After 40 years of sportswriting and 15 years of do-nothing retirement, two weeks ago I decided to try my hand at writing humor, or better yet, Canadian humor.
I knew it was a gamble, but I was confident because all my life whenever I’ve said something, someone’s always answered back, “Ya, very funny.” I kid you not.
I first heard that expression 78 years ago in an operating room at St. Mary’s Hospital. Seconds after I was wrestled from Mum’s womb, I heard her gasp: “What is it?”
“It’s a person,” the nurse replied.
“Ya, very funny,” Mum said — and the seed was planted. “Is it a boy or a girl? I have to know so I can hunt down the father. He’s in the circus. He’s a clown ... I think. If he’s not, he should change his wardrobe.”
“Just a second, we’ll look,” the nurse said.
A minute goes by without a peep.
Now Mum’s ripping, literally. “Well, what is it?”
“We need more time,” an angry voice shot back.
And that was my introduction to “ya, very funny.”
Then there was the trip home from the hospital. It was a cold, windy winter day when we pulled up to our basement apartment. The trip seemed long because Dad’s car‘s heater was broken and the window on the passenger side wouldn’t close. There was ice on the sidewalk and the path leading to our front door was icy. Mum said: “Herb, would you mind carrying little Bobby inside? I’m afraid I’ll slip.”
“Very funny,” Dad said.
After two days at home, I’m moved from the kitchen table to a rug on the floor. Pas de problème: At that age I can sleep anywhere. But poor Mum is struggling. It’s so bad that her post-partum depression is actually making her feel better. And everyone’s happy she has it.
Still, there are cracks in the marriage, and the words “ya, very funny” are never far away.
Example: Mum’s been crying all night and she has either her period or an awful nose bleed. She’s concerned about her pregnancy stitches, but Dad tells her not to worry because he has Duck Tape.
Mum’s mouth is a mass of cold sores. Dad wants to sleep with her, but she says she would on one condition: that he give little Bobby his late-night bottle so she can get more sleep. His answer: “ya, very funny.” Sex not gonna happen.
“Ya, very funny” also followed Bobby around throughout high school. By now he was called just Bob and he was ridiculously handsome.
Still, when he told his teacher he wanted to play sports — you guessed it — again “ya, very funny.” Same answer when he asked the teacher to tutor him ... and if he could join the choir ... and if the principal could recommend a university.
But back to the present. If I were going to write humour, especially Canadian humour, I’d need coaching. Answering a newspaper ad, I headed into Montreal’s east end to hook up with humour instructor Jim Laughalot. It took over two hours to find his place because I forgot his address. And he didn’t just live in a basement; he lived so far beneath the basement, he was in what’s called a basement-basement. Very rare.
I knocked on his door and found myself face-to-face with a clown. He was wearing lipstick and rouge and his pants were all puffy and dotted with polka dots. His shoes were size 40s, and they looked like little rubber turned-up boats.
“What do you want?” he barked. With that, he shook my hand and got me with that silly buzzer trick. I let it pass.
“I want to be funny,” I said.
“Ya gotta be kidding,” he replied, showing pointy brown teeth.
I thanked him for not saying “ya, very funny,” and he escorted me into his musty living room. He offered me tea and I said yes. He came back with two cups, noisemakers and two dark red pointy hats. We both blew long paper things that unfurl with a swishing sound and usually annoy everyone.
When tea was over, Laughalot jumped on the couch and started bouncing with reckless abandon. Then he fell. Hard. As I picked him up and wiped the blood trickling down his forehead and ruining his mascara, he told me he had joined the circus as an acrobat, but switched to clowning after a horrendous tumble.
Almost tragically, he would also have a close call while a clown, almost suffocating while performing the popular wacky trick whereby 20 guys stuff themselves into a Volkswagen. The stick shift didn’t do him any favours, either. While he was telling me all this, I couldn’t help wonder: Where on earth did the circus find a Volkswagen that wasn’t in a repair shop?
By now I was so tired it wasn’t even funny. I just wanted out.
I reached for my cane to leave, but he quickly grabbed it and started tap dancing. He was going vaudevillian on me. Then he slapped me on the head with both hands, punched me in the stomach, and tripped me with the cane. Now he was going slapstick. Then he merrily returned to tap dancing. As I shut the door, he was singing Tea for Two.
Is it possible, I thought? Mom ... clown ... circus. Could it be? Dad?
“Ya, very funny.”