Friday, December 17, 2010

Hiatus 2010

Yes, it's true this time. Not like last year, when T'aint settled upon me and I had lots of idle time on my hands. This year, I truly am taking a blogging hiatus for Christmas. Mostly. But here, definitely. See y'all in January.

Friday, December 10, 2010


As a writer, I know not everything I write is going to shine. In fact, a lot of it is unadulterated crap. But I like to think that, someday, I'll be remembered by someone for the good stuff I wrote, rather than the mediocre.

Then there's Alva Johnson.

If Louis Untermeyer is to be believed, "Legend of A Sport" is one of Johnson's better bits of amusing writing.

I've got to be honest: This is the first bit in the Treasury of Laughter I couldn't finish reading. Especially when I hit this old joke:

As a wit, [Wilson] Mizner belonged to two distinct schools -- the scientific and O. Henry. His scientific method consisted of bringing a calm spirit of inquiry to bear on boiling emotion. When an excited man rushed up to him exclaiming, "Coolidge is dead," Mizner asked, "How do they tell?"

And it goes on like that. For twelve pages. In small type. I'll spare you any more snoring, and leave you to go to your respective uncles to hear the old, bad jokes.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Elf Practice

Try this on for size:

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.”
But, I was one and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
“The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
‘Tis paid with sighs a-plenty
And sold for endless rue.”
And I and two-and-twenty,
And on, ‘tis true, ‘tis true.

That’s the entirety of A. E. Houseman’s poem “When I was One-and-Twenty,” which I suppose is comic in a way, but neither this one nor the other that Louis Untermeyer presents – “Oh, See How Thick the Goldcup Flowers,” is really all that ha-ha hilarious. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood writing this. But I’ve read the poems several times and while they may elicit a smile, they certainly don’t hit the Elf Practice level of hilarity (you know, Elf Practice, learning how to chuckle and go ‘hee hee’ and ‘ho ho’ and wiggle your ears, important stuff like that).

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Scotch Tape

Most of what I know about the Scotch comes from: Greyfriars Bobby, Scrooge McDuck, that character in Mike Meyers’ film “So I Married An Ax Murderer” who makes fun of the size of his grandson’s skull, Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, and a few little jokes and quips on BBC 4’s “The News Quiz,” one of which goes like this:

After this government (Gordon Brown) and Northern Rock, you won’t find anyone saying Scots are tight with money.

But Louis Untermeyer, bless him, includes a passel of Scotch money-themed jokes in his Treasury of Laughter. Here’s a little sampling:

A Scotchman, an Irishman and a Jew had dinner together. When the waiter came in with the bill, the Scotchman promptly said he would take it. The next day the newspaper carried a headline: “Death of a Jewish Ventriloquist.”

Angus woke early and found that his wife had passed away during the night. “Maggie! Maggie!” he cried to the servant.

“Aye sir?” she called back.

“Maggie, ye need boil only one egg the morn!”

In Edinburgh they tell the story of the two burglars who smashed a jeweler’s window and were arrested when they came back for the brick.

But what’s interesting about the collection of jokes is that they remain the sole oral storytelling tradition we have, and I included stand-up comedians and such in the mix. This is an old storytelling method, of course, which used to be implemented much more often before the advent of inexpensive printing, whether it was done on paper pulp, papyrus, or stone. So these terrible japes have more common with Beowulf than a lot of the high fantasy we read these days. Interesting, interesting . . .

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Oliver Wendell Holmes is Content You're Reading His Poetry

Are you content?

I’m not. Well, almost. Good enough for government work contentment, that’s what I’ve got. But like Mr. Burns, I’d give up all of my billions for just a little bit more.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., understands that contentment without being content about it is part of human nature. Witness this snatch from his poem of that title:

Man wants but little here below.
Little I ask; my wants are few;
I only wish a hut of stone,
(A very plain brown stone will do,)
That I may call my own; --
And close at hand is such a one,
In yonder street that fronts the sun.
Plain food is quite enough for me;
Three courses are as good as ten; --
If Nature can subsist on three,
Thank Heaven for three. Amen!
I always thought cold victuals nice; --
My choice would be vanilla-ice.
I care not much for gold or land; --
Give me a mortgage here and there, --
Some good bank-stock, some note of hand,
Or trifling railroad share, --
I only ask that Fortune send
A little more than I shall spend.

The full poem can be found here. Or, if you’re in the mood for magenta, here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

O. Henry. Inspiration from Disney to Serling. And Beyond.

So I’m not just imagining it.

After I read O. Henry’s story “The Ransom of Red Chief,” I immediately thought of the 1976 Disney film “No Deposit, No Return,” in which Darren McGavin and Don Knotts play two unsuccessful safecrackers who inadvertently “kidnap” two kids of generally absentee parents whose grandfather revels in their absence as he toys with the kidnappers in paying the ransom.

Of course, the story is also similar to that of 1982’s “Savannah Smiles,” starring Donovan Scott and Mark Miller, though in this case it’s the parents, not the “kidnapped” kid who are the real stinkers in the story.

But that’s O. Henry for you. Before Hollywood was there churning out the “surprise” plot trists, before Rod Serling was there, banally prattling on about the odd little twists of fate that lead people from a normal life into that twilightiest of all zones, there was O. Henry.

And there’s this version, an odd Russian version of the film, which makes it clear within the first few moments that the director saw the story as a jab against the capitalist stooges who set up their whole society so that one had to get capital in order to capitalize on the whole capitalist system. Capital capital capital. (Other than that, the telling here is pretty accurate to O. Henry’s story.)

(This was filmed in 1962, per Unsure on international copyright for this.)

What first catches the ear is an odd simile:

“Hey, little boy!” says Bill, “would you like to have a bag of candy and a nice ride?”

The boy catches Bill neatly in the eye with a piece of brick.

“That will cost the old man an extra five hundred dollars,” says Bill, climbing over the wheel.

That boy put up a fight like a welter-eight cinnamon bear; but, at last, we got him down in the bottom of the buggy and drove away.
Like a welter-weight cinnamon bear. I like the sound of that.

I like the sound, too, of O. Henry’s first-person telling, at which he is amazingly consistent.

Of course, the brick in the eye isn’t the only first-person telling we get of this little brat’s impudence. There’s also this:

Just at daybreak, I was awakened by a series of awful screams from Bill. They weren’t yells, or howls, or shouts, or whoops, or yawps, such as you’d expect from a manly set of vocal organs – they were simply indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars. It’s an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate, fat man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak.

I jumped up to see what the matter was. Red Chief [the kid] was sitting on Bill’s chest, with one hand twined in Bill’s hair. In the other had had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill’s scalp, according to the sentence that had been pronounced upon him the evening before.

Of course, in true Hollywood or Disney fashion, the kidnappers can’t get rid of the kid until they pay the imp’s father $250 for his return – and have to do so under cover of darkness besides, so the neighbors won’t know who to blame when the kid returns.

O. Henry is a wonderful practitioner of the short story, a lost art in America, and as well a chronicler of the unchronicled, choosing rather than the socialite, the war profiteer, the politician or the industry mogul, to write of the ordinary, from two-bit kidnappers in a tiny town in Alabama to their obnoxious prey. And while most folksa re more familiar with the Oprah-like shmaltz of O' Henry's pieces such as "The Gift," this piece shows that while hes tuck with the short story genre, he wasn't all shmaltz.

Full text of the story can be found here.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Boldly Taking on the Tar Baby

This drawing is in the public domain in the United States.

 A commonly-accepted definition of the term “tar baby” today is a “sticky situation that is only aggravated by additional contact.” Ironically, race relations in the United States is such a tar baby. Dare to make any kind of comment on the subject and you’ll find a thousand willing to parse what you said, for both good and ill.

