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“You Had To Be There”

As my “Been There, HAVEN’T Done That” travel column enters its 11th year –

those of you who know me by now are used to this professor of architecture and professor of humor using both genres to take you around the world (in print). And just for the record – I’m not the first architect who wrote comedy – Sir John Vanbrugh (architect of England’s great Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard) was also a great Restoration comedy playwright, still performed today. That’s my esoteric reply to the question “What does architecture have to do with comedy?” And here’s my comedic reply to the question, “What does architecture have to do with comedy? “ — “I’m off the wall.” 

 

And in this month’s column, you’ll know what travel has to do with comedy – or rather more cultured comedy – “Humor.” 

 

Now, more than ever — since travel is on hiatus and there are already enough journalists writing about traveling safely and traveling locally – I’d like to capitalize on humor to travel “loca-ly” and around the world. Above all, I truly believe that all leisure travel should be fun. So sit back in your armchair and let’s go to places that made me laugh – places that are truly funny unto themselves – and even art and architecture that’s designed to elicit laughs or even a “WTF?” reaction – including Mannerism and Surrealism. But first, check your armchair to make sure you’re not sitting on a “Whoopee Cushion” – that will make the person who surreptitiously put it there laugh – but not you.

 

Also while you’re seated – please turn on the Newsmax Network’s national daily TV show “Liquid Lunch” on Fridays for my weekly segment “Funny Friday’s” for some laughs, some culture – and even some travel thrown in. 

 

 

I. Early Travel Humor 

My educated and educator parents regularly exposed my brother and me to culture – museums and Lincoln Center in New York City – on the Eastern Seaboard – and then to Europe when I was still in grade school. (I saw bullfights before I saw baseball.) 

 

Let’s start way before there were “laughing emojis” to tell you when and where to laugh. Here’s my first terrorizing and then (upon reflection) funny travel experience. My parents never used the “F” word. Instead, my father would instill fear in us using the word the fricking word, “Fricking,” in its place. He would say, “Take out the fricking garbage. “Did you take a fricking bath?” “Did you make your fricking bed?” One night my Dad said – “Go to bed early because we’re taking you and your brother to — the “Frick.” 

 

Needless to say (but I’m still saying it anyway) – that night my brother and I were afraid to even turn off the lights because all those years of Dad’s “fricking” threats were finally going to get us! After feigning illness — which didn’t work — there I was trembling in the car making our way up Madison Avenue to 70th and Fifth – to the most famous “fricking” site in the whole world – “The Frick Museum” – which turned out to be such a fantastic experience that I always take my fricking friends there (visiting from around the world) as their first NYC sightseeing site.

 

At least that experience didn’t embarrass me — or my parents — in front of other people. However, they were in shock when they took me to the Metropolitan Opera to see “Aida.” During the Triumphal March — when the donkey suddenly pooped on stage – I brazenly – at the top of my lungs — screamed “Bravo!” Unlike the Frick – on this trip my parents were much less amused. With this “joke” – I had my very first audience – and audience of 3,500 – Booing! Needless to say that “Triumphal March” was not a “Triumphal Ride” home.

 

However, I knew at an early age that travel was my calling as was my love of Europe – and especially Italy. In 1976 when most Americans referred to that year as the “US Bicentennial” — I referred to 1976 as the “Millennium and a Half” since the Fall of Rome in 476.

 

My first international attempt at humor was on a TWA flight returning to JFK Airport from Madrid. When I tried several times and still couldn’t get into the nearest bathroom — I told the flight attendant and she said “That bathroom is reserved for the Lladros.” A few hours later, this worried good Samaritan went over to the same flight attendant and told her, “I hope there’s a doctor on board because Mr. or Mrs. Lladro must be very sick – no one ever came out of that bathroom.” Because my parents and I travel for culture and not to gourmet or to shop – I didn’t know that Lladros were a very elongated, skinny and expensive Spanish porcelain figurine. A “Botero” on a diet. 

 

That was my first travel joke that everyone laughed at. I was so embarrassed that I pretended it was a deliberate joke. (On a return trip to Madrid I bought the skinniest Lladro and today have it displayed next to a Botero figurine I bought in Bogota. Together I call them my comedic version of “Don Quixote and Sacho Panza.”)

 

II. “Killing” in Asia – aka my “Youth in Asia”

You’d think a culture braggart would have learned his lesson. I didn’t. Years later on my first trip to Thailand — when I saw the sign, “No Durians!” I said – “What did the Durians do that was so bad you had to ban them?.” It was then that I learned “Durians” were a fruit. (My payback for being a culinary boob.) 

