  I have to tell you, though I have always loved British humor, this particular tongue of silver fascinates me enough to make me binge on hoards of old episodes of “Would I Lie to You?” from the BBC on YouTube.  He’s a quick-wit, Brit-wit, smooth-talking  bit-wit who can make you laugh even when he’s playing a thick-wit… which he is certainly not.

Anyway, that is the wrong English genius David Mitchell.

I mean the other English genius David Mitchell.  The one who wrote Cloud Atlas.  Also the one who wrote The Bone Clocks.  And, of course, the one whose book Black Swan Green which I just finished reading early this morning.

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Yes, I mean this David Mitchell.  The absolute genius writer who creates exactly the kind of books that I long to read.

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Now, this post should probably be more of a traditional book report than it is.  This book I just read is swimmingly, swannishly excellent in a David-Mitchell-is-GENIUS! sort of way.  It is about an English boy from Malvern, England undergoing the trials and tribulations of his thirteenth year of life.  The boy is a stutterer and secretly a poet.  The girl he pines for is the girlfriend of his greatest enemy, the boy who relentlessly bullies and taunts him.  One even suspects that this portrait of a Margaret Thatcher-era boyhood written in exquisitely horrible detail might be based on the author’s own boyhood somehow, so vivid is its detailing.

But this is already too cacked-up to be a proper book report just because of the two David-Mitchell-English-genius thing.  If you really want that sort of book review, read it elsewhere, or read the danged book yourself.  This report is more of a vow of fealty.  I must now turn my hoarding disorder sufferer’s exacting zeal on the matter of reading everything this living author writes.  I did the same thing to both Michael Crichton and Terry Pratchett because they are geniuses too.  But they are both now no longer living and writing new books, at least, not unless there is new meaning to the term ghost writing that I don’t know anything about.  So now it is David Mitchell’s turn to be the object of my intense fan-boy love of good writing.

Here are some David Mitchell books that I now must stalk and make my own;

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And hopefully, there are many more yet to come.

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Sometimes Humor Isn’t Funny

He isn’t the funniest late night comedian.  But he is, in my opinion, one of the top three.  I rarely watch him anywhere but on YouTube, well after the fact.  But his monologue about the birth of his son had me riveted.  Is it possible to dry yourself out completely and turn yourself to powder just by crying?  That’s what it felt like.

If you haven’t already seen it, you should.  But having a heart means you will need something to mop up the tears.  The people whose job it is to make you laugh sometimes make a more important point by making you cry.  True, I may be more affected by his story about spending time in an ER in agony over what happens next to your child because I have been there with my own children.  I have lived it.  And the story he tells brings it all back like the storm has started raining sledge hammers instead of rain.  But anyone with at least a little bit of empathy will get the point he is trying to make.

Humor is like that.  It makes you laugh to soften the pain.  But it also makes you cry because that is how it changes you for the better.

In Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,  I find a lot of things to laugh it.  The schemes of the King and Duke are ridiculous and they get what’s coming to them by the end.  Yet, I cried at the part where Huck finds the dead body of his young friend Buck Grangerford shot to death in the creek by the feuding Shepherdsons.  It was a totally brutal and senseless death.  And we learn more about the hypocrisy of slavery and its injustice and cruelty by the sadder, more painful things that happen to Jim along the journey.  Humor is meant to be weapon against the things that harm us.  And sometimes the people who harm us.

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It is relatively easy to laugh at the mutant racist orangutan we accidentally elected to lead us.  But the laughing part is not the part we need right now.

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The damage he is doing may be permanent and irreparable.  He is trying to profit off of health care reform and destroying it in ways that may kill many of us.  He may have already done permanent harm to the environment by removing regulations with executive orders.  There is reason not only to be moved to tears, but to be horrified to the point that we need to take immediate action.

Jimmy Kimmel has been through a hard thing and deserves our empathy.  But even more that that, if you heard the appeal at the end of his monologue, the tears he made us cry are reason to take action, and thank him for his courage in using his tragic moment to lead the way.

 

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May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose!

I was planning to write a piece about insult humor for a while, and then Don Rickles had to up and die… that danged old hockey puck!’Don-Rickles-tribute

So the master of insults is gone, and it will be even harder to explain why calling someone a proud and prissy poo-poo head is not a bad thing to do.  Because, really… strong language is not really strength and it takes intelligence to be a mean little picky-wit. (No pun intended… because no pun was used,  Duh!  How slow are you compared to molasses around Christmas time?)

You may have heard me say that I don’t like hurtful humor.  I don’t believe bad words are required to make something funny. I don’t think humor should be weaponized.  Jokes that make you die laughing are too much like murder, and people who have no sense of humor can’t be hurt by them anyway.

It is true that some people can’t be touched with insult humor.  Republicans and conservatives generally never get the joke.  Unfortunately for them you have to be at least a little bit smart to even know when you are being made fun of.

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I have heard that Kim Jong Un and President Orangutan in a Bad Wig recently attempted to assassinate each other.  Trump had a specially trained batch of a dozen Easter chicks sent to Kim Jong Un.  They were trained as mini-ninja assassins specializing in the death-peck attack.  Kim had a dozen plump Korean beauties dressed up in bikinis and poisoned lipstick sent to Trump with orders to make him fall in love.  Shortly thereafter Kim sent a thank you note to Trump for the delicious chickens.  He had kept one as a pet and you can still see it sitting on top of his head if you look carefully enough.  (It hasn’t killed him because it mistaked his head for an egg, adopted it, and is trying desperately to hatch it.)  Trump, in turn, re-gifted the bikini babes to Mike Pence, and it is likely they will die of cold and exposure while waiting in his outer office.

Stupid people are immune to insults, karma, and consequences.

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So you don’t insult people as a form of humor  to hurt anyone physically… or even psychologically.  You only do it metaphorically to pay them the compliment of thinking them worthy enough to bestow the gems of your wit upon.

And if you believe any of that bull-puckie, I may know of a Bridge in Brooklyn I’d be willing to part with cheaply.

So, there you have it.  Cheap laughs at the expense of doody-heads.  And calling into question the self-importance and the ridiculous-but-strongly-held political beliefs of others… especially the dumb ones can be a public service… of sorts.

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