Thus the Treasury of Laughter enters the world of Joel Chandler Harris. And this is the last and only equivocation you’ll hear from us on the subject.

And for good reason. For good or ill, Joel Chandler Harris’ recordings of the “Uncle Remus” story introduced traditional American folklore to an appreciative world, and not just an appreciative world both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. Per Wikipedia:

The tales, 185 in sum, became immensely popular among both black and white readers in the North and South. Few outside of the South had ever heard accents like those spoken in the tales, and no one had ever seen the dialect legitimately and faithfully recorded in print. To the North and those abroad, the stories were a "revelation of the unknown." Mark Twain noted in 1883, "in the matter of writing [the African-American dialect], he is the only master the country has produced."

The stories introduced international readers to the American South. Rudyard Kipling wrote in a letter to Harris that the tales "ran like wild fire through an English Public school.... [We] found ourselves quoting whole pages of Uncle Remus that had got mixed in with the fabric of the old school life.” The Uncle Remus tales have since been translated into more than forty languages.

James Weldon Johnson called the collection "the greatest body of folklore America has produced.”

So let’s have some fun.

First, we see the wily Brer Rabbit using his own fleabaggishness to keep Brer Fox at bay:

“Hol’ on dar, Brer Rabbit,” sez Brer Fox, sezee.

“I ain’t got time, Brer Fox,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, sorter mendin’ his licks.

“I wanter have some confab wid you, Brer Rabbit,” sez Brer Fox, sezee.

“All right, Brer Fox, but you better holler fum whar you stan’. I’m monstus full ur fleas dis mawnin,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.

Here we hear Harris’ wonderful ear for the dialect of the south, precursor, perhaps, to today’s Ebonics. Coming from a linguistically bland corner of the nation, I’ve got to say that reading Harris’ transcription is a challenging delight.

Harris’ story, of course, is familiar. Less familiar is that on an annual basis starting in 1888, Harris wrote seven Uncle Remus collection, cataloging for the world the vast imagination of the African-American south.
And maybe I’m full of hot air. But I’ll always enjoy Brer Rabbit’s reverse psychology, his quick with that outwits even after he’s been outwitted:

“I don’t keer w’at you do wid me, Brer Fox,” sezee, “so you don’t fling me in dat brier-patch. Roas’ me, Brer Fox,” sezee, “but don’t fling me in dat brier patch,” sezee.

“Hit’s so much trouble fer ter kindle a fier,” sez Brer Fox, sezee, “dat I speck I’ll hatter hang you,” sezee.

“Hand me des ez high as you plase, Brer Fox,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, “but to fer de Lord’s sake don’t fling me in dat brier patch,” sezee.

“I ain’t got no string,” sez Brer Fox, sezee, “en now I speck I’ll ahtter drown you,” sezee.

“Drown me des ez deep ez you please, Brer Fox,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, “but do don’t fling me in dat brier-patch,” sezee.

“Der ain’t no water nigh,” sez Brer Fox, sezee, “en ow I speck I’ll hatter skin you,” sezee.

“Skin me,” Brer Fox, sezee, “snatch out my eye-balls, t’ar out my years by de roots, en cut off my legs,” Sezee, “but do please, Brer Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch,” sezee.

Okay. So maybe Harris carries the dialect thing a bit too far.

Of course we know what happens. Brer Fox throws him in the brier patch, a patch similar to the one Brer Rabbit was born in. Brer Rabbit escapes to live to outfox Fox another day, much like another literary rabbit would do once he escaped from Mr. MacGregor’s garden. And my world is richer for having read Brer Rabbit do the outfoxing, political correctness be hanged. Or drowned. Or whatever.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Two Heavy Hitters

Next up at the Treasury of Laughter: A writer whose name inspires instant recognition and another writer whose name, for most folks, conjures up no recognition whatsoever, until you realize what characters he created.

First Joel Chandler Harris.

Who, you may ask?

Well, he created these guys:

(Sound of machetes, lucky and not, being unsheathed.)

Yes, the characters of Uncle Remus, Brer Rabbit, and the Tar Baby elicit only two responses: RACIST SLOP and Why hasn’t Disney ever released this movie on DVD? I’m inclined to be in the latter camp. I’ve read Chandler’s stories; he himself wrote he didn’t intend racism when he wrote them, but rather wanted to collect southern folk tales under the guise of Uncle Remus, whom he envisioned as an American Aesop. Harris worked with Henry W. Grady, a fellow journalist who worked to reintegrate the South into the Union after the Civil War and worked to ease racial tension in the South as well. But the haters probably don’t know or dismiss this legacy. No matter.

Then we go on to O. Henry, who, among other things, brought us this:

O. Henry, like Harris, celebrated the uncelebrated: The ordinary folk for O. Henry were the denizens of New York City who never made the papers, never did much more than live and work and raise children and try to get along, much as did the ordinary folk Harris wrote about in his collected folk tales. Both in their way capture the essence of what is good in America and in Americans. For that. I honor them both.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Beating Edward Gorey to the Macabre Punch

Edward Gorey is an Intertubes darling for his macabre ABC book, the Gashlycrumb Tinies.

But he wasn’t the first to pen such nasty little rhymes as

A is for Amy who fell down the stairs,
B is for Basil assaulted by bears.
C is for Clara who wasted away,
D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh.

And Jocelyn Henry Clive Graham probably wasn’t the first, either, but he certainly preceded Gorey and his tinies with his own strain of black humor. Witness:

In the drinking well
Which the plumber built her,
Aunt Eliza fell.
We must buy a filter.

Witness further:

Weep not for little Leonie,
Abducted by a French marquis.
Though loss of honor was a wrench,
Just think how it improved her French.

And finally:

Billy, in one of his nice new sashes,
Fell in the grate and was burnt to ashes.
Now, although the room grows chilly,
I haven’t the heart to poke up Billy.

And that’s only the surface of Graham’s odd little world, which belies the saintly look on his face.

His Little Willie rhymes are even worse:

Willie poisoned his father’s tea;
Father died in agony.
Mother came and look quite vexed:
“Really, Will,” she said, “what next?”

Willie fell down the elevator –
Wasn’t found till six days later.
Then the neighbors sniffed, “Gee whizz!
What a spoiled child Willie is!”

Little Willie on the track.
Heard the engines squeal.
Now the engine’s coming back;
They’re scraping Willie off the wheel.

Willie saw some dynamite,
Couldn’t understand it quite;
Curiosity never pays;
It rained Willie seven days.

And here’s his most succinct, and my favorite:

Little Willie;
Pair of skates;
Hole in the ice;
Golden gates.

Edward Gorey better put his runnin' pants on.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Good Committee Writing

Generally, I deplore writing by committee.

I don’t mind good collaboration, which you can see works wonderfully well in the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, and Disney’s Sherman Brothers:

And let’s face it – just about everything you read out there has been written by more than one person, for every writer has an editor guiding the way. It’s easy to pick out, for example, where JK Rowling’s editors stepped in to guide her in her earlier books, though she found her own way afterward. JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis shared their works with each other and with others, seeking and getting plenty of input. I’m seeking input on my own writing (though, it seems, so is everyone else).

So it’s with this kind of baggage that I approach Jack Alan, an amalgam of Jack Goodman and Alan Green, both advertising men, who worked together on a series of humorous pieces that skewered the popular How-To books of their era.

They echo their skewering of the genre in the short piece “From Pillar to Post,” in which Jack Alan describes the early days of owning a Great Dane. Here, they describe what happens when Jack is called on to punish the misbehaving pup:

I now change my approach, deciding to try the Great Big Playmate tactic. Crouching on all fours, I advance on him, barking several times with mock ferocity. He decides to humor me by pretending he thinks I'm a huge, dangerous dog. With a happy yelp, he flashes around a chair and dashes upon me from behind. Since he weighs roughly eighty-two pounds at the moment, I am now flat on the floor with him on top of me. He wants to pretend he is shaking me by the neck. This is too difficult unless he actually does shake me by the back of the neck. So he does.

