Some people learn life’s lessons in the school of hard knocks, some by example, but I sought my answers in the classroom. I managed to build enough credits for a bachelor’s degree in education, drift into a master’s in creative arts, disintegrate into a certificate in library science and soar to nirvana with a master’s in communication from the Farm.
The year I graduated, I was sure I had arrived. But I could not figure out where.
Indeed, it took me a full life span to discover my true calling. I see me now, standing ankle-deep in a puddle of water, attempting to swim while those around me splashed and spattered me with laughter. I remember glorious proms when my stockings sagged around my ankles, my strapless dress sunk to half-mast and my date’s eyebrows soared at the sight of the little I had to offer. I see myself, a three-time graduate, rushing to capture the hot story that was yesterday’s headline. Through this kaleidoscope of near misses and almost theres, I hear laughter, wild delighted laughter . . . none of it mine.
Obviously I was put on this earth to make people laugh. Neither my professors nor my parents nor my husbands realized my gift. It took Kurtis Matthews at the San Francisco Comedy College to ignite a genius no one suspected was there. In my 70th year, I enrolled in his Beginner Comedy Class with five comedians barely old enough to be my grandchildren. Matthews has been doing professional comedy for 14 years, and he knows a joke when he sees one. He looked me over as I entered class and said, “You are funny!”
It must have been the red bonnet and the purple gown that tickled him. In my day, no one went into the City de-frocked or hatless. My fellow students were not as careful about their toilette. They appeared: hips tattooed, tongues and noses pierced, and belly buttons exposed by sagging jeans. I could see I was hopelessly out of date. While my dress hinted at what was beneath it, their see-through tops proclaimed “what you see is what you get.”
I listened to comic routines that recommended substituting Ex-Lax for Prozac to feel good, coming out in Sacramento, and choking chickens before going to work. Why had Stanford not prepared me for this kind of reality? All I learned there was how to drink beer until 2 a.m. and get to my 8 o’clock on time.
What could I tell these sophisticates that they didn’t already know? I rose to my feet, adjusted my girdle, shook my bra into place and it came to me. I would explain underwear! None of them wore it, and they probably weren’t even familiar with the term. I waxed eloquent on the advantages of a good merry widow, a solid foundation and an uplift that could change your attitude even as it destroyed your innards.
They were amazed.
I knew then I was ready for graduate school. For the next five weeks, I studied hard, rehearsed my routines and shattered my assumptions. My fellow students discussed blow-drying their privates and the delights of an open marriage. “He has a girlfriend and so do I,” said our newlywed.
“Does that mean you have three mothers-in-law?” I asked.
“He does,” she said. “I have a dog.”
We appeared at Cobbs Comedy Club for our final exam. The crowd had been drinking for an hour while we all gathered in a love circle to give each other confidence. “Break a leg,” my classmates said to each other, and then they smiled at me. “You’ll be great,” they shouted.
“What did you say?” I asked.
My fellow comedians got on stage and discussed issues that mattered to them. They talked about baboons in the gym, the pitfalls of balding and the lies on package labels. Then it was my turn. “Lynn Ruth is the only member of our troupe who might die on stage,” warned Kurtis Matthews.
I nearly did.