Words by Andrew Dietz | Images by Mostly Famous People
Father's Day 2016
My Father Inspired My Humor | Humor Inspires My Creativity
There’s nothing funny about the fact that my father died the day after Christmas 2014. Or is there? A few days earlier, as he lay in intensive care and the nurse probed his 85-year-old belly with a cold stethoscope, he asked deadpan, “Is it going to be a boy or a girl?” My father taught me funny in all its forms from beginning to end. The funniest things last forever, at least, in memory. I present here my curated remembrances for your pleasure and my self-indulgence.
There are many possible gateway drugs on the path to humor addiction but mine were Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. On any rainy weekend before I turned ten years old – with Vietnam raging, hippies burning flags and bras, Nixon scheming - my Dad sat on the bed, with me in the faux leather chair alongside, watching Abbot & Costello on the black and white television set. I don’t remember the TV brand but it was the kind where the knob broke off easily and we had to switch channels with a wrench. Lou Costello’s sweet, simple silliness encountering Bud Abbott’s sadistic straight man shtick cracked me up every time. It was the classic “Who’s On First?” routine from their TV show that made me a life-long fan. I was hooked by the lightening-fast banter about a baseball team with oddly named players. Not long after I first saw it performed, my Dad stepped off the train from Manhattan with two typed copies of the script and we rehearsed Who’s on First together until I knew it by heart. I have now passed those script pages on to my daughters. Go ahead and ask ‘em, who’s on first? I don’t know. Third base.
As any proper father would, mine also introduced me to pull-my-finger flatulence humor. In the movies and television today, there isn’t a bodily function held sacred or protected by censors. When Mel Brooks’ 1974 movie, Blazing Saddles, aired the first fart scene in film history – bean-eating cowboys blowing a butt symphony - it was such a hilarious surprise for my twelve-year-old self that I literally fell out of my seat in hysterics. I retained one piece of memorabilia from that period. It is an interview with Mel Brooks that my father tore out of the February 1975 issue of Playboy magazine (which he read only for the photographs) and gave to me. From this text, which remains a holy document for me, I was able to discern the truth behind the humor. Brooks told the interviewer, “Farts are a repressed minority. The mouth gets to say all kinds of things, but the other place is supposed to keep quiet. But maybe our lower colons have something interesting to say. Maybe we should listen to them.”
My father was trained as an artist and, living just an hour from Manhattan, it was natural that he shared his artistic interests with me. This might have proved deadly dull for a small boy but Dad steered me past the weighty Madonna and Child pieces and exposed me instead to the whimsical work of Claes Oldenburg and Alexander Calder. The image of Oldenburg’s enormous soft-fabric shoestring french-fries spilling out of a cloth bag is emblazoned on my temporal lobes. So, too, are Calder’s Circus figures, concocted from found objects and used in a big top performance by the sculptor himself.
Art, I was taught from the start, can be whimsical, life affirming and, even, funny. Last month, I visited the Vic Muniz exhibition at the High Museum in Atlanta and was similarly smitten by his work that includes Double Mona Lisa (Peanut Butter + Jelly), After Warhol Series, presumably crafted with Jiff and Smuckers.
“Beauty is Embarrassing” is a 2012 documentary about the American artist, Wayne White. An eclectic and prolific maker, White’s creative roles range from art director and set designer to puppeteer, animator, cartoonist and illustrator. These days, though, he is best known for his humor-filled word art. It is White’s intention and attitude – like that of Muniz - that I find most inspiring. “I think humor is sacred. It is the most important thing we have as human beings. Without it we’re dead,” White says in the film. “My mission is to bring humor into fine art. I mean real humor. Not art world funny. Real world funny. If you agree with me I think you’re gonna come up against resistance, ‘cause there’s a lot of people in the art world with sticks up their butts and if you meet someone like that all you gotta do is say I’ll smash this painting over your fuckin’ head.”
