With A Big Enough Lever

Posted: December 20, 2014 in Nonfiction

You know how teachers will teach you things miles removed from their subject matter? Lessons in life and fairness or the lack there of. One of my seminal experiences in humor came from a Physics teacher my senior year of high school. He was a tall man who looked like a Cigar Store Indian. He was 6’5″ or 6’6″ with a quiet demeanor. He was smart, and you could tell. He had the unidentifiable smugness that tall smart guys have. “I’m a nerd, but nobody ever figured it out because I was good at basketball.” In Indiana 40 years ago, that was probably like having money.

Mr. Weber was a good teacher, especially for smart kids. He knew physics, and structure, and his lessons always used the 90 minutes of class time optimally. He also didn’t get bent out of shape if you cussed a little bit, so I liked him. Mr. Weber didn’t think I was funny.

I always thought funny was a smart thing. People who got the joke were the brightest folks in the room. I learned funny by seeing what grown ups laughed at: See, it’s funny because “balls” also means testicles. Oh, now I get it, that’s very funny.

When my aunts would tell me jokes I didn’t get, I’d giggle. Then, they’d explain them to me and I’d love them. It might have been how I learned every single thing I know.

I was rewarded for curiosity and creativity. I quickly learned it was a terrific masking agent for bad behavior.

But sometimes it wasn’t. In fact, sometimes it was the opposite. Sometimes my affinity for the ridiculous got me into trouble. Sometimes seeing something funny is a ghost that lurks in the room and you have ESP. It can’t be explained, and if you demand it’s there, you’re insane, not brilliant.

One day in class Mr. Weber introduced us to Marie Curie. She discovered X-rays or how to use them, and she studied radiation. Then she died from radiation poisoning. I laughed a lot when he read that. It was the Hard Cut that made it funny, and the somber serious tone of a Cigar Store Indian. I laughed honestly, and expected the other kids to too. They didn’t.

“What’s so funny,” He asked sincerely. “The wording,” I answered, wondering why no one else in the room could see Patrick Swayze talking directly to me. “It was like… she did this… and it’s great… but it killed her…” He looked at me like I had killed her, or that I knew who did and wouldn’t tell anybody.

The room was filled with a long slow quiet. It was the sound of no hands clapping. It was that awkward moment on stage when something fails and it’s your fault and maybe everything you think is right is wrong. “Doesn’t anybody… ?” I searched the room for support but got nothing. 40 or 50 eyeballs just staring.

“Maybe we don’t have your twisted sense of humor,” Mr. Weber said. Or any, I thought to myself but didn’t have the balls to say. But I knew, right then and forever, it was and is, super funny. Suck it Mr. Weber.

A few months ago I was at a friend’s wedding reception. She was in the same grade as a couple of Mr. Weber’s daughters and they were there too; smart pretty girls who seem to laugh often and easily. Mr. Weber was there smiling amiably, and looking exactly like a Cigar Store Indian in a well-cut suit.

I was happy to see him and say hello. I don’t remember if he asked or knew that I was doing comedy, but he asked if I had any Physics jokes. I searched my brain for anything I could muster. I squirmed like a fat kid in a high school desk/chair. “A girlfriend tried to split a prime rib with me…” I submitted, and waited the appropriate amount of time for a set-up, “I was like hey, this is the Prime rib, this isn’t divisible by two.”

I maintained eye contact with him as no expression crossed his face. I smiled gracelessly and wondered if maybe I was babbling to myself in an insane asylum.

“It’s really more math than Physics,” he offered and smiled politely.

And sometimes you’re haunted by ghosts.

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