" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Friday, October 2, 2015

On Interpretation: Zappa Plays Zappa

Dweezil Zappa and ensemble at the Boulder Theater last night. No, I didn't get any closer. I could hear just fine where I was.
How many recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are there? Thousands. Why? Haven’t they gotten it right yet?

When Dweezil Zappa hit the stage with his cover of his father Frank’s 1975 One Size Fits All album (the 10th and last official Mothers of Invention product – Zappa went solo after) at the Boulder Theater last night, it was standing room only – with a fairly large contingent of people my age and older, grandparent-y-looking freaks in disguise. When the house lights went down, a Trinity Site-size- and –shaped mushroom cloud of dope smoke ascended, rolling and roiling, breaking in silent tsunami against the lofty Art Deco ceiling.

It got loud fast. We stayed well back on the left, but got to observe all kinds of aisle action – security going after the blatant smokers, trippers waving their fingers in our faces. It got hot.

Zappa was an affable, laid-back host, a gentle curator who slayed it, playing the seemingly unlearnable solos his father composed and played. He was backed by an amazing quintet – Kurt Morgan on bass, Chris Norton on keyboards, Joe Travers on drums, Ben Thomas on trumpet, trombone, harmonica, guitar, and what else comes to hand; and the ball of fire Scheila Gonzales, who worked the keyboards, and flute, and sax, ripping out an amazing horn solo on a cover of “The Grand Wazoo” later in the evening.

Ben Thomas handled the lead vocals, too. (The vocal mix got blown out, and was pretty incomprehensible. I had to go back to the lyrics sheet later to refamiliarize myself.) It seemed odd that Dweezil would relegate this duty – but maybe not. It must be odd to play your dad’s albums for screaming crowds.

Or not. This definitely wasn’t the kind of note-for-note replication that bands such as Dark Star Orchestra perform. And is that what we want? The Eagles reportedly strove to make every concert “sound like the record.” Dweezil and Company kept substantially to the songs, but opened them out as well, developed them, extended them through their own experience and understanding.

And maybe that’s the best way to keep this music alive. Like Mercer Ellington and Sue Mingus, Dweezil Zappa has a mountain of material to work with – Zappa released 62 albums in his lifetime, sometimes five a year – a confounding mix of juvenile comedy, rock, soul, jazz, orchestral, R & B (who doesn’t love Cruisin’ with Ruben and the Jets?), collage, experimental pieces, all jammed together in an ever-exploding matrix of Weird.

Dweezil gets that and makes it work for him, demonstrating that the work has a much longer half-life than most people think it does. Frank Zappa was a notorious perfectionist, but even music as challenging and idiosyncratic as his will only survive if people take it, play it, and by playing change it. As the Borges story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” story illustrated, even the most rigorous attempt to recreate a creative experience is doomed and blessed to be something new and different.

We accrete cultural layers everywhere we go. We track our past, our mind, our style in with us, always, like mud on our shoes. Even when playing the unplayable, or bringing the unreproducible back to life, we are keeping it alive, and adding a little of our DNA to it as well. It’s Dweezil Zappa’s unique privilege to point out some gems to us and put new luster on them.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Stuff and nonsense: the holy illumination of potrzebie

Harvey Kurtzman unglued my reality.

The great cartoonist and key first editor of Mad Magazine introduced one simple little word into the magazine in May 1954, one that made absolutely no sense. It resonated, and Kurtzman’s brilliant successor as Mad editor, Al Feldstein, kept the gag running.

When we were kids we made a daily pilgrimage after school to the Duckwall’s five-and-dime store a third of a mile from our house, hoping to find a new Captain America comic book, or another gruesome, Joe Orlando-edited House of Mystery, or the new issue of Mad Magazine. Somewhere down the line, in one gloriously silly, juvenile number or other, my reading eyes skidded to a halt at the word “potrzebie.”

Here’s the buildup: there are many faultlines in my thinking. All early childhood memories are intense and fragmented, but mine seem particularly adrift, though, contextless and overwhelmingly associated with a sheer, staggering, fearful thrill of perceiving color, taste, smell, sound, and all, extending even to synesthesia. I couldn’t distance myself, everything was too loud, far too real. I could barely stand the sheer vividnesss of other people.

We all need context, a structure of perception that underlies judgement and choice. Fortunately, I had a world of books to comfort me. Here were super-real experiences that could be controlled, set at arms’ length, put down and pondered.

Another ready-made reality filter was the dull, Caucasian Christianity I inherited unquestioningly. Edged with shadows of Scandinavian gloom, girded with the magical power of repression, my Midwest Lutheranism contained a unified conception of the cosmos on every level, neatly anchored by profoundly powerful and somewhat grumpy allfather. Even after I lost faith, that context slotted me into reality, gave me a standpoint to work from. I found a way to contain my terror of being randomly buffeted about by my senses and the thoughts and feelings they stirred.

By the mid-‘70s, though, we had all given up on church. I was still working my way through the local library, quite literally. (I nailed the children’s’ library in about a year and a half. My mother had to sign off on me checking out insane armloads from the adult side after that.) By now I was thoroughly aware of the nature of the universe and my place in it. It just wasn’t especially thrilling. I could function, and did, grayly, senses turned down.

Then I hit “potrzebie.” It wasn’t even being used as a punchline! Like many a mental hotfoot, it was slipped in casually. No matter how anxious I was to make sense of it, I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure of much, but I did know my vocabulary words. This was not among them. Our house dictionaries, and those of the local library, provided not a clue. I am sure I had read “Jabberwocky” by that time, but somehow the concept of the non-sequitir still escaped me. Now it hit me between the eyes like a ballpeen hammer, a one-word, Borscht Belt Zen koan that exploded my mind.