I get up and brush myself off. I brush him off me, too, several times. I have now succeeded in gaining his confidence and showing him that I am a regular fellow who doesn't mind a good, clean romp, so I am through. But he isn't. He likes it too well to quit. He gets my tie in his teeth and hangs from it. It is some time before I get my breath.

He still refuses to stop. It is therefore time for me to Punish Him. I decide to lock him in the bathroom. This consists of the following steps:

1. He instantly senses my purpose and scrambles into the bedroom under the bed.
2. I rush after him and say, “Come out from under there this minute!”
3. He doesn't.
4. I get down on the floor and look under the bed. We face each other silently for a moment, each trying to outstare the other. I blink, which gives him the round.
5. I mutter several dire threats. So does he.
6. I hold out my handkerchief, hoping he will grab it and pull, thereby enabling me to drag him out.
7. He grabs it and pulls.
8. We are now both under the bed.
9. I seize him firmly and wriggle out.
10. A head bumps severely against the box spring. It is not his.
11. I shove and pull him into the bathroom and back out, closing the door.
12. I stop closing the door to avoid catching his nose in it.
13. I shove him back and close the door, catching my hand in it.
14. We both howl simultaneously.

Returning to the living room, tired but victorious (look up Pyrrhic in any good encyclopedia), I now proceed to describe my dog to you. He is still a puppy, seven months old. He is a good dog to have for a case history because, although a thoroughbred, he has a character which is practically a cross section of that of America's dogs.

Full text of their funny tale is found here.

Here, Jack Alan shows the secret of committee writing: The whole is better than the sum of its parts. While the writers may work together on ideas and word choice, they keep in mind that the end goal is a good, readable story, not that they win every argument.

Now maybe I’m reading these two wrong. Some teams have an idea man and a writer. Others do a bit of both. I’m putting on rose-tinted glasses here, imagining how the process works. However they do it, those pulling Jack Alan’s strings do it well.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Half of Gilbert and Sullivan

I never knew much of W. S. Gilbert – half of the famed Gilbert and Sullivan – outside of this:

Which we’ve seen on this blog before.

But Louis Untermeyer opened my eyes a bit, especially with this Gilbert quotation:

When I was a lad I served a term
As office boy to an attorney’s firm.
I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor,
And I polished up the handle of the big front door.

A bit which any student of Chuck Jones will immediately recognize from this (starts at about 4:50):

But my favorite has to be Gilbert’s “Etiquette,” a comic tale of two souls on a desert island who don’t interact or share the food they find because they haven’t been properly introduced.

How they wished an introduction to each other they had had
When on board The Ballyshannon! And it drove them nearly mad
To think how very friendly with each other they might get,
If it wasn't for the arbitrary rule of etiquette!

One day, when out a-hunting for the mus ridiculus,
GRAY overheard his fellow-man soliloquising thus:
"I wonder how the playmates of my youth are getting on,

These simple words made PETER as delighted as could be,
Old chummies at the Charterhouse were ROBINSON and he!
He walked straight up to SOMERS, then he turned extremely red,
Hesitated, hummed and hawed a bit, then cleared his throat, and said:

"I beg your pardon--pray forgive me if I seem too bold,
But you have breathed a name I knew familiarly of old.
You spoke aloud of ROBINSON — I happened to be by--
You know him?" "Yes, extremely well." "Allow me — so do I!"

It was enough: they felt they could more sociably get on,
For (ah, the magic of the fact!) they each knew ROBINSON!
And MR. SOMERS' turtle was at PETER'S service quite,
And MR. SOMERS punished PETER'S oyster-beds all night.

Of course, they have a falling out over this very mutual acquaintance, as when a prison ship arrives, they think they are saved until they see the poor Mr. Robinson at the oars, punished for seven years for “misappropriating stock.” They reject their rescue and remain on the island, hostile towards one another for each knowing such a blackguard as Robinson. Full text of the poem is here.

I admire Gilbert’s erudite rhyming and tight poetic structure. It's highly recitable, easy to memorize -- as long as you're not stumbling over the big words -- and tells a good story.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Master Thespian

When I was at the University of Idaho earning my bachelor's degree, the wife of a friend convinced me to participate in a community production of "Beauty and the Beast of Loreland." She had a particular part in mind for me and sought to take advantage of my tremendous bulk to play the part of the jailer, who was supposed to be a menacing, if only briefly seen, minor character in the Beast's household.

As the friend's wife was the director, she directed us. The direction I heard most often was this: "You're supposed to be a jailer, yet you're walking like a ballerina. I want to see some stomping."

So I stomped with wanton abandon and had to be told to draw it in.

That was my first and last experience with community theater, though I had a narrow escape shortly after I got married and my wife got sucked into a production of "The Good, the Bad, and the Broccoli."

So I understand how Wolcott Gibbs felt as he retold the tale of his first appearance in a play as a very young man playing Puck in William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He got directions from the director as well:

Our director was a man who had strong opinions about how Shakespeare should be played, and Puck was one of his favorite characters. It was his theory that Puck, being "the incarnation of mischief," never ought to be still a minute, so I had been coached to bound onto the stage, and once there to dance up and down, cocking my head and waving my arms.

"I want you to be a little whirlwind," the man said.

However, the director neglected to remember that Puck's costume included a large number of bells. Wolcott goes on:

To a blind man, it must have sounded as thought I had recklessly decided to accompany myself on a xylophone. A maturer actor would probably have made up his mind that an emergency existed, and abandoned his gestures as impracticable under the circumstances. I was thirteen, and incapable of innovations. I had been told by responsible authorities that gestures went with this part, and I continue to make them. I also continued to ring -- a silvery music, festive and horrible.

Oh, Wolcott knows kids, at least the kind of milquetoast kid I was: I, too, remember countless times being told to do something and doing it, even though the results weren't as expected. I was also incapable of innovation.

The bells went on to cause mayhem, as they distracted the other actors:

All this had a very bad effect on the fairy, who by this time had many symptoms of a complete nervous colapse. However, he began his next speech:

"Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call'd Robin Goodfellow: are you not he
That . . .

At this point I forgot that the rules had been changed and I was supposed to leave out the gestures. There was a furious jingling, and the fairy gulped.

"Are you not he that, that . . . "

He looked miserably at the wings, and the director supplied the next line, but the tumult was too much for him. The unhappy child simply shook his head.

"Say anything!" shouted the director desperately. "Anything at all!"

The fairy only shut his eyes and shuddered.

"All right!" shouted the director desperately. "All right, Puck. You begin your next speech."

By some miracle, I actually did remember my next lines, and had opened my mouth to begin on them when suddenly the fairy spoke. His voice was a high, thin monotone, and there seemed to be madness in it, but it was perfectly clear.

"Fourscore and seven years ago," he began, "our father brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived. . . "

He said it right through to the end, and it was certainly the most successful speech ever made on any stage. I don't remember if I over knew, how the rest of us ever picked up the dull, normal thread of the play after that extraordinary performance, but we must have, because I know it went on. I only remember that in the next intermission the director cut off my bells with his penknife, and after that things quieted down and got dull.

Oh yeah. I can see that happening. That's exactly why I stay out of the theater. And it's the kind of acting brilliance that Master Thespian would appreciate. Probably something along the lines of this:

Friday, October 29, 2010

Robert Frost's Childrens' Book?

Droll, dry wit.

Reserved language. Mellifuous language. RHymes tighter than a miser's DNA.

That is Robert Frost.

