Five of us, good friends all, were having dinner in a restaurant the other night when we temporarily veered off the high road of conversation onto a slightly naughty side road. Truth is, it wouldn't be funny to replay it now. You really had to be there, although the patrons at the five tables nearest us might tell you otherwise.
What a grand detour it turned out to be! Someone brought up the subject and cracked a joke. That spawned another, and without realizing it, we were building to a crescendo. The first joke made us laugh, the second was a little funnier, the third funnier yet. After the last joke hit the pile, we all had tears in our eyes. My sides hurt from laughing.
Our sally into silliness began as just another unplanned side trip that makes up three-hour dinners. I thought about the scene a couple of days later with the obvious enjoyable reflection but also with mild lament for the rarity of such moments.
Ask yourself: When was the last time you went to a party, or even sat down at the family dinner table, and had a rip-roaring guffaw?
What is the state of the talking art these days in America? Why do I have the feeling the ancient Greeks did it much better?
Once upon a time, I suspect, conversation held an exalted place in civilized society. And, please, don't confuse \o7 conversation\f7 with jabber. If jabbering were the hallmark of a great society, America today would be a model for the ages.
No, I mean conversation as an art form, in the way that letters used to be an art form until they were replaced by cartoon greeting cards as the standard means of staying in touch with people you miss.
Wouldn't it be a wonderful world if wit and wisdom were the weapons of choice?
"\o7 Earth to Mr. Parsons . . . We're losing you\f7 ."
All right, all right, I'm hallucinating. But don't give up on me yet; the idea isn't as outlandish as it sounds. It's just that we've sold our souls too cheaply.
This is, after all, a country where our most recognized form of cinematic criticism is thumbs up or thumbs down, a country where Madonna is considered an author.
Is it any wonder that raconteurs are a dying breed?
Have we lost our ability to engage in repartee, or just our interest?
Are we too hardened to really cut loose? Too cynical? Does it just take too much effort? Or, is it just that there's nobody funny out there anymore? Have we become so deadened by the sitcoms that aren't funny and talk-show guests who aren't interesting that we've relegated \o7 real\f7 laughter to some distant compartment in our minds?
British playwright and wit Oscar Wilde was renowned for being a virtuoso in any social setting. Reviled in some quarters for his flamboyance and his homosexuality, Wilde was nevertheless an acknowledged master of the art of talking.
Wilde's biographers proclaimed him the supreme conversationalist. In one compilation of his witticisms, Alvin Redman wrote that "Oscar Wilde made every conversation an occasion. His 'talk' was the rage of London society and his arrival caused a hush of expectancy. . . . He spoke in parables, told anecdotes, fairy stories, maintaining the same degree of fascination whether his talk prompted laughter or tears. . . . His amazing fertility of intellect produced a new and unexpected turn in his talk, or a new story, almost without a pause."
Some say Wilde practiced his dinner-table art; others insist it was spontaneous. Whatever the origins, it was clear that Wilde celebrated the nobility of good conversation.
A friend described an instance when he and Wilde came upon a beggar. The friend gave the man money, while Wilde gave him his coat. When Wilde's friend asked why he hadn't simply invited the man to dinner, Wilde replied: "Dinner isn't a feast; it is a ceremony."
Food for thought, eh?
I'm not suggesting that a day without a hearty laugh is wasted or that side aches must accompany every meal. The belly-laugh would lose its value if we had them all the time. Similarly, every conversation can't be memorable. Nor should it.
"Maybe we store up laughter like we store up tears," a friend said.
That has the ring of truth to it. Maybe laughter is bottled up, compressed within us, just waiting for someone to hit the release valve.
Don't you wish the valve were hit much more often?
The problem is that we're surrounded by too many fakers, frauds and would-be funnymen. Too many pretenders when what we really need are the real things. Too many talkers and not enough storytellers.
Too many Madonnas; not enough Oscar Wildes.