Friday, May 31, 2013

"Wherefore The Ha-ha?"

I am taking a leap here, as I have no expertise in this matter (though when has that ever stopped me before?), venturing out on the proverbial limb to say this:

Birds are not funny.

Let us apply the “Scientific Method” here, without actually conducting any experiments.  We shall draw on examples from our collective experience.

Have you ever seen a funny bird? 

Not a funny-looking bird.  Nor a parrot that can say, “Funny bird!” – that’s simply mimicry.  That parrot has no idea what it’s saying.  Even though one of the words is “bird”, which is what the parrot, in fact, is.  (Which is a little funny, albeit in an ironic context.)

“Funny” is entirely beyond its comprehension, parrots having zero recollection of Richard Pryor or Woody Allen when he did standup, so what do they know about “funny”?  When a parrot says “Funny bird!” we are invariably laughing at them, not with them.  (Ditto for the “funny-looking” avian, though it is hardly our shining moment as a species.  Chortling at a goofy-looking bird – how pathetic is that!) 

Aside flying around and then resting on something, what birds essentially do is to look for food and make bird noises of various soundages.  Birds chirp.  They warble.  They trill.  They caw.  And with each and all, they are delivering a message:

“Over here for worms!”

“‘Danger’ at ‘Ten O’clock!’”

“Who wants to make bird babies?”

I have singled out birds as representatives of Animalkind, with the exception of, what are judgmentally labeled “The Higher Order of Primates” who are reputed, in their behavior, to facsimilize people. 

It is herein hypothesized that everything the overwhelming majority of animals do is in the direct and immediate service of personal survival.  Tigers do not write music.  Tarantulas do not tap dance.  Though I would pay good money to see them try.  It doesn’t have to be a show, per se.  I’d be happy watching a tarantula tap dance class.

“Heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe.  And again!  Leg One – heel-toe.  Leg Two…”

People (and a few monkeys and a dolphin or two) are different.  Aside from the self-preservational necessity of working for food – because “No workie – no eatie” (though there are people who have oodles of food and continue working nonetheless) – the species Homo Sapiens engages in numerous activities that are noteworthily unrelated to staying alive.  For one thing,

People, as the late, great Art Linkletter used to say on the radio and then later on television…

Are funny.

And the question today is…


Let us immediately set aside the miniscule subsection of humanity who, like myself, fed himself and his family – and a cockatiel named “Cheeky” until it flew away – via the process of comedic entertainment, a cohort I once mistakenly called “special”, but that was only to make myself feel better because I am unable to do anything else.  I am not special.  I just made my living from being funny.  (Which I was, to a sufficient extent, to get by.)

Everybody is funny, or at least likes to believe they are.  (There is a famous essay by noted Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock who wrote that the biggest insult you can hurl at someone is not telling them they are ignorant or ugly, but to assert that they do not have a sense of humor.  Although, it being Canada, they’d say “humour”, and the response to such a rebuke is less likely to be a punch in the nose than a slightly wounded, “Cut it out, eh?”, a humorless comeback, validating the original point.)

Most people, however, are, at least to some degree, funny.  And, from survivability standpoint, nobody has to be.

So why are they? 

Why do any of us in our daily lives bother to be funny?

I choose today to vary from my routine and not pontificate, bloviate or dispense Wisdom from on High.  Know-it-all’s can get tiresome.  Even to the (assumed) Knower.

Instead, I shall now relent, and open the floor to the theories and (as the Blossom theme song used to say) opinionations of my readers, should you care to weigh in on the question of why people, though there is no immediate necessity to do so, choose to be, or at least choose to try to be…


Though I seem unable to stop before leaving you with this story.  Which is not directly about being funny.  But it is a paralleling milieu.

I’m in my mid-twenties in Toronto.  I am walking down University Avenue.  And I’m singing.  I no longer recall what I was singing, but it was most likely a “Power Ballad” from a Broadway musical of recent vintage.  A reliable guess – something from Funny Girl or The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd.

(I sing on the street to this very day, although caring family members have reminded me that, were I to see someone heading my way singing up a storm, I would immediately and without hesitation… cross-o el street-o.)

So I am singing my way down a Canadian sidewalk, when a random passerby infers and vocally interjects, 

You must be happy!”

To which I reply (or maybe I just thought it),

“If I were happy, I wouldn’t have to sing.”

