Wednesday, April 30, 2014

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE – LETTER “Z” – ZEPPO MARX

ZEPPO MARX

Somewhere around the letter “Q” I realized I had forgotten (I REALLY do very little planning, when I write) to pay homage to the Marx Bros., probably one of the funniest and most innovative of comedy teams of all time. Since this is the last day of the A-to-Z Challenge, I performed and end-run and decided to pick Zeppo Marx for my final entry.

Herbert Manfred "Zeppo" Marx, born February 25, 1901, died November 30, 1979, was the youngest of the five (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Gummo) Marx Bros. and was an American actor, theatrical agent, and engineer(!) He appeared in the first five Marx Bros. feature films, from 1929 to 1933, but then left the act to start his second career as an engineer and theatrical agent. Zeppo became a multi-millionaire due to his engineering efforts.


Groucho and Zeppo Marx, in I'm Against It, in "Horse Feathers" (1932)

Zeppo initially performed with his brothers, during their vaudeville years, occasionally stepping in as Captain Spaulding for his brother Groucho, who recalled, “He was so good in Animal Crackers that I would have let him play the part indefinitely, if they had allowed me to smoke in the audience”. However, Zeppo was never able to develop a comic persona of his own that could stand up against his brothers'. Although he accompanied his brothers in the first five films, he left shortly after to pursue his other interests: theatrical representation through an agency that he founded with his brother Gummo and a machining parts company, known as the Aeroquip Company. This company produced a motorcycle, called the Marmat Twin and the Marman clamps used to hold the “Fat Man” atomic bomb inside the B-29 named Bockscar. Zeppo also invented a wristwatch that would monitor the pulse rate of cardiac patients and give off an alarm of the heartbeat became irregular.


All of the Marx Brothers were excellent musicians, and self-trained. Harpo did start taking lessons with a renowned harpist in NYC, but ended up teaching her his method of playing.

Surprising facts about a brother I only knew as someone who was overshadowed by his more talented brothers, Zeppo had a foot in both worlds, artistic and scientific, something rarely heard of, with the exception of Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr, during the hey-day of vaudeville, silent films and into black-and-white movies!

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE – LETTER “Y” – “WEIRD” AL YANKOVIC

"WEIRD" AL YANKOVIC

I've pretty much grown up with “Weird” Al Yankovic and hadn't really considered him, until in a fit of desperation and lack of time (this is the time of year when I have every medical test known to man, and a few that probably aren't normally performed, done. Last year, I had my essential tremor, or e.t. [appropriately named enough] or “Parkinson's Lite – all the symptoms, only half the drugs" diagnosed and for that test I got a bumper sticker “Ask Me About My DaTScan” which I attached to my walker since I don't drive. I don't use a walker, either, but that's ANOTHER story, and we simply don't have time! Besides, this is about “Weird” Al and I'm glad I picked him, not for his parody songs, “EAT IT” (based on Michael Jackson's “Beat It”) or “FAT” (also based on Michael Jackson's song “Bad”) but for one song alone that I and probably a whole bunch of people out there in cyber ville can relate to.


eBay - An original song by "Weird Al" spoofs the culture of buyers and sellers on eBay. As someone who has participated in the buying-and-sell frenzy, he's captured the peculiarities of these folks perfectly; it's also extremely well-written!

Alfred Matthew “Weird Al” Yankovic, born October 23, 1959 is an American singer-songwriter, musician, parodist, record producer, satirist, music video director, film producer, actor, and author. He is known for his humorous songs that make like of popular culture and often parody specific songs by contemporary musical acts. Since his first-aired comedy song in 1976, he has sold more than 12 million albums (as of 2007), recorded more than 150 parody and original songs, and has performed more than 1,000 live shows.

Al's first accordion lesson, which sparked his career in music, was on the day before his sixth birthday. A door-to-door salesman traveling through his hometown of Lynwood offered his parents a choice of accordion or guitar lessons at a local music school. Yankovic claims the reason his parents chose accordion over guitar was “They figured there should be at least one more accordion-playing Yankovic in the world”, referring to Frankie Yankovic, to whom he is not related directly. Yankovic said that his “parents chose the accordion because they were convinced it would revolutionize rock”.

