S J Perelman: Nothing But The Tooth


Trade journals are fascinating, as long as you’re not in the trade. Journals for another field give a peek into how the magic of things are done. S J Perelman had an experience with a dental trade journal once, and shared his thoughts. Why not enjoy tonight, since my last dental visit went wonderfully smoothly despite my cold?

Nothing But The Tooth

I am thirty-eight years old, have curly brown hair and blue eyes, own a uke and a yellow roadster, and am considered a snappy dresser in my crowd. But the thing I want most in the world for my birthday is a free subscription to Oral Hygiene, published by Merwin B. Massol, 1005 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pa. In the event you have been repairing your own teeth, Oral Hygiene is a respectable smooth-finish technical magazine circulated to your dentist with the compliments of his local supply company. Through its pages runs a recital of the most horrendous and fantastic deviations from the dental norm. It is a confessional in which dentists take down their back hair and stammer out the secrets of their craft But every time I plunge into its crackling pages at my dentist’s, just as I get interested in the story of the Man with the Alveolar Dentures or Thirty Reasons Why People Stay Away from Dentists, the nurse comes out slightly flushed and smoothing her hair to tell me that the doctor is ready. Last Thursday, for example, I was head over heels in the question-and-answer department of Oral Hygiene. A frankly puzzled extractionist, who tried to cloak his agitation under the initials “J. S. G.,” had put his plight squarely up to the editor: “I have a patient, a woman of 20, who has a full complement of teeth. All of her restorations are gold foils or inlays. She constantly grinds her teeth at night. How can I aid her to stop grinding them? Would it do any good to give her a vellum rubber bite?” But before I could learn whether it was a bite or just a gentle hug the editor recommended, out popped Miss Inchbald with lipstick on her nose, giggling, “The Doctor is free now.” “Free” indeed — “running amok” would be a better way to put it.

I had always thought of dentists as of the phlegmatic type — square-jawed sadists in white aprons who found release in trying out new kinds of burs on my shaky little incisors. One look at Oral Hygiene fixed that. Of all the inhibited, timorous, uncertain fumble-bunnies who creep the earth, Mr. Average Dentist is the worst. A filing clerk is a veritable sabre-toothed tiger by comparison. Faced with a decision, your dentist’s bones turn to water and he becomes all hands and feet. He muddles through his ordinary routine with a certain amount of bravado, plugging a molar here with chewing gum, sinking a shaft in a sound tooth there. In his spare time he putters around his laboratory making tiny cement cup-cakes, substituting amber electric bulbs for ordinary bulbs in his waiting-room to depress patients, and jotting down nasty little innuendoes about people’s gums in his notebook. But let an honest-to-goodness sufferer stagger in with his face out of drawing, and Mr. Average Dentist’s nerves go to hell. He runs sobbing to the “Ask Oral Hygiene” department and buries his head in the lap of V. C. Smedley, its director. I dip in for a typical sample:

Question — A patient of mine, a girl, 18, returned from school recently with a weird story of lightning having struck an upper right cuspid tooth and checked the enamel on the labial surface nearly two-thirds of the way from the incised edge toward the neck. The patient was lying on a bed looking out an open window during an electric storm, and this one flash put out the lights of the house, and at the same time, the patient felt a burning sensation (like a burning wire) along the cuspid tooth. She immediately put her tongue on the tooth which felt rough, but as the lights were out she could not see it so she went to bed. (A taste as from a burnt match accompanied the shock.)

Next morning she found the labial of the tooth black. Some of the color came off on her finger. By continually brushing all day with the aid of peroxide, salt, soda and vinegar she removed the remainder of the black after which the tooth was a yellow shade and there was some roughness on the labial surface.

Could the lightning have caused this and do you recommend smoothing the surface with discs? — R. D. L., D.D.S., Oregon.

Well, Doctor, let us take your story step by step. Miss Muffet told you the sensation was like a burning wire, and she tasted something like a burnt match. Did you think, by any chance, of looking into her mouth for either wire or matches? Did you even think of looking into her mouth? I see no mention of the fact in your letter. You state that she walked in and told you the story, that’s all. Of course it never occurred to you that she had brought along her mouth for a reason. Then you say, “she removed the remainder of the black after which the tooth was a yellow shade.” Would it be asking too much of you to make up your mind? Was it a tooth or a yellow shade? You’re quite sure it wasn’t a Venetian blind? Or a gaily striped awning? Do you ever take a drink in the daytime, Doctor?

Frankly, men, I have no patience with such idiotic professional behavior. An eighteen-year-old girl walks into a dentist’s office exhibiting obvious symptoms of religious hysteria (stigmata, etc.). She babbles vaguely of thunderstorms and is patently a confirmed drunkard. The dentist goes to pieces, forgets to look in her mouth, and scurries off to Oral Hygiene asking for permission to smooth her surface with discs. It’s a mercy he doesn’t take matters into his own hands and try to plough every fourth tooth under. This is the kind of man to whom we intrust our daughters’ dentures.