I know so little of poetry, though I write a bit from time to time. I think that's part of the reason I'm reading this book and blogging about it, so I can learn a bit more about the forms and the styles and the writers who use them.

Robert Frost is an enigma to me. I know his poem about the road not taken. I know he was a New Englander. And that's about it. I'm sure there are many out there who know much more than I about the man, so I won't go into any detail here.

Except to say I love his poem "Brown's Descent." Such tightly-wound, rich language with such a whimsical story underneath it. Written in a more modern, more folksy style, it could easily have been this:

But when you read lines like this, you know this is from no ordinary poet:

Sometimes he came with arms outspread
Like wings, revolving in the scene
Upon his longer axis, and;
With no small dignity of mien.

Faster or slower as he chanced,
Sitting or standing as he chose,
According as he feared to risk
His neck, or thought to spare his clothes

This whole story -- of a hapless farmer who gets blown down an icy hillside by a sudden winter gale -- could easily be a children's book. And perhaps it was, that long ago, written in 1919. But I doubt it. Still, it's fun to think of kids gathered 'round the fire at night, asking dad to read about the poor Farmer Brown getting blown down the hill again.

My kids prefer Josh McBroom. But tonight, I'll read them some Robert Frost.

Long Live Jim Clark! And Robert Frost.

When YouTube's Jim Clark has done one of his fantastically absurdist "animations" of a fellow or lady reading one of their most famous works, you know that author is a heavy-hitter:

Thus it is with the subject of our next installment at the Treasury of Laughter: Robert Frost.

The road less traveled. Most of us have heard the poem. Some of us can at least recite a few lines. But there are fewer who have actually read it. Here it is:

The road not taken......

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Soon we'll be treated to Frost's comic poem "Brown's Descent." Until then, enjoy the quirky, unintended weirdness of Jim Clark's animation.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Paranoid Corey Ford

As a person who is naturally shy and easily gets flummoxed in social situations, I certainly empathize with the nameless drip in Corey Ford’s “Wanted, Dead or Alive,” as he details the excruciatingly painful (to him) process he went through to open a charge account at a department store.

He starts off like this:

One of my ancestors must have robbed a bank. There must be something in my family history to account for the guilty way in which I stammer and blush and glance shiftily out of the corner of my eye whenever I try to cash a cheque, or give references for an apartment, or open a charge account in a department store.

I feel his pain, though my anxiety may stem from the time that Dad and his brother Sjaak, as little boys, locked themselves in the sole pay telephone booth in their village of Santpoort just prior to World War II, forcing the postmistress to go in search of Frau Davidson to extricate her boys in case a call came in on the line.

Ford continues in a comically anxietal vein:

“Garters,” I explained huskily.

The clerk appeared mildly interested.

“Don’t want to buy ‘em,” I added in short gasps. “Don’t want to pay for ‘em, that is,. Want to,” loosening my collar, “charge ‘em.”

“In whose name?” asked the clerk.

In the name of the great Jehovah and . . . Ford,” I checked myself. “My own name. I want to open an account.”

Of course, as we all know all too well, such paranoia only can grow, as Ford tells us:

“I see,” said the clerk quietly, with the sort of look that seemed to add: “And maybe this will clear up the mystery of those solid-silver belt-buckles that have been disappearing lately.” And he exclaimed in a loud voice: “Mr. Messersmith.”

There was a slight odor of sulphur, and Mr. Messersmith appeared, rubbing his hands. “Ah?”

“This is Mr. Ford,” said the clerk significantly.

“Ah. Of course,” said Mr. Messersmith, casting a grateful look at the clerk.

“Mr. Ford,” added the clerk, with an ill-concealed smile, “says he would like to open an account.”

I could see a look of almost respect creep into Mr. Messersmith’s eyes, as he contemplated this bit of sheer bravado on my part. At least, he reflected, this crook had his nerve with him. “Won’t you come with me?” he urged, leading me gently by the arm toward the elevator.

Little bureaucratic niceties, in the eyes of the paranoiac, assume gargantuan significance:

“And now,” said Mr. Alvord [a Messersmith minion] presently, handing me back my license and blotting his questionnaire grimly, “have you ever had a charge account before?” “No,” I lied bravely. “Are you sure?” frowned Mr. Alvord. “Think,” Mr. Messersmith added darkly in my ear. I sagged. “Once,” I admitted weakly, “I opened a charge account with Brooks.” I leaned forward impulsively. “But that was years ago, Mr. Alvord . . . I was a mere boy then. Surely you can’t hold against me the follies of my . . .” “Any other account?” patiently. “No,” I insisted, watching him like a cat.

Of course, Mr. Ford gets his account – though he leaves the store without the garters, too ashamed of his assumed criminality to buy them, even on the account the Messrs. Messersmith and Alvord have so politely set up for him.

Aye, sometimes looking into a person’s motivations is akin to looking into an empty room. Corey Ford reminds us of that well.

Friday, October 15, 2010

These are the Jokes, Folks, Part II

To follow up the rather confusing Joe Miller collection of questionable humor, Louis Untermeyer offers another loose collection of jokes, but with a caveat provided by Josh Billings:

There is little chance of agreement among experts on humor. Or, rather, there are no experts; the only real test is personal taste.

That goes especially for the jokes in this section, which Untermeyer calls “Joe Miller’s Grandchildren.” Here are a few examples:

It was in the hills of Kentucky that a traveler saw a farmer holding a pig in his arms so that the creature could eat the apples right off the tree.

“Won’t it take a long time to fatten your hog that way?” asked the traveler.

“I suppose so,” replied the farmer. “But what’s time to a durned old hog?”

Yeah. The jokes don’t get much better than that. Well, they do, but not in this collection. Behold:

“Did you hear about the woman who married four times? Her first husband was a millionaire. Her second was a famous actor. Her third was a well-known minister. And her last was an undertaker.”

“I see. One for the money; two for the show; three to get ready; and four to go.”

You’re larffing on the inside, I can tell.

What the hell. One more:

“Why do you act so unhappy? Anything wrong?”

“I had to shoot my dog.”

“Was he mad?”

“He wasn’t exactly pleased about it.”


Only one thing to say to that:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

These Are the Jokes, Folks

Google “joke database” and you’ll get a few hits – 20,600,000 at least.

The internet has blessed joke collectors – and cursed the rest of us who have to listen to these jackanapes – with vast joke databases where, for hours on end, one can probe the hilarity of everything from yo mama jokes to the tenebrous world that is “adult” humor. (For examples, go here. And here. And there. And over there. And here again. And here. And over here. Go, frankly, anywhere. NOTE: Don’t come crying to me if the jokes in the links I’ve provided aren’t to your liking or satisfaction; I’m only responsible for the stuff in the Treasury of Laughter, not anything else.)

Robert O. Foote would feel at home here.

So would Joe Miller, his mysterious fictional researcher of everything jokey. And he might repeat the mild anti-sophisticate rebuke in “Who was Joe Miller,” a “research” piece Foote put together on ribald humor through the ages:

Humor, say philosophers, is the index of an era’s sophistication. Because the present day laughs at broad jokes, it is inclined to fancy itself as tolerant; “modern” is the popular word. The stories we tell in mixed company would only have been whispered by grandfather to his barroom cronies. Ipso facto, we’re pretty darn sophisticated. But are we?

Examine a case example: You see a cartoon – or will shortly when the gag men realize what they have been overlooking – which shows a young man getting out of bed in which still reposes a lovely dame. The caption says “I think I’ll get up and rest.” Now, except for the manner of its telling through the aid of a drawing reproduction process unknown to our ancestors, instead of completely by words as was necessary with them, that is the identical joke at which our forbears of two hundred years ago were snickering. Here is its exact wording, No. 164 in the now priceless first edition of Joe Miller’s Jests:

“A Young Lady who had been Married but a Short Time, seeing her Husband going to Rise pretty early in the Morning, said, ‘What, my Dear, are you getting up already? Pray lie a little longer and rest yourself.’ ‘No, my Dear,’ replied the husband. ‘I’ll get up and rest myself.’”

