Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category
Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all. — Mark Twain
Twain for as long as I’ve known him has been true to his word, and so I’m careful never to find myself too far out of his reach. The Library of America volumes of his Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1852–1910) stand behind my desk on a shelf with the dictionaries and the atlas. On days when the news both foreign and domestic is moving briskly from bad to worse, I look to one or another of Twain’s jests to spring the trap or lower a rope, to summon, as he is in the habit of doing, a blast of laughter to blow away the “peacock shams” of the world’s “colossal humbug.”
Laughter was Twain’s stock in trade, and for 30 years as bestselling author and star attraction on America’s late-nineteenth-century lecture stage, he produced it in sufficient quantity to make bearable the acquaintance with grief that he knew to be generously distributed among all present in the Boston Lyceum or a Tennessee saloon, in a Newport drawing room as in a Nevada brothel. Whether the audience was sober or drunk, topped with top hats or snared in snakebitten boots, Twain understood it likely in need of a remedy to cover its losses.
No other writer of his generation had seen as much of the young nation’s early sorrow, or become as familiar with its commonplace scenes of human depravity and squalor. As a boy on the Missouri frontier in the 1830s he attended the flogging and lynching of fugitive slaves; in the California gold fields in the 1860s he kept company with underage murderers and overage whores; in New York City in the 1870s he supped at the Gilded Age banquets of financial swindle and political fraud, learning from his travels that “the hard and sordid things of life are too hard and too sordid and too cruel for us to know and touch them year after year without some mitigating influence.” Twain bottled the influence under whatever label drummed up a crowd — as comedy, burlesque, satire, parody, sarcasm, ridicule, wit — any or all of it presented as “the solid nonpareil,” guaranteed to fortify the blood and restore the spirit. Humor for Twain was the hero with a thousand faces.
With Groucho Marx I share the opinion that comedians “are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world,” but the assaying of that commodity — of what does it consist in its coats of many colors, among them cocksure pink, shithouse brown, and dead-end black — is a question that I gladly leave to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, Twain’s contemporary who in 1900 took note of its primary components: “The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictlyhuman… Laughter has no greater foe than emotion… Its appeal is to the intelligence, pure and simple… Our laughter is always the laughter of a group.”
Which is to say that all jokes are inside jokes and the butts of them are us, the only animal that laughs, but also the only one that is laughed at. The weather isn’t amusing, neither is the sea. Wombats don’t do metaphor or stand-up. What is funny is man’s situation as a scrap of mortal flesh entertaining intimations of immortality, President Richard Nixon believing himself the avatar of William the Conqueror, President George W. Bush in the persona of a medieval pope preaching holy crusade against all the world’s evil.
Venting One’s Spleen
The confusion of realms is the substance of Shakespeare’s comedies — as a romantic exchange of mistaken identities in As You Like It, in Measure for Measure as an argument for the forgiveness of sin:
But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.
Spleens in the Elizabethan anatomy give rise to mirth because they also produce the melancholy springing from the bowels to remind us that although unaccountably invested with the power to conceive of ourselves as vessels of pure and everlasting light, we were made, as were toads, of foul and perishable stuff. Apes play games in zoos and baobab trees, but, not knowing that they’re bound to die, they don’t discover ludicrous incongruities between the physical and the metaphysical, don’t invent, as does François Rabelais’ Gargantua, “the most lordly, the most excellent” way to remove the smell and fear of death from the palace of his “jolly asshole,” by wiping it first with silk and velvet, lastly and most gloriously, with the neck of a “well-downed goose.”
All humor is situational, but the forms of it that survive the traveling in time — Shakespeare’s romance and Rabelais’ bawdy as well as Juvenal’s satire and Molière’s ridicule — speak to the fundamental truth of the human predicament, which is that men die from time to time and worms do eat them. The jokes dependent upon a specific historical setting don’t have much of a shelf life; the voice between the lines gets lost, and with it the sharing of the knowledge of what is in or out of place.
To look at the early-seventeenth-century painting Interior with Merry Company or at a mosaic of strolling masked musicians from a wall in second-century-B.C. Pompeii is to understand that a good time is being had by all, to infer that for as long as humans have walked the earth, they have found in the joy of laughter a companion more faithful than the dog. But exactly what prompts the lace-trimmed Dutch girls to their lovely smiling, or whether the Roman drum is tapping out a cadence or a song, I cannot say. I wasn’t in the loop; four or twenty-one centuries out of touch, I don’t know who first said what to whom, or why the merriment is merry.
