Laughter never fades

Father’s Day.Mom and Dad and I and Gramps

A bit pretentious of a title for a holiday, but it is what it is. ‘Dad’s Day’ just doesn’t have the panache – except to me, because I had my dad.

Dad died in 1986 – now more than half my life ago, which is an interesting realization to come to – I have lived more of my life without his physical presence than with.  Logically I get that, but it still hard to wrap my mind around sometimes.

Because my dad is still hanging around.

It is natural to wonder what he would think of the here-and-now; what his family has become, his grandchildren, great-grandchildren – life in general, the world in which we all live. His political commentary on modern times would be something to behold. Mostly NSFW – but due to tone, not language. My father was not generally a profane guy, not always quick to anger, but get his dander up, and he would not hold back, and he could be caustic when really provoked.

But the message, no matter how pointed, would be leavened with ample humor.

I don’t need to think too hard to reach some definite conclusions; he would see my life as it is today with a sense of pride, but also a heightened level of amusement and bemusement. Same holds for grandchildren, and his great-grandson.

My dad wasn’t highly educated – topping out the formal end of things with a high school diploma earned at night –  but he was knowledgeable and well read, a man of continual curiosity about the world.  He would have some on-point opinions on the recent state of affairs of the country and it would be a blunt, probably sarcastic, enlightening and entertaining – LOL commentary. He would have truly enjoyed and appreciated his grandchildren’s fairly sophisticated interest in things social and political.

Life would still be meaningfully funny, as would he.

Aside from all of the typical moments I regret my dad and I missed getting to share – the wife and children of mine he never met, my career and creative and milestones, the man I have become – one thing I frequently get oddly wistful about is the fact that my dad and I never got to sit down in front of a VHS or DVD player and watch funny movies.

As life regrets go, that may sound funny.

My dad was an aficionado of comedy. He spent the bulk of his working years as a television station film editor in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and then Denver. This was back in the fifties, sixties and seventies when television was still a fairly new, burgeoning entity, and most markets had only four-or-five channels to choose from, and – aside from their network programming –  had lots of local airtime to fill.  TV stations back then ran a lot of old movies; my father’s job was to edit them to fit time frames, and to insert the commercial breaks.

Dad loved movies and he did some community theater himself in his younger, pre-me dad the waiterdays. He also made a few appearances in front of the camera at both stations he worked at; as a menswear model in Minneapolis, and for a number of years in Denver as Santa Claus, on a live, local morning show.  Plus, he did some ad modeling after he retired. Dad was gregarious, willing to try new things and to have fun. Privately, and in public, his comedic timing was superb – on par with professionals.

And Dad knew comedy.

My dad loved a wide array of comedic films and performers. Humor of all kinds actually. A favorite stand-up comedian’s appearance on a show noted in TV Guide or the tvgnewspaper listings and the television was thus appropriated for that time frame: ergo, my first, youthful experiences with ‘appointment television’ were all comedic in nature. Comedy (and humor – a major distinction, to be sure) and an appreciation for things humorous, was a trait he passed on to me, though at times we had somewhat divergent viewpoints on what/who was funny, and who wasn’t.

Hence, my regret over his not living to see the home video age come to full bloom.

Born in 1916, Dad’s early experiences with comedy were vaudeville and silent films. He was a fan of silent stars Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, and also the Keystone Cops. When I was a teenager, any public television salute to either of those guys was duly chnoted and watched by my dad, and since we only had one TV in the house at the time, me too.

I easily came to share his admiration for most of it.

Dad’s true passion, the guys he found funniest of all, were Laurel and Hardy. They were his heroes – especially Stan Laurel, the skinny straight-man of the classic duo. My dad did a pretty good Stan Laurel impersonation, and even as a young kid I was aware that I was seeing a different look in my dad’s eyes when we watched Laurel and Hardy versus other movies or shows.

Nostalgia is a funny thing; sometimes you look back on something fondly and then wonder why. This is not one of those; I still enjoy watching Laurel and Hardy – probably even more so now that I am older and grasp far more of the subtle nuances of their humor – the verbal mastery of the language, the pathos in the true-to-life friendship of their humor, and how grounded in reality even their most absurd moments were.
L&H2
I always laughed along with dad when watching Laurel and Hardy; now I know why he laughed much harder at some things than I did back then.

Watch a Laurel and Hardy short sometime, and you will see that even the physical, slapstick humor has a certain humanity to it, a gentleness. Charlie Chaplin is much the same, and Chaplin I also grasp in a much different way now than I did back then.  The poignancy is palpable, and while I got some of that while watching as a boy, Chaplin also grounded his humor in painful, adult reality.  Dad loved Chaplin, and even portrayed him a couple of times for costume parties.  He had Chaplin’s waddle and cane twirl down pat.

