News Column

Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill., Tim Cain column

August 15, 2013


Aug. 15--I am nothing if not an inveterate list-maker.

Comedian George Carlin talked about having a "shelf" of which he was proud. All of his work -- standup albums, HBO specials, books, TV and film roles -- could all be found on that shelf. It was a life's work, one of which Carlin was justifiably proud.

I lay no claim of similarity to Carlin save my pride in my shelf of work. My work here and at previous newspapers, coverage, features, columns. I've written a daily blog for the Herald & Review website since November 2004. (Yes, 2004. Blogs have gone in and out of style at least twice during that stretch.) Less regular but just as present are a video blog and a podcast. I'm in the third year of a 365 project. The first one was a movie review a day. Last year's and the current edition are daily reviews of albums.

For all of those things, in pretty short order, I could supply a list of the best and worst of each. I make year-end movie lists. For 27 years, I've created a list of at least my 10 favorite albums from the previous year.

So imagine my confusion in a recent conversation as a friend began recounting the funniest things they'd ever seen on television. They were precise, to the point, and most important, had an immediate go-to answer.

I can do the same thing. Ask me my five favorite TV shows, or my three favorite comedy films, or my 10 favorite albums, and I can respond as though I have the answer tattooed on my person. In a couple of cases, I actually do.

But the funniest things I've ever seen? I searched and searched my mental archives, and could find not only no sign of such a list, but no evidence that I'd even ever considered composing one.

It's similar, I suppose, to someone asking me for my list of favorite 45s. I have a list of favorite songs, but they weren't all singles. I have my favorite comedy programs, and certain favorite episodes of each. But to define the funniest single moment? That seems an impossible task. There are so many things that have made me laugh so hard.

My friend mentioned a moment from "South Park," and my fantastically funny "South Park" moment is a different one altogether.

(Mine is from the episode "Something You Can Do with Your Finger," which doesn't even make my list of 10 favorite "South Park" episodes. [See! I have one of those, too!] In that episode, the boys (plus one girl) sing their boy band anthem, the title of which is also the name of the band. When I heard the use of that word in the episode, I was shocked, and never again surprised by the language on the show.)

After a few hours of mental searching, two specific moments came to mind.

The first was as a teenager and seeing "Animal Crackers" for the first time. Groucho Marx has a monologue detailing his adventures as an explorer in Africa. In a stretch filled with painful puns, Groucho never breaks stride while delivering lines like "Africa is God's country, and He can have it," "One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know" and "We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren't developed. But we're going back again in a couple of weeks."

It struck me as outrageously brilliant writing and performance 40 years ago, and it continues to make me giggle.

The other moment came in August 1985. That is so long ago, the story involves (a) when Jay Leno and David Letterman were still friends and (b) when Leno was actually pretty cutting-edge funny.

Leno was talking about the circus, and described it as a "traveling syphilitic sideshow with diseased animals with hermaphrodite clowns throwing anthrax spores at the children."

Something that pointedly hilarious is bound to stick with you. In 2004, an "advance clown" came through town doing interviews to hype an impending appearance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus.

And "clown" was exactly what she was -- made up, wearing baggy pants, making balloon animals and handing out red noses for everyone in the newsroom.

It was just as dreadful as you might imagine. As she shrieked and cackled and tried to make a joke of every question I asked, my already tissue-thin patience snapped, and I asked, "Has anyone ever described your circus as a traveling syphilitic sideshow with diseased animals with hermaphrodite clowns throwing anthrax spores at the children"?

When she shook her head no, I asked: "Are you certain?"

It made me laugh as much then as it had 19 years earlier.|(217) 421-6908


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