Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Here at the End of All Things

And another book blog is complete.

Oh, Louis Untermeyer includes a final collection of little bits -- several pages of insults -- but they're nothing I haven't read before. Another book, like the Cokesbury Party Book (and blog) ending on a whimper, not a bang.

Nevermind. I enjoyed reading the book. I learned, I think, a bit about various writing styles and authors' voices, realizing that I like some, loathe others. Same will happen to me when I write.

C'est la guerre.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Wait, What?

I've read "Entrance Fee," a short little chit of a story by Alexander Woolcott, a few times, and I just don't quite understand it.

Here we have an army garrison in France all plying for the attention of one Cosette, a pin-up girl. Somehow they get it in their heads that they'd each have to earn 5,000 Francs in order to have enough cash to take her out on a night on the town. They despair that they cannot raise that money, until one clever dick realizes that with 1,000 in the garrison, each could raise five francs and then dole the pot out by lottery.

So they do that. A country bumpkin wins the lottery. Their commanded, amused at their machinations, provides extra cash. The soldier and Cosettte have their night on the town. She's so amused by the tale she gives him back his five francs. End of story.

Anyone else out there read it? Can anyone explain why this is so darned funny, because I just don't get it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Always Delightful P.G. Wodehouse

First, we have to hear a bit from Jeeves and Wooster, especially as Wooster has a spot of trouble with Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Now, on to my introduction to Mr. Wodehouse and his delightful grasp of the absurd:

Deseret Industries, I think.

I buy most of my books used, with most of them coming from Deseret Industries, our local thrift store. I love perusing the stacks, looking at the books that people no longer want to read. Sometimes I pick up a good book, one by a familiar author, and wonder why the former owner gave it away. And sometimes I pick up a new book by a new author, and really have to wonder why anyone would give such an excellent book away.

I feel that way about everything P.G. Wodehouse ever wrote.

His airy, comic tales go a long way to doing what Vyvian despairs contemporary British television was doing during his time, thus:

But I don't care. I revel in reading and watching those comical British middle-class eccentrics. As much as Vyvian hates "The Good Life," I like P.G. Wodehouse, because he recognizes that at the base of nearly every human character lies an absurd little soul trying as hard as it can to get out, so he encourages it. As in this selection from "Uncle Fred Flits By," which Louis Untermeyer chose for the TOL:

So when, on the occasion to which I allude, he stood pink and genial on Pongo's hearth-rug, bulging with Pongo's lunch and wreathed in the smoke of one of Pongo's cigars, and said,:" And now, my boy, for a pleasant and instructive afternoon," you will readily understand why the unfortunate young clam gazed at him as he would have gazed at two-penn'orth of dynamite, had he discovered it lighting up in his presence.

"A what?" he said, giving at the knees and paling beneath the tan a bit.

"A pleasant and instructive afternoon," repeated Lord Ickenham, rolling the words round his tongue. "I propose that you place yourself in my hands and leave the program entirely to me."

Now, owing to Pongo's circumstances being such as to necessitate his getting into the aged relative's ribs at intervals and shaking him down for an occasional much-needed tenner or what not, he isn't in a position to use the iron hand with the old buster. but at these words he displayed a manly firmness.

"You aren't going to get me to the dog races again."

"No, no."

"You remember what happened last June?"

"Quite," said Lord Ickenham, "quite. Though I still think that a wiser magistrate would have been content with a mere reprimand."

So Pongo, in the clutches of his Uncle Fred -- Lord Ickenham -- ends up at, well, a comical place. I won't spoil the story. But you'll want to read it, for the comedy and for Wodehouse's tip-toe, tenterhook writing style which, with every paragraph, is both painlessly lyrical, real, and repeatable and also as attractive as a magnet pulling at iron filings. I very often read his books in a gulp, the prose keeps me going along so. Very few authors have the power to do that with me: Ray Bradbury, Terry Pratchett, Harry Harrison, JRR Tolkein, and P.G. Wodehouse. He's in good company, as far as that goes.

I'm not alone in my odd little obsession. This short story has its own Facebook page. Of course.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Consarnit, I Cain't Unnerstand A Durn Thang He's A-Sayin'!

At the time the United States was putting a man on the moon, the nation's television networks were undertaking a purge of nearly everything rural on television. Between 1969 and 1972, shows like Hee-Haw, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and even Hogan's Heroes, as the nation's airwaves flipped from a heavy emphasis on programs in rural settings to those in urban settings -- including the venerable All in the Family and The Jeffersons and flopperoos like Maude and Good Times.

Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on Green Acres, bitterly recounted "It was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it."

Now, I remember some of those shows with fondness. I remember some of the replacement, urban shows with fondness as well. But after reading Edward Noyes Westcott's "David Harum's Horse Trade," I'd have to say that if it were on the television and I were an executive, I'd be killing everything with a tree in it as well.

The story is fine enough, but suffers from an overdose of dialect. There were several times I had to stop and re-read and read again what the characters were saying -- and boy howdy did they say a lot -- to understand what the consarn they were saying. It's a dialectical treatment better left for radio -- and indeed, David Harum was the focus of a long-lasting radio show in the early half of the 20th century -- than for a book. It was also filmed twice, notably in 1935, in an adaptation that starred Will Rogers.

The dialogue kinda felt a lot like this, except not nearly as entertaining. And nothing got blowed up real good.

Here's a slab of text for you to sample. Those of you who like rural babbling, go here for the whole story.

"Wa'al, three four days after the shower, an' the story 'd got aroun' some—as you say, the deakin is consid'able of a talker—I got holt of[Pg 21] Dick—I've done him some favors an' he natur'ly expects more—an' I says to him: 'Dick,' I says, 'I hear 't Deakin Perkins has got a hoss that don't jest suit him—hain't got knee-action enough at times,' I says, 'an' mebbe he'll sell him reasonable.' 'I've heerd somethin' about it,' says Dick, laughin'. 'One of them kind o' hosses 't you don't like to git ketched out in the rain with,' he says. 'Jes' so,' I says. 'Now,' I says, 'I've got a notion 't I'd like to own that hoss at a price, an' that mebbe I c'd git him home even if it did rain. Here's a hunderd an' ten,' I says, 'an' I want you to see how fur it'll go to buyin' him. If you git me the hoss you needn't bring none on't back. Want to try?' I says. 'All right,' he says, an' took the money. 'But,' he says, 'won't the deakin suspicion that it comes from you?' 'Wa'al,' I says, 'my portrit ain't on none o' the bills, an' I reckon you won't tell him so, out an' out,' an' off he went. Yistidy he come in, an' I says, 'Wa'al, done anythin'?' 'The hoss is in your barn,' he says. 'Good fer you!' I says. 'Did you make anythin'?' 'I'm satisfied,' he says. 'I made a ten-dollar note.' An' that's the net results on't," concluded David, "that I've got the hoss, an' he's cost me jest thirty-five dollars."

For the curious, here's "Sunbonnet Sue," theme song for the old David Harum radio program. Enjoy.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fifty Boners

I’m going to jump right in with Louis Untermeyer’s definition of the word boner with a lot more urgency than he likely felt way back in 1946, when the Treasury of Laughter was published:

A boner is a howler, a misprint, a right word in the wrong place (or vice versa), a slight error in association that turns a simple fact into a side-splitting absurdity.

There. Now that that is out of the way, I can get this out of the way as well:

So, on to the boners which were circulating in the pre-Internet days prior to 1946:
  • Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope.
  • Magna Charta said the King was not to order taxis without the consent of Parliament.
  • They gave William IV a lovely funeral. It took six men to carry the beer.
  • A metaphor is a thing you shout through.
  • Ibid was a famous Latin poet.
  • A Senator is half horse and half man.
  • Acrimony is what a man gives his divorced wife.
  • Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.
  • Three shots rang out. Two of the servants fell dead, the other went through his hat.
  • During the Napoleonic Wars crowned heads were trembling in their shoes.
And that’s all she wrote.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Updating the Goose

I’ve used this cartoon on the Treasury of Laughter before, of course. But it fits in so well with the next little bit, well, I just can’t resist.

