Fred Allen: People He Didn’t Expect To Meet

[ One of the soundest bits of comic advice I ever received, back as an undergraduate, from Ken Goldstein, fellow undergradute whose comic talents I admired was, “Funny names aren’t.” He added the reservation, “Unless you’re Groucho Marx.” I accepted this at the time, since the evidence seemed overwhelmingly on his side. But in those days I — and, I believe he — didn’t have such easy access to old-time radio, or I believe he’d have allowed that Fred Allen could provide funny names. His mock names have a wonderful-to-me crackle to them. I don’t know that he ever described his process for creating them — although he did often rely on the mixing of the highbrow and the low, as in “Socrates Mulligan”; or juxtaposing the fancy and the meek, as in “Delsarte Trundle”. Here’s another excerpt from Treadmill To Oblivion in which he talks about the hazards of such names. ]

People claiming that their names had been used in the news burlesques, and that they had been held up to ridicule, were always threatening to sue. To eliminate this annoyance we invented a set of names to use for comedy characters. Names like Tomtit McGee, Beau Bernstein, Falvey Nishball and hudreds of others. I thought we were safe coining these synthetic cognomens until one sumer up in Biddeford, maine, an old gentleman, a total stranger, stopped me on the street and said, “Mr. Allen, I heard my name on your program last winter. Who sent it in to you?” I said, “What is your name?” The old gentleman answered, “Sinbad Brittle.”

[ And while I’m here, I’d like to point out “synthetic cognomen” as a great combination of words, and a suitable name if you want something with a bit of a science fictional flair. ]

Along With The Tooth

Good news! I guess. The dentist called and they found my mouth. It’s going to sound ridiculous, but after searching the place they realized it had been left under my beard the whole time. It’s good to have it back, I suppose, although I was warming up to the idea of a brand-new one in replacement. You know how that fantasy is. Still, this is a lot less work, and I was getting tired of trying to figure out the procedure for making a lost-mouth claim with the homeowner’s insurance and getting hung up on all the time. Plus now I can get back to chewing like I’m used to. Bonus: they gave me two of those adorable little bottles of mouthwash.

Fred Allen: Audience Participation

[ This is a bit from Fred Allen’s book Treadmill to Oblivion, a radio-business memoir which includes generous excerpts from scripts, and a lot of talk — including quite some sulking — about the struggles he had against, particularly, the advertising men who ultimately controlled his program. This is an excerpt from his discussion of the Average Man’s Round Table, a segment from the hourlong program he did for Texaco, partly about how the willingness of the average person had chained with the coming of radio. His complaint may strike you also as being a perennial; however, the phrasing of it is, I think, exquisite, particularly in the latter paragraph here, and shows off why Fred Allen with a good head of steam was such a well-regarded comic writer. You could teach a course in comic writing just from his selection of adjectives. ]

The coming of radio, and his access to the microphone, resulted in the average man’s discovery of his ego. In vaudeville, years before, a magician had his trouble coaxing a member of the audience up on the stage to witness the magician “sawing a woman in halves” or “impaling a small Hindu concealed in a wicker basket on the point of a blunt sword”. The magician spent many minutes pleading, and assuring that nobody would be ridiculed during his performance, before one lone person would overpower his modesty, mount the stage and stand terrified before the audience.

Today, the Man in the Street does his broadcast hiding in a doorway. He is afraid to show himself in public. The minute his microphone is sighted a motley throng is on him. Soiled matrons eager to divulge how they first met their husbands. Tottering old men outfrailing each other to get to the mike and explain how they became ancient. Gamy adolescents vying to flaunt their arrogance.

Vim, Vigor, and That Other Thing

I’m getting back into regular exercise. I don’t want to make people envious of my physique, but in the past few years I’ve got into the best shape of my life, not counting that year in elementary school when I was a regular heptagon. When I say the best shape of my life, I mean the best shape for me, though. I have the raw athletic prowess of a tower of buckets. Given a reasonable time to warm up and stretch, I can pretty nearly successfully tip over and plummet onto the floor. Next week I’m hoping to get to tipping and plummeting onto the floor while wearing weights.

