What’s Going On In Gasoline Alley? What comics would you have Comics Kingdom bring back? August – November 2020


The Comics Kingdom survey still seems to be up, so, let me remind you of it.

There are strips I’d love to see revived. There are strips I can’t see being revived usefully. What I mean is, we don’t need a new generation of Kabibble Kabaret. There, I’m sorry, estate of Harry Hershfield, but you know I’m right.

So, now, this essay should catch you up to early November 2020 in Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley. This link should have more up-to-date plot recaps, and any news about the strip, as I get it.

On my other blog, I’m writing up essays about mathematics terms. This week should be ‘V’. It’s probably also going to be late because it’s been a very busy week. I should have had a busy week for the letter ‘X’ instead; there’s so few X- words that I could miss the week and nobody could tell. Too bad. Now on to Gasoline Alley.

Gasoline Alley.

17 August – 7 November 2020.

Last time in a story I had thought might be a repeat, small-scale crook Joe Pye met his long-lost wife Shari. (I think it was new.) Shari’s upset about his vanishing years ago. But Pye and his sons had escaped from jail and need everything. He claims they’re wandering minstrels providing music for church services and stuff. She’s willing to fall for this. And they’re willing to go along with this for a bath, a meal, and a bed.

Joe Pye: 'Shari! Your church might not have the instruments we're, uh, used t'playing!' Pye Boy: 'Daddy's right! We need a five-string banjo, fiddle, guitar and tambourine! Most churches wouldn't have such as that!' Shari: 'No problem! We've got all them in the choir room! Great, huh?' Joe and Boy: 'Yeah! Great!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 10th of September, 2020. Once again, I want to point out Scancarelli’s draftsmanship. For example, in the three panels the camera rotates nearly 180 degrees around the action without being confusing. For another, look at Shari’s hand in the last panel, with the middle fingers resting together and the index and pinky fingers separating. That’s a pose your fingers take when you don’t notice, and it speaks to artistic observation that Scancarelli depicts that. Also it’s cute that Shari and her son have their hands to their cheeks simultaneously and conveying nearly opposite feelings.

And she can offer a job. Pastor Neil Enpray’s happy to have them perform in church this Sunday. They’re worse at music than I am, and I’m barely competent to listen to music. But all the Traveling Truebadours can do is bluff through it. The Pye men try to figure what they can do, while the pastor lectures on the appearances of snakes in the Bible. Joe Pye figures what they can do is pocket cash from the collection baskets.

Pastor Enpray asks Roscoe Pye to bring him a box, though. And inside is a snake! They’re terrified, fairly, and run, fleeing the church. It’s a rubber snake, of course, a toy. Enpray was hoping to “make an impression” on his congregation.

So, they escape without showing how they don’t know any hymns. But they’re also hungry and homeless. And figure Shari won’t take them back. Joe Pye figures they have one hope left: go back to prison. Why not break back in to their cells? This inspired me to wonder, when someone does escape prison, how long do they wait to reassign their cell? I have no idea. If you do, please write in.

They get there as another prisoner’s trying to break out. They’re caught up by the prison guards and confess they’re escaped prisoners. Warden Bordon Gordon, a tolerably deep Bob Newhart Show cut, is having none of it. He insists their time was up and they were released. He just forgot to mention. It so happens they were let out the same night four other people escaped, which is why there was a manhunt.

Warden: 'What brings you boys to see us?' Joe Pye: 'We're turning' ourselves in, warden.' Warden: 'What for? Your time was up! We released you!' Pye: 'You didn't tell us!' Warden, thinking: 'Hmm! I knew there was something I forgot to do!' Pye: 'So we escaped fo' nuthin!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 19th October, 2020. And yes, I see the Warden’s finger-cracking in the first panel too. It’s not hard to imagine Scancarelli having a decent career at Mad Magazine filling in the corners of the page with little toss-off gags.

The comic logic is sound. The Pyes figuring jail’s their best bet and they can’t get in, makes sense. I don’t know a specific silent comedy with this premise, but I’d bet all the A-tier comedians did something like that. I don’t fault you if you don’t buy this specific excuse.