Revamping those old Mother Goose tales, of course, is an old saw of the creative writer. Why, here’s Walter de la Mare telling us all about Jack and Jill:

Up to the top of the haunted turf
They climbed on moonlit hill;
Not a leaf rustled in the underbrush,
The listening air was still.

And only the noise of the water pail
As it struck on a jutting stone,
Clattered and jarred against the silence
As the two trod on alone.

Up to the moonlit peak they went;
And, though not a word would they say,
Their thoughts outnumbered a poet’s love-songs
In the first green weeks of May.

The stealthy shadows crept closer;
They clutched at the hem of Jill’s gown;
And there at the very top she stumbled,
And Jack came shuddering down.

Their cries rang out against the stillness,
Pitiful and high and thin.
And the echoes edged back still further
As the silence gathered them in.

There, typical pap and – whoah.

Yikes. Yeah, I guess, if you parse the words and read it without a sing-song voice, the original rhyme to jack and Jill is pretty macabre. Seeing it in this situation, of course, twists the situation enough to make the eerie situation of the original peek out of the simple, familiar words.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Celebrated – or Notorious – Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

I confess no great love for Mark Twain.

Lord knows I’ve tried. I’ve tried reading many of his books – actually got all the way through “A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court” – but I just can’t get the knack of Mark Twain. That isn’t to say he’s not a good writer, nor one of the icons of American letters. He is all that. I just don’t care for him much.

It’s not that he’s cranky, or cynical – those are his defining characteristics as an author. I just cannot form a connection with the guy, nor his books. There’s got to be something wrong with me.

Not so with his short story, inspiration to this blog post, and first stop in the World of Twain in the Treasury of Laughter. Twain’s ear for catching dialogue – and the insouciant relationship with the truth that many a spieler possesses – are endearing:
He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal'klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He'd give him a little hunch behind, and the next minute you'd see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut -- see him turn one summerset, or may be a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat. He got him up so in the matter of ketching flies, and kept him in practice so constant, that he'd nail a fly every time as far as he could see him. Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could do most anything -- and I believe him. Why, I've seen him set Dan'l Webster down here on this floor -- Dan'l Webster was the name of the frog -- and sing out, "Flies, Dan'l, flies!" and quicker'n you could wink, he'd spring straight up, and snake a fly off'n the counter there, and flop down on the floor again as solid as a gob of mud, and fall to scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indifferent as if he hadn't no idea he'd been doin' any more'n any frog might do. You never see a frog so modest and straightfor'ard as he was, for all he was so gifted. And when it come to fair-and-square jumping on a dead level, he could get over more ground at one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever see. Jumping on a dead level was his strong suit, you understand, and when it come to that, Smiley would ante up money on him as long as he had a red. Smiley was monstrous proud of his frog, and well he might be, for fellers that had traveled and ben everywheres, all said he laid over any frog that ever they see.
Full text here. Though it’s hard to say full text with Twain, a notorious reviser – who once revised the story’s title to be “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” thus the occasional use you see of that term associated with the story.
Modern journalism tends to eradicate such linguistic treasure as uneducated – though there are some who practice its use with the ease that Twain shows here because they make the lingo as big and subtle a character as the person speaking it.

Good thing is that this story might open my indifferent mind to the Magic of Twain. Maybe I’ll try ol’ Huck Finn one more time . . .

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Quintesentially American: Walter Mitty

James Thurber’s Walter Mitty – in fact, most of any of James Thurber’s male characters – is the most American in American literature. He’s the little guy, doomed to anonymous toil without finding grace from Horatio Alger, Wall Street, Hollywood, nor the very God Himself. What pleasures and wonders that lie in store for him do not lie, as George Orwell famously wrote, in the sad stucco box he calls home, but in the fecundity of the mind allowed to wander and to explore the grandiose dreams of life never to be possessed by the dreamer.

Who has not, while in line at the McDonalds drive thru, delivered an acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature. Who has not, in the drawings and doodlings made on the yellow legal pad during that boring office meeting, imagined a Mickey Mouse emerging from the flotsam and bearing the creator – the artist, the creator, the dreamer – to a wonderful Disneyesque world of fame, fortune, and lifelong satisfaction?

If you have not dreamed of this, or dreamed whatever dream you have, then you are not American. Indeed, you are not human.

Danny Kaye knows:

Ah, but that could be me, not the fabulous Mr. Kaye, on the big screen, you say. You would be right. In your own mind, but wrong in regards to reality – but what is reality but the nonsensical delusion of a world denied of our own individual greatness?

Let James Thurber tell the tale:

"We're going through!" The Commander's voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. "We can't make it, sir. It's spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me." "I'm not asking you, Lieutenant Berg," said the Commander. "Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We're going through!" The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" he shouted. "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" repeated Lieutenant Berg. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" shouted the Commander. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. "The old man will get us through" they said to one another. "The Old Man ain't afraid of Hell!" . . .

"Not so fast! You're driving too fast!" said Mrs. Mitty. "What are you driving so fast for?"

"Hmm?" said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd. "You were up to fifty-five," she said. "You know I don't like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five." Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind.

"You're tensed up again," said Mrs. Mitty. "It's one of your days. I wish you'd let Dr. Renshaw look you over."

Walter Mitty stopped the car in front of the building where his wife went to have her hair done. "Remember to get those overshoes while I'm having my hair done," she said. "I don't need overshoes," said Mitty. She put her mirror back into her bag. "We've been all through that," she said, getting out of the car. "You're not a young man any longer." He raced the engine a little. "Why don't you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?" Walter Mitty reached in a pocket and brought out the gloves. He put them on, but after she had turned and gone into the building and he had driven on to a red light, he took them off again. "Pick it up, brother!" snapped a cop as the light changed, and Mitty hastily pulled on his gloves and lurched ahead. He drove around the streets aimlessly for a time, and then he drove past the hospital on his way to the parking lot.
. . . "It's the millionaire banker, Wellington McMillan," said the pretty nurse. "Yes?" said Walter Mitty, removing his gloves slowly. "Who has the case?" "Dr. Renshaw and Dr. Benbow, but there are two specialists here, Dr. Remington from New York and Mr. Pritchard-Mitford from London. He flew over." A door opened down a long, cool corridor and Dr. Renshaw came out. He looked distraught and haggard. "Hello, Mitty," he said. "We're having the devil's own time with McMillan, the millionaire banker and close personal friend of Roosevelt. Obstreosis of the ductal tract. Tertiary. Wish you'd take a look at him." "Glad to," said Mitty.

Don’t believe me he’s not quintessentially American? Read any of the comments on YouTube on this film, and you’ll see souls a-hungered.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Thurber and Twain

Here we come to two of the final biggies left at The Treasury of Laughter: Thurber and Twain. One I adore. The other I tolerate. One brimmed with a dark enthusiasm and sweet sympathy for all that is humanity. The other, well, he liked to linger on the side of cynicism and despair.

Enthusiasm and sympathy. Cynicism and despair.

The American dichotomy of emotion, summed up in two great writers.

More later.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Calling Don Marquis

Chalk Ernest Lawrence Thayer up as another of history’s Don Marquis-style writers.

Marquis, as has been detailed on this blog before, rued that he was best remembered for writing stories about a talking cockroach and a talking cat.

According to Louis Untermeyer, Thayer felt much the same way about his most famous work.

Thayer thought it neither better nor worse than his unusual output; he considered its vogue “simply unaccountable” and the controversy incredible.

Here’s the original text.

And here’s Dewolf Hopper making Casey famous.

Here’s Disney’s version, from 1946.

And Disney’s follow-up in 1954.

That’s all we’ll say about Thayer and his master work – as Thayer himself, per Untermeyer, left newspapers and became a “successful manufacturer of woolens, and was glad to be forgotten as a humorist.”

Go figure.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Makepeace. How Ironic.

So, where’s the fun in a novel that involves unrequited love, a pistol sabotaged with chicken blood, and a hero who sheds his passion and becomes a respectable citizen?

