It was 1987, and Alex Cole was a young comedian who had returned home from a stint doing clubs in New York. Like most comics, he savored incongruity in his humor, the more absurd the better. So one day he sat down and wrote a fake commercial intended for "Saturday Night Live."
The commercial mimicked those old K-tel record spots, poking fun at the spate of Christmas albums released every year. SNL never used the bit, but Cole turned it into an act in clubs around town for several years. I was at one of those performances, and remember laughing so hard I cried.
After all, what could be more incongruous, more absurd, than Bob Dylan singing Christmas carols?
Alas, life has copied art-copying-art: Dylan came out with a Christmas album last week. I jumped onto YouTube and caught samples of Dylan's release. I still can't decide who is funnier, Cole or Dylan.
Cole, who is from Dylan's hometown of Hibbing and now lives in Golden Valley, did a drop-dead imitation of Dylan's nasal drone on such classics as "The Little Drummer Boy." I was so impressed that I tried my own version one holiday and put it on my answering machine.
Now, Dylan has stolen back the parody and included "Drummer Boy" on his new album, sung in what Slate online magazine described as a "fearsome wheeze."
"It was my best bit," said Cole of his Dylan imitation. "I thought it was funny because Dylan was Jewish, and in that voice? I can't believe that 20 years later he actually did a freaking album."
"I remember I'd do 'Silver Bells,'" Cole said, dropping into Dylan's uneven cadence.
"It's CHRIStmas tiiiime in the city-eeeeeeee," he moaned to me on the phone.
I went back to YouTube and listened to more of Dylan's holiday wailing. It's difficult to tell who is pimping whom.
If you haven't seen Cole do standup, you may recognize him from one of his commercials (he was "Magnifico Man" in a Subway commercial), or in local theater. (Cole played Ricky Roma in "Glengarry Glen Ross" and R.P. McMurphy in a version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.")
He hasn't done the Dylan parody in more than a decade, but when Dylan announced that he was putting out a Christmas album, "All these people started calling me," said Cole. "'You've got to do Dylan again.'"
"It was absolutely killer," said another comedian, Jeff Cesario. "Brought the house down."
Cole has been busy making up new, Dylan-esque Christmas songs (provide your best Dylan imitation here):
See the baby
Wrapped up in swaddling clothes
He's got Mary's eyes,
But he has God's nose
Cole's idea for the SNL skit was to have a Dylan look-alike, wrapped in Christmas lights, revolving on a stool, singing new classics such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Junkie." But it never happened.
Now that Dylan has done the inevitable -- some might say the unfathomable -- Cole has dusted off the guitar and the bit, and he'll be performing it for the first time in eons Nov. 12-14 at the Joke Joint Comedy Club, inside the Ramada Mall of America Hotel (formerly the Thunderbird Hotel).
I already am hardly able to sing a Christmas song without morphing into a Dylanesque wail, jeopardizing my marriage. But I'll be there to see Cole, and I'll buy copies of Dylan's album for everyone on my shopping list.
After all, there's nothing quite like a holiday song, a song ... high above the trees, with a voice as big -- and rough -- as the sea.
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