Thursday, January 12, 2012


A while back, in the context of writing about how newspapers entertain me, I used, as an example, a story about the outbreak of tuba thefts in the Los Angeles high school system.

This story was assigned to the L.A. Times’ front page, albeit in the less “five-alarm fire” “Below The Fold” area – the bottom half of the front page, below where they fold it; hence, the descriptive – but still, it was on the front page, where the big-time news is reported – the presidential election campaign, upheavals in Egypt. There, among the national and international big stuff – a tuba-pilfering epidemic is sweeping Los Angeles high schools.

It was reported that, within a period of weeks, three local high schools had had their music rooms broken into, and through a bizarre and inexplicable selection process, only one instrument was singled out for attention.

“All they took were tubas.”

Well, technically, not just the tubas. One school suffered the loss of eight Sousaphones. Though not precisely tubas, however, Sousaphones may correctly be categorized in the “tuba family.”

For some reason, this story makes me laugh. Part of the mirth derives from the word “tuba” itself, which, to my ear at least, is a generically funny word. If the instrument the burglars had zeroed in on had been violins, I don’t know – and this may be subjective – it just wouldn’t be the same. (“Vice President Cheney shot his friend in the face” versus “Vice President Cheney shot his friend in the arm.”)

“Piccolos” are a little funny ­– the word contains the recognized “ha-ha”-inducing hard “k” sound, found in “pickle” and “cockatoo” – but “piccolo” is not as funny as “tuba”, partly, though I am not a hundred per cent on this – because of the tuba’s size, tubas being, as the classic children’s story reflects, tubby.

Among other concerns, this conjures the resultant difficulty, in that one school, of carrying off eight tubas off at the same time. Would such an accomplishment require eight burglars? Or one burglar, making eight trips? Perhaps it was four burglars, making two trips each.

One can imagine particularly burly burglars being recruited for the caper, who, though beyond the capacities of a regular person, could walk away with two tubas at a time, cutting down on the coming and going, thereby shortening their chances of being discovered.

The imagination runs wild with possibilities.

The thing – and the point of this post – is that, as humorous as I found this story – an arguable “seven” out of a possible ten – I am simultaneously aware that the event was not at all funny to the schools from which the instruments were removed.

First of all, and most importantly in these tough economic times, these instruments are expensive. One stolen tuba was estimated at $13,000.

Beyond that, tubas, especially in marching bands, are fundamentally important. The tuba anchors the entire arrangement. While trumpets and saxophones showily proclaim the melody, the tuba remains in the background, dutifully maintaining the beat. This contribution is essential. A tune without a beat is like a kite without a string. It loses it grounding point of contact, and drifts helplessly away.

And then there’s the issue of what happens to the students assigned to playing those missing tubas. Do they get reassigned? Or are they dropped from the band, now lacking the minimal requirement for marching band participation – having an instrument. A requirement which, sadly, the band’s former tuba players, no longer meet.

“I still have the hat.”

“I’m sorry. That’s not enough.”

Do you notice what’s happening here? Despite my awareness of the serious hardship to those school and their band members, I cannot stop myself from exploiting their misfortune for comedic intent.

Leading inevitably to the question,

What’s wrong with me?

In some Woody Allen movie of the past whose name eludes me, comedy was defined as “tragedy plus time.” I offer the additional issue of perspective. It’s not funny if it’s your tuba. And the passage of time is unlikely to make it funnier.

“We’ve located the tubas.”

“Am I back in the band?”

“Sorry. You’re fifty.”

It’s too late. The disappointment remains, the passing time incapable of eradicating the loss. It’s understandable. You may have really loved the tuba, perhaps imagined yourself a much hoped-for career sitting in an orchestra pit, your cheeks inflated like balloons, boom-boom-boom-booming your way through Broadway musicals and beloved masterpieces in the classical repertoire. Somebody breaks into your high school, takes of with the tubas, and now you’re a dentist.

Okay, that one was bittersweet, but I acknowledge comedic overtones.

I guess I just can’t help myself.

I find humor in other people’s unhappiness.

Maybe it’s just human nature, some Darwinian survival mechanism.

“You can’t be sympathetic all the time. When a dinosaur comes, you’ll just think, “Dinosaurs have to eat too”, and you’re not going to get out of it. Which is good for the dinosaur, but terminal for you.”

That’s what my reaction is.


Phew. I’m off the hook.


Keith said...

"Tragedy plus time" was from Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody's best). Yet, the character who said it was considered a hack.

It's the same consideration one must have when quoting Shakespeare as writing "Neither a borrower nor a lender be". The character who said it (Polonius) was considered an idiot. Polonius also says "brevity is the soul of wit" while being long-winded.

But I do believe there would have been a few more laughs in Hamlet with more tuba references.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; isn't, as Peter Ustinov said, "comedy is simply a funny way of being serious"?

As I see it, your writing and the works you've been associated with show the funny side of everyday life and sometimes show us the funny side of serious events in a life.


Brian Fies said...

Mel Brooks: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

Tubas are always funny.