Lost Journal: A Portrait of the Comedian as a Young Man

Journal entry: September 5, 1991 (age 22) — Comedian as a Young Man

At what age does a person develop a sense of humor?  As far as laughing goes, that seems to be a behavior that is learned within a few months of birth.  But how old is the average person when he or she develops the ability not just to crack up, but to crack wise?  In the case of my 8-year-old nephew, Michael, the comedian threshold was crossed exactly three hours ago.

The occasion was a spaghetti dinner to raise funds for a Vestal travel softball team.  Michael’s sister, Jennifer, age 11, is on the team, and she and her teammates acted as hostesses, waitresses, and busgirls in the cavernous basement of a local church.  They waited on a crowd of family and friends that included Michael, me, my parents, my brother Jerry and his wife, Beth (who are also Jennifer and Michael’s parents), and, finally, Beth’s parents, Frank and Betty Surdey.

Mr. and Mrs. Surdey are two of the sweetest, most gentle people on the planet, and they are exceptionally wonderful grandparents to Jennifer and Michael.  Not that their other grandparents – my folks – aren’t nice, but Mr. and Mrs. Surdey make the Dalai and Mrs. Lama look mean.  (I know that Buddhist monks don’t marry, but if they did, wouldn’t it be cool if his wife’s first name was “Dolly?”)  The Surdeys attend all of their grandkids’ sporting events, dance recitals, school plays, and, I’d be willing to bet, teeth cleanings.  So tonight, when they sat down for dinner, we were all a little taken aback when Michael blurted out, “Hey, Grandpa – nice tie!”  To punctuate what he believed to be a zinger for the ages, Michael looked sideways at me, bobbed his head, and let out a smirking “Heh, heh, heh.”

No one at the table laughed.  I have to admit, though, that it was a struggle for me not to.  There was nothing unseemly about Mr. Surdey’s tie, and nothing witty about Michael’s observation.  But the kid’s delivery was perfect.  I half-expected him to follow the joke with a “badda BOOM!,” the lighting of a cigarette, and a shouted question to determine if there were any out-of-towners in the room.  As I twirled the pasta on my plate, I settled in to watch for further evidence of the boy’s Borscht Belt bar mitzvah.

I didn’t have to wait long.  Mr. Surdey was still looking down confusedly at his tie when Jennifer’s best friend, Jen Race, set down a plate of spaghetti in front of Michael.  She gave him a good-natured smile and teased “Eat up, Mikey.  Where’s my tip?”  Without skipping a beat, Michael retorted, “Here’s a tip for ya – don’t become a waitress!”  He once again turned his head to me, but this time he made a tight circle with his lips and let out a clipped “oh!”

Just as before, there was silence at most of the table.  But I was now howling.  Into our unsuspecting family, a diminutive “Diceman” cometh, and I could hardly wait to tell the rest of my brothers.  But first, I tried the veal.

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