Abe’s Humor, My Humiliation

Back when I was a kid we didn’t have President’s week, we had Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday and those were one day holidays. I guess we didn’t care about the rest of the presidents. No FDR day, no Jefferson day. And of course, no Calvin Coolidge day. Back then our teachers used the focus on Lincoln and Washington as an excuse to teach certain history lessons. I’m sure that’s been diluted by the current holiday scheme.

When I was in 8th grade I was selected by my teacher to give a speech at the school assembly in honor of Lincoln’s birthday. The assigned theme abraham_lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portraitwas Lincoln’s humor. Turns out he was quite a jokester in spite of his dour expression we are used to from photos and paintings. It turns out the teacher had read all about Lincoln’s funny side in the Reader’s Digest and he handed me the article to use as a primary source. I’m not sure exactly why he chose  me for this task, but looking back I was both a class clown and a nerd and I suppose he thought those skills appropriate for such a task.

Or maybe he just wanted to punish me for, in this case, the clown failed me. Instead the nerd, the chubby little guy with glasses, stood alone in front of the assembled school and recited hilarious anecdote after anecdote without a whisper of response. Here’s an example of the kind of “joke” I read in my reedy voice, sounding nothing like Lincoln:

Lincoln found himself in a stifling courtroom one hot summer day, pleading his client’s case. The opposing lawyer, in a concession to the oppressive heat, took off his coat and vest as the debate went on. The man’s shirt had its buttons in the back, a style which was unusual even then. Lincoln looked at his opponent and sized up the man’s apparel. Knowing that the rural jury disliked pretension of any kind, or any attempt to show superior social rank, he said: “Gentlemen of the jury, having justice on my side, I don’t think you will be at all influenced by the gentleman’s pretended knowledge of the law, when you see he does not even know which side of his shirt should be in front.” The jury burst into laughter, and Lincoln won the case.

Ha, ha, ha.

We had no room large enough to hold the entire school. So, we held our assemblies, graduations and other events outside on the asphalt playground in  a pit  facing tiers of concrete bleachers. I remember the cold sun and the wind swirling and the silence after each “funny story”. The presentation couldn’t have lasted more than 5 or 6 minutes. But when it was over the humiliation I felt as I walked  back to my metal folding chair and felt the mocking eyes, the pitying eyes on my blond head and nice button down shirt has lasted until this day.

So now, when I see the elegies to Mr. Lincoln I am conflicted by my genuine admiration and utter astonishment at his story mingled with my own small trauma. On the other hand, the event may have served me well. When I was doing theater for more than 20 years, I found I could make an audience laugh. Literally, I could force them in to laughter. I’ve been able to create genuine laughter in the most hostile environments from circus arenas to maximum security prisons. Maybe my failure at conveying Lincoln’s lighter side helped me figure out how not to fail at comedy. I’ve never felt as powerful as when I had on a pair of big white shoes, or some change in my pocket or a line where I knew the rhythm of the joke and I took the first few steps onto the stage and I could feel the convulsion rising from the crowd.

The rewards of blogging are a long way from that sensation.