Thursday, November 11, 2010

Toasting TopGun

This past weekend I hopped in a car with Cap'n Shack-Fu and his fiance and headed up to Colorado for my former roomie TopGun's wedding.  But while I plan on writing a bit about the overall trip, today I want to talk about one of my responsibilities as Best Man, one that consumed my thoughts for several weeks prior to the ceremony:  the Best Man Speech/Toast.

As I mentioned before, I accused TopGun of only asking me to be Best Man because he knew I'd obsess over writing the speech for months and months and he's sadistic like that.  But although I did start thinking about the speech when he asked me back in June, it wasn't really until the beginning of October that I began to devote most every waking moment I was alone to writing, re-writing, practicing, then re-writing some more.  If I was in the car driving somewhere I wasn't listening to music or podcasts; I was running through the speech.  My Netflix and DVRed shows started to pile up because I couldn't focus on anything other than trying to get the danged thing down.  I even gave up on the idea of doing NaNoWriMo because I knew I wouldn't be able to write anything non-speech-related until after it was all said and done.

Quite a lot of effort for a little over a thousand words that clocked in at 6 minutes, huh?

I had several people question my obsessive tinkering, telling me to "not over-think it"; to "just wing it"; to "just get up there and speak from the heart." I, in turn, had to ask them "Are you sure you've met me?"  Because, let's face it, historically speaking, winging it and just speaking from the heart have never turned out well for me -- I stammer and stumble searching for the right words and never can quite manage to articulate what it is I really want to say. As for not over-thinking things, well, I'm pretty sure that's physically impossible for me.
Plus, TopGun kept telling me "I know it's going to be great!" with that devilish, sadistic grin of his, and danged if I was going to half-ass the blasted thing.

Seriously, though, my thinking was that if TopGun was going to honor me by asking me to fill such an important role on his special day, then the least I could do is put my best efforts into honoring him as well. 

Writing the speech presented quite a few challenges; in a lot of ways I can look back on the experience as an interesting writing exercise, but in the midst of it all I could see was a sea of challenges to overcome.

CHALLENGE #1:  Outside of one heartfelt, impromptu toast I'd seen Shack-Fu give at a friend's wedding, my experience with hearing such toasts was largely restricted to works of fiction.  So, as any good librarian would, I proceeded to do some research into the topic; however, being a fairly lazy librarian, my research was comprised mostly of searching Google and YouTube.  One thing I discovered very quickly from viewing multiple YouTube clips is that there a lot of people out there who stumbled upon the exact same off-color Best Man speech online and decided to run with it; after hearing the exact same bad jokes told in a variety of American and British accents, I despaired of finding any examples to give me inspiration. I was eventually able to track down a small handful of original and personal toasts, but in the end they didn't really help me much with addressing my challenges.

CHALLENGE #2:  TopGun and I had only known each other for around a year and a half, so I didn't have nearly the depth of experiences to pull from that I would have if I was writing a speech for, say, any of the HyperForce 3000 clan, all of whom I've known for over 4 years now and with whom I've shared a great deal of mini-adventures rife with anecdote potential.  But although TopGun and I became very close friends while rooming together, very few of our interactions are really anecdote-worthy* and those that are require more set-up than is practical for a brief speech.  Heck, the best TopGun anecdote I have -- which happens to be the basis of his nickname -- actually takes place before he and I are even introduced to each other.

CHALLENGE #3:  Finding the right balance in the "TopGun and me" anecdotes, making sure that they were more "TopGun" and less "Me".  After all, as funny as I may find my "If at any time today you've wondered 'What the heck was TopGun on when he asked this dork to be his best man?' the answer is 'cough syrup with codeine'" gag, the truth is that although it's a joke ostensibly built on TopGun's behavior, it's more of a self-deprecating jab at myself  than a representation of who he is. I wound up jettisoning most of my initial draft as I found that I was often talking more about myself than I was about my pal; granted, it was all in terms of my reactions to TopGun's behavior, but it came across more egocentric than I felt comfortable with, especially in front of a crowd I barely knew. Which brings me to . . .

CHALLENGE #4:  A lack of familiarity with the majority of my audience, and vice versa. A lot of stuff that I might have included if I were speaking to a more familiar audience had to be removed as the set-up and exposition necessary were too time consuming. Plus, I found it difficult to craft a speech effectively when I had no insight into my audience's taste, sense of humor, history, etc.  The whole "sense of humor" thing being the big stumbling block -- sure, I was confident that TopGun would appreciate my jokes, but while the speech was in his honor, I still had to worry about keeping the natives from getting restless.  Speaking of jokes . . .

