Where have all my punchlines gone?

I should have seen it coming. Twenty-five years ago, I was a marketing manager and leading a department meeting when the first sign unexpectedly reared its head. All my direct reports were under 30—I was not. During cross-talk, one of them said she had never been to Spain. Of course, not one to let an obvious opening close without comment, I piped up: “But I kind of like the music.”

My remark was met with confused stares and a long stretch of awkward silence. I was thinking they just didn’t get it; they were thinking I was showing early signs of mental decline.

And therein lies the rub: how does someone navigate in a world where nobody understands his or her reference points? What happens to a lifetime of handy pop cultural callbacks that no longer resonate? Let’s face it, it’s not as if you can easily drop a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney or Sonny and Cher reference and replace it with Beyonce and Jay Z. Okay, maybe the Sonny and Cher swap would work. But that’s an exception.

The truth is, all those wonderful and witty comebacks you’ve saved over a lifetime of making smart-ass comments are about as useful as Monopoly money in a casino. So, the next time you’re with your grandchildren — or with anyone from a post-Boomer generation — try using Maxwell Smart’s “He missed it by that much” or Sergeant Schultz’ refrain of “I see Nothing. I know Nothing!” or Desi Arnaz’ trademark “Lucy! I’m home!” and see where that gets you.

Sadly, when you have to start explaining your punchlines, it’s time to settle in a comfortable armchair and turn on a game show. Case in point, my mom’s mother loved game shows. In her late 80s, she was watching a TV game show. The question asked was embarrassingly simple: “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” My grandmother blurted out: “Gary Grant.”

What brought all this to mind was indeed a game show. I enjoy watching “Jeopardy” but found a recent episode disturbing. The three contestants, many years my junior, were shown an image of the star playing Mister Rogers in the new movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” They were asked to name the movie star.

Not one of the contestants answered. I was stunned. They stood there with blank expressions and empty tablets and watched as an equally stunned Alex Trebek told them the answer. But before he could, I jumped up and shouted at the screen: “Tom Hanks. You idiots, Tom Hanks!”

Suddenly, I felt untethered and adrift. It was as if Francis the Talking Mule had quit talking to Mister Ed.

Now try explaining that analogy to a millennial. Go ahead, make my day.

If music be the food of insomnia

Where have you gone, Sheb Wooley? I suppose every generation venerates the music of its youth. As a Boomer, I am particularly grateful for the music I grew up with. We had folk songs and surfer music, Country and Motown, not to mention the British Invasion; gentle pop tunes from the 50s eventually gave way to more radical songs of the 60s. An embarrassment of riches for growing minds.

Even before we fell in love with the poetic songs and wretched voice of Bob Dylan, we were fed a steady diet of inane lyrics: “The Purple People Eater,” “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” and just about anything by that genius of silliness Allan Sherman.

And therein lies my problem. I have what’s known as an earworm. Fortunately – or unfortunately — I am not alone. Something like 90 percent of us suffer through the pangs and arrows of an earworm on a regular basis.

In case you fall into the 10 percent group and are unfamiliar with the concept of an earworm, it’s simple: an earworm is a song that gets stuck in your head. Sounds harmless enough, until it happens to you, especially when you’re trying to sleep and can’t because your mind plays that stupid song in a loop, over and over and over, and you have an important presentation to make at work later that same day and know you’re going to feel crappy during the presentation and most likely blow it.

Researchers, of course, can explain an earworm. They even have other names for it: cognitive itch, sticky music, stuck-song syndrome. Most often, the culprit is a song you recently heard. It might replay itself because you’re under stress. Or, as one theory holds, it’s directly tied to the human oral storytelling tradition, where memorization was critical to survival. As a human you’re stuck with this earworm thing, like it or not, as if it’s some kind of vestigial remain, and must learn to take your lumps and roll with the lyrics.

I’m sharing this information with you because, innocently enough, a couple of evenings ago I was streaming Amazon Music in the comfort of my home. I wanted something upbeat and uncomplicated, so I chose an album of the top 100 songs from the 1950-60s. That was my first mistake.

My second mistake was listening to “The Witch Doctor” by David Seville. I first became familiar with that song when I was almost ten, in 1958, sixty years ago, and I don’t recall hearing it much, if at all, since. Now if I had my wits about me and better reflexes, I would have raced over and put the remote on mute before the song started. But I didn’t. All night long, unable to reach inside my head and turn my brain off, all I could hear was: “Ooo eee, ooo ah ah ting tang / Walla walla, bing bang.”

