Friday, January 24, 2020

"Trolling For Wonderful!"

Everyone has standards. 

Mine, in one context, are apparently quite high.

Meaning I enjoy less,

But complain more.

I think today about “single-panel” cartoons and the all-time greats in the field, like the recently late Gahan Wilson.

The oblivious blind man, pressing the doorbell at the School of the Deaf.

That was his.

The desperate dentist, yanking a tooth so hard, the patient’s entire skull flies out his agonized mouth.

That was his too.

You see what I mean?  Those images are unique, explosive and indelibly memorable.

Something has happened to the majority of “single-panel” cartoons.  They rarely surprise me.  Or if they do, they surprise me in a “So what?” kind of a way.

A lot of cartoonists lean on the workmanlike formula of “incongruous juxtaposition.”  But as with crudely off-color jokes, simple “incongruous juxtaposition” is not enough.

Those jokes also have to be funny.

A beached whale, wearing jockey shorts.  And the caption says:

“The one day I don’t put on clean underwear.”

Whales in jockey shorts.   An “incongruous juxtaposition.” 

But then what?

The shoreline waters are glutted with black.  A recognizable bottle lies capsized in the distance, draining its pollutant into the sea.  And the caption says:

“There has been a massive ink spill.”

“Ink spill” replacing “oil spill.”  But beyond “incongruous juxtaposition”, what exactly’s the point?

This one actually lampoons the “incongruous juxtaposition” motif itself. 

A woman and man, colorfully dressed as a trapeze artist and a clown appear in a standard business office.  And the caption says:

“Caption: we work in an office; however, we have dressed for the circus.  What a humorous mixup.”

This exposing depiction of the way most cartoons are constructed is the artistic equivalent of “We entirely give up.”   

I know there are many laugh-inducing cartoons, and feel free to mention your favorites.  Me, with my “unreachable” standards, I’m looking for “sublime.”

Rivaling my favorite:

A car drives by a rural farmhouse.  And the caption says:

“Number of Tllda Swinton spottings in Kansas – zero.”

Or a juxtaposition, serving an actual comedic idea.

Picture of a galley ship, with the oars flailing madly in every direction.  And the caption (from a voice inside the ship) says:

“Come on, guys.  It’s only a bee.”

The best are the best because they’re the best.

I just wish there were more of them.

Of course, if there were more of them “the best” wouldn’t be special, so I suppose I should be grateful for the pedestrian ones.

But I’m not.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

"The Brotherly Test"

Earlier this month (January the Sixth), my brother had a humorous commentary published in The New Yorker magazine, chronicling “The Untold Story” of Albert Einstein.

I was not sure how I would feel about that.  Over the years, I had submitted several commentaries to The New Yorker, and had had all of them rejected.  In response to my submissions, I received a quarter of a piece of paper that essentially said “No.”  It could have been smaller – how much paper does “No” take?  A rolled-up fortune cookie message:  “No!”  Who knows?  Maybe the really bad submissions received that, and I was proportionally honored by the rejecting quarter of a page.   

Anyway, that happened, “that” being my brother’s noteworthy achievement.  And I was curious how I’d react.  I knew I would inevitably find out, because companion to “How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?” there is “How do I know how I feel till I see what I do?”

So what did I do?

When the family arrived the weekend after the publication, I found myself standing at the front door, clutching the New Yorker in my non-door-opening hand, my extended index finger “bookmarking” the relevant page, figuratively if not literally frantically jumping up and down.

I could not wait to show it around.

My daughter Anna was excited just seeing the name.  After reading it, my two sons-in-law pronounced the work consecutively “great” and “very witty.”   It’s a shame my family’s not bigger.  I’d have shown it to them too!

Ever-loyal Anna suggested I should now “top” him.  (Ignoring my entire career in the process.)  But I knew that was not necessary.

In the smoldering “Battle of the Brothers” our mother had already made the determining call.

And here’s how.

As a young adult, my brother boldly announced:  

“I’m going to be a comedian.”

To which my mother reflexively replied,

“Who do you think you are, Jerry Lewis?”

Later, at a similar age, I, though certainly less boldly, announced:

“I’m going to be a comedian.”

To which our mother reflexively replied,

“Who do you think you are, Jack Benny?”

Our mother, always astute in these matters, had made the distinguishing decision, which was this:

She believed I wasn’t a better comedian than my brother wasn’t.

So I won.

As for his appearance in New Yorker – which I commend to your attention – I can feel it right now –

The electric grin on my face that says,

“Nice goin’!”

Is there envy?


Feelings of competitiveness?

Of course.

But topping everything else by miles, there is…

“Pomerantz Pride.”  

