Membership is free,
there are no ads, and
we talk on the phone.
An Online Community With Your Sense Of Humor
Membership is free,
“Exactly what I was looking for.”
Retired Mom of Four Grown Daughters
the trees is a collection of three meticulously hand-assembled online communities — Hornbeams, Sugarmaples, and Tupelos — each with its own distinctive sense of humor.
Members within each community gather through 45-minute, 4-member phone calls, each centered around a conversation-stoking video, podcast, meme, song, tweet, or news article.
Everything happens through these gatherings.
In between, it’s quiet. There are no discussion forums. No Slack channels. No Email threads. No member directory.
And members are encouraged to attend as many or as few gatherings as they like.
From my third semester of college, in 1987, until the arrival of COVID-19, this past March, I spent almost all of my free time pursuing my favorite hobby — identifying folks who live to laugh, figuring out which ones have matching senses of humor, and sending them out to lunch together.
People who fit together this way almost always like each other on a more fundamental level, as human beings.
The pandemic made me realize it was time to bring my hobby online and expand its reach. In May, I quit my job so I could spend all my time figuring out how to do it. And in February, we welcomed our first real, live members.
My dad ran his own lunch club, filled, very carefully, with sense-of-humor-matched fellow New York Times journalists. They met at Chinese restaurants, every Wednesday, for 49 years.
From the 6th through the 12th grade, whenever I had a Wednesday off from school (and sometimes when I didn’t), I got to tag along.
At the beginning of my sophomore year in college, I saw The Man Who Planted Trees. That film inspired me to take dad’s lunch club idea and expand it. I started finding people with matching senses of humor and sending them out to lunch together, in groups of four.
In 2016, many friends, colleagues, and family members were stressed out about Trump. So I decided to gather them together in groups of 4, for 45-minute phone calls, to let off steam. Each call focused on a Trump-related video, podcast episode, meme, tweet, or news article.
These calls went so well, I decided to use the format (without the Trump/political part) for the trees.
Below is an 8-minute excerpt from one of those conversations. The topic was a Washington Post Article, A new poll shows 52% of Republicans actually think Trump won the popular vote.
Do I need to be funny to be a member?
Absolutely not. Most of the members are humor consumers, not producers.
How do you define ‘sense of humor’?
For me, a person’s sense of humor is embodied in their answers to three questions —
- Who makes you laugh OUT LOUD? Nick Hornby? Kate McKinnon? James L. Brooks? Julia Louis-Drefus? Eddie Izzard? Carol Burnett? Your pun-loving brother-in-law?
- Who seems to make everyone else laugh out loud, but NOT you?
- When and where is humor NOT appropriate?
How many members do you have? Where do they hail from?
As of today, we have 221 in total. 151 from the United States, 36 from Canada, 2 from Ireland, 15 from the UK, 2 from France, 8 from the Netherlands, 2 from Israel, and 1 each from Lebanon, Australia, Taiwan, and New Zealand.
How do the logistics work, day to day?
Multiple times per day, I pick out a topic, pulled from the corpus of member suggestions, and a start time. Then I send out an invite to between 12 and 20 members from one of the three communities. The first 4 to reply with an “I’m in” are the ones who participate.
Why do conversations take place over the phone and not through Zoom/video?
Sticking to the phone opens things up.
Folks don’t have to worry about how they look. They can participate while running, walking, sitting, standing, or lounging. And they can connect from places with spotty data coverage.
Can you tell me more about your dad?
(Warning: This is long. Tap here to skip to the next question.)
After my dad graduated from his Brooklyn, NY, high school, in the spring of 1948, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
But he started to get an inkling on September 14th, at right around 8pm Eastern Time.
About a year after graduation — while making deliveries for his parents’ candy store — he figured out what he wanted to do. After work, he told his parents —
“I’m going to be a comedy writer for Sid Caesar’s Admiral Broadway Review.”
They were not amused.
