I don’t know I ever heard Robert Benchley performing with Groucho Marx before this


Among my weekly listening is the Radio Entertainment Network’s podcast. It picks an hour of old-time radio each week. The episode for the 21st of September had two half-hour episodes. The first of these is Columbia Presents Corwin, a 1945 sustaining series in which Norman Corwin got the chance to be all weird, in case that advanced the state of the art of radio programming.

This installment, “The Undecided Molecule”, was a comic rhyming court battle over what Molecule X shall do. It’s also got a heck of a cast: Groucho Marx as the judge, Robert Benchley as the interpreter for Molecule X. Vincent Price. Keenan Wynn. Also Sylvia Sidney, who had mostly dramatic roles in her career. It’s a heck of a comic lineup, though.

It’s the only time I can remember to have Robert Benchley and Groucho Marx trading lines. I can’t say it’s the only one, since there were a lot of radio shows like Command Performance that would toss together improbable sets of actors. But, like, Robert Benchley’s default screen persona is “ordinary guy overwhelmed by the mundane”. That’s not the sort of pomposity or self-absorption that Groucho Marx is needed to deflate. And it’s really hard to think of a reason for Vincent Price to act against either of those types. I’m impressed the thing comes together at all.

A quick content warning: there is a reference in here — I lost just where — to current events of summer 1945. It’s a reference to having beaten the “Hun” and going to beat a short way of referring to Japanese people. I’ve clearly decided that isn’t a gross enough problem to outweigh the value of hearing the episode, but did not want people who’d reason otherwise to be caught unaware.

The second show in this podcast, starting about 30 minutes in like you’d hope, is an installment of Arch Oboler’s Lights Out. This was a horror series, often dipping into the supernatural. This particular episode is about two typists who’re handling the script for Lights Out when things get unsettling. (If I’m reading things right, the script they’re typing up seems to be for the episode “The Dark”, about a strange fog that turns people inside-out. It got riffed on a Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons.) Whether the episode works for you at all probably depends on whether you can accept the acting conventions. Old-time-radio acting used a different theatrical style than we do today. And the characters have to tell each other things that they really should just see, like, lights going out. And, particularly, Arch Oboler had a wry humor, so there may be stuff you think is just laughable and not realize that he did too.

If you’re of a sufficient age you might remember listening to Bill Cosby routines without trouble. Also particularly listening to a Bill Cosby routine in which he tells of staying up to listen to a radio story that scares the pants off him. In the episode a chicken heart escapes from a lab and one thing leads to another and it kinda eats the world. This is a retelling of a different Lights Out episode. (And an episode only known to exist in a truncated, edited form, so Cosby’s telling is valuable for describing what the experience was like.) So, if you can find the right mood, you might really like this series. You’ll also see that this, one of the first horror series, taught Rod Serling a bunch of tricks.

What I Think Of Whatever It Was I Just Got


I don’t know why they want this sickness reviewed. What the heck. There’s a chance for a $250 Amazon gift certificate, right?

OK, so, this past week’s worth of sickness has been a real treat. The high point, by volume, has to be the bug I caught on Monday that we dubbed “stomach flu”. That’s a cute, friendly name, evoking as it does the 20th Century’s greatest killer, against stiff competition. But you know the kind of bug it is. You start out the day feeling fine. Then in midafternoon you realize how appealing it would be to sit still and disgorge a two-inch-thick layer of sweat. That done, the next task is to not move for eighteen hours. The alternative, moving, runs the risk of your body exploding like a paintball capsule only worse in every possible way. And of course the rotation of the Earth about its axis becomes too fast-paced and irregular to deal with.

The bug must be awarded style points for choosing to wait until I was visiting my love’s parents to take real effect. Not only could I be sick, and worry that I was making a horrible mess in someone else’s bathroom, but it carried just the hint that somehow I had got food poisoning from their pack of store-bought Dutch windmill cookies. (They weren’t actually Dutch windmill cookies, but I forget what we actually had. I think it might have been sugar cookies. But those are much less funny to get food poisoning from, if that’s even possible.) So the cure for this was to go throw up in my car, and sleep for 36 hours, without getting any less tired.

