It's hard figuring out what to do with my son for his birthday, because he always expects a Very Big Deal. Which is fine, as long as I can think of something he's not already bored with. Baseball games are so
when-he-was-a-teenager, movies are so
what-he-can-do-by-himself. If I don't come up with an idea, he'll propose bowling or shopping at Best Buy or something else I really hate. So when a friend proposed a comedy club, I thought, "Sure! Big laughs!"
My son said fine.
But when I went to the comedy club's website and saw the picture and bio of the comedian, I panicked. He was head-shaved and angular and crouched in a karate move; he looked like an attack humorist. His bio said that his mentor had been Sam Kineson, he of the mean-spirited tirades. I imagined the guy bellowing "RE-tard" at some point in his act. Worse yet, I imagined him asking if anyone had any special occasions that night. I imagined that Matt would call out, "Here, sir!" and jump to his big awkward feet and that the comedian--already poised to make a fool of anyone who exposed himself, as comics like Letterman do with their hapless guests--would make painful use of this even greater opportunity for hilarity. As we drove to the comedy club, I was braced for combat. I whispered to my husband that I was going to have to rush the stage if the guy started to screw with Matt. My husband told me to warn him in time, so that he could move to the other side of the room.
I've written about my son-- my mildly/moderately retarded, kind of autistic son--at Salon
and Brain-Child. If I'm describing him to other people, I think retarded is a tolerable word. It tells people something of who he is without a lot of polysyllabic subterfuge. I'd rather have them think the worst--and prepare themselves for compassion-- and then be astounded by all the things he is in addition to the label. But "retarded" is not really an accurate word. Matt doesn't seem slower than anyone else, only different. Sometimes I think that part of him is off in one of those 85 other dimensions that particle physicists keep talking about, and that things are both lost and gained in translation. Matt refers to himself as having "learning differences," which also doesn't seem right, in addition to having too many syllables. It might give someone the idea that he can only work out logarithms if they're projected sideways onto giant pieces of rye toast.
I don't use the word "retarded" in front of him.
Shortly after the show started, I knew the night was going to bomb. When Matt isn't enjoying himself, he acts like a beached whale-- he thrashes around in his seat and makes long whale-song sighs. He can clear out a row of movie seats when he's bored. Even though the first of the three comedians to take the stage was funny, Matt didn't even smile. He was as implacably grim as one of those Easter Island heads, even when the comedian referred to Cleveland's Public Square as the Homeless Octogon. I thought it was funny.
The second comedian was a baby-faced guy who was probably younger than Matt. He was my favorite kind of comedian, a Dennis Miller type who was so quick with his words and his wit that I could hardly keep up. His comedic specialty was identifying the things we're sensitive about--race, sexual politics, fatal illnesses--and taking a poke at them. Lots of comedians do this, but he was both appalling and very clever. I'd repeat the thing he said to the Pro-Life woman who asked him what if the Virgin Mary had opted to have an abortion, but it's his joke and too awful--if hilarious--for me to repeat in mixed company. I laughed and laughed--at the same time, wondering how I could laugh, since in any other circumstance what he was saying would only be cruel. I guess it's this: we erect a delicate ediface of words around the things that are painful and hard. When someone reaches out and crumples that edifice bit by bit--and not with a blunt instrument, but with smart, gleeful observations that reflect the futility of our efforts--it's funny. I guess we laugh at our own wincing. And we laugh at the audacity of someone who crashes through the edifice instead of carefully skirting it.
Toward the end of his act, when the laughter from the Virgin Mary joke hadn't yet died down, as people in the audience--still laughing-- were nonetheless loudly moaning that he could say such things--the comedian sequed into new territory. "I hate all the attention our society pays to famous athletes," he said, so earnestly. "Why, there's an international competition that we ignore all the time-- Special Olympics!"
Matt's attention--which had been on the noisy bachelorette party behind us--drifted back to the stage. He gave a gracious little wave to the comedian, as if he were a celebrity in the audience whose presence had been revealed--he has, after all, several Special Olympics gold medals languishing on his dresser. As the comedian went on to deliver a blisteringly graphic riff on the attributes of Special Olympics athletes--I recall something about big heads and drool cups--my husband and I froze. I couldn't bear to look at Matt. I didn't want to see comprehension replace boredom. The audience laughed and moaned, laughed and moaned, and then the comedian left the stage. I could breathe again. I finally looked at Matt, who was studying the dessert menu with a scowl. Just as he didn't find any of the other jokes interesting, he hadn't paid much attention to this material--only to the part that sounded like a salute to activities he has been a part of. Maybe I've trained him to expect the salutes and not the jibes? I don't know.
As we left, I said, "I'm sorry, sweetie-- I don't think you had much fun."
He gave me that Easter Island stare. "Sometimes, I don't laugh all night."