Dad, however, was dead serious. He began writing stand-up bits during the week and heading to the Catskills on the weekends (six hours each way, via subway, bus, and hitchhike) to hawk them to Borscht Belt comedians.
I think he might have actually become a writer for Sid Caesar, if not for the Korean War and the draft. He was not a violent guy, and wanted to avoid combat at all costs, so he put comedy writing on hold, and enlisted.
With a plan.
Growing up on the rough, ethnically divided streets of post-depression Brooklyn, he’d learned to quickly assess people and their motivations, avoid pickpockets, trade favors, and talk himself out of any pickle.
He was also conversant in Russian, which his parents spoke at home.
This gave dad the idea to apply to the US Army Language School in Monterey, California. He figured he’d become fluent in Russian, meet cute girls on the beach, and groom himself for a commission as an Army intelligence officer who’d recruit and handle Soviet spies.
During his entrance interview, however, he found out that the Russian program required an extra year in the army. So he switched to German, a language similar to one he was already fluent in, Yiddish.
After graduating (and allegedly meeting lots of cute girls on the beach), he indeed became an army intelligence officer. However, instead of recruiting and handling Soviet spies in Russia, he recruited and handled East German spies in the Soviet-occupied section of Berlin, with the cover identity of “East German newspaper man”.
Dad threw himself into the role of a journalist. So much so, in fact, that, after the war, it seemed perfectly natural to him to become a real one.
9 years later, after one masters degree in Russian history, another in journalism, and a bunch of jobs at small city papers, he landed his dream job as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times.
He was happily climbing The Times’ ladder in 1966, when an old friend from his days working the Borscht Belt landed a job as a writer for Get Smart, a TV comedy about a bumbling secert agent, created by Mel Brooks, who’d arguably been Sid Caesar’s most important writer.
It seemed like some kind of omen to dad, and, for a few weeks, he contemplated trying to follow his friend out to Hollywood. But my mom didn’t want to move to California.
It was rough got him. But he came up with a way to reduce his regret —
“Why do I need to be a comedy writer? Couldn’t I just get a bunch of people with my sense of humor together for lunch once a week?”
Ultimately, he did get to write for a comedy TV show.
In 1973, Reuven Frank, the president of NBC News, invited dad to produce and write for Weekend. It ran once a month, in Saturday Night Live’s time slot, when SNL was taking the week off. Weekend was the first sardonic, comedic, long-form news show on network television. It is the forgotten great grandfather of The Daily Show.
Below is a very scratchy excerpt from an episode of Weekend. Still great, despite the pops and clicks.
What will you do when COVID-19 is conquered? Will you start sending members within each community out to lunch together?
I will organize lunches in any city where we have at least 20 members.
And I’ll no doubt plan destination gatherings for the avid travelers within each community. I absolutely love getting compatible people together to talk, in beautiful locations. For example, In 2013, I organized a 25-person, 3-day mini-conference, called Meddle, for solo artists, at a 15th-century manor estate in the English Cotswolds.
How is membership free? Are you a serial killer?
In May, I retired from what I did for a living, to focus 100% on the trees. I’ll be running it primarily on my own for the foreseeable future.
If we get lucky, and the trees grows so much that I have to hire full-time staff to keep things from flying off the rails, I’ll probably come up with some sort of premium membership plan for members who participate often.
What’s your sense of humor?
I try not to answer that question, for fear that it might inconsciously influence how potential members answer the question. But, if we talk, you’ll get a feel for it.
Is your dad still with us?
Only in spirit. He died in 2015. Pancreatic cancer.
My mom met Deena for the first time, in coach, on a transatlantic flight between New York and Berlin, in 1969.
Mom was returning home to Berlin, solo, with me in tow, after a trip to introduce the only-a-few-months-old me to family back in the States. Deena was starting a solo European vacation.
I was apparently crying my head off. Deena, in the row behind us, peeped over the seat, introduced herself, and offered to rock me to sleep. My mom took her up on the offer and, as legend has it, I slept.