Well, if you’re talking about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the fun is in William Makepeace Thackeray’s satirical treatment of the novel in the sixteen-lined poem “Sorrows of Werther.”

Here’s the poem, in full:

Werther had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.

Charlotte was a married lady,
And a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
Would do nothing for to hurt her.

So he sigh’d and pin’d and ogled,
And his passion boil’d and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more was by it troubled.

Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.

Thackeray makes a wonderful mockery of the heavy Sturm und Drang vibe of Goethe’s novel, boiling down Werther’s gleeful angst into a handful of wonderful English contracted nouns that kind of poke a pin into the dreary world that is youthful agony.

That’s the gift of the poet, and probably one of the reasons Robert Newton Peck urges serious fiction writers to write a poem a day, just to get into the habit of really playing with language in a narrow, harrowing kind of way.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

[Not] A Quiet Afternoon

The elders should beware such [hot] days. Peril hovers near when the fierceness of weather forces inaction and boys in groups are quiet. The more closely volcanoes, Western rivers, nitroglycerin, and boys are pent, the deadlier is their action at the point of outbreak. Thus, parents and guardians should look for outrages of the most singular violence and of the most peculiar nature during the confining weather of February and August.

Oh, foreshadowing. And foreshadowing done in an excellent manner. We know the boys are hot, pent up, close to boiling. And we know that boys, once they start down a path of conversation, are never shy in acting out their ideas, once the devil is in them.

The devil indeed. In Booth Tarkington’s brilliant “The Quiet Afternoon,” taken from his novel “Penrod,” we see a group of boys dodging the heat in the carriage-house at little Georgie Bassett’s house, discussing what they would become when they grew up.

Little Herman captivates the audience with the story of a pole-climbing preacher after one of the boys declares he’d like to be a minister but his friends deride him because he’s too scrawny to climb a pole.
"Preachers don't have to climb poles," Georgie said with dignity.
"Good ones do," declared Herman. "Bes' one ev' I hear, he clim up an' down same as a circus man. One n'em big 'vivals outen whens we livin' on a fahm, preachuh clim big pole right in a middle o' the church, what was to hol' roof up. He clim way high up, an' holler: `Goin' to heavum, goin' to heavum, goin' to heavum now. Hallelujah, praise my Lawd!' An' he slide down little, an' holler: `Devil's got a hol' o' my coat- tails; devil tryin' to drag me down! Sinnuhs, take wawnun! Devil got a hol' o' my coat-tails; I'm a-goin' to hell, oh Lawd!' Nex', he clim up little mo', an' yell an' holler: `Done shuck ole devil loose; goin' straight to heavum agin! Goin' to heavum, goin' to heavum, my Lawd!' Nex', he slide down some mo' an' holler, `Leggo my coat-tails, ole devil! Goin' to hell agin, sinnuhs! Goin' straight to hell, my Lawd!' An' he clim an' he slide, an' he slide, an' he clim, an' all time holler: `Now 'm a-goin' to heavum; now 'm a-goin' to hell! Goin'to heavum, heavum, heavum, my Lawd!' Las' he slide all a-way down, jes' a-squallin' an' a-kickin' an' a-rarin' up an' squealin', `Goin' to hell. Goin' to hell! Ole Satum got my soul! Goin' to hell! Goin' to hell! Goin' to hell, hell, hell!"
Herman possessed that extraordinary facility for vivid acting which is the great native gift of his race, and he enchained his listeners. They sat fascinated and spellbound.
"Herman, tell that again!" said Penrod, breathlessly.
Herman, nothing loath, accepted the encore and repeated the Miltonic episode, expanding it somewhat, and dwelling with a fine art upon those portions of the narrative which he perceived to be most exciting to his audience. Plainly, they thrilled less to Paradise gained than to its losing, and the dreadful climax of the descent into the Pit was the greatest treat of all.
This, of course leads to argument, the favorite past-time of boys, and to the denouement in the tree in front of Georgie Basset’s house where the Rev. Mr. Kinosling, georgie’s mother, and a bevy of timid housefraus gather to discuss Georgie’s perfect countenance and the world of sin in general, which cannot, for example, countenance that Joan of Arc was guided by spirits any more than it can countenance that she was not:
This was the fatal instant. There smote upon all ears the voice of Georgie, painfully shrill and penetrating--fraught with protest and protracted, strain. His plain words consisted of the newly sanctioned and disinfected curse with a big H.
With an ejaculation of horror, Mrs. Bassett sprang to the window and threw open the blinds.
Georgie's back was disclosed to the view of the tea-party. He was endeavouring to ascend a maple tree about twelve feet from the window. Embracing the trunk with arms and legs, he had managed to squirm to a point above the heads of Penrod and Herman, who stood close by, watching him earnestly--Penrod being obviously in charge of the performance. Across the yard were Sam Williams and Maurice Levy, acting as a jury on the question of voice-power, and it was to a complaint of theirs that Georgie had just replied.
"That's right, Georgie," said Penrod encouragingly. "They can, too, hear you. Let her go!"
"Going to heaven!" shrieked Georgie, squirming up another inch. "Going to heaven, heaven, heaven!"
His mother's frenzied attempts to attract his attention failed utterly. Georgie was using the full power of his lungs, deafening his own ears to all other sounds. Mrs. Bassett called in vain; while the tea-party stood petrified in a cluster about the window.
Disaster, of course, only disaster.

Again, an author who recalls Patrick F. McManus, for his fondness of writing about children, and for their shared ability to capture the essence of the stubborn, linear, loud-mouthed folly that is young manhood, which bounces from one tangent to the next until the final tangent intersects once again with the real world and brings that magnificent exploration of Truth, Beauty, Justice, and Future crashing into the cold, cruel world of reality.

Well done, Mr. Tarkington. Well done.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Biggie: Booth Tarkington

As The Treasury of Laughter Blog winds down – we’re down to less than a dozen writers, less than a hundred pages – we’re going to hit some big names. Big, powerful names. Names of the literary giants who have shaped an age, just like Moe and Homer.

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

Booth Tarkington is one of those names. Like John Updike and William Faulkner, Tarkington is a multiple winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (He won for “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and “Alice Adams,” both of which were made into movies).

That story, of course, is a seminal work in marking the transition of American culture from one that was primarily pastoral to one driven by growth, economy, and power – and brought us the famous old-money line: “Don’t you think being things is rather better than doing things?”

Tarkington, of course, was a doer. Not only did he win two Pulitzer prizes, he also served a term in the Indiana House of Representatives, illustrated many of his own books and many reprints of others’ books, including the 1933 reprint of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and earned two honorary degrees from Princeton.

His books turned to films brought out the doers as well, including Orson Welles, who filmed the Ambersons.

So stay tuned. We’ll read a bit of Tarkington’s “The Quiet Afternoon” in the next installment at The Treasury of Laughter.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I Don't Need Pie: A Satire

Can’t count the times I’ve sat watching a movie and been so bored by its clich├ęs and derivative scenes and dialogue I had to wonder: Who wrote this? And why am I not writing similar drivel and getting paid to do so?

Well, it’s obvious Frank Sutton thought the same thing, because in his comical piece “A Trip To Hollywood,” he hits all of the boring bases.

Here, we see the hero of our story interrupting his lunch at The Brown Derby with Joan Crawford, Mae West, Shirley Temple and a bevy of other beauties to have a contrived love-at-first-sight scene with the waitress:

I looked up, and there stood absolutely the most ravishingly glamorous creature I had ever seen in my life.

“Waitress?” I gasped, in a kind of daze from the impact of her loveliness on my already beauty-befuddled senses. “You are a waitress?”

“Yes,” said the waitress simply, smiling down at me with great sad brown eyes.

I rose and clasped her in my arms.

“I always knew that someday, and so on,” I said.

“I knew that someday, and so on,” she said brokenly. “Be careful of my tray.”

“Tray. Tray. What care we twain for trays? Let the world and its trays go by. Our love is all that matters.”

“I have always dreamed that someday, somehow, a golden knight would come riding through clouds of sapphire, coral and ebony,” said the beautiful slavey.

