It may come as no surprise to you that I measure many of the moments in my life based on whether a joke I told did or did not bomb. For a wannabe comedian, there is nothing quite like the sound of a great punchline. This explains why your 11-year-old brother can still feel good about himself after hundreds of gaffes, botched puns and corny lines, just as long as he manages to get off one great wisecrack per day. A first-rate zinger erases many failures.
I still relish the memory of that one night in college. Several guys were sitting around in our dorm watching the movie “In the Line of Fire.” You know, the one where Clint Eastwood is a veteran Secret Service agent on the trail of a maniac who plans to kill the president. John Malkovich plays the maniac. Before the climactic scene, the killer is putting on a disguise in order to crash the political fundraiser where he will make his play for infamy. Among the assorted wigs and eyeglasses on his makeup table, Malkovich has a box full of prosthetic noses, which he carefully sorts through in order to find exactly the right one.
“Ha,” I smirked. “He’s picking his nose.”
The line brought down the house. Admittedly, it was an easy house. All five of us were a little loopy after a failed attempt earlier that evening to go to the Old Country Buffet and eat them out of business. Apparently, an overdose of fried chicken and mashed potatoes lowers your threshold for humor significantly. Still, I killed it with that line. One guy even stopped watching the movie to call his girlfriend and tell her the joke. I was particularly pleased with that, since his girlfriend’s roommate was cute, and I assumed that reports of my wit would soon reach her.
Unfortunately, because she had not eaten any mashed potatoes that evening, she ended up marrying someone else. But that joke had an even greater resonance for me. It must have come so quickly to mind because the movie scene took me back to that Christmas in 1980. The year I finally got a disguise kit.
I had grown up watching those movies where Peter Sellers was the bumbling French police inspector Jacques Clouseau. Always on the trail of a diamond thief named the Pink Panther, Clouseau wore a host of disguises to conceal his identity while in hot pursuit. He became a peg-legged pirate, a bearded French artist, and a mafia gangster. My favorite was when he dressed as Quasimodo, with an inflatable hunchback that kept getting bigger and bigger until Sellers floated right out the window.
In 1979, the Pressman Toy Company even marketed an Inspector Clouseau Pink Panther Disguise Kit. But that’s not the one I got for Christmas. Instead, Santa found me a discount brand disguise kit, which came in a cardboard suitcase with a handle, perfect for carrying into a bank and posing as a businessman. Had anyone questioned what an 8-year-old with a three-piece suit and a moustache was doing at the bank, I would simply point to the suitcase to establish my street cred as a grown-up.
Inside that cardboard box was everything a kid needed to transform himself into, well… Groucho Marx. There were glasses with a rubber nose and fuzzy moustache. The kit also included a plastic cigar, clown noses, a brown beard, eyebrows, rubber ears, some buck teeth, an eye patch and even a pair of wax lips.
You can imagine the adventures an elementary-school kid could have incognito. I became a detective or a robber. I could be a president or a hobo. One minute, I was Captain Bluebeard, forcing someone to walk the plank as I squinted to see out of one eye. The next, I was James Bond, sipping lemonade and chewing on a plastic cigar. Chevy Chase in “Fletch” had nothing on me. Armed with my disguise kit, I was unstoppable.
But there was just one problem. My mother always knew it was me. I would sneak out the back door, tiptoe around the house, and ring the front doorbell with an impenetrable new face on, and she would say, “Oh, hey Michael.” Of course, that’s what happens with a generic brand disguise kit. Even the wax lips started to chap after a few weeks.
That reminds me: Halloween is right around the corner. Time to dust off the old cardboard suitcase and see if I can masquerade as an 8-year-old boy in need of free Milk Duds. Does anyone have a clean-shaven plastic upper lip I can borrow?