When you’re a freshman in high school, the seniors and upper classmen seem like gods. They have experience and understanding, they are confident and self-assured. They have college aspirations, jobs, and sex. To my shy, painfully awkward fifteen year old self this seemed inconceivable. Mostly the sex part. But when I was a freshman, a senior was once very kind to me, and I’ve always appreciated him for it. His name was Noah.
Noah was one of the most engaging actors in his class. Oftn young actors attempt to bluff their way through their parts with bombast and melodrama. As they get older and more mature they learn the virtues of subtlety, but it takes several lackluster and over-the-top performances before they begin to realize this. Noah had none of this. He glided through his parts with an easy grace and charm, and an almost Jimmy Stewart-like quality of wholesomeness. To get to know him in real life was to see that this was no act. He truly was kind, honest, and keenly intelligent. His performances were genuine because he was a remarkably genuine person, and he brought truth into every line he spoke. Perhaps I still see him through my freshman-colored glasses, but I remember him as everything that I wished I could be.
Now in our Drama club there were warm-ups and exercises that were passed down from student to student over the years. These warm-ups were… unique. They included but were not limited to: a call and response, (“Can I get a Hoo-RAH?”), to an extensive and vaguely cultish chant, (“What to do to die today?”) and a full body warm up spoken largely in Spanish. The last of these was Noah’s warm-up. To this day I don’t know if he created it or inherited it from another student. All I know is that he made it his own, with flailing limbs and wild hair flicking left and right as he took his fellow students through all the different body parts. It was also customary to introduce a new exercise for each new show and debut it on opening night. For example, Noah fell to his knees and beat the ground shouting, “Medea… Medea! Medea, MEDEA!” I never said he was completely without melodrama.
On the final performance of my freshman year, all of the seniors had the chance to say a few words and pass on their warm-ups. It was always an emotional experience, as students said goodbye to their friends and to a group that had defined their high school careers. Typically these warm-ups were given to sophomores, who had a bit more experience and had demonstrated that they were dedicated to the club. This meant that although the night was emotional for me, it was not necessarily one of great anticipation. I think I was mostly concerned with hitting my low note in the quartet piece, and making sure I got a ride home from the cast party. That is, until Noah ended his short speech and passed his warm-up onto me.
I didn’t quite understand why he had chosen me, I suspect we never said more than ten words to each other at a time, but he brought me out and I helped him lead the warm up. It was silly. It was more than a little weird. It felt right. Later, before the show started, and after there were many tearful hugs and emotional conversations (actors have never been known for stoicism) Noah asked to speak to me alone. He brought me into the hallway and asked if I knew why he had picked me. I told him that I honestly didn’t know.
“Well, I just really like that you always seem to do things your own way. You march to the beat of your own drummer, and you don’t seem to care what anyone thinks. And I like that about you.” Noah clapped me on the shoulder and slipped back into the dressing room. I stood alone for a moment to digest what he had told me. Then I smiled. It was because I was weird.
I’ve always taken a special kind of pride in being weird. As a child I wore it as a badge of honor, and freely admitted it to my siblings and my friends. For the most part they looked at me strangely, shrugged their shoulders, and carried on what they were doing. I liked being weird. Not special. Not unique. Weird.
Now I’m tempted to tell you that my affection for the phrase comes from its second meaning, implying something supernatural or otherworldly. Or perhaps to try and disguise it in the old Scottish meaning, “a person’s destiny.” Unfortunately those would be lies, and pretentious lies at that. My love of my own weirdness came from a very simple source. Two feet of blue felt and fur with a hooked nose and a penchant for blowing himself up. Gonzo. Excuse me, Gonzo the Great.
I adore Jim Henson’s Muppets. Perhaps it is the goofy cast of characters, or the shockingly well-done musical numbers, or perhaps it’s just the glib, fourth-wall-shattering humor, but I could never get enough of them. To this day I will watch anything that the Jim Henson company produces, however poorly made their most recent television endeavor may have been. I loved all of the Muppets, but Gonzo was by far my favorite.
I’ve seen it argued that our favorite characters in different television shows and movies can say a lot about who we are. For example, we gravitate towards the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle that most closely resembles our own personality. I am not sure if I loved Gonzo because I was weird, or if he helped to make me weird, but I owe him for it. Or I suppose I owe Jim Henson and David Goelz (Gonzo’s puppeteer), but I digress.
Perhaps I should explain, for those of you who might not know anything about the Muppets. To begin with, what have you been doing with your lives? Gonzo is a blue furry character with a nose like a bratwurst. He speaks in a high nasal voice, constantly filled with enthusiasm. He dresses in khakis and sweater-vests, and his girlfriend is named Camilla. She is a chicken.
As part of the original Muppet Show, Gonzo was the “high class” art. His performance pieces were universally eccentric, and included eating a tire to the theme of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Over the years Gonzo, developed even stranger tendencies and became a daredevil, shooting himself out of cannons and performing other feats of insanity. In the movies he is commonly the butt of the joke, but he never minds. He leaps at challenges and revels in his own interests, whether it’s convincing the world that he is Charles Dickens or sticking starfish in his pants. The nature of Gonzo’s weirdness is not what endeared him to me, but the manner in which he expressed it.
As a character, Gonzo is perennially excited and enthusiastic. He never approaches life with skepticism or irony. He attacks each endeavor and challenge in his own way, and refuses to be told what to do. Even when he is mocked and derided, insulted or spoken down to, he never lets it get to him. He greets each setback with a smile and a laugh, often gleefully cheering as he is brought into danger.
Gonzo never backs down. He makes no effort to explain himself and doesn’t seem to care if anyone understands what he is doing. He does it for himself. Gonzo revels in his weirdness. He doesn’t do it to be unique, or to stand apart from the crowd. Gonzo acts weirdly because he is weird, and he doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about him.
Gonzo’s willingness to embrace who he is taught me how I wanted to approach life. I would never hide who I was, or pretend to be something I was not. I would be myself and never be ashamed of the things that I enjoyed.
Gonzo taught me to never be afraid to be the one looking strange in public. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, because the people who matter won’t care. And at worst, the people who care will have a story about the time they saw the lanky blonde man climbing the new contemporary art sculpture in the quad. There are worse things to be than weird, and one of them is scared.
In his own way that silly, ridiculous puppet made me who I am today. He and Noah gave me the confidence to never be ashamed of being a little off-center, a little ludicrous. Now there have been times that I’ve run from this, and tried to “fit in,” with what I thought was right. But I always come back to the words I learned from my childhood idol, “Photography’s an art. You gotta have the right film, you gotta have the right exposure, and you have to scream just before they get the soup to their mouth.”