Twenty years ago I started to work professionally as Forrest Gump. Here is that story.
“Sometimes you don’t realize you’ve crossed a line until you’re on the other side and can’t go back.” ― Frank Warren
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” ― Albert Einstein
- Part 1 – The Start & Big Picture
- Part 2 – Becoming Forrest
- Part 3 – The Need to Get Good
- Part 4 – Crowd Control
- Part 5 – Jokes & Gags
Crossing the Line / Mistakes
As I got better at my craft, I was able to go right up to the line, have the entire audience thinking that I’m about to cross it, but then pull back to the relief and joy of everyone. It was fun and edgy. I learned how to NOT cross the line.
But to know exactly where the line was took me about four to five years.
Fortunately, I learned from those experiences.
At the very beginning, I didn’t make any major mistakes because I was playing it safe. I was pure vanilla.
But after a few months I started taking more risks. They were mostly baby steps towards the line. I suppose I wanted to see how far I could go. The further I went, the bigger the laughs I was getting. What initially felt like the line I should not cross, turned out to be just the starting point. The line was moving as I gained confidence and improved my skills. Subconsciously, I was thinking, Hey, I can move the line further and further and not get myself in trouble … I’ll know when to pull back. This strategy worked up to the point that I crossed the line.
The first big line I crossed had to do with both a famous line from the movie and the concept of including people in on the joke.
The stupid is as stupid does line from the movie was a crowd favorite. Learning how and when to use that line was the trick. One day, a woman wandered right into the middle of the crowd. She was unaware of Forrest and what was occurring. She didn’t notice the people gathered around the bench having their photos taken. Everyone saw her – but she didn’t see them. She was standing right between the bench and the photographers waiting to take a picture – she was blocking traffic. Eventually, she became aware of the situation and walked off embarrassed. I said, “Stupid is as Stupid does.” … Everyone laughed.
A short time later a man calmly sat down next to me on the bench. In a low, non-confrontational tone he said to me, “That was my wife … I should punch you in the mouth for what you did and said to her. I’m really mad at you right now.” He got up and left. I got the message.
I thought long and hard about that interaction. I contemplated if, when, and how it was appropriate to use that line. I pulled back. Eventually, I determined that using the stupid is as stupid does line be done under very narrow circumstances:
- All the people had to be ‘in’ on the joke
- It had to be in reference to an action and not directed at a person
- It had to be said with a spirit of joy and delivered with a twinkle in my eye
I had violated all three of those concepts in my interaction with that woman. I’m glad I didn’t get punched in the mouth that day. That man did me a huge favor.
I always kept a tall glass of water under the bench at my foot so I could keep myself hydrated. One day, a family of people wanted a group picture, this forced me to move my position on the bench. A young girl ended up sitting in the spot where I had been. Being small, her feet didn’t quite touch the ground. Being full of youthful, nervous energy, she was swinging her feet. She kicked the glass of water over. I told her mother to go into the restaurant and get me a full glass of water. A little while later, the woman returned and said, “Here’s your damn glass of water … my daughter kicking over the water was an accident!” Ouch!
The woman reported the incident to the corporate office. My corporate contact called and asked if I remembered the incident. I remembered it very well. It was agreed that I needed a vacation. I had worked every weekend for three years. I went to Cancun for a week. From that point forward, it became my policy to give myself regular breaks and NOT allow myself to get burned out. Bubba Gump was great. They understood that what I was doing was both very special and very challenging. Dealing with the public non-stop for hours at a time is not easy. They supported me when I crossed the line that day and encouraged me to figure out how to maintain my sanity. They encouraged me to NOT make a habit of crossing the line. I was grateful.
There were many other opportunities to learn from my mistakes. But those two incidents that occurred 19 and 17 years ago are still clearly visible in my mind. In both cases, I crossed the line big-time. Bubba Gump could have fired me. Instead, I was forgiven and learned two important lessons:
- Have fun – but not at someone else’ expense
- Accident’s happen
I re-framed my thinking about what I was doing. I have been given a wonderful opportunity – with that opportunity comes a lot of responsibility. I became determined to maintain control of myself. I recognized that that my career as Forrest Gump could come to an end over a single incident if I lost control. I installed big yellow flashing lights at the line between having fun and egotism. It wasn’t about me – it was about the people visiting Forrest. Crossing that line was not something I was willing to do.
Next up. Part 7: Media