So I was reading Jonathan Green’s The Vulgar Tongue, about the history of slang so far as that can be worked out. And it got to a section about minstrel shows and blackface jokes and what slang we get from that. Surprisingly little, it turns out. Between a whole bunch of pages that left my jaw hanging open, speechless, was this bit from Charles Townsend’s circa-1891 guide for minstrel performers, along with tips like how to get blackface:
End Men should carefully avoid anything approaching vulgarity and no offensive personalities should be introduced. Avoid slang.
I understand, intellectually, that everything that ever touches race ever is deeply screwed up in all kinds of bizarre and stupid ways. But … “don’t use slang, you want to keep your minstrel show classy and inoffensive” is why I spend more and more of every day curled up in a ball in the corner of the room.
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.
One of the delights in reading Krazy Kat like this, once a day, much like the original readers got it, is catching the artist, here George Herriman or his assistants, catching on to something and riffing around it, and getting to see the improvisation as it gets worked out. Herriman was apparently in a Moon mood, run at least from September through November 1943, and I’m curious to see how the theme works itself out. (There are also a couple of other Moon-themed strips I might run here.)
The experience is different from that of reading the comic strip in book collections, the way probably most Krazy Kat readers know the strip, probably because book collections for all their considerable virtues do encourage gulping down months worth of the strip at a sitting. Sipping allows you to realize that you’ve seen the same topic spread over different days, and to bind the remembrance of those days together.
George Herriman’s Krazy Kat is often cited by comics connoisseurs as the greatest of all the greats. I think that’s overrating it, because it is often a pretty cryptic comic strip. The fundamental gag that the strip kept coming back to is Ignatz Mouse throwing a brick at Krazy Kat, who interprets this as an act of love, and getting arrested by Officer Pupp, who longs to protect Krazy. The permutations of how the brick-throwing is set up and done and responded to were thoroughly explored over the strip’s decades. By 1943 these had been done so many times the strip’s readers — and there were few of them; it never really caught on with the mass audience, though Harriman’s boss (William Randolph Hearst) loved it — that these points would often be done in shorthand, a brick tossed off, as it were, in the sidelines and the inevitable pattern alluded to. That’s bound to happen in any long-running story franchise, but it makes the strip harder for a newcomer to approach. Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy has a similar problem, as I see it: there are many running gags, summoned without warning for the day’s punch line, and a new reader is justifiably lost trying to understand what’s supposed to be funny, at least until some time is put into the reading.
Still, this Krazy Kat is emphatically not cryptic. It’s even one that could be drawn and run in the comics pages today without seeming to come from another era. It’s just amusing.
[ One of the soundest bits of comic advice I ever received, back as an undergraduate, from Ken Goldstein, fellow undergradute whose comic talents I admired was, “Funny names aren’t.” He added the reservation, “Unless you’re Groucho Marx.” I accepted this at the time, since the evidence seemed overwhelmingly on his side. But in those days I — and, I believe he — didn’t have such easy access to old-time radio, or I believe he’d have allowed that Fred Allen could provide funny names. His mock names have a wonderful-to-me crackle to them. I don’t know that he ever described his process for creating them — although he did often rely on the mixing of the highbrow and the low, as in “Socrates Mulligan”; or juxtaposing the fancy and the meek, as in “Delsarte Trundle”. Here’s another excerpt from Treadmill To Oblivion in which he talks about the hazards of such names. ]
People claiming that their names had been used in the news burlesques, and that they had been held up to ridicule, were always threatening to sue. To eliminate this annoyance we invented a set of names to use for comedy characters. Names like Tomtit McGee, Beau Bernstein, Falvey Nishball and hudreds of others. I thought we were safe coining these synthetic cognomens until one sumer up in Biddeford, maine, an old gentleman, a total stranger, stopped me on the street and said, “Mr. Allen, I heard my name on your program last winter. Who sent it in to you?” I said, “What is your name?” The old gentleman answered, “Sinbad Brittle.”