Hm.  I wonder if they’d be interested in this.  A brother’s reaction to…

“Stop it!”


Wednesday, January 22, 2020

"Parallel Universe"

While on vacation I read this article in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, reprinted from a national news service.  I did not save it, because I was on vacation, and because, well…  you’ll see.

On Sunday December 29, 2019, a man walked into a Texas church, killed two people and was then himself killed by a member of the armed church “Security Team.”

Although an obvious tragedy, there was a clear sense that arming the church’s “Security Team”, had been the right thing to do, as taking out the shooter had ”…  saved an untold number of lives.”

(Note:  The double-homicide in the church sactuary followed the earlier Church of Sunderland Springs (Texas) mass shooting that left 26 people dead.  A law allowing guns in church was then enacted to help avoid such terrible episodes in the future.)

Aside from mourning the slain parishioners, the prevailing reaction was that “The suspect was stopped thanks to the quick and heroic reactions of those ‘safety members’ inside the church.”

The sensible message:  “Be prepared.”

Days later, a follow-up article found Jack Wilson, “a 71 year-old former reserve deputy sheriff {who} took out the shotgun-wielding suspect with a single shot to the head during services” explaining, ‘I don’t see myself as a hero.  I see myself as doing what needed to be done to take out an evil threat.’”

A local response to Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg condemning the idea of guns in churches was,

“He apparently wishes Wilson had been unarmed and thus unable to defend his fellow congregants.”

This is so weird.

Following the thought process of those Texas parishioners, everything they did makes perfect, reasonable sense.

Except, to me – and maybe others as well…

It doesn’t.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

"Flarme Up - Flame Out"

t is understandably frustrating to believe you have talent in your chosen field of endeavor yet you enjoy no critical acceptance or commercial success.

That’s bad. 

But consider now this:

You have spectacular critical and commercial success in your chosen field of endeavor and then, with your prodigious abilities still actively intact, the hot reception abruptly and permanently disappears.

It’s like, “What happened?  Did they forget I was good?”

The answer to that question, at least in one credible context, came to me in the Preston Sturges book, which I shall not complete because the writing is flat and the print is too small.

Fortunately, the stuff that interested me sufficiently to merit this post arrived before my eyes started to hurt, so I can quit on Page 23.

And not a moment too soon.

Though one of the great, admired, and respected Hollywood writer-directors of all time, Preston Sturges’s spectacular heyday began and ended in approximately two years. 

It appears inconceivable.  Before his “Big Break” it was, “They don’t know what they’re missing.”  And after those two years, it was, like, “They don’t know what they’re missing., and they just saw me do it, four pictures in a row!”

Although Sturges was notoriously poor in the Kindergarten category of “Plays well with others”, the book provides an interesting alternate reason for his meteoric rise and equally meteoric descent.

Both tumultuous changes in Sturges’s life can be explained by exactly the same reason:

Cultural timing.

And at that moment in history, the American culture moved fast.

Cultural timing informs the aspirations of all of us.  But not as dramatically as it did with Sturges.

Listen to this.


When Sturges’s first written-and-directed movie The Great McGinty came out, the book proclaims,

“Sturges’s new film made such an impact because it tentatively moved from the style of comedy prevalent in the more carefree decade  of the 1930’s {at least in movies}, and took steps towards the much more edgy, morally ambivalent filmmaking that was to characterize the 1940’s.”

In less words, the guy was ahead of his time, and, lucky for him, the times fortuitously caught up.

Three tonally similar films later, when Sturges’s follow-up outing The Palm Beach Story met with a weaker critical reception the book suggests,

“It may be that, by the time of its release in late 1942, America’s entry into World War II had created a more earnest mindset among the critics, and it appeared to be too superficial, almost too lighthearted for the mood of the nation.”

And there you have it.  “The Times” took the man up and, stunningly quickly, they brought him back down.  Sturges coasted on his previous successes for a while and then he was finished, though he still feverishly continued to pitch projects, believing he “still had it”, which he did.

It was just the wrong “it” for subsequent eras.  After World War II, positive Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House-type movies made Sturges’s challenging “take” on our cultural mores feel unwelcome and ancient.

I feel sad writing that.  Great work, adulation and commercial success, for a brief period of time.

And then, nada.

Though Sturges always believed he’d be back, suggesting his fueling “Recipe for Success” included a heaping helping of self-deceit.

Family friend Phil Bloom successfully sold “Men’s Hats” in Toronto, till the automobile companies lowered the roofs and hats no longer fit comfortably inside the cars.

I guess it’s like that.

You’re a big hit.

Till they lower the roof.