“Oh, just make it good, okay?” my uncle Bill pleads through my laptop, his grin filling the screen and his laugh reaching the corners of my dorm room. “Make me sound smarter!”
We are wrapping up our hour-plus FaceTime conversation about his life. So far that evening, he’s told me dozens of funny stories, interspersed with long pauses where his eyes study the ceiling of the guest bedroom in his Princeton home, his mind trying to remember that one comic he saw on Carson or that bar he used to frequent in his hometown of Spotswood, New Jersey.
(We had started out at his dining room table, but moved upstairs when his wife, Steph, and daughter, Abby, began eating and he wanted to “get away from the chewing and stares.”)
Bill sits up and straightens the collar of his red flannel shirt. He rubs his bristly gray beard and chuckles to himself, another memory having appeared in his brain like a sneaking ray of sunlight on an overcast afternoon.
“Okay, one more thing,” he says, looking right at the screen. He speaks quickly and sharply. He’s suddenly become cognizant of the time and speeds his pace. He’s worried he’s talking too much. In the morning, he is to board a plane to Italy to visit his daughter Corrie, who’s studying in Florence.
“Steph swims with these women a couple times a week. So every now and then we bump into somebody she knows from swimming and they don’t know me, ’cause it’s their little group.”
His left hand grips his phone and his right lightly waves about in every direction. Swift movements fill the gaps between words and punctuate every syllable. No one in our family can speak without their hands.
“We were in a movie theater in town a couple months ago, and we ran into this woman from the group. And we were talking to her before the movie started—”
His glance returns to that familiar spot on the ceiling.
“—no, it was after the movie.”
“And the woman was like, ‘Oh, it was so good to meet you. I can’t wait to tell all the girls about you!’ And I looked at her,” he pauses, smiling. “And I said, ‘Please make me taller when you talk about me.’”
His voice tilts up at the end of his sentence, and we laugh, then sigh, together. He uses the cadence of a joke with a hint of earnestness.
“And she did, apparently. She said that to the group, and it made them laugh. ’Cause they don’t know that I’m short, none of them do.”
I nod, understanding.
“So anyway,” he says, giving me a sly, sweet grin. “Make me sound smarter.”
I. Tell the truth.
“Nothing like . . . being in the spotlight. Looking for laughs, looking for attention. It’s probably why Bill did it. You know Bill. You know, Mr. Funny Guy, class clown.”
“I said we were going to take this seriously, Mom.”
“I am taking this seriously! We’re talking about comedy.”
I roll my eyes and ask my mother, Bill’s youngest sister, another question about his sense of humor.
“I define it as New Jersey humor. I don’t know, maybe it’s a New York metropolitan area sense of humor,” she says, growing playfully pedantic. “I have it, and so do all of my friends back home. It’s that kind of humor that’s defined by, like, Bugs Bunny. That kind of sarcastic take on things; a play on words.”
This seems to align with what Bill describes from his childhood. I am interested in the origins of comedic sensibilities, so we spend a long time at the beginning of our conversation discussing comedians he’d watch on TV growing up. These are the people who made him laugh, and the people he’d imitate for his classmates at school. W.C. Fields. Jerry Lewis. Tim Conway and Carol Burnett. Stan Laurel, especially. Anyone who did goofy—yet intelligent—physical comedy. He takes long pauses between each name, thinking. His eyes look beyond his phone and beyond his dining room table, his gaze shifting ever so slowly from right to left, as if he’s gently flipping back the pages of a distant TV Guide. He cares very much that I recognize or learn about each new name that floats to the front of his mind.
“You know Don Rickles just died,” he says, suddenly straightening in his chair, “and I’ve thought about him for years.” His voice grows wistful for only a moment. “And he was physical, too. He was all facial expressions. The mouth, and the eyes, and the forehead. And his posture, the way he would move in a chair. I’ve probably seen him several hundred times on Johnny Carson.”
He takes another long pause. “Oh my God, I just thought of Laugh-In.”
II. Use the expression “we will be landing” rather than “we will be on the ground.” Some customers find the term disconcerting.
As is the case with so many professional comedians, Catholic school is at least partially to blame for Bill growing up to be my funny uncle. He, along with a few of his close friends, was the sixth grade class clown at Immaculate Conception School in Spotswood, New Jersey. He took this role of the funny kid very seriously. “There had to be something to break it up, something to make the day go by for myself—and for everyone, actually.” Yet he was not an entirely selfless clown. “I was about four feet tall and weighed eighty pounds. I had this sort of tiny cute thing going, with a little bit of a sense of humor.”
