Below C Level
“A true highlight of this term was Tommy’s speech on humor, which he carried off with the aplomb of a stage professional. Tommy is a great study in contrasts. The art he submits is superb, but he misses half of his assignments, so his mark is necessarily low...Try to watch the “talking out,” Tommy. It is not appreciated.” —Report card comments of Shirley Gaudreau, Tom’s sixth-grade teacher
I see my life in two major parts. Part One: my birth to living in my parents’ basement with no money at age twenty-five. Part Two: getting out of my parents’ basement until today. Let’s start in the middle.MY PARENTS’ BASEMENT
The year is 1996. At this point in time I am still financially dependent on my parents. I am at a stage in life where this is beginning to be painstakingly abnormal, much to my embarrassment. I am a generational statistic, a twenty-five-year-old college graduate who has recently returned to living in his parents’ basement. I have done this as a way of saving money while I wait for my dream job to materialize. Also my on-and-off girlfriend of five years, who I have recently been living with, has thrown all my stuff out of her house. This most likely happened at a good time since I could no longer afford to pay rent anyway.
It is probably never a good idea to return to the nest. Once you flap your wings and leap from the tree, it is best to migrate somewhere else. If you’re really lucky, you might get lost and not be able to return, so go someplace warm. I think returning to live with parents, especially if they are my parents, can be a little bit defeating. So take that as advice and don’t move into my house. The place is small enough already.
For the previous three years I had, for free, produced and hosted my own comedy talk show on the local community television station, Rogers Community 22. Over that three-year period the show became reasonably popular in my hometown of Ottawa, the capital of Canada. In fact the show had become so well known that I now had a realistic shot at going network. That would be a real job! Over the past six months my friends and I had been working on a pilot episode of The Tom Green Show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a national network. Producing this single episode had utterly consumed my life for half a year, as producing the cable show on Rogers Community 22 had done for three and a half years before that. But now, we had completed the pilot and it had just aired on the CBC, so for the first time in three years, I had time on my hands. All the time in the world.
This show was the reason why I did not have a job and lived in my parents’ basement. Because I was interested only in producing the program, I didn’t allocate much time to finding other paid employment. I was motivated only by the television show; it was my only real goal. Unfortunately it was not paying any money yet, and in the faint hope that it might, my friends and I sat around for a year and waited.
How, I wondered, did I end up in this seemingly rock-bottom predicament?
“THERE WAS A YOUNG FELLOW FROM WHEELING . . .”
When I was in grade six I won the public-speaking contest for my school. I remember at that time it seemed like the most important thing in the world. In grade school they didn’t have talent shows or anything like that, so this was really the only opportunity to see other students on stage. First you would compete against your class. The English teacher would watch everybody’s speech and choose a winner. Then you would compete against the other three classes in your section of the school. After that competition they would send three finalists to perform their speeches in front of the entire school.
I had won for my class three years in a row. In grade four I did my speech on rocks. It was pretty dry stuff but contained a few cool words like igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary. I won for my class but then lost to Darryl Page in the semifinals. I didn’t get to compete in front of the school.
In grade five I tried loosening it up a little bit. I wrote a speech on how I would change the school if I had power. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of it. I think there was a joke about a mousetrap in a lunch box, but I’m not sure. That year I also won for my class but then lost again in the semifinals to Darryl Page and a girl named Elizabeth Pang. I felt extremely deflated by the rejection. I was a show business failure at ten.
I was never a great student. I was usually more interested in cracking jokes and falling off my chair. The public speech contest would save my English mark every year. Winning for the class, the teacher would always give me a 98 percent. I don’t know where the other 2 percent went—they probably got taken away for losing to Elizabeth Pang.
The sixth-grade competition was my last chance. I was going to be switching to a middle school the next year—this was it for Robert Hopkins P.S. At the front of the school there was a plaque, and they would engrave the names of the public speech winners for the school in that plaque. The prestigious title was usually won by somebody in grade six, although the year before it had been won by a grade-five student, the infamous Darryl Page. I wanted to take his title away. I wanted my name on that plaque.
