Risky Business

The comedian Dimitri Martin tells the following joke: “The worst time to have a heart attack is while playing charades.” The beauty of this joke, as with most jokes, is that all the humor occurs after that fact, within the audience. It’s only when we figure out why having a heart attack during charades would be such bad timing that we laugh. The comedian starts the joke, but the audience finishes it. I thought of this after having recently read a column by Dick Cavett in which he described Art Linkletter’s utter inability to tell a joke. Linkletter’s problem, according to Cavett, was that he would explain the joke after telling it, before the audience had an opportunity to finish the joke themselves.

This impulse was apparently somewhat systemic with Linkletter. Because Cavett’s column was online, readers posted a number of comments. One such reader had, as a precocious five year-old, been a guest on Linkletter’s, Kids Say the Darndest Things. Turns out some of those things the kids said were fed to them by producers. Shocking.

I understand Linkletter’s choices.  Sometimes kids do not actually say the darndest things, and sometimes people do not get your jokes. In fact, my wife – who told me the Martin joke – admitted it took her a few beats to picture just why having a heart attack during charades would be so unfortunate.

This is the chance you take when sharing what interests you. Like it or not, art of all shades is an act of trust. You cannot make anyone feel anything, and you cannot know for sure what references anyone will get. I wonder sometimes how T. S. Eliot felt finishing The Waste Land. Did he care how much of it would sail right past even very well read readers? Perhaps not. Perhaps he couldn’t, because that was how he wished to reveal what was important to him. That was the chance he was willing to take.

The risk, however, is really an illusion. Sharing something you love is only risky if you believe whether someone else loves it or hates it can do you harm. It can’t, of course, but what hurts worse than all the laughless punch lines or rejection letters in the world is the belief that maybe this thing wasn’t worthy of love in the first place, and maybe you aren’t either. Believe this, and you turn the knife yourself, trying to cut out what you love to erase a shame you invented.

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