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Don't Worry, Be Silly

The man behind the counter at Ambition was mixing up some raspberry-chocolate-inflected coffee drink for my daughter, Madeleine. Suddenly he looked suspiciously at the antique phone booth in the restaurant.

“Did you hear that?” he asked. “That clicking?”

“I did,” I said, because I had.

“That’s the phone booth,” he said, stirring, but nodding over at the far wall. “It really gives me the creeps when it does that.”

“Is it a working phone booth?” I asked, even though it was apparent it wasn’t. I wanted him to be the one hearing things, not me.

“No. It doesn’t work,” he said.

“It’s Homeland Security,” I said.

“What?” he asked.

“The place is bugged. For your own protection.”

“Oh,” I could tell he wasn’t sure whether or not I was serious.

“You know, to root out any possible terrorists that come in here and plot the overthrow of Jay Street.”

“Oh,” he got the joke then—and developed a mock-furrowed brow.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve been making cappuccinos for years when all of a sudden the other day, after I put the steamed milk on, I put my ear close and I heard all this cracking and clicking. . . .” He paused for dramatic effect. “And then I discovered—it was the steamed milk!”

“Wow!” I said, because what else can you say when someone tells you they have started listening to their beverages? “Sounds just like Snap, Crackle and Pop.”

It’s always a risk to make reference to important cultural artifacts, such as Jell-O 1-2-3, because you never know if the person you’re talking to will remember them. I mean, are Snap, Crackle and Pop still hawking Rice Krispies or have they gone the way of the Red Rose Tea band?

“Yeah,” he nodded vigorously, “Exactly. There are these foods around that you can listen to. Rice Krispies. Cappuccinos. And then there’s champagne, too.”

“Adds a whole new dimension to eating,” I agreed.

Now, I’m not sure what you think of a person who thinks like this, but I thought it was great. People like this really right there, kind of like the opposite of attention deficit disorder.

Of course, it’s a little kooky, too. But Madeleine and I walked down the Jay Street mall sipping our regrettably silent coffees and mused that more people ought to see the world in such unexpected ways.

I mean, I love Dennis Miller, but anyone who scored reasonably well on their SATs can be an irony-powered wiseass. Irony is a kind of coping mechanism for dealing with life’s various and rampant miseries: riffing as a means to manage existential angst. Maybe Sartre did stand-up for Simone de Beauvoir.

But there is something so spontaneous and shameless about a truly cockeyed sense of humor. It sidesteps life’s miseries altogether in favor of the playful lunacy that is maybe one of life’s most redemptive aspects.

Plus, it’s a more risk-taking sense of humor. I love to imagine Martin Short inventing his insanely goofy Ed Grimley character. In my mind’s eye he comes out of the bathroom wearing Ed’s signature chest-high pants and Kewpie-doll hairlick for the first time and tries his new character out on his unsuspecting wife. Or fancy what it was like to have lived with him through the development of his character, Franc, from Father of the Bride, I and II. Shopping must have been a blast.

There really is something more honest about humor that risks making yourself look a little foolish.

Complete strangers can make wise-guy comments in grocery checkout lines. There will be shared chuckles, with no risk of embarrassment. But true goofiness brings out a gleam in people’s eyes, a nudge to the ribs, a sense that either genius or idiocy or both are alive and well and animating the shared space.

I was on a local talk show once and we spent an hour making wry and witty comments about yoga and fitness, while managing to maintain a polite distance. But driving home in the car we got talking about favorite movies. Discovering that Best in Show and What About Bob?—movies of undeniable silliness—were front-running, all-time favorites suddenly created a bond: We weren’t witty strangers bantering on the airwaves, we were chums with hidden goofy streaks.

I used to think that if you scratched the surface of anyone long enough, beneath a veneer of wittiness was a silly person waiting to giggle.

I don’t think that anymore because I’ve known enough people who live and die by the dryness of their wit—which to my way of thinking is like going to a smorgasbord and only eating the salty foods.

Because the world is truly a weird and funny place. There’s a brotherhood and a sisterhood that gets created in laughing together at stupid puns. Or your sister’s badly butchered jokes. Or the stories you make up with your kid when you people-spy in a park. Or your nephew’s brilliant alter-ego, Tito.

Under certain circumstances I’ve been known to do some pretty inspired impersonations of vegetables myself, and my girls have sworn me to secrecy about some of their more outlandish creations—but suffice it to say, ours is a house full of laughter.

So when someone hints to me that he has begun to listen to his food, I figure, hey, why not?

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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