Posts Tagged ‘Mel Brooks’

Gene and Grandma

Monday, September 12th, 2016

andmischief

Mischief painting by Todd

“My blanket. My blue blanket. Gimme my blue blanket!” Gene Wilder’s line from The Producers

Gene Wilder died in August. He was eighty-three. Thinking about him took me back to the first time I saw the movie Young Frankenstein on the big screen in San Francisco in 1974. And I remember feeling as I watched the film that I was witnessing one of those extremely rare creations, a work of art that would never grow old and never be successfully imitated—the result of the unique chemistry of six superlative actors and a brilliant director, none of them duplicable: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Terry Garr, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, and Mel Brooks.

To my surprise and dismay, many people did not agree with my assessment of Young Frankenstein. Indeed, the three people I attended the movie with enjoyed the film, but thought it silly and forgettable. I saw the movie three more times during the initial release and found everything about the film more inspiring with each viewing. Indeed, I was so inspired by Young Frankenstein, I wrote two screenplays and two plays imagining Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn in leading roles.

Alas I was never able to get my creations to Gene or Madeline, but even now, four decades later, I still imagine them playing parts in my stories and novels and plays. As the neurobiologists say, I resonated profoundly with Gene Wilder. I enjoyed him in later films, but never again loved him as much as I did in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and The Producers, all directed by Mel Brooks.

In 2007 I attended a party in Berkeley rife with college professors, and in the heat of talking about movies, and perhaps having had a wee bit too much to drink, I suggested that Young Frankenstein, which I had recently seen again for the tenth time, was as magnificent and timeless as Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

I was immediately set upon by a pack of indignant academics, one of them saying, “How can you compare a goofy spoof of a horror movie to one of the greatest plays ever written?” And I replied, “Many of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Taming of the Shrew, were variations on previously produced plays written by other writers. Romeo and Juliet is based on a classic Italian short story. Hamlet was Shakespeare’s takeoff on a popular play from Europe. Young Frankenstein is two hours of flawless and wholly original genius.”

“But Shakespeare’s writing,” said another of the professors, wringing her hands. “The poetry of his lines. His astonishing wit. How can you compare Young Frankenstein to that?”

To which I replied, “Where in Shakespeare is there wit to compare to Gene Wilder saying to Marty Feldman, ‘Are you telling me I just put an abnormal brain in the body of a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall…gorilla!?’ Or Gene saying to Marty, ‘You know, Igor, I’m an excellent surgeon. I could help you with that hump.’ And Marty replying, ‘Hump? What hump?’”

My other favorite Gene Wilder performance is as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. Never before or since has a movie of such supreme silliness featured a scene so long and slow-developing and entirely convincing as when Gene explains to Cleavon Little why he gave up gun-slinging and became an alcoholic.

I think what made Gene Wilder such a unique star was that he was one of those rare male actors who was neither a macho tough guy nor a one-trick pretty boy. He was thoughtful, funny, emotional, intelligent, moody, rebellious, graceful, constantly surprising, and he thoroughly inhabited the character he was playing. I have known several men and a few women who felt Gene was effeminate and possibly gay, and I could only pity them for having so little appreciation of nuance and subtlety and originality.

Sadly, like so many of America’s best actors and actresses, Gene Wilder was only in a handful of movies worthy of his talent—Hollywood the great debaser of genius. Thankfully, Gene made Willie Wonka and those three fabulous movies with Mel Brooks, so we can rejoice in that.

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Francis Bacon

Speaking of good movies and great actors, Marcia and I recently watched and deeply appreciated Grandma, written and directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin. The trailers for the movie emphasize the comedic aspects of the film and give no hint of what a thought-provoking gem this movie is.

Tomlin’s performance as an aging cantankerous lesbian academic, once an impassioned poet, is so consistent and truthful, what might have been a drab pseudo-comedy becomes a profound character study and a potent examination of what it is to be a formerly revered artist, a product of the wildly creative 1960s and 70s, growing old in America today—the intellectual vapidity of nearly everything in our post modern culture a source of vexation and dismay.

Grandma is a movie that would surely have devolved into tired cliché in the hands of a less talented writer/director working with less talented actors, but that never happens. Lily Tomlin’s relentless cynicism might have implausibly vanished now and then in service to formulaic sappy moments and a forced happy ending, but she remains true to her character to the last frame of the film. Her fellow actors are also unwaveringly consistent, and the director is impeccably dedicated to his vision of a single day in a woman’s life recapitulating her entire life.