Why I Should’ve Watched My Mouth

The trouble started when my dentist suggested a more convenient way to get my teeth cleaned. Convenience is pretty much the source of every trouble, if you take a generous enough view of “the source”. Here the proximate cause was that getting my teeth cleaned is a thing to do, while the modern efficient society requires that we be doing at least four or twelve things at once, and my willingness to just hang about and be there left him unnerved. What other things could I be doing that I wasn’t? I suggested I could also stare intently at the bird feeder which has been occupied by a squirrel for six years straight and which is bending over under the accumulated mass of squirrel, but he didn’t think that enough.

What he suggested was that I could have him pop my mouth out, leave it there for him to clean efficiently, and I could go off to the mall or to a movie or to poke onto the Internet where I could find a thing and make fun of it digitally. I was skeptical, but he pointed out that it’s much easier to clean the back teeth if there aren’t all that front cheek in the way and if he doesn’t have to go around my mouth, and I figured I wasn’t expecting to say much of anything that day anyway, so I agreed. Of course, I used a series of head-bobbings to indicate approval, lest he think I wasn’t taking him seriously.

You’d think the first thing to worry about after he popped my mouth out was how it’d leave my moustache just hanging there. You’d be right, but then I went and did something foolish. I pretty near always go for fast food right after a dentist’s visit, dating back to when my father always took us kids to White Castle after the dentist cleaned our teeth, because my father wanted to be sure we grew up appreciating the inherent absurdity of life. So I rode over to the Burger King where the cashier once complimented my accent and sought reassurance that I don’t think Michigan accents sound funny and proceeded through a series of grunts and pointing at menu placemats to convince the cashier that I was late for the breakfast service. There’s a happy ending, though, since they had the cheesey omelette wraps left over.

There was something like forty minutes left, so I went over to the mall where I found stuff and looked at it manually. That went about like you’d expect, although outside the gourmet popcorn place I realized I had to cough pretty badly, and the gourmet popcorn cashier would only do it if we rang it up as a sale of a small bag of bacon-guacamole glazed popcorn. I’m glad I didn’t eat any either.

I got back to the dentist’s a little bit early because I was sure I was running late, and that’s the only way I get anywhere on time. He had this apologetic look and had me read over a brochure on fire safety while he tried to edge out of the room. They had got a little busy too, what with it being the modern age, and realized they were none too sure where my mouth had got to. This was no joke; they even showed me all the cupboards and we checked even the annoying drawers you have to kneel on the floor to see, and it just wasn’t there.

They’re sorry, of course, and you might imagine they would be, but they were able to set me up with a loaner mouth in order that I could bite people who needed it. And meanwhile the dental insurance company is pretty sure that if my mouth goes two weeks without appearing they can swing to buy me a permanent replacement. There’ve been some great upgrades available the last couple of years — stuff with polymers that sounds so great because I used to read a lot of pop science books from the 60s when polymers sounded really great, sabre teeth, micro-lasers so I could read a compact disc just by licking it — and I have to say, at this point I’m kind of hoping they don’t find it. It’s a weird state to be in, isn’t it?

Selected From The Spring Catalog

Carpet seeds (Item A). These hardy indoor plants grow to a near-uniform quarter-inch height and reach from stem to stern glare. As such they are reasonably satisfying for use as carpeting, and bring the pleasures of a fresh-mown lawn to wandering down the hall forgetting what you got up for. Watering is not needed after the base layer has grown in; merely occasionally spill a cup of a caffeinated drink such as coffee, tea, or cola onto the blades. Now that you need to, you never will spill a cup again. To ensure the grounds are sufficiently fed we offer a special off-balance motor which randomly shakes a glass or cup (see item 4, omitted for completeness). Rumors about the lawn-carpet capturing small children or pets and dragging them off to photosynthetic lifestyles are misleading. $14.99 per square yard or better offer.

The Subjectiveness of Puns

I’ve been reading John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises, which is a better book than the limp title implies. The book doesn’t quite live up to its subtitle about explaining “How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and made Wordplay More Than Some Antics”, and it inexplicably fails to mention the short story in which Isaac Asimov put forth a great theory about where jokes come from and why people groan at puns. Pollack also describes live pun contests, which sound like the sorts of pun cascades that mark the point at which I escape online comment threads. (I like puns, or at least don’t mind them, but every pun cascade is somehow the exact same cascade every time.) Well, it’s his fun.