Onward as the premise demands, though. They have to get arrested. Their best plan: steal from the grocery store. When they try to wheel a cart full of food out and admit they can’t pay, the store owner apologizes. Times are tough. Take the food. Have some soup, too. Because, you know, when you leave food in the hands of people rather than corporations, hungry people get to eat.

In the last days of October they approach a spooky old house. It sounds haunted. They run out of the place, and out of the strip; with the 30th of October we transition to Slim Skinner and the new story.


The haunted sounds are Slim’s fault, of course, but in a good way. He’d decked out a slated-for-demolition house for Halloween and that went great. There’s a bit of talk about getting the city to save the building, but that doesn’t seem to be the plot. Instead, in the middle of the night, Slim’s mother and cousin Chubby come to visit. And that’s where the daily plots stand.

Slim, dreaming of himself narrating a story: 'I'm Herbert Lewot, alies the Towel! (That's Lewot spelled backward!) My partner in grime is the Washrag! (His real name is Tex Grxznopfski, but it's too hard to pronounce forward or backward!) We patrol Ajax City aboard our sleek, modern vehicle, the Barsoap V, in search of crooks to clean up in the cities' clean up grime campaign! I spied a silhouetted 'second-story' man sneaking in a 20th story window!' Washrag: 'Wouldn't taking the fire escape be easier?' Towel: 'Washrag and I climb up the building and burst into the apartment after the crook! But to our dismay and alarm there was no villain! Who is it then?'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 20th of September, 2020. I picked this as the most active of the Towel strips. But the 13th and the 27th of September are the ones that have more little jokes and references tucked into the corners, so you might like those better.

For a couple weeks in September there was at least a running thread. Slim dreamed of being a Herbert Lewot, wealthy comic-book-reading bachelor who’s also the grime-fighter The Towel. (Spell “Lewot” backwards.) The setup feels very like an old-time-radio spoof of any number of old-time radio superheroes. (The ‘Tex Grxznopfski’ and talk about spelling backwards particularly feels Jack Benny Show to me.) Slim Skinner’s shown, for example, reading Yellow Jacket comics. Remember that both the Green Hornet and the Blue Beetle were respectable-enough radio superheroes. I’m sure there are more obscure bug-themed radio superheroes too. I think this is just a one-off, but if Scancarelli wants to fit a sub-strip into his strip? There’s a long history that he knows very well to support him.

Next Week!

The most anticipated plot recap since the new team took on Alley Oop. It’s my first plot recap for Jules Rivera’s Mark Trail, next week, if all goes well. See you then.

In Which I Evaluate Some Phobias


As this is a time of year to celebrate what scares us, let’s review some phobias.

The Fear that You Will Not Find Any Of These Greeting Cards Has The Right Tone to Send. The most common fear of all, outranking fears of death, falling to death, public speaking while dead, and dentistry while dead (receiving or performing). Take comfort. The last greeting card with the right tone was a Father’s Day card last sold in 1992. Just write something nice and apologize for the card being too flippant or too gushing and, I don’t know. Include some stickers or a ten-dollar bill or whatever. You’re fine.

The Fear that You Will Need To Handle The Toilet Paper While Your Hands Are Still Wet. It happens to us all, we’re in the shower, we need to something unsuitable for the shower, we have to face the consequences. Very good phobia, combining as it does a plausibly common scenario and an inconvenience we somehow take to be embarrassing. I’m not rating these, but seriously? Four out of five, unless you have that extra-soft toilet paper in which case five out of five.

The Fear of A Hole. Not the fear of any hole, mind, or the fear of particular patterns of holes like you see in morels or something. Just the fear of that one Hole. You know the one. But the world is huge, like, almost Earth-size. What are the odds you’ll ever be near that one Hole?

The Fear that You Know Something Almost Everybody Is Wrong About But Can’t Find The Blog Entry That Would Prove It. Endemic to know-it-alls, and terrible because then you feel this thing like shyness or reticence about correcting people. For me, this manifests with where I heard raindrops actually fall with the pointy-end down, round-end top, the opposite of the way we draw them. SEND HELP or at least good citations. Wikipedia doesn’t count.

