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.

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