That all would have been hardly worth mentioning if it hadn’t piggybacked on the week’s other bodily complaint, though. That was some lower back pain. I run a little stoic, and even after a pretty lousy week I don’t want to make too much of it. But the ache started out last Friday morning, got so bad by Saturday that I even said something about it, and then started to fade again. Then this morning I was showering, and coughed, and it came back in full force. I don’t want to give up coughing in the future. I’ve had a nagging cough going on since 1998 and it’d be a shame to lose that. But if showering and coughing is going to give me this kind of backache I’m just going to have to give one of them up. I guess it’ll be coughing, since I don’t need to be less pleasant to be around than I already am.

To give some idea what it feels like, my lower back feels as if it’s been hit by a truck. I don’t mean that it feels like a truck ran into me in traffic. I mean it feels like a big 18-wheeler, the kind with a trailer and some sticker on the back promising that this trucking company gives no aid or comfort to the enemy, no way, noticed my distracted eye in a bar. And then the truck, a touch belligerent-drunk, stormed over to demand I explain myself. I’m never good in these sorts of situations. I answer something like “huh?” The truck overwhelmed the friends trying so hard to hold it back. Then it pushed me up against the change machine that doesn’t give change for $5 bills printed since 2008. It punched my spine just above the tailbone, twice. And then kicked it for good measure. The truck’s friends promised it’s normally not like this and offered to buy me a drink. But I only had a diet Coke that the bar refills for free anyway. The truck got in one more punch before it could be coaxed over to the other side of the bar and berate the karaoke machine. That is the kind of “hit by a truck” it feels like.

I’m not looking for sympathy, though you’ll notice I’m publishing this where anybody can see anyway. But the ache has been a chance for me to discover all sorts of things I can do while standing like someone who’s impersonating Groucho Marx without having ever seen Groucho Marx or any impersonator of Groucho Marx. It turns out this is nothing. Or if I do have to bend the slightest non-Groucho-Marx bit, how much I can get done by groaning about the pain oh the pain oh dear lord why are there steps in this house.

To sum up: truly effective sequence of ailments. Would not buy again. Would not recommend except to some people I’m feuding with. I’m not going to win the gift certificate either, I bet.

S J Perelman: Avocado, or the Future of Eating


I’d like to present another item from the inimitable S J Perelman, whose writing here, as it often does, starts from a simple enough premise of being all curmudgeonly about getting lunch and then goes off in strange directions. I don’t know when the article was first published but I have to imagine it dates to the early 20s. Perelman, famously, wrote scripts for several of the Marx Brothers movies and it’s quite easy (for me, anyway) to imagine Groucho, particularly, reeling off some of the linguistic flights here. So here’s something from The Best Of S J Perelman; enjoy, please.

AVOCADO,
OR THE FUTURE OF EATING

(Note found in an empty stomach off Santa Barbara)

One day not long ago in Los Angeles I found myself, banderillas in hand, facing the horns of a dilemma. I had gone into a Corn Exchange bank to exchange some corn and had fallen into conversation with the manager. He was very affable and insisted I inspect the assets of the branch, which included, among other things, the teeth Bryant Washburn had used in his film career. Issuing into the hot sunlight of the street, I was dismayed to find that it was time for lunch, and since I had forgotten to bring along a bag of pemmican, I would have to eat in Los Angeles –— a fairly exact definition of the term “the kiss of death”. I looked around me. On my left I could obtain a duplexburger and a Giant Malted Milk Too Thick For a Straw; on my right the feature was barbecued pork fritters and orangeade. Unnerved, I stopped a passing street Arab and courteously inquired where I might find a cheap but clean eating house. Phil the Fiddler (for it was he) directed my steps to a pharmacy bearing the legend “Best Drug Stores, Inc.” Merely for the record, I dined off an avocado sandwich on whole wheat and a lime rickey, and flunked my basal-metabolism test later that afternoon. I don’t pretend to blame the management for my physical shortcomings; all I want them to do is laugh off their menu, a copy of which I seem to have before me.

