How I Learned Comedy (from Stan Freberg and sugar)

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My father had an amazing sense of humor. He had a great laugh. He had impeccable timing, and he had a joy that made you laugh in even tough situations.

Strangely enough, the only thing he didn’t have a sense of humor about was: the airport – we would arrive hours early, well dressed. We actually have video of us as a young family, having lunch, in slacks and ties, at the Arizona airport.

Clearly we got there with enough time to not only get lunch, but to make some short films.

One of our favorite repeated phrase as a family was what my father yelled to us once as we were racing thru an airport – we were running on the moving sidewalk to make a connection – and my father turned to us, red faced and yelled “this is no time for a stroll”. I believe it is a credit to my father’s great sense of humor that we all immediately exploded with laughter, many of us falling to the floor, and eventually even he had to stop and chuckle.

We made it to the gate with 42 minutes to spare.

And in the way that sons can only mock, and then repeat the actions of other father – none of us would now would be caught dead at an airport less than an hour before a flight.

Anyway, how did we all get this sense of humor? I have friends that claim they will love their children no matter what they are, but are secretly worried that one part of who they are as parents won’t get passed down to their kids – and for my friends, this has absolutely nothing to do with the big things like sexuality, religion, vocation, or even whether or not their kid is an asshole or not.

No, this is about more serious stuff….like will be my kid by a Red Sox fan, will she know we’re a Nascar family, will they appreciate that we are geeks and celebrate geek holidays?!? They’ll laugh when I say it’s bigger on the inside, right?!?!

For my father, it was “will my kids be happy and have a great sense of humor”. The idea of dull kids was too much for him to handle. So, he stacked the deck early.

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We would listen to Stan Freburg recordings, which my father found to be the pinnacle of comedy – especially his “History of the United States”. My brothers and I would be rewarded with Necco Wafers when each section was done. Yes, he was employing every pavlovian response that was available to him. We would laugh, we would repeat our favorite bits to each other, and then he would give us candy.

Simple. Straight-forward.

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If we listened to lots of Stan’s bits, he would give us more candy. It makes total sense that even today as I hear those comedy bits – anywhere – young Sean gets excited and thinks that a variety of wafer flavors may be on it’s way.

So, yes, that ridiculous style of humor: subversive, smart/stupid, political, punny, observational, deeply charming – is now mine also. My father was successful in passing on the thing he wanted us to get most (and also we go to airports really really early, which wasn’t his favorite, but would make him very happy, or at least relieved – I mean come on, you miss your flight and it takes forever to get rebooked. Don’t be that guy at the service desk yelling)

When my father passed away, and we were cleaning out his office, I found a few packages of Necco Wafers that I had given my father as a sentimental Christmas gift about 5 years prior. I was pleased to see that one of them was open and he had eaten about half of one pack.

I decided then that I should write a letter to Stan Freburg and thank him for all the great comedy that he had provided my father and I. I emailed it to about half a dozen email links I found on-line that seemed like they may actually be Stan Freeburg’s – never thinking that he’d get it, but maybe an intern somewhere would pass it on, or at least have a chuckle.

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And then Stan called me.

On Speakerphone with his wife.

He wanted to say that he got my email and he was incredibly moved by it. That most people just send him letters, but offer no way for him to contact them.

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It was a little like being on the phone with Santa Claus. There it was, the voice from my childhood, talking about what he was up to. I thanked him again in person, trying to convey how many Sunday afternoons he had been a part of, though failing to really say anything that even glimpsed at what he had meant to us.

Then he asked me what were my Dad’s favorite bits – what were the jokes that he loved the most. I told him – when Washington is on a ship, and one of his captains says “there grumblings of mutiny, sir”. Washington says “let me hear”, then we hear the door open and the men all in unison say “grumble, grumble, grumble, mutiny, mutiny, mutiny”.

He used to laugh and laugh about that.

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Then Stan did the bit for me.

This want back and forth for about 20 minutes. I’d tell him the jokes that made my Dad and I laugh the most, and then he’d do them for me. He knew them all perfectly – his timing was perfect, as though he rehearsed them daily just in case of this phone call.

At the end of the phone call, I tried to search for something I could do for him, but he said my email was enough and it had made his day.

And really, what am I going to offer him?

He did the grumble, grumble, grumble, mutiny, mutiny, mutiny for me one more time and got off the phone.

I stood there with the phone for a good five minutes. Just standing, not wanting the moment to end.

Then I laughed, a really great loud laugh, because it’s kind of ridiculous, and in addition, I have a great sense of humor – my father’s actually.