In this way, Grandma reminded me of Young Frankenstein, both films far greater than the sums of their parts, neither creation impeded by notions of idiot studio executives aiming to make the movies more marketable and palatable to audiences disinterested in the emotional intricacies of what it is to be a human being. Both films are ensemble pieces, and both films are especial delights.

Todd’s new novel Magenta is now available at UnderTheTableBooks.com

Shakespeare

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Shakespeare PC Map (todd)

 ©  1998 David Jouris/Hold the Mustard

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“I know not, sir, whether Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare, but if he did not, it seems to me that he missed the opportunity of his life.” James M. Barrie

A year ago we took possession of a spanking new paperback edition of The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, the large handsome tome coming our way in a manner worthy of Shakespeare, and by that I mean in the way of the Bard’s zanier comedies in which complicated circumstantial chaos ends well—lovers united, villains chastised, parents pleased, gods appeased, and fools revealed to be wise. I should add that I never would have bought this book due to my limited financial reserves, thus it was only through cosmic largesse that the goodly tome became ours.

Here is the story. Our friend David Jouris, charming Berkeley eccentric, peripatetic photographer of dance companies, and indefatigable collector of quotations, is also the author of two unusual atlases of North America entitled All Over The Map and All Over the Map Again. These two delightful volumes are composed of thirty-three and thirty-four thematic maps featuring towns that really exist, accompanied by fascinating stories about the origins of some of the more intriguing town names. Among my favorites are an Optimistic map showing towns such as What Cheer, Windfall and Sublime, and a Pessimistic map showing such towns as Troublesome, Gripe, Last Chance and Bitter Springs. There are Theatrical, Dancing, Armed & Dangerous, Utopian, Literary, Animal, Musical, Eccentric, Egotistical, Numerical, Sporting, Lovers’, Saintly, and Mythical maps, to name a few, and most importantly, for the purpose of this tale, a Shakespearean map featuring such towns as Desdemona Texas, Rialto California and Romeo Colorado.

Some years before 10-Speed Press published David’s atlases, he brought out several of his thematic maps as black and white postcards under the aegis of his Hold the Mustard postcard line, and these map cards were deemed so groovy by the Library of Congress that several of David’s thematic maps were blown up huge and displayed in the Library of Congress lobby in Washington D.C. Then one day, two years after All Over The Map Again was published, and for reasons cloaked in mystery, David asked me if I thought he should bring out a color postcard of his Shakespearean map. The mystery is: why would David ask my advice when he unfailingly does whatever he wants regardless of what anybody else thinks? But not only did David ask my opinion about the Shakespearean postcard, he heeded my enthusiastic prediction that such a card would be a huge success, and he proceeded to publish the beautiful thing, thus making possible the comedy of errors I am recounting here.

Despite the ensuing (and mystifying) commercial failure of David’s Shakespearean postcard, I am ever happy to have this card on hand for sending to friends and to use as the self-addressed stamped postcard I include with my plays when I submit them to theater companies hither and yon. Shakespeare, it seems to me, is a most appropriate messenger for the ongoing and unanimous (so far) rejection of my plays.

Then one day David made a startling discovery: Oxford University Press was featuring his Shakespearean map in recent editions of The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, the striking half-page reproduction captioned with, “This 1998 novelty postcard, which assumes a thorough familiarity with the Shakespeare canon, attests to the continuing presence of Shakespeare in American popular culture.”

Perhaps due to their excitement at finding such an ideal illustration, the editors at Oxford University Press neglected to secure the rights to use David’s creation for their book and thus had not recompensed him. Conveniently for David, the Oxford numbskulls published his map with © DAVID JOURIS/HOLD THE MUSTARD prominently displayed across northern Mexico, and thus were not only caught with damn spots on their hands, but with their spotted hands deep in the cookie jar.

Following relatively civil negotiations, the Brits agreed to pay David a paltry sum along with two copies of the hardback edition and two copies of the paperback edition of The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, one of those paperbacks my reward for convincing David to manufacture the blessed card in the first place. And for the past year the good book has gone largely unread by moi until two weeks ago when, having finally completed the novel I’ve been madly writing for a year, I thought I’d try reading something I didn’t write, and possibly something I hadn’t read before.

