When I was in fifth grade, I had the starring role in my school's production of The Time Machine
. I played the inimitable Professor Flipnoodle, who traveled through American history. One stop was the Civil War, and one of my lines in that scene was, "President Lincoln will finish writing the Gettysburg Address once he returns to the White House."
Now, I grew up in Southern California, where in the '50s and '60s there was a ubiquitous department store chain called White Front. You can probably see where this is going: When the Civil War scene arrived, I mistakenly said, "President Lincoln will finish writing the Gettysburg Address once he returns to the White Front." As soon as it left my mouth, I was horrified—but then I saw the audience. They were laughing hysterically. There were men literally rolling on the floor. Later I understood that by that point in the play, the parents had taken all the pictures they wanted to take, and now they were just waiting for it to end. My mistake had provided a small moment of surprise, and it had instantly livened things up.
When I started doing community theater in my early 20s, that fifth-grade play came flooding back. I remember thinking, "That's the biggest reaction I've ever gotten as an actor, and it all hinged on one word." It hit me that just an ounce of the unexpected can have a tremendous effect—and that a single word can change everything.
Which is why, I came to realize, we have a responsibility to use words with care. If my teenage daughter is upset about something, I try never to say, "Don't worry about it, it's not a big deal." To her, it is a big deal, and I don't want to diminish that. And I've come to see how even the tiniest moment of lightness can break tension. On set, if things are harried—if we're filming a difficult scene, for example—I'll tell a joke or do some terrible impression, and it helps put people at ease. I even did that at my wedding. My wife and I wrote our own vows, and when it was her turn, she pulled out a few small index cards and began to read. When it was my turn, I took out a single piece of paper—which unfurled three feet to the ground. I'd planned the gag to keep things from getting too serious, and to help everyone relax. While it didn't make grown men roll on the floor in hysterics, I'm happy to say that it did get a laugh.
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