The Fear that We are Running Out of Halloween Puns. Common and understandable. But we don’t need that many Halloween puns, and since there’s normally a fifty-week gap between times we need to use them, they’re not likely to be overused. If you do need some more, you can listen to some old-time-radio horror show like Inner Sanctum Mysteries and restock. They’ll be as good as new.

The Fear of Clowns. I am told this one is common and if that’s your thing, fine. I’m not feeling it, though. People will argue the point and say, like, isn’t the Pennywise the Clown from It scary? And, like, I guess so. But the scary thing is Pennywise is an immortal unstoppable supernatural monster out to rend the flesh of his victims. Would that be less scary if it were manifest in the form of Bob Newhart? And now that I’ve said that I’d like to see it. I figure it would have to go something like this:

“Hey — hi? Hi, up there? I — no, look down. No, not — over here, in the drain. … Yeah, the sewer. Hi. Uh, you look like a nice kid, what’s your name? … Joey? … Geordie, sorry, I thought you said … oh. Joey. … Not Joey. Could you say it slowly? … Yeah, maybe if you spell — look, Geordie, Joey, whatever … hey, would you — well, I’m in the drain for good reasons. … All right, I’m in the sewer for good reasons. … … What are they? … … Well, uh … they … hey, have you ever tried going in the drain? I don’t mean that kind of going! I mean entering, visiting in the drain. Have it your way, the sewer. Yeah. It’s better than you’d think. … No, I said think, not stink … okay, yes, have … have your little giggle. Yes, it’s very funny … I mean, it’s not that fun … Look, would you like to come down here and I can … give you a toy boat and, uh, rip your arm off and maybe give you a balloon. What? Repeat that? Give you a balloon. See? … Oh, before that … ah, there was a toy boat … Between those? Between the toy boat and the balloon … … … Look, it’s really neat down here, I promise. … Like, we all float down here. Jo … Geor … Sport-o, you’re a kid. Kids like to float, right? … … Well, yeah, it is mostly a lot of water here in the drain. … Yes, in the sewer. … Yeah, pretty much everybody floats in any water. Well, you got one over on ol’ PennyBob there … uh … hey, Georbie(?) … Are there any other kids up there? Could you put one of them on, please? … … … … He — Hello?”

All right, yeah, that is less scary. The clown thing must count for something.

I do not recommend any of these be put on a Phobia Improvement Plan.

Bob and Ray Get Wally Ballou’s Report on the World’s Fair, Early


So if Bob and Ray are known to someone who’s not a fan of old-time radio or of a previous generation’s comedians, it’s probably for one of these things: one of them (Bob) being father to Chris Elliot; the Slow Talkers of America; or Wally Ballou. Wally Ballou was I think their most reliable “field correspondent” bringing interviews. His first and most obvious running gag was that his cues were always mistimed. He’d almost always lose the first few syllables of “This is Wally Ballou, reporting from — ” and if that sounds like a slender thread on which to hang a recurring character, well, watch the noon news anchor throw to whoever’s in the field. Sixty years later the timing is still off.

Wally Ballou would interview as diligently as possible the people who occupy the Bob and Ray world. They’re all daft. It’s often not the obvious, clownishly goofy; it’s often just people with an odd idea that gets rigorously investigated. The hopefully-embedded link above, “591119 Wally Ballou on the Coming World’s Fair” if you just download the link, features Wally Ballou interviewing the guy who took the Perisphere home after the 1939 World’s Fair, and who had hopes for it to reappear in 1964. A slight premise? Perhaps. Talented people can build a lot on a slight premise.