So one tempestuous night, the fire crackling, the kettle burbling, I began to read that encyclopedia of Shakespearean factoids, and found the contents fascinating, entertaining, and scrumptious food for thought—may the gods of improbable probability be thanked for this gift. Here are a few brief selections from the tome.

acting, Elizabethan. The Elizabethan word for what we call acting was ‘playing’, and the word ‘acting’ was reserved for the gesticulations of an orator.

acting profession, Elizabethan and Jacobean. The Elizabethan word for an actor was ‘player’ and there were three classes: the sharer, the hired man, and the apprentice. The nucleus of the company was the sharers, typically between four and ten men, who were named on the patent which gave them the authority to perform and which identified their aristocratic patron.

Shakespeare, William (1564-1616), actor, playwright, poet, theatre administrator, and landowner; baptized, probably by John Bretchgirdle, in Holy Trinity church, Stratford-upon-Avon, on Wednesday, 26 April 1564, the third child and first son of John Shakespeare and his wife Mary.

Oxfordian theory, a term for what has since the mid-20th century been the most visible strand in the Authorship Controversy, the claim that Shakespeare’s works were in fact written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604).

“And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy.

Therefore they thought it good you hear a play

And frame your mind to mirth and merriment,

Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.”

            from The Taming of the Shrew

While there is no debate that William Shakespeare was involved in the theatrical world of London, there has been much and continuous speculation for five hundred years about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays, any of them, attributed to William Shakespeare. Now that I have gobbled The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, which prompted me to re-read The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet, I have my own theory about who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare.

Those who argue that Will Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon could not have writ the plays attributed to him ask: how could a man reputed to be one of the most prolific and learned writers in history not leave behind even a scrap of his plays and poetry in his own handwriting? Not a shred, not a line, not a tattered fragment of a tiny piece of a page in Shakespeare’s own hand survived even into the latter stages of his relatively short life, a time when various publishers and their agents were searching for such fragments from which to publish the plays! Why does Shakespeare’s last will and testament contain no directives regarding his plays and sonnets, or any mention of his writing at all, yet makes a fuss about who gets his second-best bed?

How could Shakespeare, at the height of his fame and influence, become so completely divorced from the London theatre scene, of which he was supposedly a massive pillar, and carry on with the wholly non-theatrical business ventures in Stratford-upon-Avon that apparently occupied him for his entire life? Why are there so few (virtually none) first or even secondhand descriptions of, or anecdotes about, Shakespeare, the actual person, by any of his contemporaries, literary or otherwise? And how can we explain that several of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Italy and nearly all his tragedies are set among royals and aristocrats, though Shakespeare never went abroad, his education was minimal, his children were illiterate, and the social milieu he occupied was that of the merchant class? From whence came his uncanny understanding of the ways and workings and subtleties of royalty, let alone his intimate knowledge of their histories?

What is irrefutable about the plays attributed to Shakespeare is that in the absence of original manuscripts, the extant texts are, without exception, collages of versions of those plays remembered by various actors who supposedly acted in those plays, which versions were written down and edited by several different men and different groups of men, and these written-down versions were then futzed with until deemed Close Enough by yet other men who then published the plays. The First Folio, entitled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies—the foundational texts—was published in 1623, and the Second Folio was published ten years later, for which the editors made…wait for it…several hundred changes to the text of the First Folio. Several hundred! What were these changes based on? No one knows.

Along with the third and fourth and possibly fifth-hand nature of the “original” plays, is the undeniable fact that virtually every production of these plays, both in Shakespeare’s time and for centuries thereafter, and continuing to this day, employ scripts that are either edited, rewritten or wholly reimagined versions of the so-called originals. Thus the plays of Shakespeare, whoever wrote them, have never been static works and have always been treated as foundational forms to be modified and interpreted by directors who, like jazz musicians, knowingly improvise on popular standards and feel perfectly justified in doing so.

My theory runs thusly: William Shakespeare, a savvy business guy, travels to London to do business, buys his way into an ambitious company of actors, and quickly figures out that the better and more timely the plays a troupe has the exclusive rights to perform, the more successful that troupe will be, which success can lead to royal dispensation to build and own theaters and profit handsomely therefrom. A shrewd dude with a good ear for dialogue, William collaborates with a few talented writers on an early success or two, among them The Taming of the Shrew, and thereafter becomes a literary fence, so to speak, through which numerous writers—struggling actors, aristocrats wishing to remain anonymous, and talented provincials having flings at glory—benefit from the public perception that their plays were written by the hottest playwright in town.

