The Laughing Legend

"I sure wasn’t reassured by the flight attendant pointing out emergency exits in the event of a crash. Folks, I’ve seen airplane crashes; there are hundreds of exits.”

The Laughing Legend
National Estates Near the GM Plant Formerly Known as the Tank Plant

“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
― Charles Bukowski

We can never take an accurate measure of what friendships mean to our lives, and even trying can seem futile. Maybe it is not a task designed for humans. How close relationships influence us as individuals and inform our characters, though, tends to shape our personalities, and even principles, as adults. There is usually a friend from our childhoods, too, whose memory lingers even after a personal connection is lost to time.

My youth, in incalculable ways, was partially salvaged and made more whole by my best friend Gary Kern. We grew up in one of those modest, lower income developments that surrounded the car and steel factories in the Upper Midwest. Our parents worked endless hours, struggling to pay tiny mortgages, clothe and feed their children. Most of the families had arrived from the South as part of the post World War II Great Migration, seeking a better life than was offered growing cotton crops and working farms in Dixie.

I am not sure how he managed his perspective, but Gary turned everything about our growing up into humor. The neighborhood where we lived was pitched to homebuyers using their VA loans as “National Estates,” which he frequently pointed out had nothing national in its character, and that referring to the tiny plots on which the 800 square foot homes sat as “estates” was a crime against the English language. He named our oval of houses, hard by an old tank manufacturing plant become a car assembly line, “Mortgage Acres,” and it stuck through the next generations, and adheres still.

Gary’s humor was fearless, and frightening to those of us less emboldened. Because he was diminutive, bookish, and carried a bit more weight than most kids entering their teens, he had no interest in sports. Gym class, however, was mandatory in the era of President Kennedy’s focus on youth physical fitness. Gary, though, despised getting dressed for gym because he lacked hand-to-eye coordination, wore glasses, ran slowly, and had no tolerance for physical competition. His only method of avoidance, however, was a note from a parent, which his refused to write. Eventually, he noticed my penmanship looked polished and he drafted me to write his excuses for gym class.

Usually, he sat in street clothes in front of his locker, reading a book as the basketball coach, Chuck Creasy, made a last pass through the locker room to make certain that everyone had gone upstairs to the gym. Often, Gary did not even look up from the printed page to hand the coach an excuse note I had written. Creasy tended to crumple them up and walk off disgusted. On a day when I was late getting into my gym shorts and tennis shoes, the coach arrived at Gary’s locker with a look of near anger I had never before seen on his face.

“You need to close up that book and get dressed for some exercise, Kern,” he said.

Gary did not look up, but raised his hand with the folded paper. Creasy read it, squeezed it into a ball, and looked back down at the defiant student who took almost no note of the man’s presence.

“After readin’ all your excuses this year, Kern,” Creasy said with his Kentucky drawl, “I’ve decided you must just be the kinda guy who likes to hang around locker rooms.”

“Yeah, well,” Kern said, once more refusing to look away from his book. “I notice you took a full-time job in a locker room.”’

I am not sure how I avoided laughing but I got out of that particular locker room as fast as I could, hoping the coach did not associate me with the burning insult he had just endured. We were only in seventh grade and I do not think anyone in our class, other than Gary, had even contemplated defiance of authority and rules. A few weeks after the confrontation with Creasy, Gary slipped on the concrete steps going down to the locker room and tumbled half their length, landing in front of the coach’s office door. I was right behind him and hurried to make certain he was okay. He lay on the floor, appearing stunned, his forehead bleeding, when Creasy casually walked out of his office and sneered down at Gary trying to get up.

“Well, Kern, have an accident?” he asked.

“No thanks, coach. I just had one.”

Barely a teenager, and not an adult he ever encountered was able to manage his withering wit. My mother, whose life often seemed a series of disappointments that only varied in their degree, always smiled when Gary entered her little house. He tried out his endless stream of jokes on her, and Ma was a happy and receptive audience. In appreciation, when we were finishing high school, he gave her a birthday gift of a Zippo lighter box that contained his senior picture and a Green Hornet ring from Cracker Jacks. Ma kept it for many years and laughed whenever she came across it in a drawer. I inherited the “present,” and have kept it safe for decades.

My Mother's Birthday Present from My Best Friend

After a failed marriage, which produced two daughters, Gary almost surrendered his sense of humor to the practical need of earning a living. He got a job as an orderly at a mental institution and used to suggest he was just “looking for a place to retire and checking out accommodations in advance.” The laughs ended when he was stabbed with a fork by a patient, but it prompted him to pursue his calling of becoming a professional comic, and he hit the road for small-town comedy clubs. Nature seemed to have designed my best friend for making people laugh. Nobody was more adept at making fun of themselves as skillfully as he did everything else that passed before his eyes and entered his unique and wondrous brain.

Cutline Written by Gary for Our High School Student Paper

As his reputation spread on the comedy club circuit, Gary opened for people like the late Bill Hicks and actor and comic Richard Belzer. He also indulged in airplane jokes, a sin he had promised to never commit. When he made his first appearance at Austin’s Laugh Stop, he talked about how much he hated flying on commuter planes to the small towns where he usually got booked.

