I was playing Scrabble the other day with my identical twin sister. Boy, is she ugly –
I didn’t think about it. Or I did. Thought about it enough to rehearse it, to practice, to nail it. Thought about it a lot. Constantly, even. But I didn’t think about the moral or ethical ramifications. Or I did. But I didn’t care. Or I did care – but it seemed justifiable – rational? Do-able. It seemed – it felt –like I could get away with it. Like the repercussions, if any, would be minimal.
I rationalized: this is a joke by a not-famous comedian hundreds of miles away, on the other side of the world, on an alien planet. If he lived here, in Cinti, then no, forget it. If it seemed like he might ever even come to town – then no. If it could affect him, negatively, in any way – if it could somehow hurt him, hurt his career, impact him at all – in the slightest – then no, no, no. But it wouldn’t. He would never know. He was not a name – not a headliner. He was a young, unknown New York comic. A foreigner, for all intents and purposes, to Cincinnati, to the Midwest. No one here would have heard of him, heard this bit before. And certainly no one there knew me. We were on two different planets completely. Two obscure, young comics on two different worlds, hundreds of miles away from each other.
Telling the same joke.
Of course, no one would know.
And besides, it was only temporary. Just until I had time to work up my own Big Bit. My Big Piece of Meat. It would give me breathing room while I continued to work, work, work on my own act. I would be like a singer – or a rock band – doing a cover. Except that no one would know it. Everyone would think the bit was mine.
And, anyway, really – who would care?! Right?! C’mon. That was the real point. The audience wouldn’t know – wouldn’t care who wrote what. Look at Jack! I could stand there quoting Rodney Dangerfield jokes off albums all night and no one would care! They wanted to be entertained! The New York comic – Mittleman – he could do the bit in New York. I’d do it in Cincinnati. Nobody here wanted to go to New York, anyway – and vice-versa. Just me. That was it.
Yes, yes – it was unethical. I was being unethical. I was. I had no business doing it. It was wrong. Wrong. But this was my life, here! School, college, everything was wrapped up in this. I needed insurance! And most importantly, it would work in my act. I knew it.
I was playing Scrabble with my identical twin sister. Boy, is she ugly –
Laughs. Big big laughs. I did the joke as best I could remember it from memory and the two-to-three word notes I’d taken in New York. Maybe the wording wasn’t exactly my style – whatever that was. Maybe the identical twin sister line didn’t have the same resonance. But I did have a sister off at college. Not a twin, but close enough, right? And, okay, Mittleman’s act revolved around him deprecating his looks – so, he got a much bigger laugh with identical twin sister than I could have.
But still, it worked. I wasn’t looking to improve the joke. Maybe it would have flowed through my act better if I’d changed a few words here or there. But why mess with it? It worked fine without changing a line.
I was playing Scrabble with my identical twin sister. Boy, is she ugly.
She’s pretty stupid, too. She was writing the scores down in purple crayon! Can you believe that? Purple crayon!
Purple crayon was far and away my favorite line in the bit. Doing and saying that one line – purple crayon – taught me more about the process of comedy than anything I’d done in my own act up to that point. Because on its own purple crayon wasn’t funny. It was a set-up line that paid off at the end. But Mittleman had played it – and I played it – as if it was the funniest line in the bit. As if, naively, I simply trusted the line too much.
So, she takes all seven of her tiles and she spells out the word, ‘plrknib.’
I said, ‘Plrknib’ is not a word!’
She said, ‘It’s in the dictionary, look it up, it’s a word, it’s a word, it’s in the dictionary, look it up, it’s a word!’
Like Mittleman, I did it in an annoying nyah-nyah, sing-song – twirling back and forth on my heels for emphasis.
‘It’s a word – it’s a word – it’s in the dictionary – look it up – it’s a word!’
So, I got the dictionary and I looked up the word ‘plrknib.’
‘Plrknib – a word used in the game of Scrabble.’
Deep laughs. But we’re not done yet.
And it’s written in purple crayon.
Laughs. Laughs on Scrabble. Bigger laughs and applause – applause! – on purple crayon. The coup de grace! Oh – ! We were set up! But, ah – the comic knew what he was doing! Points for smart! Points for clever! We’re in the hands of a professional.
Great, great, great, great joke. And like the big game hunter who’d gone to Africa, I’d gone East, and snared this tiger. Without even realizing it at the time! Frodo Bernstein had found his Dark Ring of Power: Plrknib, the Perfect Joke.
Next to Plrknib, every joke in my act – even the ones I’d come to repeat and rely on – felt experimental. Like on any given day they could fail or might not go over. After all, what did I really know about joke writing? Since the start of the Six Pistols I’d been flying by the seat of my pants, my only “training” coming from albums and TV. I thought my bits were funny but they never sounded like Woody’s or Carlin’s or Albert Brooks’.
But Plrknib did. Plrknib was a finished joke. It came fully formed – almost as if it had been from a book or an album. But it was even better because I’d seen it performed, seen Mittleman’s nuanced gestures and how he’d played the audience, watching and patiently waiting for each laugh. It wasn’t just some time-lost, audience-in-a-room-on-an-album-forever-sealed-in-amber. I had been there live when this joke had killed. I knew it was simple and right and would always always kill. And I believed in Plrknib like no other joke in my act.
Had the joke died the first time I performed it I would’ve been surprised. But if it had died I would have taken it as a comment on me, not the joke.
“Never ever get mad at your audience. Even the hecklers. It’s not their fault. Even when you bomb – they didn’t suck. You sucked. They don’t know you, they just want someone to make ‘em laugh. If it’s not working – it’s you. And you better take it like a man!”
If Plrknib had died, it would’ve signaled that my delivery was abysmal, my timing, sense of comedy, sense of myself, maybe even my judgment of a Cincinnati crowd vs. a tougher New York crowd. But Plrknib didn’t die. It did very, very well.
Smoke Alarm was still there and I loved it the way a parent loves his first child even as a younger sibling’s talent begins to emerge. But more and more Alarm had become just another joke in my act, while Plrknib was taking center stage.
Scrabble joke © Steve Mittleman