“If I walked up to home plate and handed that man $50, he couldn’t buy a hit.”
One of Daddy’s favorite summer pastimes was watching his beloved Detroit Tigers on television – and fussing at Willie Horton. Horton, the Tigers’ first black player and, for years, the only black player on the team, was a frequent target of Daddy’s ire. It was as if Daddy took it personally when Horton failed to deliver a hit to drive home another run, or advance the runners on base. When I got older, I understood Daddy didn’t mean that Willie Horton was a bad hitter – he meant that, in his opinion, Horton always swung for the fences when an RBI would do. But when I was little, listening to Daddy fuss at Willie Horton made me giggle.
Daddy was a master of the wry, pithy remark. He was very funny, but I never knew if Daddy’s humor was intentional or not. Daddy loved comedians like Slappy White and Redd Foxx, but he wasn’t a joke teller. He wasn’t even prone to telling funny stories. What he did to perfection, though, was use hyperbole and exaggeration to make his point. Daddy wouldn’t just say he was no fan of the singer Joe Tex – he said if Joe Tex was giving a free concert on the corner, he wouldn’t stand on his porch to watch. No matter how many times you asked him how he felt about Joe Tex, his answer was the same. And when we laughed, he never laughed along with us, as if to acknowledge that his joke had landed just right. He just moved on to the next point.
The only person I ever saw Daddy try to make laugh is my mother. My parents didn’t get along most of the time, but when they talked about the people they’d grown up with in the South, Daddy would have my mother rolling. When us kids were around, the stories would be about a rogue bull that jumped over a fence to chase someone who deserved it, or an angry chicken who pecked at a cousin who tried to steal some eggs. If there were more risque stories from down home, they waited to tell those until after we went to bed. My mother would be in tears, wiping her eyes over something Daddy said. Those rare moments when my parents were talking and laughing instead of arguing and fighting, made me wish they could always be that way together.
Daddy provided the blueprint for the kind of comedy I’ve enjoyed all my life. I was about ten years old when the first episode of Saturday Night Live aired in 1975. My second oldest sister and I loved those early days of SNL. We knew all the comedians and their best sketches, and would crack each other up by tossing a “Jane, you ignorant slut!” into otherwise casual conversation. We would have what we called exaggeration contests, where we would use the most hyperbolic language imaginable to describe just about everything. I always thought of us as emulating Dan Ackroyd or Jane Curtin on SNL. But we were really imitating our dad.
They say that girls date and marry their fathers – and unfortunately, they are right. My ex-husband was very much like Daddy, both physically and personality-wise. I was drawn to my ex’s sense of humor. When I met him, he teased me because the hem of my pants was unraveling. I should have noticed then that his particular brand of humor had a mean streak. His jokes about my pants were funny, but a bit unkind. But under the circumstances – I was a guest in his childhood home, there to attend his mother’s funeral – the laughter lightened everyone’s mood, and I was being a good sport.
My ex’s humor wasn’t enough to sustain our relationship, but his sense of humor gave our marriage some of its few good moments. Like my mother, I, too found myself doubled over with laughter at some of the things my ex said – like the time he called a mutual friend who had recently come into a little bit of money, a “hundredaire.” By the end of my marriage, though, there was no laughter at all, and I knew better than to stay hoping for jokes, most of which came at my own expense.
Laughter now plays a big part in my own home. I have more of a sarcastic wit than Daddy did, as does my 17-year-old daughter. But my son, who will soon be 13, is truly funny. I used to think he got his sense of humor from his father, and to a large degree, that’s probably true. But the style of my son’s humor – the quick quip, the dry remark, the perfect delivery – reminds me more of my dad. My son is funny, and knows it. He’s not likely to ever make his living on the comedy circuit, but in his own quiet way, he knows how to entertain a crowd.
Daddy passed away during my third year of law school, long before my kids were born. I’ve tried to keep him alive for them by recalling the qualities of his that I remember the most – his love of sports and his talent for making us laugh. And sometimes, I envision Daddy and my kids sitting together, talking and cracking each other up.