Even in one’s own day and age it’s never a simple matter to catch the drift in the wind or judge the lay of the land. Lenny Bruce remarks on the collapse of his off-color nightclub act in front of a milk-white audience in Milwaukee — “They don’t laugh, they don’t heckle, they just stare at me in disbelief” — and I’m reminded of my own first encounter, at the age of 13, with a silence casting me into an outer darkness in a galaxy far, far away.
In the autumn of 1948 on my first Sunday at a Connecticut boarding school, the headmaster (a pious and confiding man, as grave as he was good) welcomed the returning and newly arriving students with an edifying sermon. Protestant but nondenominational, the chapel had been built to the design of an early-eighteenth-century New England spiritual simplicity — white wood, unstained glass, straight-backed pews set in two sternly disciplined rows before an unobtrusive pulpit. The students were arranged alphabetically by class, seniors to the fore, preps, myself among them, fitted into the choir loft above the doors at the rear. My family having moved east from California only a few weeks prior to my being sent off to school, I’d never before seen a Connecticut landscape.
More to the point, I’d only twice been inside a church, for an uncle’s wedding and a police chief’s funeral. The latter ceremony I’d attended with my grandfather during his tenure as mayor of San Francisco during the Second World War, one of the many occasions on which, between the ages of seven and 11, I listened to him deliver an uplifting political speech.
Out of the loop within the walls of the chapel, I assumed that the headmaster’s sermon was a canvassing for votes, whether for or from God I didn’t know, but either way a call to arms, and as I had been taught to do when an admiral or a parks commissioner completed his remarks, I stood to attention with the tribute of firm and supportive applause. The appalled silence in the chapel was as cold as a winter in Milwaukee. The entire school turned to stare in disbelief, the headmaster nearly missed his step down from the pulpit, the boys to my left and right edged away, as if from a long-dead rat.
Never mind that my intention was civil, my response meant to show respect. During the next four years at school, I never gained admission to the company of the elect. I’d blotted my copybook, been marked down as an offensive humorist from the wrong side of the Hudson River.
In the troubled sea of the world’s ambition, men rise by gravity, sink by levity, and on my first Sunday in Connecticut I had placed myself too far below the salt to indulge the hope of an ascent to the high-minded end of the table — not to be trusted with the singing of the school song, or with the laughing at people who didn’t belong to beach clubs on Long Island. The sense of being off the team accompanied me to Yale College (I never saw the Harvard game) and shaped my perspective as a young newspaper reporter in the 1950s.
A potentially free agent, not under contract to go along with the program — able to find fault with an official press release, put an awkward question to a department-store mogul — I was looked upon with suspicion by the wisdoms in office. The attitude I took for granted on the part of real-estate kingpins and ladies enshrined in boxes at the opera, but I didn’t recognize it as one adjustable to any and all occasions until the winter night in 1958 when the San Francisco chapter of Mensa International (a society composed of persons blessed with IQ test scores above the 98th percentile) staged a symposium meant to plumb to its utmost depths (intellectual, psychological, and physiological) the mystery of human gender.
Wine and cheese to be served, everybody to remove his or her clothes before being admitted to the discussion. Dispatched by the San Francisco Examinerto report on the event, I didn’t make it past the coatracks on which the seekers of the naked truth draped their fig leaves. But even with the embodiments of genius, Mensa wasn’t taking any chances. Confronted with a display of for the most part unlovely and decomposing flesh, the doorkeepers distributed identifying wrist bracelets, blue silk for boys, pink velvet for girls, one of each for gays, lesbians, and transsexuals. What was wonderful was the utter seriousness of the proceeding. Nobody laughed or risked the semblance of a smile; the company of the elect looked with proud disdain upon the fully clothed reporters standing around in unpolished shoes.
Chicolini Really Is an Idiot
Laughter follows from the misalignment of a reality and a virtual reality, and the getting of the joke is the recognition of which is which. The notions of what is true or beautiful or proper held sacred by the other people in the caucus or the clubhouse set up the punch line — the sight of something where it’s not supposed to be, the story going where it’s not supposed to go, Groucho Marx saying, “Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”
Groucho’s appeal is to the faculty named by Bergson as “intelligence, pure and simple,” and I laugh out loud for the reason given by Arthur Schopenhauer: “simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real object.”
