THIS WEEK, the illustrious and artistically diverse career of Richard Thompson is receiving renewed celebration in a beautiful career-retrospective book. The expansive look at the art of the “Cul de Sac” creator, titled (no doubt after much authorial hand-wringing) “The Art of Richard Thompson,” largely spotlights the Virginia-based cartoonist’s humorous illustration and paintings. At one point in the book, readers are treated to Thompson’s immense gifts as strictly a prose writer. I could diagram at least three-dozen reasons why Thompson is a deft and knowing humor writer, but instead, you should enjoy this yarn for yourself.
The premise and purpose of Thompson’s column was this: In November of 2002, the cartoonist was providing the weekly artwork to accompany Gene Weingarten’s Post Magazine humor column. On a comedic whim, the two men decided to trade places. And Thompson, if nothing else, had far more space to fill.
When I re-read Thompson’s column this week, I was struck by just how hilarious it was. And I felt kind of guilty, enjoying the surrogate as much as I did. That is, until I heard Weingarten himself declare that this was one of the funniest columns in the history of “Below the Beltway.”
So without further ado or to-do, here is Thompson’s Thanksgiving tale:
This week, Gene Weingarten and I will be switching places. I am usually the cartoonist for this column, but this week I will write and he will draw. It’s an experiment in adaptability, the belief at the Post being that not only is no one indispensable, but all are equally interchangeable. Next week I get a shot at Charles Krauthammer’s column and Gene gets the Animal Watch report.
I had hoped to write something like Gene would, a piece of depth and power that holds the cold mirror of satire up to the dirty face of humanity, and maybe work in some jokes about barfing dogs. Except I don’t have any dogs; there are some cats around here but all they do is eat so much string that it comes out their rears, like flossing. But there’s nothing funny about that. It’s sad, really.
So I thought I’d try another Gene thing, maybe just stand on a street corner and ask passersby a Gene question like, “Do you have a stupid name?” Except I live in the suburbs and the only people on the street corner were some kids in orange vesty things, either school crossing guards or tiny utility workers. And both their names were Jason, so that went nowhere.
So instead, in keeping with the holiday season and the columnist’s mandate to write about his own puny life, I decided to do a Thanksgiving column about me.
Ten years ago this very week, my wife, Amy, and I were about to celebrate our first Thanksgiving as a married couple. We were going to serve a large feast on our new plates on our new table in our new home for as many of our extended families as could make it. The night before Thanksgiving, we went to a bar with friends and we had a most festive and enjoyable time, I personally enjoying it more than anyone else. When we got home, in hopes of continuing my festively enjoyable tune, I started dancing around like Fred Astaire would if Fred Astaire danced in his socks.
Our house was old and strangely shaped and it was heated by radiators, big iron monsters, all coils and ribs and flanges, the kind of fixture that would give sensitive children nightmares. I, as Fred Astaire would not, executed a kick that planted my foot squarely into the radiator in the hall, good and hard.
Amy, seeing me suddenly rolling around on the floor, thought I was still enjoying myself, until I pulled my sock off. One toe was bent completely back, and since it was the middle one, it looked like my foot was giving me the toe, if you know what I mean. It was indescribably funny, in a silent-film-comedy-trauma way. And it hurt like “the dickens.” The dickens is when the entire output of Charles Dickens — all fifteen hardbound novels plus journalism, letters and ephemera — is simultaneously dropped from a height and hits you.
The folks at the emergency room were extremely helpful and didn’t laugh and didn’t yell at me when I did some doughnuts with the wheelchair and knocked over the IV stand. But the nurse on duty did tell me an awful story about when he was in the Navy and won a $300 bet that he couldn’t pull all the hairs off the top of his foot with tweezers without screaming. And they gave me some Tylenol 3, the kind with codeine, the kind that comes with the warning that not everybody reacts well to codeine.
So that is how I ended up at the head of our table the next day, Thanksgiving Day, with my mangled foot elevated on another chair, presiding over our first Thanksgiving feast. And that is when, not ten minutes into the meal, I found out I was one of the people who reacts badly to codeine. And it was Amy who quickly handed me a bowl, the family one that matched our new plates and was fortunately empty, for me to react badly in.
It’s been ten years. The toe’s still there, of course, though it’s still bent a little funny. The house is gone, or at least so renovated it’s unrecognizable, and good riddance; it was an asbestos-clad eyesore and a menace.
Somehow, subsequent family holidays have never quite matched the First Thanksgiving for intensity of emotion, not the Christmas of the Flaming Oven Mitt, or the Other Thanksgiving When the Fireplace Blew Up, or that Day or Two Before Easter When We Had to Evacuate Because of a Carbon Monoxide Leak That Almost Killed Everybody.
The only downside is that, ever since I broke my toe that night. I’ve been forced to draw with my hands.
November 24, 2002
From the Washington Post Magazine