Excerpt from “How To Play In Traffic”, Penn Jillette and Teller, 1997 (out of print). This is long, but for my money, it’s the best thing about the space shuttle ever written.
Buddy Hackett said, “Ask me what’s the secret of comedy.”
Johnny Carson started to say, “What’s the secret of. .. ” and Buddy yelled, “Timing,” very loudly, right in his face. It killed me. Timing is important — Johnny Carson has a throw pillow in his house that has embroidered on it, “It’s All in the Timing.”
I earn my living in comedy, but science is my hobby. I’m a fan of science: I hang out with scientists at science places and I read about science and scientists. My mom always says, “If you walk like a duck, talk like a duck, and hang around with ducks, people will start thinking you’re a duck.” This may be true for juvenile delinquents and waterfowl, but, unfortunately, if you walk like a scientist, talk like a scientist, and hang around with scientists, people will still know you’re a dumb-assed comedian.
Because some scientists like to hang out with dumb-assed comedians, they let me watch space shuttle launches from the V.I.P. viewing area. That area is 3.7 miles from the pad. Three point seven miles is a very long way to throw a house cat (you’d need some apparatus), but it’s pretty stinkin’ close to watch human beings get blasted into space. If you know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone (we can get several degrees past Will Smith and Stockard Channing) who can get you V.I.P. passes to a shuttle launch, beg, call in the favor, grant sexual favors you don’t enjoy — do anything, just get yourself a pass.
If you can’t get a V.I.P. pass, don’t beat yourself up, just go to a public viewing area. It’s almost as good. You still need a pass, but you just have to ask the day before. You don’t have to give sexual favors to anyone (but it never hurts). Even from the public areas five miles away, it is still, quite simply and without any exaggeration, the best thing you will ever see. The first shuttle launch I saw was from a way public area. We didn’t even have a pass to get to the “Space Port” (what a cheesy name; I wish Disney didn’t bleed into our entire culture). We watched it with all the RVs.
The first launch I saw was the last launch before Challenger blew up and, after Challenger blew up, everyone said that we had all been taking space launches for granted. Not me, must have been some other mother, but no, no, child, it wasn’t me. Maybe TV fools took them for granted, but no one that ever stood and felt NASA explode human beings into space took them for granted. I don’t ever want to have a hot beverage with anyone who would take that for granted. They wouldn’t be fun.
Every morning we’d be up at 3:30 a.m., eat our traditional astronaut breakfast of steak and eggs, and sit in the car in the pouring rain like we were making out listening to the radio. It was raining the whole week of our first shuttle, and my team of space fans would get up every morning at 5 a.m. in the rain and sit in our car, dead tired, listening to the “voice of NASA,” waiting for the mission to be scrubbed. We knew it would be scrubbed when we saw the rain coming down in sheets, but our motto was, “If the astronauts are getting up, we’re getting up.”
Finally, after several days of getting up after not going to sleep, eating donuts in the car for three hours, and then driving back to a dive hotel with nothing to do but speculate on the chances of the launch going up in the next window, it was a perfect morning. We were there in our rental car among all the RVs. Our area was all retired people in RVs with “Good Sam” stickers. Some of these people were pros: they had seen a couple Saturn Ills. Having seen an Apollo mission go up is the space brag equivalent of having seen the Velvet Underground live in ‘67. We were neophytes and we didn’t really fit in. We weren’t even “Good Sams.”
When it got close to going, we all got out of our vehicles. The Sams were wary of us. We were relatively young, we had leather jackets and sunglasses, and we were making loud jokes. The Sams had seen launches before, they understood things we didn’t. They knew that it wasn’t a time to be joking. That’s the weird thing about NASA’s Successful Quantifying of Comedy Timing — NASA isn’t really in the comedy business.
The countdown gets close. We get down into double digits. It’s dawn and you can see the shuttle artificially lit, glowing brilliantly five miles away. Mankind’s lights are kicking dawn’s ass in the candlepower department, and NASA hasn’t really started yet. The countdown gets to single digits, and you can see the engine start. They’re on their way to space. The old guy in Bermuda shorts next to me was ready; he had his handkerchief out. None of us punks were ready. The emotions caught us by surprise, we had our sun-glasses in our hands and tears pouring all over our faces. Three loves-of-my-life have left me because I wouldn’t cry over them the way I cried over that first space shuttle. Good Sam had his handkerchief all ready, but we had to improvise. All we could do was unzip our leather jackets, untuck our T-shirts, and pull them up to our faces. Then the P.A. system says, “Welcome to space,” and I wished I’d brought another T-shirt because the one I had on was soaked with tears of awe. They were orbiting before we got back to our car. They went from five G’s to weightless in the time it took me to stop sobbing.
I know, I know, I know — you’ve seen pictures of shuttle launches in the paper, and you’ve seen them on TV, and you saw Apollo 13 and that was the bigger rocket, the VU live Saturn 5, and Opie did such a great job, you couldn’t tell it was digital. Maybe you even saw the Imax movie, The Dream Is Alive. What a great movie, with Pinky, Ox, and Sally Ride, the sexiest woman that ever lived. In her tight blue shorts, that hair, those brains, that T-shirt, no bra, and no gravity. Goddamn me. Help me. Mr. Lee, you can keep Pamela Anderson, give me Dr. Sally to ride. Even if you’ve seen all that and you think you know majesty, accomplishment, and the wonder that is technology and humanity. Bullfeathers! You think you know that from TV? Huh? Well, don’t make me laugh, I have chapped lips. When you see a shuttle go up and you see it live, make sure you bring a very big hanky. Your eyes are going to be squirting. You’re going to be a big, screaming, little crybaby.
