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The uncrowned king of ‘Soul Train’

January 7, 2011
By Bob Seidenstein

I've been obsessed with humor my whole life, and while I like all its forms, the one I like the most is jokes. I can't remember when I first heard or told jokes, but that's because I can't remember any time when I wasn't swapping them.

My first jokes were along these lines:

Q: Why did the fool throw his clock out the window?

He wanted to see time fly.


Q: Why does the ocean roar?

You'd roar too if you had lobsters in your bed.

Later, by fourth grade or so, I'd graduated to the more subtle stuff:

Me: Did you hear they won't have popcorn in the Pontiac theater anymore?

(Shocked grade school stooge): No. Why?

Me: Because all the kernels have gone to war.

Or that classic, the Mexican weather report: Chile today, hot tamale.

In fifth grade my life as a humorist got two big boosts.

One was becoming pals with my boon companion Ralph Carlson. Ralph was a first-rate joke-teller, plus he saw the world through a sardonic lens which was the equivalent of a funhouse mirror.

The other boost came from the older kids in the neighborhood who, world-weary sophisticates they were, first introduced me to the wonderful world of dirty jokes.


Searching high and low

I got a hold of everything funny I could, from Archie comics to Mad magazine, from Lenny Bruce to the underground classic, The Crepitation Contest of 1946.

And of course I searched high and low for jokes and for people who could tell them (keep in mind, this was decades before either relaxed censorship standards or the internet - finding humor that went beyond Reader's Digest stuff or Hallmark cards was almost a full-time jobthough an unpaid one).

After years of doing this, I realized people could be funny in several ways. They could tell jokes well; they could tell stories well; they could be good face makers and body movers; they could trade repartee with the best of them. And a rare few can do it all.

I was fortunate to find my share of these people in My Home Town.

My pal Bruce McNamara senior was both a brilliant joke-teller and face-maker. Another buddy, Bill Gokey, was nonstop with anything that'd get a laugh. He was also the only man I knew who broke the first rule of joke-telling - not to laugh at your own joke. After the punch line he'd laugh almost as hard as I did, which somehow made everything even funnier.

The quickest wit I ever knew was Jacques Demattos senior, and the funniest storyteller, bar none, is Bunny Beardsley.

Among the current crop, Mark Coleman and Christina Fontana are first-rate joke tellers; Howard Riley can tell jokes and funny stories equally well.


Driveway dancefest

As far as I'm concerned, the best sound in the world is hearing someone laugh, and the greatest hobby is making them laugh. And after all these years of exploring humor from every vantage, I've learned the most important thing about it: While not everyone can be funny, almost everyone loves to have fun and be amused. I sure do, and last week my friend Ken Wiley provided me with the greatest amusement I'd had in a long time.

Ken's great to tell jokes to - he doesn't laugh at just anything, but he'll crack up if something's truly funny. So he's a challenging audience, but a good one.

But while Ken's a fun guy, he doesn't joke, pun, and exchange banter all the time. He'll make a funny face now and then and joke around a bit, but always in a low-key, subtle way. But last week he blew my doors off with a display of what I thought was world-class slapstick.

I'd just come through the parking lot of what was once the Hotel Saranac and crossed Academy Street, where Ken was standing in his driveway.

I waved at him, he waved at me. Then he did a little two-step and before I knew it, he'd exploded into a frenzy of motion.

First he hopped on one leg: then the other. Next he spun in a clockwise circle, then in a counterclockwise one. After that he skipped to the front of his driveway and back, windmilling his arms and snapping his hands, Chicken Dance style, his face split in a grin so huge, his eyes were mere slits. And the whole time he was yelling something that sounded like, "Ka-wark, ka-wark, yeek, yeek, oobie-oop, ooo, ooo, ooo."

Holy smokes! Right before my eyes, good old low-key Ken Wylie was out-James-Browning James Brown!

Unfortunately, because I was already late for an appointment, I missed the rest of his performance. But I sure didn't miss its impact, which kept me laughing far into the night.

But the whole time I puzzled over what had prompted Ken's sudden and literal leap into the limelight. Luckily, I didn't puzzle very long because the next day, when I ran into Ken's wife Pat, she explained it to me.

It was all an accident. After Ken had taken those first few steps, he'd slipped and hyper-extended his knee. And after that, while it looked like he was doing the Boogaloo, Shingaling, Philly Freeze and the Fly, all at once, in reality the poor sod was just stumbling around in pain. As for his ear-to-ear "grin"? It was a grimace.

The final resolution of this incident has both good and bad news.

The good news is Ken's knee is all better.

The bad news is I was so taken aback by Ken's "performance," I completely forgot I had my camera with me the whole time.



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