But there’s a lot of punning going on, and talk about puns throughout their historical traces. One of them particularly delighted me so I thought I’d share it; it’s from the reign of King Charles II of England:

As the story goes, when the king was told that his jester, the playwright Charles Killigrew, could pun on any subject, he issued a challenge and commanded that Killigrew “make one on me”.

Instantly, Killigrew quipped that this was impossible, because “the king is no subject”.

I like it, certainly, and yet it still leaves the question whether this is actually a pun or just shifting between senses of a word.

I Never Was a Business-Minded Person

“We’ll need you for a conference call,” said the voice on the phone. This was a friendly voice, which made me think things were going well.

“All right … what are we going to be talking about?”

“We’re still figuring out the exact agenda, so just, stay loose, roll with it. We probably won’t need you really, we just want the insurance.”

I said thank you rather than work out whether to be insulted. “When is the call? When should I be there?”

“Oh, we’re working out the time. We’ll just call you when we’re ready.”

“Are you thinking it’ll be late morning? Early afternoon? Late afternoon?”

“Can’t really say. Just wait and we’ll be ready for you.”

“Is it going to be today?”

The voice sighed. “Don’t worry about trivialities. We We need you for the big-picture thinking, that insight you bring into our i-dotting and t-crossing.”

And this is why I spent the whole day sitting at the table, staring at my cell phone, wondering if I could dash off to the bathroom without getting caught.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Body Politic

There’s something exciting and liberating about digging into a sheet of paper and just drawing whatever comes to mind, particularly if there’s something else important to be done. But taking a picture of someone — there are over 14 people photographed on the Internet, you know — and trying to caricature them reveals something astounding about humanity and artwork. That revelation is: all caricatures manage to somehow resemble Richard Nixon.

Unbared Soles

Continuing my thoughts about fashion, though, men’s dress socks are interesting, shut up, they are too, because as far as I can tell they’re the only articles of clothing men routinely buy that are deliberately meant to feel good when they’re put on. I don’t mean other stuff men wear is designed to feel bad, just that the skin feel isn’t considered. If a T-shirt had a couple poisoned metal spikes woven into the cloth, or a jacket happened to contain a spring-loaded bear trap, that’d be something guys would pretty much take it as that’s the sort of thing that’ll happen and you kind of like it when you get used to it. Not with dress socks; they just feel really good.

The trade-off dress socks have is they’re all very slightly different colors and they mutate between when you put them on and when you go out in public, so there’s never a risk of putting on a pair. Many’s the time I slipped on what looked to me like two black high-cut socks which, when I got into the sun, I found were one medium-length navy blue sock and one speckled trout who was angry but surprisingly reasonable given the circumstance. More reasonable than I’d be. It’s enough to drive a guy to tube socks.

Neither Loud nor Square. Maybe Square.

I don’t want to sound too much the Beau Brummel, but I’d like to point out that I now have the same shirt in four slightly different shades of blue. This is a big improvement on my old wardrobe, which had the same shirt in several different colors none of which seem to have been actually made by any shirt-making company on purpose (“Is that an off-grey?” “I think so”). I’m not really bad at dressing myself, in that I nearly always get the shirt and the pants on the correct body (mine), but selecting what to wear has been a problem. My Dearly Beloved has this very kind amused expression on noticing I’ve dressed myself, kind of the one you might give a Labrador retriever who’s just turned in a calculus final. Anyway, Brummel died penniless and insane and played cricket, so I’m ahead on those counts too.

How To Overcome Popularity

If you’ve followed my advice you’ve managed to become more likable all around, and good for that. But people don’t always know how to stop once they start doing a good thing. This is how approximately 16 percent of all our problems came about: we started out doing something good, such as walking a mile each day, and then kept doing it a little more, such as two miles, or three, and before long we were walking 185 miles each day and finding ourselves far out into the ocean before lunch. Similarly, if you’ve been too good at making yourself likable it’s possible you’re spending all your free time and two-thirds of your neighbors’ keeping up with the obligations of being liked, such as asking people how they are, appearing in Likability Day parades, or trying out hats. So here’s some ways to tamp down that excessive popularity.