“Oh my darling,” I said. “Why do you tremble? What kind of pie have you got?”

“Huckleberry, raspberry, lemon meringue, custard—“

“Ah, I don’t want pie, I said fiercely. “I don’t need pie. With you at my side, I no longer fear destiny.”

I’ve watched my fair share of old movies, so as the story progressed, I recognized a few scenes from a few of the more grandiose ones.

And that is the key to satire – you’ve got to know your subject, as Sullivan obviously does very well. Bravo, sir. I tip my hat to you.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

[Recycled] Howlers from the Press

Once in a while, I get one of those forwarded e-mails that bear the funny headlines, the hilarious typos, the kinds of things that are often associated with Richard Lederer or Jay Leno.

They’re older than you think.

Bear in mind that The Treasury of Laughter was published in 1946. See if any of these sound familiar:

Closely allied is the blunder is the obituary of a war casualty which paid a tribute to the “bottle-scarred” veteran. When friends of the deceased wrote outraged letters of protest, the paper corrected itself: “Last week, we spoke of a certain veteran as ‘bottle-scarred,’ We are deeply mortified and we apologize. We meant to say ‘battle-scared.’”



“The fatal accident occurred at the corner of Broadway and Fourth Street just as the dead man attempted to cross.”

“Why go elsewhere to be cheated? You can come to us to do the job.”

Have newspapers or other publications – has not this very blog – made more modern errors? I don’t mind getting the e-mails. Just update them. Please.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Theatre of the Absurd Suitcases

I wasn’t much liking Donald Ogden Stewart’s “The Crazy Fool” until it dawned on me I’d read it before.

So, not necessarily “it,” but something highly similar to it. And I liked it very much, thank you.

What I’d read – and what astute readers will notice bears a striking similarity to Stewart’s tale of two hapless souls on a train that never goes anywhere in a station populated by workers who don’t really rather care if the train or the passengers or the moon or the stars of the sky go anywhere for that matter – is Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

And while it is true that I subscribe to the Dave Barry Theory on English Majors, which is if you can consistently come up with idiot interpretations of literature (pronounced, of course, litterachoor) you have the chops to become a professor of English. If only I could turn back the clock fifteen or so years, oh I’d have fodder for a wonderfully absurdist essay.

Beckett, in Godot, brings us the wandering souls of Estragon and Vladimir, anxious to leave their wasteland but doing little to depart. Here’s a scene:

Donald Ogden Stewart similarly presents us with Charlie and Horace, two denizens of the railway station where trains come to die. Here’s one of their stronger Godot moments:

Suddenly, as though a thought had just come to her, she wrote something on a piece of paper, got up and walked past Charlie to the front of the car and out, and when Charlie looked down he saw that the slip of paper was in his lap.

“There is a man in the third seat back of you,” he read, “who has been annoying me. If he follows me out of the car, and you are an American gentleman, you will take care of him for me.”

“Say, listen – “ said Charlie, but she had disappeared, so he slowly and cautiously turned around to look.

The gentleman in the third seat back of him was one of the largest men Charlie had ever seen. And as he looked, the fellow slowly got up out of his seat and started forward.

When he was opposite Charlie, Charlie stood up.

“Take that, you cad,” he said, and aimed a blow at the man’s jaw, but missed.

“Down where ah come from,” said Charlie, “they string ‘em up for less than that, “ and he swung, and missed again.

“Say, listen,” said Charlie. “How can I knock you down if you don’t hold still?”

“All right,” said the man. And he stood still and Charlie knocked him down.

“Now you hold still,” said the stranger, getting up, “and I’ll knock you down.”

“What for?” asked Charlie.

“I don’t know,” said the man. “I’ve never been down South,” and with that he knocked Charlie down.

“Now what do we do?” he asked, picking Charlie up.

“I don’t know,” confessed Charlie. “How do you feel?”

“My jaw hurts a little,” said the man.

“So does mine,” said Charlie. “I tell you what – if you apologize to the lady, my honor will be satisfied.”

“All right,” said the man. “I’m sort of shy with the ladies, though. Who is she?”

“Why, don’t you know?” and Charlie looked at the big man angrily.

“No, I was just going up to get a drink of water,” explained the man.

“Well,” said Charlie, you want to be careful about that in the future.”

“Yes sir,” said the man.

As I read, I kept waiting for them to stop even this minimalist stuff and just stand there, taking off each others’ shoes.

Stewart wrote “The Crazy Fools” in 1925; Beckett wrote “Waiting for Godot” in 1953. We had absurdist theatre in the United States a full quarter century before we had absurdist theatre, and I thank Louis Untermeyer for including this bit in his book.

By the way – if you’re a cult film buff like me, I’m sure it’s really bugging you to find out who is that actor in the opening scenes of the Godot clip. Wonder no longer:

May you live to be a thousand years old, sir.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Waiting for . . .

Next time on the Treasury of Laughter, we'll see what this guy has to do with our next author, Douglas Ogden Stewart, and with the most famous of Samuel Beckett's works.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Precursor to the Flashlight Man

Once in a great while, I’ll pull one of my Patrick F. McManus books off the shelf and read it. And chuckle. And sometimes make the kids come a-runnin’ to see why their daddy is laughing so hard.

What a vivid, foolish childhood Pat McManus had. And what crazy friends: Retch Sweeney. Crazy Eddie Muldoon. Rancid Crabtree. A merry bunch of idiots, either chasing through town trying to find The Flashlight Man – a streaker who stalked the town of Sandoint in the late summer evening, revealing his starkiness to women with a gentle flash of a light – or trying to spend that requisite night at the cabin on Spooky Lake.

William Saroyan reminds me a lot of Pat McManus’ tomfoolery. Maybe not as vivid – McManus is an expert at humorous exaggeration – but just as goofily endearing. Witness the boys – Aram and his friend Joey – at the circus, “working” alongside the roustabouts when Stafford, the school truant officer, shows up:

Stafford was a big fellow in a business quit who had a beef-red face and looked as if he ought to be a lawyer or something. He came over and said, All right, you hooligans, come along with me.

We promised to give Red a hand, Joey said. We’ll come as soon as we get this canvas up.

We were pulling for all we were worth, slipping and falling. The men were all working hard. Red was hollering orders, and then the whole thing was over and we had done our part.

We didn’t even get a chance to find out what Red was going to say to us, or if he was going to invite us to sit at the table for lunch, or what.

Joey busted loose and ran one way and I ran the other and Stafford came after me. I heard the circus men laughing and Red hollering, Run, boy, run. He can’t catch you. He’s soft. Give him a good run. He needs the exercise.

I could hear Stafford, too. He was very sore and he was cussing.

Maybe Saroyan’s tales have that verisimilitude, but I prefer McManu’s slightly more over-the-top, hyperbolic delivery. Both men could be included in a modern collection of humor and hold their heads high and proud.

More evidence why:

Bonus Saroyan Stuff. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen a web page that makes your eyes want to crawl out of their sockets to bury themselves, go no further than here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Revolting Stories

Anyone with children knows they don’t like the boring stories where everyone is good good good and it all comes out nice in the end. Oh, I suppose they like them, but if you can, in the telling, toss in some terrible little detail, let them know the hero is kind of a scamp in ways – kind of like them – they like those stories even more.

Especially – and this holds true for girls as well as boys – if they’re gross in some way.

Thus the success of things like Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes:

This also explains the success of one Hector Hugh Munro, known much better to the world of short tales as Saki. Louis Untermeyer includes two of Saki’s shorts in this compilation. The first is a rather dull telling of a man on a train with a mouse in his knickers who fains to undress in front of a sleeping woman in the same compartment. Of course he does undress, of course his wall of Jericho falls to the floor and of course the woman sees him with his trou down around his ankles. But she’s blind and needs assistance, at the station, to call a cab, so the man’s nuclear blushing is all for naught.

