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The following essay on Professor Ehrenkreutz's observation about ritual is a most profound observation on life. Any motivational speaker worth their salt, will recognize this is the underpinnings of the cliché example of the husband who notices his wife always cuts the ends off the pot roast and sticks them in the pan on the side before roasting. When he asks why she says because that's how her mother always made pot roast when she was a kid.
When the mother is asked why she always did that, she replies, "I didn't have a pan big enough for a family size pot roast to fit completely in it.")
And following outdated ritual is the single biggest handicap to success in life in general and comedy specifically. Today I go to comedy clubs and occasionally I will watch a few minutes of a comic on television. Over and over, I see such repetitive unoriginal material, gestures, and stage movements.
Most comics are influenced by one or more successful comedians. And it is quite common for the newbie to adopt the mannerisms (i.e. rituals) of the star. Most comics will acknowledge other influences on them at the beginning of their career. Robin Williams started by using Jonathan Winters' rituals; Richard Pryor started by using Bill Cosby's rituals; Johnny Carson started by using Jack Benny's rituals; Phyllis Diller started by using Bob Hope' rituals; and so on for every successful comic.
But each star's rituals (gestures and ways of speaking) exist because of specific theatrical choice made for that star at a particular time in their career and for a particular performance reason (whether or not conscious).
As Professor Ehrenkreutz notes, what the ritual means has disappeared (i.e. the reason for the original theatrical choice) but the action continues, (and Cantu adds usually because it enhances the generation of laughs.)
But too many comics I see in clubs and on TV are still using someone else's rituals. So their words and gestures comes across as rote, pat, and bland and essentially unexciting. When was the last time a comedian didn't just make you laugh, but, to paraphrase Don Stevens, slammed a hot poker in your brain?
What makes greatness is the ability to let one's own rituals, ultimately supersede the adopted rituals. When the performer allows that to occur in himself or herself, then one's true greatness has the potential to flourish and be recognized.
I majored in "Ancient Near East Languages and Literature." I was stupid about going to college, so of course I had to choose a worthless degree. (Sorry - I love history and science, and that degree combined history and archaeology, so I was in hog heaven.)
And, in a sense, it has paid off. When I'm being attempted flummermuxed by Jehovah's Witnesses or Jews For Jesus, I say, "I've studied Biblical Hebrew, and have read Genesis in the original. I know when the book of Daniel really was written. I know more about the Bible than you do." They don't believe me - they know Satan has taught atheist/satanists to lie - but it's a form of argument they haven't been prepped for, so I skate.)
The Near Eastern department held an intro meeting to introduce the professors and try to entice idiots like me to major so that they'd have job security. The professors were given about three minutes to talk about what they taught. It was factual, dried and condensed, like a compacted history course must be.
Professor Ehrenkreutz got up and did not talk about his specialty - Medieval Islamic history. He talked about the philosophy of history, the importance of history, the necessity of history. That was when I picked my major. I thought, "This is damn good stuff - this is something I want to know more about." Who cares if it was economic oblivion? My mind was intrigued.
When the meeting ended, all the professors scurried out, done with their forced duties... except Professor Ehrenkreutz. I hung around, because I wanted to talk to him, because he had slammed a hot poker in my brain - again, at that time, I was eighteen and not as cynical as I am now.
And this is what moved me. Here was a tenured professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and he stuck around because... it was left to the secretaries and assistants of the Near Eastern Studies department to clean up. And he did not think that was right. He washed down the tables.
So when I approached him and said, "I'd really like to hear more about your philosophy of history," he said, "Yes, it stems from..." and then he said, "Excuse me," while he was using a sponge to brush off the crumbs from the table to his hand, and then he said to a secretary, "Leave that... I will clean it up" before he dealt with my question.
I'm sorry, but that made a profound impression on me. I'm not sure why; I don't care to know why.
My main Ehrenkreutz story...
Maybe I have such fond memories of him because he gave me 4.0 for the two classes I took from him (and once gave me a A+ which I don't know how that translates into grade point average). About a year after I took his classes, I went to his office because, damn it, I can be a sentimental fool, and I liked him.
I said, "Yes, Professor Ehrenkreutz, my name is Don Stevens and I took two of your classes..." He looked at me and thought - brilliant thinkers are wonderful to watch thinking - and he said, "Oh, yes, Mr. Stevens. Mr. Stevens. You always wrote those funny final exams."
Hey, I dealt with the subject, and I dealt with it accurately, I just... embellished. He appreciated it. I also liked the time I went to his office a year after I took his class, just to praise him, and he, in essence, told me, "Thank you, but can you leave me alone?
"I have a class in five minutes and I need to think about it." It was the most appreciative blow-off I've ever had. He was concentrating on his job. And he was the best.
Professor Ehrenkreutz fought in the Polish resistance during the Second World War. He was (twice) in a Nazi POW camp, and had a shrapnel wound in his leg, which caused him to walk with a limp. English was his second language, so he gave his lectures in a very slow, halting speech, because he was translating (my guess) as he spoke.
He was a man who had been through hell and kept his sense of humor (which is why he gave my probably amateur attempts at humor an A+).
His lectures were understated, brilliant asides. He was a historian; he recognized that the study of history is the study of human folly, and he did not mind pointing it out.
The brilliant people in my class, who neither suffered through a Nazi POW camp or Lincoln Park High School, looked upon him, in terms of humor, as a non-entity. After all, he walked and talked slowly. Cripples and near-mutes can't be witty.
I would burst out laughing during his lectures on Medieval Islamic history, because he was so sardonic. Nobody else got it. I'd laugh, and I guess my classmates assumed I was on whatever popular drug was floating around Ann Arbor those days, because they'd stare at me like I was from Ann Arbor circa 1974.
Ehrenkreutz had a routine. He would walk into class with a map of the Medieval Islamic world. I always sat near the window, because while I loved his lectures, I'm still claustrophobic, and like being by a window.
There was a nail on the wall which he used to hang his map. I sat below it. He got used to me being there to hang it up. I'm guessing that because of his war injuries, he would shuffle into class every Monday-Wednesday-Friday with the map held out perpendicular to his body. He'd give it to me, and I'd hang it up.
One day, he walked in, with his arms held out perpendicular, but there was no map. He shuffled up to me, and reached out with his empty hands. I reached up, took the non-existent map, turned around, hung it on the nail, and rolled it down.
Whatever pain it took him in his war-ravaged body, he forgot. He spun around which to me was astonishing animating, considering how painful it must have been to him, to the other students who didn't have a clue about his perception and said, "Excellent! Excellent! This is exactly how ritual survives! Long after the mechanism of what the ritual means disappears, the action continues!"
This is a matter of pride, and I apologize. But it was an instant in an environment that was strange to me and I was able to recognize a brilliant person who trusted enough to trust in my judgment, and he was not disappointed. This is my new year, fondest memory - I was able to connect on a very chancy level to a person I have the deepest respect for.
I hung his invisible map for him.