I’ve heard it said, that if a girl walks into a bar and sees another girl wearing the same dress, she’s instantly devastated. But if two men wearing the same shirt sight each other from across the room, they may end up being each other’s best man.
So you’ve just been asked to be best man, at which point you instantly learn there’s a special room in every man’s heart that houses the fear released at the sound of the question. Whether conscious of it or not, any male with a heartbeat has a faint understanding that the speech required of him is a one-time, match-deciding, penalty shot in the Social World Cup. The crowd will be hushed, and the arena floodlit.
The honour is instant, and your answer is required at similar speed. Of course you say yes, hiding from your mate all traces of reluctance. But when the phone hangs up, instead of pouring yourself a congratulatory gin, or then and there putting pen to paper, you likely flee to a movie, throughout which you’re so full of worry that you fail to even notice that Prometheus is set in space.
So how are you going to do this? Can you do this? And will your pants stay up as you do this? Regardless of who you are, of your wealth of public speaking experience, or desolate lack thereof, your mind will categorically turn to these questions.
You are, in essence, required to be a stand-up comic for some ten minutes, and including, of course, the joy in the simple fact that your mate and his lady are making a public declaration of their love, weddings can in fact hinge on a best man speech. A good one will galvanise the occasion, a bad one will leave the guests talking about the buffet.
In the spirit of peacocking, the social perks are plentiful. It’s your one chance to simultaneously impress 150 people, to spilt the sides of your mates present, to make the groom’s parents want to adopt you, and, most capitalistically, to make tangible headway with the bridesmaids.
But the one, the only, and the molten droplet rule to know is, drum roll… that it’s not about you. This is not a medium by which to road test your unrelated amateur stand-up material, but is a chance to illustrate, in a candid, yet, crediting fashion, who this bloke getting married really is. Your mate is a Christmas tree, and it’s your job to decorate him publicly.
Of course there will be references to yourself, but veer down this path only in the name of facilitating a story about him. Equally, discredit him only with the intent of ultimately crediting him. If today he bares an athletic physique, it’s ok to talk about his old suit being made out of enough material to circumnavigate the Taj Mahal. If he still lives on a diet of Mars Bars and KFC, you’d do well to leave it out.
As a brief outline, it’s probably useful to talk about when and how you met. If you tell it well the uninitiated will find it interesting, if you tell it poorly they’ll barely commit you to memory. Next you could talk about the wonder years in which together you cut your social teeth, bearing in mind not to go into unnecessary detail about ghosts of past girlfriends.
Another tricky, but necessary one, is to talk about the bride herself. She and the best man share an interesting dynamic, for to quote Jerry Seinfeld; ‘If I’m the best man, then why is she marrying him?’ Be sure on the night to make a point of how lovely she both is and looks, but do it by no means with a twinkle in your eye. Last but not least be sure to talk about their glistening future together.
Technically you have three options. First: zero preparation, known as winging it. Second: cue cards. I’ve seen a bloke stand up, the wind blow, and along with the cards his whole life blown away in the blinking of an eye. Or third: a fully written speech. Each to their own of course, but I’ll take number three thanks, and if you opt similarly be sure to print out two copies on the day. Lest one get eaten by the chapel Rottweiler.
In all likelihood the occasion is going to include not only alcohol, but that in its finest incarnation, free alcohol. I’ve had the honour of being best man three times, at which I can accurately, depending on intake of the aforementioned, graph the effects.
I was so nervous on the virgin occasion that I spent the pre-speech hours drinking intravenously. Luckily the stairs weren’t too challenging as I stepped up on the day. But the letter ‘n’, tricky little bloke that it is, managed to sneak its way into words whose spelling otherwise exclude it. No longer was the city of reference Adelaide, but Adenlaide.
The second time I drank not a drop, whereupon my voice shook as though the microphone was running through a tremolo effect. Gig three, consisted, thankfully, of the perfect play. Just one glass of red wine; the nervous system tweaked to perfection.
But my opinion, or advice – dirty little word that it is – is worth little unless I divulge details of live fieldwork.
The most recent one I was asked to do was in March 2012. The mission, if I chose to accept it, would include a three-leg flight from London to Melbourne, followed by a four-hour drive to rural Victoria where the wedding would take place. It was the tallest of tall orders, but although the week before I suffered panic to the extent that I nearly picked up the phone to tell the groom-to-be ‘I simply cannot do this’, I knew if I could I’d be knighted amongst our clan. I knew too that the regret in declining would deny me sound sleep for the rest of my life.