 

It was as a guest at the supremely elegant Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok that I learned one of the few hazards of staying in a super deluxe hotel. The hotel’s elevator starters memorize everyone’s name and proudly – and very publicly – announces it as you approach. The ultimate in personal service but not very conducive for a daytime “anonymous” tryst which is the perfect thing to do after having lunch at the famous tourist restaurant, “Cabbages and Condoms.” (Just remember to leave with a doggie bag – not with Cabbage — but with condoms.)

 

One of the greatest sites in the world is Angkor Wat. It has three seasons, “Hot, Hotter, and Hottest.” In the hottest I actually hired a boy, Thon, to accompany me and fan me as I toured (and sweated) all day. And Thon hired a much younger boy – to accompany him and fan him as he fanned me. While there with my cameraman (taping for TV) — I put Thon through the comedy ringer – taping him while I did my “Angkor Wat,” version of Abbott and Costello’s routine, “Who’s on First.” My Asian version? “Wat’s What?” 

 

In addition to tipping him well, that night I treated my cameraman and Thon to a visit to a Thai Irish Pub. As I wrote in a previous column — the most ubiquitous foreign restaurant found around the world is the Irish Pub. If you want an evening of unintentional and spontaneous comedy – nothing beats natives mouthing the words to Irish songs while clumsily trying to do an Irish jig. 

 

III. Hindsight Humor

Having fun looking back at minor mishaps (and learning from them) enhances the travel experience.

 

Again in Asia — while I was taping TV series pilot — “Location Vacation” (filming where movies were filmed around the world) – this time in Penang, Malaysia – we spent more than of a hour driving around to find the courthouse where “Anna and the King” was recently filmed – and another half hour searching for a place to park. After the shooting – we walked back to the hotel, just three short blocks away. The lesson learned – frequently the shortest distance between two points is the one walked. 

 

On a press trip I was leading in Beijing, China — two photographer journalists wanted to get a better view of what I consider one of the world’s most daring buildings – the spectacularly cantilevered CCTV Tower. We spent two hours driving around looking for the best view – and no matter where we went – they were just adequate. That evening we were guests at the top restaurant of the Park Hyatt Hotel and what did we see out the window? The CCTV Tower. Lesson learned – check out locations of everything listed on the itinerary before you leave the hotel.

 

In the early 1990s while eating in a revolving restaurant atop a very tall hotel in Shanghai  my girlfriend suddenly noticed that her handbag was missing. She became frantic – making a fuss screaming and accusing. When the police finally arrived and she related what happened (back and forth to a translator) – the bag suddenly reappeared coming a full 360 degree circle to the window sill where she put it. FYI: A few years later — when she was no longer my girlfriend — I was a judge at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. So I decided it would now be safe to eat on top in one of their revolving restaurants. And, NO, South of the Equator the restaurant did NOT revolve in the opposite direction.

 

 IV. Fun Sites – Museums and More 

There are some fun sites in the world that do answer the question “Do toilets flush in the opposite directions South and North of the Equator?” Just a few miles North of Quito, Ecuador in “Mitad del Mundo” is the actual Equator with sinks on both sides, North and South. And yes, they really do flush in opposite directions just a few feet from one another! With one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern Hemisphere – like Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic” — I, too, exuberantly yelled “I’m King of the World!” Here’s a fun fact: Scientists discovered via GPS that they were 240 meters off in the location of the actual Equator – so they moved it. NO moving van required. (I don’t think.) 

 

Much has already been written about weird, offbeat museums. On my latest trip to Rome — in the middle of Rome’s magnificent Piazza Navona — is Rome’s newest museum — the Gladiator Museum – celebrating everything you ever wanted to know (and not know) about gladiators. Missing was a very important fact — gladiators were the last people who got into the Coliseum free and without waiting on line. While there has been lots of buzz about sex museums, from Iceland’s Phallic Museum, to Thailand’s Condom Museum (that’s in addition to eating (at) “Cabbages & Condoms”) – there are lots of museums that are humorous by default. 

 

My favorite museum humorous experience almost turned into my lynching. 

 

On a visit to Japan we visited an antiwar museum (which I now call, “ANTIWA”) the Chiran Kamikaze Museum. I was in a crowd of Americans and I burst out laughing. Everyone was giving me dirty looks until I told them to “Take a good look inside that Kamikaze Plane.” They all looked but nothing registered — and their looks of resentment toward me increased until I finally blurted out, “Look! A Kamikaze Plane with… Seatbelts?” Finally, they erupted in laughter.

 

One of the first things I teach in my NYU comedy classes is “Observe Keenly” and find humor in oxymorons. Speaking of observation – in over twenty years of travel to six continents — I’ve collected photos of “Men’s Rooms” and “Lady’s Rooms” signs. And many are hilarious. (Any book publishers reading this?) One observation has been invalidated. Until my first visit to Florida in 2001 – I used to say, “I’ve been to six continents but I’ve never been to Florida. I’ll go to Florida someday when I’m incontinent.” The good news: I’ve visited Florida many times – and so far – always “Diaper Free.” 