I turned into the shuttle junkie. I’ve been to every launch I was able to make, and that isn’t enough. Thankfully, I wasn’t able to make it down to the Challenger launch and I don’t watch TV. I won’t even try to imagine what it must have felt like to have that level of joy smash head on into that depth of tragedy. I feel sorry for anyone who saw that, and as far as the NASA people and the families — I can’t even think about that much pain. There was nothing good about the Challenger disaster, but it did happen on the day that L. Ron Hubbard died and it blew that useless, evil, rat bastard’s obituary off the front page and that, at least, wasn’t bad.
Please don’t forget, we’re talking about comedy timing. I finagled my way onto Rockwell’s V.I.P. bus for my next few shuttle launches. My first Rockwell party before a launch, I thought I had been around. I’d seen a few launches, I’d hung with the Good Sams. I had seen a few go up. I was chatting. I was asking people, “Have you ever seen a night launch before?”
One guy answered, “Not from the outside, no.”
You have to be careful about trying to be cool at a Rockwell party.
Apologists try to justify spending government money on NASA by talking about all the spin-offs. I think government needs to use tax money for “police, courts, and defense” and that’s it. If I were king of the world, there wouldn’t be a king of the world and NASA would be private. But who cares what I think? We have NASA and they do the coolest things. It can’t be justified with Tang and Crazy Glue. Exploration of space is worth it because humans need to explore. Knowledge is always good, and it’s a really cool thing to see. Talk about bang for the buck. But, if you need another spin-off, well, NASA was able to quantify comedy timing.
When you see the shuttle from the V.I.P. viewing area you’re looking over a wild pond/swamp, with wild pond/swamp life, ‘gators and eagles and everything. Around the loudspeaker counting down, you hear nothing but the Florida swamp equivalent of crickets (which, for all I know, is crickets). It’s quiet and peaceful out over the swamp/pond. “4, 3, 2, 1,” and you see more smoke than you’ve ever seen before — clouds of heavenly, thick, white smoke. It’s nothing like bad magic show smoke. It’s virgin white, technological smoke, and in the center is the light of the engines and they are burning bright.
Lou Reed went to the shuttle launch with me. See? See? Huh? — it is cool, the Rock and Roll Animal went. Even Debbie Harry went to see one. Ms. Harry has never done anything geeky in her life. So, see, it’s not just nerd geeks and losers like me that love the shuttle — real cool people like it, too! I told Lou that we were going to see real White Light/White Heat and we did. It’s 3.7 miles away and you’re looking at this flame and the flame is far away and it’s brighter than watching an arc welder from across a room (P&T do not recommend that you watch welding, but you know what we mean). It’s bright. The fluffy smoke clouds of the angels of exploration spill out of your field of vision. They spill out of your peripheral vision. We’re getting to where the comedy comes in.
You’re 3.7 miles away, watching this controlled explosion in a rocket with human beings on top. It’s the biggest explosion you’ve ever seen, but you’re hearing … swamp sounds. Strain your ears, but that’s all you hear — swamp crickets. People are weeping softly around you and Mission Control is saying what it needs to say, but in between you’re hearing peaceful swamp. You have time to notice the quiet, wrinkle one eyebrow, and think to yourself, (I had one friend who actually said it out loud, but everyone at least thinks it), “Hmm, it seems so bright and smoky — you know, I would have thought there would be some noise.”
Right as you say the word “noise” in your head, right as those synapses connect, you get hit in the chest. You don’t exactly hear it at first, it almost knocks you over. It’s the loudest most wonderful sound you’ve ever heard. Megadeth’s double bass drum Quaalude thunder sounds like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s tasteful twenty-two-incher next to this. You can’t really hear it. It’s too loud to hear. It’s wonderful, deep and low. It’s the bottom. For a bass player or a drummer nothing could give more joy. It’s a squealy lead guitar player’s worst nightmare. Pete Townshend said that music should be loud enough that you can’t think of anything else, but it took an explosion to make him deaf. This is a real explosion and it’s controlled and it’s doing nothing but good and it makes your unbuttoned shirt flap around your arms. It’s beyond sound, it’s wind. It’s a man-made hurricane. It’s a baseball bat in the chest. It’s so loud. It’s so loud you can’t even call it loud. You start cheering. You start yelling. You start crying. You are yelling from the depth of your little lizard brain. You’re yelling because stinkin’ animals have done this. You know the alligators are cheering and the birds and the Good Sams and every living thing on the planet is cheering. We’re all cheering together because Earth animals are going into space. You can feel your throat getting raw, but you can’t hear yourself scream because the shuttle is so stinkin’ goddamn loud. The ground shakes and it’s loud. Warfare could be louder, but this is the loudest totally good thing you will ever hear. The loudest good thing you will ever feel.
Get it? The last thing you thought was, “Hmm, it seems so bright and smoky — you know, I would have thought there would be some noise,” and then there’s the biggest noise, a synthetic Big-Bang-Birth-of-the-Universe noise. And the timing on the biggest noise is perfect. It is perfect comedy timing. We can measure it.
The NASA definition of comedy timing is “the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound over a distance of 3.7 miles.” The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second (I knew that off the top of my head). The speed of sound is 1,116 feet per second (I had to look that up). With the two traveling over 3.7 miles that’s 17.505 seconds.
And that, my friends, is comedy timing.