August 14, 2013
Nick vowed to nail me before graduation. This is what he told everyone at the movie theater where we worked. We never dated. He barely noticed me until I lost a lot of weight my senior year of high school. Despite his distasteful proclamation, Nick was the first guy who openly wanted me, so it was still kind of thrilling when we both ended up crashing in the same hotel room with some other work friends after a party. However, determined not to have my virginity checked off Nick’s sexual to-do list, I hid behind my best friend all night, using him as a human shield until we all fell asleep.
I woke up to the unfamiliar sound of flesh against flesh. The light from the television washed electric across Nick’s bare chest as he kneeled at the edge of the adjacent double bed in just his jeans, which were hanging even lower than usual. The slow, soft slapping sound grew frantic as his body bucked. I buried my head under the pillow. I didn’t want to see, but I had to look. Peeking with one eye, I glimpsed the American flag flapping majestically across the television screen as the station, signing-off for the night, played the national anthem. With one hand on his heart, and the other hand unmentionable, Nick masturbated while softly singing along. O say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? Suddenly, bombs weren’t the only thing bursting in the air.
My first orgasm wasn’t even mine and was to be linked forever with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Back then, I was mortified to wake up to the sight of a boy saluting the American flag with his own. Now, the memory makes me laugh, but what makes it funny? What makes anything funny? More than that, how do you take a personal experience and shape it into a story that will not only make people laugh but will resonate and leave a lasting impression?
As a kid, I was obsessed with Bill Cosby’s early comedy routines. I memorized them and would perform them for my family. One begins with the time Cosby and his friend Old Weird Harold went to see a horror film. Too scared to look up at the monster, they hid on the floor of the movie theater and stayed there until late at night. Walking home across the 9th Street Bridge, the boys were so terrified that when a wino stumbled a little too close, they trampled over him in their panicked escape.
Cosby moves on to a story about “Buck, Buck,” a street game he played with his friends in Philadelphia, which involves one team trying to collapse another team under their collective weight. Going up against a team who are overconfident they won’t collapse, Cosby’s team calls out their secret weapon: Fat Albert. The opposing team surrenders when they see Fat Albert barreling toward them shouting, “Hey, Hey, Hey!”
“Now, I told you that story to tell you this one,” Cosby transitions swiftly to a third story about helping his friends scare Fat Albert by ambushing him at the top of a stairwell with a Frankenstein statue. Unfortunately, Cosby forgot he was standing behind Fat Albert…
“They took me to the hospital, and they put me in a bed beside a wino who was run-over by two kids and we both agreed that frightened children are really hard to get along with.”
Individually, all three stories are very funny. However, the sudden reappearance of the trampled wino is what delighted me as a child. Cosby reached behind my ear and pulled out the magic card. I knew that wino from the 9th Street Bridge! This comedic device, where a joke, detail, or seemingly concluded event is planted early on – in this case Cosby’s trampled wino – and then forgotten, only to come back later in an unexpected way, is a Brick Joke. The moment of recognition created by the Brick Joke’s surprising payoff gives the audience its own visceral experience of the story. Furthermore, the feeling of shared emotion this evokes between storyteller and audience is a powerful tool both for comedic and more serious writing in any medium, whether it be stand-up comedy, one-person shows, or memoir.
The name comes from an old joke, which at first appears to be a pair of unrelated jokes. In the first one, an eccentric man wants to buy exactly 99 bricks to build his new home but is told they are sold only in quantities of 100. At the end of the joke, annoyed at having one brick left, the man simply tosses it up into the air, leaving the confused listener without a punch line.
In the second joke, The Airplane Joke, which is often told a few jokes later, a guy with a smelly cigar and a woman with a small dog are seated next to each other on an airplane. The woman demands the guy put out his cigar, and they argue until he offers her a compromise.
“Look, if you get rid of your dog, I’ll get rid of the cigar.” To his surprise, the lady opens the window and tosses her dog out. The man throws his cigar out thinking, since he’s got other cigars, he has won. However, the woman suddenly reaches out the window, grabs her dog’s leash, and pulls him back in, thinking she has won. But guess what the dog has in his mouth? Wait for it… a brick!
In comedy, a callback is a reference a comedian makes to an earlier joke in a set. A Brick Joke is a type of callback, but one that lands with more significance. More than just referencing something that took place previously, a Brick Joke skillfully ties the loose ends of a later joke to one planted previously in the story. Like the man chucking his leftover brick up in the air, the earlier joke may not have a punch line, or even be funny at the time, but it suddenly becomes the punch line for the second joke. The device is similar to Chekhov’s Gun, where an unimportant element introduced early on becomes significant later. However, the Brick Joke’s planted feature isn’t plainly visible as foreshadowing, i.e., “a gun in plain view on the mantelpiece in Act 1 that will be fired later.” Instead, the unexpected and satisfying payoff created by tying these two seemingly unrelated moments together is the punch line. The challenge is How do you get the brick in the dog’s mouth?