For my final assault on the title I decided to do my speech on humor. I competed and won first place in my class as usual, and then I competed against the rest of my grade. There were five other students in the semifinals; only two would get to compete in front of the school. I don’t remember now what his speech was about, but Darryl Page won hands down. Elizabeth Pang and I tied for second place. My teacher couldn’t decide who should go to the finals in the school gym, so in an unprecedented move, and much to the surprise of everyone, she asked Elizabeth Pang and me to do our speeches again. She brought in another teacher to help her decide the winner.
The excitement was riveting. Everyone in grade six was caught up in the tension. Elizabeth and I performed our speeches again in the library. When we finished, the teachers sent all of the students to the school yard while they deliberated on the winner.
Elizabeth Pang was a brain who always was at the top of the class. I think people kind of resented her for that. So out in the school yard a lot of the kids were siding with me: “Hey, Tom...I hope you win the speech!” “Hey, man, you were way better than Pang!”
I remember that, for the first time in my life, I felt slightly popular. I was always the skinny nerd who cracked jokes in class but got beat up during recess. But now some of the most popular and coolest kids in the school were coming up to me and wishing me luck. They wanted me over Pang!
When we came back from the break, the teacher stood up and announced that I had won the competition. The class erupted into a cheer. They were cheering for me, and I liked the way it felt. But there was no time to rejoice. The next day it was me vs. the formidable Darryl Page in front of the whole school.
My mother actually kept the cue cards from that speech and was able to dig them out years later from deep in her filing cabinet. Here’s how I rehearsed it dozens of times in front of the mirror the night before the Big Speech-Off.
“Today I am going to explain the complex theory of relativity. This important law of physics, discovered by Albert Einstein, proves that mass and energy are equivalent.
“I will now refer to a few notes.” (I take out an enormous stack of computer paper and clumsily drop it on the floor . . . it unfolds into a banner that reads in large letters E equals M C squared.)
“I hope I made all of you laugh because that was supposed to be funny.
“No one really knows why people laugh or what causes them to make such a strange noise when something is funny.
“Babies learn early to laugh when they are tickled. But as we grow older we learn to laugh at the humorous things we see and hear.
“Humorous stories and jokes are funny because of the element of surprise. The audience is taken off guard by something unexpected.
“There are many different types of humor. For example, I opened my speech with slapstick humor. This is a silly form of humor depending on exaggerated movements, pratfalls, or pie throwing. It was popular in Greece or Rome as long ago as 300 bc. Slapstick referred to the hits a master gave his slave who talked too cleverly.
“Comedians like Groucho Marx and the Three Stooges were masters of slapstick.
“Another form of humor depends on the use of the pun—in which one word is said when another is meant. For instance, one day my teacher decided to visit my parents. She knocked on the door and asked ‘Are your mother and father in?’ ‘They was in, but they’s out now.’ ‘Good grief!’ said my teacher, ‘Where’s your grammar?!’ ‘Oh, she’s out in the kitchen making cookies.’ The punch line at the end of the joke uses a pun and surprises the listener.
“Sarcasm is another type of humor in which a remark or situation means the opposite of what it appears to mean. Teachers are particularly good at sarcasm. I once told a teacher that I didn’t think I deserved a zero on my test. She said, ‘Neither do I, but it’s the lowest mark I can give you.’
“Some comedians, such as Rich Little, depend on mimicry and impersonation to make people laugh. They usually choose famous people as subjects, copy their voice and gestures, and place them in humorous situations.
“Most humor is told rather than seen. Limericks are nonsense verse, usually five lines long. As in most humour, there is an unexpected twist at the end. For example:
There was a young fellow from Wheeling
Who had such a delicate feeling,
When he read on the door,
‘Don’t spit on the floor!’
He jumped up and spat on the ceiling!