I guess it could have turned out worse. Seville also gave us “The Chipmunk Song.”

Man Survives Harrowing Bird Box Challenge

I wanted to understand the hullabaloo behind the movie “Bird Box,” so I watched it. At least enough of the movie to get the drift. So, last night I took up the challenge, with one minor modification. Just before going to bed, I put a blindfold over my eyes. For the most part, I was able to function, even getting up a couple of times to race to the bathroom without tripping and falling over the dog.

However, blindfolded as I was, I couldn’t see my dreams, and that was perhaps the biggest drawback. Otherwise the experiment was uneventful. (Kids, do not try this at home.) 

Okay, I did dream and in my dream last night I was watching “Jeopardy!.” The three contestants were immediately recognizable. J.K. Simmons, the Oscar-winning actor who escorts us through the Farmers Insurance Hall of Claims; Flo, the upbeat woman in white who promotes Progressive Insurance. And that crazy-looking guy who plays “Mayhem” for Allstate Insurance. Alex Trebek introduces the three and then runs through the show’s categories: Nondeductible Deductibles; Earth, Wind & Fire; No Collision, No Collision; Know a Thing or Two; Groupie Annuities; and The Finer Points of Fine Print. But before any of them could ring in, I woke up.

Which was unfortunate, because it means I missed my favorite part. This is the scene when Alex briefly interviews each contestant about a piece of trivia in their life, reminding viewers at home that their own lives are much more interesting:

Alex: “J.K., you had a lucky experience as a child. Do you wish to tell us about it?”

J.K.: “You bet, Alex. When I was eight, I found two prizes in the same box of Cracker Jacks.”

Alex: “Flo has an unusual, some might even say strange, wardrobe habit. Please tell our viewers about it.”

Flo: “Sure, Alex. Once a week I take a blouse out of my closet and wear it inside out, with the label exposed. I like to give the inside of my blouses a chance to see what the world looks like.”

Alex: “That’s nice. I heard you do something special when you read books, Mayhem.”

Mayhem: “Yes, Alex, that’s true. Whenever I read a book, I always dog ear the last page I read so I know where I left off. But instead of pulling back a corner at the top of the page, I fold back a corner at the bottom.”

Okay, I didn’t really have that dream. But I had a hard time sleeping last night. Instead of an ear worm playing “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain” in my head all night, like some kind of drooling village idiot DJ raised by Satan, I was playing commercials.

First off, am I the only one who thinks it’s creepy to have a live Jimmy Dean on TV pitching his sausage in 2019? The man died in 2010, yet he’s still showing up in person and in voice to hawk his products. Marketers of the world, I implore you, let the man rest in peace. Find someone else to push your meat. Seriously. How unfair is that to today’s struggling actors? I’m sure they’d line up in droves, like links of sausages, to be the next spokesperson for Jimmy Dean Sausage and be on the receiving end of a residual. Dead people can’t cash royalty checks. So why not give a struggling actor a break?

Second, where are the classic TV commercial slogans of old? “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” “You ate it, Ralph.” “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” “Where’s the beef?”

Case in point, I’ve had atopic dermatitis my entire life, and now it looks as if itchy skin is making a comeback. Some company is pitching a new product with a made-up name specifically designed to take care of the age-old condition of dry skin. It’s a boring commercial, quite frankly, and lacks memorability. It’s certainly no “The heartbreak of psoriasis”… Now that’s a slogan I can get behind. “Heartbreak” conjures an image of a room full of parents and grandparents and siblings, all distraught, with perhaps both a priest and a rabbi present in the room offering solace. Everyone’s wearing black. Cue the weeping and gnashing of teeth. While nearby in the bathroom, Little Billy applies a soothing ointment to his dry, red, scaly, itchy arms.

Sometimes you feel like a nut.

Please Pass the Gravy

I just received the program (see attached pdf) for “Please Pass the Gravy,” a short play festival by Clairemont Act One (San Diego) that included my play “Two People.” From the email message I received, the short play festival opening weekend was wonderful and full of laughs. Thank you, Char Sivertson and all the other dedicated and talented people that made Clairemont Act One’s festival a reality. I’m honored to have been part of your show.

CAO Program – Full-small