When I finally reached my office, completely drenched by a driving rainstorm, glasses fogged, a blown-out umbrella dragging behind me, I heard the magic words I’d been waiting to hear for 46 years. “Is it raining?” asked an office mate. Without missing a beat, I turned in his direction. “No, I came by sewer,” I replied.
I’d been saving that line, lifted shamelessly from MAD Magazine’s "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions," since 1967. My young co-workers howled, and my office stock went up 10 points. But, as I basked in the warmth of their laughter and admiration, I had no intimation that this would be, for me, the beginning of a long descent into comic hell.
You see, all my co-workers were in their 20s or 30s, and none of them knew how to tell a joke, had ever heard of Henny Youngman or Jack E. Leonard, or seen a black-and-white movie. This is Minnesota, not my native New York, and snark had yet to gain a foothold on the frozen tundra.
I figured I had clear sailing to use every funny line from every classic movie, stand-up comic genius or golden sitcom oldie. They’d never know. What a beautiful setup! What a bunch of maroons (to quote the inimitable Bugs Bunny).
Later that same day, after I’d coughed a few times, the woman at the desk next to mine asked, innocently, “Would you like a glass of water?” I shuddered with pleasure and said, “No, Mel, get me a glass of sand.” ("The Dick Van Dyke Show") She couldn’t stop laughing.
The following Monday, my boss stopped by to ask what I thought of the time management reports, and I responded, “I’m suing you for $200,000,” a line from “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Totally out of context, but the boss was quite amused.
I was on a roll. At our office St. Patrick’s Day potluck lunch, a marketing manager with a crockpot under his arm asked if there was an outlet around. “Have you tried tennis?” I shot back (copped from the TV "Odd Couple" ). Someone would ask what I was having for lunch and I’d say, “Two hard-boiled eggs” (from the Marx Brothers classic “A Night at the Opera”) and cackle like an idiot. I started calling the maintenance guy “Woim” (who was one of the kids on the Bowery Boys).
Soon enough, the bloom came off the rose. The laughs stopped and the titters began, but I was one bozo who just couldn’t get off the bus. I tried limiting myself to rejoinders short and sweet. “How vivid!” I’d say, aping Auntie Mame. I began offering up pithy diatribes from Robert Benchley shorts and classic Tonight Show riffs by Orson Bean and Peggy Cass.
But nothing was working for me. I stopped even waiting for the straight lines. I’d just sidle up to someone waiting for the elevator, touch his arm and say, “My husband used to be the concierge, but he’s dead. Now I’m the concierge.” (“The Producers,” of course.) I was officially out of control. I stopped answering my office phone, afraid I’d say, “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” (channeling Lily Tomlin's Ernestine on "Laugh-In").
As it happened, the end of this psychodrama came swiftly. The men in suits who walked into my office said they were from human resources, but I suppose I’ll never know for sure. They moved me and my desk to a new department, near the mailroom. Everybody over there is very kind, and they tell me not to worry about a thing, to just work at my own pace. But they don’t talk to me all that much.
I think they’re a little frightened of me. And I haven’t even started in with my "nyuk, nyuk, nyuks."