So sophistication is obviously in the eye of the beholder. As is humor, but Foote doesn’t argue that. He figures everything is funny. Just like somebody else I know: The Bat-Bat.

The pertinent bit begins at 1:36. Listen through to 2:30, then skip to 3:08 for more punnery and a Bob Hope-inspired payoff. For you anal retentives, the first portion of this cartoon is available here.

Joe Miller, at least in this piece, focuses on the ribald – though the mildly ribald, compared to much of the stuff that we hear said in the open today.

To be honest, however, I’m not quire sure what Foote’s point to all of this is: that ribald humor is common in all eras, just more open today? Anyone who reads Chaucer ought to know better than that.

It might just be that (whispers) I’ve never been all that much into jokes. Funny stories and situations, yes, but not jokes. No one in the family really is into jokes. Want proof? Here’s my mother’s favorite joke:

Why do gorillas have big noses? Because they have big fingers.”

And my Dad’s:

Two Americans were at the train station in Amsterdam and wanted to go to the town of Deloo. The man went to the ticket counter and said “Two to Deloo,” to which the agent responded “Tee teedle lee!”

I rest my case.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

That Indomitable Duck

As I read Charles G. Finney’s “That Indomitable Duck,” two things immediately came to mind.

First were the stories of fellow Idahoan Patrick F. McManus, or more specifically the stories involving his dog Strange, who more or less adopted Pat’s family and used their farm as a base of operations for his disgusting and lecherous activities, ranging from rolling on fresh roadkill to molesting any farm dog or chicken that came within his disparate territory.

The other is the tale of Radar O’Reilley’s goat Randy who, as Charles Emerson Winchester the Third read with disgust in a letter from Radar’s mother, once “tried to kiss a turkey.”

Finney, in a mix of high-falutin’ language and country boy patois, spins a tale of a rather randy duck who is brought home as a pet by three boys whose mother is concerned they know a bit too much about the sex lives of frogs. The duck, never too friendly with the boys, apt to hiss and scream at them and beat them with its wings when they got too close, escapes his woodshed prison and goes on to wreak sexual havoc among the neighborhoods’ chickens and at least one fluffy white pet rabbit. Behold:

Lulu [the rabbit] doubled and redoubled with astonishing agility, but the great white bird was as relentless as death is supposed to be. It never ceased pursuit for a second; finally it made a quick turn on its awkward webbed feet, got hold of Lulu by one large pink ear and, at the same time, folded her under its immense wing.

Lulu gave a shrill squeak; there followed a scene which gave Mrs. Multin nightmares for a long while afterward. It was atrocious and outrageous and unbelievable. It was fantastic and downright insane. It was incredible that such a thing could happen on a sunny summer morning in the Multins’ fenced side yard. And the most hideous thing about it all was that Lulu seemed to enjoy it. It was as if Lulu were, indeed, another Leda.

Louis Untermeyer and his editors even thoughtfully provide an illustration. G-rated, of course.

I’m not sure what to think. Not that the content of the story bothers me – it’s rather innocuous – but as a writer myself, the stark contrast between Finney’s prose and the twang of his characters is a bit jarring.

The boys went to market, but went reluctantly. “Doggone,” they kept wondering to each other. “whur did mamma ever get the idear we wanted any old fool chickens?”

The market, a hollow square with pens all around, aroused their interest slightly. Its acrid poultry smell piqued their nostrils, and the cries of the fowls piqued their ears. They wandered round and round, talking and looking.

Just at the end of their tour of inspection, they saw the Muscovy drake. After seeing him that once, they looked at nothing else.

A damned ugly bird in a mix of odd prose. But I should talk; I’m all high falutin’ when I write.

Why I Do This Blog

Here’s one of the reasons I’m doing this blog:

A writer writes. Always.

And when a writer isn’t writing, he or she is reading. And most often when that reading occurs, that writer finds styles of prose, rhetoric, and voice that just grate grate grate upon them. They swear they will never do what these other writers do, because these other writers, obviously, suck.

And then they get back to writing and realize that, damn, they’re doing exactly – or almost exactly – what they hate in other writers.

This is good ammo for readers who want to see writers get better. Every time you hear a writer complaining about someone else’s style, ask them: Is the pot calling the kettle black?

I admit to it because my suckiness knows no bounds. I am trying to tone down the suck, and until today I didn’t realize how powerful reading and dissecting an anthology like this could be in my journey away from suckiness.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

So Oddly Familiar . . .

What we have here, folks, is a case of what a writer wrote becoming bigger than the writer himself.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Writers want what they write to be recognized and loved – at least the writers I know and associate with. So if one of their creations becomes bigger than life itself, so much the better.

So here’s the familiar poem:

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe—
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we!”
Said Wynken,
And Nod.

And here is this poem’s author: Denver journalist Eugene Field.

Here he is in Disneyfication, writing this most famous poem:

And here’s his poem, Disneyfied:

There are many, many, many renditions of this verse, from amateurs trying to do the Poet’s Voice on YouTube, to the Doobie Brothers and Carly Simon crooning their way through the song. If you like disco freaks and hippies, that is.

It’s quite possible I grew up knowing some of Eugene Field’s work, but it’s also just as likely that I’m more familiar with the humorous poems of Dutch author Jacob Cats, since those are the poems Dad remembered from his childhood. (I’d love to find some of Cats’ works in English, by the way. They’re extremely hard to find.)

Louis Untermeyer, inexplicably, offers up a rather dull Field poem called “Seein’ Things,” a dialectic account of a boy scared of monsters in his room and under his bed:

I ain’t afraid uv snakes or toads, or bugs or worms or mice,
An' things 'at girls are skeered uv I think are awful nice!
I'm pretty brave I guess; an' yet I hate to go to bed,
For, when I'm tucked up warm an snug an' when my prayers are said,
Mother tells me "Happy Dreams" an' takes away the light,
An' leaves me lyin' all alone an' seein' things at night!

It’s okay, and Untermeyer is right in saying it’s funny. But I like the more lyrical, ethereal tone and cadence of “Wynken, Blynken and Nod.” Poets often let the words and the rhymes and the dialects get in the way of the rhythm, making their writing incredibly hard to read from a lyrical sense. It’s no surprise that the simplicity of “Wynken” lends itself to be sung, and sung quite prettily. It’s like the difference between fences made of pickets or cinder blocks. The cinder block fence is sturdier and far uglier than the simple picket, which lets the wind blow through and the daisies grow between the pickets.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

I Am So Funny

Several years ago, the hostesses of a local political talk show thought it would be funny to insult me on their show. I was a newspaper columnist at the time and evidently they thought I thought I was funny, "but really he's not." A friend, of course, in the fine tradition of Mark Twainish friendship, brought me the news.

I no longer have a newspaper column. I'm no longer a journalist. And their political show now has a lot of recipes in it, since the japery of the other stuff soon wore thin on the community.

What I'm being funny about now is that when I started this blog, I was worried I was churning through the authors too rapidly. I thought I'd be lucky to last until Christmas.

We're now 40 posts into this mess and we're only about a third of the way through the book. That's just fine with me.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

More Irish Japery

Ah, and while we be talkin’ ‘bout the Irish, why not bring up a selection of Irish tall tales and jokes told in the stereotypical vaudeville/dance hall manner? That’ll get ye to talkin’ through yer hat, me boyo:

“Those Irish Bulls.” That’s the name of the next installation of japery from the Treasury of Laughter. Here’s an example:

“Brady,” said Flynn to his friend who had fallen into a pit. “Brady, are you killed? Answer me. If you’re killed, say so!”

