Smile

by Joni Abilene

I find myself acquiescing the days of summers past—the cassettes I borrowed from my brother’s seminary things and listened to non-stop: Moody Blues, Warren Zevon, Marshall Crenshaw, The Police; watching Rear Window every morning at dawn; driving in his car barefoot; drinking soda with red licorice turned into straws from a nibble of both ends—and I recalled a certain wish I’d harbored, which was to work for Saturday Night Live as either a cast member or a writer. It was one of those strange, bittersweet memories of, oh yes, I was that girl, I used to have those dreams. Then there’s the sadness of never fulfilling said dreams, and knowing, in the well-acquired wisdom which comes through failure and acceptance of failure, that it most definitely will not ever happen for I am too old now and too settled in my oldness to pitter patter about silly things. Old? Well, not ancient, but I am in that sticky arena of age where I know better and too stubborn to induce the risk of movement, namely the one called hope.

At the time, I studied the annals of SNL cast and crew, read biographies, read about the drugs, the eating disorders, the fights, the rivalries and, unfortunately, the deaths. John Belushi, who was loud and obnoxious, held a certain unmistakable charm. “Cheebuga, cheebugga, cheebugga. No Coke! Pepsi!” We all knew those lines and repeated them to each other until the novelty died down. “Well, excuuuuuuuse me!” I see now that Belushi wasn’t just the loudmouth of films like Animal House, which had the unfortunate effect of type-casting him into similar roles throughout his career, but that he was a master at satire, an adult delicacy mixing the ridiculous truths of life with the element of sarcasm. He was a modern-day Jackie Gleason and should have been hailed as such. But, he had his demons.

Then there was Gilda Radner, the awkward, but cute and caustic nymph. “The itty, bitty, teeny, tiny, little. . .” I used to quote her lines to my unsupportive friends. “My name is Roseanne Roseannadanna, and it’s always something. . .” I even read Gilda’s memoir, which detailed her heroic yet unfortunate struggle with ovarian cancer. She was little, but mighty. Most of all, she was willing to do whatever it took to make people laugh. Again, I thought: I could do that. I want to do that. However, the reason eluded me, other than I sought to be part of the highest form of intelligence, which is undoubtedly wit.

You see, when I grew up, it really meant something to make people laugh. We, my two siblings and I, actively worked at the craft and studied whatever medium we could find. SNL was top of the list, then came Monty Python, Benny Hill, and then there was a strange little thing playing in our area called, The Uncle Floyd Show, which you can’t find anywhere now. Sadly, the show seems to have faded into the same planet of which it came from. We watched it every night, far past our mother’s journey upstairs wearing full-length nightgown and with paperback novel clutched in her hand. The appeal was that it mocked adult society, all things, and our junior brains delighted in the mockery because we had seen the worst of humans so far, in our town, and with our father. Laughter, and mockery, is by far the best antidote to fear and shame. The Uncle Floyd Show had regular skits, much like SNL, but its main draw was that it featured Mr. Bill, that downtrodden clay derelict who was the constant recipient of abuse from a character called Mr. Hand. There was something so hilarious in his torture, perhaps because of foreshadowing, but mostly due to his pathetic high-pitched screams of, “Oh no! Oh noooooooooooo!” Anyway, he always came back.

We even convinced mother to purchase a cassette recorder from the Sears catalog so that we might tape little skits up in our bedroom, which never sounded as funny as they did when being recorded. At one point we had a parody of the movie Grease, with zingers and songs, and faux commercials cutting in between. These tapes met their demise one way or the other and no longer exist, if not for the invisible tape recorders in our minds, which have faded slowly through the passage of decades.

I see it in my writing now, this willingness to take the Mickey out of everything. Even in the most delicate scenes, there’s an element to be made light of. Nothing intact shall remain intact. Nothing shall be taken too seriously. All characters are subject to ridicule, and they’re better for it. Or perhaps it comes down to my willingness to take the Mickey out of myself. A survival method, again from the days of living under my father’s strict sovereign. It’s better to laugh than cry. But the best thing, undoubtedly, is to make another person smile.

I believe Charlie Chaplin said something similar . . .

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