Role Model in Reverse | HumorOutcasts

Role Model in Reverse

October 19, 2017

Credit: Guylaine Brunet

Back when I was a young, naive lad of 35, I embraced as my role model an author famed for his language-humor columns and books. He was doing what I lovedpunning and word-playingand, amazingly, he was making a living at it. So I was thrilled when I learned he was coming to speak at the university where I taught. I was going to get to hobnob with my ideal self.

Before I actually met him, I heard he had asked one of my colleagues, the visit’s sponsor, to launder his underwear for him. This was unsettling. I had associated him with a superhero’s capenot skivvies. Suddenly, Super Punster seemed more like Captain Underpants. You might say he lost some of my respectbut only briefly.

He regained some stature when he offered to speak to individual classes and I was able to schedule him to address my own English 101 students. What a treat this would be. He arrived at my classroom with an armload of his own books and immediately began propping them up against the blackboard at the front of the room. I had expected he would make a presentation both entertaining and educational. But what he actually did was go down the row of his displayed books in a long sales pitch about why my students should buy each one. He concluded with a long story about a relative who experienced some trouble, and I was sympathizing until he ended with a punchline. I had thought he was confiding a personal experience to us, but it turned out to be just a long setup for a pun. I don’t remember the exact shtick, but it was akin to the one that ends, “Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat who chewed your new shoes?”

At dinner later that day, he again hit us with the same shtick, and at his auditorium reading that night he told for the third time Uncle Roy’s sneaker-snacking cat tale. I began to doubt the spontaneity of my hero’s wit.

After the auditorium presentation, I stood in line to get two new books inscribed. Maybe my role model wasn’t the all-around ideal I had hoped for, but I was still impressed by his success. He sat at a table on the stage just like other visiting authors before him. What was different was that he had brought his own huge, badly wrinkled author’s banner with him and had taped it to the front of the table. He was unmistakably open for business. When I was second in line, I heard his conversation with the woman in front of me. She was a high school teacher, and I could see that she had just bought two of his books. His “conversation” consisted of touting the merits of other books of his that she really ought to also buy. “Was this cool?” I wondered, but I congratulated myself that at least I would be immune to his hard sell since the two books I was buying would give me the complete collection. I mentioned that fact immediately to stave off the sales pressure, but he surprised me: “I’ll make you a special price,” he said, “if you require your students to buy my books for your classes.” This is when it dawned on me, “Oh, this is how you make a living at wordplay.”

In his novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut invents the very useful term “wrang-wrang,” which he defines as a reverse role model, someone who represents the ridiculous extreme of a path you yourself are on. What made me so uneasy about my idol’s self-promotion and his repeated shaggy dog cat story is that I myself had been accused of frequently interjecting puns into conversations with my friends. I felt I was honing my craft. Nevertheless, some complained that I didn’t listen with genuine concern but rather with an ear to how I might display my too-ready wit. Perhaps they told me about how their students were in open revolt and I had said, “Sounds like you’ve lost your class.” Maybe I wasn’t at the end of the path, but I was on it.

As my wife and friends will tell you, even after I met my wrang-wrang, I still interject the occasional pun. But I think I’ve grown. These days if you told me your pet rat had died from eating varnish, I definitely would not say, “That was a terrible end, a horrible end—but a beautiful finish.”

Bill Spencer

Bill Spencer's humor writing has been published by Funny Times, Narrative magazine, Reader's Digest, The Sun, The Inconsequential, Clever magazine, Defenestration, The Short Humour Site, Hobo Pancakes, and Nuthouse. He has also published scholarly articles on the novels of Cormac McCarthy and is co-author of an unproduced screenplay, "Angel Pays a Visit." He lives in a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina with his wife, artist-poet Carolyn Elkins.

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8 Responses to Role Model in Reverse

  1. Bill Y "The Legend" Ledden
    October 22, 2017 at 8:29 am

    To say that this had a beautiful finish is not nearly praise enough.


    • Bill Spencer
      October 22, 2017 at 8:54 am

      I worked hard for a polished ending.

  2. October 19, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    Really enjoyed this! I don’t believe I’ve ever met my “wrang-wrang,” but now I know exactly what to look for.

    • Bill Spencer
      October 19, 2017 at 5:52 pm

      “Wrang-wrang” sounds like “wrong-wrong” for a reason.

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Maria.

  3. October 19, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    Bill, this is a wonderful story — and I love your puns. You even inspire me to come up with one occasionally, although you are much better at it than I am. Whatever — don’t stop! 😀

    • Bill Spencer
      October 19, 2017 at 1:49 pm

      Thank you, Kathy, and I am a fan of your puns as well.

  4. October 19, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Oh your puns are sincere Bill Spencer! They are injected with great care and they lift me up on the darkest days. I hate when heroes fall or even falter, but I guess it shows two things: None of us are perfect and it’s always been really tough to sell a book?

    • Bill Spencer
      October 19, 2017 at 9:26 am

      I would happily make YOUR wonderful books required reading.

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