As I said in a prior post, my Pop was the funniest man I ever met—and a great storyteller to boot. And my Mother’s got both those bases covered, too. So it’s in my blood to want to tell funny stories. My schooling at their hands, however, was brutal at times.
For example, when I was five or six years old, my stories would go on and on (and on), and since I hadn’t lived much of a life yet, my stories would typically be descriptions of TV shows, say, episodes of Gilligan’s Island. And at a certain point—the point when they felt my quorum on the dinnertime conversation had run its course—they’d do one of two things:
-Start buzzing and moving their heads in a circular gesture, imitating the annoying, dull drone of a bee.
-They’d start saying, “And then…and then…and then…and then…” to remind me that my library of segue words (i.e. however, therefore, suddenly, but, next) was very limited. My stories really were single sentences, such as: “And then Gilligan broke the coconut, and then the Skipper said, ‘Gilligan!’ and then the professor had to fix the cocoanut and then…”
Now, this kind of bitchslapping when you’re six whips you into shape, believe me. By the time I was eight, I was a mini Spalding Gray.
Before you go on thinking my folks were a pair of tools, I should be clear: I’m very grateful they did this (I expect to behave similarly towards my own son); and I’ve never met two more enthusiastic listeners. They were supportive and responsive—but they were also a tough crowd.
As I got older, my Pop added a new ripple to his reactions: “You had to be there.” If I told a joke or story that sank like a rock, his immediate reaction was to say that to me. And he wasn’t saying, “F U. You just wasted my time.” He was saying, “We’ve all been there. Better luck next time.”
Later on, in my teens, I noticed that if he told a joke that tanked, he’d be the first to say, “Well, you had to be there.” He was his own toughest audience, and that was the next lesson he imparted: at any point in telling a story, if you realize you’re wasting everyone’s time, jump ship ASAP and save face with a good-natured, “You had to be there.”
Sadly, I don’t have any recorded examples of my Pop saying that to me, but here’s a quick example that caught my eye. It’s from a DVD collection of sketches from Your Show of Shows. In an interview, comedian Howard Morris talks about jazz dancer Jack Cole. It’s a dead-end of a story and a few sentences he salvages it with the five magic words—and, when I saw this, I laughed out loud and thought, “Wow. He used ‘You had to be there’ as a punchline. Brilliant.” Maybe you’ll agree, or…maybe you had to be there.