[ And while I’m here, I’d like to point out “synthetic cognomen” as a great combination of words, and a suitable name if you want something with a bit of a science fictional flair. ]
[ This is a bit from Fred Allen’s book Treadmill to Oblivion, a radio-business memoir which includes generous excerpts from scripts, and a lot of talk — including quite some sulking — about the struggles he had against, particularly, the advertising men who ultimately controlled his program. This is an excerpt from his discussion of the Average Man’s Round Table, a segment from the hourlong program he did for Texaco, partly about how the willingness of the average person had chained with the coming of radio. His complaint may strike you also as being a perennial; however, the phrasing of it is, I think, exquisite, particularly in the latter paragraph here, and shows off why Fred Allen with a good head of steam was such a well-regarded comic writer. You could teach a course in comic writing just from his selection of adjectives. ]
The coming of radio, and his access to the microphone, resulted in the average man’s discovery of his ego. In vaudeville, years before, a magician had his trouble coaxing a member of the audience up on the stage to witness the magician “sawing a woman in halves” or “impaling a small Hindu concealed in a wicker basket on the point of a blunt sword”. The magician spent many minutes pleading, and assuring that nobody would be ridiculed during his performance, before one lone person would overpower his modesty, mount the stage and stand terrified before the audience.
Today, the Man in the Street does his broadcast hiding in a doorway. He is afraid to show himself in public. The minute his microphone is sighted a motley throng is on him. Soiled matrons eager to divulge how they first met their husbands. Tottering old men outfrailing each other to get to the mike and explain how they became ancient. Gamy adolescents vying to flaunt their arrogance.
Something about this Friday’s installment of Bunny Hoest and John Reiner’s The Lockhorns fascinates me and I thought I’d spend a couple words working out just why. You can see it here, or from its original source on dailyink.com at least through the April 11, 2014.
It’s simply Loretta insulting Leroy, because he’s asleep and she thought of something with the word “sleeper” in it. And I understand the attempted joke so, at least, the objective is nominally met: Hoest and Reiner said something intended to be funny, and this reader saw it and recognized it as such an attempt. Good so far. Yet …
Where are they? From the bag of popcorn in Leroy’s hand and the unused seats folding up, the implication is they’re at a movie theater. All right. Why are there two windows in the walls? And is that a door or … what … in the back? But if they’re not at a movie theater, then where are they? Why would Leroy have a bag of popcorn and why would the seats pop up?
Stipulating that they’re at a movie theater, what’s going on that Loretta thinks to tell a stranger that Leroy would have to be in a sleeper cell to be a spy at all? Are they watching a spy movie? The trailers for a spy movie? Did the strangers say something that would connect the stuff on-screen to Leroy’s nodding off? What logical precursor keeps Loretta from spouting a fairly weird non sequitur?
Also, is anyone enjoying the supposed movie? It’s a lot of faces of resignation and a grim determination to see this miserable night through to the end. Can that be what they meant? But why that?
Ultimately, I think if it weren’t for the windows I’d never have noticed this panel enough to have questions about it.
The film pioneer Georges Méliès is credited for many things, most prominently, for making astounding films by the simple use of stopping the camera and changing what was on set, and for creating illusions that are still rather jaw-dropping just by exposing the film twice. He’d do this, incredibly, with a hand-cranked camera and simply turned the film back the correct number of cranks before filming the second round of whatever the stunt was. And you can’t even start writing anything about space travel in popular culture without referring to his 1902 A Trip To The Moon.
What he doesn’t get much credit for, despite the awe and wonder and dreamlike enchantment so many of his films inspire, is being funny, so I want to share a two-minute-long short from 1900: Déshabillage Impossible, or, Going To Bed With Difficulties. The premise is simple: the traveller wants to undress for bed. It’s quite simple, and funny in a way that doesn’t show a hundred-plus years of age.
I really didn’t see that coming. No matter how shaky our rehearsals might have gone — and I’d like to point out we got pretty good at remembering there’s a part of the classic Tin Pan Alley song where you sing “and the music goes round and round and … something … it comes out here”, and that there’s probably other bits of words and melody that go around that — I didn’t see how our first performance back together would work out. I still don’t recognize any of the others in the group.
So. We got out on stage. We were ready, we weren’t too terrified, we knew some music shops where we’d be able to go later and get our instruments tuned up if that turned out to be a problem, and what happens? This turkey pops out on stage — I’m not being retro-ishy and 70’s here, I mean an actual turkey, with feathers and issues with Thanksgiving and everything — and started a safety lecture. Not just about how to get out of the venue in case of fire, either, it was about all the ways you could do yourself harm and how to not do them, with a lot about traffic safety tucked in. We tried nudging him off stage, but he got into this thing about rattling his tail and I know I sound ridiculous but it’s pretty scary, in person, all right? By the time he was satisfied that we’d been properly drilled, our little group didn’t have any time left to perform.
We’re undeterred, or at least everybody else is in no greater state of deterrment than they were before. I still don’t really remember who these people are and I’m pretty sure we’re just making music angry the more we try playing, but we’re looking for the next chance to perform.