Wally Ballou casts a long comic shadow. Bob Newhart has described how his career-defining telephone calls were written, essentially, as spec scripts for Wally Ballou. That was a revelation that floored me. I believe it; once you’ve studied the rhythms of both a Newhart telephone sketch and a Wally Ballou interview it’s hard to believe you ever didn’t notice that. But it also puts lie to the claim that Bob Newhart’s phone interviews were hilarious because the audience could imagine the absurd things he was hearing back. Bob Newhart’s phone interviews were hilarious because they found hilarious things to be about. Wally Ballou has both sides of the conversation and that doesn’t hurt either.

Jim Scancarelli, artist and writer for the comic strip Gasoline Alley — still running! — is among other things an old-time radio fan. Any sales clerk is likely to turn out to be Frank Nelson’s character from The Jack Benny Program. And when he needs a reporter for a scene Molly Ballew (sic) or her sister Polly Ballew are reliably called in to host. Their other sister Hulla Ballew has also appeared, as a newspaper journalist. For some reason Scancarelli has made it surprisingly insistent that these are Wally’s sisters. I would have thought making them his daughters, or even grand-daughters, less taxing on the timeline. After all, one of the defining traits of Gasoline Alley was that it progressed in more or less real time.

TV journalist Polly Ballew notes she's the sister of Molly and Wally Ballew (sic).
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley from the 2nd of August, 2010. One of the times she was introduced she or Molly specifically name-checked Bob and Ray. I haven’t been able to find that one.

Also I’m delighted that one of the running sketches, the Bob and Ray Trophy Train, takes the train in to Lansing, Michigan. And not just for a visit; the train, bringing souvenirs of Bob and Ray’s life on a goodwill tour to the areas outside CBS Studios, is said to be wintering over in Lansing. Well, I could walk to the train station where that would have been. (It’s a restaurant now.) Maybe it would have wintered at some other spot. Should ask the local comedy troupes if there’s a plaque marking the spot.

Bob and Ray also name-check radio station WJIM, which back then must have been the CBS affiliate. It’s still running, although as one of those News-Talk format stations that do so much to wear out one’s interest in news. WJIM was, Wikipedia claims, named after license owner Harold Gross’s son. It claims also that legend says Gross won the license, Lansing’s first commercial radio license, in a card game. That all delights me.

MiSTed: The Lesson of Thalidomide, Part 4 of 4


Part 1, introduction and John Glenn.

Part 2, German cows and procognition.

Part 3, how can a woman be right?

A bit about the actual history of thalidomide. Dr Frances Kelsey was neither acting arbitrarily nor capriciously when she refused to approve thalidomide. What she did was read the data which manufacturer Richardson Merrell had submitted to prove the drug’s safety and notice that it didn’t actually demonstrate that. She had also read in the medical literature the then-new discovery that drugs could pass through the placenta, from mother to fetus, and she requested evidence that thalidomide wasn’t doing that. And she had encountered a British study which found a nervous system side-effect from the drug and asked the maker to explain that. In short, she looked at the data, and where it was lacking, asked for more data; she read the medical literature and understood it; and she thought about consequences and asked about them. Thalidomide’s disastrous side was a horrible surprise. But it was a surprise that a curious and alert mind paying attention would catch.


>
> Test 1 is the animal test. Thalidomide proved
> completely harmless — in fact completely ineffective!
> — to the usual laboratory animals.

CROW: We’ve sent them a stern note about not being visibly harmed by drugs earlier and more clearly.

> (Since the blowup,
> it’s been found that enormous doses of thalidomide will
> not make a rabbit sleep

MIKE: But a cup of cocoa and a nice bit of reading will.

> . . . but will cause a pregnant
> rabbit to produce abnormal young.

TOM: So it would have passed animal testing as long as nobody noticed the deformed animals.

> Equally massive doses
> of barbiturates don’t do that; they kill the rabbit.

ALL: [ A few seconds of Elmer Fudd-style cackling before giving up with an ‘ugh’. ]

> It
> wouldn’t have indicated anything to the investigators
> except that thalidomide was safer than barbiturates!

CROW: And to be fair, who could foresee humans being pregnant just because rabbits can be?

> And
> it has now been discovered that, for reasons so far known
> only to God, thalidomide does make horses sleep! But who
> uses horses as “convenient laboratory animals for testing
> new drugs”?