Sixth-grade Bill Gray was walking to the back of the classroom to line up for lunch one day when a fellow classmate outstretched his leg, right in Bill’s path. Taking the bait, Bill dramatically fell to the ground, loudly banged his knee, and then rolled all the way into the pile of galoshes in the closet. The teacher came running. The class crowded. His friends Danny and Al picked him up in a chair and rushed him down the hallway and around the corner to the nurse’s office, where Bill clutched his knee and complained that he could not bend his leg. The nurse frantically called for an ambulance.
It was all fake.
“My father was a volunteer firefighter, so we knew all the sirens, what they meant and everything. So I hear the siren—the long siren, which was the first aid siren. I was like, This is really cool.”
Back in the classroom, Danny and Al cheered at the wailing cry of the Cadillac station wagon ambulance pulling into the Immaculate parking lot. Gray’s doing it! Bill sat in the nurse’s office, wondering how long he could keep this up.
He was taken to Saint Peter’s Hospital, where he found his mother, who had left work to meet him there. (To this day, she wants to believe he was really hurt that afternoon.) He arrived in the emergency room, bent his leg, and was promptly sent home.
“And nobody knew,” he smugly declares. “Then I just started falling, all the time.”
Throughout the rest of middle school and high school, Bill would fall down everywhere. He’d fall off of cars and down stairs. He’d be sitting at his desk and it would suddenly tip over. When crossing the street, he’d slam his fist into the back of a moving car, hit the ground, and scream, much to the chagrin of the friends or family walking with him. On a flight to Boston to visit his older sisters, who were married and out of the house, he pretended to hurt his knee again. Flight attendants swarmed and when the plane landed, he was strapped to a gurney and taken to the airport clinic, from which he left with a pair of crutches and a pair of raised eyebrows from his sisters.
“It was stupid. I would really freak people out. That’s not comedy, though. That’s just trying to get attention, or trying to be the center of something. I was making up for, I don’t know, my height or my lack of intelligence. I don’t know why I did all that. It certainly is fun, though.”
III. Review your comments before you speak. Recognizing the diversity of our customer base, our remarks must ensure sensitivity toward all of our passengers.
“Andy Kaufman just blew me away. You know who he is, right?”
I nod. I love Andy Kaufman, too. Our conversation has moved from silly middle school pranks to the darker humor of Bill’s early college years (before he dropped out of school to pursue a pilot’s license).
“I was unsure of the world, and comedy helped. Maybe it was because it was the late 70s and Vietnam ended and everybody had some sort of PTSD from growing up with all that, and it was like, What the fuck’s going on now? Like, what do you make of things? So I turned to someone like Kaufman, who was feeling those same feelings as me.”
He internalized and grabbed hold of that behavior, of seeking the comedy in absolutely everything about the world. When he was younger, his comedy sought others’ attention, but it was also an act of rebellion against the stuffy tie a nun demanded he wear. As he got older, he faced an exponentially growing number of nuns and ties. Serious people. Parenthood. “Grownup” things. Perhaps his propensity toward humor is a means of both deflecting and coping with the world of adulthood.
Balancing his funnyman persona while raising three daughters was, naturally, difficult.
“It’s hard to do both—to maintain the audience and also be strict. So the serious side just comes out as anger. Too often I will make a joke out of something serious way too soon after I was being serious. But I think the girls learned that not everything is so fucking important, whatever might have been happening in their lives or whatever. But yeah, it’s hard.”
It seems he’s spent a lot of his time parenting in competition with himself; he disciplines, and then frantically hopes he does not undermine that discipline by making a joke. The type of joke, though, has evolved over time. Bill’s comedy is no longer physical in nature. He’s turning sixty this year. “I can’t fall,” he says, laughing. “I can’t roll!”
It’s become more about language. “Editing,” as he calls it. He’ll latch onto a key word or phrase in a conversation and then call back to it a few minutes later, and he becomes the hilarious hero of the dinner party.
I ask if there’s still an element of wanting attention.
“It’s less about that now. I think a lot of it has to do with making people realize that there’s different ways to look at something. Most things that happen every day,” his voice trails off. “There’s humor in everything,” he says, addressing the screen directly again. “So, it’s kind of like expressing a different viewpoint, or having an opinion on something but in sort of a way that deflates the important ‘life issue’ or ‘life moment’ that people are having.”