Being in or out of the loop is not only a question of separations in space and time, it is also a matter of the distance between different sets or turns of mind. Sudden and happy perceptions of incongruity are not hard to come by in a society that worships its machines, regards the sales pitch and the self-promotion as its noblest forms of literary art. What Twain understood to be the world’s colossal humbug enjoys a high standing among people who define the worth of a thing as the price of a thing and therefore make of money, in and of itself a colossal humbug, the true and proper name for God.
“There are,” said Twain, “certain sweet-smelling, sugarcoated lies current in the world which all politic men have apparently tacitly conspired together to support and perpetuate… We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going and then go with the drove. We have two opinions: one private, which we are afraid to express, and another one — the one we use — which we force ourselves to wear to please Mrs. Grundy.”
It is the Mrs. Grundy of the opinion polls from whom President Barack Obama begs the favor of a sunny smile, to whom the poets who write the nation’s advertising copy sing their songs of love, for whom the Aspen Institute sponsors summer and winter festivals of think-tank discussion to reawaken the American spirit and redecorate the front parlor of the American soul.
The exchanges of platitude at the higher altitudes of moral and social pretension Twain celebrated as festive occasions on which “taffy is being pulled.” Some of the best of it gets pulled at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York when it is being explained to a quorum of the monied elite (contented bankers, corporate lawyers, arms manufacturers) that American foreign policy, rightly understood, is a work of Christian charity and an expression of man’s goodwill to man.
Nobody pulls the taffy better than Dr. Henry Kissinger, the White House National Security Advisor in 1970 who by way of an early Christmas greeting that year to the needy poor in Cambodia secured the delivery of thousands of tons of high explosive, but as often at the council as I’ve heard him say that the nuclear option trumps the China card, that the lines in the Middle Eastern sand connect the Temple of Solomon to the Pentagon, that America under no circumstances is to be caught holding Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella, I seldom find the hint of a sign that the other gentlemen in the room know or care that Chicolini here really is an idiot. Even if the gentlemen had their doubts about Chicolini, where would be the percentage of letting them out of the bag? Chicolini is rich, and therefore Chicolini is wise. To think otherwise is an impiety; to say otherwise is a bad career move. . .
Short answer: Food isn’t safe because Congress won’t fund food inspection. Reason: Food companies and agribusiness don’t want to be inspected—they’re big on voluntary guidelines—so they pressure/pay Congress to cut the inspection budgets. But the FDA searches for workarounds. Marion Nestle has a good report at Food Politics:
The FDA has finally released safety rules for imported foods, two years after Congress passed the food safety law. OK. We now have them. At last.
Here’s what the FDA is up against:
- 150 different countries ship foods to the U.S.
- These account for about 15% of the food supply, but 50% of fresh fruits and 20% of fresh vegetables.
- The agency has the capacity to inspect about 2% of imported foods.
To deal with this disconnect, the FDA proposes to hold importers accountablefor the safety of what they ship to us.
The proposed rules allow two ways to do this: Importers can do their own onsite safety audit, or they can verify that their suppliers did so.
Both methods involve verification by certified verifiers that suppliers used “prevention-oriented food safety practices” (HACCP in other words), and achieved the same level of food safety as domestic growers and processors.
Neither requires inspection by FDA, although importers may use inspection.
The previous proposed rules, for produce safety and food production facilities (see below), have been given another 60 days for public comment. Comments on all proposals will now be due at the same time. The FDA expect to issue the rules 12 to 18 months after the comments come in and then it will take another 18 months for rules to go into effect.
What does all this mean? . . .
Here it is, in its entirety:
I found it at Open Culture, which has links to 20 other Buster Keaton classics.
Really: watch this movie. You’ll be glad you did.
Here’s the first part; go to this post for the other two parts and the backstory.
The Campaign is a send-up of the current political scene, and many familiar issues make their appearance: Citizens United (by name), the Koch brothers (in the movie, the Motch Brothers). You can see the writers thinking, “Now what’s the worst possible mistake you can make on a campaign?” and then they march through a litany, all too many of which are familiar from the headlines. Several sequences are built on the structure made familiar in Airplane!: seeing just how far you can take a gag, getting more outrageous at each round, and always going further than the audience expects.
