By Lydia Hope Wilen / New York City
The extent of my father’s imbibing was drinking a little Manischewitz wine during a family holiday meal, then sleeping it off on a couch until my mother nudged him, “Jack, it’s time to go home.” And in the summertime, my father would have my mother buy him a couple of bottles of beer…the least expensive brand for the ale aficionado.
One summer evening, my father asked 8-year-old me to get him a beer out of the refrigerator. I said, “Which one? Shakespeare?” My father, mother and sister laughed aloud. That did it! I was hooked. Making people laugh was thrilling. I wanted to keep doing that. And I did.
I wrote humorous essays in school, funny poems for all occasions. I wrote comedy material for comedian Jackie Mason and clever one-liners for celebrities on producer Bob Stewart’s TV game shows. Soon, I was asked to audition as a writer for a show called Off the Wall starring Ann Meara.
My audition consisted of writing a blackout–a joke in rapid-fire slapstick style that goes back to vaudeville when the lights were quickly turned off after the punchline of a joke to accentuate it and to give the audience time to take it all in and laugh. (That explanation is longer than a blackout.)
This was my audition piece: A hotel room where the maid is yelling at the bed. “No! Never! Not with you. Not in a million years.” In walks the room’s occupant, who asks the maid, “What are you doing?” The maid answers, “I’m turning down your bed.” BLACKOUT
Bob Stewart hired me on the spot as Head Writer. Two days later, Stewart had a disagreement with the Executive Producer and both of us were fired. That’s show biz and no laughing matter.
Writing comedy material is a thoughtful process, but ad-libbing a funny line takes guts. You don’t have time to plan it or to censor yourself. You just blurt it out in the spur of the moment. You also don’t know if it will be well-received, appreciated or get the sought-after laugh. It may be one of those times when you have to explain yourself by saying, “I’m kidding. I’m only kidding.”
I choose to risk making a fool of myself rather than risk missing the opportunity to made someone laugh. It hasn’t always worked out in my favor. Here are some recent embarrassing examples:
I’ve used The UPS Store down the block from me many times through the years. I go in and hand the envelope or package to the clerk. The clerk puts it on the scale and asks for my phone number. I give the clerk my number and it’s typed into the system, enabling a UPS label to be created and setting up the emailed confirmation and tracking information to be sent to me.
The last time I went in with my tax papers in an envelope, I handed it to a young, attractive clerk. He was a new hire. He asked for my phone number. After I gave it to him, I said, “It’s been a while since a good-looking guy asked me for my telephone number!” He quickly and nervously set me straight, “Oh no. That’s not why… I need your number for our records.”
I was embarrassed that he thought I actually meant what he thought I meant. “Oh, no. I’m kidding. I’m only kidding.” At that instant, I wanted to UPS myself home.
My building’s pandemic policy is if you want to take an elevator and someone is already in the elevator, you must ask if it’s okay to join the already-inside rider. I was in the elevator, wearing a mask. As the elevator door was closing, a man put his hand out, causing the door to reopen. He saw me in the corner of the elevator and asked if I would mind if he and his wife and child rode with me. I said, “No. I don’t mind.”
They came in and as the door was closing, I said, “Just don’t hug me.” I thought that was a funny thing to say to these strangers. From their reaction, they thought it was creepy. If the elevator door hadn’t closed, I think they would have jumped out.
Another example (some people never learn):
The mailroom in my building has a few bookcases filled with books that residents have left for others to read and then put back on the shelves. One evening, I was checking the shelves and an on-in-years man got his mail and then, he too, started looking at the books. When he passed by me to get to another section of the shelves, something grazed my hip.
I looked over at him and saw something I had not seen in years. I asked him, “Is that a telephoto camera lens…or are you just happy to see me?” I couldn’t help myself. The man was old enough to know the line was originally made famous by Mae West and changed slightly through the years to, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”
The man didn’t get it. For a minute I thought, maybe he doesn’t understand English. And then he said, “Yes. I use the lens to take close-ups of birds in the park.” By then, I knew better than to make any bird jokes.
A long-ago example of one of my under-duress yet funniest non-appreciated lines:
I was in my early 30s. I woke up on a Sunday morning and I was hemorrhaging. No joke. It was scary. I called my primary doctor. She said she’d call a gynecologist she knew and have him meet me at his office. He was there by the time I arrived. His nurse was also there and she helped me out of my bloodied clothes and into a hospital gown.
As soon as I was stretched out on the examining table with my feet in the stirrups, the, yes, young and attractive doctor approached. Now, with the major amount of blood coming out of me, you would think that with the doctor spreading my legs and reaching in, I’d make a joke about the parting of the Red Sea. But no.
Instead, when he leaned over with his fingers inside me and his face about seven inches over my face, I said to him the then-popular pickup line, “Come here often?” I heard a stifled laugh from the nurse in the corner of the room…but nothing from the doctor. When the exam ended, he said to the nurse, in front of me, “I never saw anything like this”. Not exactly a confidence builder.
He gave me pills that he said would stop the bleeding and told me to forget being a vegetarian and eat some liver. The pills did stop the bleeding and I did eat some liver…with fava beans and a nice Chianti. I’m kidding. I’m only kidding.
P.S. I had a podiatrist appointment today with a doctor I’ve never met before. Dr. Rosanna Troia was every wonderful thing a doctor should be. Towards the end of my visit, I told her that she more than lived up to the many rave reviews she got online. She thanked me and said, “My mother was so tired after writing so many!” Even though I laughed, Dr. Troia said, “I’m kidding. I’m only kidding.”
I ask you, readers, what are the chances of that happening the day I turned in this story?
Lydia Hope Wilen had a successful collaboration with her late sister Joany as nonfiction bestselling authors (18 books), journalists, TV personalities, writers and talent coordinators on a Nickelodeon series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, Reading Rainbow episodes, skit writers for Dr. Ruth's TV show, Diet America Challenge on CBS, and writers of screenplays (optioned but not produced yet).
Lydia is writing on her own now and has just completed an extraordinary book for young people and their parents. It will have them laughing and learning...once she gets an agent and it gets published.