Commonly identified as a television trope, the Brick Joke was frequently used on Seinfeld. In the beginning of “The Marine Biologist,” Jerry and George ignore Kramer’s invitation to go “have some fun” by hitting his new Titleist golf balls into the ocean. Later, Kramer returns to the apartment complaining his swing’s deserted him and that he only hit one good shot all day. At the end of the episode, George astounds Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer with the story of how, caught in Jerry’s lie to a high school friend that George became a marine biologist, George had to save a beached whale from suffocating by removing something lodged in the creature’s blowhole. George pulls out the obstruction to show the group and guess what it is? Wait for it… a golf ball!
KRAMER: What, is that a Titleist? (George nods.) Well, a hole in one, huh?
When George reveals the obstruction, he never actually says it is Kramer’s golf ball but simply stares at him in pointed silence. In fact, no one speaks for a full twenty seconds, allowing the audience to actively share in the delicious moment of realization right along with the Seinfeld characters. When Kramer finally says his line, he confirms the Brick Joke’s payoff, a hilarious and otherwise unimaginable capper to George’s already astonishing story.
As the creator of the cult classic TV series Freaks and Geeks, Paul Feig is undoubtedly familiar with Brick Jokes as a television trope, but his use of the device in his memoir, Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence, shows how the Brick Joke is also a compelling way to structure autobiographical material. Feig’s collection of embarrassing childhood stories is a harrowing portrait of growing up geeky in the seventies. Feig introduces his story, “The Gym Class Archipelago, Part II: Disturbingly Clean,” with an unsettling memory of when, as an eight-year-old Cub Scout, he took a trip to a local high school with an Olympic-size swimming pool. However, before they would let them swim, the high school boys told the Scouts they had to go through a quick inspection first.
The high school guys took positions in the doorway that led from the locker room into the pool area and had us line up. Then, as each one of us would get up to the front of the line, one of the guys would say, “All right, kid, bend over and crack a smile.” And with that, we were each expected to pull our bathing suits down, bend over, and pull our butt cheeks open so the guys could visually inspect our rectums.
Over the years, Feig inquired about the medical validity of this type of inspection to his various doctors, but they all just looked at him like he was crazy.
It is with the sense memory of “standing in the cold tile corridor wearing only my bathing suit and preparing to show off my dumper as my peers stood around me naked” that Feig enters his Junior High’s locker room on the first day the boys have to shower after gym. With cringe-inducing detail, Feig describes his classmates’ naked roughhousing and how his gym teacher, Mr. Wendell, bullies him into joining the other boys in the group shower. Washing quickly, Feig is about to slip back out unnoticed when Mr.Wendell yells at him to wait because he needs the boys to do something before they can leave. Alerted to Feig’s presence in the shower, the rowdy boys “DOGPILE!” on him while his teacher looks on laughing. Buried under a mountain of naked bodies, naked himself, is Feig’s worst nightmare come true, until…
“Boys,” said Mr. Wendell, “before you can towel off and get dressed, I need to give you a little visual hygiene check.” Mr. Wendell looked directly at me as my jaw dropped to the floor.
“Feig, you’re first. Bend over and crack a smile.”
I woke up in the nurse’s office.
Reading the end of Feig’s story, I physically jumped as if someone had rat-tailed a wet towel across my own naked ass. Unlike the fictional Seinfeld, where anything can happen, Feig uses the Brick Joke structure to powerfully shape something that did happen to him. Planting the memory of the pool “inspection” early on as an explanation of his primal fear of showering naked after gym class, Feig’s narrative never gives any indication during the rest of the story, not even when he talks about discussing the incident with his future doctors, that this wasn’t an isolated occurrence. So, when the absurdly horrific “Bend over and crack a smile” reappears later, the Brick Joke’s surprising payoff is much more than comedic. Here, the punch line is a punch to the gut. The recurrence is so surreal it couldn’t be anything but painfully true. Feig’s shocking moment of recognition put my feet on the cold tile floor of that locker room standing wet and vulnerable next to him. It also made me really glad I’m not a boy.
Brick Jokes can work to enhance resonance in dramatic moments as well as comedic ones, and the personal connection they create between storytellers and their audience is an exceptionally effective tool for memoir-writing in any medium. In Immaculate Degeneration, a rock-n-roll cabaret, Pamela Sabaugh’s use of the Brick Joke structure deftly turned the show’s low point on its ear, giving her audience the experience of the emotional highs and lows felt during times of grief. Stricken with Juvenile Macular Degeneration as a teenager, Sabaugh is legally blind, and her one-woman show is a wonderfully frank examination of what it is like to live in a world designed to exclude people who cannot see. Through monologues and seven original songs, Sabaugh takes the audience on her life journey from the inner city of 1980s Detroit to studying theater at Rutgers University with the dream of moving to New York City to be an actress.