The facts, such as they are, do not contradict my theory that Shakespeare was a superlative merchant of ghost writers or possibly the front man for a syndicate of play brokers, which would explain the wide-ranging stylistic variations in his plays, the comedies perhaps worked over by the Elizabethan equivalent of the gang of comics who wrote for the late great Sid Caesar—Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen—the tragedies composed by brilliant and frustrated royals—latter day Gore Vidals—or persons associated with royalty.

Life & Death

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Rose for Life & Death

Autumn Rose photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2013)

“All men’s misfortune, and the appalling disasters of history, the blunders of statesmen and the errors of great generals, come from the inability to dance.” Jean Molière

Marcia and I had breakfast on Wednesday morning at Ravens’, the wholly vegan restaurant at the Stanford Inn, our meal courtesy of a gift certificate Marcia received for officiating at a wedding. I especially enjoyed the coffee and orange juice and the view of Big River Beach. We were celebrating Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria just yet, and I wore my new salmon-colored shirt Marcia bought for a mere four dollars at a thrift shop in Santa Rosa. Having recently exchanged our life savings for a house on land suitable for growing vegetables and fruit, we rarely dine out on our own dimes these days, so the experience of eating at the Stanford Inn, an establishment catering to wealthy people who like to travel with their pets, felt decadent and strangely fun.

After breakfast we drove into the village of Mendocino to get our mail and take advantage of the 10%-off-everything sale at Harvest Market, and in the beer section we ran into a friend who informed us that Antonia Lamb had just died. We finished our shopping in stunned silence and drove home feeling discombobulated and saddened by this unexpected loss.

I saw Antonia several times in the last month as I walked to and from the village on Little Lake Road and we waved to each other as she zoomed by in her station wagon. The last time I had a conversation with Antonia was in the post office a couple months ago, the post office being where the majority of my meetings with her took place over the last six years, which is how long I knew her. I asked how she was doing and she said, “I’m very sad. My best buddy John (Chamberlain) just died and everything feels…” She shrugged and fought her tears.

“I’m sorry,” I said, embracing her.

After our hug, she told me all about her new CD and asked what I was up to musically these days. I said I was working on my fourth piano-centric album, and then I shrugged and said, “Though I sometimes wonder why I bother.”

“You bother because you’re an artist,” she said in her forthright way. “That’s what artists do. We make art. That’s our job. Don’t worry about why, just do what you were born to do.”

“To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Samuel Beckett

As antidote to the sorrows of the world, we recently watched Blazing Saddles, found in the DVD section of our tiny village library. I first saw that zany film in 1974 at the Fine Arts theatre in Palo Alto when my brother was the manager of that comfy popcorn palace. Blazing Saddles was on a double bill with another Mel Brooks film The Producers, and I laughed my butt off and fell in love with Madeline Kahn.

For being such a silly movie, Blazing Saddles was and still is an irreverent, daring, and surprisingly frank portrayal of American racism, sexism, thoughtless violence, and endemic government corruption. Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid, the only non-racist white person in the mythical town of Rockridge, is brilliant as an urbane drunk who befriends Bart, the black sheriff, played by the charming Cleavon Little, their friendship a model of non-racism in a viciously racist society. Movie lore has it that Wilder only agreed to play the part of the Waco Kid after Brooks promised Wilder that their next film would be Young Frankenstein, their crowning achievement as collaborators, in my opinion, another movie about friendship that transcends spoof and slapstick and rises into the realm of sublime revelation.

“An actor is totally vulnerable. His total personality is exposed to critical judgment—his intellect, his bearing, his diction, his whole appearance. In short, his ego.” Alec Guinness

Speaking of ego, I recently made an appearance at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino to tout the new edition of my long out-of-print novel Inside Moves, and I’m happy to report we had a good turnout with several attendees announcing they were readers of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Mazel tov! Despite my usual pre-performance anxiety, I enjoyed the evening, my first public appearance in some years, and I especially enjoyed the questions the audience asked after I shared a few of my adventures in publishing and read the first chapter of Inside Moves.