Likability is made or broken in small talk. Consider when someone asks you how you’re doing: the temptation is to answer “fine” or “okay” or “somebody dropped my computer from a blimp” or “my tire pressure is low”. Any of them serve to make you look like an interesting, involved person. You must crush this at any moment. Respond by looking sheepishly around and checking that it’s actually you being asked about, and if the person insists, answer that they don’t really want to know. Before long, they will. Or won’t. You know what I mean.

It’s possible this won’t be enough, and people will persist in liking you. Then it’s important to start warning them that you are unlikable, and that people shouldn’t like you. Don’t let up on this. Keep sending out the message that people don’t like you, and eventually even the people who do will give up and go on to more likable people, such as people who won’t stop talking about how they hate that Flickr and Google Maps don’t make much sense in the web browser Lynx.

If someone still hasn’t given up talking to you, computers are a great subject to make yourself less likable. This isn’t about how you use them, exactly, but rather just start talking about how foolish people are to ever buy a new computer, for any circumstance, and keep pointing out that whatever old machine they might have is perfectly usable, if you’re willing to put up with Lynx. Be relentless, something like this:

FRIEND: So I’ll be going to Best Buy to test-drive a bunch of laptops this evening.

YOU: Why do that? Your old computer’s still as good as the day you bought it. Better, if you’ve been sensibly upgrading it and keeping it on a fiber-rich software diet.

FRIEND: It was made by Commodore.

YOU: Then it’s got classic-ish lines and a BASIC that in some ways isn’t perfectly horrible.

FRIEND: And the video chip broke so all it shows on the screen is noise.

YOU: Beautiful! You can set up a web server on that, and ssh in for all your computing needs.

FRIEND: It’s a Commodore 16.

YOU: That’s great, think of the novelty value! Everyone who thought those were only made as a prank will be proven wrong. You’ll be Internet Famous if you market it right.

FRIEND: And I already dropped it over a cliff.

YOU: That’ll make such an interesting blog entry about it.

FRIEND: From a blimp.

YOU: See, who’d do that with an iPad mini?

If people persist in liking you through computer talk, shift to grammar. Everyone has something that annoys them about some words: I don’t like the phrase “grow your business” and for absolutely no rational reason. Maybe it’s because it makes me feel like I ought to have a business to grow. Find your own peeve, though, and carry on about that whenever you can. If you can’t think of something you care about, try complaining about the evolution of the word “decimate”. The only times “decimate” has been used to mean “destroy exactly one-tenth and not more or less” since 1732 has been in sentences composed by people complaining about the evolution of the word “decimate”, so it’s a well-established thing that people don’t want to hear about anymore.

If that doesn’t work, keep trying. Remember, any time you make a social interaction into an endurance contest you have already overcome likability, and congratulations on your victory.

The Weather Makers

So this morning as I got up it was 72 degrees Fahrenheit and blizzarding, which is when I’d had enough of that. Yesterday it was -15 and there was a hot, muggy rain falling; the day before it was the upper-40s with scattered asteroids, and just before that it was the mid-20s with interminable reports on the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. I’m loathe to do anything mechanical around the house but I did go around back, unplug the weather, wait ten seconds, and then plug it back in while holding down the option-flower-P-R keys to reset the PRAM. That usually fixes these problems, but now it’s in the high 60s and there’s a zephyr in the breakfast nook pointing at me, laughing, and scattering Golden Grahams on the floor. I think we’re going to have to get a whole new weather and start from scratch.

This Day In History: 1805

April 17, 1805: Napoleon Bonaparte proposes the building of a stone-arch bridge around the entire world, which his subordinates acclaim as a bold and most challenging accomplishment beyond the dreams of everyone. Napoleon announces that to make the project more practical it will be built as a ring just a couple feet away from the North Pole, vastly farther north than anyone has ever been or imagined it possible to be, and his subordinates admire his vision and daring. He then announces that since the Earth is round you can draw an axis anywhere and make a loop around any spot, so they should just build it in the suburbs of Paris, and his subordinates start to wonder if he’s just putting them on. Napoleon grins inscrutably, and his subordinates are honestly relieved to hear the British are attacking again.

Also, I’ve added an embedded YouTube video link to my bit yesterday about Harold Lloyd’s Number, Please? so the movie should be easier to watch.

Harold Lloyd’s _Number, Please_?

