A few years ago I was asked to appear in “The Aristocrats,” perhaps the raunchiest non-pornographic independent film ever made. The idea was that many comedians would tell the same famously dirty joke in their own particular style, out-doing each other with vivid graphic detail. But as someone who has never been comfortable telling off-color jokes, I knew I couldn’t compete with George Carlin, or Gilbert Gottfried in a prurience contest. So for my version, I rewrote the material 180 degrees in the other direction. I made my contribution erudite. I set it in the world of performance art and dressed it up with references to Joan Miro, The Venice Biennale and Postmodern Neoclassical figurative painting. And I was able to make it so effete, cerebral and esoteric that I got myself cut out of the movie entirely, save for one line.
However, when the DVD came out, my seven minute contribution appeared in its entirety, And thus did it meet its proper audience at last: MENSA called to ask if I would speak at their annual Colloquium.
When I first got their E mail, I thought it was some kind of a mistake, a weird prank being played by one of my smart-ass friends. But when I returned their call and no one I knew answered, I became so utterly intimidated and consumed with the need for grammatical correctness in my speech that I could barely keep track what I was saying, so distracted was I by trying to remember the rules for when to use “Who” vs. “Whom”.
Turned out that The Mensans had liked my contribution to The Aristocrats because it was the only version of the joke sporting the word ‘entrails.’ In fact, so amused were they by this choice that they had thought of me when they’d decided that this year’s Colloquium topic was going to be humor.
Sensing instantly that these were people who knew their way around comedy, after I calmed myself down I said yes. I figured I’d tell a few stories, throw in a couple more “entrails” jokes and I’d be home free. But the real reason I agreed was because I wanted to see what Mensans looked like. I’d always been kind of curious. To me they seemed an unknowable, and slightly spooky secret society along the lines of The Bilderberg Group or The Tri-lateral Commission. Like the Yakuza, if its rules for admission were based on SAT scores.
“Tough gig,“ said my boyfriend, when I pondered whether I’d done the right thing by saying yes..“If you bomb, you won’t be able to use your usual excuse: Well, those people were a bunch of fucking idiots.”
As the date approached, I checked the website promoting the event and saw my name posted near a quote from Aristotle, along side a changing slide show of photographs of Freud and Einstein. Both men had been artistically graffitied with a Groucho-nose-and-glasses, a disguise, I might add, that wouldn’t have worked too well for either one. Other scheduled speakers for the Colloquium included the author of “Humorous Interaction and The Social Construction of Meaning: Making Sense in a Jocular Vein,” and someone whose topic would be“ Exploring the theoretical, and empirical evidence for several psychological functions of humor.” Suddenly all the personal anecdotes about bad dates and birthday parties I had planned to share with The Mensans seemed ridiculously simple minded.
In a panic, I began to try to upgrade my speech by doing some research. “Humor is arguably too complicated to learn without an assemblage of specific neural pathways or an associated cognitive module.” I read in “The Evolutionary Origins of Humor.” “Bingo!” I said, clapping my hands happily. “There’s my big opening joke!”
After checking in to The Doubletree Inn, where The Colloquium was to be held, I met with The Mensan who was in charge of the speakers downstairs in the hotel restaurant. He was an attractive, nicely dressed man of perhaps forty, who raised orchids, liked to kayak and used to work in bio-medical engineering developing a piece of apparatus that, when attached to a damaged spine, could move a paralyzed arm.
“I think you’ll be fine,” he said , after I outlined my speech for him. Sensing I was jittery, he then set about reassuring me that the Colloquium would be relaxed and feature an atmosphere of fun! To illustrate this, he mentioned the likelihood of some annual after hours intra- Mensa hot tub hijinx. Though I was grateful he’d made the effort to soothe my fears, I was not reassured. It had never occurred to me until this very minute that Mensa might be a kind of Match.com for people who tested well.
For most of the previous month I had been fretting about the proper wardrobe to bring to this event because the word “Colloquium” sounded so formal, and formidable. Yet multiple shopping forays throughout LA in search of Colloquium-wear had only puzzled slack jawed salespeople. After much fretting, I had selected an outfit that I hoped sat on the intersection of dressy and businesslike. But on the night of my big speech, as I entered the banquet room, I realized I’d worried in vain. My first viewing of Mensans En Masse revealed a largely white, mid-thirties and older group who seemed to favor the Bill Gates-determinedly-casual-aggressively-rumpled- approach to fashion. I needn’t have worried at all. If there were people playing the vanity card, I didn’t see them. One white haired gentleman in his seventies arrived dressed in a running suit and headband.There were also no “I’m with Brilliant” or “Genius on board” tee shirts.
As a whole, they looked like who they probably were; middle-aged versions of kids from the high school Chess or Latin club who also entered and won The Science Fair. The well-known porn star Mensan and the famous actress Mensan were not in attendance. Both would have stuck out like Sumo Wrestlers at a PTA meeting.
And thus did I deliver my speech about viewing your life as comedy to an attentive friendly audience, relieved that no one heckled my grammar or fell asleep. The only dark note was one agitated Mensan man in his mid fifties who, post Q and A, seemed upset in perpetuity about the childhood pain and bullying he’d suffered as the butt of callous jokes. “Why do people think its funny to be mean?” he fretted tearfully, over and over. “I don’t know. You should ask the programming guys at…well, everywhere.,” I wanted to say as I looked at this living reminder of the fine line between humor and cruelty. Also I hoped I could get away from him as quickly as possible.
The fine line between humor and funny was on display the next day when I sat on a panel next to a man whose life work it was to wear a rubber clown nose to every event he attended. “Most people cant help but smile when they see it,” he assured the audience, daring them to defy the comedy edict on which he was basing his whole act. Mainly I was reminded of the way its not smart to tell people when they should laugh.
Since most of the scheduled events were over in early evening, by 9:30 I found myself back in my room at the Doubletree Inn with a lot of time on my hands, too much adrenaline from having spoken earlier and no idea what to do. I considered watching a performance by a Mensan Shakespearean Improv group but rejected it after I slipped in to the back of the room and found it so ponderous and seemingly endless that I couldn’t commit to taking a seat.
As I sat by my hotel window, looking idly down at a half filled parking lot and the small industrial park by a creek that lay just beyond, it suddenly occurred to me that I was ignoring a big entertainment opportunity: I had an unobstructed aerial view of the hot tub on the hotel roof top. Here was a chance to witness that famous playful side of Mensa. And maybe even see some of the Mensans themselves acting dumb! But after a couple of hours and one too many seven dollar beers from the Mini-bar fridge , when no Mensans ever showed up, I realized the theoretical and empirical evidence for humor known as a “joke” was on me.
P.S.Ahem. Its not til November but if you’re the kind of person who pre-orders books…(additional coughing) Also Barnes and Noble