“No Flynn,” replied Brady. “I’m not killed. But I can’t answer you. I’ve been knocked speechless.”

Ha ha. Kind of reminds me of this.

Unfortunately, the video in that link has been removed from YouTube. So I’ll put a substitution in here:

It’s much better performed on that old Star Trek episode, however. Daniel O’Donnell would have done well to punctuate his singing by pushing random buttons on a big computer console.

But we’re getting distracted from the bull, which is a shame. Here’s more:

“Tell me, Denny,” said Barney as he put down the last glass and rose uncertainly to his feet, “do you know where I left my coat?”

“Sure Barney,” said his friend. “You’ve got it on.”

“Thanks for telling me. And it’s a good thing you noticed it, or I’d have gone home without it.”

I think we’ll end with that.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fait' and Begorrah, Finley Dunne Does Overdo t' Brogue

There seem to be two types of dialect writers out there.

The first is the kind that recognizes dialect as an intrinsic element of a character, one that may help set him or her apart from others, work as an effective “show, not tell” tool in offering information on a character’s background or otherwise offer up tantalizing bits of character rounding.

Then there are those who use a dialect character because, well, why not?

Those in the first category tend to use dialect sparingly, wanting the overall effect, but not so much as to overwhelm the reader.

Those in the second take a “dialect or nothing” attitude.

Finley Peter Dunne fits into the second category.

See if you can interpret any of this, or even tell me what kind of accent this is supposed to be:

What we want to do f’r our sojer boys in th’ Ph’lippeens besides killin’ thim, says th’ ar-rmy gurgeon, it make th’ place more homelike, he says. Manny iv our heroes hasn’t had th’ deleeryum thremens since we first planted th’ stars an’ sthripes, he says, an’ th’ bay’nits among th’ people, he says. I wud be in favor iv havin’ th’ rigimints get their feet round wanst a week, at laste, he says. Lave us, he says, ‘reform th’ reg’lations, he says, an’ insthruct our sojers to keep their powdher dhry an’ their whistles wet, he says.

Sounds like Sylvester the Cat on Novocain, doesn’t it?

The character who schpith out all that dialectial drivel is named Dooley, and he’s talking to a man named Hennessey, so one can assume they’re both supposed to be Irish. Untermeyer describes Dunne’s dialect as “tricky,” and he’s not just a-kidding. This is probably a case where the written word fails to capture the true essence of the situation. If this were being said rather than written – and read – it might be easier to understand. We’re used to hearing dialects, rather than reading them, as Richard Adams found out, painfully to my eyes at least, in his novel Traveler, featuring a horse with a British dance hall southern US accent.

The dialects used in this cartoon, for example, are easy to understand. Written down, however, they might prove difficult.

I have written a novel in which I have a character who uses a dialect. Now I’m going to have to go back over it to see if I’ve overdone it. Using a dialect is fine. Overdoing it kills your readers.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Neurotic Hostess in E.M. Delafield

Neither my wife nor I enjoy hosting guests.

We’re hermits. We don’t mind cooking, say, for our own children, but when it comes to having family over for, say, Thanksgiving Dinner, which we have done in the past, we’re both bundles of nerves. We both prefer the overhand hosting delivery of Snoopy:

So E. M. Delafield’s “The Unselfish Hostess” really, really, really made me nervous. Here’s a sample:

“I said, ‘Never mind whether I’ve got time or not, I must make some of my peppermint creams for Elizabeth.’ I’m afraid I didn’t get to bed until long after twelve last night.”

“Oh dear – what a shame.”

“No, no. I was up at seven just the same – or a little bit earlier, really, because I was determined to have plenty of spare time while you were here. It just meant a little reorganizing, that was all.”

Yikes, yikes, and double yikes. She makes Kronk and Yzma appear to have a normal amount of neurosis as host and hostess:

(Start at about 0:28.)

Eek. I think I’ll put my feet on the table at dinner tonight . . .

Monday, September 27, 2010

Clarence Day, 19th Century Sitcom Writer

For any – as Ray Stevens would put it – “tone-deaf little yard ape” who ever had to learn a musical instrument due to the insistence of a stubborn parent, Clarence Day is a hero. But the man is even more heroic to those who are forced to listen to said yard ape when, stung with criticism from every tongue, he stubbornly insists on learning the instrument even when he knows deep down he is a rotten player.

Thus Day explains his ham-fisted sawing at the violin:

What would the musician who had tenderly composed this air, years before, have felt if he had foreseen what an end it would have, on Madison Avenue; and how, before death, it would be execrated by that once peaceful neighborhood. I engraved it on their hearts; not in its true form but in my own eerie versions. It was the only tune I knew. Consequently, I played and replayed it.

Even horrors when repeated grow old and lose part of their sting. But those I produced were, unluckily, never the same. To be sure, this tune kept its general structure the same, even in my sweating hands. There was always the place where I climbed unsteadily to its peak, and that difficult spot where it wavered, or staggered, and stuck; and then a sudden jerk of resumption – I came out strong on that. Every afternoon when I got to that difficult spot, the neighbors dropped whatever they were doing to wait for that jerk, shrinking from the moment, and yet feverishly impatient for it to come.

I’ve heard it said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but Day, in these passages, succinctly pens what it’s like to hear a young soul play on a tortured instrument to the detriment of society.

If that’s not clear enough for you, consider this:

These passages are, of course, from Day’s famous novel, “Life With Father” which spawned an Academy Award-nominated 1947 film and a smash hit television series, believe it or not. It’s kind of the “Sh*t My Dad Says” but with much better writing, acting and longetivity. I know said modern show is only in its maiden run, but given the one-joke premise in both the plot and in William Shatner, it’s only a matter of time before it’s forgotten.

Just like “Life With Father,” of course. Nobody, but nobody knows about it today.

The fun thing about “Life With Father,” however, is its universality. The plot is this: Father thinks he runs the show at home. He really doesn’t, as Mom and children have a thing or three to say about what’s going on. That’s basically the plotline of any situation comedy you’d care to mention, isn’t it?

The “child as a hack on musical instrument” meme certainly smacks of any sitcom I’ve ever seen.

That’s not to belittle Day’s writing, however. As I mentioned earlier, I find his descriptions hilarious. But this is where good writing for the page can’t translate into good writing for any size screen, as you’re not going to get that kind of angst in any way, shape, or form that doesn’t look like Ralph Wiggum with his flute up his nose.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Cuppy, Wit in the Footnotes

Like footnotes, do you?

I do. Some fiction authors pull them off well. Think Terry Pratchett, whose footnotes are worth reading, no matter how they might interrupt the flow of the novel.

And I don't. I edit technical documents for a living. Some of them contain footnotes. It is my professional goal to integrate the phrase "hi poopsie" into a document before I die, and I think a footnote might be the place to do so. Although in technical documents, only auditors and the anal retentive look at footnotes. There are plenty of those in the Energy-Indusrial-Military complex in which I work. I'd be found out and ratted out and, well, something like this might well happen:

I'd be in the role of Newman, of course, whimpering like a puppy.

But footnotes bring us to the author William Jacob Cuppy who -- and here's another way he resembles me -- "knows more irrelevant facts than any mane alive," Untermeyer writes. It's these facts that fill the footnotes and otherwise nonsensical body of Cuppy's books and short articles. He's most noted for his book "How to Be A Hermit," of which I'd love a copy.

Untermeyer offers three of Cuppy's smaller works, "The Goldfish," "The Pterodactyl," and "The Pleiosaur." Here's "The Goldfish" (click on the image to embiggen; if I do it here, it makes my margins all off):

My favorite: Queen Victoria had a Goldfish. [Footnote: This statement is offered without documentation. It is based upon the self-evident truth that if Queen Victoria did not have a Goldfish, then history has no meaning and might as well stop.] Few authors use footnotes to the wiseassery extent as this. I applaud him.