 

V. Russia – Land of “Tsarcasm”

Let’s visit an Asian country that’s also a European one – Russia – to the European part — which Sarah Palin cannot see from her Alaska vantage point – even with the best binoculars. One of my favorite cities in the world – St. Petersburg. 

 

St. Petersburg’s Museum of Water Hygiene is unwittingly the definition of “Irony.” In fact, the Museum of Water Hygiene just underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation including expensive flood lighting at night – when the isolated museum is closed. So where’s the irony? In the city of St. Petersburg with it’s wonderful Museum of Water Hygiene – it is unsafe to drink the water – or even brush your teeth with it. (Tchaikovsky already found that out in 1893 and St. Petersburg has maintained that tradition.) St. Petersburg should have spent money to clean their water before they created the Museum of Water Hygiene. On my next visit to St. Petersburg – if I see they renamed that museum – “The Museum of Deadly Water” – then I’ll know their water is finally safe to drink.

 

“Irony” is a major part of Russian sightseeing and humor. There are many magnificent Romanov suburban palaces ringing St. Petersburg, such as the Alexander Palace where the last tsar, Nicholas II, lived with his family. (The Alexander Palace is undergoing a total renovation to recreate the rooms as they looked when Nicholas and Alexandra lived there, which means bringing back the palace’s original furniture.) For years, the Director of the Alexander Palace was trying in vain to get back much of its original furniture that was stored in another magnificent Romanov palace – Pavlovsk. The Director of Pavlovsk always adamantly refused. Then the Director of the Alexander Palace became the Director of Pavlovsk. And what was the first thing he did? He ordered the Alexander Palace’s furniture to remain at Pavlovsk — even putting it on display there.

 

Recently, statues of Christopher Columbus were attacked and even beheaded in our Western Hemisphere. However, the attack on Columbus statues started way back in 1992 during the 500th Anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. That 

was when famed Russian sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli created his gigantic 10-story statue of Columbus which was rejected in the US – and wound up back in Russia — in downtown Moscow — with a literal facelift. That statue became the very definition of “Two Faced.” The face of “Peter the Great” replaced the face of “Columbus the Unwanted.” (While Tsereteli was very depressed – no need to worry. Tsereteli couldn’t off himself with his gun since his “Twisted Gun” sculpture wound up in New York City in United Nations’ Park.) 

 

America is in a quandary of what to do with leaders who are out of favor and are destined for a violent end. Once again Moscow has the statutory statue answer. Moscow has an outdoor museum of displaced and disgraced statues, Fallen Monuments Park. It’s practically in spitting distance from Red Square – which is exactly what many Russians do to those statues. Many older Russians — who remember the Soviet Union and are sick of Communism — or what I call, “Hammer and Sickle Cell Anemia” (FYI: I called it that way before BLM) get their kicks out of kicking the statues of Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev. If the Whites and Bolsheviks didn’t have their own bloody Civil War – maybe they’d also take the unwanted statues of our Civil War – Confederate Generals. 

 

I was very lucky to have visited the Soviet Union when I was very young – and the Soviet Union was very old. I was afraid I wouldn’t see any of the shortages I always read about. However, I was also very lucky with the timing of my visit. There was no shortage – of shortages. I remember my visit to Moscow’s main department store in Red Square – GUM. (I wonder if Gerald Ford ever visited GUM and chewed gum at the same time?) Instead of an automated cash register tallying your purchases – an abacus tallied your purchases – or rather non-purchases — since there wasn’t anything to buy unless you bought an abacus. Once again, instead of buying the usual tourist souvenirs of lacquered nesting dolls, amber jewelry and fur hats – I bought the ultimate Soviet souvenir which I still have. One that typifies the Soviet shopping experience – bringing back a small remembrance of what’s found in most Russian stores – Shortages. Yes, I bought a genuine Soviet — empty shelf (from GUM) — that still has (in Russian) the “Made in the CCCP” logo. 

 

Before we leave Russia, I want to say that once again humor is derived from making the most of a bad situation like the one in which I had egg on my face. (Sadly, it was not a Faberge Egg.) I’ve been creating itineraries and leading tours for over two decades – and even in Russia things can change very quickly. While touring the Kremlin’s famous Armory Museum in Moscow (home of lavish Romanov memorabilia including Faberge Eggs, coronation robes and coaches) – my group was busy shooting away (no not the shooting Bolsheviks did to Romanov royalty) just photos – on my spring tour. Then on my same tour in the fall of that same year — a guard yelled at my group for taking photos. (Yes, the rules changed in less than six months.) However, this time the guards let my tour get away with taking photographs. The guards relaxed the new rules when they saw we were on a tour personally conducted by the Director of the Armory Museum, Elena Gagarin. (Yes — the daughter of the first man in Space – Yuri Gargarin.)