“And you want to be that person for other people?” I ask.
“I don’t want to be; I just am,” he says emphatically. We’ve reached a rare moment of vulnerability and genuine connection in our uncle-niece relationship. “You know, I’m 99% that shy person in a big group of people. Like you, probably, right? If I’m put in a room with twenty-five people, it’s really awkward. So humor’s sort of . . . I don’t know, it breaks the ice for me. Makes me a little more comfortable.”
I’m reminded of a brief exchange from a few weeks ago, on Easter Sunday. I couldn’t go home to Boston for the holiday, so I spent the day with Bill and his wife’s family at a restaurant on the Jersey Shore. I didn’t know most of the people with whom I was seated around the table. Bill walked over and sat down next to me.
“I came over to talk to you, but I’m not really much of a talker,” he said, gently placing his phone beside the cloth napkin in front of him. We stared out the window and watched the waves crash on the beach and then recede back out to sea.
“That’s Steph’s father, right?” I asked, motioning across the table and breaking the silence.
“Yeah.” The silence crept back in.
“You know, everyone in this restaurant is actually Steph’s family,” Bill said as he sat up and turned around. (He’s a very convincing liar.) “That group there,” he said, pointing to the strangers at the table behind us, “Those are Steph’s cousins. But we aren’t very close, so they’re sitting over there so it isn’t awkward.”
“Oh!” I giggle, joining in on the bit.
“See that guy who doesn’t know how to button a shirt properly?” he gestured toward a man in a disheveled, poorly tucked salmon shirt, each button in just the wrong place. “You can imagine why we don’t talk to him.”
IV. Speak slowly and enunciate your words carefully. Try to key the mic as few times as possible. Keying the mic on and off frequently makes for an annoying PA.
“I remember a couple days after 9/11, I said something to somebody and then I said, ‘Is it too early for that?’ And they just looked at me like, ‘It’ll never be okay,’” Bill tells me, fidgeting with a phone charger.
I have long considered Bill the person I want to be around at a funeral. We seem to be kindred souls in the way we handle tragedy: hear it, accept it, and quickly make fun of it.
My family arrived to my grandfather’s hospital room a few hours before he died in August of 2011. Bill was already there when we got in. He had reached the end of a long, painful battle with cancer, and he was a shell of his former self. My mother and I stood at the foot of the bed. I was stunned; I had never been this close to death. Bill walked over and whispered, “He looks like Yoda right before he dies in Return of the Jedi.” We both put our heads down, stifling laughter. Oh thank God, I remember thinking to myself. Thank God we can laugh about this.
“I was so tired that day,” Bill recalls, and I can see a wave of exhaustion settle on his face, just from the memory. “When the doctor called and said he passed I was like, ‘Oh yes!’”
A few days later, our whole family was back at our grandparents’ house after the wake. My generation, a wide age-range of cousins, was sitting in the living room, along with Bill. The conversation arrived at the topic of our grandparents’ bed, which had a gigantic old frame that had survived decades of use and multiple moves.
Someone remarked that Grandpa hadn’t slept in that bed in months, because he’d been in the hospital for so long towards the end.
“If he had known that was the last time they would be sleeping in that bed together,” Bill said, gaining the full room’s attention, “I bet they’d have done a whole lot more than just sleep.”
V. Be careful with humor. Passengers may disagree on what is funny, particularly political, regional, or cultural humor.
“I used to do . . .” Bill starts, and then pauses. I’ve asked about work. “I called it my standup PA.”
I never flew with Bill, but I’ve heard plenty of stories. My mother always marveled at the mental switch that occurred when he stepped on a plane.
“When he was in his thirties, he was a captain—he was a young captain—and in those early years, it was funny to think that he was very serious when he got to work. When he was in a cockpit and he was flying, he was all seriousness. There was no funny business at all.”
Well, limited funny business, at least.
When he was still flying, he tried to infuse the subtlest of humor into his job—but never with constructed jokes. Near the end of our conversation, Bill abruptly announces, “I hate people that say jokes. Like the whole fucking ‘guy walks into a bar, there’s a blonde, a brunette . . .’ I just hate that stuff. People would do that in the cockpit; they’d have these jokes memorized, and it’s just, like, boring.” He spits the word jokes out of his mouth like an ant that’s crawled into his salad. “It’s just boring to me that people would—ah, well,” he waves his hand, dismissively flicking the insect completely out of sight.
