Column: The lure of free comedy changed a man’s life



Recently I’ve been thinking back to a life-changing event that, for better or for worse, can be attributed to Mall of America.

I’m not much of a science fiction fan, but I have always been intrigued by stories of time travel and alternate realities. And I have wondered, many times, what my alternate realities might look like.

We all make major decisions that affect our careers and personal lives. For many, choosing a college or career path is a prime example. My brother, for example, traveled a different career path than he intended as a result of the connections he made while attending college in Wisconsin. Had he chosen a different college, perhaps he would have traveled that original career path.

And for several friends and co-workers, their personal lives were shaped by the college they chose, as college life was responsible for how they met their spouse.

I don’t tell the story often, but I interviewed for two jobs in the 10-day span between the day I accepted a position with Sun Newspapers in 1998 and the day I started working in the former west Bloomington headquarters of our newspapers. I was offered one of those jobs outright and tentatively offered the other. Given I had accepted a position at Sun Newspapers, I was going to have to be dazzled by the opportunities in order to bail on my Sun Current job.

I didn’t think that much of the job I was tentatively offered, but I can’t help but wonder how my life and career would have worked out had I accepted the job I was offered outright. My life would be very different today had I reneged on the Sun Current job. Of that I have no doubt.

It’s easy to ask, “What if…” when we think about major decisions we make in our lives. But I’m often fascinated by the subtle, innocent moments in life that have major impacts on our future. Sometimes we notice them, sometimes we don’t. Some are so subtle that we will never realize they exist. Others only become obvious to us months or years after the fact.

As I noted, Mall of America provided one of those life-changing moments. It was 16 years ago, and it only affected me indirectly.

During the first decade or so, Mall of America’s fourth floor bars and restaurants included a comedy club called Knuckleheads. I had obtained several passes for free admission to its off-night comedy shows. Essentially, that meant any night other than a Friday or Saturday night. In the spring of 2000, I rounded up a handful of friends for a Sunday night of free comedy. Or so I thought.

The headliner that night was an improv comedy duo from Minneapolis that I had seen a year earlier. They were entertaining, and I saw their show by using a free pass, so I attempted to replicate that feat a year later.

What I didn’t know until we reached the box office was that the final Sunday night of the duo’s two-week headlining gig was deemed a special event, which nullified the passes. Our group collectively decided that we didn’t want to pay for the comedy show, so we opted instead to spend an hour chatting at one of the mall’s bars.

One of my friends in attendance that night was Jay, a friend from college. Before the night was over, he struck up a conversation with two sisters from Michigan. They were at the mall as part of a long weekend road trip expressly for visiting MOA. It was a birthday gift for the older sister’s 16-year-old daughter. The sisters left the birthday girl and her friends at the hotel that Sunday night, opting to spend an hour or two free of the teenagers they were escorting the entire weekend.

Jay ended up exchanging email addresses with the younger of the two sisters, and in classic storybook fashion cultivated a long-distance relationship into an eventual move to Michigan, and marriage.

Jay’s story has a happy ending, although not the one you might think. His marriage ended, and Jay spent nearly five years in Iraq, working as a government contractor. When Jay finally returned to the United States, he moved to Boston, thinking he would start a new life with a woman he met while working overseas. That didn’t pan out, either, but he did meet his new wife in Boston four years ago, and things are going well for him today.

Jay’s life changed dramatically as a result of that Sunday night nearly 17 years ago. And I can’t help but wonder how different his life would be today had it not been for my desire to gather together a handful of friends for a free night of entertainment at a comedy club inside a mall that attracted a family from the other side of Lake Michigan.

Today might not be the day that substantially changes your life, or mine, but we can’t know, either.

While many of us work to effect change in the world around us, never underestimate the influence you have upon the world around you, even when performing the simplest of actions. Today might be the day you change somebody’s life.