By the time I turned fifteen, my funny bone marrow had turned into a spongy surreal substance that leaned toward the literary. I was partial to the neurotic, New York flavored humor of Woody Allen mainly through his books like “Getting Even” and “Without Feathers.” Incongruities tickle me. Allen is the nonpareil of the non sequitur. And, by that, I mean he is “a flat round candy made of chocolate covered with white sugar sprinkles.” Take for example this segment from Getting Even in which Allen presents a faux college course guide:
One of Allen’s humorist influences was S.J. Perelman (who, in turn, influenced and was influenced by Groucho Marx). I dug deep into Perelman’s wacky, pun-infested pages and that led the teenage me to others like Benchley and Thurber and absurdists like Samuel Beckett and Kurt Vonnegut. I was, it was clear to my peers, a humor freak but maybe minus the humor part. In addition to films and books, Woody Allen had several written plays and one of them was a particular favorite of mine: Play It Again, Sam. My high school drama teacher selected the play and cast me in the Woody Allen role during my senior year. My performance may not have been worth much but the poster now probably is. It was drawn by one of my classmates: the now famous satirical contemporary painter, John Currin. Of course, no sooner have I made that braggadocius claim then I can’t find that rascally poster anywhere. I do, however, have an ever-present reminder of the Woodman. When The Purple Rose of Cairo premiered at Atlanta’s Fox Theater in 1985, a limited edition of woodcut print portraits of Allen were made by the artist, Marisol. One of them hangs over my home office desk.
The 1980s weren’t that funny with the exceptions Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, John Candy and Ronald Regan. Beyond that, we were stuck with Ernest Goes To Camp. So, we’ll move on to the 1990s in which the cable television network, Comedy Central, was launched. I survived the aftermath of early 1990’s recession with the aid of the network’s stand up comedy clip shows: Two Drink Minimum (1994–96) and Stand-Up Stand-Up (1992–1995). It was here that I first saw Jon Stewart in his early stand-up days. Even Adam Sandler was funny back then.
My grandmother, she can’t hear, and she’s got this intercom system at her apartment to buzz me in and it just takes forever. And, she’s so paranoid when she finally comes to the thing…
“Who is down there? Who’s there?”
“It’s your grandson. It’s your grandson.”
“No, Grandma, its not Charles Manson. It’s your grandson.”
I was so inspired by the parade of Comedy Central characters at the time that I decided to write and perform my own stand-up comedy act. However, like our discussion of the 1980s, we shall skip over that brief and unflattering moment in humor history.
I believed I was better suited to writing than performing because, it turns out, one is far less likely to be heckled and bodily-threatened while writing. So, modern day humorists became my obsession. I gobbled any and all words set forth by the hilarious raconteurs, David Sedaris and Spalding Gray and by the Hitchhiker’s Guide genius, Douglas Adams – including their grocery lists and tax filings. My love for humorists has continued and expanded but if I must bring just one such wit to your notice, it is Etgar Keret.
Etgar Keret could be replicated if we were to, for instance, smash David Sedaris, Spalding Gray, Doug Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Kafka, Camus, Bugs Bunny and the Three Stooges together into a single ball of writer and bowl the aggregate concoction across the exploding West Bank while whistling circus music. I first became acquainted with the Israeli absurdist, Keret, when The Art Section asked that I interview him during a 2011 visit to Kennesaw, Georgia. His stories slide my brain along a scalpel’s edge between tickled and terrified.
In one story, Keret presents a magician can’t stop yanking severed rabbit parts out of his top hat. In another, a young woman pulls on the zipper she finds under her boyfriend’s tongue, unwraps him and discovers a new boyfriend hidden inside the old one. If we live in a world of impossible double binds and inescapable paradoxes, the Israelis have it as bad as anyone. For Keret to use his surreal verbal pallet to walk readers through this valley of folly is an act of heroic humor. And, he is a master of it.
It is the compassion behind Keret’s humor that is most appealing, though. He writes with the sincerity and gentleness of a man whose parents raised him to see with his heart. “My father said to me once, in half of your stories, the father dies and in the other half he’s stupid,” Keret recounts. “But in all of them I feel that you love me.” Perhaps it is this familial appreciation – father to child – that especially links me to Keret’s brand of humor.
Everyone’s funny is different, of course. When I asked my children to describe my sense of humor they summed it up with one devastating phrase, “Dad Jokes.” Despite all my efforts to study, appreciate and even to replicate the comedic masters, I am apparently just a cliché. Or, am I? My father’s corny “dad joke” kidding – in the midst of certain death – was a gift. And isn’t it in those moments of unencumbered silliness - when delusion and absurdity are illuminated - that we are most alive?