In her final year of grad school, Sabaugh gets the chance to audition for a film that is “actively seeking a visually impaired actress.” Sabaugh meets with an intense casting director, who preps her:
“Thank you so much for coming in. As you know this is about a woman who loses her sight and she starts seeing leprechauns. She’s about to commit suicide, when the leprechaun starts throwing things at her.”
“Did that happen to you?”
“When you first lost your sight?”
“Was I suicidal? No actually I felt a deep calm…”
“No, when you first lost your sight, did you see leprechauns?”
Sabaugh assures the casting director that, even though she’s never personally hallucinated leprechauns, she can still play the role, but she doesn’t get the part. Later in the show, Sabaugh talks about preparing for her school’s Industry Showcase, held two days before graduation. Her brother calls the night before with the devastating news of her father’s sudden death from a heart attack. Not wanting to abandon her scene partners, Sabaugh holds it together long enough to perform in the showcase and then rushes home to be with her family.
Back in her childhood bedroom, a grief-stricken Sabaugh doubts her acting dream and herself. She is ready to give up on everything she’s worked so hard for when suddenly, “Ow!” something hits her in the back of the head. Playing her own hallucinated leprechaun, Sabaugh dances a jig as she acts out the wee creature throwing things, “That’s right. I’m a leprechaun, and I just danced in on that rainbow blind spot of yours. And now I’m going to smack some sense into you!”
The unforeseen and exhilarating entrance of the leprechaun had the audience, and me, laughing and crying at the same time. No, Sabaugh never actually “saw” a leprechaun, but the Brick Joke’s payoff enabled us to share in her experience of rising out of a place of grief and frustration to one of laughter and perseverance. Much like the sudden reappearance of Cosby’s trampled wino, Sabaugh’s fictional twist to her real life story increases its emotional impact. Sabaugh has thrived in a world designed to exclude her, but the marvelous plant and payoff of the dancing leprechaun is one of the ways Immaculate Degeneration ingeniously includes us in her world.
The beauty of the Brick Joke centers on the deep sense of satisfaction produced by its plant-and-payoff structure, but what makes it so satisfying? A large part of it has to do with the clear way the Brick Joke executes the idea of reincorporation. In Improvisational Theater, reincorporation is defined as, “Bringing back an idea from earlier in the scene, or from a previous scene in the show, or even from a previous performance.” In Keith Johnstone’s book, Impro, he discusses the use of reincorporation in his chapter on “Narrative Skills”:
The improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still “balance” it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them. Very often the audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story. They couldn’t tell you why they applaud, but the reincorporation does give them pleasure. Sometimes they even cheer! They admire the improviser’s grasp, since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily forgotten.
Mike Birbiglia is a comedian whose one-man shows straddle stand-up comedy and theater. With a background as an improv performer, Birbiglia often draws on the art of reincorporation to seamlessly link his material, and provide a sense of unity to his shows. Birbiglia’s natural delivery and improvisational energy give the impression that he is effortlessly telling his true life tales off the cuff. However, Birbiglia’s well-thought-out scripted material very deliberately implements techniques, like Brick Jokes, to reincorporate incidents, phrases, and characters across his show’s landscape.
Taking his therapist’s advice to write down his most intimate stories and painful memories in a journal, Birbiglia developed this material into his show, What I Should Have Said Was Nothing: Tales from My Secret Public Journal. In it, Birbiglia shares an embarrassing story about how he once ruined a cancer charity event by giving the worst performance of his life.
It’s important, before I tell you this portion of the story, to remind you that you’re on my side. I’m sitting in the back of the room with my brother Joe and the woman who’s in charge walks up to me and she goes, “Okay Mike, there’s two speakers, and then you, and then a raffle.” And I thought, that doesn’t sound good… But I was trying to look at the positives, I was like, well I’ve never opened for a raffle. But here’s where it gets bad…
Speaking first was an eleven-year-old boy who talked about surviving leukemia and made the audience cry. Next was Phil Simms, a hall of fame quarterback for the Giants. After his inspiring speech, Simms got a standing ovation and then, believing the show to be over, most of the audience left. Birbiglia did his best to make the people who stayed laugh by improvising about the events of the day. Unfortunately, he quickly learned that joking about cancer at a cancer charity event is not a good idea. Bombing, Birbiglia cut his set short and – simultaneously thanking the audience and apologizing for ruining their event – bolted from the stage.
