“What’s the definition of a smart-ass?” began one of my dad’s favorite jokes.
“Someone who could sit on ice cream and tell what flavor it is.”
In 1998, the internet was new in our school and I was doing a demo in class of how cool it was. We had the projector on and I was discussing how easy it was to find information.
“For example, if you wanted to check out the President’s website, you just had to www.whitehouse.com,” I dictated proudly to my student at the keyboard who typed it in. I could see from their expressions that they also weren’t expecting the porn site on the big screen behind me.
“Back arrow! Back arrow!” I screached, convinced that the principal, governor or Bill Clinton would walk in on me at that very moment.
Without missing a beat, a student raised his hand, “Mr. Walsh, can I use the bathroom.”
I had to laugh along with the rest of the class at his superb timing.
Shakespeare knew the power of a well-placed funny-guy. Sir John Falstaff dropped some great lines over three different plays.
And Mercutio even cracked-wise while dying: ”Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” (During moments of my worst puns, it makes me feel better to know that the bard enjoyed them as well.) Even as Hamlet moans along the graveyard, just before Ophelia’s body surprisingly gets carted by, he has time to yuck it up with a gravedigger or two. We all need a break in the action, whether we’re avenging a poisoned father or shifting back and forth in our uncomfortable theater seats.
These guys make the work day faster, they make the car-trip tolerable; cashiers who can do it can even make a line at Trader Joe’s pleasant. Throw a clown into the middle of a drama and your chances of a hit seem that much more certain.
Three of my favorite recent comic relief pitchers, can be found in popular television shows who have each made Sunday evenings immensely popular.
John Slattery’s Roger Sterling, the silver haired adolescent of Mad Men strolls into the office of a stressed-out Don Draper, helps himself to the whiskey and rattles them off:
- “I’ll buy you a drink if you wipe the blood off your mouth.”
- “Who knows why people in history did good things? For all we know Jesus was trying to get the loaves and fishes account.”
- “If you can make it through a day like today, marriage is a cake walk.”
- “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing him.”
Maggie Smith, who could be the final contestant in the brutal Survivor-like season 3 of Downton Abbey, has the best lines as Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham:
- “What is a weekEND?”
- “I’m not being ridiculous. No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house – especially somebody they didn’t even know.”
- “Don’t be defeatist dear, it’s terribly middle class.”
- “What’s the matter, I have plenty of friends I don’t like.”
And, my newest favorite Falstaff, Peter Dinklage, whom I have admired since Elf as the cocky children’s author. He has been given the role of a lifetime in HBO’s Game of Thrones as Tyrion Lannister, the unwanted son of a ruthless power behind the thrones.
- “‘I’m a monster, as well as a dwarf. You should charge me double.”
- “I chopped wood once. No, actually, I watched my brother chop wood.”
- “You love your children. It’s your one redeeming quality; that and your cheekbones.”
- “If you’re going to be a cripple, it’s better to be a rich cripple. Take care, Snow.”
Each is a perfect foil to the ones who are a little too puffed-up, serious or skating too close to the boring zone. The telegraphing of their one-liners are as predictable and welcome as Kramer sliding into Jerry’s apartment.
Pete Campbell is being his usual prep-school snot…
Lord Grantham is upset with Sybil’s outfit…
Or the incestuous twin-siblings are getting on all of our nerves, not just Tyrion’s.
It’s the person we all wish we could be. It’s what we all wished we could say.
To quote James Whistler after Oscar Wilde replied, “I wish I had said that.”
“You will, Oscar, you will.”
Fourteen years later, while I can’t remember what I was teaching that day, I can still remember whitehouse.com, that smart-aleck kid and my envy as I continue to quote him.
And I’m sure he knows what flavor the ice cream is.