Culture, Humour, Joy, Sadness

This page written circa 17 February, 2000.

Kay and I attended a Bar Mitzvah the other night. It was an absolutely superb experience, interesting and great fun. The service was even more involved than most such cultural markers, much in Hebrew, but was relieved by one's ability to come and go and by the periodic injection of humour and bursts of informality by the Rabbi. The lunch was a suitable compensation for the formality, but the evening party was the crowning social event.

The party was held in a large hall, with dinner seating for the 200+ guests, plus a dance floor, plus "marginal space" for other activities. There was a bar for the adults, an icecream bar, and a charicaturist set up in this space, and they did their things from 7 to 11. The younger people had a buffet, and about 150 adults had dinner served, and it was excellent food too. The tables were adorned with helium balloons, there was an MC who had entertainments for the kids that ranged from a quiz about the guest of honour and dancing with chemical-light necklaces to inflatable guitars and saxaphones with organised sessions for miming to the music. The music was provided by a very capable band. There was a singer with a superb voice who could do everything from the Beatles to Shirley Bassey. The proceedings were broken between courses with a video that depicted the guest-of-honour's life extracted from still photos and delivered like Star Wars, projected on an enormous screen by the most powerful projection TV I have ever seen. After dinner the adults got to dance; one session involved "traditional" dancing, which started with what the MC aptly described as "a Jewish hoedown" and progressed via rock to stuff like a Greek wedding and then they produced scads of plastic maraccas and great chains of dancers flowed throughout the tables. Altogether the evening was tremendous fun. We commented at the time that this was the most intense cultural experience we had had since arriving un America.

On a different note, I have discovered a radio program that runs from 9AM to 10AM on Saturdays, broadcast on NPR (National Public Radio, a sort of Radio National equivalent). It is called Car Talk with Click and Clack. It is perhaps the best humour available on American media.

This program features two brothers, Tom and Frank, who are apparently mechanics. They have strong New York accents. The program invites people to ring up with their car problems, e.g., "my car stalls on cold days and backfires but the dealer says he can't find anything wrong". Indeed, about one in every 5 calls is purely and simply a car advice call, and these are dealt with efficiently and quickly. It is the other calls where we have fun. Some of them---and I could not begin to recite an example and do it justice---are just sidesplitting, some are worth a chuckle, and some fascinating. When they are lost for an answer, which is rare, the two guys obfuscate brilliantly. They are also extremely good at picking car problems... I consider myself pretty sharp at it these days, but they beat me easily.

It is the freak sequences of disastrous events that really bring the house down. Recently we heard from an incompetent home mechanic, searching for vacuum leaks using the LPG method:
Click: Yes, the LPG method can work very well.
Caller: So I open the valve with a screwdriver...
Click: Screwdriver...?
Caller: Yes. Anyway, I get the liquid coming out, and it's pretty cold...
Clack: Liquid, eh.
Click: Engine still running?
Caller: Yup. And do you know what happened next?
Click: Oh yes. Have your eyebrows grown back yet?
Caller: It made a sort of a huge whoosh!
Clack: I remember that happening to our cousin once, blew him clean across the yard.
Click: Instantly my brother and I spring into action, and we start arguing about who's gonna get his tools...
By now they can hardly contain themselves. Even the caller is laughing.
Clack: Did you eventually find the leak?
Caller: Nope.

Now Bryson and I alike have all but given up on American TV, but culture survives in isolated and unexpected places, like small rockpools left full of life as the tide of frivolity recedes. It's good to find these gems, but America's tide of thoughtful humour is pretty far out for a nation responsible for W C Field, the Marx Brothers, Seinfeld, and Rich Hall, to mention just a few. It is great to discover that all is not lost, but you could equally be disappointed if you reflect upon the fact that one has to go to such lengths to get humour and culture---basic products of social sophistocation.

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