MIKE: So how do we know thalidomide makes horses sleep?

TOM: Who looks at a drug that makes horribly deformed human babies and asks, ‘What will this do for horses?’

> And why should they; horses are herbivores,
> with a metabolism quite a long way from Man’s. Monkeys
> are expensive — and they don’t really match Man.)

CROW: Unlike mankind’s closest living relatives, rabbits.

>
> Test 2 — trying it on a small group of patients
> first.

MIKE: Is that a few patients or just on patients who are very tiny?

TOM: Picturing a study on human adults each eighteen inches tall?

MIKE: Pretty much.

>
> Now the first slight indication that thalidomide
> could have some bad side-effects was that neuritis
> business. It results from prolonged overuse of the drug.

TOM: Also the deformed babies, but that could just be the mothers’ fault.

>
> The doctors administering the first test-use of
> the new drug would, of course, regulate it carefully.

CROW: Unlike in the real world, where they gave out two and a half million tablets to a thousand doctors while waiting for the FDA to approve selling them.

> There would be no long-continued overuse under their
> administration — and therefore thalidomide wouldn’t
> have produced any neuritis.

TOM: As long as they didn’t do anything that produced any problems there’d never be any problems turning up.

>
> On that first, limited-sample test, there would
> be an inevitable, human tendency to avoid pregnant young
> women as test subjects for so experimental a drug.

CROW: Because it’s only a scientific test if you avoid real-world conditions that would be messy or hard to deal with.

>
> Result: thalidomide would have checked in as one
> hundred per cent safe and effective.

MIKE: Except for rabbits.

>
> The final two-year test was several thousand
> people. On this one we don’t have to guess; we’ve got the
> statistics.

TOM: Knowing the answers as we do, we can sound smarter than the people who were asking questions.

>
> During the time thalidomide was being considered
> by the Federal Drug Administration for licensing in this
> country, selected physicians in the United States were
> sent supplies of the drug for experimental use.

CROW: Under the ‘What the heck, like something could go wrong?’ program.

>
> Under this program, 15,904 people are known to
> have taken the pills.

MIKE: But we probably should’ve written down who they were, somewhere.

> Certainly that’s a good-sized
> second-level testing group for our proposed
> hyper-cautious test system.

TOM: I’d like to see it bigger and less cautious, of course, but we make do with what we have.

>
> Of those nearly 16,000 people, about 1 in 5 —
> 3,272 — were women of child-bearing age, and 207 of
> them were pregnant at the time.

CROW: 86 of those listened to and enjoyed The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. This is irrelevant to my point but is interesting nevertheless.

>
> There were no abnormal babies born, and no cases
> of polyneuritis reported.

TOM: And by ‘no’ I mean ‘seventeen’, but that’s close enough to ‘no’ for real science.

>
> Thalidomide passed the cautious tests with flying
> colors.

MIKE: Melting off the walls and pooling into a flavor of brick.

>
> Now the abnormalities that thalidomide does cause
> are some kind of misdirection of the normal growth-forces
> of the foetus.

TOM: But in the future we could have limitless abnormalities!

> The abnormalities are of a type that was
> well known to medicine long before thalidomide came along
> — abnormal babies have been produced for all the years
> the human race has existed, remember.

CROW: Heck, all things considered it’s the non-deformed babies that are the real sickos.

MIKE: Yeah, after this one I’m going to my bedroom and cry.

>
> Suppose that in our test, some women did bear
> abnormal babies. Say three of them were abnormal, and
> lived.

CROW: They can be an example to the rest of us!

> (A goodly number of the thalidomide-distorted
> babies died within hours.

MIKE: Technically everyone dies within hours if you count high enough.

> It doesn’t only affect arms and
> legs; thalidomide can mix up the internal organs as
> though they had been stirred with a spoon.)

TOM: Thanks, that detail doesn’t make me want to kill myself.

>
> So . . . ? So what? Aren’t a certain number of
> abnormal babies appearing all the time anyway?

TOM: Yeah! Well, one in four million, born like that.

