1) My first attempt at physical comedy; age 4:
The Set-up. With my family in Manhattan for the first time, I am told that the Empire State Building is a skyscraper. As we get closer, I notice that the pole on top—which I assume is the skyscraper—disappears from view.
The Bit. I lead my family back to where we can see the pole: “Look at the skyscraper!” Then I march us closer, point up, and say, repeatedly, holding my head, “What, no skyscraper?!”
2) You never know who might be in the audience; age 11:
A bunch of us get interested in pro wrestling, and we construct a backyard ring using rope, trees, and garbage cans. I don’t really like doing the wrestling, so I pick up a fallen branch and turn it into a microphone. I announce the fights, calling for Killer Kowalski’s famous “claw hold” (his deadly match-closer that makes no combative sense), and occasionally throwing in a phrase I saw in a wrestling magazine: “a tangle of arms and legs.” I improvise names and characters for the wrestlers. “The Ape Man wins again. But it’s under protest, here comes the doctor to test whether he has human genes. Oh no! He really is an ape and he’s disqualified. He’s going ape!” Twenty years later, at a literary event I meet a scholar who is from my hometown. “I know you,” she says. “You were friends with my son. I used to watch you calling the wrestling from the window and think, “What a clever boy.”
3) My first recorded pun, in my journal of a family road trip; age 12:
“We woke up early and hit the road. When our hands hurt, we got into the car and drove off.”
4) My father shows me how to construct a joke with no words; age 13:
My father takes out a comic strip he keeps folded up in his wallet. As I scan the four captionless panels, he grins with anticipation: In the first panel, a portly schlub wearing a bowler hat catches his dog peeing on the couch. In the second panel, the schlub scolds the dog. In the third panel, the schlub and the dog are outside and the schlub is peeing against a tree while the dog watches. In the fourth panel, the dog is once again peeing against the couch, but now he is standing on his hind legs, holding his penis with his front paws. My father is immensely relieved when I can’t stop laughing.
5) My first comic in the flesh; age 13:
I’m at a friend’s Bar Mitzvah at Carl Hoppl’s in Baldwin (not the lower-class Carl Hoppl’s in Valley Stream, where I had my Bar Mitzvah). After the reception, we’re moved into the nightclub, where the headliner is Morty Gunty (who, a few years later, would follow the Beatles on Ed Sullivan). Gunty switches accents as he flails about. He becomes a beautiful woman undressing in a hotel room when she notices a window washer perched outside, going about his business. She decides to give him a thrill by taking off her blouse. No reaction. She removes her skirt. Nothing. She starts to dance provocatively. By this time Gunty is really cooking, miming suggestive gestures while making mating sounds. Finally she gives up and glares at the window washer. Gunty becomes the window washer as he peeks in and says, “Vat’s the matter, lady, you never seen a vindow vasher before?” We are hysterical, but the joke falls flat whenever we try to retell it.
6) Three punchlines to jokes my friends and I laughed at when we were kids but I now find decidedly unfunny (except for the third one, which is a little funny):
“Why does this pickle have bones in it?” “That’s not rice, that’s lice!” “About six inches.”
7) Five punchlines to jokes I love that I’ll tell at the drop of a hat (if the hat lands heads):
“Duke! Get away from that guy before he shits all over you!” “What the fuck was that?” "Because the dog is a damn liar.” “My agent was at my house!?” “Do you have any herring?”
8) Best laugh by an actor in an underrated motion picture:
John Huston in Lovesick after Dudley Moore yanks off a tablecloth at a formal dinner. I use it as my ringtone.
9) The contextuality of garnering laughs:
For years, Nick Bozanic and I tried to collaborate on a joke, whenever our work and lives crossed: in Tallahassee, New Orleans, DeLand, Grand Rapids, Charlottesville, Traverse City, New York City. Nothing, though we continued to make people laugh with witty remarks. But remarks are not literature, and clever remarks are not jokes. Finally, we came up with one:
I connected my Cuisinart to my Macintosh and made alphabet soup.
Nick said he would try it out on one of his classes. Students will laugh at almost any joke from a teacher.
Nick called the next day to report that he didn’t even get a grin. “Maybe it was the delivery,” I said. “Let me hear how you told it.”
“Last night I connected my Cuisinart to my Macintosh and made vegetable soup,” Nick said, with a perfect, dry delivery.
I roared with laughter.
10) Insert section explaining humor in linguistic and poetic terms, using the construction of a metered poem as a template?
10b) You’re welcome.