I short-circuited. I laughed hysterically. Here was a gratuitous, fabricated formation of letters, could mean anything, could mean nothing, thrown onto the page without let or hinder, heedless of the laws of usage. It not only ignored the needs of the reader, it mocked them.

[Backstory: “Potrzebie” is a Polish word meaning “a need.” Harvey Kurtzman ran across it in a list of instructions in multiple languages that came with a bottle of aspirin. He cut it out, copied it, and started pasting it into the backgrounds of random Mad stories. It caught on, along with other classic Mad neologisms as furshlugginer, veeblefetzer, ecch, blecch, hoohah, fladdap, and shtoink. A satiric Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures persists in those pages to this day.]

And it invited you to mock along. It denied meaning. My tiny little mind didn’t know this yet, but Kurtzman was dipping into the same well of absurdity as the Surrealists. The waves of Eurosilliness ran through Lear, Carroll, Jarry, Joyce, and Ionesco, and quickly migrated into lower-brow artists such as Benchley, Perelman, Spike Milligan, Ernie Kovacs, Bob and Ray, and of course Mad.

“Potrzebie” gave me the power to step outside the dull, orderly system of consensual reality. Meanings were arbitrary, and, at base, silly and funny. And all my mental constructs went from stone to Jell-O. I was connected to unmediated experience again, without the terror of being overwhelmed by it. Life was laughable, was enjoyable. And I started creating. I didn’t know it, but I was doomed to a life of comedy.

This newly provisional reality could be tested for validity with the Sword of Potrzebie. Any given person, organization, creed, plan, system, was permeable, subject to the erosion of humorous query, skepticism, mockery, lampoon, and parody. The simple addition of the tiny word “potrzebie” into any magnificent but false landscape would explode it, set it aflame, bring it crashing down.

Not that this approach doesn’t have its dangers. Humor strips away superfluities. Like many young comics, I couldn’t tell the difference between myself and my act. I single-mindedly tore everything apart, including people, looking for material. To deny the meaning of everything is an untenable place from which to live – I tried it and it didn’t work.

I stopped staying up ‘til 3 in the morning at smoky bars telling dick jokes. I found a God I could live with, and writing. I have a family that puts up with me. My friends are the best in the world – they are funny, and don’t take too much seriously, but are absolutely solid, reliable, and honest, unencumbered by the phoney-baloney bullshit that passes for workaday relationships in this dodgy world, among the normatives, the control group.

I have very little money and a wheelbarrow-full of peace of mind. I owe it all to potrzebie.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Review: ‘American Cornball’ entertaining trip through comedy history

American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny
Christopher Miller
New York


Did you ever wonder why being stuck on a desert island is supposed to be so damn funny? Or for that matter, why falling safes, rolling pins, snoring, pie fights, hoboes, alley cats, and big butts are an enduring part of America’s comedy DNA? And -- do you want to know what those enormous sweat drops that fly from nervous cartoon characters are called?

Christopher Miller’s mother lode of old-school memes, tropes, symbols, routines and topics is here to help. American Cornball combs through the 20th Century’s postcards, ephemera, vaudeville sketches, radio shows, comics, cartoons, and books to assemble a definitive roster of stuff that used to crack us up.

A joke’s half-life is usually dramatically short. Topical humor is by definition fleeting. Any comedian will tell you that comic style changes over decades. Even a successful one whose work is grounded in general human observation such as Jerry Seinfeld finds he’s not connecting with a younger generation these days. The comics our parents loved we saw as hacks, and our children will feel the same. (If Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison had lived, would they have wound up playing the South Florida condo circuit?) American Cornball reminds us ars longa, comoedia brevis.

Miller’s voracious, if not masochistic, research, grounds an A-to-Z survey that concentrates on American culture from the birth of the comic strip in 1895 to the 1960s, when the idea of a large, homogenous common culture that shared a toolkit of common laughter-generating topics sputtered and died. These primeval gags lurked everywhere in the old days. Miller bravely tracks down their origins and then offers interpretation and analysis, throwing in citation, context, and a timeline as well. (For instance, he carefully breaks down the variegated comic possibilities posed by the three classic home-invasion figures: the plumber, the iceman, and the door-to-door salesman. Who knew?)

Miller’s peculiar genius here is to pare down these examinations to brisk, entertaining passages. His crisp wit sustains us throughout, and he constantly stuffs his entries with tangents of information that make the reader not want to miss any stray nugget of information. The casual reader can enjoy dipping in here and there; the diligent (OK obsessive) reader will absorb many insights Miller deduces from the no-longer-quite-so-hilarious evidence in front of him.

He doesn’t shy away from the plethora of racist, violent and misogynist humor that played so large a role in the comedy of the time and that we now longer officially find acceptable. Long-gone ethnic caricatures of blacks, Jews, “Polacks,” Italians, and “Irishmen” have already been joined by women-driver jokes and may soon also see jokes about homosexuals join them in retirement. Miller neither despises political correctness nor endorses old-school tastelessness; like the best scholars he puts it all out there, tells us what he thinks, and leaves the rest up to us.

And dammit, it’s just funny. By the way, those huge cartoon sweat drops are termed plewds. There’s a lot more where that came from, but you have to conquer this entertaining tome of nerdy brilliance to find out.