There are words that stick with you. Some that have, not that I particularly want them to:
The day after the performance, one thing just niggled. It had been the lead up to a sketch in the middle of the set, where you’re meant to ask the audience to randomly provide a word and a sentence. The word would be the title and the sentence the first line of a ‘poem’ that would be made up on the spot. One member of the improv group would do the talking, their arms folded behind their backs; another member, their hands on either side of the first, would provide the gestures to punctuate the delivery. It’s designed to be flippant.
Can anyone give us a title?
The Wasteland, one man calls from the back.
Well, there’s a poem that already exists. Anyone else?
The Wasteland, he repeats with a certain smugness.
Ok, the Wasteland. Let’s do it. How about a first line?
April is the cruellest month, he hollers.
April is the cruellest month.
Ok, funny guy. Thanks.
And off we went. I don’t think any of us had read The Wasteland anyway.
The rest of the evening was nudged out of my memory by my exasperation with this one insistent know-it-all. Faced with an infinite potential for a poem yet to be made, why bother even starting from this thing in the past? Where, I thought in vexed teenage knots, was this guy’s sense of humour?
Sometimes, for the sake of humour, we may have went overboard, and if that was the case then I’m sorry.
The artist, still then known as Prince, sits surrounded by a group of sullen-faced fans, or maybe they’re his crew, as he mumbles this half-hearted apology. He’s the unwitting guest on Al TV, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovich’s show for MTV, at some point in 1986. Cutting together Prince’s responses from a previously aired interview, and adding his own zany questions, Weird Al takes a few easy digs: ‘Prince is kind of a silly name, do you mind if I call you Bob?’ No. ‘Do you ever secretly wish you were me?’ All the time.
Weird Al – who had made his name with parody versions of ‘My Sharona’ (as ‘My Bologna’) and The Kink’s ‘Lola’ (‘Yoda’) – had a long relationship with Prince. For years he’d been asking for permission to use one of his songs – ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, ‘1999’, anything; Prince had refused. In public, Yankovich had a standard line he would pull out. Michael Jackson had consented to ‘Beat It’ and ‘Bad’ both being covered, as ‘Eat It’ and ‘Fat’: ‘I was delighted to find that he had a sense of humour.’ With regards to Prince, ‘There’s plenty enough people who have a sense of humour. I don’t want to offend anybody.’
There’s no qualification of course as to what kind of humour he might mean; his acts of parody being equal, apparently, to the entire genre of the humorous. Though if his hundreds of songs, television show and two films are anything to go by, you could bet that it was that brash, pun-alicious American brand: bright sarcasm punctuated by Whoopie cushions and burp jokes. Yankovich was my own introduction to music and to most pop culture: the only albums I owned for years, I knew most songs from the pastiche versions first. It was more than a pop education; when he sang ‘Living with a Hernia’ to the tune of James Brown’s ‘Living in America’, I sang along, oblivious to whatever a hernia was. Same with references to iron lungs, alimony, nuclear ground zero, all done to the tune of songs I didn’t know anyway.
The metaphor, the joke, the reference: they’re all instructional. Conversant in some sort of gesture that assumes a common cloth. As a kid you’re hypertuned to these things, can tell when they’re asking you to look in the same direction, to laugh, even if you don’t know how. You get the sense of streaming down a seemingly endless hallway of closed doors, knocking on carpeting, walls, doors, trying to find one way unlocked, or a secret passage, that might eventually give you access.
Thump, thump. Two men are ordering lunch.
One simply bangs his shoe on the table repeatedly. The other yells with relish: I WAANT A CHEEKAWN SANDWEECH WITH A LIVE CHEEKAWN!
The line, from a cassette we’d play during family car trips, had us giggling and repeating it ad infinitum. I mean, some guy with a kind-of Mexican accent demanding a live chicken sandwich? Of course that’s an outrageous request, hilarious to bunch of kids under ten. That was about as much of the joke as we got, bopping down the highways along the eastern part of the US in the late ‘80s. Our parents, who were around our age when the figures being caricatured were in power, laughed at other parts we didn’t get: the monotonous, breathy delivery of the wife describing her décor tastes, or references to particular speeches, in a bouncing, exaggerated New England accent, made by John F. Kennedy.
We knew the former presidential family was the target of the jokes on the comedy tape. But we also didn’t have anything other than a woolly sense of them as cultural figures, gleaned from nods made in things like The Simpsons. We didn’t know that the album had been America’s fastest best-selling album ever when it was released in 1962. Or that it had been out of print since Kennedy was assassinated just over a year later, pulled from stores and destroyed as soon as the news hit. We didn’t know that the audience, whooping and clapping at each skit, had sat in the recording studio on a late October night, oblivious to the tense phone calls and live speeches happening outside on the edge of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a series of exchanges and a non-event that would, from our current foggy perspective, define Kennedy’s presidency and the Cold War.
The skit we loved most was the diplomatic lunch, an attempt at détente over ‘a typical American businessman’s lunch’, sitting Charles de Gaulle next to Chiang Kai-shek, Gamal Abdel Nasser (‘Call me Abe’) next to David Ben-Gurion, and Nikita Khrushchev next to Fidel Castro, going around them all to take a deli sandwich order. It was in part a cursory, ironic global politics from a North American perspective, not that we knew who they were anyway: de Gaulle sniffily tries to order ‘dove on the glass’, only to be given a chicken salad sandwich; Khrushchev, after banging his shoe on the table, says, ‘You don’t have to order special for me, I’ll just have a bit of everyone else’s’ – not a far shout from the way ‘socialism’ is still interpreted in US politics. Castro, after giving a brief speech in Spanish on the ‘patria’, then orders his chicken sandwich with a live chicken.
It’s only in the past few weeks – reminiscing randomly on this phrase that has for almost thirty years been a floating family run-on joke, and trying to figure out what was actually meant to be funny about it – that I’ve come across the referent for the punchline. Castro, giving a speech at the UN in New York in 1960, had stayed at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. He’d stormed out of the luxury of the Shelburne downtown, for reasons that some have said was cost, and some due to black members of his entourage being refused the right to stay there; but the New York tabloids had decided to report instead that he had brought with him dozens of concubines, and, dining in fear of being poisoned, was keeping over fifty live chickens in his room.
Not that that makes it any funnier. Facts, maybe gleaned in time, are only part of the impact that those words have had, or can have. My main affinity with them lies in dozens, if not hundreds, of childish sub-exchanges, half-jokes and exuberant yawps. As an energetic claim on life, a silly non sequitur, or awkward silence breaker. It’s a fondness that has been tempered by the gradual awareness of the joke’s perspective: its mocking racism, alongside its own kind of innocence made all the more apparent as Castro’s regime went on and on and on. His Kennedy impersonation having made him a household name, Vaughn Meader’s career never recovered after Kennedy died.
Humour here is just a Macguffin. A stand-in for the nitty gritty, perverted long-road for mis-use, mistakes, and misreadings – what we might cursorily label as misprision. And that is always the ghost hand of the use and readings we project. Where’s your sense of humour? Where was mine? The words hide the embarrassment, that weird combination of unintentionality and determination, and sometimes failure, to leave something behind, that come with making it up as you go along.
What comes in the afterwards of the word is taking it on the chin, putting on the semblance of a thick skin and pretending to forget about it, letting flints shameful and known settle and respark years later. Afterwards is knee-jerk flights of adrenaline, marooned on some high shore. Afterwards is being entirely absent from the text. Afterwards is the swollen buoyancy that words take on regardless, as they haunt, jostle and disappear over a lifetime.
Originally published as the afterwords for Near, Variations, RCA MA Writing, 2018