We did diverge at times, however, humor-wise.

In a very different vein of comedy, my dad loved The Bowery Boys; I got quickly bored with their antics. they were New York imps, and he grew up in Brooklyn, so I guess there may have been some connection to real-life for him. Me? Meh. Abbot and Costello did nothing for dad, I found them amusing – though they don’t wear as well for me as the years move on, so maybe my sense of humor is aging like good wine – or my dad.

Ahh, but our shared loves!

My Dad loved the Three Stooges – about as far removed comedically from Laurel and Hardy as you can get, in many regards. There is little subtlety in the Stooges and their 3Seye poking-head smacking mayhem, but my dad enjoyed them tremendously as do I, as do both my sons – his grandsons. There is something timeless in a pie in the face or a poke in the eye.  Don’t believe me?  As an adult, I have, by way of actual demonstration, won a couple of high-stakes bets on whether or not a pie-in-the-face would get a laugh in most any public setting.

Dad would be proud, and he would have laughed like hell seeing me splattered with copious amounts of shaving cream. Plus, I do a damn fine Curley impression.

But while I grew up sharing dad’s appreciation for Laurel & Hardy and the Stooges, we sadly, strangely parted ways over the Marx Brothers.  I was, and still am, a big fan; dad didn’t really find them all that funny (though he enjoyed Harpo and marveled at how great a musician he was). Dad’s attitude towards the Marx Brothers is one thing that has mb1always puzzled me.  All he could do in response to my not-concealed disappointment was so shrug and say that he just didn’t find them very amusing.

Funny how serious guys can get in a disagreement about what is humorous.

As well read and cerebral as my dad was in terms of comedy and satire (both on-screen and in real life) the Marx Brothers would seem to be a natural for him. Oh, he watched some Brothers stuff with me a few times, but it just wasn’t really his thing. But, when I was in high school, PBS resurrected Groucho Marx’s ‘You Bet Your Life’ quiz show from the fifties and ran them on Saturday nights. I became hooked, and Dad actually found Groucho Marx to be a funny guy, much to my relief and vindication of sorts. He still never really cared for their movies, though.

Conversely, when PBS resurrected Ernie Kovacs old shows, I was puzzled as what Kovacs bits my dad liked and which ones he really didn’t. The Nairobi Trio and Percy EKDovetonsils the poet did nothing for him but had me in stitches. By the same token, Kovaks was a pioneer in visual effects, and stretching the bounds of the young, television technology. Most of that I just found weird, my dad loved that stuff. he was, of course, a TV guy.

When asked on his deathbed if he was finding it difficult to leave this life, acclaimed actor John Barrymore was quoted as having responded, “No. Death is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Indeed.

Even though we didn’t get to plunk down in front of a TV with a handful of classics in black-and-white on DVD, my dad and I shared numerous moments of comedic television brilliance through the 60’s and 70’s and had quite lengthy and spirited debates about who (and what) was and definitely wasn’t funny.

Comedians were prevalent on television when I was growing up, and not just late night with Johnny Carson. The Ed Sullivan Show, the Carol Burnet Show, The Flip Wilson Show –  it seemed there was always somebody funny on, and my dad and I enjoyed watching them all.

He loved (and I came to truly appreciate) Jewish, Borscht-Belt comedians Myron Cohen and Morey Amsterdam; yet he couldn’t stand fellow BBers Buddy Hacket or Shecky Greene.  Dad MC and MAoften puzzled over my love for the insult humor of Don Rickles or the confetti-throwing antics of Rip Taylor – neither of whom he could stomach, either. We both liked Jonathan Winters, and Burns and Schreiber – even George Carlin, to name a few.   Although my dad usually went to bed early, I got to stay up late with him sometimes on non-school nights to catch Carson’s show when a comedic favorite was scheduled, thus delaying his bedtime.

Forget the tapes and DVDs: my Dad would have become addicted to YouTube reruns of all those guys.

The great thing was, Dad was not so old school that he couldn’t enjoy contemporary stuff: he would sit with me on Monday nights and watch The Monkees. He enjoyed their antics, tolerated the music.  Looking back, this makes more sense to me; while I used to equate The Monkees humor with the Stooges, viewing them now, I see much more of the gentle love and affection of friends evident in Laurel and Hardy.  And my dad would also take pride in my 36-year-old daughter’s love of The Monkees – which she and her peers got hooked on in their middle-school years, via repeated re-airings.

Dad also loved Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and daughter Lindsay also became a fan of that show too, watching Laugh-In reruns during her teens on Nike at Nite. She now owns some DVD R&Mcompilations of Laugh-In and uses a number of the shows memorable lines regularly in her personal phraseology repertoire, which would please my father to no end – probably even more than it amuses me.

