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