Much better is the story of “The Story-Teller,” a bachelor who tells a rather horrible little story to a trio of bored children on a train in the company of their boring aunt. In the bachelor we see a man a trifle upset at being stuck in a train compartment with three children:

The smaller girl created a diversion by beginning to recite "On the Road to Mandalay." (And here and here!) She only knew the first line, but she put her limited knowledge to the fullest possible use. She repeated the line over and over again in a dreamy but resolute and very audible voice; it seemed to the bachelor as though some one had had a bet with her that she could not repeat the line aloud two thousand times without stopping. Whoever it was who had made the wager was likely to lose his bet.

After listening to a deplorably boring story from their aunt, the bachelor proceeds to tell one of his own, out of passive-aggressive revenge.

"Once upon a time," began the bachelor, "there was a little girl called Bertha, who was extra-ordinarily good."

The children's momentarily-aroused interest began at once to flicker; all stories seemed dreadfully alike, no matter who told them.

"She did all that she was told, she was always truthful, she kept her clothes clean, ate milk puddings as though they were jam tarts, learned her lessons perfectly, and was polite in her manners."

"Was she pretty?" asked the bigger of the small girls.

"Not as pretty as any of you," said the bachelor, "but she was horribly good."

There was a wave of reaction in favour of the story; the word horrible in connection with goodness was a novelty that commended itself. It seemed to introduce a ring of truth that was absent from the aunt's tales of infant life.

Oh yeah. I’ve been there. A story is going rather poorly, but as soon as you inject a bit of naughtiness, the listeners perk right up. This is probably how many comedians decide to turn blue.

The bachelor’s story focuses on Bertha, of course, the horribly good little girl who, while wandering in the Prince’s park because of her overbearing goodness, is caught and eaten by a wolf who heard her hiding in the myrtle bushes because her medals of goodness clinked as she shivered.

The bachelor, of course, revels in his telling of the improper tale, which the children ate up with glee:

"The story began badly," said the smaller of the small girls, "but it had a beautiful ending."

"It is the most beautiful story that I ever heard," said the bigger of the small girls, with immense decision.

"It is the only beautiful story I have ever heard," said Cyril.

A dissentient opinion came from the aunt.

"A most improper story to tell to young children! You have undermined the effect of years of careful teaching."

"At any rate," said the bachelor, collecting his belongings preparatory to leaving the carriage, "I kept them quiet for ten minutes, which was more than you were able to do."

"Unhappy woman!" he observed to himself as he walked down the platform of Templecombe station; "for the next six months or so those children will assail her in public with demands for an improper story!"

Full text of the story is here. What follows is a slightly dreary reading of the story. Why such short stories are popular with dreary readers, I can’t quite fathom. Unless, of course, they’re still children at heart.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Who Is Jim Wheeler, and Why Does He Need New Pants?

One of Abraham Lincoln’s lesser-known moments.

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

Apparently, I missed a significant rite of passage by not having Linden Bateman as a history teacher at Bonneville High.

The man, I’m told, abhors plastic. And loves Abraham Lincoln. So much so, he forces his students to memorize the Gettysburg Address and, I don’t know, sculpt a bust of Lincoln out of wax. Not plastic.

I had mostly loser teachers for history in high school, so maybe having Mr. Bateman wouldn’t have been that bad.

I’m sure he would have known of Carl Sanburg’s “Lincoln, the Laughing President.” What follows, per Sandburg, are jokes in Joe miller’s Jests, a book Lincoln carried around as a lawyer and, we can assume, as president:

An Irishman going to be hanged begged that the rope might be tied under his arms instead of round his neck, for said Pat, “I am so remarkably ticklish in the throat that if tied there I will certainly kill myself with laughing.”

Lieutenant Connolly, an Irishman in the service of the United States during the American war, chanced to take three Hessian prisoners himself, without any assistance. Being asked by the commander-in-chief how he had taken them – “I surrounded them” was the answer.

I have a hard time imagining a modern president daring to tell any kind of joke because you know somewhere someone would be offended by it as soon as those faithful messengers of the media scooped the turd up off the ground and hand-delivered it to the offendee. (To see such turds delivered, go here, or, indeed, to any of the national news networks, newspapers, et cetera.)

The rest of Sandberg’s essay, I must confess, confuses me. He tells a few tales of Lincoln but they’re not particularly funny. Here’s an example:

He was the man who had started a little circle of people to giggling one morning in Judge Davis’ courtroom, and the judge spluttered out: “I am not going to stand this any longer, Mr. Lincoln. You’re always disturbing this court with your tomfoolery.” The fine was $5.00, for disorderly conduct. Lincoln sat with his hand over his mouth trying to keep his face straight. Later the judge called Lawrence Weldon to him and Weldon whispered into his ear what it was that Lincoln had told. Then the judge giggled. Getting his face straight, he announced, “The clerk may remit Mr. Lincoln’s fine.”

Get ready, folks, here comes the punchline:

The joke had to do with “taking up a subscription to buy Jim Wheeler a new pair of pants.”

Whooo! That’s a rib-tickler. Wait. Who’s Jim Wheeler? The Internet is silent on the subject. The reason for the mirth behind this story is lost, apparently, as far as the Intertubes are concerned. Maybe Mr. Bateman would know.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Who's He? A Gangster?

I am feeling very sorry, indeed, for Big Butch, and very sorry for myself, too, and I am saying to myself that if I get out of this I will never associate with anyone but ministers of the gospel as long as I live. I can remember thinking that I am getting a better break than Butch at that, because I will not have to go to Sing Sing for the rest of my life, like him, and I also remember wondering what they will give John Ignatius Junior, who is still tearing off these squalls, with Big Butch saying, “There, there, Daddy’s itty woogelums.” Then I hear one of the coppers say to the fat sergeant:

“We better nail these guys. They may be in on this.”

Well, I can see it is good-by to Butch and John Ignatius Junior and me, as the fat sergeant steps up to Big Butch, but instead of putting the arm on Butch, the fat sergeant only points at John Ignatius Junior and asks very sympathetic:


Thus we see the beginning of the end to Damon Runyon’s “Butch Minds the Baby,” in which a retired safecracker agrees to go back with the gang on an easy safe job if he can bring his infant son along so he doesn’t catch grief with the missus.

Needless to say, these two – no, three – bad’uns get off, and we’re introduced to the perennial storyline of the bad guy trying to make good. We’ve seen it time and again, of course.

Runyon’s story, told in a broad Brooklyn way that required glossaries in England, was made twice into films, first in 1942 – and starring Shemp Howard, one of The Three Stooges, as a minor gangster – the second in 1979, starring – I think – the police chief from “Police Squad.”

1942 film

(starring Shemp Howard)

1979 fillum

The trio come off clean, of course, because no one, not even the hardened Brooklyn cops, would believe a thug would take his infant son along for a job.

Additionally, Runyon provides this wonderful payoff:

I do not see Big Butch for several days after I learn that Harry the Horse and Little Isadore and Spanish John get back to Brooklyn all right, except they are a little nicked up here and there from the slugs the coppers toss at them, while the coppers they clip are not damaged so very much. Furthermore, the chances are I will not see Big Butch for several years, if it is left to me, but he comes looking for me one night, and he seems to be ll pleasured up about something.

“Say,” Big Butch says to me, “you know I never give a copper credit for knowing any too much about anything, but I wish to say that this fat sergeant we run into the other night is a very, very smart duck. He is right about it being teeth that is ailing John Ignatius Junior, for what happens yesterday but John cuts his first tooth.”

What do I get out of this: You can do character pieces that are so subtle it’s only after you’ve read them a few times that you realize, hey, they are talking kinda Brooklyn-gangsterese. Runyon doesn’t beat us over the head with the vernacular or the dialect (or maybe he does and I’ve just watched too many gangster movies to notice). I appreciate that.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Jewish Logic

Here's the best bit from a collection Louis Untermeyer calls “Jewish Logic”:

Count Esterhazy was organizing an expedition to the Near East and beyond. He had engaged most of the helpers, but he needed a general factotum for the long journey. Knowing the position was hard to fill, he advertised for a seasoned traveler who spoke the languages of the Near East, a fearless swordsman, an intrepid rider, etcetera. The advertisement was worded to attract only the right man – and there were no applicants. After a week, the butler announced that a small and shabby looking fellow had come in response to the ad.