Please, read more Cuppy, especially his "Hermit" book. A lot funnier than that stiff Thoreau fellow.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Frank Crowninshield, One-Liner Wit

Frank Crowninshield.

For those in the know, this name -- or the nickname "Crownie" brings up one thing and one thing only: Vanity Fair magazine. Crowninshield led the mag from its origins as a fashion magazine to one of razzle-dazzle literary stardom, bringing in authors such as Dorothy Parker, Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, and others.

For Louis Untermeyer, Crowninshield means his short work "A Wit With a Whim of Iron."

He got out some pretty good zingers:

Two anecdotes concerned Edward Simmons, the painter, who had long fatigued his fellow members [of The Players Club] by prolix and, often, pointless monologues. Finally, Herford, believing that the time for action had arrived, hand-lettered a sign, which he fastened over the door of the sitting-room. The sign read, laconically: "EXIT, IN CASE OF SIMMONS."

On another occasion, the same unfortunate Simmons had been insulted by a tipsy fellow member who had offered him fifty dollars if he would resign from the Club. Simmons immmediately imparted his grievance to Herford and repeated the insult, con brio. "Don't take it," said Oliver, "you're bound to get better offers."

My goal, folks -- hear it here and now -- is one day to have a sign like that put up in my honor.

It's likely this Herford would have something similar to this to say about some of the shmaltzy art produced today:

Maxfield Parrish had created a poster for St. Nicholas, in which a plump boy was blowing soap-bubbled, in a magical garden -- against an azure sky. Oliver, as he was gazing and the slightly epicene figure, remarked, with feeling, "How beautiful! A youth blossoming into womanhood!"

Lest you think Herford denigrated the venerable St. Nicholas magazine, he, too, submitted a drawing. With this result:

As a young illustrator, he once sold a picture of a two-horned rhinoceros (with an appropriate verse) to Wiliam F. Clarke, the editor of St. Nicholas. Herford had asked $35 for his double feature. When a check arrived for only $25, he borrowed the drawing from a clerk at the magazine and removed one of the horns from the rhinoceros. "I could not," he said, "in justice to an animal doubly favored by God, permit him to be thus humiliated."

I'm curious, now to read more of Crowninshield's stuff. But as my policy is to read only the books I can find at thrift stores, library sales and on the side of the road, I don't know how successful I'll be. Time will tell.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Down on the Farm

I'm sure farm jokes have been around since mankind discovered agriculture or, conversely, since Abel and Cain had the following exchange:

Abel: That peculiar odor, it seems to be coming from the plowed field. What can it be?
Cain: Fertilizer.
Abel: For the land's sake.
Cain: Yes.

That's actually one of the jokes Louis Untermeyer includes in his "Down on the Farm" joke section. They don't get much better. Here are a few more:

It was in Kentucky; the night was dark. Two men banged on the old cabin door. "Joe and me, we just found a body down in the holler, and we were afraid it might be you. It was too dark to tell."
"What did the body look like?"
"About your height; sort of scraggy--"
"Did he have on a shirt?"
"Was he shaved?"
"I think so."
"Well then, it warn't me."

That's actually a good one.

Now, I don't mind farm jokes. I live in a farming community (though I'm not a farmer; Dad was a bricklayer, I'm a technical writer). We did watch the occasional Hee-Haw episode. I've made it my 2011 resolution to learn how to eef:

I've even got a good one for ya, learned from a guy who spent some time in Tennessee. It's not really a joke, per se, just a play on how some folks in the country talk, he says. Here it is:

MR snakes.
MR not.
SAR2. CDEDBD eyes?

That's it. Just say the capitalized letters (and number) as you would reciting the alphabet. Hopefully you get the humor. If not, don't blame me -- I'm just passing the joke on.

Here's one more from Mr. Untermeyer:

It was Farmer Brown's first visit to the big town. In the window of the department store he read a sign: "Ladies Ready to Wear Clothes."
"Gosh," he said. "It's about time."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Green Acres!

The creators of Green Acres could possibly find a season’s worth of episodes in Frederic Swartout Cozzen’s “Living in the Country.”

There are antics involving cows.

Antics involving chickens.

Antics involving the elements.

Antics involving cranky, eccentric neighbors.

Antics involving prolific plants.

Antics involving poorly-producing plants.

And so on.

Nothing exceptional about the writing, and I mean it this time. Here’s an example:

A good, strong gate is a necessary article for your garden. A good, strong, heavy gate, with a dislocated hinge, so that it will neither open nor shut. Such a one have I. The grounds before my fence are in common, and all the neighbors’ cows pasture there. I remarked to Mrs. I., as we stood at the window in a June sunset, how placid and picturesque the cattle looked, as they strolled about, cropping the green herbage. Next morning I found the innocent creatures in my garden. They had not let a green thing in it.

And so on.

Cozzens needed to hear the story of one Landon Farmer, a junior high school acquaintance, who once dreamed of cows in the garden. He, however, leaped onto the back of one of the cows and propelled it by means of the bicycle pedals that popped out of its side. He steered the thing with is horns. And so on.

Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t Mr. Coppard?

I have to admit after I read A. E. Coppard’s “Alas, Poor Bollington,” this cartoon is what I thought of:

The rivalry in romance. The futility in pursuing affection. All livened up by that wonderful musical number.

Compared to this Tom and Jerry cartoon, Coppard’s tale is rather bland. And boring, I’m sorry to say. A lot of flim-flam and wordiness for a vaudeville hall payoff at the end. Chalk it up as another example of how humor – and writing – have continued to evolve.

To tell the truth, I honestly cannot find a bit of “Bollington” that stands out as quoteworthy for this entry. Coppard does seem to have attended the “way too much and completely unnecessary detail” school, with a minor in “having characters utter things that likely would not have been said in real life.” For that, I can conjure up an example in this story of a man who separates from his wife over a silly argument, flees to America, then returns and laments the vaudeville-inspired ending to an old acquaintance he meets in a club. But here’s the unlikely dialogue:

Well, I went out, and I will not deny I was in a rage, terrific. It was raining but I didn’t care, and I walked about in it. Then I took shelter in a bookseller’s doorway opposite a shop that sold tennis rackets and tobacco, and another one that displayed carnations and peaches on wads of colored wool. The rain came so fast that the streets seemed to empty, and the passersby were horribly silent under their umbrellas, and their footsteps splashed so dully, and I tell you I was very sad, Turner, there. I debated whether to such across the road and buy a lot of carnations and peaches and take them to Phoebe. But I did not do so, Turner. I never went back, never.

Whoosh. I’m tired and all I had to do was read this. I can’t imagine saying it.

Of course, I’m no conversationalist. Maybe there’s someone out there who can wrap his or her lips around such silliness.

Of course, this is from the Gilbert and Sullivan era, where such dialogue was expected. And sung:

A tradition which continues today:

So I’m probably wrong in dismissing Coppard. After all, if we wrote as we speak, the books we write would be pretty damn boring, wouldn’t they?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Marc Connelly, Mr. Popular

We’ve met Marc Connelly, or at least an inspiration of his, before.

Connelly, inspired by Roark Bradford’s “Green Pastures,” basically re-wrote the story – a re-telling of Bible stories “as they might have been rendered by illiterate but highly imaginative colored preachers,” as Louis Untermeyer puts it.

Connelly’s play was brought to Warner Brothers film in 1936:

Here I insert the common disclaimer: Consider the time this was written in, et cetera, et cetera. But the film, nor the play, didn’t play well in “colored” circles in 1936. So.

