My wife has traditionally gone for smart, troubled musician types with big noses and quick wits. When she told me that I might not be the funniest man to whom she's been attached, but at least have the strangest sense of humor, I felt hugely complimented, if simultaneously deflated. The story of my life! Out in the cold, cruel Bigger World, it often inspires crickets to chirp, and the odd embarrassed cough. But for me, my sense of humor has been a consistent source of delight, and in fact gets me through many a dark night of the soul.
I grew up around great wit. While other, manlier, boys might have been learning to tie knots or repair their own bicycles, I was learning sarcasm from a master, or, in this case, mistress. Around four times a week, my mother would slash my dad to ribbons verbally. In one of the most awful stretches of my youth, my junior high school years, I was narrowly recognized as one with whom you didn't want to get into a word war. It was a little better than not being recognized at all. It was my knack for the bruising phrase, in fact, that led to my early success as a music critic. People pretend otherwise, but they love carnage, so long as it’s someone else’s blood being spilled.
In my mid-20s, I idolized the British chef Clement Freud (Sigmund’s grandson), who would trudge morosely on stage to join thinking man’s television talk show host Dick Cavett, mumble something acerbic, and induce all of Cavett’s studio audience to fall out of its seats screaming with laughter. “That style for me!” thought I.
The British pop and rock figure Nick Lowe influenced me more than he will ever know (or, yes, care!) by issuing an EP he called Bowi shortly after David Bowie released his album Low. I thought of Nick when I entitled my 1995 autobiography I, Caramba, and explained that I had intended to call it I, Tina, only to discover that Ms. Turner had beaten me to the punch.
In 1995, I wrote and directed a scripted sketch comedy revue that I entitled Free Airfare to Wherever We Fly With Every Ticket Purchased, at which one was promised that he’d laff ’til he stopped. When a patron asked after one performance how to go about securing his free airfare, I explained that we weren’t in fact an airline, but a scripted sketch comedy revue. He didn’t share my amusement.
A few years later, I attended with Mistress Chloe, whom I was then dating, a “munch” — that is, a convention of S&M enthusiasts, with our aspiring slave girl Emily Chinesesurname in San Francisco. Perhaps 30 people rose before it was my turn and said, for instance, “Hi, I’m Sue, and I’m dominant, and really good at knots,” or, “Hi, I’m Melvin. I’m a submissive, and I belong to Mistress Trish, whose boots I enjoy polishing to a high gloss with my tongue.” When my turn came, I rose and, as Clement himself might have, solemnly intoned, “Hi, I’m John, and I’m an alcoholic.” Sublimely, several people reflexively said, “Hi, John.”
Recently, thinking that the name they brought with them when they moved here from Minneapolis in 1960 had had quite long enough to stop seeming silly, given the area’s lakelessness, I devised a new nickname for the longer-running of Los Angeles’s two National Basketball Association teams — the Unordained Mutts. Those off whose tongues this fails to roll may opt instead for the more cogent alternative, the Lay Curs.
It is well known that Playboy publisher Hugh M. Hefner is known to his friends simply as Hef. But those aren't his closest friends. His closest friends call him Ner. I have recently enjoyed handing my smart phone to strangers and saying, “Would you please take a selfie of me?”