NEWTON, Mass. There’s a long line this morning at the front desk of the hotel located on the site of the former Norumbega Park along the Charles River in this suburb of Boston, but the people in the queue are neither traveling salesmen checking out nor parents checking in for a visit to their college student children. “It’s a conference of some sort,” says bellhop Ed Marnigate as he hangs a suit bag on a luggage cart for a twenty-something man emerging from a cab. “It must be a suicide prevention group, I’ve never seen so many long-faced guys in one place.”
Norumbega Park: The perfect setting for canoe-based spooning.
The amateur group psychological assessment is only slightly off-the-mark. The overwhelmingly male influx is composed entirely of depressed, burned-out comedians whose skills have been dulled by constant banging against the vulgarity, egotism and gaffes of Donald Trump, a man whom–to a man and woman–those checking in didn’t vote for, but instead have used as a goldmine of material from the moment he first announced his candidacy to be America’s CEO.
“He’s like really stupid, and . . . uh . . . fat. And he has funny hair.”
“Trump is what is sometimes described in legal terms as an ‘attractive nuisance,’” says Amir Nebul, a Professor of Popular Culture at the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk. “Like a big pile of dirt at a construction site that kids play on and then hurt themselves, he looks like fun at first impression, but presents a real risk to a comedian’s career.” As the news that Trump would in all likelihood be out of office come January sank in Saturday, the urgency of the care the comics need became all the more urgent.
All of the attendees today suffer from Vaughn Meader Disease, an ailment named after the sixties entertainer whose comic “shtick” or “hook” was his resemblance to, and pitch-perfect impersonation of, John F. Kennedy, the 35th President known for his dashing good looks and eminently-mockable Boston accent. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas in November of 1963, touching off a period of nationwide mourning. “Something very precious died in Dallas today,” Maury Klosterman, publisher of The Standup Comic’s Road Guide, said at the time. “Vaughn Meader’s career.”
“Go ahead, crack a joke about me. I bet you can’t stop at just one.”
The comics who plunked down $250 not including room charges for a two-night retreat here have been diagnosed by their spouses or agents as having painted themselves into a corner; they are so fixated on President Trump and his off-putting personality that they are no longer capable of joking about anything else. Their hope, and the promise of the Vaughn Meader Foundation which organizes meetings such as this around the country, is that if the disease is caught in its early stages, those who suffer from it will recover in time to lead normal, productive lives telling jokes about their spouses or developing an “observational” humor style that focuses on minor annoyances, such as pat-downs at airports by Transportation Security Administration perverts.
“Okay everybody, let’s limber up,” says session leader Mark Dublinski, a licensed psychologist who specializes in mental blocks and idées fixes, monomaniacal preoccupations on a single subject. “Let’s pair off into units of two, and those closest to the door, I’m going to have you tell a joke to your partner. Let’s start with,” he says as he scans the room, “you, I want you to tell a mother-in-law joke.”
“Now show me your ‘jazz hands’ and make a noise like a chicken.”
The young man picked to take a shot at freeing himself from his demons is Bob Estabrook, who turns to Jason Norbitz and says “You know what I hate about my mother-in-law the most?”
“She bet me Trump would win in 2016 and it cost me $5.”
Dublinski adjusts his headset microphone and intervenes quickly. “Okay, let’s stop right there for a moment. Bob?”
“You’re supposed to tell a joke that doesn’t involve Trump.”
The New Hampshire resident reddens in the face. “But it’s mainly about my mother-in-law,” he says, then tries to excuse his unforced error with a weak excuse. “I had a late night gig Saturday, and I drove a long way to get here,” he begins to nods of sympathy around the room, but Dublinski cuts him off.
“Sorry, but if you’re going to beat this thing–and each and every one of you is going to if I have anything to say about it–you’re going to have to give it everything you’ve got. No excuses, okay? Let’s see what we’ve got next. How about–you two?” He nods at Todd Breuss, who has performed at a number of local nightclubs and Jennifer Fliegle, a recent NYU graduate who’s trying to break into comedy writing but is finding her way blocked by veterans who have generated a surplus of Trump jokes that will last through 2021. “Todd,” he says, looking at the man’s name tag, “I want you to tell . . . Jennifer a sex joke. Should be easy, right?”
Wilbur Ross: “Heh heh heh. You’re really cracking me up.”
“Okay,” Breuss says, then takes a deep breath before beginning. “I hear Secretary of Commerce Ross has been asked to leave the Administration,” he says, to which Fliegle, playing straight-person, replies “Oh really? Why?”
“Because the White House interns voted him ‘Sexiest Man in the Cabinet’ and Trump is jealous.”
“Hold it, hold it, stop right there,” Dublinski says, shaking his head with a bemused smile on his face. “You know what you did wrong–right?”
“Well, yeah,” Breuss says. “But the guy Ross is on TV all the time, he just popped into my brain–sorry.”
“Okay,” Dublinski says. “This is gonna be tougher than I thought. Why don’t we try”–he pauses and looks up at the ceiling as if for inspiration–“a penguin joke. Penguins are cool, no pun intended–right?”
“Right,” the audience says softly in assent.
“How could you turn a penguin joke into one about Trump? Impossible! Any volunteers?”
Carl Schrow shoots his hand up and Dublinski recognizes him.
“I love penguins. Did you see ‘March of the Penguins’?”
“No I didn’t.”
“I’ll have to check it out. And your partner is–Ed Kalik?”
“Right,” a balding man with a wispy beard replies as he stands up.
“Okay you two, you’re on.”
Schrow clears his throat and begins. “You know,” he says to Kalik, “I’m a lot like a male penguin.”
“How so?” Kalik asks.
“Well, they’re serial monogamists.”
“What’s that mean?”
“They’re loyal to females, but they change once a year at the start of a new mating season.”
“Sort of like college students, huh?” Kalik responds, generating a few chuckles from the others in the room.
“Yeah, sorta,” Schrow says, a bit miffed that Kalik has “stepped on his line,” in the jargon of the trade. “Anyway, that’s why a penguin could never be President of the United . . .”
“Cut,” Dublinski shouts, exasperated. “Let’s break for lunch.”