                                                                                                                                                                         courtesy: The Prince of Parodies

The same guy with the accordion showed up at my door, when I was six years old too, and told my parents how “gifted” I was while I was just holding the thing. That guy clearly needed a hearing-aid. He didn't know how gifted I was on the viola, although I just pretend to play the violin.

Monday, April 28, 2014

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE – LETTER “X” – SWAMI X

SWAMI X

I honestly had not clue one as to what I was going to write about for my letter “X” when I reached this juncture. So, I did what any good researcher does in a pinch (forget about preparing ahead, I do everything in real-time) I hit Wikipedia up for a suggestion and discovered a little-known boardwalk performer in America. . .

Swami X is an American boardwalk performer and stand-up comedian. Active from the 1970s to 1985, he performed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, and New York. He was known for bawdy sexual humor and political invective.

His act was a monologue mixing pity sociopolitical observations with poetry, sarcasm and humor, which typically included blasphemy, profanity and attacking the shibboleths of the day – producing “pleased shock and delighted outrage” in observers. His notable lines include”

  • How do we know Jesus Christ was Jewish? Because he went into his Father's business.”
  • Sex is not the answer. Sex is the question. 'Yes' is the answer.”
  • If I had known I would live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
                                                                                                        
Swami X's 88th Birthday, I presume with my faboo upside-down reading superpowers!

He was known for appearing on the Venice Boardwalk, at the UCLA and the U. C. Berkely campuses, in San Francisco (probably on the wharf or near Ghirardelli Square), and at Washington Park in NYC. He retired in 1985. In 2009 the mayor of L. A., Antonio Villaraigosa, presented him with an official proclamation.

The fun part of this came when I was looking for pictures. The disambiguation is wide and wonderful in the images; everything from real Swamis to Swami Comedy Acts. Maybe I should have done my whole A-to-Z them on Swamis. On second thought, no. It's been hard enough coming up with entertaining Humorists, or witty observations about Humor itself. I actually believe I would have been better off just writing 26 stories about my crazy family; God knows there's material enough!

Anyway, I found these delightful pictures of some Swamis, but not OUR Swami:


I'm guessing this is some kind of Bollywood Musical Extravaganza-type Comedy. It looks to be a laff-riot!

 Presenting Swami Beyondananda! At the Unitarian Fellowship, of all places. There is so much going on here. Would the Indian defamation league complain? Is there an Indian defamation league? This is so fitting for Unitarians, whose creed seems to be "whatever, whomever, all ever, forever". Or something. The concept of a 2-man, 1-man show has me a little befuddled as well. Does this guy use a sock puppet for his alter ego? Or just put on his Swami hat?


Swami who is a real Swami; alas I couldn't find his name. He also looks like he's ready for his tryout in the latest revival of "Hair", as it was during the age of love and peace and harmony. I miss those days.


 Okay this is OUR Swami, Swami X. He looks like a cross between "Easy Rider" and a parade float! I remember the street performers in San Francisco back in the early 70s. I missed this, because I surely would have remembered him, had I seen him. I'm sorry I missed him.
 

Swami X in his days of retirement, looking rather back-woodsish and Jeremiah Johnson-like.
 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE – LETTER “W” – WOODY ALLEN

WOODY ALLEN

I was about 15 when I discovered the zany intellectual comedy of Woody Allen. His discourses on existentialism, the philosophy of Kierkegaard, mixed with the slap-stick comedy of Chaplin, made his movies in the late 60s and early 70s, gems of the cinema.

Woody Allen (born Allen Stewart Konigsberg, December 1, 1935) is an actor, director, screenwriter, comedian, musician and playwright whose career span more than 50 years.

He worked as a comedy writer in the 1950s, writing jokes and scripts for the Tee Vee and publishing books of short humor pieces. In the early 1960s, Allen began performing as a stand-up comic emphasizing monologues rather than traditional jokes. As a comic, he developed the persona of an insecure, intellectual, fretful nebbish, which maintains is quite different from his real-lie personality, In 2004, Comedy Central, ranked Allen in fourth place on a list of 100 greatest stand-up comics, while a UK survey ranked Allen as the third greatest comedian.


"To you, I'm an Atheist. To God, I'm the loyal opposition." ~ Woody Allen

By the mid-60s Allen was writing and directing films, first specializing in slapstick comedies before moving into dramatic material influenced by European art cinema during the 1970s. He is often identified as part of the New Hollywood wave of filmmakers of the mid-60s to late 70s. He often stars in his own films, typically in the persona he developed as a standup.