There is practically no problem so simple that it cannot confuse a dentist. For instance, thumb-sucking. “Could you suggest a method to correct thumb and index finger sucking by an infant of one year?” flutters a Minnesota orthodontist, awkwardly digging his toe into the hot sand. Dr. Smedley, whose patience rivals Job’s, has an answer for everything: “Enclose the hand by tying shut the end of the sleeve of a sleeping garment, or fasten a section of a pasteboard mailing tube to the sleeping garment in such a position as to prevent the bending of the elbow sufficiently to carry the thumb or index finger to the mouth.” Now truly, Dr. Smedley, isn’t that going all the way around Robin Hood’s barn? Nailing the baby’s hand to the highchair is much more cozy, or, if no nail is available, a smart blow with the hammer on Baby’s fingers will slow him down. My grandfather, who was rather active in the nineties (between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues — they finally got him for breaking and entering), always used an effective method to break children of this habit, He used to tie a Mills grenade to the baby’s thumb with cobbler’s waxed thread, and when the little spanker pulled out the detonating pin with his teeth, Grandpa would stuff his fingers into his ears and run like the wind. Ironically enough, the people with whom Grandpa now boards have the same trouble keeping him from biting his thumbs, but overcome it by making him wear a loose jacket with very long sleeves, which they tie to the bars.

I have always been the mildest of men, but you remember the old saying, “Beware the fury of a patient man.” (I remembered it very well and put my finger on it instantly, page 269 of Bartlett’s book of quotations.) For years I have let dentists ride rough-shod over my teeth; I have been sawed, hacked, chopped, whittled, bewitched, bewildered, tattooed, and signed on again; but this is cuspid’s last stand. They’ll never get me into that chair again. I’ll dispose of my teeth as I see fit, and after they’re gone, I’ll get along. I started off living on gruel, and, by God, I can always go back to it again.

When Rabbits And Flappers Perform Dentistry


Remakes have always been with us. Famously, the only version of The Wizard of Oz anyone cares about is at least the fifth filmed version of L Frank Baum’s classic, and nowhere near the last. The only version of The Maltese Falcon anyone watches is the third made between 1929 and 1939. Partly that’s because a good idea is worth doing again, certainly at least until it’s done well. Partly that’s because movies are kind of disposable. Oh, a movie will last as long as the film, or the file, lasts, and you can experience it as long as it lasts. But as a commercial prospect, a movie comes into being, is watched a while, and then is forgotten. A remake gives it a new season in the popular culture. Cartoons get remade a lot, probably because the same reasons that make it sensible to remake a movie apply even more to cartoon shorts.

I wanted to write about the Betty Boop short Ha! Ha! Ha, released the 2nd of March, 1934, because it’s listed as the last theatrical appearance of Koko the Clown. Koko was, at least in a few shorts, Betty Boop’s second boyfriend, although he was more often just a friend of hers. And he was the star of the Fleischer’s cartoons from the 1920s, including many of their oddest features. He was also star of a 1960s string of Out Of The Inkwell cartoons.

Ha! Ha! Ha! gets described as a remake of the 1924 Koko the Clown short The Cure. I think that’s overstating things. There are some pieces the shorts have in common. The framing is that of the Out Of The Inkwell cartoons: producer Max Fleischer draws a character out of the inkwell, and the cartoon characters interact a bit with the real world. Then they try extracting a tooth and eventually cartoon laughing-gas escapes into the real world, to produce some amazing and disturbing real-world animation. But I don’t think that’s enough to call one a remake of the other.

The Betty Boop cartoon is the more professional of the two, I must admit. It’s better drawn and the story holds together better. The line of action from the cartoon paper, to the office, to the city makes more sense. And it’s remarkably funny considering the last quarter of the short is just one joke — something new encounters laughing gas, and starts laughing — repeated over and over.

But The Cure might be better. Some of this is that I’m charmed by how the short features a rabbit as Koko’s partner. But I also like the way the story doesn’t quite hang together. It’s got a more dreamlike, loopy quality, and more of an improvised feel. And while the Betty Boop version has some magnificent images as laughing gas escapes to the world — the gravestones, particularly, are the sort of image that will last in the mind — I think the earlier version has better jokes all around. And the interactions between the live action and the animated figures are more ambitious and thus more fun.

But What If I Can’t Stop Watching?


I use dental picks, as dental picks, because shut up I am not old and I like the smile that truthfully saying — and showing — that I’ve been picking grit out from between my teeth brings to my dentist’s face when I see him for this decade’s appointment. But I only just noticed that my bag of dental picks invites me not just to follow them on Facebook and Twitter but also to see their YouTube channel.

I like to think that I’m a curious fellow, by which I mean I’m open to learning about things other people would write off as dull and discover they’re deeply fascinating once you start thinking about them, by which I mean without any sarcasm or exaggeration that I own multiple popular histories of the containerized cargo industry and I would be willing to buy more. And I can imagine making an informational video about dental picks.

What I can’t imagine is making a whole series of informational videos about dental picks. After about halfway through the second I’d be reduced to standing there humming and maybe pointing out how any guinea pigs you have around the house could use them as slingshots, or how you could put a piece of wax paper across the prongs and give them to squirrels to use for lacrosse. They’re surely not going to be publishing that.

So now I’m doomed again: I’m curious to know how many different things of substance they could possibly have to say about dental picks, but, what if I find it all really interesting and just have to watch more?

Also I’m wondering how many tweets they could have about dental picks. This just makes it worse.

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.

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?