I am worried about the opening to my toast. Speaking publicly in the past, I have often gotten off to an uncertain start, and I am determined I will not do it again. Unfortunately, whatever I try so far, nothing seems quite right.
(I realize my anxiety is not about the toast. It’s about something more primal. However, since I am unable to confront those issues, I am dealing with what’s manageable. The toast commands my attention, because it’s the only thing I can control.)
It seems to be a question of “voice.” It’s funny, but sometimes, you can miss the “voice” even when you’re writing for yourself. You would think that was impossible. You speak in that voice all the time. You’d imagine you would know how it sounds.
The mistake results from trying to be funny. This is always an unfortunate, though understandable, idea. Your instincts instruct to “open strong.” That instruction can take you in the wrong direction. Especially if “strong” is not the natural “you.”
When you try to be funny, you automatically sound like a comedian. Venn diagram: Comedians are funny. I want to be funny. I will be like a comedian.
And not a gentle comedian. An “attack” comedian. Venn Diagram Number Two: “Attack” comedians sound strong. I want to sound strong. I will sound like an “attack” comedian.
Your adrenalin is also intensifying your delivery. (Just like it’s harder to pull off a really slow ballad, it’s excruciatingly difficult to take your time as a comedian. Your adrenalin in driving you in the other direction.)
Energized by an aggressive impulse, I begin with the standard “acknowledging people from out of town” opening:
“We’ve got people here from all over. My family flew in from Toronto. Are you out there?
(IN THE NOT UNLIKELY EXPECTATION OF A LOW-KEY RESPONSE FROM THE TORONTONIANS)
“That’s an example of Canadian exuberance. The Canadian motto is: “Keep it down, eh?”
“Attack comedy”, Ladies and Gentlemen. I am attacking my relatives. Why would I do that? They traveled three thousand miles to be here. They don’t deserve to be insulted. Even if it’s true.
“Colby’s (the groom’s) family’s here from Ohio. Where are you guys?”
(IN THE NOT UNLIKELY EXPECTATION OF A MORE ROUSING RESPONSE)
“There you go. It’s like a Buckeyes Pep Rally.”
What I’m doing there is taking another shot at Canadians – by comparison – while buttering up the Ohio guests who I don’t know, but I want them to like me.
My toast is suddenly about endearing myself to Midwestern strangers. (I had also thought of charming them with my awareness that Ohio has produced more American presidents than any other state, till I realized that had nothing to do with the wedding.)
I had a joke, “You know how they always acknowledge the people who traveled long distances to be here? Tonight, I’d like to pay special tribute to Morrie and Alicia Ruvinsky, who are visiting from four blocks away.”
No, Earl! You’re insulting the people who did travel long distances. Also, though possibly funny – or possibly not funny – it’s stupid.
I try something else. Start with the “real.” That usually works. The reception is in our backyard. So,
“We like celebrating special occasions in our backyard. The last one was Anna’s Bat Mitzvah. But that was different. There were nobody here from Ohio.”
I tinker with the wording of the punch line.
“There was nobody there from Ohio.”
“There was nobody from Ohio.”
“That time, there was nobody here from Ohio.” Or “there” from Ohio.
“But at the Bat Mitzvah, there was nobody there from Ohio.” Or “here” from Ohio.
Tinkering sometimes means fine-tuning. But it can also be a “Warning Signal.” The joke is not funny. Why? Maybe it’s a faulty concept. Maybe it’s unclear. There’s the possibility of a negative implication. Am I uncomfortable that there are people from Ohio here (or there) this time? What exactly am I trying to say?
I abandon that direction on the grounds of uncertainty. Uncertainty is death, because I know that, when the time comes to speak, my brain will be unsure as to which words to send out. They may send them all out, in which case, my tongue will inevitably get confused.
“Which ones am I supposed to say?”
You can take this to the bank: Uncertainty under pressure equals babbling incoherence.
I try another direction. This time, it’s the endearingly “rowdy” approach. I start once again with the “real” set-up. But now it’s…
“We like celebrating special occasions in our backyard. We can drink as much as we want, ‘cause we don’t have to drive home.”
What the heck am I talking about? We’re not big drinkers.
“You are for this joke.”
It doesn’t make any sense. For the purposes of one joke, I have turned myself and my wife into two “Good Ol’ Boys” from Hee Haw. The joke, by implication, also suggests possible alcoholic issues with the weddings guests.
What exactly am I trying to do!
It’s not like I think this is Earl Pomerantz at the Comedy Store. (And when I do, I remind myself it’s not.) I have stories coming up. About Anna and Colby. Funny stories. Touching stories. My toast is ninety per cent them, at least, “them” as I see them. I’m okay with what I’m going to say. I just have to get past the opening.
If only you could start in the middle.
I am now trying something else. My new approach is funny enough, and has the advantage of being safe, because it’s self-deprecating. This has always been my comedic “’fall back’ position.” When it doubt, make fun of Earl.
Finding alternate solutions is another lesson I believe is valuable to writers. Every time you think “I can’t think of anything else”, you can. It’s just a question of time. And really hating what you’ve already got.
I hope people making toasts and speeches can benefit from this post. If not, there is always the enjoyment of watching a deranged Jewish fellow, losing his mind.