"Life doesn't imitate art. It imitates bad television." ~ Woody Allen

Allen was born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn. His family was Ashkenazi Jewish; his grandparents immigrated from Russia and Austria, and spoke Yiddish, Hewbrew, and German. Allen spoke German quite a bit in his early years. He would later joke that when he was young he was sent to inter-faith summer camps, where he “was savagely beaten by children of all races and creeds”.


"I can't listen to any more Wagner, you know. . . I'm starting to get the urge to conquer Poland." ~Woody Allen

Allen originally started writing for humorist Herb Shriner, earning $25 a week. At 19, he began writing scripts for The Tonight Show, specials for Sid Caesar post-Caesar's Hour (1954-1957) and other television show. He also wrote for Candid Camera later on, and appeared in some episodes.

Allen branched out, writing short stories and cartoon captions for magazines such as The New Yorker; he was inspired by the tradition of four prominent New Yorker humorist, S. J. Perelman, George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley and Max Shulman, whose material he modernized. Allen is an accomplised author, with four published collections of his short pieces and plays. I can attest to the humor and zaniness of his written comedy; Getting Even is one of the funniest books I've ever read. Looking at the Table of Contents for Side Effects now makes this a must read.


"I took a test in Existentialism. I left all the answers blank and got 100." ~Woody Allen
Of all of Allen's movies, his earliest resonate with me the most. His first foray into film, was more like some comedic brew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and horribly-interpreted sci-films, complete with commentary, called What's Up Tiger-Lily. The plot, according to Allen involved the theft of the recipe for the world's greatest egg salad and the recovery of said recipe from evil-overlords by brave Secret Agent. This is all plunked down on top of a cheesy Japanese spy movie, dubbed with idiotic dialogue and crazy sound effects and the results are hilarious.


Compilations of clips from "What's Up Tiger Lily?"

I realize my humor hit some of it's maturation at around the age of 18, but the ludicrous dialogue and funny voices still amuse me. Allen went from here to produce and release several more movies in the late 60s, Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death, which is still one of the best satirical pieces on Russian Literature and characterizations of all time. He followed that up with Manhattan, (all music by George Gershwin, here) Annie Hall and Hanna and Her Sisters


The Marching Band Cello Scene from Take the Money and Run

As a passionate fan of jazz, Allen has featured New Orleans jazz in most of his movies and performed publicly since the late 60s, most notable with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, on his soundtrack for Sleeper. He continues to perform most Monday nights with his jazz ensemble at the Carlysle Hotel in NYC.  


The revival scene in Sleeper, where Woody Allen discovers he's awoken 200 years in the future.

His later movies and projects have garnered him much in the way of fame and innumerable awards; in film direction, production and writing. He has established himself in both America and in Europe as a man of Arts and Letters, and he continues to this day to write and produce plays, movies and play in his jazz ensemble. One of my favorites for his wit and literary style, and for his slapstick, he has proven himself in both sophisticated circles and as a favorite alá his Chaplinesque style in his earlier films. In all of his earlier movies, as well as his later ones, he questioned authority, relationships, and the existence of God. You thought as much as you laughed, which I always enjoyed. In my opinion, the very best humorists, whatever the genre do this; they make us think; they may make us uncomfortable, but that is the only way we develop and expand our own views.

Friday, April 25, 2014

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE – LETTER “V” – VISUAL GAG

VISUAL GAG

A visual gag or sight gag is anything which conveys its humor visually, often without words being used at all. The gag may involve a physical impossibility or an unexpected occurrence. The humor is caused by alternative interpretations of the goings-on. Visual gags are used in plays, acting on television and movies and in magic.

I love visual gags and a certain amount of slap-stick. The comedian, Soupy Sales was very popular in the United States, back in the 50s, because of his slap-stick, but I found it tedious, because it was so repetitious. Only in certain cases, and certain comedians, does repetition truly work, in my opinion. Eddie Izzard is a master at it, because he drops his repetitious phrases in randomly and unexpectedly, but it is hard to pull off and should be avoided by all but the best, which, in my humble opinion, Eddie is. But, we're going to look at visual gags, because I don't have to type, type, type, and frankly, I had a hell of a time finding a “V” comedian that I was satisfied with; Jim Varney appealed to a few folks here back in the 90s, but tragically, he died young and his was a very “niche” type of comedy. Funny as he was, I decided to give him a pass. Rest in peace, Jim; you were terrific!



