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Comic Relief

by on March 10, 2019

Comic Relief

by Marco M. Pardi

Humor must have its background of seriousness. Without this contrast there comes none of that incongruity which is the mainspring of laughter.” Max Beerbohm. “A Conspectus of G.B.S.”

All comments are welcome and will receive a response.

In the 1970’s I watched a film titled, Mother, Jugs & Speed. It was a “black comedy”, featuring a strong cast of well known actors, which portrayed a struggling ambulance company competing for the lucrative Los Angeles contract. Mother was Bill Cosby, Jugs was Raquel Welch, and Speed was Harvey Keitel. Additional characters rounded out this exceedingly dysfunctional crew.

I don’t know if the film was a box office hit, but I watched it on television. I laughed so hard throughout the film I thought I might have to see it again in case I missed anything.

So, have you ever wondered how ambulance crews and funeral home personnel cope with the situations they see almost daily? I have some experience in both those areas. In 1959-1960, my senior year in high school, I was seriously in need of a way to avoid an extremely dysfunctional household. The small Southern town we had recently moved to had two (White) funeral homes. In many parts of the country funeral homes also provided ambulance service, and this town was no exception. Since this was a 24/7 need, as was collecting a corpse from a private home and taking it to a local doctor’s home for confirmation of death, or from a hospital or nursing home to the funeral home, crews lived upstairs in the funeral home. Perfect. Although I was a year too young to legally drive the ambulance I could be part of the two man team for either ambulance runs, body collection, or providing at-home oxygen and other palliative equipment and care. With no requirement of special training, I was hired immediately. My duties were evenly split between ambulance and collection with occasional support elsewhere. I was almost always partnered with “Harold”, a 6’5” beanpole and my 5’9” stocky frame. Mutt & Jeff.

One of my first lessons was the adoption of appropriate affect. We might be upstairs laughing at a tv show but when a family came for a viewing we were instantly somber. Sometimes that backfired. Harold and I went on a night time collection of a man who had died at home. With somber faces we were ushered into a front room with two card tables, snacks and drinks, lots of people looking at us, and a withered rail of an elderly man lying on a cot in his underwear, the bedclothes in disarray and his arms hanging off the cot. His smiling daughter’s first excited words to us were, “You missed it! You should have seen him kick. Didn’t know he had it in him.” It was then I noticed the cards on the tables were all face down. As soon as we cleared out the mess they were going back to their games.

But we had games as well. The prep room, where embalming, repair, make-up, etc was done, was a windowless room in the back. Entered through swinging double doors, the room had two side by side prep tables separated by a narrow passage to the instrument counter at back. The overhead lights were operated by a cord hanging down between the tables but to get to the cord one had to let go of the doors, which quickly shut behind you leaving you in the dark.

Pizza delivery was a new thing, but Harold already had a plan. He called and ordered a delivery while “Thomas”, another employee, went into the prep room, took off his shoes and socks, and lay on a table under a sheet, feet sticking out toward the doors. When the wide eyed boy arrived with the pizza Harold apologized for leaving his wallet on the back counter in the prep room and, of course, the boy eagerly volunteered to retrieve it. Harold kindly told him where the light cord was. We heard the doors creak open and swing shut …seconds before we heard a scream and the doors slamming outward. Thomas, the corpse on the table, had grabbed the boy in the dark as he passed between the tables. After the boy left, with a stiff tip as it were, we agreed it was fortunate the doors swung both ways or we would have been re-framing and re-hanging the doors all night.

It wasn’t pizza that got me a few nights later. We got an ambulance call to transfer a cardiac patient to a better equipped hospital. The ambulances were simply customized station wagons with red lights, sirens, and flat floor with jump seat behind the driver and radio seat. Harold drove and, on picking up a patient, I crawled in the back to sit with the patient. This night we picked up a monstrously obese woman who was in bad shape. No sooner had Harold hit lights and siren than she began moaning something repeatedly. Thinking I would get her last words for her family I leaned in closely. That’s when she cocked her head toward mine and projectile vomited what must have been a gallon of All You Can Eat into my face. I was so shocked I yelled, NO WONDER YOU’RE SICK. Harold was laughing so hard the ambulance began swerving and, while I fought to keep from falling on the woman he called ahead to the emergency room and requested several wet towels be ready. The nurses on the ramp were clutching themselves laughing as I slithered out the back of the ambulance with professional decorum.

