The Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue,” written by poet-cartoonist Shel Silverstein, is about a tough guy named Sue who has vowed to track down his father and make him pay for naming him Sue. Ultimately, he realizes that his feminine name is exactly what made him so tough.
My name is funny. Growing up in Houston, Texas, I didn’t think it was. I was a fat, Mexican, Jew with a unique name … I had no choice but to become funny.
I love comedy, and I was raised on television. My sisters and I were latchkey kids; due to Houston traffic, I never saw my parents at home on a weekday while the sun was up. We kids had lots of time to watch Saturday Night Live and sitcom reruns. I soaked them up. On weekends we would see at least two movies at the theater. We would rent VHS tapes and keep them for thirty days, watching them over and over again. I also read comics from the funnies section of the paper, and I would draw while Young Frankenstein or Airplane played on a loop. To me, being funny was magical.
I always equated being Jewish with being funny. Maybe it’s because of all the Mel Brooks movies or Billy Crystal albums, or maybe because my synagogue had a stained glass triptych of the Marx Brothers. Jews and humor went together like similes and metaphors. There weren’t many Jews or Latinos in the school district where I grew up, so I never quite felt like I fitted in. But I had a magic trick that I could always play. My humor. I could take cadences and attitude from the sitcoms I watched and use them on the playground. I saw it as playing a character. And it worked. If a bully was teasing me about my name, I could not only make him stop and laugh, but also show him that he couldn’t take me on in a verbal spar. My “funny” was a coping mechanism. No one could hurt me if I was being funny — or so I told myself.
My “funny” was a coping mechanism. No one could hurt me if I was being funny — or so I told myself.
I switched to a different school in eighth grade and I decided that I no longer wanted to be called Yehudi. I announced to my parents that I wanted to change my name to JERRY. Why Jerry? Well, my father’s name is Gerardo and Gerry was his nickname, and also Jerry sounded like a comedian’s name. At the beginning of every school year, the teachers would take attendance and get to know their new students. Without fail there would always be a moment … a moment of dread. The teacher would reach my name and then freeze like a deer in the headlights but with slightly more panic. I could almost see a thought bubble over their head reading, “There’s no way this is a name! What am I looking at? Are those even letters?”
Before they attempted to say the “y” sound, I would jump in like a savior: “Call me Jerry.” (I even began to imagine that this would be the title of my sitcom. Call Me Jerry Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. on NBC.) The relief on the teacher’s face when they realized they never had to endeavor to pronounce that demanding name was all the thanks I needed. But then it started to bother me.
Having to bend to fit in took its toll. At my predominantly Baptist school, morning announcements included “Jesus is the reason for the season,” and Christian prayers were recited before every football game. By the time I became a sophomore in high school, I was the funny guy with the job of making the morning announcements. I would do voices and put on sketches — it was my time to perform. But then something happened. I said “Happy Hanukkah” and I was promptly relieved of my duty. I was told that I violated the school district’s “separation of Church and State” rule. Never mind that there was a ten-foot Christmas tree in the cafeteria and Santa Claus decorations decking the halls. It was at that moment that I knew that no matter how hard I tried to be the funny, likable guy, I would never feel accepted. The principal tried to smooth things over by telling me that I could build a large menorah in the cafeteria to go next to the massive Christmas tree. But there was something even more condescending about making a student take on a construction project while the Christmas decor was provided by the faculty.
Slowly I started to return to Yehudi. When I starred in school plays, I made sure that the program and the poster read “Yehudi.” It was my little way of reclaiming my heritage. Being Jewish wasn’t just about being funny — it was about being the underdog and standing tall in the face of adversity. It was about being defiant. The best comedy punches up; it’s an act of defiance. You make fun of the emperor with no clothes until you can get everyone to see that he ain’t got no clothes!
Now I embrace my name. Yehudi means Jew. Mercado means market in Spanish, but that’s a whole other essay. I may not be as physically tough as the titular boy named Sue, but as a boy named Jew, I’m probably funnier.
Yehudi Mercado is a former pizza delivery driver and art director for Disney Interactive. He is currently a writer-artist-animator living in Los Angeles. His books include Sci-Fu, Hero Hotel, Rocket Salvage, and Fun Fun Fun World. He is currently show running the Hero Hotel podcast and writing and directing an original animated short for Nickelodeon. You can find him at www.supermercado.pizza.