A guaranteed story in the five years I spent teaching university theatre classes was a bit of a tall tale. And I call it a tall tale because the moment most likely never lasted as long as I think it did.
I played the sleazy insurance salesman, Scruggs, in ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’. I had an awesome sleazy mustache. It was even more sleazy when Spring Break spilt the two week run of the show in two and I had to walk around Orlando living my life like that for a week*.
The Sheriff of Gilbert, Texas, where the infamous Chicken Ranch’s twenty fans turned has a great line in the second act which is actually a fairly common phrase:
“I got myself a purty good b—s—detector, boys, and I can damn sure tell when somebody’s pissin’ on my boots and tellin’ me it’s a rainstorm.”
Now, the actor delivering this line had already landed scores of laughs throughout the show – so this was another notch on his comedy belt. However, the ‘boys’ mentioned in the line of dialogue, myself and the actor playing The Mayor, wanted to play.
So, we jumped on the laugh… By the third and fourth performance we played confusion – as if we didn’t know what the Sheriff’s idiom meant (it has the same prefix as idiotic for a reason). We worked our confused faces but good – ACTING! – and got a bit of a rolling laugh on top of the initial one.
By the fifth and sixth performance, the three of us started using each other to lengthen the laugh.
I was confused.
I looked to the Mayor.
He looked confused.
He looked to me.
I looked out to the audience, confused.
I looked to the Sheriff, silently hoping for clarification.
I looked back out to the audience, confused.
By the end of the run, my hand to God, we repeated and rinsed that sequence, stretching out the laugh to 90 seconds…
90 seconds of laughter based on looks and takes.
And that’s where the tall tale portion of the story lies… In those 90 seconds. Maybe it was only 30. Maybe it was only 15.
But I’m pretty sure we stretched it out to 90 seconds at least one time!
That line of dialogue, “pissin’ on my boots and tellin’ me its a rainstorm” is one that stayed with me for a long time. The meaning of the phrase – being told one thing when something far more harsh is happening – was only recently more clearly defined for me. I always took it to mean the more general, ‘you’re telling me you’re doing one thing, when in fact you’re choosing to do something else entirely.’
I guess Scruggs was really confused in that moment.