The Dust Does Not Cover the Good Grace of their Kinsmen

January 1, 0001

Epps —

Our colleagues, Alexandra and Jonathan, belonged to the same, rather old St. Louis family. Some ancestral patriarch or other had even founded the school they went to, and from elementary up through high school, the faculty administration kept putting them in the same classrooms. The brother and the sister always together.

It’s said despite this they received no special treatment.


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Of course, people will always circulate rumors. And then, too, privilege often proves rather stubborn. It creeps into relationships, often in hidden or secretive ways. Teachers respond to the structure of power — in ordinary circumstances, that is.

In this case, though, their teachers simply had too much on their hands to give the two any special attention. A totally separate contingency shaped the strategy of classroom management: the need to supervise the rambunctious development of the so-called Marius Brothers, who later became the famous comic duo of the same name.

Of course, everyone has seen Matchstick Collectors, but I’ve met few people familiar with their early comedy.

I myself had no idea about it until very recently, when I found some of their older work using the YouTube app.

It seems people used to find it crass — I think rightly so, given the norms at the time — but watching it in this day and age, it comes off as mostly unremarkable.

Values change, of course. What shocks people in one decade becomes the mildest form of comedy in the next. What once was beyond the pale is now inside the pale, and the pale keeps extending forever outward, the exterior into the interior.

Eventually, it isn’t funny at all.

Almost everyone has observed this pattern, and eventually every comedian becomes the subject of a conversation in which you’ll hear people try to locate some specific point in his or her career when he or she stopped being funny. Of course, this applies to all comic efforts, like TV shows and movie series. They say, for example, that Happy Days started down a path of failure the day Arthur went water-skiing.

His encounter with a shark in the middle of the water proved too terrifying for the comic genre. Now, after people identify this historical inflection point in a comic legacy, they start to approach the earlier material in a scholarly way. They use terms like ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘innovative.’ Such conversation, since it makes one feel intelligent, is even more pleasurable than laughing at new comedy.

By this process, then, are works of comic genius redeemed: You hear something’s gone bad. Then, if it’s old enough, you hear its inner core has reemerged to make it a popcorn classic.

Jonathan saw clearly that the Marius Brothers had entered this classic stage and showed great pride in the childhood connection he had with them.

When one evening we were all outside the cabins using an iPad to watch Netflix, Jonathan asked if we could check the catalogue for Matchstick Collectors.

Now, this kind of request cannot pass without comment, and we asked him to explain himself. Soon we had heard what I thought was the whole story.

Later in that same evening, I ran into Jonathan sitting on a bench between cabins, laughing quietly to himself. It’s embarrassing, he said of his laughter, but I find it hard to stop when I hear something funny in my head.

It was then that I realized that Jonathan was an auto-laugher like his sister, whom I often heard laughing quietly in her cabin, even late at night. Jonathan went on to talk about the Marius Brothers again. Back then, when I knew them, they were already funny. They must have been. People don’t change. You were the one who said that right?

It’s true that I offered this observation in one of our earlier conversations. I was thinking about that, he went on. If it’s true, it means that people not only fail to become different as time goes on, but that they are actually the same before you meet them, before they become famous or known to you.

And so, I think there was something always funny going on back then, something that still drives me to this kind of laughter.

And since no one wants to laugh alone in public, you try to suppress it. But this just makes it stronger. Or am I wrong?

I saw things from a similar perspective, but I didn’t understand the cause and effect relationship in the same way he did. Comedians don’t take shape in a vacuum.

In their elementary school, there must have been some larger spirit of comedy or laughter, and Alexandra Winter, much like her brother, would have found herself in this same environment when she first appeared in the schoolworld.

Now, I’d already developed three theories as to why Alexandra was laughing by herself, and this one seemed the least likely. Still, I clung to it.

It made sense to me somehow that some remainder of that kindergarten atmosphere had stayed sealed within a part of her, as in an envelope, while she herself — the rest of her, that is — reacted to its occasional leakages and outpourings.

No container, after all — not even spiritual ones — achieves complete impermeability. At the same time, whatever of this may have been within her would gradually diminish over time. And this would follow that same trajectory of comedians, their works, and their civilizations, which go from laughter to neutrality, disapprobation to normalcy.

The process of course would be a slow one. But, in the end, it meant maybe the envelope would never be opened, the delivery never made.

This could explain why Alexandra, at least to my knowledge, never said anything really funny.

But I do believe Alexandra could have realized a talent for making other people laugh.

Instead, though, that humorous atmosphere of her kindergarten produced in her only auto-laughter.

To be clear, though, I don’t place more confidence in this Alternative Four theory than any other conjecture, but I add it for completeness. We need to consider all possibilities when we think about why people laugh alone.

The next day, when I was reflecting with another colleague on the previous evening’s viewing of Matchstick Collectors, he pointed out that comedians do not themselves frequently live happy lives.

Maybe in the interests of healthy living, humans evolved to bottle all their jokes up inside, the way people sometimes suppress sadness or grief.

He cited several prominent examples of people whose lives ended in tragedy, including the youngest Marius Brother, who perished under mysterious circumstances.

This example surprised me. I hadn’t heard about either of the Marius Brothers dying.

At first, I thought this comment was somehow metaphorical, like the death of Anakin Skywalker, who didn’t die but instead turned into a horrifying robot. Maybe the younger Marius Brother had left comedy and become a plumber or construction worker or something completely unrelated to humor.

But when I looked it up on Wikipedia using the Mobile Safari app, I learned that there had been more than two Marius Brothers, and that one had died shortly before they started shooting Matchstick Collectors.

According to the article, his two older brothers both reported seeing him die in a dream. They were sleeping on a summer porch overlooking the Illinois River. When they woke, they jumped up with relief to find themselves in St. Louis, in different circumstances than those in which they’d seen their brother die.

They rushed into the billiard parlor where their younger brother was sleeping but found him unable to wake.

Apparently, he’d eaten something poisonous. Some speculated it was a kind of prank or joke, but really no one ever came up with a good explanation why. I’m not sure where such sadness comes from.



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