I don’t wish to spend too much time doing snarky humor on this blog — not because it can’t be fun, but because there is so much of it already around — but I realized I’ve spent so much time giggling about this particular comic strip that I really ought to share it. The web site Dailyink.com runs, besides a bunch of the King Features Syndicate comic strips you can’t quite believe are still running (The Katzenjammer Kids Somehow Because It’s 2013, Right?), some classics from the old days (The Katzenjammer Kids Slightly Less Somehow Since It Was 1940 I Guess).
Among them is Stan Drake’s The Heart Of Juliet Jones, the long-running soap opera strip about how Juliet Jones does not get married. In a strip rerun just a couple days ago, originally printed the 28th of December, 1955, her engagement with Johnny the Civil Engineer certainly appears to have wrapped up its mild complications (Johnny was so into the chic of building bridges he hasn’t minded that he’s under-paid and under-promoted at work) when, well, here. You don’t really need even that much introduction to follow it.
The ruthlessness with which the potentially happy ending is crushed makes me laugh in a way that can’t have been meant — or could it?
I’ve listened to quite a few old-time radio mystery and suspense shows, with the arch, melodramatic acting and loud organ stings at every carefully highlighted moment building to the twist Rod Serling would later rip off; they can manage to be both tolerably suspenseful and utterly unbelievable at once, and I wonder if the original audiences were listening with the same mix of suspense and incredulity that I have. Remember that one of the great radio suspense shows of all time, really and truly, was — exactly as the Bill Cosby routine had it — an episode of Lights Out about a scientist whose biochemical experiments caused the beating heart of a chicken to grow until it consumed the East Coast. Scary? Yes. Too ridiculous to be scared by? Yes. (Unfortunately only truncated versions of the original radio broadcast seem to be available.)
How long have they coexisted? And were the great soap opera strips of the past living in the same intersection of reality and disbelief?
So we got the band back together for our first rehearsal, and that went pretty smoothly. I’m really sure I’ve never met any of these guys. They looked at me with the sort of natural, easygoing acceptance you give to a deer that’s in your laundry room. I don’t think they know each other either.
Besides me on the training violin (it still has wheels) we have one guy with a pair of sticks (not drumsticks, just the kind of sticks you might find in the woods ready to poke people with), one guy with a sheaf of ISO 9000 documentation paperwork (according to the label), another with a long-running quarrel with lyrics web sites about how they’re the most awful web sites in the universe (they are), a bazooka (the other kind), and a bass guitar. The guitar isn’t any of ours. It just appeared there, staring, accusingly, possibly warning us that Terpsichore is not happy with us. This is unsettling since it’s so rare that an ancient Greek god would be offended by something humans were up to. Maybe we shouldn’t have mixed her up with Euterpe.
We tried optimistically to play The Beatles’ “Getting Better”, and soon found that we never actually noticed the lyrics before. We’ve had to consign that to the pile of Peppy Beatles Tunes With Lyrics That Actually Horrify You, alongside “Run For Your Life”, “A Day In The Life”, and every other song the Beatles ever recorded except “Twist and Shout” and the theme to “What’s Happening”. (It was a private session.) Actually most of the day was spent on paperwork. Should be a concert for the ages. Still no idea who I’m playing with.
Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey were a vaudeville and early movies comedy team with at least one vocal hook that’s still sort-of remembered-ish, in that if you see a guy wearing big, Harold Lloyd style glasses and going “WhooOOO-oh!” that’s Woolsey getting referenced. Their movies feature a lot of moderately aggressive, Groucho Marx-ish dialogue in which conversation gets reduced to nonsense. They’re not as sentimental as the Marx Brothers(!), which results their rampaging chaos being more surprisingly mean-spirited when it gets taken out on an undeserving victim, so they’re harder to enjoy, but I do.
This is an exchange from 1934’s Kentucky Kernels, with Woolsey courting Margaret Dumont, who’s playing against type as the Margaret Dumont character.
Woolsey: Good morning, Mrs Baxter, you look perfectly charming this morning.
Dumont: Oh, do you really think so?
Woolsey: No, but I had to say something. And I always say it with flowers. [ He takes a rose out of his jacket and gives it to her. ]
Warner Brothers is releasing a DVD set of the best Hanna-Barbera cartoons of their first 25 years, plus an episode of Jabberjaw. This implies that either someone had a career which finally reached the day when she or he was given the responsibility to “select the best episode of The Abbot And Costello Cartoon Show”, or that there was a committee formed to make that decision. Either way is a staggering thought.