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Homegrown Humor: Of Course He's a Riot, He's From Berkeley!
by Craig Harrison
This article appeared
in the February, 2002 edition of

Punchline, the NSA Humor PEG's quarterly newsletter

There's something different about me that you should know. . . I grew up in the PRB. . . otherwise known as the People's Republic of Berkeley. The only city in the United States with its own foreign policy! Berkeley is often confused with the former Soviet Union. Berkeley, however, still has a communist party.

So what's a professional speaker doing in Berkeley, California? Fighting the Free Speech Movement, of course! After all, how's a speaker to make a living if all his speeches are free? That's Beserkeley: where it's said half its populace is plotting to overthrow the government while the other half is searching for the perfect croissant.

Growing Up in Berkeley in the 60's

Growing up in Berkeley during the 60's was a moving experience. In fact, everywhere one looked there were movements afoot. Berkeley was the epicenter of the Free Speech movement, Filthy Speech movement and an Anti-War movement. Throw in a Feminist movement, Environmental movement, and a Black Power movement — all prominent in Berkeley in the 60s — and you'll agree Berkeley had more movements than NSA has PEGs!

I lived a few blocks from infamous Telegraph Avenue, between People's Park and Ho Chi Min Park. People's Park has been the battleground for radicals, revolutionaries and the University of California for thirty five years. Ho Chi Min Park was the site of sit-ins, smoke-outs and Hare Krishna concerts.


As a child I was sent to a progressive kindergarten. Instead of emphasizing the 3 R's, my school emphasized pottery, art and self-expression. My mother was aghast during the a parent-teacher conference when my instructor showed my parents my prized drawing. The two words I had finger painted: "F*%# You!"

My mother was furious. My teacher calmed her. After all, the spelling was correct, my penmanship was excellent, and the sentence did have a subject and a verb. Suffice it to say, next year I was transferred to a school that taught reading.

Actually, I was helped by a pair of tutors, Batman & Robin. Their twice-a-week evening TV show, in which they engaged in fisticuffs with the henchmen of their arch-enemies The Joker, The Riddler and Cat Woman, were punctuated by the flashing of giant words on the screen:
KAPOWWWWWWWW! SPLAAAAAT? KRUUUUNCH! Words I learned and repeated, on the playgrounds and in my homework. DOH!

A Product-ive Childhood

Like other seven year olds, in the summer I operated a lemonade stand to learn about commerce, and sell my first "product." Unfortunately, I missed the Summer of Love, 1967, by a year. In 1968 there was something else in the air and it wasn't Peace, Love & Understanding.

To paraphrase Sly Stone: There were Riots Goin' On!

The air was filled with tear gas dispersed from helicopters. Pepper Spray was in the eyes of students and bystanders. Berkeley was an occupied territory. My city's idea of tourism consisted of the mobilization of the National Guard and other law enforcement agencies — the Oakland Po-Po, CHP and the Blue Meanies (AKA The Alameda County Sheriff Dept.) to quell frequent riots. With tear gas in the air, the Guard, wearing their gas masks, were the only customers allowed on the streets where my lemonade stand languished. Once I convinced them my lemonade wasn't spiked, I established the credibility needed to make the sale. Yes, one must know one's audience!

The Good Humor Man Goes Knock-Knock

Four years later I received my first exposure to cold calls when, at the age eleven, I went door-to-door selling Recycled Jokes. I was too short to reach most elevator buttons but managed to develop my first elevator speech to pitch my self-published joke books. This foreshadowed my joining the Writers and Publishers' PEG.

Soapbox Redux

As a teen I would walk daily through UC Berkeley's Sather Gate and hear incredible orators quoting Marx, Lenin and an occasionally McCartney melody, as they railed against everything from capitalism to taxes to chlorofluorocarbons. Some were calling for impeachment of the President, others were advocating the succession of California from the Union.

Berkeley's streetside preachers on Telegraph Avenue spoke less of God and more of civil disobedience and anarchy. They incited their audiences, and without give-aways! In the Speakeasies of the day, raucous rhetoric from rebels, revolutionaries and radicals filled the air.

My environment's impact on me was clear. In school I was always speaking up, though raising my hand first wasn't a priority. I realize now I was the heckler that I so dread in my audiences today. Ah, payback is a callback!

Tuning In

I actually credit Berkeley with making me the speaker I am today. The city, with its University influence, exposed me to multiculturalism at a young age. (Berkeley public schools were the first to integrate through busing in the '60s.) Growing up in Berkeley gave me a sensitivity to others and also the confidence to listen to, learn from and speak to anyone. What a gift. Berkeley's high value on self expression meant that I could speak about and hear divergent points of view, and critically analyze them for myself.

Looking back 30 years later, Berkeley was ahead of its time. In other ways I fear Berkeley has regressed. Clearly its emphasis on politically correct speech has taken some of the fun out of humor. And visiting speakers sadly find that tolerance is reserved for the forms of speech most popular in this province.

I encourage all members of the Humor PEG to explore their own roots for humor. Whether or not you grew up in the Peoples' Republic of Berkeley, I know you can roll your own (yarns). Happy Speaking!

Craig Harrison is NOT the Naked Guy from Berkeley! He tasteful humor does undress his audience on occasion. He can be reached through his website: www.ExpressionsofExcellence.com or by telephone: (510) 547-0664.


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