I like silent movies. They’re interesting on many grounds, not least that it’s an art form which appeared in a rough, primitive form, grew to astounding sophistication within a generation, and then vanished, apart from a few novelty acts, in a half-decade, even though the legacy of this genre is still perfectly with us. I particularly like silent comedies, but I’ll try nearly anything.

Number, Please? is a 1920 Harold Lloyd picture, with Lloyd racing Roy Brooks (Lloyd’s personal assistant) to the mother of Mildred Davis’s character, looking for parental consent to a hot air balloon ride. It’s all quite funny, not least because any stunts you see are really done, with a shocking minimum of tricks done by camera or editing.

As often happens with silent comedies, especially short ones like this, the characters don’t have actual names — just “The Boy” for Lloyd, “The Girl” for Davis, and “The Rival” for Brooks — although it wouldn’t do much besides slow down the intertitles a bit if they were given particular names.

Much of the action is at the amusement piers in Venice Beach, California, or as people looking at the early scenes of Lloyd riding the back of a roller coaster call it, “Coney Island”.

I wanted to have the video embedded, since that’s so much more sensible than not, but there seems to be some problem with embedding stuff from at WordPress blogs that doesn’t actually work if I follow the directions to make it work. I’m sorry about that.

So I Guess That’s The World Saved And Stuff

Even though I couldn’t have expected the problem of this ever-increasing wave of people singing “Eye of the Tiger” I did do something about trying to stop or at least contain it. Given the edition of Rock Band on hand the only thing to do was try Starship’s “We Built This City”, trusting that its higher pitches and really catchy refrain would have a chance of catching up to Survivor’s song and maybe disrupting it. What I didn’t remember, though, is there’s this weird little stretch in the middle where the song goes over to a traffic report or something for the imaginary radio station and that just kills its momentum.

But fortunately the “Eye of the Tiger” wave got disrupted before it could get past the mid-Michigan/Detroit/northwest-Ohio triangle, because — and I didn’t realize this either — at any moment approximately 18 percent of people aged 35 to 49 are humming A-Ha’s “Take On Me”. This breaks up the “Eye of the Tiger” momentum in just the same way mangrove swamps absorb tidal waves, so, great job everyone. It’s really not my fault.

The Lockhorns Confuses Me

Something about this Friday’s installment of Bunny Hoest and John Reiner’s The Lockhorns fascinates me and I thought I’d spend a couple words working out just why. You can see it here, or from its original source on at least through the April 11, 2014.

It’s simply Loretta insulting Leroy, because he’s asleep and she thought of something with the word “sleeper” in it. And I understand the attempted joke so, at least, the objective is nominally met: Hoest and Reiner said something intended to be funny, and this reader saw it and recognized it as such an attempt. Good so far. Yet …

Where are they? From the bag of popcorn in Leroy’s hand and the unused seats folding up, the implication is they’re at a movie theater. All right. Why are there two windows in the walls? And is that a door or … what … in the back? But if they’re not at a movie theater, then where are they? Why would Leroy have a bag of popcorn and why would the seats pop up?

Stipulating that they’re at a movie theater, what’s going on that Loretta thinks to tell a stranger that Leroy would have to be in a sleeper cell to be a spy at all? Are they watching a spy movie? The trailers for a spy movie? Did the strangers say something that would connect the stuff on-screen to Leroy’s nodding off? What logical precursor keeps Loretta from spouting a fairly weird non sequitur?

Also, is anyone enjoying the supposed movie? It’s a lot of faces of resignation and a grim determination to see this miserable night through to the end. Can that be what they meant? But why that?

Ultimately, I think if it weren’t for the windows I’d never have noticed this panel enough to have questions about it.

It’s Not My Fault Except For Starting It

OK, we were just playing Rock Band and we got around to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” because Survivors’ “Eye of the Tiger”, and we were doing all right. Only when we started singing some of the other people in the room started singing along, and that’s fine and I don’t think we were getting Music angry at us for doing it. And then some people out in the hall heard and started in, from the top of the lyrics ecause that’s just easier for everyone converned, isn’t it? And then some people farther down from that started in and, well, anyway, the mass of people singing “Eye of the Tiger” is expected to reach Ann Arbor within the hour, and it if it can get past security at Detroit International Airport it might hit the whole country by the time you read this.

