I cracked me up. And by second grade I’d discovered I could crack other people up, too. Note the key word there: crack. As in that which produces a rush of pleasant feelings and is highly addictive. But like the drug crack, being funny was also illegal. Unless the teacher wasn’t watching.
Or unless you were good enough to make a living at it. Like the Marx Brothers had, or my first literary hero Mark Twain had. Or like my favorite TV star Dick Van Dyke did, or my favorite musical spoofers, Allan Sherman (“Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda”) and Tom Lehrer (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”) did.
Around the time I turned 13, there was a growing satire movement. It showed up in the mock seriousness of Stan Freberg and Bob Newhart, and in the cultural and political lampoons of Jules Feiffer and That Was the Week That Was. I was a creative schizophrenic: I wanted to write and perform seriously (still do), but I also kinda wanted to make fun of all that seriousness (still do).
And so, with the departure of my uber-serious first drama teacher Mr. Baxter, I decided to join the ranks of professional class clowns. I’d gained a bit of a funny-guy rep after my first play performance. And so, building on that, I created an absurdly serious poet character named Roger, who was in-fact a Feiffer-esque tribute to Mr. Baxter.
Hungry for free entertainment, a student committee booked me to perform in the cafetorium during lunchtime. Accompanied by an overzealous bongo player, “Roger” starts with the words “Limonada running down my vest,” and continues with something like “I must grow legs, I tell you, must drink and eat off my chest until I am standing behind you and yet always in front of me…” It’s pure stream of consciousness nonsense. But Roger the Poet, who considers it quite profound, grows increasingly agitated as the bongos drown him out, and finally storms off stage in a fit of angsty rage.
The audience roared. It was pure, undiluted clown crack. My ego swelled to three times its normal size that day. So much so that, right after the school year ended, I auditioned for a community theatre production, got cast in a lead role, and then quit because I didn’t think the other actors were good enough. Steel-spined Mr. Baxter would have slapped me six ways to Sunday. But genteel Mrs. Bonner, the drama teacher who took his place that fall, had a spine made of crepe myrtle, and was completely ill-equipped to handle…
A professional class clown.