" . . . 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

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.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

'Our carnal stings' -- thoughts on Colorado Shakespeare Festival's 'Othello'

Geoffrey Kent as Iago and Peter Macon as Othello in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "Othello." [Photo by Jennifer Koskinen/Courtesy Colorado Shakespeare Festival]
 We were forced to read “Othello” in high school. Despite this, it’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. Scrape away the preconceptions, and memories of bad productions seen, and there’s a great river of vital stuff surging through it – race, sex, politics, loyalty, truth, possession, pride, and trust. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production works due to its strong central performance and a no-nonsense directorial approach by Lisa Wolpe that focuses on telling the story clearly rather than trying to score points for cleverness. It's an excellent introduction to this key work.

“Othello” is often thought to be a play out of balance, one in which its manipulative villain Iago dominates, reducing the title character to a pawn. But, done properly, the play is not misnamed. The web of circumstantial evidence Iago weaves to make Othello think his new, young wife Desdemona is cheating on him is insubstantial. Why doesn’t Othello sweep it away?

Precisely because Othello is an experienced warrior, a commander. Bluff, emotional, and open-hearted, his martial virtues are his undoing in a civilian society where ambiguity, innuendo, politicking, and deceit dominate. Played properly, as it is here, Iago merely triggers the explosion of a magnificent hero.

Peter Macon brings previous experience to the role as Othello, along with a presence that commands attention and a deep, resonant voice. Many times Othello has been played with an overdose of gravitas, but Macon gives the audience at the outset an exuberant, playful, charismatic, three-dimensional man, which makes his mental collapse and fragmentation all the more moving and fascinating to watch as the night progresses.

Adept at battle, Othello’s lost in love, or what he considers love to be. In the end, it seems to be only a reflection of his self-regard, and the perceived loss of it makes it necessary for him to slay the object of his affections. Macon’s Othello is incapable of plucking suspicion from his mind, and seems like someone who might have wound in the same dismal ending even without Iago’s goading.

Othello is adrift in a culture of sexual paranoia. Women are defined by their chastity; men are defined by ability to overcome that chastity. A woman not completely innocent or faithful is a worthless whore; a man whose woman is unfaithful is no man at all. (So things haven’t changed that much in 400 years.) To sleep with another man’s women is to shame and gain power over him.

Iago, long-time aide to Othello, thinks that Othello has cuckolded him – that and Othello’s preferment of another as his lieutenant spurs his stream of lies that lead to murder. The actor playing Iago has to be careful. The role has been played by and large as either transparently evil or, worse, incredibly bitchy. Exceptional interpreters of the role such as Ian McKellen and Frank Finlay work against the stereotype, underplaying so deftly that we are hoodwinked by the character’s feigned honesty as well, even though we know better.

Geoffrey Kent takes the latter course quite successfully as Iago. Kent has a very sunny disposition as an actor that helps him sell his manipulations, and a deference that really lets Macon take the lead in many scenes, which works well.

Desdemona is another frustratingly difficult role. As written, she’s cloyingly sweet and altruistic, so much so that sometimes at the end of a production her death comes as quite refreshing turn of events. The role has largely been played that way, sometimes branching into a standard variation in which she is just so damn sexy, so naturally attractive and sensual, that it seems inevitable that she will die for it.

Laura Baranik’s Desdemona seems in the beginning like a spoiled and oblivious young thing, and the chemistry between her and Macon was not substantial on opening night. But, as the evening progresses and Desdemona is ever more wronged, Baranik works the anger, shame, frustration, and hurt of the character well, giving us a woman struggling to understand her doom.

More notes – good old CSF regular Sam Gregory is here as Desdemona’s father Brabantio, and is a kick in the pants to watch. Often Brabantio is played as a quivering, ineffective dodderer, but Gregory is vital and vindictive as the deceived parent. Kudos to Rodney Lizcano, too, for getting the most out of the role of comic-relief Roderigo, Iago’s ally and dupe. Vanessa Morosco is a fine Emilia, Iago’s wife, one of the most outspoken, honest, and observant female characters in Shakespeare. She speaks truth to power and suffers the consequences.

Caitlin Ayer’s versatile, symmetrical set (it doubles as CSF’s “Much Ado About Nothing”’s) lets the traffic flow smoothly, essential in a long work like this – the show dragged a bit on opening night, but it can only get tighter. And Hugh Hanson’s costumes are splendid.

Quibbles? I love Anne Sandoe, but replacing the Doge of Venice with a Duchess really doesn’t fly. Plus, I miss the crazy, emblematic melted-Hershey’s-kiss-shaped hat a doge usually wears! Why do I know this? Why is it even important? I don't know. I don’t get out much.

“Othello” continues at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 8. For tickets and information, please visit coloradoshakes.org.