“Whenever I have people over, I want to put up a little flag outside the front door that says, ‘Martha Stewart Doesn’t Live Here.’”
I first heard that line, or some variation of it, while I was sitting in the kitchen listening to NPR. I don’t remember the context of the story or interview, but some part of my brain recognized it as funny. Funny was good. I wanted to be funny. I filed it away.
A few weeks later, my parents and I were invited to dinner by our dear family friends, Vicki and Felix. Vicki is an exceptional cook and thoughtful hostess. When one is cooking a meal for a dozen friends, however, it’s only natural that things get a little harried. The cake, inevitably, needs more time in the oven. The soup could use a little salt. Did anyone put the bread in the oven? No?
All of which is to say that, once everyone had taken their places around the table, a palpable sense of relief swept over the room. The hard work was done; relaxation could begin. Sensing an opening, I pounced.
“Whenever I have people over, I want to put up a little flag outside the front door that says, ‘Martha Stewart Doesn’t Live Here.”
A moment of shocked silence, another beat, and the room erupted in laughter. I beamed – it was the first time I’d ever made so many grown-ups laugh at the same time. I was about eight years old. Never mind that I had stolen the line from NPR, never mind that, in retrospect, the joke wouldn’t have been nearly as funny if it hadn’t been delivered by a small boy. I felt marvelous.
(So marvelous, in fact, that I repeated the same line at another dinner party hosted by Vicki and Felix a couple of years later, to the same triumphant result. It was just as powerful then as it had been the first time.)
I’d always been a hammy kid. I remember visiting my mother at work when I was four or five years old. I’d shamelessly show off to her colleagues, roping in my seemingly-inexhaustible knowledge of dinosaurs or Egyptian hieroglyphics or medieval castles – whatever topic I’d most recently read about or taken home on VHS from the library. This, evidently, was charming behavior, and would usually win me a lipsticky kiss on the cheek, which I would wear the rest of the day as a badge of honor. Around the same time, someone took a photo of me swinging on a lamp-post, trying my very hardest to give Gene Kelly a run for his money.
By the time I was eleven or twelve, I seemed well on my way to a genial career as a sort of exquisitely nerdy class clown. Middle school had other plans for me, though, as I discovered with horror on my first day of seventh grade. Things were, for the first time, divided into firm categories of “cool” and “not cool.” Medieval castles, Gene Kelly, and jokes about Martha Stewart? All were now supremely not cool. I was still making people laugh, I suppose – it was just that now I was mostly being laughed at.
My sense of humor adapted accordingly – it grew sharp and dry. No longer wholly satisfied with the goofy charm of Mr. Kelly, I turned towards the absurdity of Monty Python and the acidic witticisms of Oscar Wilde, Katharine Hepburn, or Davids Rakoff and Sedaris. I grew increasingly unhappy and withdrawn. My audience, needless to say, now consisted largely of myself.
Finding my way out of that unhappiness has been a long and awkward journey, expedited and made considerably more pleasant by the arrival into my life of one Mary Cate. To put it into terms that my five-year-old self would understand, What a glorious feeling – I’m happy again!
But while I’ve embraced the return to my Gene Kelly roots, the patina of snark I built up over the years has proven itself to be crafty and resilient. And why shouldn’t it be? I’ve been sarcastic for just as long as I was a ham – perhaps even longer. It’s left me with a bit of a split comic personality, a sort of Eeyore and Tigger by way of Jekyll and Hyde. I’ll say something deadpan or biting, then promptly succumb to an excited giggle. Or I’ll make a silly pun and immediately groan in anguish. Mary Cate calls me a “fauxmudgeon.”
It’s a fine line to walk, but I don’t mind. And hey – it makes her laugh.