“Some humor is told in stories rather than verse. Tall tales use exaggeration to create a humorous situation.
“Grandfathers really like to tell tall tales. My grandfather told us about the time a bear chased him through a field. The bear was right behind him, twelve feet tall, with paws twelve inches wide, saliva dripping from its mouth. ‘What happened?’ we asked. ‘Well, I ran to the one tree that was in the field. Only problem was, the nearest branch was twenty feet above my head.’ ‘What did you do?’ we asked. ‘Well, there was nothing I could do. I had to jump for that branch.’ ‘Did you make it, Grandpa?’ ‘Well, no, not going up. But I caught it coming down.’
“I’ve found it helps to have a sense of humor, especially at report card time. If I’m lucky, my parents see the humor in the situation, too.
“Now that we have finished our little chat on humor, I will get back to my main topic of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Oh, looks like I’m out of time. I guess I will have to continue next year.”
So that was the big speech. The next day I felt like I was going to puke. I had to stand up in front of the whole school, so I was a wreck. But this was the big time. I had dreamed of one day making it to the school finals, and now, here I was. They made such a big deal out of these finals that they even brought in judges from the school board. There were five judges in all. They would pick a winner for the school and send him to compete against all the other elementary schools in the region.
Darryl Page got up and did his speech. Like I said, I can’t remember what his speech was about, but I know it was good. He had won the prize last year, so he didn’t seem a bit nervous. He looked totally relaxed as he delivered his lines from the stage.
Then I went up to do my speech. I remember them calling my name, and from that point on everything felt like it moved in slow motion. I walked up to the front of the small stage in the gym and stared out at my peers. I was either going to suck or I would do okay. By now none of the jokes in my speech seemed funny to me, as I had rehearsed it at least a hundred times.
I did my speech pretty well, with no big screwups. All of the little jokes got laughs from the crowd. I remember being surprised at how loud the laughs seemed in the large gymnasium. I had never stood in front of this many people before in my life.
After you finished your speech you would stay on the stage for a moment. One of the judges would stand and ask you a question. You had to deliver a good response, to prove your knowledge on the topic. The school-board trustee stood up at the back of the gym. She was a blond woman, probably in her midthirties.
“Very good, Tom, now I have a question. You said in your speech that it helps having a sense of humor, especially at report card time. Can you give me an example of how you would use humor to get out of a tricky situation with your parents?”
It was obvious she was trying to burn me. For about a nanosecond I panicked, but then for some reason, something clicked. I had something to say. I had been reading joke books for weeks researching this speech, and I remembered a silly joke that would be the perfect response to the judge’s surprise question.
“Well, I can tell you about the time I brought my report card home to my father. I was a little worried about my poor grades, so I used humor to help the situation. Before I gave my report card to Dad I told him that my marks were underwater. (LONG PAUSE) When he asked me what that meant, I said, ‘Well...they’re below C level.’ ” (Sea level...get it?)
I responded with this joke so quickly that I even shocked myself. When I delivered the punch line, it killed. The entire school, including the adult judges and teachers, were on the floor. The sound was so loud, and the laugh lasted so long, that I vividly remember the moment to this day. I think everyone was just relieved that I had an answer, any answer, to the judge’s impossible question. I was standing there and looking at my entire school, which was sitting cross-legged on the floor, laughing with me—not at me. I remember looking against the back wall and seeing the pretty girl who I had a crush on, Lesley Dewsnap. Even she was laughing. And although the joke today doesn’t seem like “A” material, at the time, coming out of the mouth of a ten-year-old in response to that kind of question from that kind of adult, it made me appear like a real wit. I won the competition and got my name on the plaque. (Unfortunately, Lesley Dewsnap continued to think of me as an idiot.)
That grade-six gymnasium laugh stays with me. To this day it is one of the best feelings I have ever felt in my life, and I am constantly trying to replicate itFrom the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Hollywood Causes Cancer by Tom Green with Allen Rucker. Copyright © 2004 by Tom Green. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.