Jim Varney started his career selling ice cream on the Tee Vee. I first saw his ad, in about 1980, when I was still at school, where he is getting an ice cream cone filled, and the cone moves off-screen, then back on-screen each time, with one additional scoop, as he sings a goofy rendition of "Happy Birthday". At the conclusion of the song, he has about 4 scoops of ice-cream on a cone and they fall off. The camera fades to black, as he holds his empty cone, goofy grin in place, glancing down at his empty cone, then back at the camera. I howled.
 

I love pictures like this; a late friend of mine and I spent the weekend at Fort Knox, playing with the heavy artillery and helicopters. I took a picture of her in front of the suspended Huey, ducking, as if a giant mosquito was after her. Sadly, the picture did not survive my many moves and upheavals.

Visual gags can be of a solitary picture, or involve elaborate set-ups to get to the punchline. Both are satisfying, but some are so simple and work well with children. Others are of the WTF? variety and I ran into plenty of those as single-shots. I'm either having a major case of the stupids, or the humor is so full of arcana as to be truly indecipherable, except for say, archaeologists, or Buddhists, or whatever. 


 This sort of thing requires friends who care not one whit how you behave in public. "Walk Like An Egyptian" is apt, and at least you can get to the murals, which must surely be just painted on by starving Art Students. I've seen Egyptology displays, where you are not allowed anywhere near the displays, for fear of disturbing Im-ho-tep, or breaking a priceless cat-mummy toe, or something.

                                                                                                            courtesy: Thingesque
 I get that the dog is blind and the cat is leading the dog, but what's up with the duck? In any case, it would be a rather erratic arrangement, because once Fluffy gets a whiff of tuna, or smells a catnip patch, it's going to be a wild ride for the two blind passengers.

We are left then, with the elaborate set-up, or rather, a series of visual gags that in pacing and style, often resembles a boxing match, or the Finale of a symphonic work. In terms of tempo, and frequency of events, the gag may start out slow, seem pointless and build from there. We go to our old friend Charlie Chaplin for the Pawn Shop Fight Scene for some fun. Check out the way Charlie worms his way back into the owner's good graces and seemingly wins the fair maiden's heart!

 

Chaplin was a true master, and watching this again just made it all fresh and new! 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE – LETTER “U” – PETER USTINOV


PETER USTINOV

Sir Peter Alexander Ustinov, CBE, born 16 April 21, died 28 March 2004, was an English actor, writer, and dramatist. He was also renowned as a filmmaker, theater and opera director, stage designer, author, screenwriter, comedian, humorist, newspaper and magazine columnist, radio broadcaster and television presenter. A noted wit and raconteur, he was a fixture on television talk shows and lecture circuits for much of his career. He was also a respected intellectual and diplomat who, in addition to his various academic posts, served as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and President of the World Federalist Movement.


Ustinov as Nero, in Quo Vadis, 1951
Ustinov was the winner of numerous awards over his life including two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor, Emmy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards for acting, a Grammy Award for best recording for children, as well as the recipient of governmental honors from, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. He displayed a unique cultural versatility that has frequently earned him the accolade of a Renaissance man. Miklós Rózsa, composer of the music for Quo Vadis and of many concert works, dedicated his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 22 (1950) to Ustinov.


Ustinov had one of the most interesting heritages I've run across in many a moon. He was born Peter Alexander Baron von Ustinow in Swiss Cottage, London. His father, Jona (born Jonah Freiherr von Ustinow), nicknamed “Klop” (Russian: Клоп, “bed-bug”), was of Russian, German, Polish-Jewish and Ethiopian noble descent, and had served as a lieutenant in the Imperial German Luftstreitkräfte (Air Force) in World War I. Jona's father was Russian aristocrat Plato von Ustinov, his mother half-Jewish, half-German-Ethiopian Magdalena Hall. Jona worked as a press officer at the German Embassy in London in the 1930s, and was a reporter for a German news agency.

