Saturday, April 11, 2009


Just The Way He Said It

“I was born at an early age . . .”
Tifton paused and the audience cackled. It was the oldest and worst joke in his arsenal, but the audience loved it. Given his longstanding reputation, he could get away with saying things that lesser comedians would never consider. Audiences revered him, adored him and he never failed to give them an hour or two of relief from the daily grind. He made them smile, laugh, forget, remember and sometimes, cry.
It wasn’t always this way, Culpepper thought. Before he started writing for Tifton, the comedian was a has been. Actually, a never-was, Culpepper mused. The duo had been together now approaching twenty years and it had been a long and successful ride up the ladder of fame and fortune. Tifton could tell a joke, Culpepper would give him that. Most of that time, Culpepper had written every word that Tifton spoke in public. Until recently, Culpepper thought . For more than fifteen years, the team had been at the top of their game, playing all the best places, getting the best gigs. But the past three years had been painful. Tifton had come to believe all the junk that had been written about him and, in the process, had forgotten about the brains of the outfit; Leroy H. Culpepper, man of many talents who preferred staying out of the limelight for his own reasons. Culpepper’s mouth went dry and he tasted the bitterness of resentment as he tried to moisten his lips and thought about the recent past.
Everything took a turn for the worse when Tifton started telling some of his own jokes in his standup routine. At first, audiences tolerated the bad jokes so Tifton increased his input. Culpepper reckoned that now a full one-third of Tifton’s standard presentation was the comic’s own stuff. His jokes were terrible, Culpepper thought. Just terrible. What made it worse was that Tifton wouldn’t talk about the changes or give him a clue as to why he was doing what he was doing; abandoning the approach that had been so successful for the two of them. He tried to talk with him, reason with him, about the material, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Just last week, they had a bitter argument. Tifton stood and glared at him after reading what a critic had to say about the previous evening’s performance. He held up the headline, “Is Tifton Losing His Touch?” and blamed Culpepper for the poor showing.
“I’m not a ventriloquist. I can’t put words in your mouth. If you choose to ignore me and what I’ve written for you, you’ll have to pay the consequences.” Tifton wouldn’t listen. Since then, the boo birds in the audiences had been active and Tifton was getting testy. If Culpepper couldn’t convince Tifton to stop telling his own terrible jokes, their lavish life style was in jeopardy. Comedy had provided a good living for both of them, but the old show business adage was that you were only as good as your last performance.
Culpepper was sitting backstage listening to Tifton’s routine. It made him sick to his stomach. He couldn’t listen any more. He went back to Tifton’s dressing room and sat down, put his head in his hands. What was he going to do?
“Shine, Mister?”
He opened his eyes. A kid was standing in front of him, smilly smirk on his face, shoe cleaning kit in hand.
“How did you get in here? This area is off limits.”
“I know. But would you like a shine anyway? First time is free. I like repeat business.”
Just the way he said it made Culpepper laugh. He looked at the kid and nodded.
“Go ahead.”
He watched the kid work for a minute. “Why did you come in here?”
“I was hoping to see Mr. Tifton. Maybe get some pointers. I’m going to be a famous comedian too . . . just like him.”
“I don’t want to disappoint you, kid, but Tifton doesn’t like kids. Hates’em in fact.”
“Mr Tifton will like me.”
Culpepper laughed again. What is it you like about him?”
The kid looked up with his silly smirk. “His jokes are terrible, but he tells them so good. Just like me. My Mum says I could read the phone book and people would laugh.”
Culpepper didn’t like the direction this conversation was taking. He asked a question knowing that maybe he didn’t want to hear the answer
“Why do you say his jokes are terrible?”
The kid stood straight out of his shining posture.
“Hmmm . Let me see. How about these? You can tune a piano, and you can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish.”
Culpepper laughed heartily. He couldn’t help it. It was one of his favorite jokes and he’d written it for Tifton more than ten years ago.
“Where did you hear that?”
“Never heard it. Got an old joke book of Mr. Tifton’s that I’ve memorized.” He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled an old dog-eared copy of a joke book Culpepper had ghost written for Tifton several years back. “My Dad got this for me for my birthday a couple of years ago. As they say in that commercial, I don’t leave home without it.”
Culpepper laughed again. He could do something with this kid. He could envision him on stage telling jokes that he would write for him. People would laugh. He felt a flicker of hope in his chest. Maybe everything would work out.
Tifton walked into the room.
“What’s this kid doing here? Get him the hell out.”
“He’s my guest. He’s shining my shoes. Let him be.”
“I said get him out of here. Now.”
The kid stood and started to sing.
“A peanut sat on the rail road track
His heart was all aflutter.
A train came speeding down the track.
Toot, toot! Peanut butter.”
Culpepper and Tifton looked at each other. Then they looked at the kid, then back at each other. Culpepper looked at the kid again.
“Got any more?”
The smirk. “Sure do. The guy says to the doctor, Doc, my memory is slipping. I can’t seem to remember anything. The doctor asked him how long he had this problem? The guy says, What problem?” The kid looked at the two men, waited for a laugh. Nothing came so he continued, “There are three kinds of people, those who can count and those who can’t,” and “The teacher asked me to help my sister with her homework. I told him that I can’t because I can’t be a brother and assist her too!”
Culpepper loved this. He had written all this stuff years ago and memories came flooding back. He looked again at Tifton and noticed the thinnest of smiles appear. The kid was getting to him.
“Mr. Tifton. Would you like a shine as soon as I am finished with him? First time is free. I like repeat business.”
Just the way he said it made Tifton laugh.

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