On my only visit to Saturday Night Live, I witnessed a sketch that has stuck with me for almost twenty years.
(Clarification for the Archives: During its first season, Dr. M and I visited SNL, but for the Dress Rehearsal, which took place around six P.M. When it ended, we promised Lorne Michaels we’d return at eleven-thirty for the actual show, which we sincerely intended to do.
Instead, however, after having dinner and taking a short walk, we returned to our hotel and, while waiting to go back to the studio, we went to sleep.
If I had needed any, this was determining evidence that my working on SNL would not have worked out. “I know it’s the show, but Earl’s asleep in his office. Do you think we should wake him?”
That job was definitely not for me.)
The sketch that I still recall twenty years after the fact did not get enormous laughs. But it was very clever – it might have been one of those “after 12:30” sketches, where they take more chances. Its premise concerned an issue I have always been curious about.
The Guest Host that night was Michael Keaton, post Mr. Mom, pre Batman Returns. Keaton was featured in this sketch, playing a new employee being shown the ropes by his boss. The boss informs Keaton that his workers are a relaxed, fun-loving bunch, who enjoy playfully teasing each other, so if the New Guy, Keaton, wants to fit in, he should jump in with some good-natured razzing. Keaton replies, “No problem.”
While being introduced around the office, Keaton, following his boss’s encouragement, pokes fun at everyone he meets.
The “funny part” is, he is terrible at it. His problem – in a phrase I would use as a show runner when a writer pitched a good but overly exaggerated joke – was,
“Too much gunpowder.”
Keaton’s insults were of the sledgehammer variety, drawing anger, rather than amusement.
(SPOTTING SOME FLAKES ON A CO-WORKER’S SHOULDER) “Do you have dandruff, or is it just snowing over your desk?”
(PASSING A CO-WORKER WITH OCULAR DIFFICULTIES) “I hope that guy’s not as lazy as his eye.”
(TO A HEFTY CO-WORKER) “MAN! You weigh a TON!”
Things do not work out, and the new employee is immediately sent packing. After he leaves, the office erupts with a fusillade of insults at their “almost” co-worker’s expense, each of them “pitch perfect” in their ability to elicit laughter without injury.
The message is: Some got it, and some don’t.
For the record, I ain’t got it. I’ve tried. The results are close, if not equal to, the bombs Keaton exploded in the SNL sketch. No laughter. Sometimes, an apology was necessary. And in the most egregious cases, a gift.
I don’t know what it is. Tone. Touch. Intention. A twinkle. Some people can pull it off, and some are well advised to steer clear. Teasing is a dangerous undertaking, which can sometimes blow up in your face. Worst Case Scenario: A trial.
My older brother unquestionably has the gift. He can eviscerate people, while making them feel proud they’ve been singled out for attention.
His most famous excursion occurred at the end of a luncheon, celebrating his son Bill’s Bar Mitzvah. My brother M.C.’d the proceedings, and it was now time to call on Cantor Soberman, the synagogue’s longtime Assistant Cantor, to come up and lead the guests in a blessing after the meal. Cantor Soberman was famous for his melodic but distinctly foghorn-sounding voice.
As the cantor rose from his seat and headed towards the microphone, my brother filled the time by saying,
“You’ll have to forgive the cantor. He’s has a cold for the past twenty-five years.”
The place went nuts! My brother’s wife slid under the table in embarrassment. I sat there, marveling at his chutzpah (The Audacity of Jew), envying a laugh that was bigger than the ten biggest laughs I had ever gotten added together, and wondering how he could get away with this and I couldn’t.
Could it be genetic? But then, how come my brother got it and I didn’t? Of course, I’ve still got hair and he doesn’t.
You see how bad I am at it?
I think a gift is in order.
Perhaps a hat.
Nope. It’s still not there.