And this was nothing new. There was never a guarantee that things would work out. There was no map. No father or uncle in the business mentoring me along. It was just me moving forward, forward, reflecting and moving forward. Making choices and praying they were the right ones, leaping off cliffs, hoping for the best. The possibility of failure was always there. I imagined my past like angry wolves chasing me. And if I couldn’t keep moving, they’d catch me and devour me and shit me out. Comedy had been good. But failure could take it all away again, and send me back, back to third grade with kids running tires over me on the slide at recess.
And I wasn’t going back.
I had given everything up for this: school, my health, probably my friends. It took weeks of Thursdays to figure out if just a single bit worked or not. It was too slow. I needed help. I needed an edge.
And then I realized I had one.
I was playing Scrabble the other day with my identical twin sister. Boy, is she ugly –
I didn’t think about it. Or I did. Thought about it enough to rehearse it, to practice, to nail it. Thought about it a lot. Constantly, even. But I didn’t think about the moral or ethical ramifications. Or I did. But I didn’t care. Or I did care – but it seemed justifiable – rational? Do-able. It seemed – it felt –like I could get away with it. Like the repercussions, if any, would be minimal.
I rationalized: this is a joke by a not-famous comedian hundreds of miles away, on the other side of the world, on an alien planet. If he lived here, in Cinti, then no, forget it. If it seemed like he might ever even come to town – then no. If it could affect him, negatively, in any way – if it could somehow hurt him, hurt his career, impact him at all – in the slightest – then, no no no. But it wouldn’t. He would never know. He was not a name – not a headliner. He was a young, unknown New York comic. A foreigner, for all intents and purposes, to Cincinnati, to the Midwest. No one here would have heard of him, heard this bit before. And certainly no one there knew me. We were on two different planets completely. Two obscure, young comics on two different worlds, hundreds of miles away from each other.
Telling the same joke.
Of course, no one would know.
And besides, it was only temporary. Just until I had time to work up my own Big Bit. My Big Piece of Meat. It would give me breathing room while I continued to work, work, work on my own act. I would be like a singer – or a rock band – doing a cover. Except that no one would know it. Everyone would think the bit was mine.
And, anyway, really – who would care?! Right?! C’mon. That was the real point. The audience wouldn’t know – wouldn’t care — who wrote what. I could stand there quoting Rodney Dangerfield jokes off albums all night and no one would care! They wanted to be entertained! The New York comic – Mittleman – he could do the bit in New York. I’d do it in Cincinnati. Nobody here wanted to go to New York, anyway – and vice-versa. Just me. That was it.
Yes, yes – it was unethical I was being unethical. I was. I had no business doing it. It was wrong. Wrong. But this was my life, here! School, college, everything was wrapped up in this. I needed insurance! And most importantly, I knew it would work in my act.
I was playing Scrabble with my identical twin sister. Boy, is she ugly –
Laughs. Big big laughs. I did the joke as best I could remember it from memory and the two-to-three word notes I’d taken in NY. Maybe the wording wasn’t exactly my style – whatever that was. Maybe the identical twin sister line didn’t have the same resonance. But I did have a sister off at college. Not a twin, but close enough, right? And, okay, Mittleman’s act revolved around him deprecating his looks – so, he got a much bigger laugh with identical twin sister than I could have.
But still, it worked. I wasn’t looking to improve the joke. Maybe it would have flowed through my act better if I’d changed a few words here or there. But why mess with it? It worked fine without changing a line.
I was playing Scrabble with my identical twin sister. Boy, is she ugly.
She’s pretty stupid, too. She was writing the scores down in purple crayon! Can you believe that? Purple crayon!
Purple crayon was far and away my favorite line in the bit. Doing and saying that one line – purple crayon – taught me more about comedy than anything I’d done up to that point, because on its own, purple crayon wasn’t funny. It was a set-up that paid off at the end. But Mittleman had played it – and I played it – as if it was the funniest line in the bit. As if, naively, I simply trusted the line too much.
So, she takes all seven of her tiles and she spells out the word, ‘plrknib.’
I said, ‘Plrknib’ is not a word!’
She said, ‘it’s in the dictionary, look it up, it’s a word, it’s a word, it’s in the dictionary, look it up, it’s a word!’
Like Mittleman I did it in an annoying nyah-nyah, sing-song – twirling back and forth on my heels for emphasis.
‘It’s a word – it’s a word – it’s in the dictionary – look it up – it’s a word!’
So, I got the dictionary and I looked up the word ‘plrknib.’
‘Plrknib – a word used in the game of Scrabble.’
Deep laughs. But we’re not done yet.
And it’s written in purple crayon.
Laughs. Laughs on Scrabble. Bigger laughs and applause – applause! – on purple crayon. The coup de grace! Oh – ! We were set up! But, ah – the comic knew what he was doing! Points for smart! Points for clever! We’re in the hands of a professional.
Great, great, great, great joke. And like the big-game hunter who’d gone to Africa, I’d gone East, and snared this tiger. Without even realizing it at the time. Frodo Bernstein had found his Dark Ring of Power: Plrknib, the Perfect Joke.
This excerpt is from Alex Bersnstein’s memoir, Plrknib.
All Steve Mittleman and Mark Schiff material used with kind permission of their respective owners.
Rumpus original art by Lucas Adams.