I don’t remember feeling worse in my life. I was just like a shell of a human being and I walk up to Joe and I just go, “Joe, we are leaving this place. Now!” And that’s when Joe said, and I quote, “Mike, I can’t, they’re just about to start the raffle… and because everybody left, my odds are amazing.”
Similar to George’s whale tale on Seinfeld, the Brick Joke’s “raffle” punch line is a perfect closer for Birbiglia’s story. It also reincorporates material from earlier in the show about Birbiglia’s brother, Joe. Calling him “America’s guest,” Birbiglia previously introduced his brother as kind of a mooch and not the best person to have in your entourage because instead of saying things like, “You da man, Mike!” he’s more apt to ask, “You think they got any more shrimp?” The Brick Joke’s payoff is doubly funny because Birbiglia has set up the raffle line to be recognizable as such a “Joe” thing to say. Birbiglia reminds us that “you’re on my side” but his rich use of reincorporation, through Brick Jokes and other callbacks, is what puts the audience on his side by creating a feeling of familiarity and even friendship towards Birbiglia.
By tying two seemingly unrelated moments together, the Brick Joke structure helps provide cohesion to one-person shows like Birbiglia’s and Sabaugh’s, and the emotional shorthand these linked moments create is just as valuable on the page. Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, is the semi-autobiographical story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents who expect her to grow up to be a missionary. Instead, she comes out to them as gay, with disastrous results. When Jeanette Winterson really did leave home at sixteen because she’d fallen in love with a woman, her mother asked her the question that would become the title of Winterson’s 2012 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Towards the beginning of her memoir, Winterson references how, growing up, people she knew from her parents’ generation often quoted Shakespeare, the Bible, and even poets, but they would just as often misquote or mix them up.
My mother, being apocalyptic by nature, liked to greet any news of calamity or good fortune with the line ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls…’ This was delivered in a suitably sepulchral tone. As evangelical churches don’t have bells, I never understood, even, that it was about death, and certainly not till I got to Oxford did I find it was a misquote from a prose passage of John Donne.
Winterson illustrates her mother’s use of this misquote with a story about her father winning a raffle. When her mother doesn’t react to his exciting news, Winterson’s father presses her to see if she’s pleased, but his wife only cryptically responds, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls…”
Much of Winterson’s memoir centers on her struggles to escape her mother’s influence and find her own identity. Near the end of the book, Winterson, while searching for her birth mother, stumbles upon an unnerving truth about a male child named Paul, whom her mother tried to adopt before her. Winterson never finds out what happened to Paul, but uncovers a letter from her mother to the adoption agency expressing her disappointment and anger because she already bought Paul’s baby clothes and couldn’t afford another set. Winterson struggles to digest what her mother did with Paul’s clothes.
I am just about beginning to take in that Mrs. Winterson was expecting a boy, and that as she couldn’t afford to waste the clothes, I would have been dressed as a boy… So I started life not as Janet, not as Jeanette, but as Paul.
Oh no oh no oh no, and I thought my life was all about sexual choice and feminism and… it turns out I began as a boy.
Ask not for whom the bell tolls.
Like the emotional rollercoaster Sabaugh experienced after her father’s death, this revelatory moment in Winterson’s life is too immense to express by flatly describing how it made her feel. The payoff of her mother’s misquote is fiercely funny as it acts as an inside joke between Winterson and her readers to efficiently communicate the onslaught of conflicted emotions brought on by this absurd life twist. The Brick Joke structure may not always have a comedic edge, especially when used in a dramatic moment; however the double-edged potential it has for mixing humor with pain means it can cut twice as deep. Here, the Brick Joke’s dark punch line, like Winterson’s identity, is rooted in her mother’s influence, but the wit she uses to wield it is all her own. By tying these two life moments together to convey a deeper meaning, Winterson’s memoir is able to connect with her readers in a way she never could with her mother.
In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Winterson talks about the experience of relating personal stories through writing,
The intensity of a story – say the story in Oranges – releases into a bigger space than the one it occupied in time and place. The story crosses the threshold from my world into yours. We meet each other on the steps of the story.
The emotional response elicited by the Brick Joke’s payoff creates a shared experience between storytellers and their audience, on the stage or on the page, and in that moment they meet each other on the steps of the story. Whether the result is laughter or a punch to the gut, Brick Jokes make a lasting impression, and, for autobiographical material, the Brick Joke’s plant-and-payoff structure is an engaging way to shape a life event into the kind of story that resonates with people long after it has been shared.
This thrilling moment of recognition by an audience, or reader, is what I crave. For me, the climax of creation is when my personal experience releases and, crossing the threshold, evokes a visceral response in others. If people laugh, I get a full body jolt. And cry, forget about it! The sensation in that moment is incredible, it’s like… I don’t know how to describe it, it’s beyond words. Wait, I know, it’s like having an O… say does that Star – Spangled Banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?