Saturday, October 05, 2002

For good time, call clowns

        Wine? Check.

        Soft jazz? Check.

        Rosemary chicken with raisin-studded couscous? Check.

        There's only one ingredient missing from dinner parties these days. No, Martha, it's not your initials carved in butter. It's the spectacle of the outrageous guest.

        I was reminded of this after an e-mail from reader Marshall Hacker, who was commenting on a recent column about the proposed Real Beverly Hillbillies show.

        It's patronizing, I said, for CBS to import Appalachians and expect them to approximate a sitcom. But I defended honest documentaries that show a range of hillbilly types, even ones like Jesco White, the half-crazed, West Virginia redneck immortalized in the Dancing Outlaw video that has become a cult classic.

        “With all due respect to documentaries,” wrote Mr. Hacker of Covington, “I miss slapstick stereotype sitcoms, radio shows and comic strips 1/2ndash 3/4 Beverly Hillbillies, The Jeffersons, Archie Bunker, The Honeymooners, Amos & Andy, Andy Capp, Snuffy Smith.

        “So many belly-laugh opportunities are gone forever because people are so sensitive about offending somebody or being offended. If we can't laugh at ourselves and at each other, we condemn ourselves to living in a very uptight world.”

        So it goes with the upper-class dinner party. People don't even strain to be polite anymore. It's second nature to stifle ourselves.

        I say bring in the clowns, if any can be rounded up. My mother recently demonstrated the benefits of this strategy.

        To a dinner party, she unwittingly invited a personal-injury lawyer and a man who hates personal-injury lawyers. There was a giddy divorcie, a well-read couple and a loud Texan who swears he can't hear “Dixie's Land” without joining in.

        The evening began with the divorcie likening car repairs to sex. The couple described the subjugation of Arab women. The Texan bragged about Southern manners.

        Then the lawyer-hater brought up the Case of the Really Hot Coffee.

        McDonald's got what it deserved, the lawyer shot back. Despite 700 complaints of burn injuries, it kept serving freakishly hot java until an elderly woman ended up in the hospital needing skin grafts.

        Everyone started yelling at once. The divorcie likened hot coffee to sex. Another woman kept muttering, “If it's coffee, I know it's going to be hot!”

        The Texan decided this would be a good time to belt out “Dixie's Land,” which he did while marching in place.

        At the end of the table, my husband sat wide-eyed. For once, Americans had rendered him speechless. He loved it.

        “That was very rare to find at a dinner party in this country,” he said later.

        He's right. Whatever happened to outrageous characters? To tongues that were loose even before the wine?

        As a member of the stifled set, I wouldn't know how to be so much fun. Thankfully, the Texan's health is good.


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