Revolution is in the air. Since first hearing the story as a child, any mention of the 'Boston Tea Party' has elicited in me an excitement that is uniquely American. When I heard rumblings that there was a new Tea Party, I got goose bumps. I love tea, I love parties, I hate taxes; I'm in! It seemed that most of America joined in my excitement!
It is that easy to get us on board. Rebellion in this country is equated with fighting for the truth. Growing up with Bronx Irish parents during an era of protests against the status quo, I was especially committed to doing the opposite of what I was told to do. Forty-four years later I am left with only one means of making a living: comedy.
I just wrote a book chronicling my clashes with authority through the paper trail of disciplinary letters from school, police reports and clippings from the "Police Blotter" section of the local paper. The second half of the book contains letters from my adulthood proving that little has changed. The book is best summed up by a missive directed at my agent, many years ago, following my performance at a high school prom in Iowa. The principal literally claimed that I dashed the values of the entire town:
Before the show I stood outside the school speechlessly watching the entire senior class exit a school bus having just returned from church. The principal, sauntered over and said, "Now, don't be a wiseacre up there tonight."
Things got fuzzy. These teenagers were missing the point of prom night and reckless youth. Had they missed "Dazed and Confused" or any of the American Pie movies? This is the night when you shed your virginity, vomit and stay out all night. Prom is a poignant moment to feel the daring excitement of behaving badly; knowing that underneath you are old and wise enough to keep out of any real harm.
This spirit carries you through adulthood, even if it is kept secret. We justify mundane lives by fantasizing that we are doing it our own way. Whether it's a housewife who watches porn, or a lawyer who doesn't wear ties, we all quietly play out our defiance. "Don't be a wiseacre?" I demanded; "I'm a comedian. You hired me. Would you hire a juggler and then tell him not to throw anything around?"
How could Dr. Dave have known that my parents encouraged their kids to challenge anybody in charge? (Except, of course, when my parents themselves were in charge; a strategic error on their part.) I felt I owed it to these kids to shake them and tell them how things are supposed to be. As teenagers, they owed themselves a night of being impolite and breaking random things for no reason. These kids were brainwashed into making virginity pledges and saying no to drugs. I was trying to save them! During the show, I felt very much like Prometheus delivering the forbidden fire to the mortals. I brought the rage of everything I saw lacking in their attitudes onto the stage, and the class of 1996 reached into their corn-fed hearts and gave me a standing ovation. Was I a wiseacre? I'm not really sure; having never heard the phrase before, I just assumed it was some kind of farming term.
The letter initially stung. Then it occurred to me that if I can tell jokes for one hour and "dash" the values of the community, maybe the moral foundation wasn't that strong to begin with. It's not like I encouraged them to dance or anything. Dr. Henry had made a strategic error when booked an actual comedian. He misunderstood our relationship from the beginning: He pays me, I mock him (and the school) and then I leave. Comedy is counterculture, and it is my way of fighting back in life. Instead of fearing authority, I tease it until it loses power (or sends me a funny note).
I now have two kids of my own. In the past couple of years my wife and I have received a dozen concerned letters from their teachers. Our attempts to conceal our laughter often fail and I can already see confusion in their eyes as we rejoice in pleas for help from their teachers. As The Who once screamed, "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss..."
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