In 1935, two years after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Jona von Ustinov began working for the British intelligence service MI5 and became a British citizen, thus avoiding internment during the war. He was the controller of Wolfgang Gans zu Putiltz, an MI5 spy in the German embassy in London who furnished information on Hitler's intentions before World War II. (Peter Wright mentions in his book Spycatcher mentions in his book that Jona was quite possibly the spy known as U35; Ustinov says in his autobiography that his father hosted secret meetings of both senior British and German officials at their London home.) Ustinov's great-grandfather Moritz Hall, a Jewish refugee from Krakow and later a Christian convert and collaborator of Swiss and German missionaries in Ethiopia, married into a German-Ethiopian family.

Ustinov's mother, Nadezhda Leontievna “Nadia” Benois, was a painter and ballet designer of Russian, French, Italian and German ancestry. Her father, Leon Benois, was an Imperial Russian architect and owner of Leonardo da Vinci's painting Madonna Benois. His brother Alexandre Benois was a stage designer who worked with Stravinsky and Diaghilev. Their paternal ancestor, Jules-César Benois was a chef who had left France for St. Petersburg during the French Revolution and became a chef to Tsar Paul.

Ustinov was educated at Westminster School and had a difficult childhood because of his parents' constant fighting. One of his schoolmates was Rudolf von Ribbentrop, the eldest son of the Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. While at school Ustinov considered anglicising his name to “Peter Auston” but was counseled against it by a fellow pupil who said that he should “Drop the 'von' but keep the 'Ustinov' “. After training as an actor in his late teens, along with early attempts at playwriting, he made his stage début in 1938 at the Players' Theatre, becoming quickly established. He later wrote, “I was not irresistibly drawn to the drama. It was an escape from the dismal rat race of school.”


Ustinov as Prince John (not the snake) in Disney's 1973 Robin Hood

It's easy to see why he would espouse the World Federalist Movement. I have seldom read of so many comings and goings, even among the Hapsburgs, Romanovs and the House of Windsor, at its height, prior to World War I. Looking carefully at pictures of Tsar Nicholas II, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and German Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (who married his first cousin, Queen Victoria and became consort), all three look pretty much alike. Royal houses had taken to inter-marriage to the point that genetic defects (Tsarevich Alexii, son of Nicholas II and Alexandria, had hemophilia B, inherited from his maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria) were becoming manifest. But, as usual, I digress. 

So, it's understandable that Ustinov's parentage, close to the top of the heap in terms of nobility, is somewhat of a scrambled mess when it comes to actual heritage. This was the norm, because, back in the day, it was thought that by establishing alliances in this manner, wars would be prevented. Feel free to laugh at this convoluted piece of logic. Oh, and by the way, although Prince Albert died in 1860, his relatives (Kaiser Wilhelm II, who to be honest, waited a bit before jumping into the fray) and the Hapsburgs themselves, saw nothing wrong with starting a shooting war, by declaring war on Serbia after the assassination of the Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who, had he not been so vain to have himself sewn into his fine suit of clothing, may not have bled to death when he was shot at Sarajevo, in June of 1914, by Gavrilo Princip. The surgeons couldn't get to him soon enough. That's where vanity'll get ya!

Where was I? Oh yes! Peter Ustinov, who by all accounts was the best raconteur going; so good in fact, that he spent the latter half of his career just being on talk shows, giving lectures and going on good will tours. This compilation of his interviews with Michael Parkinson is full of sparkling wit, stories, and Ustinov's zest and optimism for life. 


Michael Parkinson's Interview with Peter Ustinov (7 in total)

I always enjoyed hearing him on talk shows; there was always at least three or four guaranteed howlers, just by his descriptions and observations of people. At heart, he was a complete optimist, and he said, "The point of living and being an optimist, is to be foolish enough to believe that the best is yet to come." I can relate to that. He also said, "If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it cannot be done." That sounds like some of the places I've worked for.

He also wrote a play called Beethoven's Tenth, which is about how Beethoven would react to the modern world. As someone who has pretty much channeled Beethoven from birth, I wondered how Ustinov would approach him. I read some of the excerpts, but it is more a drawing-room play, focusing on the world of symphonic music and music critics, in particular. It is well-known that in Beethoven's time, from his 7th Symphony onward, and his later string quartets, he took shellackings from critics that would demand pistols at dawn, or a swift beheading, were I being the one criticized. "Sounds like badly-oiled syringes," was one critic's summation of Beethoven's gorgeous 7th Symphony in A minor



               Ludwig would have loved metal, and played keyboards. Mozart    would have worked for Lawrence Welk and played the accordion.