We move on, this time to Connelly’s short sketch “The Guest,” which, though it predates “The Jetsons” by about thirty years, kind of prophesies some of the push-button fingeritis Jane Jetson laments.

In this piece which surely would have ended up on if it had existed in the 1920s as an example of corporate culture gone mad, our main character wrestles with the boffo technology that is the hotel telephone service, the hotel Food-a-rack-a-cycle, the hotel concierge that’s supposed to bring him his suit but brings him someone else’s suit and insists on waking him up at 8:30 even though it’s after ten. Believe me, just to read a Consumerist thread, and you’ll get the picture. Here’s a sample:

Mr. Mercer: Come in. (A bellboy enters with a plate of dog meat.) Well?

Bellboy: For the dog, sir.

Mr. Mercer: For the dog?

Bellboy: Yes, sir.

Mr. Mercer: Do they give you a dog here too? (The bellboy laughs pleasantly.)

Bellboy: It’s just the way you ordered it, sir.

Mr. Mercer: I ordered a cup of coffee.

Bellboy: One should never give coffee to a dog.

Mr. Mercer: The coffee is for me.

Bellboy: Well, this is for the dog. (The bellboy puts the plate on the floor and looks around for the dog. Mr. Mercer wishes ha had an old-fashioned instead of a safety razor.)

And so on. Technology going amuck when the newest-fangled things were talkies and that infant invention, television. From there we went on to the flat-screen, 3-D televisions envisioned in The Jetsons to the gratuitous and superfluous use of 3-D in today’s movies.

I’m off to the Food-a-rack-a-cycle. I need a beer.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Mr. Popular on the Horizon

Hey now: What popular 1920s playwright not only won a Pulitzer Prize for what would be considered now a racist play, but also – and this’ll make him even more popular among the young set these days – fought for international copyright on plays so he could earn more money? Find out next time at the Treasury of Laughter.

The Old School Joke

Oh, the old school joke.

No, really. The old jokes. From school. Johnny getting one up on the teacher and that.

Do they still tell those jokes these days? It’s been a long time since I heard a new one.

Take this one:

Professor: “Give the most important fact about nitrates.”

Student: “They’re cheaper than day rates.”

Ha ha, it is to laugh.

It’s been done. Ad nauseaum. Behold:

Louder and funnier? Hardly, Gabby.

Yeah, it’s Bad Joke Uncle fodder. Speaking of which, here’s my mother’s favorite joke:

Why do gorillas have big noses? Because they have big fingers.

Yeah. It’s a groaner. But I still love the woman.

“Most humorists rely on the old formula – the formula which represents Teacher and Johnny matching wits in the classroom,” Untermeyer writes, perhaps expressing his own subconscious exasperation with these amusing, but tired japes. “It is a foregone conclusion that Johnny must win,” he concludes.

For example:

Teacher: “We have been talking about recent inventions. Now, Johnny, name something which did not exist twenty-five years ago.”

Johnny: “Me.”

I could continue. But then you’d have to kill me.

Friday, July 30, 2010

John Collier, Twilight Zoner

If ever you wondered where “The Twilight Zone” got some of its hokey material, wonder no longer. They probably got some of it from John Collier.

Collier’s “Another American Tragedy” has that typical Twilighty Zone zinger at the end, in which a nephew who murders his rich, irascible uncle to get his hands on his fortune discovers he’s not the only one with murder on his mind. I can just hear Rod Serling saying that.

Collier’s “Mary” is no better – it’s a sad tale of an English lass who competes with a pig for the affection of her new husband. The pig, of course, ends up as sausage, which the wife and husband eat with relish, the husband unaware of whom he is consuming.

Yeah, it’s that bad.

Almost William Shatner bad. Witness:

“This is another thing we couldn’t’ have while she was here,” said Fred, as he finished his plateful. “Never no pork sausages, on account of her feelings. I never thought to see the day I’d be glad she was pinched. I only hope she’s gone to someone who appreciates her.”

“I’m sure she has,” said Rosie. “Have some more.”

“I will,” said he. “I don’t know if it’s the novelty, or the way you cooked ‘em, or what. I never ate a better sausage in my life. If we’d gone up to London with her, best hotels and all, I doubt if ever we’d have had as sweet a sausage as these here.”

Wikipedia says Collier’s writing has been praised by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury and Paul Theroux. Well, there’s never an accounting for taste, is there?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Frank Moore Colby, Meet Tony Lanzio

Tony Lanzio is the guy who taught Dad how to make chicken cacciatore and turned him on to making his own spaghetti sauce and other Italian foods. He’s also the guy that was at least 25 percent easier to understand after I spent two years in France.

Tony, it turns out, speaks several languages. At least English, Italian, French, German and Dutch. To make things interesting, he speaks them all at once.

I’m not sure you could classify him as a francophile, as Frank Moore Colby claims to be in his piece “Confessions of a Gallomaniac.” He does it, I believe, out of survival. As an immigrant to the United States from Europe after World War II – just like my father – Tony simply picked up languages along the way as a way to get along.

So hearing Colby’s pidgin French/English conversation in this piece is a delight:

‘It is good morning,’ said I, ‘better than I had extended.’

‘I was at you yestairday ze morning, but I deed not find.’

‘I was obliged to leap early,’ said I, ‘and I was busy standing up straight all around the forenoon.’

‘The book I prayed you send, he came, and I thank, but positively are you not deranged?’

‘Don’t talk,’ said I. ‘Never talk again. It was really nothing anywhere. I had been very happy, I reassure.’

‘Pardon, I glide, I glode. There was the hide of a banana. Did I crash you?’

Gestures and smiles of perfect understanding.

This is, I’m sure, how I sound in French. This is how Tony sounds always, given his penchant for mixing languages. Colby’s is a delightful romp through learning a language because you want to communicate with people, not because you want to impress them.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Waifs and Strays

It’s the dream of every author to be remembered.

Check that.

It’s the dream of every author to be paid, then to be remembered.

Thus, likely, the provenance of one of Louis Untermeyer’s “Waifs and Strays,” little snippets of humorous verse for which the origins have been lost “They all seem to be the work of that industrious and often-quoted author ‘Anonymous.’ They are the waifs and strays of poetry.”

Here it is:

The saddest words of tongue or pen
Perhaps may be “It might have been.”
The sweetest words we know, by heck,
Are simply these: “Enclosed find check.”

We’ve all heard variations on them. Such as this:

‘Twixt optimist and pessimist,
The difference is droll:
The optimist sees the doughnut,
The pessimist sees the hole.

And yet I wonder. In today’s Google Society, are such little scraps of verse still anonymous, or has the ubiquitousness of the search engine and the hungry maw that is content and research finally found the authors of these waifs and strays? Let’s find out.

An, the “Optimist and Pessimist” seems to have been authored by one McLandburgh Wilson. What may we discover of him? Well, we may discover that this amusing little bit of verse may be the only thing for which McLandburgh is remembered, if not for the serendipity between his last name and a popular maker of outdoors and sports equipment, for which advertisements appear on many pages containing this bit of pastry-based amuse-cerveaux.

And how about our first example, the author pining for the check? Mr. Google tells us this one was written by John Greenleaf Whittier, Quaker Poet prominent enough to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp. And a happy man he appears to be.

So, they’re waifs and strays no longer, at least these two examples. Pity that the verses are so memorable, so quotable, without the author being remembered for them, except by a few fanatics at Wikipedia and the combiners of searched items with advertisement tags.

Let’s try one more. Surely this one is no longer anonymous:

Girls, to this advice give heed –
In your affairs with men
If at first you don’t succeed,
Cry, cry again.

Plug that into Mr. Google, and . . . ugh.

It’s been taken over by neocons. Tammy Wynette. Bad, bad joke-tellers.

Sorry, bub. It’s obvious whoever wrote this one is going to remain anonymous.