“He doesn’t sound very promising,” said Count Esterhazy, “but show him up.”

The man proved to be even less prepossessing than the butler’s description. But clothes do not always make the man, and the Count began by asking, “You like to travel?”

“Me?” said the little man. “I hate traveling. Boats make me seasick. And trains are worse.”

“But you are a linguist,” continued the Count. “I presume you speak Arabian, Persian, Turkish, Hindustani – ”

“Who? Me?” gasped the candidate. “I talk nothing but Yiddish.”

“Your swordsmanship?” inquired the Count.

“What do you mean, swordsmanship? What should I do with a sword?”

“And as a horseman?”

“I hate horses. I wouldn’t go near one.”

“But,” said the Count, “What did you come here for?”

“I saw your ad,” said the little man, “and I just came to tell that on me you shouldn’t depend.”

Call this passive-aggressive or what have you, it’s just hilarious. Wasting all the Count’s time, just to deliver the zinger: “Can’t depend on me.” Mr. Warmth would certainly understand the appeal in that.

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

This kind of humor just harks back to an era that, in many ways, is better than ours. Not everything was good, mind you -- that's the one thing that most people misinterpret with era nostalgia: they forget (and so do sometimes the nostalgists) to say they'd take the good of yesterday and combine it with the good of today in the hopes that the added good would displace the bad.

If only it were so. Sigh.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dialectus Illusivii

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

Oh, my dear Oma Davidson.

I never met the woman, as she died before I was born. She was a little Dutch lady trying to make do in a dusty little farm town in Idaho.

I know only a few stories about her, about how she interacted with this new society and this new language. She expressed amazement at the friendliness of the people they met on the roads – “When they pass you, they always wave,” she said, not knowing the meaning of the one-finger salute she was getting as they drove down the road slowly in their jalopy.

She also loved going to the rummage sales – which she called “rummagie” sales.

This is the era when immigrants learned the language by hearing it, either at the movies or in passing conversation.

Just like Hyman Kaplan, creation of Leonard Q. Ross and star of “The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n.” Kaplan is an immigrant – of possibly Polish or German extraction, it’s hard to tell – who populates an early equivalent of an English as a Second Language class with his mangled English, viz:

One night, Mrs. Moskowitz read a sentence, from “English for Beginners,” in which “the vast deserts of America” were referred to. Mr. Parkhill soon discovered that poor Mrs. Moskowitz did not know the meaning of “vast.” “Who can tell us the meaning of ‘vast’?” asked Mr. Parkhill lightly.

Mr. Kaplan’s hand shot up, volunteering wisdom. He was all proud grins. Mr. Parkhill, in the rashness of the moment, nodded to him.

Mr. Kaplan rose, radiant with joy. “’Vast!” It’s commink fromm direction. Ve have four diractions: do naut, the sot, the heast, and de vast.”

And so on: When corrected, Kaplan moves immediately to “Ven I’m buyink a suit clothes, I’m gattink de cawt, de pents, an’ de vast!”

The bit culminates in a big finish I won’t reveal here because, even as a half-Dutchman used to hearing accents and being accused of having a mild one myself, it took me a bit to figure out what Mr. Kaplan meant by “a big department.” This comes, of course, from a guy whose Dad tried once to tell a joke about “a black doot [dude]” to a crowd of fellow construction workers, only to have an electrician follow up the joke with a question: “What’s a doot?”

Saturday, April 2, 2011

SJ Perelman and The Out of Context Theatre

Satire is a delicately balanced thing.

Satire is also subjective. Hit just the wrong tone with the wrong audience and, as Scott Adams is finding out, you’ve got a group with pitchforks and torches at your door, even if your only intention was to incite a little “Dance, Monkey, Dance.”

As a writer, unintended messages are unbearable.

I confess that I misjudged the degree of excitement this would generate. Indeed, the big fuss didn't happen for over three weeks. I also didn't predict that critics would reprint the post one component at a time so they could dissect it, which has the fascinating effect of changing the humorous tone to something hideous. Humor requires flow and timing. A frog isn't much of a frog after you dissect it.

Unbearable and, I might add, inevitable.

Satirist S.J. Perelman had better watch it.

This wit, who co-wrote the Marx Brothers’ film “Horsefeathers” and won an Academy Award for co-writing the screenplay for 1956’s “Around the World in Eighty Days” might be slightly misunderstood today if his satire, such as this bit from “Nothing But the Tooth,” were taken out of context, which you’d better believe is a paddlin’ and is going to happen here.

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes

(For those who want full context, go here. It should be noted the excerpted text here is used also under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.)

There is practically no problem so simple that it cannot confuse a dentist. For instance, thumb-sucking. "Could you suggest a method to correct thumb and index finger sucking by an infant of one year?" flutters a Minnesota orthodontist, awkwardly digging his toe into the hot sand. Dr. Smedley, whose patience rivals Job's, has an answer for everything: "Enclose the hand by tying shut the end of the sleeve of a sleeping garment, or fasten a section of a pasteboard mailing tube to the sleeping garment in such a position as to prevent the bending of the elbow sufficiently to carry the thumb or index finger to the mouth." Now truly, Dr. Smedley, isn't that going all the way around Robin Hood's barn? Nailing the baby's hand to the high-chair is much more cozy, or, if no nail is available, a smart blow with the hammer on Baby's fingers will slow him down. My grandfather, who was rather active in the nineties (between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues they finally got him for breaking and entering), always used an effective method to break children of this habit. He used to tie a Mills grenade to the baby's thumb with cobbler's waxed thread, and when the little spanker pulled out the detonating pin with his teeth, Grandpa would stuff his fingers into his ears and run like the wind.

Yeah, you read that right here folks at Out of Context Theatre, SJ Perelman recommends curing a baby’s teething by strapping a grenade to the kid’s hand and running like the wind.

(And to echo what Mr. Adams has experienced, now the blossoming haters of SJ Perelman will bolt with my incorrect summation of the above satire and spread through the tubes the “fact” that SJ Perelman (isn’t that a Jewish name?) absolutely hates babies and everything they stand for.

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Insanity Defense

These days, at least according to the Internet, about the only things you can make fun of and get away with it are Mormons and fatties. Heck, given what’s happened in Japan recently with the earthquake and tsunami, you can’t make jokes of any sort – especially if you’re a talking duck – or write shows that have nuclear power as a plotline.

So imagine the uproar today if some of these Treasury of Laughter jokes, filed under the header “The Lunatic Fringe” ever got out. They’d be coming to take me away, ha ha.

Two patients of the asylum were looking over the wall, watching the gardener.

“What’s he doing?” said the first.

“Putting fertilizer on the strawberries,” said the second.

“Fertilizer on the strawberries!” exclaimed the first. “We put sugar and cream on our – and they call us crazy!”

This one’s my favorite:

The fashionable psychiatrist finished his notes and turned to the lady in front of him. “I’ll be perfectly frank,” he said. “I find nothing the matter – nothing abnormal – and I shall so inform your relatives.”

“Thank you, doctor, I was sure you’d say that,” she replied. “I only came here to please my family. After all, there’s nothing very strange about a fondness for pancakes, is there?”

“Pancakes?” repeated the psychiatrist. “Certainly not. I’m fond of them myself.”

“Are you?” she queried brightly. “Then you must come over to my house. I have trunks full of them.”

Yup, that’s a zingah!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Dorothy Parker: Oh Dear

During my university days, I saw a lot of drunken asses, from the guy who got tight and ended up naked and tied to the anchor in front of the neighboring fraternity to the guy who got tighter still and ended up talking animatedly to a small pair of pumpkins that ne brought home from the grocery store.

So to read Dorothy Parker’s “You Were perfectly Fine,” in which a drunken soul evidently confesses his undying love for a woman long pining for him held no surprises, not even his bottled chagrin at the end, when he realizes what he’s in for:

“And we’re going to be so happy,” she said. “Oh, I just want to tell everybody! But I don’t know – I think maybe it would be sweeter to keep it all to ourselves.”

“I think it would be,” he said.

“Isn’t it lovely?” she said.

