Sad to say, I come from a long line of people who bump into doors, sweep punch bowls from tables, and drag dog doo into rooms, inadvertently stamping it into rugs and floorboards because the person with the soiled shoe can’t understand why everyone’s yelling at him. My dad was a one-man demolition derby. At six foot one and rangy, he was part Hulk, part Absent-Minded Professor, and he broke one out of every five chairs on which he plunked himself. The sight gag was perfect. The legs of the chair slowly folded in on themselves, dropping my father’s behind down on the floor with the gentleness of a mother nuthatch settling into the nest.
My dad would look dazed and sheepish, but when he visited his nearest and dearest in our house in East Chop, he knew we would forgive him his trespasses. Also, how could we be mad when all of us were laughing our socks off?
There’s always that moment in real-life slapstick comedy, a stunned second as everyone in the vicinity strains to check for loss of life or limb. Any blood? Trouble breathing? Life imitates art, but we need to determine if the art is Mel Brooks or an episode of House.
Then some silent bell rings the all-clear, and that’s when the first guffaw tumbles out.
My dad was the guy you never wanted to fix things. He’d ask you where you kept your toolbox and you distracted him with an early lunch at the Seafood Shanty. If you saw him heading anywhere with a lug wrench in hand, his gaze dreamy, tip of the tongue extruding from the corner of his mouth, an intervention was needed, stat.
One time, ever helpful, he took it upon himself to replace a ceiling bulb in the upstairs bathroom. He pried loose the nuts of the three screws holding in place the white globe with hand-painted blue flowers. Decorative. Rather expensive. We’d bought it at Tashtego in Edgartown. (Remember Tashtego?)
It crashed to the white linoleum floor.
There was no laughing this time. The loss was too poignant. I did the gracious hostess thing, assuring him the globe could be easily replaced; we were locking up the house for the winter, heading back to L.A., no worries. I said all this as I swept the shards of glass into a dust pan.
In the spring, Marty and I arrived to open up the house. I frowned at the naked bulb in the upstairs bathroom, but there were other more pressing concerns: mouse-droppings, clothes dryer on the fritz, a toppled length of picket fence.
Finally we got around to purchasing a new lamp globe to replace the one my dad had butter-fingered; a simple white item from Shirley’s Hardware. We stowed it with some other sundries in the trunk of our pink Buick, before heading off to the ferry to pick up my folks.
My dad popped open the trunk, hefted his suitcase high in the air, brought it down with a big smacking thud, followed hard upon by the strangely wet noise of tinkling glass.
We laughed. Big time.
There are occasions when no laughter rings out.
It was August of 1991 and the three Nadlers, confronted with the choice of living full-time in Los Angeles or full time on Martha’s Vineyard — we could no longer do both — voted with our feet for Island living. A Carroll’s Moving truck followed hard upon our arrival. While Charlie sampled the second grade, Marty and I busily shuffled around sofas and knickknacks.
Hours into our work, Marty lifted a box that held our favorite painting, a watercolor of an up-Island beach, jagged fence, path through the dunes, a seagull. It was originally a wedding gift in 1978. We’d taken it to the West Coast to vicariously enjoy Island beach days. Now it was home again.
Home but still taped inside its box, giving up sinister tinkling sounds.
Marty had not enjoyed a childhood where people knocked into things, slipped on banana peels and everybody laughed. Even as a professional comic and comedy writer — and a very funny one at that — little happened to him in his personal life that amused him.
I had to talk him through the remedial steps: Take the box, as is, to the glass place behind Woodland Grill. They’ll fix it. They’ll call us. We’ll hang it.
On the day the glass people called, Marty, pleased in his new role as adult picture pick-upper, left to retrieve the item. When I heard his car return, I sat at the bottom of the stairs where we’d decided to feature the beach-scape as a centerpiece of our small living room.
Marty marched indoors with the painting, specially wrapped in the glass people’s box. He spotted me on the stairs and, with a grand flourish, plopped the box down on the floor.
My dad couldn’t have done it better.
Inside the box, the glass smashed like the sound of mad drunk Russians tossing cognac snifters into a fireplace.
I nearly fell off the stairs with laughter.
Marty wagged his head, in the depths of despair.
“Believe me!” I gasped through my hilarity, “You’ll find it funny one day!”
“I’ll never find it funny,” he said with a sadness that stopped my laughter in its evil tracks.
This was 21 years ago. Every so often when I think of it, I’ll ask Marty if he finally found this slapstick memory jolly after all. “No, it’s still not funny,” he has always assured me with such baleful conviction, I had almost lost hope.
Until last weekend, when something reminded me of the incident. I phoned Marty in Florida to see where we stood on this pressing issue. Thinking he might need his memory refreshed, I described the steps leading up to his retrieval of the beach-scape. And, miracle of miracles, he started to laugh. He laughed! Just like Garbo in Ninotchka.
When we both settled down, Professor Nadler rendered this analysis: “Nothing stays unfunny past the 20-year mark.”
You see? It’s never too late to laugh.
Gazette contributor Holly Nadler lives in Oak Bluffs.