Two of my favorite questions were, “Do you ever incorporate your dreams into your fiction?” and “Why don’t you do a one-man show at MTC? (Mendocino Theater Company).”

My answer to the first question was that I do sometimes incorporate my dreams into my fiction, and to the second question I replied, “I did give a reading some years ago at MTC, and counting my wife, four people came to the show, so I have not been asked or inclined to perform there again.”

“I delight in all manifestations of the terpsichorean muse.” John Cleese

In the midst of writing this piece, I got a phone call from Kathy Mooney and she shared a beautiful poem she had just written in honor of Antonia Lamb. With Kathy’s permission, I present the beginning of her poem for Antonia.

Up on her toes

she goes

strumming to the

stars—she brought

them back down

for us, in wisdom,

myth, mirth and whimsy

Singing

she bared her heart—for us

who knew the Mendocino

she was missing—

and now, oh yes,

we miss you

“The theater is the most beautiful place on earth.” Anne Bancroft

My niece Olivia just graduated from the University of Oregon where she starred in several plays, and now she is on the verge of moving to Los Angeles to see if she can make it big in the movie and television business. Heaven help her. She is young, beautiful, photogenic, talented, funny, smart and ambitious, and she will be competing with tens of thousands of other young, beautiful, photogenic, talented, funny, smart, ambitious young women trying to make it big in show business.

I have no advice for her other than to watch her ass, literally and figuratively, nor can I open any doors for her. However, I will make a habit of imagining her auditioning for a part in an independent film and catching the eye of a latter day Mel Brooks who recognizes in her the comic genius of a latter day Madeline Kahn. I will imagine Olivia getting a juicy part and giving a remarkable performance that makes her the darling of great directors of stage and screen. I believe this will help Olivia, my imagining her becoming a big success because of her talent and originality, and not because she somehow manages to hook up with well-connected sleaze bags. And even if she doesn’t make it big in show business and does something else entirely with her one precious life, I still think it will help her if I visualize her winning the day with her unique talent. And if that sounds like hackneyed spiritual crap to you, so be it.

“We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Henry James

So the last thing Antonia said to me was, “Don’t worry about why, just do what you were born to do.”

Which infers that we know what we were born to do, and I think by born to do she meant something beyond staying warm and dry and getting enough to eat. But how do we know what we were born to do? Or maybe a better question would be: how do we go about discovering what we were born to do? And the answer is: we go on a quest, otherwise known as living our life. We keep our eyes and ears and hearts open in anticipation of seeing and hearing and feeling things that will guide us on our way to discovering our life’s purpose, which might ultimately be many purposes, though underlying and connecting those multiple purposes is our desire to be of service to others, to share our passions, to give, to connect, to love and be loved—or something along those lines.

Copies of Inside Moves signed by the author are available at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino.

Laughing

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)

“Humor is just another defense against the universe.” Mel Brooks

Once upon a time, so many years ago it might have been another lifetime, I got two kittens, a boy and girl, and after much thought and research named them Boy and Girl. Boy was an orange tabby, Girl was a gray tabby, and in the hallowed tradition of kittens, they played and slept and mewed and ate and clawed things and were wonderfully cute.

When they were about four months old, Boy and Girl played a particular game that made me laugh until I cried. No matter how many times I watched them play this game, I laughed until I cried. Sometimes other people would watch with me as the kittens played this particular game, and some of these people laughed, too, and a few of them even laughed until they cried; but there were other people who watched the game and did not laugh at all, which was amazing to me, and troubling. Here is the game the kittens played.

A heavy brown ceramic vase about fourteen-inches high, round at the bottom and narrowing somewhat at the top, stood on a brick terrace. Girl would chase Boy onto the terrace and Boy would jump into the vase. Girl would sit next to the vase, listening to Boy inside, and when Boy would pop his head up out of the vase, Girl would leap up and try to catch him, and Boy would drop back down into the vase. Then Girl would stand on her hind legs and reach into the vase with her forepaws and Boy would shoot his paws up to fight Girl’s paws, or Boy might leap out of the vase and the chase would resume. Or Girl would be inside the vase with Boy outside and the vase would tip over in the midst of their roughhousing and out would spill Girl.

Why were their antics so hilarious to me? Was it because their play was an enactment of the essential mammalian drama of fright and flight and fight—the thrill and danger of the hunt mixed with the suspense and terror of hiding in order to survive? Yes, I think so. But what’s so funny about that?

