Wednesday night. Corral Show dress rehearsal.
I hadn’t heard from Ann in days, but decided to stay in the Corral Show, anyway.
I was a senior. It would be my last year at Wyoming, and I wanted to give the performance as a going away present to the class, the town, the school, and myself. I would do my act, exposing myself – for better and worse – to the people I’d grown up with for the past ten years. Performing for people who had driven me to do comedy as a matter of survival. It would be a rite of passage.
I had been rehearsing my act for a couple weeks now, and felt good about it. As I came backstage Sara McCloskey, a Prep, former class president, and one of the student producers of the show, trotted over, smiling.
“Hey there,” said Sara. “We’d like you to cut one of the jokes from your act.”
“We’d like you to cut one of your jokes. We’d prefer you didn’t do it.”
“The DC-10 joke.”
“Because of Brad Cole.”
Brad Cole had died over a year ago in a plane crash. His father, a licensed pilot, had a private plane and occasionally took friends and family up on little jaunts. It was a hobby of his. One weekend he decided to take the family up on an outing, and something went wrong. He lost control and the plane crashed. It was unbelievably tragic.
“The joke doesn’t have anything to do with Brad.”
“Some people are still very sensitive about it.”
“It was a – it was a completely different situation. DC-10s are commercial jets. Brad was in a tiny, private plane.”
“The joke is about a plane crash. It makes fun of a plane crash. There are a lot of families here who knew the Coles and would be offended.”
“It’s a very insensitive joke.”
“Planes crash all the time! And the bit doesn’t have anything to do with him!”
“I think it’s insensitive. And the parents agree with me.”
“Whose parents? My parents? Bucky’s?”
“The coalition of parents running Corral have come to the conclusion that it’s insensitive.”
“Brad would’ve liked this bit. This is his kind of bit.”
“We would prefer that you don’t do the joke.”
“So then I can’t say fuck in the show either? Is that right?”
“Is that – is that supposed to be funny?”
“Are you asking me or telling me not to do it?”
“We are strongly suggesting that you don’t do that joke.”
I had been a classmate of Brad’s since third grade, but until high school we barely knew each other. The two experiences I eventually did have with him now seemed surreal, in light of what would happen to him and his family.
Three years earlier, as high school freshmen, we were in the gym playing dodge ball – boys against girls – and the two sides had come down to Brad and tiny little Kim Braxton. The coach called “sudden death” which meant there were no boundaries anymore, and Brad, ball in hand, started chasing Kim all over the gym like a maniac. The boys on the sidelines were wildly cheering him on. And as the two of them came tearing past us, I stuck my foot out in front of Brad and tripped him. He went flying. Everyone was shocked. And Kim turned around, gently picked up the ball, tagged Brad with it, and won the game for the girls.
Brad, enraged, chased me into the boys locker room to execute me. He would cut off my head and shit down my neck, as was his legal right according to the Code of High School Teenagers. Brad was only slightly bigger than me, but his rage was all-consuming. And running into the locker room was a particularly bad idea on my part, since there was no way out except back through the front entrance. Brad would have completely kicked my ass, had not an even bigger kid, Mike Dunn, gotten between us and yelled that it was an accident – which annoyed the hell out of me but better that than the alternative. Brad cooled off, but only after throwing me a look of – one of these days, one of these days, you’ll get yours, Bernstein!
But I never did get mine. Not from Brad, anyway. Life went on. And I forgot about him, until a year later, when he cornered me one afternoon in the math lab. We were alone in that little boxy room with no windows and a single exit. Anything could have happened. And once again, he had that hungry, obsessive look in his eye. He looked at me directly, and said,
“Want to play chess?”
Was it a ploy? Was he lulling me into a sense of complacency so he could lock us in the lab and then chop off my head? Or was he sincere? Did he really want to play chess? And what choice did I have, anyway? We sat down and played.
Brad played okay. Better than I expected, actually. But at that time, as a Sophomore, I was fourth board on the Wyoming Chess Team and had him at a disadvantage. (I should’ve been fifth board – but at the tryouts Bob – a better player than me in the long run – kept making blunder moves in the clinch and caved. So, I got fourth board. Were the seeds of our rivalry planted that day?)
Anyway, Brad seemed sincere and made no mention of dodge ball. He wanted a solid game, so that’s what I gave him. I let him be white and open, and didn’t take it too easy on him. It was a simple, quiet, transcendent moment between us – like we were meeting on some ethereal plane apart from school – two guys who maybe weren’t so different after all.
And we finished. And he got up, thanked me for a good game, shook my hand, and left.
And then he died in that horrific plane crash a year later.
And I honestly believed Brad would have liked the DC-10 joke.
DC-10, as I mentioned earlier, was another joke I’d stolen from New York. But the guilt I now felt about co-opting New York material at the eye wasn’t bothering me so much with the Corral Show. Corral was, ultimately, a high school talent show. Furthermore, most of the act was still my own material. And if I was going to perform solo for my peers I was certainly going to use proven material. (It also occurred to me that I had publicly berated Bob for performing unoriginal material – and here, of course, I was doing the same thing myself.
Nevertheless, being strongly urged to not do DC-10 was controversy that I hadn’t expected. I loved the joke, but it wasn’t the centerpiece of my act, nor did I have the same commitment to it that I had with Plrknib. But the censorship – being asked not to do it – especially by a former class president – and a major Prep – made me really want to do it. Already I had whittled down my material to a “clean act.” I wasn’t that out of touch with reality. I wanted to impress my family and neighbors not alienate them further. But this was different. This was a matter of Sara’s – and some parent’s – personal judgment. They didn’t like the joke.
If she’d asked nicely I probably would have cut it without thinking twice. But she was so snotty – I imagined that I ought to do the joke simply as an affront to censorship of any kind, anywhere. First amendment! First amendment! I heard in my head. Yes, I had a responsibility to do the joke! And dammit, Brad would’ve liked it!
At least I was pretty sure he would’ve liked it.
Oh hell – of course he’d have liked it!
My mind raced, and then doubt and paranoia crept in. Had anyone in the history of the freakin’ Corral Show ever been censored? Could anybody really, actually be offended by this thing? Was I a threat to society? To decency?! Jeez. It was a good joke, but –
Oh, the hell with it.
Wyoming was a small town. It wasn’t worth fighting over, and I didn’t need the bit to get through my 10 minute act. I decided: Fine. I would capitulate. Cave in to the establishment. The man. There you had it. I would not do the joke. Sorry, fans. Sorry, Brad.
And I made the changes, and reset the act – sans DC-10.
I didn’t tell Sara that I’d decided not to do the joke.
And I continued rehearsing the revised act and forgot all about it.