> And with
> all this atomic-bomb testing going on . . . and this
> woman was examined repeatedly by X ray during pregnancy .

CROW: Really, with how complicated life is how can we ever really blame anything for anything?

> . . and remember that in the normal course of nine months
> of living, she will have taken dozens of other drugs,

MIKE: Because it’s the early 60s and we don’t want to think about what we’re pumping into our bodies.

> been exposed to uncountable other environmental
> influences, perhaps been in a minor automobile accident .
> . .

TOM: And you know how scaring the mother will leave a permanent mark on the children, right?

>
> Not until the drug is “tested” on literally
> millions of human beings will it be possible to get
> sufficiently numerous statistical samplings to be able to
> get significant results.

TOM: Slightly more, in Canada.

> Toss a coin three times, and it
> may come heads every time. This proves coins fall
> heads-up when tossed?

CROW: And even if it did, how would we know coin-tossing was causal and not merely correlated to coins coming up at all?

MIKE: It’s basic logic.

>
> Another drug was introduced for experimental
> testing some years ago.

TOM: Case closed.

> The physicians who got it were
> told to check their experimental patients carefully for
> possibilities of damage to liver, stomach and/or kidneys,

CROW: Also if the drug punched anyone in the face and ran off with their wallet.

> the expected possible undesirable side-effects of the
> drug. Practically no such damage was found — the drug
> was effective, and only in the very exceptional patient

TOM: The best kind! Everyone needs to be more like them.

> caused sufficient liver, stomach or kidney reaction to
> indicate it should be discontinued.
>
> Only it caused blindness.

MIKE: Well, what was it supposed to do?

CROW: Risk damaging the liver, stomach, and kidneys, apparently.

MIKE: Man, the eyes are nowhere near any of those, no wonder they didn’t approve it.

>

TOM: I hope they didn’t.

> The reaction was frequent and severe enough to
> make the drug absolutely impossible as a medicament —
> and was totally unexpected.

CROW: Nobody saw the blindness coming — oh, now I feel like going to my bedroom and weeping.

TOM: Yeah, this is a brutal one.

> It had not caused any such
> reaction in any of the experimental animals.

MIKE: In retrospect, testing exclusively on star-nosed moles may have been a mistake.

>
> No — the lesson of thalidomide is quite simple.

TOM: It’s ‘thalidomide’, not ‘thalidomine’, however much you think you remember it the other way.

MIKE: Hey, wait, it is, isn’t it?

>
> So long as human beings hope to make progress in
> control of disease and misery, some people will be lost
> in the exploration of the unknown.

CROW: Don’t go looking for them. There’s grues there.

>
> There is no way to prevent that. There is no
> possible system of tests that can avoid it — only
> minimize the risk.

TOM: By shoving unproved drugs down millions of people’s throats just in case one of them is good for something! The drugs, I mean, not the people.

>
> We could, of course, simply stop trying new drugs
> at all.

MIKE: Gotta say, it does sound like we’re not very good at making them.

> The animals never did try the pain and the risk
> of fire. They’re still animals, too.
>
> January 1963 John W Campbell

TOM: Who died of drinking DDT in a lead-lined glass while smoking an asbestos-filtered cigarette laced with cyclamates.

CROW: And saying none of it was statistically proven.

MIKE: John Glenn, everybody. John Glenn.

TOM: Let’s just get out of this popsicle stand.

[ ALL exit. ]

[ 1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… ]

[ SATELLITE OF LOVE DESK. TOM SERVO, MIKE, and CROW are in a line. ]

MIKE: Well, Pearl, wherever you are … I hope you’re satisfied with this heap of misery you’ve inflicted on us.

TOM: I think the only thing that’ll rescue our mood is the lighthearted yet barbed whimsy of the Rankin/Bass universe.

CROW: Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is on.

MIKE: The one where our hero Rudolph is searching for the Baby New Year, which will make thousand-year-old Aeon die.

TOM: Oh good heavens.
[ CROW flops over, defeated. ]

MIKE: Happy new year, everyone, and to all … guh.