Robin Williams has a very nice piece in the NY Times on Jonathan Winters:
My father’s laughter introduced me to the comedy of Jonathan Winters. My dad was a sweet man, but not an easy laugh. We were watching Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show” on our black-and-white television, and on came Jonathan in a pith helmet.
“Who are you?” Paar asked.
“I’m a great white hunter,” Jonathan said in an effete voice. “I hunt mainly squirrels.”
“How do you do that?”
“I aim for their little nuts.”
My dad and I lost it. Seeing my father laugh like that made me think, “Who is this guy and what’s he on?”
A short time later, Jonathan was on Paar again. This time Jack handed him a stick, and what happened next was extraordinary. Jon did a four-minute freestyle riff in which that stick became a fishing rod, a spear, a giant beetle antenna, even Bing Crosby’s golf club complete with song. Each transformation was a cameo with characters and sound effects. He was performing comedic alchemy. The world was his laboratory. I was hooked.
Not only was Jonathan funny on TV, but his comedy albums are also auditory bliss. One of my favorite routines involved a mad scientist who sounded like Boris Karloff. But instead of creating a Frankenstein, he made thousands of little men that he unleashed on the world. His shocked assistant cried out, “What are they looking for?”
The professor replied, “Little women, you fool.”
He also created comic characters like Maude Frickert and the overgrown child Chester Honeyhugger. In one classic pre-P.C.-era routine, he had Maude being molested by a huge farmhand. She protested, “Stop, I’m church people.” After he had his way, he was off to do his chores, and she called out, “Don’t be long.”
Mort Sahl said Jonathan was seen as a great improviser, but to him he was just being himself. . .
David Brooks has a good column today:
The purpose of the Republican convention is to introduce America to the real Mitt Romney. Fortunately, I have spent hours researching this subject. I can provide you with the definitive biography and a unique look into the Byronic soul of the Republican nominee:
Mitt Romney was born on March 12, 1947, in Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Virginia and several other swing states. He emerged, hair first, believing in America, and especially its national parks. He was given the name Mitt, after the Roman god of mutual funds, and launched into the world with the lofty expectation that he would someday become the Arrow shirt man.
Romney was a precocious and gifted child. He uttered his first words (“I like to fire people”) at age 14 months, made his first gaffe at 15 months and purchased his first nursery school at 24 months. The school, highly leveraged, went under, but Romney made 24 million Jujubes on the deal.
Mitt grew up in a modest family. His father had an auto body shop called the American Motors Corporation, and his mother owned a small piece of land, Brazil. He had several boyhood friends, many of whom owned Nascar franchises, and excelled at school, where his fourth-grade project, “Inspiring Actuaries I Have Known,” was widely admired.
The Romneys had a special family tradition. . .
I’ve been watching a bunch of comedies from the 1930s, and unfortunately many have not aged well: too slow-paced, gags not funny, timing off. But now I’m watching one as crisp as a new dollar bill: I Love You Again, with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Absolutely terrific. Recommended. It even cheered me up.
I have realized that the 24 BBC Goon Show CDs that I have (96 complete radio programs), plus an additional CD/booklet on Spike Milligan and his career, are not really of much interest to children and grandchildren, lovely though they were to me in my youth—I listened regularly to rebroadcasts in the mid-to-late 60’s. Wonderful shows with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, and announcer Wallace Greenslade, and always with two musical interludes, the first by the fabulous jazz harmonicist Max Geldray and the second by the swinging Ray Ellington Quartet (both of whom would occasionally take parts in the skits), together with the BBC Band led by Wally Stott. So today I put them on Craigslist.
Time to move some stuff out of here. So you know why I like these so much, here’s one performance by Geldray from one show:
And here’s an excellent article on Geldray.
The guys at Wicked_Edge have been having some fun with the new Schick Hydro® 5 Power Select™’s “easy-to-read LED screen [that] communicates visually to clearly distinguish which vibration level is in use” (full specifications).
tommij points out this:
You know you’re getting rather deep into shaving when you start enjoying shaving comedy. :)
Many episodes available on CD from the BBC. (It was a radio program… )
I mentioned Beyond the Fringe. Here is a sample.
Very sorry about the lack of embedding, but it’s as good a way as any to provide a link. This one goes out to LMC:
Just came across again and enjoyed once more—as the commenter on Wicked_Edge states, the thing that makes this is the parceling out of tasks among the various blades: