What You Missed At Open-Mike Night


  • The announcements on the event board that it was going to be open-mike night until someone went up on stage and said, “check, check one, check one” and then left, ninety minutes before the event started.
  • Someone who thought he was signing up for karaoke night. But who was game for this and did his best by pulling up The Bangles’ Walk Like An Egyptian on his phone and singing along to it until two-thirds of the way through when the phone crashed.
  • An excessively long anecdote that might be personal. But the central premise is that it’s a very funny thing to suppose that grandmothers might be on Facebook, and even moreso that it would be hilarious that they might get snarky at one another when talking about their grandkids over what seems like a minor misunderstanding to start with.
  • A singer who’s really working hard on getting this “I say”/“You say” call-and-response going, even though the audience somehow doesn’t seem able to quite get what they’re supposed to say back. It’s hard to pin down blame except that he seems to be rallying pride for the vaguely-defined neighborhood that ends about two blocks over from the bar and that the audience has only vague impressions of. “Isn’t that where they have all the hot tub showrooms?” asks someone leaning over from the nearly functional Getaway pinball machine. Did you even notice there was a second hot tub showroom? Be honest.
  • Oh, Lord, someone workshopping a bit for their comedy troupe and they’re interviewing a Folkmanis raccoon puppet about Donald Trump’s tax returns. Cute voice on the raccoon. Good puppet work.
  • Another fellow who figured to make this into karaoke night since that worked nearly right for the first person. So he pulls up the theme to Transformers on his phone and after the very long intro discovers he’s somehow got the Spanish-language version, which is a thing that it turns out exists? He laughs and retreats, head under his arms, into the corner until he comes back and just pantomimes like he’s Tom Jones to this whole thing.
  • Guy straddling the line between a rant and a comedy bit about how the promise of genetic engineering was how it was going to let us turn into werewolves and dinosaurs and cool stuff like that. But now it’s here and what is it about? Doing stuff to Progresso Lentils-with-Vegetable soup that’s so boring they can’t even bring themselves to specify what it is on the labels. He’s got something there.
  • Progreso Lentil with Roasted Vegetables soup. Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.
    Yes, the label says now that its exchanges are good for 1 Starch and 1 Vegetable, but analysts expect it’ll rise to 1.15 Starch and 1.05 Vegetable after the quarterly earnings report comes out so rebalance your portfolio appropriately. Also: Raisin Juice Concentrate? This is a thing?
  • They’re going to take a twenty-minute break now which turns out to be thirteen minutes long.
  • Quickly-delivered beat poem that’s doing very well at sounding like what you hope for out of an open-mike night. It’s way too dense to actually parse but there seems to be something going on with nation-duration-obliteration and fence-dense-Pence-offense that suggests they know what they’re doing. Probably the highlight of the night even if the audience is going to spend the whole next day trying to work out what fit between nation and duration and obliteration and whether there’s a fourth word that could fit the rhyme scheme. Abomination, sure, but right-wingers wrecked that word when they mashed it up with Obama’s name to denounce stuff like non-binary people being allowed to pee.
  • Guy who can’t be heard even though he’s standing so close to the microphone it may actually be inside his mouth. He apologizes for not “speaking up” and “louder” four times over the course of his two-minute set.
  • They take the other seven minutes of break now. It takes twelve minutes.
  • Some guy staring close at his iPhone and reading They Might Be Giants’ Birdhouse In Your Soul with all the words in alphabetical order until he gets dizzy.
  • Fellow who wanted to read the classifieds from the free weekly in a funny voice. In a courageous act he didn’t vet the classifieds beforehand, and apparently didn’t realize how much they change week to week, so he’s trying to build something out of Dave’s offer for snow removal.
  • Someone telling a comic anecdote and who’s just assumed that of course we’re on her side in this encounter with a Kmart cashier whom she’s decided was asking stupid questions. The saving grace is supposing that the storyteller is making all this up after deciding that she should’ve been a worse person after leaving the store, but then, oh yeah, remember working retail?
  • Thanks everyone for coming out to another great open-mike night, it’s the great audiences we get here that make it possible for everyone to come out and …
  • Sorry, we missed this woman who signed up to tell about just how crazy her phone call to her Congressman turned out but you’ll give her a listen now, won’t you? Thank you. Thanks for coming out and supporting creativity in the neighborhood.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The trading index rose six points over the course of the day with everybody being in really good spirits after finding out that paczki are back and someone brought a 24-pack box in from the Quality Dairy and now everybody’s kind of sleeping off a paczki coma.

105

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Plus I’m Not Even Looking For An Estate Right Now


The classified in the back of the alt-weekly reads:

Tom & Jerry’s Nice Old Things Estate Sales!

Have we forgotten already the trouble with the Three Stooges Plumbing Supply Company, or Buster Keaton Home Contractors? What about the workmanship problems with the stuff from the Woody Woodpecker Trophy Shop? The typos in all those business cards from Tweetie Pie’s Printing? That terrible latte at the Tasmanian Devil Coffee Shop? The Little Tramp’s Deluxe Shoe Eatatorium? Chilly Willy’s Chilled Wills and Probate? Say, maybe they refer people to Tom & Jerry’s Estate Sales.

There’s just warning signs, that’s all I’m saying.

Missing Christmas Ornaments with Bob and Ray


I felt like sharing a little old-time radio this weekend. So here, please enjoy the fifteen minutes of Bob and Ray Present The CBS Radio Network. This episode’s from the 15th of December, 1959.

Besides some experimental new sound effects the episode includes an installment of One Fella’s Family, all about the search for the missing Christmas ornaments. There’s a happy ending to it.


Also, there’s another comic strip review over on my mathematics blog. Do enjoy, if that’s your taste.

Betty Boop: So who’s this Freddy character anyway?


Last week’s Betty Boop cartoon, Betty Boop’s Life Guard, raised the musical question of “Where’s Freddy?” They put the question in a song that lasted only about two minutes on-screen but which can last in the head for as much as eight years straight. Sorry about that. But at least as good a question is “Who’s this Freddy person again, exactly?”

Freddy, or Fearless Fred, is Betty Boop’s second boyfriend, for a half-dozen cartoons in 1934 and 1935. It’s repeatedly claimed he was created because under the enforced Production Code Betty Boop couldn’t be dating Bimbo — a dog — once she was finally established as human. I suspect that’s not a complete answer, though. If the Fleischers just wanted Betty Boop to pair up with a human, why not Koko the Clown? He was unmistakably human, and had been on screen for fifteen years, and even canoodled a bit with Betty now and then. Or why not humanize Bimbo? Why add a new character?

My suspicion is that Freddy reflects the discovery of personality. Cartoon characters didn’t lack personality before the early 1930s, but they did tend to be less distinct. Bimbo is faintly pleasant, kind of playful, a little mischievous, easily intimidated: what you’d get from a talented high school theater class producing their very own Little Tramp sketch. You see almost the same personality as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, as Bosko and then Foxy over at Warner Brothers. The biggest difference is in how much the characters seem like blackface jokes.

Soon, though, cartoon characters with personality started taking over. Betty Boop was a forerunner. Goofy appears in 1932; Popeye and his cast in 1933. Donald Duck would appear in 1934. They’re characters of a different order from Bimbo or even Koko. I believe that Fearless Freddy was an attempt to give Betty Boop, and the studio, a credible male lead who has character. And to support this I’d like to show the first cartoon with Fearless Freddy, She Wronged Him Right, which debuted the 5th of January, 1934.

His introductory cartoon is a theatrical performance. Fearless Freddy, Betty Boop, and Heeza Rat play out some versions of themselves. Two of his other appearances, Betty Boop’s Prize Show and No! No! A Thousand Times No!, his final appearance, would use the same framing device. The plot is the grand Spoof Victorian Melodrama of the sort we all thought was done to perfection by Dudley Do-Right. Perhaps it was; but the Spoof Victorian Melodrama was also being done very well in the 1930s, and in the silent movie era, and for that matter by the Victorians themselves.

At some point you have to wonder if the Victorian Melodrama was ever played straight. You wonder more once you learn that silent movie melodrama villains never tied women to railroad tracks. If you see one, it’s from a spoof. This cartoon is part of a curious genre that seems to exist only as a parody. There’s something weird here.

But you can see why a figure like Bimbo just won’t cut it for a Spoof Victorian Melodrama, and why even Koko wouldn’t do. The role has to be cast by someone who looks the part even as he looks ridiculous. Fearless Fred, helplessly dragged behind a horse, can make the best of his plight by declaring “I think I’ll go this way” and make sense. If Bimbo made the same declaration it would sound like the cartoon was nervous about nobody saying anything for too long.

The stage-set framing adds some weirdness to the look of the cartoon. Sets slide in and out, and people walk on the sets within a fixed proscenium. It’s more fun to watch than it probably would have been without the stage convention. Betty Boop’s Prize Show and No! No! A Thousand Times No! have even more fun with using stage mechanics to suggest complicated lines of motion and that’s a fun, dizzying, hypnotic illusion.

Outside his roles as a stage character Fearless Fred would play a lifeguard, a soldier (against an army of giant mosquitoes), and a traffic cop. They’re not far off the Spoof Victorian Melodrama hero-role and he’s affably not-quite-ept in them all. While he’s not as strong a character as (say) Wimpy, or even Gabby (from the Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels and some spinoff cartoons), he’s a good step forward. He doesn’t steal a scene from Betty Boop, but it’s at least thinkable that he might.

Some Stuff About Stan Freberg


The Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper I managed decided one semester the front page of the first issue should be devoted to an essay dubbed “Embracing the Doom: A First-Year Unhandbook”. Its thesis was that we are all basically, deeply doomed, and while it was easy to deny this or despair from this, we were all better off embracing that doom and carrying on proudly. At the time I thought it the stupidest thing we could have printed and almost ridiculously playing to our paper’s stereotype as made by people just educated enough to be idiots about everything. I was wrong. I’ve come to realize there’s wisdom in accept that even if we are in the long run doomed, that doesn’t mean we can’t be satisfied and see a lot of sunny days while we get there.

This brings me to Stan Freberg, the humorist and satirist and voice-actor and advertising-creator whose death was reported yesterday. His style was almost definitive of a kind of humor that I associate with a particular circa-1960 smart set: literate, absurdist, cynical but not dismissive, dropping out of a wry detachment when there’s a belly laugh just about set up. It’s the voice of people who noticed they might just be the smartest person in the room, but are worried that they’re not all that bright themselves. I might try to call it cartoon existentialism, since many of the most accessible examples of it were cartoons made with that Rocky and Bullwinkle spirit, and for that matter of the better Hanna-Barbera cartoons from when the writing had some edge: characters who know they’re in adventures and who know the stories don’t really make sense, but who embrace it because someday the cartoon will end and you can either be entertaining while you get there or not, and the entertaining side has a better time of it. In short, there’s doom to be embraced.

After a lot of voice-acting work and comic records — incidentally crystallizing the Dragnet quote “just the facts, ma’am” in a spoof of that program — and supporting parts in other shows Stan Freberg finally got the dream job of producing a half-hour radio comedy for a major network, CBS, though as the gods of irony demanded he got the chance in 1957, when the major networks had decided to shut down original scripted programming on radio in favor of television. Freberg’s show would probably always had a hard time on commercial radio, as its style of humor fits in the Fred Allen/Henry Morgan/George Carlin vein that makes advertisers wary and network vice-presidents worried about what he’s going to say on their program; the program ended up being a “sustaining program” — no advertising, no sponsors. That’s normally a mark of a program being broadcast as a public service, or as an experiment developing the state of the art. Freberg didn’t want the show to have a single sponsor, and didn’t want tobacco advertising either, and four months after the show debuted, it was ended.

Archive.org has a set of all fifteen episodes of this show, and I recommend it as a way to sample Freberg’s work, and to taste this particular era of comedy: it’s knowing, sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes silly, offended by the madness of the world but unable to disengage from it, the sort of thing that will merge the folly of Las Vegas casinos with the threat of atomic war. (The show also makes use of many of Freberg’s comedy records from the 1950s, sometimes in revised form, so you also get a taste of how he got to be someone noteworthy enough to have a half-hour comedy program.) We might all be characters in a mad, doomed story, but it can be fun along the way.

Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Buster Keaton in: The Garage


And now, let me close out what’s become an Arbuckle-and-Keaton month of videos with The Garage, the last of their collaborations. This one, from 1920, is set in a small-town gas station-slash-fire station, which I guess will happen in your smaller towns, especially on-screen. From that starting point it’s able naturally to combine jokes about demolishing cars in the process of cleaning them with jokes about things being on fire.

The TCM article on this movie claims that Keaton cited it as his favorite collaboration with Arbuckle. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true. The film may be a string of gags loosely bound by some connective plot tissue but they’re good gags, timed well and paced well together.

Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Buster Keaton in: The Butcher Boy


It’s a common refrain about silent movies that they’re often fascinating just because they’re accidental documentaries. 1917’s The Butcher Boy, here, is one of them because it showcases a model of store that’s basically extinct in the United States: the general store in which all the merchandise is kept safely tucked away from the customers’ hands, thank you, and for that matter the person who gets what you want off the shelves isn’t necessarily the same person who wraps up your packages, and may well have nothing to do with the person who takes your money and counts your change (if you didn’t just put it on your account).

Since the model of the self-service market took over — it really got going in the 1920s — it’s hard to quite believe this used to be normal. It almost seems designed exclusively to stuff movie scenes full of comic actors, standing at the edge of an abundant supply of missiles, with hapless customers standing in the middle ready to get hit by accident when the grand battle inevitably starts. I’m honestly a touch disappointed when the action moves from the store to a women’s boarding house; as energetically paced and frantic as the action gets at that point, it seems like they’re giving up on a fantastic setting. (Were they worried 25 minutes was too long to spend in one location?)

Anyway, here’s another “Fatty” Arbuckle film, featuring also Buster Keaton’s screen debut, which makes clear pretty quickly why he was going to be a movie star. Archive.org has a copy of it with French intertitles, and played a little faster than the version on YouTube. (Converting film speeds from silent movie days to modern speeds is a bit arbitrary.)


In a coincidental bit of business, Steve McGarry’s TrivQuiz biographical comic strip/quiz panel features Ben Turpin, who you may remember in collages of silent movie stars as “oh yeah, that guy”. Funny fellow. Besides a touch of information about the actor, the panel also includes a couple trivia questions related to silent movie stars which should probably make you feel better for being able to answer.

Statistics Saturday: Robert Benchley Book Titles, By Length


As this is the final weekend to prepare submissions to the Robert Benchley Society’s 2014 Humor Contest, I offer some data about the great humorist’s writings.

  1. Of All Things
    (1921)
  2. Pluck And Luck
    (1925)
  3. The Early Worm
    (1927)
  4. Inside Benchley
    (1942)
  5. Love Conquers All
    (1922)
  6. Benchley–Or Else
    (1947)
  7. After 1903 – What?
    (1938)
  8. The “Reel” Benchley
    (1950)
  9. Benchley Beside Himself
    (1943)
  10. Chips off the Old Benchley
    (1949)
  11. My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew
    (1936)
  12. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, or David Copperfield
    (1928)
  13. No Poems, Or Around the World Backwards and Sideways
    (1932)
  14. Benchley at the Theatre: Dramatic Criticism, 1920-1940
    (1985)
  15. From Bed to Worse, or Comforting Thoughts about the Bison
    (1934)
  16. The Treasurer’s Report and Other Aspects of Community Singing
    (1930)
  17. The Athletic Benchley-105 Exercises from The Detroit Athletic Club News
    (2010)
  18. Robert Benchley’s Wayward Press: The Complete Collection of His the New Yorker Columns Written as Guy Fawkes
    (2008)

Titles published after 1945 were posthumous. Titles published before 1889 are prehumous. Titles not listed can very well fend for themselves.

Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St John in: The Bell Boy


Well, why not carry on the Arbuckle-Keaton-St John theme, then? For today here’s their 1918 half-hour film The Bell Boy, featuring “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton as bellboys (and Al St John as the desk clerk), puttering around in gags set at a small-town hotel and then, as I believe every silent-era movie set in a hotel does, getting to foiling a robbery.

This movie has one of those moments that was just enlightening to me under a “how they used to do things”, as there’s a horse-drawn trolley and while I know I’d read about trolleys and railroad trains that used animals I somehow hadn’t really visualized them in the way that a couple seconds of this film allowed me to do.

Buster Keaton, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and Al St John Made History


Last week after posting the Arbuckle-Keaton film Coney Island, I got a tweet from Erika Scream, a fan of old movies, Sherlock Holmes, Michael Jackson, and presumably other things.

Scream has put together a four-minute sequence of stunts done by Keaton, Arbuckle, and Al St John, set to Michael Jackson’s “History”, and dedicated it to “the best silent movie actors”. The standard of “best” is a pretty high one, but it’s fair to say Keaton is on pretty much anyone’s short list of best silent movie actors (and absolutely best silent movie comic actors), and Arbuckle is a strong contender.

Scream puts together a case by cutting some of the astounding action scenes. I admit I’m a bit torn on this. The physical stunts of silent comedy-era films is their most obviously appealing feature: they’re amazing and they have that soundness which comes from knowing that, while there may have been padding and the stuff that shatters may have been designed to shatter, it was still the actual actors actually doing this, with a stunning minimum of camera tricks or visual effects. But these jokes were also done as part of a storyline, something with, in the best films, a natural flow and rhythm and a point within the context of the films and a greatest-stunts feature like this naturally loses that. (It also loses the intertitles, and those are often strikingly witty.) On the other hand, it does get to the punch lines without all the setup, which I admit could often take unnecessarily long, given how the language of cinema’s developed and taught people how to watch movies.

Overall, I enjoyed the video, and I’d expect you to as well.

Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in: Coney Island


So, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The quickest refutation of the saying there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Remembered as he is as some silent-movie-era guy who was in a scandal, it’s easy to forget he was prominent enough to produce a scandal because he was a really skilled physical comedian, someone who could just move with that dizzying flow which humanity seems to have lost since talkies came in. He was also a director, of both silent and talking pictures. My little video for today is 1917’s Coney Island, in which he stars and directs, as a man trying to get away from his wife and make time with another man’s girlfriend, though since he stole the woman away from Buster Keaton’s character. (Arbuckle and Keaton were in, if I’ve not overlooked something, eleven films together, and they just fit together so very well.) So to get the crossfire of chases straight: Arbuckle’s wife is chasing him; Arbuckle is avoiding his wife; Buster Keaton is chasing the man who stole his girl; and the man who stole his girl is chasing Arbuckle. I may have missed some chases.

Like many silent movies it’s a bit hard to just see the movie, because it serves as an accidental documentary of where the thing was filmed. Since this was filmed in and around Coney Island’s Luna Park there’s something really worth documenting in the background. Before the movie gets to the bathhouse you get good views of the Witching Waves — one of those Old Coney Island rides you never hear anyone imagining making these days, the one where cars drift along a surface that’s rolling up and down — and the Shoot The Chute, the latter including a shot that makes me wonder how they could have taken it safely. (I see a lot of references claiming it also shows the Whip — TCM’s page about the movie even includes a still of it — although in the versions I found uploaded to archive.org or YouTube I don’t see a Whip scene. It’s plausible, mind you, I just don’t see it.) I admit, given my interest in amusement parks, the movie loses something when it does get away from showing Luna Park and focuses more on the bathhouse, but it picks up with some nice raucous fighting and, ultimately, the Keystone Cops getting into the action.

The other male lead in the film, the one that isn’t Roscoe Arbuckle or Buster Keaton, is Al St John, who might have gotten his start in movies by being Arbuckle’s nephew, but who earned his career on his own merit. He’s credited with being one of the type definers for the comic sidekick character actor and made, if I’m not misreading his filmography, about three billion westerns, many of them alongside Buster Crabbe and then Lash La Rue, or for Sam Newfield (a director many Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans will remember).

I’m sorry to give short shrift to the female leads, but the movie does that too. Arbuckle’s wife is played by Agnes Neilson, who has about a dozen IMDB credits, most of them in 1917 and 1918; and the woman he pursues by Alice Mann, who has about two and a half dozen, most from 1916 to 1921. I’m afraid I can’t say much more about them.

The Case Of The Misplaced Plaque


I’ve been meaning to bring this to people’s attention but keep finding other things taking up my time instead. Robert S Birchard of the “Comedy Fast and Furious” blog found an obelisk erected by Ralph Edwards’s You Bet Your Life to commemorate the Mack Sennett Keystone Studios. The plaque commemorates the “birthplace of motion picture comedy”, which may be a touch overstating things but is still fair enough since if you think of a silent (American, at least) comedy film you’re probably thinking of something touched by Sennett. But the obelisk and the plaque were endangered, and, there’s more to the story, and I think you’ll enjoy learning it.

comedyfastandfurious

Image

THIS IS THE BIRTHPLACE
OF
MOTION PICTURE COMEDY
HERE THE GENIUS OF MACK SENNETT
TOOK ROOT AND GREW TO LAUGHTER
HEARD AROUND THE WORLD. HERE
MOVIE HISTORY WAS MADE – HERE
STARS WERE BORN – HERE
REIGNED AND STILL REIGNS
“THE KING OF COMEDY”
MACK SENNETT
PRESENTED BY
R. L. McKEE, PRES.
NATIONAL VAN LINES, INC.
ON
“THIS IS YOUR LIFE”
MARCH 10, 1954

So, reads the copy on the misplaced plaque.  In 1954 National Van Lines erected the Mack Sennett Studio plaque on an imposing obelisk at 1845 Glendale Boulevard–which was indeed originally a studio location–but NOT the location of the Mack Sennett Studio.  1845 was the site of the Selig Polyscope studio, the first permanent studio established in Los Angeles in 1909.  Mack Sennett Keystone Film Company studio had actually been located a block away and across the street at 1712 Glendale Boulevard!  (Ralph Edwards and “This Is…

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Felix the Cat Monkeys with Magic


The title for this Felix the Cat cartoon might set up some disappointment, as it turns out the title card means the verb form of “monkeys”. Ah well. It’s a cartoon that’s got a number of pretty good gags of the kind that 1920s cartoons excelled in, especially in visual tricks and in metamorphoses. It does have a rather dreamlike plot: the sense I get is the creators were trying to think of things where Felix could use a wave of the hand to do something, and if that means the viewer looks down a moment and looks back up and suddenly there’s a bear chasing Felix and then a cow turns into a car, well, that’s just the sort of world Felix lived in.

Harold Lloyd in “Among Those Present”


For today I’d like to point to the 1921 Harold Lloyd comedy Among Those Present. It’s a piece about 35 minutes long and has what I think of as a distinctly 1920s setting: people ill-fit to uppertendom. It’s easy to imagine the Marx Brothers going crashing through things, but Harold Lloyd — who’s introduced here as the bellhop and gets woven into their lives for reasons that make sense within the genre. I doubt I could pass this off as naturalistic, although I like the idea of a world where Lloyd’s bellhop might say (as in one of the title cards) something like “Gee! If I only had the glad rags — I could act like any of those swells” without it being at least a bit of an affectation. Anyway, it’s Harold Lloyd; it’s outstanding comic acting and the occasional brilliant stroke of directing (as note when Lloyd’s character gets his first look at Mildred Davis’s, or the shadow on the stable door as shown about 31 minutes in), a bunch of animal stunts, and some pantslessness.

The title cards are a treat, at least to my tastes. They’re written by H M Walker, who’s got a slightly rococo style that I enjoy. If you aren’t amused a bit by, for example, “Evening — Twelve hours and a thousand yawns before the fox hunt. A wonderful and worthless gathering of 14-carat lounge lizards and re-painted wallflowers”, maybe the occasional illustration (on this card, of lizards) will spruce things up for you. And maybe imagining the text as read by the narrator from Rocky and Bullwinkle will sell you on it.

And I’m using this chance to reblog from the journal of Trav S D, an expert on vaudeville and comedy history. His book No Applause — Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, is outstanding in explaining vaudeville not just as a set of performances but also as an industry, a way of organizing performances which made compelling sense for its era and which doesn’t quite anymore, even if many of the acts would probably stand a good chance of going viral today. It’s very easy in reviews of older performers to focus on the performances; Trav S D’s book made me pay attention to how important the network of theaters and of booking agents and management were to making vaudeville.

Felix the Cat: Felix the Ghost-Breaker


This morning I’d like to offer the 1923 Felix the Cat short, Felix the Ghost-Breaker. I admit part of what interests me about this is that it’s not hard to see the premise — Felix the Cat runs across some ghosts, and takes on the job of ridding a farmer’s house of them — and imagine the Fleischer Brothers cartoon that’d be made from it. But Pat Sullivan Cartoon studios made more measured, more orderly cartoons than the Fleischers did, and the plot takes priority over ghost-and-haunting jokes, down to an ending that’s funny for its lack of connection to the plot and for the somewhat-modern pop-culture joke it makes me think of.

Nevertheless, I’m amused by the whole short, partly because I like the rhythms of silent-era cartoons, and the impressive look they have from being done in literally black and white, no greys. The short also features one of the conventions of silent cartoons, that of word balloons popping out of the characters’ mouths, a gimmick that really connects you to the comic strip forebears and that reminds you that comic strips didn’t really get word balloons so they looked right until about the 1940s.

There are also several nicely creepy moments; for my money the best of them is a scene with a skeleton seen in the darkness. Curiously, Felix is almost a passive observer for about two-thirds of the cartoon’s runtime.

Are they really kitchen science comics?


Over on my mathematics blog is a fresh collection of comic strips that talk about mathematics subjects, and a couple of those get into talking about stuff you might eat or at least have around the kitchen. I’d like to offer something else for loyal readers here or those who’ve already seen the mathematics blog, but I just haven’t found anything to match, because I’m hard at work trying to think of a way to build my normal once-a-week long-form essay out of the best idea I have right now, which is, “unconvincing declarations of innocence”. It’s going to be a heck of a ride until press time, for me at least.

Georges Melies: The Skipping Cheeses (or: Is Brie Murder?)


I’m afraid this short doesn’t appear to be at archive.org, so I can’t be so confident that the embedded link will work indefinitely into the future. If it doesn’t, well, let me know and I’ll try to do something about it.

I wanted to share Georges Méliès’s 1907 short Les Fromages Automobiles, and if you think it’s a whimsical fantasy about cars made of cheese I’m afraid you’re just being silly. The English title at least as rendered on a recent set of DVDs of Méliès films is The Skipping Cheeses and that’s surely more something to giggle about.

The story meanwhile enjoys the simplicity of a dream: a cheesemonger boards the trolley, with her cheeses hid in a basket; the smell of them causes everyone else to look around and suspect everyone but the new arrival of causing the strange odor. When she’s found out, the police are called, and she’s hauled off on a count of transporting cheese on a public conveyance. Then the cheeses hop out of their basket and follow her into court, whereupon the brie (at least according to the DVD narrator) leaps up and smothers the judge. It’s really the classic story, inspiring as it does grand thoughts of “Wait, what?” If you get past that, you can file the image of vengeful cheese away for a more conveniently-timed nightmare.

Koko the Clown: Cartoon Factory


Today I’d like to call attention to the Koko the Clown cartoon Cartoon Factory, an installment in the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoon series that starts with a surprising and unsettling bit of electrocution, and progresses from there to getting Koko a gadget which draws its own cartoons. This brings us to the never-not-unsettling scenario of drawing and erasing cartoon characters within a cartoon world, but, I guess happily, things go on to get a lot weirder and much more self-referential, in a short that’s again remarkable for inspiring, when you’re not amused by the cartoon itself, thoughts of wondering how they could do visual stunts like these.

The version at archive.org has a soundtrack put on, I believe in order to make it more suitable for 1950’s television, but the addition of music doesn’t hurt it any and the attempt to put dialogue in might be an extra comic beat of its own. The one I have embedded from YouTube (if it lasts) has a different soundtrack, a more ethereal one which I admit not liking as much, which isn’t to say I dislike it.

Statistics Saturday: Hi, Dad


After a little chat with my father not related to his appearance in dreams of warning, I’d like to include a couple of numbers for Statistics Saturday or Sunday or Whatever which relate to him and to the humor blog posts from this month.

  • Number Of Entries That My Dad Thinks Were Funny He Guesses Though He Didn’t Understand Them: 4.
  • Number Of Entries That My Dad Didn’t Notice But Is Sure He’d Think Were Great: 6. (Thank you!)
  • Black Knight 2000 Lightning Wheel: 200,000 points.
  • Number Of Entries About The Scary Problem In The Basement I Needed My Dad’s Advice On Fixing: 0.
  • Number Of Things I’ve Done To Fix That Scary Problem In The Basement: 1, if going to the hardware store counts.
  • Number With No Particular Connection To My Dad: 2,038.
  • Number Of Times I Realize I Ought To Call My Dad In-Between Times I Actually Do: Like 8 or something embarrassing like that.
  • Year When My Father Revealed To Me That “I’m Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover” Wasn’t A Little Ditty Bugs Bunny Just Made Up: 1979.
  • Number Of Times Out Of Ten That My Father Refers To It As “Ruptures” Instead Of “Rutgers”: 6.
  • Runs Batted In: 26.

Our Rabbit’s Cold Demands


“Can I help you?” I said, looking down, at the rabbit who was shoving my shins.

“Yes,” said our pet rabbit, which was enough for him. He gave my ankle a nudge with his adorable little forepaw.

So I put the rest of his morning kibble in the dish, and he looked ready to lumber over and eat it, and said, “What do you need?”

“Seventeen papayas, eight raisins, and three slices of apple,” and then he sneezed, this little buzzing noise that sounds like an old-fashioned roller coaster security bar locking, which is one of his more attractive amusement park-evoking actions, up there with releasing clouds of fur into the air like tiny balloons of sneezing, or selling season passes for next year. “That’s not the important thing.”

So it was going to be one of those talks. “We haven’t got any apples right now, but I can put it on the grocery list for us to forget when we go shopping.”

“Good,” he said, “Now you fix the window.”

There’s eleven windows in the immediate area that we might do something about, and another four that he might have noticed while being taken to the car for one reason or another, mostly to be driven someplace. They’re all in good working order, what with being windows made of glass and continuing to exist like that. “What’s there to fix?”

“The one you broke back when it was hot,” he said, testily. “You made noise and everything and now look what it did.”

That sounded a little more familiar. “The one I pried open back in summer.” He nodded and stumbled toward the food dish, but held back, I suppose so he could scold me. “I just unsealed it, so it can open. It’s not open right now.”

“You made noise and broke the window so it wouldn’t be so hot. And now it’s cold and you have to fix that.”

“How do you even know it’s cold outside? You’ve spent two minutes outside a house or a car in the past three months.”

“And I nearly died!” he said while stomping on my foot. I leaned down to rub his ears, a diversion so obvious he wouldn’t have any of it. “If you’d left me out in that horrible little transit cage and forgot I was there my adorable tail would’ve fallen right off in the cold!”

“We couldn’t possibly forget you. You punch the cage too hard.”

“Because it’s cold and you have to unfix the window so it’s not broken anymore.”

I don’t want to overstate it, but getting that window to open was one of my life’s greatest achievements, household repairs division, far exceeding the time I opened up a desperately-needed hole in the drywall by swinging my elbow backwards without looking, giving me the chance to practice patching holes in the drywall. The window had been painted and swollen shut for decades, and which was sound enough that it could hold an atmosphere against the vacuum of space, or keep water out to a depth of four hundred feet. Getting it opened required hours of hitting the window, some of it with a hammer and chisel, some of it with a hammer and crowbar, and when I succeeded in getting the window to slide open I ran into the street and demanded people bow before me. They ignored me, because it was the middle of summer and about 180 degrees out were climbing into the bags of ice at the convenience store.

“If the window were open, there’d be a breeze. You’d feel the cold air coming in.”

“I know cold when I smell it! The window’s all cold and you come in wearing like forty-squillion things when you come in and you keep complaining it’s cold! Now fix the window so it doesn’t open and make it stop being cold.”

I promised to do something about it, and the noon news was hopeful. The weather guy said that it was going to get above freezing sometime in the next couple days, and maybe into the forties next week. This is crazy talk, of course, because temperatures that warm no longer exist, but the weather guy has clearly been taking a lot of abuse from his co-workers for the last month of frigid temperatures. When the anchor went to give him a high-five he flinched. But I pointed that out to our rabbit, who said, “I’ll believe it when I see it, and if I don’t see it, I’ll thump.”

I know he’s not bluffing.

Koko the Clown: Koko Bubbles


Today I’d like to offer a cartoon, the Max and Dave Fleischer short Koko Bubbles. This is one of the Out of the Inkwell series of cartoons, dating from 1922, and it shows a lot of what’s fascinating and weird about the cartoons of that era. For one I’ll never stop being amazed by the blend of live-action and animated footage, even if it is really obvious how it was done to our modern eyes; but that this is ninety years old just makes it more impressive.

The story is loose, by classic standards of cartoons; it’s hard not to think that in the day they wrote the cartoons just by throwing every joke they could think of on the pile and cutting whenever it was too long. Also, the Fleischers were (rightly) proud of their technical prowess, such as the rotoscoping that makes a lot of Koko’s bigger movements uncannily natural, and would show off what they could do even if it didn’t quite fit a storyline; and, it was at least a common convention to have the lead animator be seen. This time around at least he has some particular role besides starting and stopping the action.

This stream-of-consciousness plotting does make it more familiar, I suppose, to people who like the dadaist cartoons often aimed at young adults. It’s got some narrative thrust, though, in the form of this bubble-blowing contest between animator Max Fleischer and the cartoon Koko, and that’s enough to excuse the clown having his head pop or getting chased by a rampaging bubble monster or the like.

And, the comics


Over on my mathematics blog there’ve been another set of mathematics-themed comics, which gave me the chance to talk for like 1,800 words about things they mention, which is pretty impressive considering it’s mostly about π and some name-dropping.

If you’re not interested in all that, I’m hurt. Really. I thought we were friends. But, anyway, the mock history of comic strip Working Daze has reached the point where it’s folding into its actual history, so they describe less death and doom for its cartoonists, and do show some of what the strip looked like before the current artist and writing team got together. I have to imagine the series ends next week, unless they want to do a future-history projection. This isn’t necessarily absurd, as the indefatigable writers do write produce the comic strip Zachary Nixon Johnson, based on their series of comic/science fiction/mystery novels.

Snub Pollard: Sold At Auction


Today I’d like to offer another silent comedy, Snub Pollard’s 1924 Sold At Auction. If my research on this is correct, Snub Pollard came to star in this Hal Roach short when Harold Lloyd took some sick days. Also interesting to me, at least, is that it was directed by Charley Chase, another of the second tier of silent movie comedians; and James Finlayson also has a role, as camper and as homeowner. The version at archive.org includes a soundtrack, with “King For A Day” opening the action.

It starts off well, I think, with a winning baby-basket-at-the-doorstep introduction to Pollard, and has some of the great bits silent comedies offer. It also uses a really striking melting-film wipe to a flashback that I’m surprised I haven’t seen used more. The camping scene’s fun, and includes a bit of stop-motion animation of the kind that I love seeing in silent comedies, and there’s a wonderful runaway piano.

Robert Benchley: Opera Synopses III


[ And now let me finish off Robert Benchley’s Opera synopses with the third part, “Lucy de Lima”, taken again from Love Conquers All. Obviously I’ll have to find something completely different to do for next Thursday. The first part of this ran two weeks ago. ]

LUCY DE LIMA

Scene: Wales.

Time: 1700 (Greenwich).

Cast

William Wont, Lord of Glennnn Basso
Lucy Wagstaff, his daughter Soprano
Bertram, her lover Tenor
Lord Roger, friend of Bertram. Soprano
Irma, attendant to Lucy Basso
Friends, Retainers and Members of the local Lodge of Elks.

Argument

“Lucy de Lima,” is founded on the well-known story by Boccaccio of the same name and address.

ACT I

Gypsy Camp Near Waterbury.—The gypsies, led by Edith, go singing through the camp on the way to the fair. Following them comes Despard, the gypsy leader, carrying Ethel, whom he has just kidnapped from her father, who had previously just kidnapped her from her mother. Despard places Ethel on the ground and tells Mona, the old hag, to watch over her. Mona nurses a secret grudge against Despard for having once cut off her leg and decides to change Ethel for Nettie, another kidnapped child. Ethel pleads with Mona to let her stay with Despard, for she has fallen in love with him on the ride over. But Mona is obdurate.

ACT 2

The Fair.—A crowd of sightseers and villagers is present. Roger appears, looking for Laura. He can not find her. Laura appears, looking for Roger. She can not find him. The gypsy queen approaches Roger and thrusts into his hand the locket stolen from Lord Brym. Roger looks at it and is frozen with astonishment, for it contains the portrait of his mother when she was in high school. He then realizes that Laura must be his sister, and starts out to find her.

ACT 3

Hall in the Castle.—Lucy is seen surrounded by every luxury, but her heart is sad. She has just been shown a forged letter from Stewart saying that he no longer loves her, and she remembers her old free life in the mountains and longs for another romp with Ravensbane and Wolfshead, her old pair of rompers. The guests begin to assemble for the wedding, each bringing a roast ox. They chide Lucy for not having her dress changed. Just at this moment the gypsy band bursts in and Cleon tells the wedding party that Elsie and not Edith is the child who was stolen from the summer-house, showing the blood-stained derby as proof. At this, Lord Brym repents and gives his blessing on the pair, while the fishermen and their wives celebrate in the courtyard.

The Competition


The Robert Benchley Society has put up its valid entries for the 2013 Humor Prize, on a web sit that safely anonymizes all the contributions. I know which is mine, I hope, though I reserve the right to change my claims about authorship if someone else’s gets through the preliminary judging. You’re free to find someone else’s better, but if you do please don’t tell me as I’m still recovering from that whole two- and three-star ratings issue.

My Dimmed Stars


So had you noticed there’s these star ratings you can give my entries, in a little box just beside the “Leave a Comment” link? No, I didn’t think so, because nobody notices them and nobody bothers with them. But my Dearly Beloved pointed out, someone has noticed and gone and given a bunch of articles two and three star ratings. This puts out a good question: who’s taking the time to seek out and disapprove of something they don’t have to bother with? Based on this M O, my suspects right now are everybody on the entire Internet, ever.

What To Do With Abandoned Ideas


We all come up with ideas we can’t really use, because there’s only so many things we can do any given day and clearly the inspiration “sponge or brain” isn’t going to help most of them. But just because you don’t have any use for an idea right now doesn’t mean you’re never going to have one. Things might open up.

What you need is to have some kind of depository for your abandoned ideas, where your abandoned ideas can settle and compost and go about making long-distance calls to one another. In fact, having such a depository is such an obviously good idea that you have had it, but you were too busy to make one. So the abandoned-ideas depository idea was itself abandoned, which is great because it fit right into the depository once you thought of it, only now, there’s no way to get it out, because right outside the abandoned-ideas depository is still inside the abandoned-ideas depository; ask any topologist for an explanation. I’m afraid even this note won’t help. By the time you’re done reading this, you’ll have no idea what I was going on about. I had one but I don’t know what it was.

Flight Checks


From: flightnews@upperairlines.com
Subject: UPA8100 Flight updates now available.

Thank you for signing up to receive e-mail updates on any changes to your forthcoming flight UPA8100 from Salisbury, North Carolina to Plattsburgh, New York. We send our smuggest condolences to you on the occasion of whatever life choices have forced you to fly from Salisbury, North Carolina to Plattsburgh, New York, this Friday departing at 5:42 am and hope you enjoy leaning your forehead on our new comfort-rated windows just cool enough to make lifting your head feel like too much work.


From: flightnews@upperairlines.com
Subject: Flight Delay – UPA8100 departing at 5:56 am

Due to delayed crew arrivals at our Hartford, Connecticut, branch facility flight UPA8100 will now be scheduled to take off at 5:56 am. Please be at the airport before it takes off as this simplifies boarding procedures.


Continue reading “Flight Checks”

Squirrel Improv Update


I was impressed when the little squirrel improv troupe that’s been running out of our backyard got named by the local alternate weekly as one of the “20 Great Things Under 20 Inches” in their entertainment column this week and I went out to congratulate them. Of course it’s not that simple.

See, for visual interest, they included a photo of one of the squirrels — Alan — in a spiv outfit, and that was from a sketch that they thought was just “hack” and “too Monty Python pastiche, not enough us”. They’d been planning to drop it from the revue altogether, but with the press attention now they feel like they’re stuck with it. Worse, Alan doesn’t like being on stage; he’s happy developing characters and doing other backstage work and only ever went on in the first place because they needed somebody and the rest of the performing cast was already committed.

Well, I was sympathetic, of course, but isn’t it some kind of cosmic rule that when the public decides they like you, it’s going to be for the stuff you’d rather they didn’t like you for? Anyway, maybe in a couple weeks they can drop the whole sketch and Alan can go back to the work he really likes.

Another Warning From My Dreams


Do not “just slip out” a couple seconds during a science fiction convention centered around praising the guy who played George Jefferson on The Jeffersons, because everybody else at the con is just going to get together and build a satiric comic set-piece based on his work and it’s going to just rehash the most obvious, base jokes about The Jeffersons in a science fiction setting and it’ll have almost no artistic integrity at all, and you’re going to have a dickens of a time getting back in the convention hall past the defensive screen of people warning you that that’s the guy who played George Jefferson in there and he’s just killing with what you recognize as artistically bankrupt, pandering, fan-written science fiction convention activities. Be safe: go to the bathroom before the convention starts!