I’ve been the best man at two weddings, and for that I think I’m pretty hot shit. The first required winning a straw-draw against my brother when the third Eifling boy was getting hitched. I gave a speech at that wedding: six solid minutes without crying or dropping an f-bomb, a round success. The second best-manning I did was for a buddy who got married in my hometown, and I knew him and his now-wife quite well, so it made sense. My duties consisted mainly of running errands and announcing to the reception that the buffet was open. No speeches there, but hey, twice a best man! Lifetime quota there is, what, one, right? An expert I must be at manning, in best fashion.
Then I met Rob McNally this summer and realized what a piker I am. Rob arrived to serve as best man at a mutual friend’s wedding in Chicago, a bit groggy but otherwise unruffled by his flight from his native England. There, the day before, he had served as the best man in a mate’s wedding. Twice the best man — and on the same weekend. When I asked him how he pulled that off, I learned he’d been best man on two other separate occasions. In September, he added a fifth, because why the hell not.
How does McNally keep getting asked to appear in weddings, to give toasts, to glad-hand groomsmen, to charm parents? He’s exceptional at it, is why. To an American eye and ear, he comes off a bit like Simon Pegg — presentably scruffy, capable without getting cocky, sporting an accent that you tend to nod your head to without realizing it. His speech at the reception, to a small ballroom full of people seated with drinks at round tables, was a masterwork of the form: wryly self-deprecating, droll, congratulatory, deferent, narrative, crisp. I recorded it on my phone so you can rip it off wholesale for your next public address.
The centerpiece of the speech is, properly, jocular stories that simultaneously rib and exalt the groom. McNally described a soccer league the two played on while teaching English in rural Japan (where they met). After watching Top Gun, they decided to assign themselves soccer names from the movie. Ryan, the groom, “with characteristic humility” chose Ice Man, McNally said. But the rest of the team decided, “because of his facial resemblance to tax-lowering warlord George W. Bush,” they’d call him Ice W. Man, which was easy to mistake on the back of jerseys: “It was worth the price of those shirts to call him Ice Woman.”
McNally then prompted Ryan to read a card of the team’s top scorers that season; it indicated that Ryan barely edged out McNally and a third player, initially unexplained, named Eric the Barefoot Pimp. “That’s not his real name,” McNally added. “It was a guy that turned up, called Eric. We didn’t know his surname, but he used to turn up and play barefoot, and he drove a black van with tinted windows. What were we going to call him?” McNally told more stories, complimented the bride, name-dropped his hotel room (with address, zip code included) for any single women, plucked a heartstring, raised a toast to the couple, and did everything but drop the mic on his way off. Then everyone had a fantastic time.
It was like watching a jazz soloist or an acrobat calmly lay waste to a huge audience. I reached McNally later to ask him how he makes a cakewalk out of a task that wilts so many a best man.
“Someone said to me at a wedding, the aim is to get halfway between a European roast and an American toast,” McNally told me. “The thing you don’t get at U.K. weddings, people are very uncomfortable saying why they like someone. You are there to partly say that. When you do that you’ve got to be specific.”
His blanket advice, simply, is to avoid the pitfalls. The good news is, they’re actually finite.
In the U.K., he says, the greatest gaffe is the tendency to yammer endlessly about the groom’s drinking history or to endlessly exalt the bride. Across the pond, he’s heard accounts of a proud father literally reading the bride’s C.V. at the mic. Another best man unspooled a drag-out filibuster of pub-crawl war stories. “The opening line was: ‘I’ve been drinking for three days, so I haven’t put as much effort into this as I should, you all aren’t going to like it, but I don’t give a fuck,’” McNally said. “He was 45 minutes, and it was blue. The lads said it was just looking through your hands.”
The top best man speech McNally ever saw was another American wedding, also near Chicago. “It felt five minutes long,” he says. “He hit everything spot-on. Managed to get in a couple of good, interesting stories, with so much warmth in them, a bit of joshing but nothing shit, then a whole bit about why he liked him and then he sat down.” This, you should note, is McNally’s ideal speech: Kind, funny, and brisk.
“You can’t control whether people are laughing — great comedians have fallen on their ass,” he says. “What you can control is the length. It should’ve been part of the Magna Carta: You’ve got to sign up now and say you’ll never do a best man speech longer than 20 minutes. For the good of the country. Shut up and sit down.”
Here’s the logic he has seen play out. You stand up, probably after having one social beer, one celebratory beer, and one scotch for courage. You’re addressing a room full of people who are also two or three drinks in. You tell a quick story. Tipsy people at a dress-up party are naturally in a mood to laugh. You, buzzing on ethanol and sudden popularity, decide to keep plowing ahead, past your A material, well into your B-sides, eventually tapering off into who knows what.
The five-time best man gently advises you to resist this temptation. It’s a trap.
“You can’t make everyone laugh,” he says. “But the other bizarre thing is, everyone will laugh anyway, unless you swore or gave away terrible secrets about the person. When the sun’s shining and the beer’s flowing and they’re getting fed and someone has just poured them a glass of champagne, people will laugh at anything.”
This, perhaps, is your takeaway, one that you can hear play out in McNally’s delivery in that audio clip. Do not get too impressed with yourself. The job of the best man is a functional one, at its root. You pose for pictures. You pitch in where needed. You stay sober enough to make sure the guests find their hotels. You give what you hope will be a serviceable speech. But ultimately, yours is a purely ceremonial title. Whereas the couple become husband and wife for a good long while, you finish the day as a former best man, a mere civilian once again. And in all likelihood, people will remember you only if you make a spectacular ass of yourself.
McNally, a single fella, has been on the wedding circuit long enough to know most of these things eventually merge into a haze of champagne bubbles and bonhomie. “They’re mostly very forgettable,” he says. “I’ve already told my mom, If I ever do get married, you probably won’t know about it until afterwards. I’ll probably just say I went on holiday and got married.” The best best man thus will have as his best man no man at all — fitting, perhaps, given that a great best man strives, in fact, to do as little as he can.