“Yes,’ he said. “Great.”

“Lovely!” she said.

Of course, to cure what ails him, he asks for another drink, fitting in with what Homer Simpson says about beer:

Not that I’m advocating beer, or alcohol, given, during my university days, I also saw (and smelled) enough alcohol puke to firmly cement in my mind the idea that imbibing is not for me.

But enough about beer. How about Dorothy Parker? Wit, bon vivant, hater of all things Calvin Coolidge. In reading quite a bit of her stuff, I get the feeling that today she’s be a fairly successful Internet troll. A droll one, to be sure, but still out there doing what trolls do best.

Obviously, a writer one has to read more of to appreciate. And, I hope, this isn’t her funniest. Because if it is, well, that anchor’s looking pretty good.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Mormon Joke

Inevitably, when a story is set in Utah, you get the obligatory Mormon Joke. Here’s Bill Nye’s, from an otherwise lackluster “Twombley’s Tale”:

She was an emigrant, about seventeen years of age, and, though she had been in Salt Lake City an hour and a half, she was still unmarried.

Hee hee. Funny and original. Mormon. Marriage. Marriage at a young age. Hi-la-ri-ous.

Not that I don't mind reading this kind of japery. When it's well-done, I don't mind an entire book that pokes fun of my religion, because, frankly, in some ways it deserves to be made fun of.

So let us move on to “The Stars,” which is only slightly better.

There’s this:

In 1866, there appeared suddenly in the northern crown a star of about the third magnitude and worth at least $250. It was generally conceded by astronomers that this was a brand new star that had never been used, but upon consulting Argelander’s star catalogue and price list it was found that this was not a new star at all, but an old, faded, star of the ninth magnitude, with the front breadths turned wrong side out and trimmed with moonlight along the seams.

And that’s about it. Next, please.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ogden Nash and CS Lewis: Spare Bedroom Readers

Whenever I think of Ogden Nash, I immediately think of an anecdote told by CS Lewis. The anecdote has nothing to do with the most-recognized practitioner of light verse in the United States, but, rather, how many people treat his books. Here’s the bit:

[The Screwtape Letters] is even, as I have noticed with a chastened smile, he sort that gravitates towards spare bedrooms, there to live of life of undisturbed tranquility in company with "The Road Mender," "John Inglesant," and "The Life of the Bee." Sometimes it is even bought for even more humiliating reasons. A lady whom I knew discovered that the pretty little brobationer who filled her hot water bottle in the hospital had read Screwtape. She also discovered why.

"You see," said the girl, "we were warned that at interviews, after the real, technical questions are over, matrons and people sometimes ask about your general interests. The best thing is to say you've read something. So they gave us a list of about ten books that usually go down pretty well and said we ought to read at least one of them."

"And you chose Screwtape?"

"Well, of course; it was the shortest."

I’ve read a lot of Ogden Nash, as I was first drawn to his writing by his poem about Isabel, which appeared in one of those nameless readers you encounter in American elementary schools:

Isabel met an enormous bear,
Isabel, Isabel, didn't care;
The bear was hungry, the bear was ravenous,
The bear's big mouth was cruel and cavernous.
The bear said, Isabel, glad to meet you,
How do, Isabel, now I'll eat you!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry.
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up,
Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up.
Once in a night as black as pitch
Isabel met a wicked old witch.
the witch's face was cross and wrinkled,
The witch's gums with teeth were sprinkled.
Ho, ho, Isabel! the old witch crowed,
I'll turn you into an ugly toad!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry,
She showed no rage and she showed no rancor,
But she turned the witch into milk and drank her.
Isabel met a hideous giant,
Isabel continued self reliant.
The giant was hairy, the giant was horrid,
He had one eye in the middle of his forehead.
Good morning, Isabel, the giant said,
I'll grind your bones to make my bread.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She nibbled the zwieback that she always fed off,
And when it was gone, she cut the giant's head off.
Isabel met a troublesome doctor,
He punched and he poked till he really shocked her.
The doctor's talk was of coughs and chills
And the doctor's satchel bulged with pills.
The doctor said unto Isabel,
Swallow this, it will make you well.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She took those pills from the pill concocter,
And Isabel calmly cured the doctor.

Most people probably know a poem or two by Nash – the shorter ones – or confuse Nash with Richard Armour or any other number of nonsense poets – or vice versa. But Nash, I think, is one of those authors whose books, like Lewis’ are relegated to spare rooms and are kept around because they’re thin and easy to read.

Not so for me.

Especially because when he reads his poetry, he doesn’t put on that “poet’s voice” that has pretty much killed live poetry readings for me.

Untermeyer includes Nash’s “Common Cold” as one of three comic poems from the man. It’s okay.

I’ll admit I like this one a heck of a lot more: The Strange Case of Mr. Donnybrook's Boredom.

Once upon a time there was a man named Mr. Donnybrook.

He was married to a woman named Mrs. Donnybrook.

Mr. and Mrs. Donnybrook dearly loved to be bored.

Sometimes they were bored at the ballet, other times at the cinema.

They were bored riding elephants in India and elevators in the Empire State Building.

They were bored in speakeasies during Prohibition and in cocktail lounges after Repeal.

They were bored by Grand Dukes and Garbagement, debutantes and demimondaines, opera singers and Onassises.

They scoured the Five Continents and the Seven Seas in their mad pursuit of boredom.

This went on for years and years.

One day, Mr. Donnybrook turned to Mrs. Donnybrook,

My dear, he said, we have reached the end of our rope.

We have exhausted every yawn.

The world holds nothing more to jade our titillated palates.

Well, said Mrs. Donnybrook, we might try insomnia.

So they tried insomnia.

About two o'clock the next moring Mr. Donnybrook said, My, insomnia is certainly quite boring, isn't it?

Mrs. Donnybrook said it certainly was, wasn't it?

Mr. Donnybrook said it certainly was.

Pretty soon he began to count sheep.

Mrs. Donnybrook began to count sheep, too.

After a while, Mr. Donnybrook said, Hey, you're counting my sheep!

Stop counting my sheep, said Mr. Donnybrook.

Why, the very idea, said Mrs. Donnybrook.

I guess I know my sheep, don't I?

How? Said Mr. Donnybrook.

They're cattle, said Mrs. Donnybrook.

They're cattle, and longhorns at that.

Furthermore, said Mrs. Donnybrook, us cattle ranchers is shore tired o' you sheepmen plumb ruinin' our water.

I give yuh fair warnin', said Mrs. Donnybrook, yuh better git them wooly Gila monsters o' yourn back across the Rio Grande afore mornin' or I'm a-goin' to string yhuh up on the nearest cottonwood.

Carramba! Sneered Mrs. Donnybrook. Thees ees free range, no?

No, said Mrs. Donnybrook, not for sheepmen.

She strung him up on the nearest cottonwood.

Mr. Donnybrook had never been so bored in his life.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Another Big Hitter: Ogden Nash

Photo used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

When you look like this and can rock a name like Ogden Nash, you know you're going to go places. And oh, the places Ogden Nash takes us.

Of all the short light verse bits he's written, this is my favorite:

A Word to Husbands

To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you're wrong, admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up.

Wiser words have never been spoken. More wise words from Mr. Nash a little later this week.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Poking at You Constantly

He pokes inside the reader’s mind, like this:

The reader of today, soaked in the Freudian sewage for so many years, will assume at once, I suppose, that Hoggie must have been a Lothario, and his headquarters a seraglio. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He was actually almost a Trappist in his glandular life, and his hormones never gave him any visible trouble until much later on, as I shall show in due course.

He pokes them in the eye, like that:

Hoggie would catch infant rats in a trap, pull their teeth with a pair of pliers, and then throw them into a barrel with a couple of his [canine] pupils. As the latter gained in strength and technique, he would test them with rats of gradually larger growth, retaining at first one tooth each, then two, and then four or five, and finally a whole set, upper and lower. Now and then a freshman was badly mauled in these exercises, but Hoggie did not despair, for he knew that any sort of educational process was bound to be painful, and he preferred the hard way for dogs as for men.

