Thanksgiving Improv

Humor, Stories and Essays

by Ben Kissam

There have been some notable Thanksgiving dinners in my family, like the year Aunt Carol hired a catered meal service, misread the directions, and reduced balsamic dressing on the stove thinking it was gravy. My dad, drunk by the time dinner rolled around, said he couldn’t taste a difference.

There was the Thanksgiving when my cousin Shep, in the middle of a love affair with all substances mind-altering, performed a striptease that almost killed the elderly neighbor lady who joined us that year. I still remember her painted-on eyebrows nearly touching her hairline as Shep’s fingers dangerously thumbed the waistband on his boxers. Aunt Carol yanked him out of the room just in time.

By far the most memorable Thanksgiving, though, was the first holiday after my parents separated. Mom stayed home and Dad took us to New Jersey, where his two sisters lived.

Matt, my oldest cousin, sent all the “kids” a Facebook message a few days before Thanksgiving.

“Let’s mess with everyone at Thanksgiving. Any ideas?”

Shep, the second-oldest and aforementioned stripper, sent us a clip from the show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? It was an improv game where each player was assigned a character while other players guessed who they were. Shep suggested we play this game on Thanksgiving without telling the adults we were playing. The rule was you couldn’t break character until an adult said the name of the character you were pretending to be.

Matt would be Ron Burgundy, the infamous San Diego newscaster played by Will Ferrell in the movie Anchorman. Shep, true to form, chose a Rastafarian, not a far cry from his normal lifestyle at the time. Rosemary, the middle cousin and only girl, chose Queen Elizabeth. In acting school at Fairleigh Dickinson, her taking on a character wouldn’t be a stretch, either.

Pat, the youngest, had the older cousins pick a character for him. They kindly assigned him the persona of KC, the feral cat the Glennon family had taken in off the street years ago.

My brother Hunter, fifteen, was assigned his role: “hoarder.” He was instructed to remove as many items from the table as possible before and during dinner.

Inspired by a recent episode of MTV’s True Life, I decided to portray a person living with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Not one for subtlety, I adopted not one, but all three of the ticks I’d seen in the documentary.

The three oldest cousins drew attention almost immediately. Rastafarian Shep kicked things off with a comment that made my ex-police officer uncle ask if he’d been smoking dope. Rosemary’s accent drew amused looks from family members who assumed she was practicing for final exams. Across the table, Matt’s fiance insisted he explain what he meant when he’d said that she had a “breathtaking” hiney.

The commotion gave Hunter time to steal pepper shakers from the table and hide a candle in the dishwasher. It freed Pat up to hiss at the same neighbor lady as she reached for the butter. I was able to observe all of this while I cut my turkey and brussel sprouts into one-inch squares, then stacked them neatly into color-coded towers.

“Did you guys do something before dinner?” my aunt asked.

“Done something? Whatchu mean, ‘mon?” Rastafarian Shep answered.

“This just in, we’re playing a game. You stay classy, family,” said Ron Burgundy.

“Hiss,” said Pat the cat.

“Oh, that’s funny…” Carol said. “They’re playing like a game of improv.”

Some more amused than others, aunts and uncles began guessing characters. Ron Burgundy, Queen Elizabeth, and Rastafarian Shep were exposed. Pat was revealed as KC, though his persona took longer to guess. His first real words at the table were an apology for hissing at Mrs. Krupsky.

Then something unexpected happened. The loud characters were exposed, so the adults assumed the game was over. Hunter and I didn’t live in New Jersey, so it was reasonable to assume we weren’t in on the gag. We kept on.

Hunter didn’t last long. A bowl of potatoes beneath his seat, he was soon exposed as a hoarder. By that point, he’d made enemies with everyone within arm’s length of his chair.

“Hoarder? I thought he was just being a dick!” Aunt Paige said. “You haven’t said much, Ben. What are you supposed to be?”

I shrugged. Somehow, no one spotted the 1×1 stacks of turkey and carrots on my plate that were beginning to resemble Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It took another fifteen minutes, until the meal was practically over until Uncle Bill noticed.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

The table went quiet. Bill was both the best and worst person to discover my artwork. Feigning surprise, I held it together long enough to squeak out a reply.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Why are you destroying your food?”

“I don’t know. I just like it that way.”

“Jesus,” said Bill. “Do you have OCD or something?

The final pin had fallen, and my cousins were beaming at my performance. But before anyone could say anything, Aunt Carol stepped in to defend me.

“Why would you say that? What if he does have OCD?” she demanded.

Aunt Carol was Uncle Bill’s political and spiritual opposite. I’d seen them duke it out in Facebook comments before, but never in person.

“Oh, he’s not obsessive-compulsive. He’s just being fucking weird!”

“You should be ashamed of yourself!” Carol fired back. “Ben, do you have OCD?”

“I guess I do,” I said, adjusting my chair to an even more perfect angle.

“I didn’t know that Ben,” my dad said. “Gee, that explains a lot.”

Instead of answering, I deconstructed, then started consuming, my mashed potato diorama of Central Park. True to my character, I had to wait for the perfect moment.

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