I arrived in Australia six weeks later, whereupon the blood in my veins had to give way to the jet-lag running through them. I’d never before believed in jet-lag, thinking it to be no more than a wanker’s way of telling you they’ve been on a 747. But when on the big day my brain struggled to discern the difference between Near Year and New Caledonia, my opinion was forcibly changed.
The setting, on the Howqua River in Victoria’s high country – boasted Australia at its best. The ceremony was held on the riverbank, and was conducted by the groom’s father. My mate looked like a million bucks, and the bride – the autumn leaves falling on cue as she walked out – looked like ten million or more.
But all throughout the ceremony, which included mothers and mothers in-law gently battling tears of pride, and cousins and aunties with their heads poignantly tilted to the side, my nervous system kept reminding me that perhaps my speech to come, the opus of fart jokes that it could likely be, was truly inappropriate.
And it was just a couple of hours later that came the sound I’d been dreading for weeks: ‘ting ting!’ – glass and spoon – ‘and now ladies and gentleman, a round of applause for the best man.’
With my palms sweaty, and my heart beating at a personal best, my head descended into war: ‘I can’t do this! I can do this!’ I approached the microphone, which as though on cue fed back in the key of embarrassment. ‘I can’t do this! I can do this!’ I’d recently seen The King’s Speech, and as I struggled to remember my opening words, I was herein starting to feel like royalty.
I’d written my speech word for word; but although I felt it was the safest option, I was equally concerned that I’d sound as contrived as a ten-year-old girl reading poetry to the classroom. ‘I can’t do this! I can do this!’ I swallowed hard as I felt genuinely overwhelmed by the simple choice of holding the microphone in my hand or leaving it on the mic stand.
But as I stood in front of the hushed crowd, I realised what my fear was comprised of. That it was the fear of being shown up. That the actor that I am, in the drama that is my own life, would be seen for all the weakness he actually possesses.
Equally, it was the fear that came with comparison: namely that with the father of the groom, who had spoken before me. He was beyond effortless: an experienced statesman whose glasses rested regally on the tip of his nose. He hadn’t just spoken his speech but had performed it with zero notes on hand.
‘I can’t do this! I can do this!’ Something within me relaxed and the ‘can do’ half slayed the other, and like taking the first step onto a high wire, I put my notes down and adlibbed the first line.
The crowd looked instantly engaged, and I realised then that I was speaking not to a room full of social adversaries, but to people here on common purpose; those that despite their own experience with public speaking likely understand that it’s no easy feat.
At around the one minute mark came the most orgasmic sound my ears had ever heard: a room full of people laughing on my account. The relief was almost too wonderful for words, like every cell within had transformed from a pair of clenched fists into a pair of clapping hands.
I referred to my notes loosely, which remedied the contrived tone of a word-for-word read, and with more laughs came more confidence to further adlib. The joy was exponential.
As I pressed onwards, the notion of time became particularly distorted, like each minute was filled with an hour’s thought. I felt too that I’d spilt into two halves: me the doer, who – like a swan appearing graceful on the surface, but with its legs labouring under the water – was hard at work making the actual speech. And me the watcher, who could barely believe it was happening, or was thinking about tomato soup and other topics unrelated.
The doer had his hands well and truly full, but the watcher was intent on the crowd: noticing the old ladies leaning forward so as to hear adequately, and the little kids basking in the joy of being in a room full of happy adults.
It was my observation also, that just as people would laugh in the parts that weren’t meant to be funny, I’d be deafened by the sound of crickets during those I’d planned to be the funniest, at which no one laughed. Often the room was more so full of grinning faces, as opposed to audible laughter. But I’d set myself the rule to keep moving forward no matter what, especially if I got emotional.
It was over in the blinking of an eye; a blink that I was later told went for as long as fifteen minutes. Although I didn’t want to get off stage, suffering, as I was, delusions of grandeur in which I wondered if stand-up comedy was the very road for me, I was nonetheless intoxicated with relief.
Looking back, accepting the accolade of best man is one of the highlights of my life, and I will wear with pride this bravery medal until I’m an old man with a grey moustache.
So when your mate with the same shirt rings you with the best man bat call, and you see yourself standing plum in front of goal at the Social World Cup – floodlit, crowd hushed – what’s your answer going to be? Hit or miss, you’re about to make history.
By David Kerrigan.
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