I've seen many of Peter Ustinov's movies and guest appearances on shows like The Muppets and I truly appreciate his story-telling abilities the most. He could mimic nearly anyone and he was fluent in several languages. He was also elected first Rector of the University of Dundee, Scotland in 1968, an honorary post, which became political when he mediated with militant students. He ran and won a second term in that post.  But for Ustinov, it was all about the laughter. He said of it, "I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter, the sound of which has always seemed to me to be the most civilized music in the world."

  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE – LETTER “T” – JAMES THURBER

JAMES THURBER

James Grover Thurber, born 8 December, 1894, died 2 November, 1961, was an American cartoonist, author, journalist, and celebrated wit. He was best known for his cartoons and short stories, published mainly in The New Yorker magazine and collected in his numerous books. One of the most popular humorists of his time, Thurber celebrated the comic frustrations and eccentricities of ordinary people.

I first read James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times, at about the age of eight or nine years old. I don't remember learning how to read, and I was reading singularly advanced literature by the age of eight: I read Harlan Ellison's short story collection Strange Wine, when I was nine and was captivated by it, but one of my all time-favorites and life-long loves has been the American author and humorist, James Thurber.


James Thurber, circa 1926.

Before starting this post, I knew a bit about his early life, He attended Ohio State University, although did not graduate, due to an early childhood accident. He was playing a game of William Tell with his brothers William and Robert, when an arrow pierced his left eye, which left him blind in that eye and he would subsequently lose the eye and later become almost entirely blind. Unable in his childhood to partake in sports and other activities because of his injury, he elaborated upon an already creative mind, which he then used to express himself in writing and with his cartoons.


How do you answer that?
Some neurologists have suggested that he may have suffered from Charles Bonnet Syndrome, a neurological condition that causes complex visual hallucination in otherwise mentally healthy people who have suffered some degree of visual loss. Thurber himself wrote of this in his short piece The Admiral At The Wheel. Before I became partially-sighted, I could imagine him seeing things far down a road and his mind filling in pieces; now I know this to be a fact. I see all sorts of strange things, up close and far. It must be noted however, and laughingly, that I am not mentally sound. Still, there was a mouse that ran through my computer room recently, the size of a canoe, that had me jumping into the closet. My roommates can attest to the mouse, but not the size; since I have no depth perception cars and mice are the same size to me.


The picture would seem to suggest a much larger-than-normal hippopotamus, but completely ignores the question of why it is present in the first place.
James' mother Mary, was a comical and creative woman who James described as a “born comedian” and “one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known”. She was a practical joker; on one occasion pretended to be crippled and attended a faith healer revival, only to jump up and proclaim herself healed. This says much about his accounts in stories like The Night The Bed Fell, where before the end of the night, such mayhem has occurred within the household, it's a wonder there weren't more deaths by accidental shooting, or falling, or poisoning in the Thurber household. Add his hypochondriac cousin, Briggs Beal who must be woken every hour with spirits of camphor, to prevent his dying in his sleep, and you have the makings of total disaster.


James Thurber loved dogs unreservedly and wrote of them humorously and movingly. He said once, "If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have know will go to heaven, and very, very few persons."

I can relate. Once when home ill from school, I heard my mother answer the door, and went downstairs to see who it was. There was my Ma, frenetically waving her hands at a batch of Jehovah's Witness ladies, pretending she knew American Sign Language. I, at that moment, had a 3-foot piece of twine over my head, with both ends tied to a wire coat-hanger and had my fingers stuffed in my ears, banging the coat-hanger into things to “hear” the vibrations, in my red-and-white striped PJs, with feet. I was 16. I said, “Ma, what in the hell are you doing? You're not deaf?” Caught in the act, she jumped, turned, and looked at me, and hollered “Well, you don't look too sick!” The JW ladies looked at the two of us, and fled. Ma and I howled. It was a “Thurber” moment in the house, one of many. But, I digress.