                            \   |   /
                             \  |  /
                              \ | /
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                            ----O----
                               /|\
                              / | \
                             /  |  \
                            /   |   \
 

Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the characters and situations therein are the property of Best Brains, Inc, so I’d appreciate if you didn’t tell them what I’ve been up to all these years. The essay ‘The Lesson Of Thalidomide’ by John W Campbell was originally published in Analog and appeared in the archive.org resource Collected Editorials From Analog, https://archive.org/details/collectededitori01camp where it and much other writing can be enjoyed at your leisure. Nothing untoward or mean is meant toward John W Campbell or anyone at Analog, and I’m not irritated with archive.org or anything either. If you’re feeling bad about all this, consider: the word ‘bunny’ seems to come from Gaelic ‘bun’, referring to their tails, and doesn’t that make you grin some?

> for all I can know, she may have perfect and
> reliable trans-temporal clairvoyance, so that, in 1960,
> she was reading the medical reports published in late
> 1961, and basing her decisions very logically on that
> trans-temporal data.

Ian Shoales: What I Like


Ian Shoales has this attitude that could be sneering and cynical without being nihilistic, and if that weren’t a neat enough balance, a prose style that just invited me to keep following sharply-crafted sentences to punchy ends. I knew comic writing that was gut-wrenchingly funny; but this could be gut-wrenchingly funny and incisive, occasionally with gripping insights (as in one essay about movies and their intended audience, which just tossed off a hypothesis about why Dracula might be the perfect subject for movies). Coming off Dave Barry or old Bob Newhart albums — and those aren’t bad things, especially for the era I’m speaking of — this was a discovery.

But he had a generally useful lesson even for people facing huge content holes, said most explicitly in an essay that was way too long to include in this little Ian Shoales Week: you do not owe your thoughts gratitude for occurring to you. This may sound particularly cranky, but in context, it amounts to a lesson of expectations. Demand better ideas out of everyone, yourself included. This encouraged a little tradition of self-doubt in me, one I still feel, especially of any writing that seems to come too easily: was I demanding enough of my creation? I inevitably end up publishing stuff that I suspect I could do better if I worked harder at it, but he did push my default to working harder.

I mention Ian Shoales’s sneering because it does look like his most prominent characteristic, especially if you watch the videos he used to do for World News Now and, before that, Nightline. But the character was never all bitterness and rage, and here’s an essay that gathers together a lot of the things that he liked, and that, as far as I can tell, he still likes. It’s a good reminder for people who want to write in comic crankiness: even cranky people have stuff that they enjoy, and that can anchor a character very well. Although, Randy Newman? Really? Huh.


What I Like

I know you people out there are mighty grateful to me for setting you straight on issues of cultural importance, and I’d like to thank you in turn for all the letters I get —

All right, it’s just one letter, a thankful letter from Maryland, who likes my incisive comments but thinks I spend too much time on sarcasm and not enough on constructive criticism. This kind soul is worried about my emotional health and recommends, among other things, that I read the Findhorn Garden Book and take up horseback riding.

In response, let me say that I enjoy sarcasm, but I don’t enjoy horses or gardens. Horses and gardens are large and lumpy, and you have to go outside to appreciate them I don’t go outside until the sun’s set, that’s the way I am. It’s my responsibility to say No in a world that says Yes to every lame idea that comes down the pike. It’s my destiny and my joy to tear down without building up.

But to make you feel better (I feel fine), let me share with you a few of the things I actually like about the modern world.

I like strong beer. I like animated cartoons — not those Oscar-winning political allegories from Hungary, but real cartoons with fuzzy animals trying to kill each other in cute ways. I like electric typewriters and answering machines; I like any machine I can turn off. I like the novels by Elmore Leonard and Thomas Pynchon. I like good sex if it doesn’t last too long. I enjoy playing video games with other people’s quarters. Like most Americans, I enjoy being afraid of Cuba. It’s a harmless fear that makes America feel better and Cuba too. Cuba gets an inflated sense of national worth from the weight of our paranoia. I like getting large checks in the mail, especially if I’ve done nothing to earn them. I like the aroma of popcorn and women who like to hear me talk. I like to laugh at dogs. I like to call toll-free numbers and chat with the operators. I like phones that ring instead of chirp, clocks that have a face, Audie Murphy westerns, duck à l’orange and onion rings, old movies on television, and every tenth video on MTV.

