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Like Ben Stiller, he felt the pain of an unfortunate act. Unlike Ben, he couldn’t discuss it.

9 Jun

franks_and_beans

The Ben Stiller movie, “There’s Something About Mary,” was on the other night and it reminded me of Bill Foley.

 

Bill Foley was a reporter who always carried a notebook and pen. He needed them for work but also because he couldn’t talk. When you asked Bill a question, he’d pull out the notebook and write his answer. Often, it was only a word or two. Usually, it was funny.

 

Because of throat cancer, Bill had his voice box removed.

 

Everyone assumed he could not utter a sound. Through odd personal circumstance, however, I learned this was not true.

 

It happened while we both were in the men’s room at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. As we stood side-by-side at the urinals, I noticed Bill was in a hurry. Upon closing up, he – like Ben Stiller’s character in “There’s Something About Mary” — caught the frank-N-beans between the teeth of his zipper. And just like Ben, but not as loud, he let out a sound of agony and helpless distress.

 

The Stiller character, comically, was unable to free himself. Bill quickly fixed things and exited.

 

And there I was, with a secret to share: Bill Foley can’t talk but when it’s necessary he can moan! I tried being discreet and limited in my telling of the tale, but the worst got the best of me and the story spread. I never heard back from Bill and don’t know if my disclosure ever made it to his ears, which worked just fine.

 

Bill was a wonderful, witty columnist. Some knew him before the operation. I didn’t. I knew him only from his column, his actions and his laconic, handwritten retorts.

 

For a quiet guy, he brought lots of personality to the newsroom. I remember the time when lunches were being stolen from the office refrigerator. Members of the Refrigerator Users Group – RUG – went on a tear, sending out threatening memos and edicts to all possible suspects and devising multiple strategies of defense. Bill’s running commentary on the crisis was hilarious and ultimately silenced RUG.

 

It was pleasant to think of him again.

 

He died in 2001 at age 62 after working in newspapers for 40 years. I left the Times-Union in 1993 and never read his obit. I looked it up today.

 

Among other things, it said that, “Mr. Foley had written columns about generations of visionaries, bootleggers, politicos and hapless saps whose exploits helped shape the city.”

 

It said, “His wry humor and precise, staccato language attracted a following of readers that ranged from schoolchildren to corporate executives.”

 

It mentioned that he had played catch with Hank Aaron and spent time in Cuba with Che Guevara.

 

It didn’t mention Ben Stiller, frank-N-beans or “There’s Something About Mary.” For that I am grateful. I’m also grateful that Mr. Stiller, via his one-of-a-kind performance, was able to bring back some nearly forgotten memories of a man who could say a whole lot with so very little.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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Let me tell you a story about a man, a horse and a joke

5 Apr

The jokes of a people tell you much about the people.

A little hobby of mine is to learn of and listen to the jokes of foreign cultures. I’m proud to say that with patience, an open mind and an attention to the nuances of language, I’ve been able to laugh alongside many a hysterical foreigner.

In so many cases, it’s really about the language, which because it is not English can be used in ways that English cannot.

Chinese, for example, has so many sound-alike words that there is an entire genre of Chinese comedy called Cross Talk, where Abbott and Costello-like characters stand on stage and grossly misunderstand each other. These bits are much like “Who’s On First.”

This week, large numbers of Chinese people are cracking up not over misunderstood language but over a short video. It is of a man getting brutally kicked in the head by a horse. The humor is not in that brutality but in a message conveyed by the kick – a message that has nothing to do with animals.

Here’s the background.

In China, there is a popular idiom that translates literally to: “Pat the horse’s ass.”

When someone pats the horse’s ass, they are sucking up to the boss or flattering people to get ahead. We use the similar expression, “kissing ass” or “brown nosing.”

While many Chinese have benefited from patting the horse’s ass, there is a danger to the practice if it is too transparent. It can backfire. Most Chinese who watch their sycophantic colleague advance would prefer that they fail. No one likes as ass kisser.

In the video widely circulating among Chinese, the victim, prior to being kicked so hard and so directly, walks across the street and actually pats the horse’s ass.

The payoff for doing so is pretty damn clear.

And that’s why it is so funny to this culture that relies heavily on metaphor and symbolism. The humor is achieved without a single word.

All right now Mister and Misses America — DO YOU GET IT?

Lanny Morgnanesi

Even the absurd and irrational have meaning

11 Aug

Firesign-Theatre-Dont-Crush-That-Dwarf-Hand-Me-The-Pliers-Cover

I drove by a Laundromat where I once washed my clothes and recalled an incident of vandalism in which I participated. It was more whimsical than wanton and did not affect the washing and drying of clothes. In a way, it benefitted the store’s patrons.