The Pet Department - Dog

Q. No one has been able to tell us what kind of dog we have. I am enclosing a sketch of one of his two postures. He only has two. The other one is the same as this except he faces in the opposite direction. - Mrs EUGENIA BLACK

A. I think that what you have is a cast-iron lawn dog. The expressionless eye and the rigid pose are characteristic of metal lawn animals. And that certainly is a cast-iron ear. You could, however, remove all doubt by means of a simple test with a hammer and a cold chisel, or an acetylene torch. If the animal chips, or melts, my diagnosis is correct. 
                                                                                                                James Thurber, The Thurber Carnival, 1945

From 1918 to 1920, at the close of World War I, James worked as a code clerk for the Department of State, first in Washington, D. C., and then at the Embassy of the United States, Paris, France. Upon his return to Columbus, he began his career as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch from 1921 to 1924. During part of his time there, he reviewed current books, films and plays in a weekly column called Credos and Curios.

                                                                                                                                 Thurber's Airedale

James moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, getting a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1927 as an editor, with the help of E. B. White, his friend and fellow New Yorker contributor. His career as a cartoonist began in 1930 after White found some of James' drawings in a trash can and submitted them for publication. Thurber contributed both his writings and his drawings to The New Yorker until the 1950s.

                                                                                     The Night The Bed Fell

Many of his short stories are humorous fictional memoirs from his life, but he also wrote darker material, such as The Whip-Poor-Will, a story of madness and murder. His best-known short stories are The Dog That Bit People and The Night The Bed Fell; they are found in My Life and Hard Times, the creative mix of autobiography and fiction which was his “break-out” book. He wrote The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Catbird Seat, A Couple of Hamburgers, and If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.





                                                                                                                               The James Thurber Audio Collection, Keith Obermann, Narrator

If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox

James also wrote about his time in Paris and his confusion with the French language. This echoed the later confusion he would sow with his maids, most of them African-American, who he would befuddle with lesser-known synonyms, when they came at him with their own colloquialisms. “It only enriches the confusion,” he noted later.


Illustration from The Day The Dam Broke

In France, he once cut himself with a knife, and left to his own devices, as his wife was out for the afternoon, this led him to run screaming through the lobby “I am sick with the knife!” in broken French. Luckily, Helen arrived in time to sort out the confusion and tie up the wound. With his seemingly endless parade of housemaids, one he was quite fond of, would come to him and say, “Ooh, Mistah James, the front yard is full of flickers!” James would whip out his Thesauras and ask, “Are they making arrows?, thinking that perhaps they were fletchers. The maid would say, “Um, no, Mistah James”. James would then run through a list of improbable things from wheelwrights to coopers, before finally getting up and looking out the window to see his front yard full of finches.


Self-portrait

I know what he means about enriching the confusion; he and I are alike in more ways than one. I delight in engendering confusion around me and a lot of the time it is on purpose. But much of the time, it IS truly accidental. If I'm not following myself on my own blog, I'm rebutting myself under the name of “Andi-roo” who runs theWorld4Realz. Thank God she was her usual good sport, with a “Girl! You crack me up!” I'm not nearly as funny as she thinks I am. Like Thurber's people and his animals, I'm just making my way through life; if I find an opportunity for a good one-liner, or a hilarious article about some of my own stupidities, or my crazy homeless house-mates, narcoleptic stand partners, or stupid ex-husbands, I'm all for it. Otherwise, I'm just bumbling along, enriching the confusion with my patented Confuse-a-What™ making everyone's day a little brighter. Maybe.



Tuesday, April 22, 2014

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE – LETTER “S” – SATIRE


SATIRE

Satire done well, is probably one of my very favorite forms of humor. The very best satirists will showcase a weakness, or something that is utterly foolish within a society or government, to an extreme. It is an extremely sophisticated form of humor and one that is hard to pull off, whether it be in a movie or in books.

sat· ire noun \'sa-,tī(-ǝ)r\

: a way of using humor to show that someone or something is foolish, weak, bad, etc. : humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a peson, government, society, etc.

: a book, movie, etc., that uses satire

Two of the finest examples of this interestingly enough, lampoon both Russian government and Russians themselves. The first is the awesome Love and Death, a 1975 movie by Woody Allen. 

 

Love and Death, theatrical trailer. The musical score is by Sergei Prokofiev and is the Lt. Kije Suite, in itself a satirical piece about a Lieutenant who never existed in the Russian Army.

Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls is one of the most interesting reads in Russian Literature. First published in 1842, Gogol died before finishing it, and parts of it were destroyed, but from his notes, it's an amalgam of The Iliad and The Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and the third part was to have been a poem. Gogol destroyed part of it, before his death. Gogol himself saw it as an epic poem in prose. I rather thought it like a sort of anti-Candide, but then Gogol's main purpose was to expose the moral rot of the Russian landowner and the exploitation of the serfs, despite what modernist critics like Vladimir Nabakov had to say. They felt that the book was not satirical in tone or content, regarded the work as unimportant and Gogol as a great writer.

Nevertheless, the plot belies such statements. Chichikov is the modern equivalent of a middle-class gentleman. he arrives in an unnamed village and turns on the charm, to quickly make friends with the local officials and important townspeople, but without letting on what he's about. 


Chichikov in the house of M. Korobochka, dickering for her Dead Souls.

The government would tax landowners on the number of serfs (or 'souls') the landowner possessed, determined by the census. Censuses in these periods were infrequent, so landowners were paying for souls that no longer existed. Chichikov was seeking to buy these dead souls, existing on paper only, telling the current owners that he merely has a use for them, and that the landowners will be spared the burden of paying for souls that they no longer own. 

He travels to surrounding estates and manages to purchase 400 such dead souls. Upon his return to the village and turns on the smarm. Thinking that the locals are really buying into this, when they agree to throw a celebration for his purchase of 400 dead souls, he begins to spin more and more elaborate yarns, which then become misinterpreted for everything from "He's Napolean!" to "he's going to marry so-and-so's daughter!" Chichikov is summarily run out of town on a rail, until he pops up somewhere else with another get-rich-quick scheme. In reality, Chichikov is a disgraced mid-level government worker, always trying to make a quick buck.

The locals are no dumber or smarter than any found in any other country. Gogol's satire is pointed squarely at the government, and he, no less than Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Feodor Dostoevsky and Alexander Pushkin would lampoon and satirize the government, until it became lethal to do so. 

                                                                                                                                                                     courtesy: The Nation

I don't know if satire has ever changed a government, or society, but as one who lived through eight years of George W. Bush, I can honestly say, as much as it was a disaster, it was a field day for the comedians and satirists in this country. About as much fun as the Brits had with Edward Heath, I understand.

 

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE – LETTER “R” – RAILLERY


Raillery

Raillery can really be looked at as a 'quip' extended. I do believe that it is more closely related to 'badinage', but most people just think of 'badinage' as a badly-wrapped wound, so we just will bypass 'badinage' altogether -- and it's a "B" word -- and move right on to 'raillery'. Besides, desperate times call for desperate measures, and right now, I feel as if I haven't been to my maths class all year, and I have a Calculus final tomorrow morning, and since 'badinage' doesn't begin with an 'r', which would make it 'radinage' meaning nothing, we will hope for the best, regarding 'raillery' which has not one damned thing to do with railroads, so the railroad people (this means YOU, Jeremy) can move on to Runescape and yuck it up in Chat and make fun of me, for once again writing a huge, run-on sentence and creating a huge in-joke. But, I digress.

Raillery noun \'rā-lǝ-rē\

:friendly joking about or with somebody

Origin if from the French raillerie, from Middle French, from railler to mock

First known use: 1653. It is related to quip, barb, sally, persiflage (a marvelous word) banter, and repartee.

I always enjoyed hearing about the Algonquin Round Table and the conversations that took place there. It was the hangout of many authors and clever wits; the likes of Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Edna Ferber, although there were about 24 members.

Some examples of their raillery:
  • Robert Sherwood, reviewing cowboy hero Tom Mix, “They say he rides as if he's part of the house, but they don't say which part.”
  • Dorothy Parker: “That woman speaks eighteen languages and can't say 'no' in any of them.”
  • George S. Kaufman: When once asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady's name into your newspaper?” Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”
                                                                                                                                                                                               courtesy: www.pbs.org

The Algonquin Round Table set taste and high-art, pre-depression America, at the Algonquin Hotel, circa 1925.

This is similar to the 'found' quip or raillery we get here in America, often after a local American NFL football team's dismal performance. Once, years ago, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are often called the Succaneers, lost once again, the coach was asked by the local sports guy what he thought of the teams' execution. The coach said tersely, “I'm all for it”. The Buccaneers are hardly better now. Besides that, it's baseball season. At least the The Tampa Bay Rays actually play baseball.