That week-end we had a funeral to do. It was on the last of several days of hard rain. As the family departed the graveside and we rolled back the astro-turf covering the open grave we saw about a foot of water in the grave. That state did not require a grave liner in those days. When we lowered the casket into the grave one of the wet stainless steel rods on the mechanism fell off into the grave. Being the new guy, I was appointed to drop down atop the casket and slide my arm into the very narrow space and retrieve the rod from the water. After several attempts using two fingers I finally got it and, in exuberance, stood atop the casket and loudly said AAAAHH. The two grave diggers, approaching with shovels over their shoulders, saw me arise grinning from the grave. If the Olympics ever has a Shovel Throwing Event I know where to assemble a Gold Medal team. And they cleared tombstones like a High Hurdles event.

Some weeks later Harold and I ran an emergency call to a high rise office building in the center of town. We had to double park the ambulance in the street, lights flashing. The first sign of trouble was the elevator. Built for four very close friends, it required us to jack-knife the gurney to get to the 7th floor. Once there we discovered a large man in his office chair, purple blood pooling under his mandible and urine drying on his pants. Clearly dead. But we weren’t licensed to pronounce it so we had to load him and then jack-knife him into the elevator with Harold and me. Good thing Harold did not have that second hamburger for lunch. The ambulance had drawn a crowd so when the elevator doors opened and the gurney sprang out with a dead guy on it people fell back and gasped. We got him back on the gurney and rolled him out but then 6’5” Harold yanked his end up high to clear the parked cars and 5’9” Marco held as high as possible while a pair of shoes crept toward his ears. We almost dropped him in the street.

Some time later Harold and Thomas decided to liven up a slow day. Thomas lay on the ambulance floor while Harold and I drove casually out of town. Once in the clear we stopped and Thomas got on the gurney, I got in the jump seat, and Harold raced us into town with lights and siren. He killed the siren but not the lights and slid into a gas station by the pump. As the attendant came out he said, Fill ‘er up and check the oil. I “worked” on Thomas. I remember the attendant rattling the hose in the filler tube and asking, You sure you aren’t in a hurry? Harold counted out the money and we took off.

But this was small stuff. On a week-end I luckily decided to have one night at home Harold, Thomas and a couple of others got with the guy who was our regular mechanic. Built like a jockey, and with a jockey’s horse-like little face, he was a perfect fit for a prisoner’s coffin we had. Just a black pine box with nail on lid and silver looking handles, it fit nicely into the black panel truck we had for home oxygen delivery and burial equipment. The truck had the name of the funeral home on the sides, but not “funeral home”. So Harold and a couple of the guys put the mechanic on a prep table and, with wax and make-up, gave him scars and “stitches” on his face. They loaded him, in the pine box, into the panel truck with feet to the back doors and drove 25 miles south to a classic little town built around a square.

These were the days of drive-in restaurants with “curb hops”, usually high school girls in little skirts. They pulled in and, when the girl came for their order, ordered three hamburgers and three cokes. Harold explained the third guy was doing some work in the back and would the girl mind going around and opening the doors to give him his order. When she came with the tray of orders Harold paid her and she hopped around back and opened the doors. The mechanic sat up in the coffin and groped for the food, groaning ravenously. The car hop screamed, the food flew in the air, and diners on both sides spilled their Cokes. They made a quick getaway and probably would have made it back to the funeral home but they stopped at another drive-in for a re-run. Same thing. But this time their escape was stopped by a swarm of Sheriff’s deputies alerted to the roving ghouls. All the deputies thought it was hilarious, except one. And so it was they were cited for “Disturbing the Peace” and ordered to appear in court.

