This is a story about comedy.
When you write a story about comedy – about anything, really – you form a contract with your reader and certain expectations are created. So if I’d written, say, a book about a dog, you might ask, well, what kind of dog? And I might say a Maltese Shih Tzu. And you might say, oh, oh, great, and start reading.
So, upon hearing that this story is about comedy, you might ask: well, is it funny? And the answer, honestly, is no.
One time in college I had a brilliant, brutal theatre professor who came right out and said, “I just don’t think you’re that funny.” He wasn’t trying to be mean. He just couldn’t understand why I spent so much time writing jokes and running comedy workshops when I could probably be doing much more constructive things with my time, like running soundboard on his shows.
“I don’t get it!” he said. “Why’s it so goddamn important to you?”
Yavneh Day School. First grade.
Yavneh was a bleak, rundown Jewish day school in Cincinnati, Ohio, half a day in English, half in Hebrew, regardless of whether you knew the language or not. I, of course, knew nothing. It was a difficult and disorienting way to begin my formal education, but perhaps not atypical of what was to come.
On my first day of school at Yavneh, I saw that most of the boys had large, brown mason jars on their desks filled with insect carcasses. Not knowing that Cincinnati was experiencing the end of a once-every seven years cicada cycle, I simply assumed this was my new routine: clean Oxford shirt, Kippot, jar of cicadas. But where was my jar? Did I miss orientation? Was I not yet speaking Hebrew well enough?
My mother had rushed me into Yavneh at the tail end of the age cut-off, rendering me the youngest in the class by a year – a badge that would plague me for the rest of my school years.
One brisk November day at recess, eight or nine boys from my class held me down against the cold, metal slide on the playground and rolled an old rubber car tire over me.
My family lived in North Avondale, a deteriorating, Jewish enclave that was growing urban in all the wrong ways. By 1970, fearing that my sister and I would soon have to go to public school alongside mostly black children, my parents moved us to idyllic, park-laden Wyoming, an up-and-coming Cincinnati suburb near Tri-County. We were trading yarmulkes for baseball and tefillin for color television. We couldn’t have been more excited.
On my first day of second grade, I entered Wyoming’s Hilltop School and eagerly reached out to shake hands with Greg McConnell – who would one day grow up to be class president – and he promptly kicked me in the nuts. I dropped to the ground, clutching my groin. And my new fellow classmates guffawed, heartily.
Welcome to Wyoming.