“Comedy has to be based on truth. You take the truth and you put a little curlicue at the end.” Sid Caesar

I don’t have many memories of my mother laughing. My brother and I were forever telling jokes, honing our techniques, and our mother usually responded with a droll, “Very funny,” even if everyone else was howling with laughter.

But there was a time, one glorious time, when my mother and I laughed together so hard and for so long that we literally fell out of our seats and went temporarily blind with laughter. I was fourteen when my mother procured tickets for just the two of us to attend the musical Little Me at the Curran Theater in San Francisco, with the Broadway cast starring Sid Caesar in a dizzying number of roles opposite the ravishingly sexy Virginia Martin, with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, a script by Neil Simon, and choreography by Bob Fosse.

As far as I can remember this was the only time in my life my mother took just the two of us to anything. Even more impressive, she splurged on fantastic seats, tenth row, center, which was also highly uncharacteristic of her. What I realize now after almost fifty years was that my mother was giving me the message that though she officially agreed with my father’s opposition to my pursuing a career in music and theater and writing, she unofficially supported my passion for these things.

The success of Little Me depended entirely on the genius of Sid Caesar and his ability to play myriad comedic roles convincingly, not to mention sing well, too. The same play performed with several different actors essaying Sid’s half-dozen parts wouldn’t have worked at all because the point of the play, in a way, is that all these extremely different men are essentially the same guy falling in love with the same woman over and over again. Try as I may, I cannot imagine anyone other than Sid Caesar successfully playing all those parts without becoming tiresome or silly. I knew that was Sid again and again—stumbling off the stage as one character and racing back on as someone else—yet I always believed he was an entirely new character—an astonishing feat. The songs were great, the dancing was fabulous, Virginia Martin was luscious, the chorus girls were gorgeous, the dialogue was snappy and funny, and young Todd was in heaven.

I can still recite whole scenes from the play and sing several of the songs, though I only saw and heard the musical once all those decades ago; but I cannot remember which scene it was that made my mother and I laugh so hard that we fell out of our seats, laughing along with hundreds of other people laughing so uproariously that Sid and his fellow actors froze for a time to let us get through our delirium before they came back to life and carried on with the show. That play and Sid Caesar and Virginia Martin and laughing so stupendously with my mother are burned into my memory more indelibly than almost anything else I have ever experienced.

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” Kurt Vonnegut


When I saw Little Me with my mother, I was a freshman at Woodside High School attempting to fulfill my father’s wish that I become a medical doctor. To that end, I was slaving away in an accelerated program for scientifically ambitious students, something I most definitely was not. Nevertheless, I had yet to work up the courage to defy my father and so was following the prescribed steps on the path he wanted me to follow. As a consequence, I was one of only four ninth graders in a biology class for upper classmen, and we four sat huddled together in a far corner of the big classroom, though we otherwise had little in common.

There came the day of the big mid-term exam, the results to account for half our grade. Everyone in the class was on edge, we youngsters especially so. Our teacher was not a good one, I was badly prepared, poorly motivated, and certain I would botch the test. As we waited for our teacher to arrive with the tests, the four of us began to free associate, someone saying osmosis, someone replying mitochondria, another adding messenger RNA, and so on until we left science behind and were reeling off the names of pretty girls and sports heroes and anything and everything until one of us said something—the ultimate non sequitur?—that proved to be the verbal straw that broke our collective camel’s back, so that just as our teacher entered the room we four began to laugh hysterically.

Our laughter spread to others in the room, but eventually everyone, save for the four freshmen, regained control and prepared to take the test. But we had gone beyond some line none of us had ever gone beyond before, and we could not stop laughing. Our teacher sent us out into the hallway where we fell to the concrete and laughed until our bellies ached. And finally, one by one, we stopped laughing, caught our breaths, and returned to the classroom. But the moment we entered that place of the test, hysteria caught us again and sent us hurtling back outside, our teacher following us out to threaten and cajole, to no avail.

Because we were thought of as good boys, our temporary insanity was forgiven and we took the test the following day, though we were never allowed to sit en masse again. One of us became a professor of Biology, one a conservative federal judge, one a professor of Art, the fourth a writer and musician and the author of this essay. We were as different as four people could be, yet in that moment of youthful hysterics, the pressures of the world too much for us to bear, we escaped into laughter—together.