CHALLENGE #5: Finding the right balance and tone of humor.  If Pop Culture and YouTubing taught me anything, it's that these Toasts often turn into Roasts, and while my close friendship with TopGun may have been built primarily on a shared passion for being smartasses, his wedding reception wasn't the appropriate place to indulge in our tradition of constantly ripping on one another.  Which is not to say that I didn't have a few jokes at his expense -- pretty sure he would have been disappointed if I hadn't -- but on the whole, I tried to keep the jabs to a minimum.   This was incredibly difficult to do, as every time I excised one bit of TopGun mockery, another bit would rise up to take its place.

And last but not least . . .

CHALLENGE #6:  Editing.   As I said, this experience was almost like an extended writing exercise, with the biggest challenge being the intense amount of editing I performed over the months.  Even when I settled on including an anecdote or comedic bit, I would work and rework that section until I had found the most economical use of words possible to get the point across without losing any of the weight of the concept.  I think I can honestly say that this was the most thoroughly edited piece of work I've ever released into the public.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that there's no extraneous verbiage in the piece -- I am still me, after all -- but I worked hard at condensing stories and ideas as much as possible.

Of course, a discussion of my writing process would be incomplete without a mention of the part that brought the most joy:  constantly pestering TopGun with text messages like "Finally got the speech under an hour and a half; amazing what a difference taking out every other cuss word makes!" or "Think I'm going to remove the interpretive dance section . . . wait, that's crazy talk, it's the cornerstone of the whole piece!" Yes, I would randomly pepper him with messages calculated to insure that he was as tortured by my speech-writing process as I was.

His response?  "I don't know what you're complaining about; it shouldn't be that hard to come up with awesome stuff to say about me." I assured him that I had a whole section devoted to how I was sure he was a robot sent back from the future for the express purpose of making me constantly aware of my own inadequacies.**

In the days leading up to the wedding, I frequently joked about how I'd be working on the speech right up until the last minute, and that wasn't too far from the truth.  I put the finishing touches on it about an hour before I had to be at the church for pre-wedding photos; and, while I was happy with the final result, I have to admit that if I had another day to work on it, I probably would have wound up changing it even more***. 

So, how did the speech turn out?  Well, I started off talking about what an honor it was to be Best Man; segued into my First Impression of TopGun**** anecdote; followed it up with a list of things I respect, admire, envy, and treasure about my good pal; reassured everyone that I wasn't saying he was perfect and gave a couple of examples of his sadistic sense of humor*****; and ended with a word to the bride about how gaga in love with her he was, followed by a cheesy "May your love grow exponentially stronger every second of every day" toast. I think I only got choked up once, but I have to admit the actual delivery of the speech was a bit of a blur; after it was over I was certain that I had left a part of it out, since it had sped by******.

As for how the speech was received . . . well, TopGun's uncle complained I didn't make fun of TopGun enough, and TopGun's son, Li'l Champ, at first looked bored out of his gourd  
Li'l Champ's bored and Shack-fu's perplexed -- got 'em right where I want 'em!
 and later looked like he was contemplating if his dad's admonition to stop punching me in the gut for the duration of the wedding******* was still in effect or not
"One good jab in the solar plexus oughta shut this windbag up . . ."
but on the whole it seemed to pretty well received. People laughed at most of my jokes

They're laughing with me, not at me, I swear!

 and I had several of the family tell me that I had captured TopGun perfectly.  Plus, both the bride and groom said they liked it, and that's the most important thing. My goal was to honor TopGun and let him know not only how much respect I have for him, but also how much his friendship has meant to me; anything beyond that was just icing on the cake.

*Hard to spin a good yarn around "So, this one time TopGun and I had this really amusing conversation via text messaging"
**I was, of course, kidding about that -- I had removed the whole robot thing long before I mentioned it to him.
***And this is part of why I've never gotten anything published.
****I believe the phrases "Total Showoff" and "Incredibly intimidated to have Captain America himself move in" were used
*****When I told him I'd gotten fitted for my tux, his immediate response was "Great.  Are they going to have enough fabric?"
****** For those wondering, yes, I did the speech sans written copy or note cards -- if I've retained anything from my Competitive Speech days, it's a pathological avoidance of speech-making aids.
*******More on the gut-punching later, I promise