At the time I was living with two roommates in a yellow ranch house on a hill. We held two major parties a year. In the summer there was a pig roast with fresh corn and clams, and in the winter an inclusively themed Solstice Party.

The house was on a major road, with a town at both ends. We frequented a shopping center in one of the towns. It had a supermarket, a good pizza place and the Laundromat. Inside the laundry was a 3-foot square sign that we considered offensive. It read:

 

Absolutely no pizza pies to be eaten in this Laundromat.

 

In an attempt to express the seriousness of the message, the type was in red and “absolutely” was italicized. Some signs say “please.” This one did not.

Laundry signThe night before one of the solstice parties there was drinking at the little yellow house. I wasn’t much of a drinker but my compatriots made up for my shortcoming. While imbibing, we were trying to come up with a way to make the house more interesting. This was a time when one of our favorite things was listening to a comedy album entitled, “Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.” There was nothing on the record about either dwarves or pliers, and the nonsense and non sequitur of the title appealed to us. We saw it perhaps as a reflection of the times.

A eureka moment occurred around 2 a.m. One roommate grabbed a claw hammer and directed us into his vehicle. We drove to the Laundromat.  With claw hammer in hand, the idea man jumped onto the washers and violently tore down the anti-pizza edict. We drove back to the yellow house and nailed it to the front door.

This was our non sequitur.

In addition to setting the mood for our party, the sign removal was viewed as an act of liberation. People now could freely eat pizza during their mindless waits.

Pizza-Wallpaper-pizza-6333801-1024-768The party went well. In those days the little yellow house drew big crowds. Reaction and comments to the sign were favorable and convinced us we had done the right thing.

After the party we left the sign on the door. It said so much about us.

When the landlord came for a visit, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the sign. He also expressed great confusion. We tried explaining its purpose and meaning but it was like Picasso trying to explain his work to Michelangelo. The landlord was as offended by the sign on his door as we were by the sign in the Laundromat. He ordered it taken down.

Where that sign is today I cannot say. But I hope it is somewhere.

Looking upon wanton vandalism with older eyes, I cannot fathom why someone would destroy something of worth for no apparent reason. Still, I try to remember the laundry sign and the bafflement of the landlord and compare his bafflement to my own. As a result, the past and the present have become a lesson in life, crime, politics, culture and international relations.

The lesson is this: No matter how irrational something appears, deep in the heart of someone or some group, there is always a reason for it.

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

This is what Lenny Bruce was talking about.

31 May

Lenny Bruce, who knew both pain and comedy

This funny line comes from a Memorial Day conversation, where people where talking about their lives. The speaker is smart and intelligent but was not trying to be funny. He was speaking from the heart, but in doing so he mouthed a Woody Allen-quality quip.

Wasn’t it Lenny Bruce who said something like, “Comedy is pain plus time.”

Here is my friend’s line, which is full of both pain and time:

“While growing up, I was so bad that when I reached the legal drinking age, I quit.”

Where Will You Be Six Months from Now?

19 May

 

The late comedian Henny Youngman used to tell lots of jokes about doctors. A favorite is:

My doctor told me I had six months to live. I said, “Doctor, I can’t pay you.” He gave me another six months.”

Henny Youngman — he knew!

Comedians are very exacting when choosing their words, especially in short jokes. They much prefer funny words over unfunny words and will struggle to determine if, say, 66, is funnier than 85. So I find it interesting that Henny chose “six” for the number of months his doctor gave him.

I don’t think he did it because six is funny. I think he did it because when doctors tell you death is near, they almost always put it six months away.

Not to be funny, but have you every heard of a friend or relative who was given four months to live, or seven months to live, or 10 months? I never have.

All this comes to mind because someone I know was given six months to live. Sure enough, exactly six months later he was dead.

Did the doctor really know? Or was he just lucky?

In life, we all have to make quick judgments and guesses. In the field of finance there is a joke (funny only to people in finance) that goes:

Q. Why do economists use decimal points?

A. Because they have a sense of humor.

The point being that nobody really knows anything for sure, but all of us sure can fake it. Those who get it right probably get more credit than they deserve, like maybe Steve Jobs or some military strategists.

Lucky guess?

But we’ve all got to worship earthly gods and I imagine it is more appropriate to worship those who have guessed right than to worship those who have guessed wrong. So hats off to the doc who said “six months” to my friend.

I’ll leave you with this piece of advice:

If your doctor says you have just 10 minutes to live, do everything you can to assure him that his wife and you are just good friends.

Thanks, Henny.

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