And then, H.L. Mencken, in his piece “Downfall of a Revolutionary,” describes the irascible Hoggie Unglebower, horse doctor, dog trainer, cat killer, sleeper of the stables and object of admiration of every boy in the neighborhood above the age of seven, as succumbing to the same thing that got Alfie Dolittle – except for the money thing. Hoggie, dressed in a beribboned straw hat, shaved within an inch of his life and smelling of Jockey Club scent, had fallen in love:

The ancient psychosis that had floored and made a mock of Marc Antony, Dante and Goethe – but not Shakespeare, Napoleon Bonaparte, or George Washington – had now fetched him, too. Some inconsiderable and probably pie-faced slip of a girl, name unknown, had collared him, tamed him, and made of him the dreadful popinjay that I had seen. The rest of the pathetic story follows classical lines, and is soon told. Hoggie disappeared from his stable, and was reported to be occupying a bedroom in the Unglebower family home, and actually eating at table. In a little while he vanished altogether, and reports came in that he was married to the lady, living in far Northwest Baltimore, and at work as a horse-car driver. That was the last I ever heard of him.

So now I’ve read something of H.L. Mencken’s. Probably one of his tamer bits; with a few tweaks this could easily have fit into a Patrick F. McManus collection. Giving me the feeling that maybe I’m not missing much. But I can’t judge by two simple pieces. I’ll have to read more.

I’m impressed by his grasp of vocabulary and history, however. To me, that’s always one of the hallmarks of a good writer.

Friday, March 18, 2011

An Embarrassment . . .

What follows is probably one of the most embarrassing intellectual confessions I’ve had to make:

I’ve never knowingly read anything by H.L. Mencken.

In fact, probably about the only thing I know about Mencken is the story of the Bathtub Hoax.

Mencken filled the story with nonsense, such as:

The noise of the controversy soon reached other cities, and in more than one place medical opposition reached such strength that it was reflected in legislation. Late in 1843, for example, the Philadelphia Common Council considered an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November 1 and March 15, and it failed of passage by but two votes. During the same year the legislature of Virginia laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be set up, and in Hartford, Providence, Charleston and Wilmington (Del.) special and very heavy water rates were levied upon those who had them. Boston, very early in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.
And it was believed. And in some corners, it is still quoted as fact.

But that’s a pittance compared to Mencken’s literary legacy, to which Louis Untermeyer and the Treasury of Laughter will give me a preliminary introduction. For that, I am grateful.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Embarrassed by A Sock

I’ve never much been embarrassed by socks. Underwear, yes, that’s sometimes embarrassing – like the time in elementary school I reached into the pocket of my freshly-laundered jacket and found a pair of my brother’s underwear – also freshly laundered – inside. Or the time my aunt went shopping with a pair of panties statically stuck to the back of her coat.

Ruth McKenney, however, was once embarrassed by a sock, as she recounts in the humorous essay “The Sock Hunt.”

The story in brief: She decides, against all opposition and a highly patriarchal society in Columbus, Ohio, to infiltrate the hotel where Randolph Churchill, son of famed English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was staying prior to delivering a talk on “Fate of an Empire” to a men’s group in Columbus. (Gratefully, we’ll get to hear from another of Columbus’ humorous writers, the inimitable James Thurber, shortly.)

She succeeds in getting an interview. They get chummy, and, as they say on the Internets, hilarity ensued:

“I say,” he said, “how about a spot of food, what?” He really talked just like that.

“OK,” I said. “Let me order, though. They can’t understand you over the phone. You talk so funny.”

Mr. Churchill glowered. He said I was the one who had a peculiar accent.

“You talk through your nose,” he said, with truth, “and you pronounce all your ‘r’s. They aren’t supposed to be pronounced.”

“That’s what you think,” I said, feeling hilarious. “Old Mushmouth.”

For some reason, Mr. Churchill thought that was very funny. “’Mushmouth’!” he shouted joyously, amid peals of real upper-class English laughter, very high-pitched, like a whinny. “’Mushmouth’! Deah me, I must remembaw that.”

That’s only the start of the hijinks. All culminates with both Churchill and McKenney looking for his one missing black dress sock, which he must wear during the luncheon speech. It is found, of course, by one of Columbus’ leading citizens, come to the hotel room with others to seek Mr. Churchill, catching Churchill and the young, earnest journalist crawling on the floor beneath the bed looking for the offending bit of frippery. Kenney concludes her essay thus:

But even the sweet rewards of college fame and my colleagues’ envy did not erase the memory of that hideous moment when I was caught, red-handed, looking for Mr. Churchill’s sock. It is comparatively easy to recover from honest sorrows, but I wake up in the dead of night at least twice a year and my heart fills with agony, remembering that unspeakable moment when, like a rising moon, my face slowly appeared from behind Mr. Churchill’s bed, to confound the three leading citizens of Columbus, Ohio.

Life can hold no further terrors for me.
Ah, the classic, classy anecdote. Not even Dobby's sock can beat this one.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Who Wrote This?

As much as I like Ogden Nash, he gets entirely too much credit for most of the nonsense verse written in the first half of the 20th century.

Ask a group who wrote this:

Shake and shake
the catsup bottle
first none’ll come
and then a lot’ll.

You’ll most likely hear “Ogden Nash.” Not so. That’s Richard Armour.

Then there’s this brief chuckler, also always erroneously attributed to Nash:

Epitaph to a Waiter

By and by
God caught his eye.

This one is written by David McCord, who has with other poets fallen into that Ogden Nash-shaped hole that is nonsense poetry in the United States. (I don’t say this to detract from Mr. Nash, whose poems I enjoy; it’s merely a fact of life that any nonsense verse written in the first half of the 20th century is attributed to him, whether he like it or not.)

Mr. McCord appears to have but one fan on YouTube, a rather squeaky-voiced, over t-shirtted tot reciting another of his poems.

Other than that, he appears to be the Rodney Dangerfield of nonsense poetry.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Uh-oh. A Cockroach

Where I work we have a stink bug problem. If we have a week where we don’t see two or three of them trundling along the walk outside or from underneath the cubicle walls inside, we consider ourselves lucky. And it’s not necessarily the stink that’s worrisome, it’s the radioactivity they bring.

Because of this, I feel Don Marquis’ pain. As the creator of Archy and Mehitabel, a paste-eating cockroach and Cleopatra reincarnated as a cat, he lamented “It would be one on me if I should be remembered longest for creating a cockroach character.”

So this is one more on you, Mr. Marquis.

And thanks.

Here’s Archy’s first bit of vers libre poetry, as found on the typewriter:

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
but your paste is getting so stale i cant eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be fore
there is a rat here she should get without delay

most of these rats here are just rats
but this rat is like me he has a human soul in him
he used to be a poet himself
night after night i have written poetry for you
on your typewriter
and this big brute of a rat who used to be a poet
comes out of his hole when it is done
and reads it and sniffs at it
he is jealous of my poetry
he used to make fun of it when we were both human
he was a punk poet himself
and after he has read it he sneers
and then he eats it

i wish you would have mehitabel kill that rat
or get a cat that is onto her job
and i will write you a series of poems showing how things look
to a cockroach
that rats name is freddy
the next time freddy dies i hope he wont be a rat
but something smaller i hope i will be a rat
in the next transmigration and freddy a cockroach
i will teach him to sneer at my poetry then

dont you ever eat any sandwiches in your office
i haven't had a crumb of bread for i dont know how long
or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings
and paste and leave a piece of paper in your machine
every night you can call me archy

More, of course, is available here.

And oh, isn’t that the truth, the fierce competition and jealousy between poets. But as a rat poet, what exquisite relish to be able to eat one’s opponents’ words after having sneered at them.

Interestingly, Marquis’ work transcended the page, ending up as a musical, “Shinbone Alley,” starring Eddie Bracken as archy and Eartha Kitt as mehitabel and featuring the song “Toujours Gai,” based on a poem archy transcribes for the catty cat.

And further as a terribly-produced 1970s cartoon of the same name starring Bracken and Carol Channing at her bone-rattlingest.