The next day, a Sunday, the owner of the funeral home was in his office with a copy of every major State newspaper on his desk. Prominently on the front page of each: “Ghouls strike in (name of town)”, or something similar. I’ve rarely seen a man so close to major stroke. It was interesting.

So, we had colorful characters, including the guy who had terrible Athletes Foot and soaked his feet in embalming fluid. It worked, but walking barefoot on the wooden floors he sounded like the Dutch Boy in his wooden shoes. But one point I must make is that I never once saw or heard of any mistreatment or disrespect of any of the corpses or any of the ambulance patients.

Still, I suppose some readers did not find the foregoing very amusing. I think humor, like jargon, is often specific to careers, workplaces, and other definable venues. How often do we find ourselves saying, Well, you had to have been there. Stand up comics succeed when they connect their humor to situations the audience can relate to, often situations that in themselves are not really funny. That gives rise to the saying, All humor is based in tragedy.

Although it is obviously naive to refer to the “American culture”, the country appears to be struggling through a period in which certain traditional humor is now off limits. We now rarely hear the once common trinity of, A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Minister walked into a bar………, or some variation thereof. We no longer hear ethnic jokes. George Carlin and Richard Pryor are gone, and not soon to be replaced. Now we often find ourselves wanting to tell people to: Lighten up. And we wonder if someday someone will remember the day we told that joke.

Life is too serious to be taken seriously. Have some fun and share it.

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12 Comments
  1. From Ray: I loved it – today’s comedy stand up routine usually insults for the crowd, is self- humiliating testimonies, or are stories involving some kind of banality – is this better than the old racist, ageist humour of yesteryear. You could the piece six feet under – if not breaking any copyright.

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  2. Thank you, Ray. I also wonder at the humor we have today. I remember some of the comedians from the 1950’s and think sometimes about doing a comparative content analysis.

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  3. Grave humor at its finest. Well, somebody had to say it. Any post where I discover something new about you or your life is enjoyable, and this has been one of the best. I laughed so hard, and it explains so much about the source of your sense of humor (not to mention the “mad professor”).

    I have to agree about the majority of today’s comic routines. I used to frequent a local comic club, but I found much of the “humor” to be filled with filth and insults. Laughing at oneself is a fine art, but there are few “artists” who step onto today’s stage.

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    • Thank you, Rose. I had fun writing it, and obviously there could have been much more. I’m very glad you found it enjoyable. Maybe I can come up with other fun examples in a not-so-fun youth.

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  4. From E: This kind of humor is what I miss about the hospital setting and what I think to be the only enjoyable part of the job. You get some of these jokes in hospice, but the typical hospice nurse is more sensitive than the ER or OR employee (ER and OR were much more fun).

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  5. Thanks, E. Of course, what I related were actual events which turned out to be humorous. But I agree, there can be some terrific jokes behind the scenes. I think there has to be, to keep sanity.

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  6. Rose, I understood your reference. Thanks.

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  7. Julie permalink

    I couldn’t agree more that “ life is too serious to be taken seriously and have some fun and share it”, I have noticed the people I enjoy being around the most are the ones that make me smile and laugh – particularly being able to see humor in different situations. Too many people get caught up in being serious and competitive, having a good sense of humor and being creative with humor is such a great quality to have – it really connects people, thanks for sharing your funny experiences Marco 😀

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    • Thank you, Julie. Of course, George Carlin said, “Behind every silver lining, there’s a dark cloud.” Yet dwelling on the dark side of humor doesn’t help us grow and adapt. To me, a highly developed sense of humor is a sure sign of higher intelligence.

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  8. Michael E. Stamm permalink

    Ever see a movie called BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, with Nicolas Cage? Not 100% on point, but I suspect you’d find some of it familiar.

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  9. Thanks, Mike. I haven’t seen that one. I’m not really big on watching movies. But I think I do recall the title. Perhaps I can find it on one of the tv channels.

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