Friday, February 17, 2017

"The Age Factor"

When I was young and I turned my nose up at the provided split pea soup – it tasted fuzzy on my tongue to me – my mother devised a compromising strategy to induce me to dip my spoon into that unpalatable concoction.  She’d say,

“Eat your age.” 

It worked well when I was six.  Less so when I was twenty-one.  I had to refill my bowl to accommodate the quota. 

You see, that’s the “funny part” – an original strategy outliving its appropriateness.  Which conveys my borderless mind – naturally – to George Burns and Gracie Allen.  That’s “naturally” if you are me.

Starting in vaudeville, the husband-and-wife team of George Burns and Gracie Allen proceeded to radio and subsequently to television where their popular sitcom The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show ran successfully for eight seasons (1950-1958.)

Performing a “double act” George played the reasonable “straight man” to Gracie’s irrepressible “dizzy dame”, her signature stock in trade, an idiosyncratic mindset of “illogical logic.”


GRACIE:  “You know, George, my teenaged nephew has three feet.”

GEORGE:  “You say your teenaged nephew has three feet?”

GRACIE:  “That’s right.  I got a letter from his mother the other day.  She says that her son’s grown another foot.”

(You can’t do that kind of humor anymore.  Well, you can, but now the “illogically logical” one is Matt LeBlanc.)

Anyway, during a troubling trough in their generally flourishing careers, George, the show biz mastermind of the operation, pinpointed the team’s debilitating malady, observing,

“Our material is too ‘young’ for us.” 

Which turned out to be correct.  The frothy “boy-girl” frivolity they had begun with ill suited the longtime married couple with maturing children they had eventually become.  A stylistic reimagining was undertaken and the bump in the road became clear sailing.  (Forgiving the “land to water” combination.)

Which reminds me of a Burns and Allen story unrelated to our theme but worth reprising nonetheless. 

The spotlighted personage herein is the beleaguered Burns and Allen show’s editor.

Consistent with the fashion of the day, the Burns and Allen “half-hour” was shot like a short movie, employing a single camera and no live studio audience.  (The “single camera” technique involves re-filming every scene from various angles, each episode taking two or three days to fully complete.  That’s why there was no studio audience.  They’d have to bring multiple rations and a change of underwear to take part.)

Adding an innovative wrinkle to the proceedings, George Burns had the “Final Cut” of the episode screened before a live studio audience, to insure actual laughs for the accompanying soundtrack rather than, as was traditional back then, besmirching their filmette with artificial “canned laughter” from a machine.  Burns instructed the editor to leave room in the assembled footage for those laughs.

The question for the editor became how much room was he expected to leave?

Oy.  (Meaning “What a predicament!”)

If the editor left insufficient “air” after a punchline later enthusiastically received by the studio audience, the big laugh could spill over, covering the dialogue of the following setup, thereby imperiling the un-teed-up punchline to come. 

On the other hand, a joke that fell flat with the studio audience where the editor had predicted a longer laugh resulted in an incongruously gaping “hole”, which the editor, at additional time and company expense, would have to return to the Editing Room to correct.

Unless the editor timed those “laugh spaces” perfectly, Boss Man George Burns was definitely not going to be happy.

Imagine being that editor, trying to gauge the inherent funniness of each joke in order to leave the precisely-calibrated “room” for a laugh that had not yet materialized. 

“Henry, hand me the bottle!”

Anyway, back to our story.

As an experienced showman, George Burns understood that to maximally succeed – or least not maximally fall on your face – the “act” you present to the public must be evolvingly “age appropriate.”  Triggering the question…

Is mine?

I agree with George Burns’s assessment.  With the passage of time, the once “precocious” will inevitably become “puerile”, the avant garde, miscalculatingly icky.  (Think:  Amy Schumer at 85.  “I’ve had sex every guy in the ‘Home.’  Or was it the same guy and I couldn’t remember?”  Ew.)  (Immediately regretting the example.)

So what about me?


I have retained a binder containing copies of two years’ worth of weekly columns I  composed for a now defunct daily newspaper, The Toronto Telegram.  I have read many of them over.  I believe I even published one or more of them in this venue.  I was twenty-three to twenty-five then.  And you know what?

Those columns are not all that different from I am doing today. 

My second outing in the series was entitled, “Can A Dwarf Become President of the United States?”, exploring the parameters of electoral acceptability?  Change “dwarf” to “megalomaniacal vulgarian” and I am plowing similar terrain… except the answer was “No” then and “Yes” today.  (Meaning what, that times changed and I haven’t?)

I am arguably technically superior now, but we’re not talking about “technically.”  Stylistically, there is a recognizable fingerprint.  I write the same way, mixing small words and big words and words I made up.  My “way of looking at things” is identical.  My sense of humor rings a familiar bell.  I tell ya, I could have pretended that old column was from today and easily executed the subterfuge.  Rereading it for blogal consideration, I recall thinking, “I wrote this when? 

I have not changed that much.  (You should see what I am wearing right now.  I look like I’m ready to go to camp.)  Does that mean I am out of sync with my elderliness and I need to belatedly catch up?  What I am doing feels contemporarily compatible to me.  Is it possible I am embarrassingly in the dark?   

Maybe it’s time to make an adjustment.  Maybe I should start “writing my age.”

The thing is,

What exactly is “seventy-two” supposed to sound like?


YEKIMI said...

Age 72 sounds: cough, cough. Harumph. Get off my lawn! Where's my Metamucil? Dammit, PBS canceled the Lawrence Welk reruns!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I don't know what 72 is supposed to sound like (I'll tell you in 9 years), but when you get to 86, the "86 and Holding" blog should provide a useful role model:

That's a really interesting story about Burns.


JED said...

Earl said, "What exactly is “seventy-two” supposed to sound like?"

I think it's like the answer to, "What's the sound of one hand clapping?" Do you really have to categorize it or describe it? It's just the sound of one hand clapping.

Even people who don't act their age, like Jerry Lewis or Dick Clark (when he was around), do have a unique voice - whether you like or not. It can get you a big audience in France or on New Year's Eve.