In third grade, the teacher went around the room at the beginning of the year asking kids what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“Fireman,” one kid said. “Teacher,” said another. And so it went.
My turn came.
“A comedian,” I said.
Some kids snickered and the teacher gave me a half smile — pleasant with a tinge of condescension.
I didn’t care. The minute I had found out that people in the world were paid to be funny I decided that was the job for me. How did I find this out? Watching Johnny Carson and The Carol Burnett Show, of course. I didn’t care about the actors, jugglers or animal handlers that came on Carson. I wanted the comedians. I’m going to date myself, but when I was a little kid I laughed my ass off at David Brenner, Buddy Hackett, Jonathan Winters. And of course Joan Rivers. I remember sitting on the living room floor listening to one of her albums alternating between awe and uncontrolled laughter.
I dreamt of being a comedian like those comic greats, so I practiced … on my school. Class clown would be the affectionate term applied to me. Little shit might be another. “Disruptive” was the word used on my report card.
I liked my third grade teacher a lot. She was cool and pretty, so I enjoyed trying to make her laugh. When we were studying dinosaurs and she showed us a picture of one and asked its name and I said “Mr. Johnson,” who was our aged principal, she let out a giggle as the class roared.
Check out Joan Rivers' most memorable moments captured in one video – http://t.co/joeEUNpYnr
— Mashable (@mashable) September 5, 2014
But she recovered herself and took me to the hall. I thought I was toast. A suspension seemed possible, but she said: “Look Patrick, I know you want to be a comedian. I even think you’re funny. But you can’t disrupt the class like that all the time. I can’t do my job. I don’t want you to stop being funny, but please pick your spots.”
I just nodded. No authority figure had ever spoken to me like that, especially when I deserved a good tongue lashing. I wasn’t old enough to process how it made me feel. I think I felt respect. And a major crush.
So I took it easy on her. And practiced my craft by absolutely tormenting the substitute teacher that came in every Friday when our regular teacher went to teach Spanish to older classes.
It was glorious. Every aspiring comic or actor should be so blessed to have a half-deaf, octogenarian substitute teacher. Our class got away with so much crap. She was our Bud Selig in a steroid era of childhood shenanigans. Clueless? Maybe. Looking the other way because she didn’t want anyone to know she couldn’t handle the job? Probably some combination.
The disappearing class was one of my favorite bits. I’d pass the word during recess that when the teacher turned her head to write on the board, some of us would get out of our seats and crawl out to the hall. Luckily, we shared a small building with one other class separated by a little hallway where the bathrooms were located. We could hide out there and not run the risk of being discovered by other students, teachers or, God forbid, the principal.
But we couldn’t all leave at once. So we had a system. Kids were assigned numbers and every time she turned to write the corresponding group would sneak away — 1, 2, 3, 4.
Watching her expression when she turned back and noticed that a quarter and then half of the class was missing was priceless. But she never said anything, seeming to doubt her own senses.
Once the little hallway got too crowded, waves of kids would sneak back in. Watching her face when she turned around later to see that the class was full again was equally priceless. She thought she was going nuts and tried not to show it. It was a mean and hilarious trick to play.
Another time, I convinced the biggest kid in the class to get on his desk and start to sing. I’m not sure why he agreed to do it. Maybe I gave him my Twinkies that day or something. Of course, as the teacher squawked like a dying mallard that he should get down, the desk toppled over, sending him to the floor with a thud and scattering his belongings all over the classroom. That got a good laugh, but he ratted me out and I received a detention … or two.
During a show and tell, I brought my toy musket to class. I gave a very informative speech on hunting during Pilgrim days and began to demonstrate how to load the gun. The teacher seemed very pleased. Of course, I planned a big finish to my presentation. After the gun was loaded I pretended to shoot my friends who I had arranged to run around the class making odd groaning sounds like buffalo. The hunt resulted in chaos that she found impossible to rein in. The teacher from the other class finally heard the racket, ran in and stopped the madness with one loud “Stop!”
Joan Rivers honors Robin Williams in touching resurfaced interview http://t.co/Cmlq4fxQ2x
— Huffington Post (@HuffingtonPost) September 4, 2014
For that one, my cronies and I had to stand facing the wall for an entire recess.
I knew that I didn’t want to specialize only in physical comedy, however. My heroes were stand-up comics after all. I had to get up in front of a crowd. So during a show and tell, I told the ancient teacher that I didn’t have anything to show; rather, I had something to tell: a joke. She smiled and called me to the front of the class. And this is what I said:
A kid stands up in front of the class for show and tell. He gives little chunks of dried meat to his class.
“Taste it,” he says.
The kids take little bites.
“Now, can you guess what kind of meat this is?” he says.
“Beef,” dirty Little Johnny shouts.
“Nope,” the kids says. “Anybody else?”
“Chicken?” a girl asks.
“Wrong,” the kid says proudly, happy that nobody can guess venison.
“Is it lamb?” a boy asks.
“No,” says the boy. “Maybe you need a hint for what animal it comes from.”
“Yeah,” dirty Little Johnny screams.
“Well,” the boys says. “It’s a word mommy calls daddy.”
Little Johnny jumps up.
“Spit it out everyone, it’s asshole!”
You’d think that threat of suspension, multiple parent-teacher conferences and many detentions later I would have been cured of the comedy bug. I wasn’t. I couldn’t get the laugh out of my head — kids with their heads back, letting loose, pointing, life gloriously turned on its head. Like a drug, I couldn’t stop chasing that laugh.
But as you can probably guess I’m not a comedian. I’m good to have at parties. I’m mildly amusing in print. But in the end life pounded the comedian dream out of me. That’s a different story, but it almost doesn’t have to be told. We all know it in some form. Divorce, move, parents remarry, move again, live with one parent, live with the other, throw in some court cases, go to new schools and a couple of bong hits later and it’s time for college and really feeling clueless about who you are.
I eventually found my way. And now I realize that funny is sometimes just the flip side of depressed, as we find out time and time again when a comedian who lifts us out of our doldrums can’t get out of his own. I’ve spent years and days on both sides of that same coin. I think that’s just life, and staying one step ahead of our ghosts is livin’ the dream.
But when these comedians of my youth die — yeah you Robin Wiliams, Joan Rivers — I’m reminded of who I wanted to be. I miss that boy who was so focused on the laugh. I’m thankful when I sporadically make it happen these days.
But I’m also thankful for the people like Williams and Rivers who stayed true to that dream. What better job is there really than to make people laugh? It’s like selling air. We can’t live without it.
You can reach me at Cubs Fan Therapy.