Bill had surgery on his neck about four years ago, and he took a medical leave of absence while he was recovering and on pain medication. After a few months of not working, the thought of returning to the lifestyle of an airline pilot became less and less appealing. He went to therapy and was placed on antidepressants, or what my mother calls “pretty much a death sentence for commercial pilots.” He took an early retirement at fifty-seven and hasn’t flown since.
“You know when you’re sitting in the back of a plane and something’s going on and finally somebody comes on and you hear, ‘Okay, folks, we’re here and we have a one hour delay because of the weather in New York,’ or whatever?”
“Sure,” I say, aloud. The part where they lie to you, I say, not aloud.
“I got really tired of just sitting in the cockpit, looking out the window, saying a speech, when I know that there’s a hundred fifty people right there, looking around, going, ‘What’s he saying?’ I felt stuff needed to have a face on it. So I would come out into the very front of the airplane and I’d grab the phone from the flight attendants’ station, and you have to hold the phone sort of upside down ’cause the microphone is on the other end”—he contorts his arm, mimicking the awkward grip—“and I would just start talking, like I would if I were in the cockpit. Sometimes I would stand there and go”—he holds his screen far from his face and cartoonishly waves his right hand in the air—“‘It’s me, talking! I’m the captain, and I’m up here!’ Then people would start looking up the aisle and they would see the mouth moving, and hear the words coming through the speakers.”
Bill chuckles, thinking back to a specific instance. “I would sometimes really badly inject something funny into it.” There is a spark in his eyes akin to when he was telling me about his middle school pranks. “And we were not supposed to. In our manual it says something like, ‘Try to not use humor when you’re talking to the passengers over the PA.’ I think it gives a reason, like, ‘Not everybody will understand what you’re saying.’ So, every time I would say something sort of funny to lighten the mood, I’d think about that line in the manual that says I’m not supposed to be doing this. But that was fun. It was sort of like standup.”
“And what was really cool about it is, I would say stuff, and passengers—it’s a common thing, passengers just think that the airline lies to you about everything when they’re talking.” I nod silently. “And I would be standing right next to the people in the first row in first class talking, and there were people that sometimes would”—he lowers his voice—“like I’d see their lips and they’d go, you fucking liar. They’d give me the dirtiest looks and just curse at me, with their mouth. Or they’d roll their eyes. So I was trying to explain it to that asshole, as well as the person that might not be so mean, but it was really funny seeing the reaction, and I think that’s why I kept doing it,” he says, looking further back into his memory. He snaps back to the present and puts a cap on that time in his life. “Anyway, that was my standup PA. I never saw anyone else do it, to this day.”
A few years ago, Bill was walking down Nassau Street in Princeton and he came across a high school kid playing really bad guitar, with a hat for change out in front of him. A group of high school girls stood ten or fifteen feet away, watching the performance and giggling. Quickly assessing the scene and without missing a beat, Bill pulled a dollar out of his pocket, dropped it in the hat, and then said, loudly enough for the girls to hear, “It really isn’t that good. I’m going to take some change.” He picked up some coins and went on his way. The girls busted up in laughter. The kid blushed.
There’ll always be an audience.
VI. On long transcontinental, international, and night flights, passengers may wish to sleep. Limit PAs to the minimum.
The day after our interview, I’m walking through Washington Square Park on my way to class when I hear a chime on my phone. I look down to see Bill is texting me from the runway, about to take off for Italy. It’s a video, accompanied by a message. I stop and sit down at a bench with a this-ought-to-be-good smirk on my face as I unlock my phone. The text reads:
“I’ve been trying for months to get the owner of the house next door to fix the holes in his gutter. When it rains we get showered on in our driveway getting in and out of our cars. Even hours after a rain, the water continues to come down off the roof. So, I sent him this video the other day and he said, ‘Ok, ok, I get it!’”
I hit play on the video. It’s Bill, in the driveway next to his house, wearing a plain black t-shirt tucked into dark blue jeans. He has a dishtowel slung around his neck like a basketball player in a sideline interview. He looks up at the dripping gutter, takes a step back, and proceeds to run his hands through the wet, gray hair atop his head. He thoroughly scrubs his scalp for the length of the ten-second video. There might even be soap in there—I can’t make it out. I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.
Another text comes through.
“The gutter guy is coming next week to patch the holes.”
“So, comedy makes people see reality better. Right?”
Gray, Bill. Personal interview. 19 April 2017. FaceTime.
Smith, Maryellen. Personal interview. 19 April 2017. FaceTime.