 

In St. Petersburg, I got my group very excited by telling them that they were about to see something that very few tourists in the 21st century still see in Russia – the Soviet insignia of the Hammer and Sickle prominently displayed over the Tsar’s box in St. Petersburg rundown second opera house – the Mikhailovsky Theater. Sadly for me, 

 

(gladly for the Mikhailovsky) the theater was quickly and totally restored since my previous visit a few months earlier. The theater gleamed with sparling colors of apricot velvet, white and gold. The Romanov Double Eagle over the Tsar’s box double-crossed my theater revelation by removing the Hammer and Sickle. 

 

I redeemed myself by taking them to St. Petersburg’s new Faberge Museum in the restored Shuvalov Palace and showing them how that museum finally solved that age old riddle once and for all: “Which came first – the chicken or the egg?” Problem solved with the Faberge Egg that comes together with a Faberge Chicken.

 

Moving from the Russian Revolution to the French Revolution – to Paris. In Paris my groups are always moved emotionally when I take them to see the furnished cell in the Conciergerie (a perfectly preserved Medieval castle, steps from Notre Dame) where Marie Antoinette spent her last night. A Tussaud-like wax figure of Marie Antoinette, dressed in black, is praying — while nearby the actual guillotine blade that killed her is on display. Marie Antoinette lost her head in the French Revolution. Since the last time I visited – the Conciergerie lost Marie Antoinette’s cell and blade – gone! And no one in charge there knew where it went. Embarrassed, I joked with my group that it must have been a conspiracy – saying it was Antoinette’s double who was murdered instead. (Like her double in the movie, “The Affair of the Necklace.”) And I even joked with my group, “Will you put it on Social Media or should I?” Soon after I returned home – my Marie Antoinette’s disappearing conspiracy actually appeared — on Social Media. 

 

Two lessons were learned: 

 1. Don’t joke about misinformation on Social Media. 

 2. Before I lead a tour – find out if all the sites on my itinerary still exist. 

 

VI. Mannerism and Surrealism 

If you can’t take my course “Humor in the Arts” – when travel resumes you can always take my eponymous tour. (Until then, you can finish reading this column.) 

 

There are two particular periods of European Art that are humorous – 16th-century Mannerism and 20th-century Surrealism. The humor inherent in Mannerism is unintentional. A good example is the Louvre’s anonymous portrait of “Gabrielle d’Estrees” naked in her bath tweaking another naked woman on the nipples. 

 

Another even stranger Mannerist painting also in the Louvre is the personification of “You are what you eat.” It’s Arcimboldo’s painting of a portrait of a man made out of vegetables – a still life inside a face. (And they’re all over Europe from Prague to Vienna to London and all year round — not just when vegetables are in season.)

 

And humorous Mannerism extends to architecture – especially in Italy.   There’s a Mannerist park, Bomarzo, (a day trip from Rome) with a crooked stone house that looks like it landed on the Wicked Witch of the East in “The Wizard of Oz.”   I call it “The World’s First Amusement Park” (see left photo).  However, there’s also a stone house that immediately brings a smile to your face with its face – a façade that’s a face.  The entrance is a big mouth and its two windows are eyes.  It looks like the entrance to a 20th-century Funhouse.   And you don’t even have to travel to Bomarzo to see its twin – it’s in the heart of Rome.  It’s Palazzo Zuccari – with its main entrance at the top of the Spanish Steps.  Palazzo Zuccari’s other, older entrance (see right photo) welcomes you in with an even bigger mouth.

 

Unlike Mannerism — Surrealism’s humor is intentional. And one of the best places to see one of the great Surrealist artists is in Brussels’ Magritte Museum. Mannerism has given us vegetables as eyes and eyes as windows. In this sensational new museum – every painting is a joke. And once again, the “eyes” have it. Here you’ll even find female breasts as eyes.

 

The most famous Surrealism artist is Salvador Dali. In fact, he’s so famous that he’s got many museums from Paris’ Espace Dali (in Montmartre), to Spain’s Dali Museum just outside of Barcelona (Figueres) to the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg (this time Florida’s St. Petersburg). 

 

In another column I wrote about humor around the world etched in stone – tombstone humor. My favorite witty epitaph is in London – in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. On the tomb of its architect, Sir Christopher Wren, is his witty self-epitaph, “If you want to see my monument – look around you.” Since I began with architects who are comedians – I wanted to leave my comedy writing on architecture where everyone could see it. One of the side entrances to St. Paul was being restored and displayed the sign, “Undergoing Renovation.” I secretly took out my Sharpie and added just one letter – “W” – so the sign would now read, “Undergoing Wrenovation.” And that photo showed up in the British magazine, “Tattler.” (Too bad I didn’t sign my name to it.)

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