It may have met with an awkward silence, but it could have been worse. A trawl of online message boards reveals best man's speeches far more buttock-clenchingly embarrassing than Justin Johannsen's lame attempt for James Matthews' marriage to Pippa Middleton last weekend.
There's the one where the best man supposedly directed guests to envelopes under their seats containing a photo of him having sex with the bride, then walked out. Or the best man who kept referring to the bride by the name of the groom's ex-girlfriend. Or the best man who marvelled at the happy couple's commitment by pointing to his eight months pregnant girlfriend and saying: "I mean, look, she's pregnant and I'm not marrying her."
I've seen a few shockers myself. There was the best man whose PowerPoint presentation about the groom's hairstyles over the years dragged on for over an hour, then broke down. The best man whose brother was marrying a Japanese girl called Fuji who used a joke about "going to Mount Fuji". Not to mention the countless jokes with punchlines fluffed or forgotten and the many best men who have taken a little too much Dutch courage and ended up unable to perform when it matters.
Johannsen, at least, just adhered to the (relatively recent) tradition of painting the groom as a gullible idiot before making off-colour jokes, joshing that he had discovered Matthews was taking his new bride to north Wales for their honeymoon, as he'd overheard him say he "was going to Bangor". Geddit?
But seriously, how did we get here? The role of groomsman (the term "best man" is first recorded in Scotland in 1782) was initially a martial one, to defend the marrying couple against aggressors. My own father-in-law, a colonel in the Honourable Artillery Company, had an honour guard of fellow soldiers outside the church. I can't imagine any of them making off-colour gags or bottom-related puns at the reception. In other cultures, the best man's role takes on a religious or educational cast: he's there to help guide the couple through marriage.
Some responsible duties still pertain to the best man, like dancing with widowed aunts, keeping the rings safe and general troubleshooting. (On one occasion when I performed the role, this included unblocking a toilet and fixing a radiator back to a wall.) But the speech, which should be a joyful and moving punctuation to the reception, has, like the stag do, mutated into an exercise in humiliation for the recipient, and often for the speaker.
There's nothing wrong with being funny, as long as you definitely know you are, but a best man's speech is much more memorable when it is moving and affectionate about both groom and bride. I've been a best man twice and both times I've followed a simple formula: make your audience laugh twice, cry once, then get the hell off. And follow these dos and don'ts.
Words of wisdom for the big day
- Portray the groom in as flattering, if not as heroic, a light as possible. After all, he, not you, should come across as the best man here.
- Praise the bride but in terms that are respectful and chaste, not pervy.
- Tell amusing tales about aspects of the groom's personality that are well known - an inability to buy a round, chronic lateness, or no domestic skills - rather than ones that will come as a shock to his new in-laws, his bride or his own family (that he has a secret love child, used to be a woman etc).
- Acquiesce to all requests, whether it be removing drunk Uncle Gerry from the shrubbery, or making daisy chains for tiny bridesmaids.
- Remain standing until the very end.
- Make crass allusions to the sexual past of the bride or the groom, especially if they are true.
- Use locker-room language or jokes - this sort of chat never translates to a mixed crowd.
- Try to seduce any of the bride's friends or family, at least until after the reception. Even then, don't try to make off with her mother. And certainly don't try it on with the bride. Or the groom, for that matter - it has been known.
- Forget to enjoy it. Being a best man is an honour and a privilege, when you are chosen to stand centre stage and honour your friend on the best day of his life. Don't mess it up.
The Daily Telegraph, London
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