She is also a hard-core theatre geek (and married another one) so he would have been all over that, too.

TV of my youth was something my dad and I got to share as it happened.  Sitcoms of the day we agreed upon and enjoyed watching as a family:  The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, All in The Family, The Odd Couple, and M*A*S*H* were favorites that stand out – and he really loved Barney Miller.

But the quirkiest bit of humor/comedy that my father and I shared was The Muppet Show.

The Swedish Chef in particular always sent Dad convulsing with laughter, and he really enjoyed Rolf the piano playing dog. And Fozzie Bear and Kermit, of course.  But the Swedish Chef was a whole different level of gut-buster for my dad.  No, he wasn’t SC2Swedish himself, but marrying into an extended family of Norwegian immigrants and their Swedish cohorts, he could somewhat identify.  I think.  Dad was also partial to Statler and Waldorf, the old guys kibitzing from the balcony.

The Muppet Show aired at six-thirty, and if there was a particularly intriguing guest star that night, we had dinner on TV trays in the family room – a treat generally reserved for Apollo blastoffs or something equally noteworthy.

To watch The Muppet Show. As father and teenaged son.

Comedy – slapstick, self-deprecating, absurdist, topical, improvisational –  are some of the main reasons I really regret my dad and I missing out on the home video era.

One of the few ‘grown-up’ movies I ever saw with my dad in a theater was The Pink Panther Strikes Again, starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. My father loved the earlier Pink Panther movies, and thought Peter Sellers was brilliantly funny. I had only seen bits and pieces of the earlier films on TV and was unsure what to expect from a whole movie of Seller’s antics.

It was a memorable experience on a lot of levels, as I never saw my dad laugh as hard or as frequently as he did that evening in a Denver movie theater.

Two things vividly stand out in my mind from going to see that film with my father. One is a scene in which Clouseau is chasing a villain and exits a ritzy hotel as the bad guy drives off in a small car. Clouseau summons a waiting taxi, jumps in the back seat, and in his French drawl, he instructs the nodding cab driver to “Fullow that caaaaar!”  The icboverweight cabbie responds by looking at Clouseau blankly, shrugging his shoulders OK, then jumping out of the cab and running down the road – following the bad guy’s car. The camera then cuts back to a close up of Seller’s face, mostly his eyes and eyebrows, as Clouseau realizes the literal result of his order.

It was the late 1970’s and my dad had recently had heart surgery. With that scene, he was laughing so hard I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Seriously.

I have watched that scene a hundred times and laugh almost as hard as he did that night.

The other thing of note from my dad’s affection for Peter Sellers and the Pink Panther series really has less to do with my dad, and more with his influence on my relationship with my sons. A few years ago I rented the original Pink Panther movie and my sons and I watched it together. My dad loved one particular scene, and my boys do now too – especially since they have been able to watch that particular bit over and over via YouTube.

Assassins are trying to kill Inspector Clouseau. One cutthroat (disguised as Clouseau) enters the hotel suite, while another follows and then kills the first assassin, hiding in the bathtub, thinking it is the real Clouseau. When a third killer (lovely Russian assassin Olga) enters, she declares her love for Clouseau and seduces the second assassin in the dimly lit room.

Then the real Clouseau arrives, moving throughout several rooms of the suite, turning on lights and turning off others while Olga is doing the same in his wake. He’s befuddled as to what is happening with the lighting and even more surprised when he gets into bed with some “cold hands.” Olga thinks she is with the same man, and a confused Clouseau then jumps from the bed, and escapes to the bathroom, where he now finds the body of the first assassin in the bathtub.

To this point in the scene, there has been no dialogue. Clouseau goes to the phone and calls the front desk, matter-of-factly informing them of what he has discovered:

icf“Hello?… Yezzz. There eez a beautiful woman in my bed, and a dead man in my bath. Thank you.”

Again, a close-up shot of Clouseau’s face – a pause, then his wide-eyed look when he realizes what he has said – the subtle, played straight absurdity of it all, makes the whole scene.

Even without my dad at hand, that line has become a piece of family folklore.

Whenever we check into a hotel room, one of the Lucker males is sure to pick up the phone and intone, in his best, suave, French accent, “Hello? Yayes. There eeze a dead man in my bath-tuub, and a naked woman in my bed! Thank you.”  before quickly hanging up.

With any luck at all, we remember to hold down the button on the phone so the call dad 3doesn’t actually go through to the desk.

Treasured keepsake hand-me-downs from my dad. Or at least, of my dad.

He would find that more than just wonderfully amusing.

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