The celebrity roast of Nelson Mandela

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was.

I wanted to write a post about something I saw on TV a long time ago and how it affected me. But when I started factchecking what I saw, it turns out that what I remember didn’t actually happen. Some people would blame this on the Mandela Effect, saying it really did happen, but the lines of history have changed. Others would simply acknowledge that memory is not as reliable as we generally want it to be.

Here’s what I remember: in the 1970s there were frequent television specials called celebrity roasts. These were staged like tributes to performers such as Bob Hope or Lucille Ball, but instead of honoring their careers and achievements, these shows made the honorees the brunt of jokes and humorous insults. The roasts were, of course, heavily scripted. The episode I remember honored Orson Welles. The reason I remember that episode is that, at the end, when the honoree got to stand and respond to all the evening’s speeches, Welles deliberately jettisoned the script that had been prepared for him and gave sincere, spontaneous, and glowing tributes to all the entertainers who had just spent the hour insulting him. I would like to think that Welles’ graceful and kind example helped me to mature at least a little bit, realizing that it is classier to be kind to others than to return insults with insults.

The Internet confirms that dozens of such specials were filmed and broadcast in the 1970s. Dean Martin was the host for all these roasts except the one in which he was honored, when Don Rickles hosted. Rich Little and Nipsey Russell were frequent speakers at these roasts. I thought I remembered Paul Lynde being on them often, but he only spoke at two roasts. In addition to the many comedians that were involved, occasionally athletes were honored. Two politicians—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—also received the gauntlet of the roast.

But although Orson Welles was a speaker at several of these roasts, he was never honored with a roast. My memory of his gracious kindness is a false memory.

Well, not entirely false.

A little further digging has shown that, on October 5, 1978, James Stewart was honored with a roast. Orson Welles was one of the speakers. When Welles rose to speak, he discarded his script and gave Stewart a heart-felt tribute based on memories of experiences they had shared. When Stewart had his opportunity to speak at the end of the event, he responded to Welles in the same spirit. It is possible that he also spoke kindly of the other speakers.

It is natural that, because of Welles’ classy behavior at this roast, I would think of him as the featured star rather than merely one of the speakers at the event. This is why factchecking is important: human memory is quite fallible.

Here’s another example: I remember hearing an exciting baseball game on the radio in 1984. The Cubs and the Cardinals were playing in Wrigley Field, and my parents and I were weeding the garden behind our house as we listened on a small transistor radio. The game was tied in the eighth inning, and the Cubs had put in their star reliever, Lee Smith, to preserve the tie. The pitcher was due to bat sixth in the bottom of the inning, so it seemed like a safe move to bring in Smith. (Baseball fans will understand the strategy.) But the plan backfired. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Cubs found themselves still in a scoreless tie, with the bases loaded, two outs, and their best relief pitcher coming to the plate. Relief pitchers rarely are called to hit. They are almost a certain out. And, indeed, Smith did strike out in that at bat. But not before Leon Durham stole home. Smith returned in the ninth to finish the game and earn the victory in a 1-0 game.

Last year I went through microfilmed records of old newspapers to find the description and account of that game. Most of it happened just the way I remember it. But Lee Smith was not the pitcher who came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. The pitcher’s name was Warren Brusstar. And while Brusstar was a decent pitcher who won eight games and saved eight games in his three seasons with the Cubs, he was no Lee Smith.

Why would I remember Lee Smith coming to bat instead of Warren Brusstar? Because Smith was the star reliever for the Cubs that year; he was the kind of pitcher you would want to leave in the game to pitch the ninth inning. In fact, I have no idea why Smith did not pitch in that game. Maybe he was injured, or maybe he had pitched a lot the day before. But for many years, whenever I remembered that game, I had the wrong pitcher in mind.

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was. J.

Memories, like the corners of my head

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then, again, it never was.

Somehow this winter I’ve wandered the internet chasing through rabbit holes about memory. The news is not good. According to various studies, human memory as not as reliable as we would like to believe. In fact, our memories can be changed merely by the way people ask us questions about what we have seen or heard.

Example #1: Show a film of two cars colliding to various individuals. Afterward, ask them several questions about the filmed collision. Ask them to judge how fast the cars were traveling when they collided. But ask other people who saw the same film how fast the cars were traveling when they crashed. Those who hear the word “crash” in the question generally will remember the cars moving faster than those who hear the word “collide.”

Example #2 is similar. Ask people to study a photograph of two cars that have collided. After taking away the photograph, ask them several questions about what they saw. Ask if they remember seeing broken glass by the cars. (There was no broken glass in the photograph.) Those who are asked about the cars that crashed are more likely to remember broken glass than those who are asked about the cars that collided.

Example #3: Show individuals a group of photographs of various people. Afterward, ask them questions about the photographs. When you ask how tall the basketball player was, the average answer will be several inches greater than when you ask others how short the basketball player was.

Can it be that we were both so simple then?

Most people are willing to admit that their memory is less than perfect. Some people go to great lengths to deny faults in their memory. Fiona Broome is an extreme example of this tendency. She was surprised to hear that Nelson Mandela was still alive in 2010 because she remembered his funeral taking place in the 1980s. When she asked other people about Nelson Mandela, a few others agreed that they thought he had died in the 1980s. Rather than confessing that their memories were wrong, Broome affirmed that they were remembering the death and burial of Nelson Mandela correctly—they had somehow traveled from an alternate reality to this reality while keeping a few memories of the former reality.

I am not making this up! The Mandela Effect is considered proof of alternate universes and jumps between them. Billy Graham’s funeral is remembered by some people as having already taken place in past years. They have vivid memories of television and internet coverage of his funeral, and they insist that this funeral must have happened in an alternate reality. In addition to funerals, people remember variant spellings of certain names and different corporate logos that have never existed. There’s nothing wrong with their memory, they say—they are merely victims of the Mandela Effect.

I remember noticing twenty years ago that most people misspelled the Berenstain Bears. But some people insist that, when they were younger, the name was spelled Berenstein. They insist that their bologna’s second name is M-E-Y-E-R, whereas I thought the commercial of the little boy singing about his bologna’s name would help people remember that it’s M-A-Y-E-R. There has always been a “k” in Chick-fil-A, no matter what people say they remember. And the United States has never had more than fifty states, even though some people remember learning that there are fifty-two.

Apparently the Mandela Effect has also relocated New Zealand, which some people claim used to be west of Australia. I have had the same experience with Japan, which I picture being much closer to Taiwan than to Korea. But I don’t believe in an alternate universe where island nations are relocated.

As if the Mandela Effect was not already far-fetched, some people go a step further and insist that the Mandela Effect is the result of CERN’s experiments to understand subatomic particles. If I follow the argument correctly, the work with high energy particles has either caused alternate worlds to begin existing or has increased unintended travel between alternate worlds. People really believe these theories, and somehow they also believe that the world of Berenstein Bears and New Zealand west of Australia is a better world than the one we live in now.

At least I think I remember someone making that claim. J.