Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Catch-22 Week: Stand-Up Comedy

Stand-Up Comedy
by Peter Cashwell

For me, Catch-22 has always been a book of voices--more of a script than a novel.  I don’t mean a movie script (frankly, I agree with those who once believed the book was unfilmable) and not really a play script either (though I did direct a school production of Heller’s stage adaptation a few years back).  I consider it more of a reader’s theater script: a piece designed to be read aloud.  And ultimately, I think that’s why I consider its most important lesson to lie less in the realm of literature than in the realm of comedy: delivery matters.

I learned this at a crucial time: the summer between 7th grade and 8th grade.  I was growing five inches taller, learning about intriguing new music like the Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind & Fire, and preparing to kiss a girl for only the second time in my life.

A lot of that thinking was done in Quebec, at a rustic summer compound on the wooded shores of Lac Perchaud.  The family of my friend Willie had built cabins galore, including a boathouse, a kitchen/dining room, a variety of sleeping quarters, and even a parlor with a pool table and a gigantic stuffed moose head—but there was no electricity.  For entertainment, we canoed on the lake, played pool, and listened to Willie’s cassette deck in brief and anxious bursts of battery power, but in the end, I must admit that there was nothing better than the nights in the main lodge.  With a fire roaring on the gigantic stone hearth and the room lit by oil lamps, we could set aside the outside world completely, losing ourselves in board games, deep conversations with Willie’s sister and her friend Emily, or the books that filled the lodge like roosting pigeons

I don’t remember most of what I read for myself that summer, but I will never forget the nights we spent reading to each other.  We were thirteen, Willie and I, and like all our peers, we were halfway terrified, whenever something funny turned up, that no one else would laugh.  Thus, whenever we came across something worth laughing at—like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or Doug Kenney and Henry Beard’s screamingly funny Tolkien parody, Bored of the Rings—it had to be considered in consultation with others.

It was inevitable, then, that once Willie found the paperback copy of Catch-22 on the lodge shelves, we would end up reading sections of it to each other and to his family.  Night after night, we would perform scenes from the hospital, with Yossarian gamely imitating The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice, or from the briefing room scene where an outbreak of moaning disrupted the meeting completely.  We reveled in the peculiar combinations of sounds that made up the rich and varied smorgasbord of character names: Cathcart, Scheisskopf, Chief White Halfoat, and of course Major Major Major Major.  Details became fixed in our minds: the crabapple cheeks of Orr, McWatt’s singsong “Oh, well, what the hell,” Milo’s disastrous cornering of the Egyptian cotton market.  We gobbled it all down like M&Ms and ice cream, growing sugar-punchy, weeping with laughter, demanding that everyone else in the room hush and let us read one more really good bit--no, this part was hilarious, you’ll see…

But eventually, once Orr didn’t return, and Snowden lay dying in back, and the number of missions crept toward infinity, we began to realize what all that sugar was doing: helping the blackest and bitterest of medicines go down.  Even then I knew that the pain of growing up required a certain degree of medication, but rarely have I been so eager to take it.

In later years, I would re-read the novel many times, as I often do with my favorites, but I always found something missing.  I once took the highly unusual step (for me) of listening to a recording of Heller reading the novel aloud, and I eventually went so far as to direct a production of his stage adaptation, but neither the author’s nor my actors’ spoken words ever quite penetrated my heart.  I will always want to hear the words of this book spoken in cracking thirteen-year-old voices, right on the edge of losing their composure and falling into uncontrollable laughter.  Mind you, I recall vividly what it was like to see the curtain raised, to have the dark brutality of war and the impossible logic of authoritarianism exposed.  Man is matter, and Snowden’s lesson is not one that can be forgotten.  But to learn it, I think, I had to hear it delivered well.

I’ve learned bitter truths from many a comic work—those of Swift, and Twain, and Carlin—but Heller’s delivery caught my ear so perfectly that I can’t help but hear Catch-22 when things are at their bitterest.  And when I hear it in my head, it’s delivered by a reader on the verge of breaking up completely, one who’s telling me that mortality need not be met with a scowl, that absurdity flourishes even in the bleakest landscapes, that there is no skull that can’t hold a reservoir of honey.

Peter Cashwell is a writer, birder, teacher, and an occasional blogger.  His book The Verb 'To Bird' was a Barnes & Noble Discover! selection in 2003, and his work has also appeared in such places as Living Bird Magazine, Chicago Tribune, OnEarth Magazine, The Daring Book for Girls, and The Readerville Journal.  A native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he now lives in rural Virgina.

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