In general, “Soda Fountain Suggestions” (Best Drug Stores, Inc.) is an attractively printed job in two colors (three if you count the gravy), and though it can hardly hope to rival the success of Gone with the Wind, I suppose there is an audience which will welcome it. The salads and three-decker sandwiches are treated with a certain gaiety and quaint charm which recall Alice of Old Vincennes. The banana splits and hot-and-cold Ovaltines are handled with a glib humor in the text, which is more than I can say for the way they are handled behind the fountain. The day I was there, a simply appalling oath escaped the lips of one of the dispensers when he dropped some fudge on his shoe. The authors have included a very disarming foreword short enough to quote in its entirety: “It is our earnest desire to fulfill the name that we have chosen for our chain, THE BEST. We can only accomplish this by serving you best. Any criticisms or suggestions will be appreciated by the management.” Only a churl would decline so graceful a gambit. Messieurs, en garde!

Specifically, gentlemen, my criticism concerns that cocky little summary of yours at the bottom of the menu. “BEST Soda Fountains” you proclaim flatly, “are BEST because: the ice creams contain no `fillers’ (starch, albumen, etc.); the syrups are made from cane sugar and real fruits; the coffee is a special blend made the modern Silex way with a specially filtered water,” and so forth. Lest some of the younger boys in the troop think the millennium has come to the City of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels, what are the facts?

In the first place, you needn’t think you can woo me with any such tinsel as “the ice creams contain no `fillers’ (starch, albumen, etc.).” One thing I’ll have in my ice cream or it’s no dice –— and that’s fillers. I don’t even insist on ice cream as long as I can stuff myself with fillers. You heap my plate with albumen and starch (any kind, even laundry starch) and stand clear. Call me a piggy if you want to, but I just can’t get enough of that starch.

Quite honestly, your statement that the syrups “are made from cane sugar and real fruits” surprised me. If that’s a boast, I must say it’s a pretty hollow one. It might interest you to know that back in 1917 the Allied High Command specified beet sugar and false fruits in all syrups purchased by its commissary department. Didn’t know that, did you? Probably too busy evading the draft at the time. Well, you just ask any biochemist his recommendation on sugars, as I did recently; you’ll get the same terse answer: beet sugar and false fruits. I have this cousin of mine who is a perfect wiz at chemistry –— really astonishing marks for a boy of nineteen in high school –— and no matter what you ask him, he’ll give you the same answer: beet sugar and false fruits. Frankly, the family’s getting a little worried about it; they have to keep Benny chained to a ring in the floor most of the time.

Furthermore, it’s useless to try to creep into my heart with any blandishments like “the coffee is a special blend made the modern Silex way with a specially filtered water.” Filtering Los Angeles water robs it of its many nourishing ingredients, not the least of which is chow mein. It is an interesting fact, known to anybody who has ever been interned in that city or its suburbs, that the water possesses a rich content of subgum almond chow mein, Cantonese style, and one or two cases have even been reported where traces of peanut candy and lichee nuts were found. The assertion of a friend of mine that he once saw an Irish houseboy come out of a water faucet, of course, must be regarded as apocryphal. The Irish are a wiry little people, but they are not as wiry as all that. Nor are they ready as yet for the self-government which my distinguished opponents, the gentlemen of the affirmative, claim they should have. And so, honorable judges and ladies and gentlemen, we of the negative conclude that the Irish should not be given their independence because (1) we need them for a coaling station, (2) there is a high percentage of illiteracy, and (3) if we do, Ireland will soon be snatching up Guam -—- or “chewing Guam,” so to speak. I thank you.