“I mean, it took me a long time to screw up my courage to go up to the counter and check in,” he told the audience. “I was starting to feel confident until they tagged my luggage, and then my big toe. Then I get on this little plane, and there is no wall between the cockpit and the passengers, and I stopped to watch the two pilots pressing all the buttons and the pilot looked over at the co-pilot and said, ‘Wow, this is gonna be neat!’ And I sure wasn’t reassured by the flight attendant pointing out emergency exits in the event of a crash. Folks, I’ve seen airplane crashes; there are hundreds of exits.”

“Airplane jokes?” I asked after his routine.

“Hey, gotta pay the bills. You have any interest in going downtown to the other place, the Comedy Stop or Shop, not sure what it’s called?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“Excellent. Jay Leno is there tonight, and I’ve never seen his standup.”

“Let’s go.”

The joint was jammed with people but Gary used his “fellow professional comic” bit to get us a table. When the waitress arrived, he immediately gave her his card and asked if she might take it back to Leno, which she did in exchange for a generous tip. In just a few minutes, she returned with the message, “Jay asks you to please come back to his dressing room.” Gary asked me to go with him and we were quickly sitting down for a chat with the future host of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

“Gary Kern, Gary Kern, Gary Kern. Oh my god, Gary Kern,” he said after shaking our hands. “Everywhere I go I’m hearing your name.”

“Thanks, man,” Kern said. “It’s great to meet you.”

There was some clever back and forth for about five minutes that I cannot recall in detail but it ended with a monumental moment for Gary.

“Listen, Gary,” Leno said. “Let me get you an audition with Letterman. I’m going to call Dave right now.”

And he did. We heard Letterman’s distinctive voice in the background as Leno pitched Gary, scribbled notes on a nearby pad, thanked his comic friend, and ended the call before handing over a printed name and phone number.

“That’s Dave’s producer and his phone number,” he said. “You need to give him a call and they will book an audition for you to tape in New York and cover your travel expenses. Call him first thing tomorrow, okay?”

“Uh, sure, Jay. Thanks. Didn’t expect that.” Gary was evidently stunned. I could not stop grinning.

Only Known Video Available of a Kern Standup Routine

Gary delayed his taping for Letterman. His bookings began to take off with greater speed than those commuter planes he found so frightening. Leno was probably making recommendations to bookers and my buddy was polishing his act to give him greater confidence before his trip to New York. He had already played the famed venue “Catch a Rising Star” in the city and killed it with the local crowd after he had captured the outsider perception of the city with one joke.

“Ya know, I think I’m finally getting used to this city. My first few trips, when I’d stop people on the street to ask for directions or any advice, they all seemed a little put off by being bothered. But I adjusted. Now I just go up to strangers and say things like, ‘Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to the Statue of Liberty, or should I just go fuck myself?’”

Audiences were already laughing as he walked onto stage because the announcer introduced him as, “The repeat winner of the Tom Selleck look-alike contest…..” Gary waited for the crowd to settle down and then claimed, “I told them not to use that. I really look more like a stunt double for the Pillsbury Dough Boy.”

The diners at a Chicago dinner theater were probably still howling over a joke the night in 1989 that he collapsed on the stage. Maybe they thought his quivering and twitching face down on the floor was part of his routine but there were no curtains to close and obscure the scene from their view. The manager reportedly ran to Gary’s side and yelled for someone to call 911. Emergency techs arrived in minutes, and, as people expecting fine food and good laughs watched, they revived my boyhood friend. He was quickly placed on a gurney and immediately became aware of his situation. As he was rolled across the stage, Gary rose on his elbows, looked back out at the crowd and said, “Would you people tell these guys to hurry up? My contractions are coming closer and closer together!”

The last words Gary spoke were a punchline, which, of course, made sense. EMTs kept him alive in the ambulance on the way to the hospital but he died on the operating table during open heart surgery. When someone’s life ends at age 37, the inclination is to suspect drugs or alcohol abuse but I had no indication Gary used narcotics and he was not known by friends and colleagues as a drinker. I do not recall an autopsy but figured the safe assumption was a congenital heart issue, and he famously avoided any type of exercise that might have improved his health and reduced the stress of travel, performance, and indebtedness. I suspect some apocrypha regarding his closing scenes but details were related to me by a fellow comic attending Gary’s funeral up in Michigan.

Lord, have I missed him through the decades, though. I find it amazing that I still wonder what Gary might make of our present politics and the internet and social media. Our mutual high school friend, Douglas, and I speak infrequently but our lost friend is always a subject. We recall his obscure jokes and the underground newspaper Gary published and we helped write, which made fun of the upper middle class that dominated our school district. I cannot remember that administrators ever caught up with the publisher of “The Velvet Ghetto,” but I am doubtful. Everything he did was smarter than the adults he was critiquing.

I am certain Gary Kern would have become a household name and he would have had a network talk show, toured widely, and turned into a character actor. I have never known, however, what to make of his life un-lived. I only know that I was fortunate to have him as a part of my youth and development as a person and that I am pleased to have had those years of friendship and memories.

How many friends, when they depart, leave you laughing?

James Moore is a New York Times bestselling author, political analyst, and business communications consultant who has been writing and reporting on Texas politics since 1975. He can be reached at