Anyway, it’s not my fault because how were we supposed to know anyone would join in? And it could have been worse because it could have been Queen’s “We are the Champions”, which would make Ann Arbor just feel terrible this week. I scored 88 percent on the Super Easy mode and was scolded as an energy hoarder, whatever that means.

What’s Interesting About Numbers?

Numbers have been used for things for thousands of years, longer if we count stopping for lunch. But surely the greatest breakthrough was when people started to use numbers for numbers, instead of the other way around. So let’s take a chance to review some interesting and quirky facts about various numbers and avoid the people who make a big fuss about the difference between numbers and numerals.

-20. This the so-called “ambiguous point”, as for negative numbers less than this, it’s clear that “becoming bigger” means a more negative number; while for numbers greater than this, “becoming bigger” might mean becoming more negative or more positive depending on just how quarrelsome the person you’re trying to speak with is being.

-8. According to most historians of mathematics, this is the number which should properly be 0 so as to make the number line work wholly sensibly.

-4. This is of historic importance as -4 was the first expansion number ever to appear in the playoffs, and (three years later) was the first to win. This set off a “gold rush” as people sought easy success in other negative numbers and while the field has proved useful this pioneering number, as so often happens, saw its fortunes dwindle. In 1964 a statewide reorganization merged it with negative 5 and negative pi, but the need to establish a regional snow-clearing plan means that its administrative organization is equivalent to being a separate number in all but legal name.

0.78. Packing fraction for pretty much everything.

1.000000 … 00003. This is the smallest number that’s still larger than 1.

6. This is the average number of days the typical American will lose, per year, to chanting the drum parts of the theme from George of the Jungle. Of course, while you’re busy chanting it the day doesn’t seem lost at all; if anything, it seems to be picking up quite nicely and actually going into the lyrics feels like a mild step down.

4.587. This is a phony number slipped in as a copyright trap by the Hammond World Atlas Corporation. The four was based on a real number (seven), but the digits past the decimal are believed to have been selected by Caleb Stillson Hammond as the sort of whimsy for which he was so well known. It slipped into the regular number line following a famous yet confusing court ruling which determined that whatever Lieutenant Columbo’s first name was, it wasn’t “Lucius”.

8. This is a most popular base for numbers among people who are fans of base eight, such as those who are programming computers in the 1960s. Some adherents insist we should move to base eight, on the grounds of they have reasons, but they overlook the increased property taxes which combined with moving expenses make the prospect wholly uneconomical. Just nod vacantly and scuttle off to some important business, possibly in base five.

16. This is a fascinating number as it records the number of additional years after the invention of the atomic bomb that it required humanity to successfully write the song “On Top Of Spaghetti”.

17.113. The most seventeen-est of numbers, according to a survey of leading mathematics departments who were kidding. There’s just no appreciation for good sarcasm anymore.

18. And this is the number of additional years after the invention of the atomic bomb that it required humanity to successfully record “On Top Of Spaghetti”.

138. This is the smallest number (by avoirdupois weight) to never be used for anything except appearances in lists of numbers with some interesting or uninteresting property to them.

311. This is the number most convincingly prime-like of all the numbers people can’t be bothered to quite figure out whether is prime or not. 313 is a pretty good one too except that one really feels like it ought to be divisible by 17. We keep checking it to make sure it hasn’t changed its mind.

\sqrt{\imath}. This is a popular number among people who think they’re being puckishly whimsical about algebra or who have stumbled across the mathematical equivalent of “how do I know I’m not just dreaming I’m awake?” The answer is that if you were just dreaming you were awake, you would know whether the blue you see is the same hue as the red other people see. See also: Boltzmann brains.

\sqrt{j - k}. The scariest quaternion in the world.

[ Also, for the non-bots following me, and who like mathematics stuff, I do keep up a mathematics-focused blog, with less efforts on my part to be generally silly. ]

Time Saved

Now that the clocks around here all know which one’s the least important we can finally advance the microwave clock to Daylight Saving Time. It’s a harsh policy, a little heartless, but it’s the easiest way to make sure the clocks keep urging one another to greater productivity. The best time with this was a couple years ago when I had clocks on all four walls in the living room, and they were able to keep each other encouraged. Some of them got working so hard they’d fit up to 26 hours of time into every day and everything past the first 24 hours is, of course, pure profit.