This one’s easy. ‘Cause I am telling another guy’s story. Because it’s a good one. Also because it exemplifies how, although a certain joke can be eminently serviceable, the comedically “gifted” can often provide an even better version of it. And the icing on the cake, or the cherry on top of the sundae – pick the cliché of your choice – is that the story in question is true. Or at least the person who related it said it was.
The originator of this story is a (now departed) veteran comedy writer named Jack Douglas, who told it during one of his numerous appearances on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, Jack Paar predating Johnny Carson who predated Jay Leno who predated Jimmy Fallon as the Tonight Show’s full-time ringmaster. I actually saw Douglas tell this story. Which makes me (no news to regular readers) quite ohhhhhld.
Though highly respected by the cogniscenti – he wrote for some of the biggest comedians of the day, including Bob Hope and Red Skelton – he also wrote a series of memoirs, including one I read and greatly enjoyed entitled My Brother Is An Only Child – the inevitably dark and droll Jack Douglas was not inordinately famous.
Nevertheless, unlike today, where guests only appear on talk shows to plug their latest endeavor, many of the early invitees to the Tonight Show appeared simply because they were interesting.
"Is that true, Uncle Earl?"
Hard to believe, but it is.
"Wow! That would make talk shows worth watching!"
Tell me about it.
The story Douglas related took place during the late 1950’s, at a time when the compact and economical German Volkswagen “Beetle” – or “Bug” as some called it – was emerging as a challenger to Detroit’s gargantuan gas guzzlers.
The situation involves a “Practical Joke”, a genre of laugh-inducement I am generally less than enamored of because I identify too empathically with its targeted victim. That’s just the goodhearted kind of sweet potato I am. I cannot help myself.
As the story goes, Jack Douglas had this next-door neighbor who had recently purchased a compact Volkswagen “Beetle”, and from then on, all he would ever talk about, to the distress of anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot, was the remarkable upgrade in his gas mileage.
People are getting the standard 15 to 18 miles per gallon; this guy’s getting close to thirty. He could barely remember the last time he filled up at a gas station. It was incredible. The car was virtually driving on air!
According to Mr. Douglas –and sympathizers identifying with his having to put with this compact car-owning blowhard, the audience’s laughter suggesting there was many of them – this Bozo was asking for it.
Now, what would be the appropriate practical joke in this situation?
The standard version would be to sneak over to the “Beetle” owner’s house at night and siphon gasoline out of his gas tank, perplexing the man with his suddenly reduced gas mileage and, more importantly, shutting the guy up.
Douglas, however, as they say in the comedy fraternity, went diabolically “the other way.”
Every night for a week, as he told it, a posse of co-conspirators would sneak over to the “Bug” owner’s house, carrying a five-gallon can… and add gas to his gas tank. Now, instead of boasting about getting close to thirty miles to the gallon, he was crowing that he was miraculously getting ninety!
A week later, the conspirators stopped pouring gas into his tank, confounding the “Beetle’s” owner when his gas mileage “plummeted” to thirty.
Do you see what he did there?
Instead of merely eliminating the source of the “Bug” owner’s excitement (by siphoning gas out), Douglas induced him into making ridiculous proclamations about his new car getting ninety miles to the gallon, and then humiliated him even further with the confession that his car’s mileage had subsequently fallen by two-thirds.
A person with reliable comedic instincts can easily skewer an annoying idiot with a retributive subterfuge.
A person with superior comedic instincts can knock it right out of the park.
Which, by the way, is what always distinguishes mediocre comedy from the “Top-‘O-The-Line.”
It’s the “reliable” versus the “sublime.”