Reggae music, Motown, and the songs of Randy Newman are an undiluted pleasure. I like the way rock singers pronounce the word baby — Bay-Buh. Bay-Buh. It never fails to amuse me. These are a few of my favorite things — about all of my favorite things. Make me feel real loose like a long necked goose and — o-oh bay buh — that’s what I like.

        — Reading my mail, 1/28/83

Robert Benchley Society Announces 2013 Writing Contest


It’s conceivable I’ll be making life harder for myself by spreading the word, but, I still think it’s worth spreading. The Robert Benchley Society, which celebrates the writing and other works of you-know-who, has started its 2013 Humor Writing Contest. The deadline for submissions (up to 500 words) is the 30th of August, and the final judging is to be done by Dr Gina Barreca, author of They Used To Call Me Snow White But I Drifted and a good number of other works.

I’d entered the 2008 contest (final judge that year, Bob Newhart, to my delight — whatever else might happen in my life, Bob Newhart read something I wrote with the intention of being funny), but only reached the finalist stage. I’ve meant to enter in years since, but kept missing the announcements of the contest, and I don’t want that sort of disappointment to happen to other folks if I can help it.

Robert Benchley: From Nine To Five (Excerpt)


[ Among the many talents of Robert Benchley was his capturing of a very specific sort of fumbling monologue; he could spin out meticulously crafted strings of words falling against one another. This is a segment of “From Nine To Five”, reprinted in Of All Things,a surprisingly lengthy essay about business, in which he describes his problems dictating, and how his self-aware discomfort feeds back on itself. Comedic fumbling is a most precious skill; Benchley was great at it. Those who haven’t heard Benchley’s voice well enough to know his speaking style might do almost as well imagining Bob Newhart reading it. ]

“ Good morning, Miss Kettle. . . . Take a letter, please . . . to the Nipco Drop Forge and Tool Company, Schenectady . . . S-c-h-e-c — er— well, Schenectady; you know how to spell that, I guess, Miss Kettle, ha! ha! . . . Nipco Drop Forge and Tool Company, Schenectady, New York, . . . Gentlemen —– er (business of touching finger tips and looking at the ceiling meditatively) —– Your favor of the 17th inst. at hand, and in reply would state that –— er (I should have thought this letter out before beginning to dictate and decided just what it if that we desire to state in reply)–— and in reply would state that –— er . . . our Mr. Mellish reports that — er . . . where is that letter from Mr. Mellish, Miss Kettle? . . . The one about the castings. . . . Oh, never mind, I guess I can remember what he said. . . . Let’s sec, where were we? . . . Oh, yes, that our Mr. Mellish reports that he shaw the sipment — I mean saw the shipment —– what’s the matter with me? (this girl must think that I’m a perfect fool) . . . that he shaw the sipment in question on the platform of the station at Miller’s Falls, and that it –— er . . . ah . . . ooom . . . (I’ll have this girl asleep in her chair in a minute. I’ll bet that she goes and tells the other girls that she has just taken a letter from a man with the mind of an eight-year-old boy). . . . We could, therefore, comma, . . . what’s the matter? . . . Oh, I didn’t finish that other sentence, I guess. . . . Let’s see, how did it go? . . . Oh, yes . . . and that I, or rather it, was in good shape . . . er, cross that out, please (this girl is simply wasting her time here. I could spell this out with alphabet blocks quicker and let her copy it) . . . and that it was in excellent shape at that shape — . . . or rather, at that time . . . er . . . period. New paragraph.

“We are, comma, therefore, comma, unable to . . . hello, Mr. Watterly, be right with you in half a second. . . . I’ll finish this later, Miss Kettle . . .
thank you.”

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