One reason people are funny (or self-sing) to cheer themselves up.  But I am sure there are others.

Do you know what they are? * 

(* The foregoing is not a rhetorical question.  I would actually like to know.)

Thursday, May 30, 2013

"The Mysterious Connection"

I am meditating in the morning, just after I wake up.   (Meditating before you wake up is called sleeping.)  And what should pop into my consciousness but a story about me and Miss Sternberg, my Toronto Hebrew Day School art teacher when I was seven.

All I recall about Miss Sternberg is that she wore oversized horn-rimmed glasses, and she was big, though when you’re seven, who isn’t? 

I would – I believe fairly – adjudge myself to be creative in one and a half areas – writing and half music.  But I am terrible at art, and I always have been – I’ve been doodling the same stick figure for sixty years.

I don’t know.  My mind sees stuff, but when the image gets sent down to my drawing hand, my perplexed fingers go, “What do you want?”   It is utterly hopeless – Morse Code tapping out to a person who can’t hear.

So we’re sitting in art class.  Our assignment:  To recreate “an outdoor activity”, with crayons.  Our drawing paper was of extremely low quality – it had chips of wood in it.  Though a few arboreal remnants did not seem to deter other people, by whom I mean people who could draw.  My friend Ira Friedman was a natural.  Years later at camp, he painted a picture of “Dennis The Menace” on my canoe paddle.  (And canoe paddles are all wood.) 

For my “outdoor activity”, I decide to draw a “badminton scene”, badminton being a game which, though heartbreakingly inept at other sports, I was not entirely terrible at.  It’s like the “Sports Fairy” had mistakenly delivered “Badminton” to the wrong house.  And I kept it.

The problem is, the thing I draw worse than everything else I can't draw is people.  (Even my stick figures are unidentifiable.)  So I made an immediate decision.

As a result, my finished picture offered a rudimentary house, and a side yard boasting a “badminton height” net supported by two poles, four misshapen rackets lying on the ground, alongside a mutant facsimile of a “birdie.”

That was my picture – a “people-free” Badminton Tableau.  I finished quickly, because…what was it?

Miss Sternberg passes from desk to desk dispensing encouragements and adulations, deserved or otherwise.  I recall hearing the words, “I like what you’re going for there, Arye”, delivered to a would-be Picasso who landed in the ritual slaughtering racket. 

Then it was my turn.  Miss Sternberg eyed my effort, struggling to say something that, if not high praise, would at least not make me cry.  Finally, she found the appropriate observation.

“It looks like badminton.  But where are the people?”

Critics!  They never give you a break.

Though hardly a quick thinker, I desperately needed a “saver.”  And startlingly, one came to me. 

Why were there no people in my Badminton Tableau?

“It’s raining.  And they all went inside.”

I heard a sound which I would later recognize as a person choking down a guffaw.  I feared for her internal organs, a suppressed laugh bubble causing an helpless spleen or gall bladder to explode.  Miss Sternberg moved away in silence.  Though her shoulders kept jerking up and down.

That’s the story that came to me as I meditated.  And I was grateful, because I had nothing ready to write about that day.  (“That day” being today.)  This happens quite frequently.  I do not get an idea till it comes to me.  And when it comes to me, there it is – a ready-to-go blog post idea. 

What if nothing comes to me?  So far, that has not happened.  Though I cannot for the life of me imagine why. 

The fact is, I do not overly concern myself with why ideas come to me – I have too many other concerns I can’t do anything about occupying my mind.  But I do sometimes ponder why this one floated to my consciousness at this particular moment.

“Why did I think of that just now?” (In contrast to the uncountable other things I could have thought).  Kind of an interesting inquiry, don’t you think?

“What brought this decades-ago triviality suddenly to my attention?”

Well, just like you – or at least I – cannot make a thought appear, I cannot make the explanation for why that thought appeared appear either.  It has to come to me.  And an hour or so later, it did.

The “badminton-picture-with-no people-in-it” story seems to be about me, surrendering, perhaps too readily, to my perceived limitations.  And it came to mind, I believe, because of a recent houseguest, a friend of half a century who, though he may not have received the career-related blessings that I’ve enjoyed, has never ever stopped working. 

And he continues to today.  Toiling simultaneously on an e-book, several plays, a miniseries proposal, a children’s book adaptation, and a feature film, shot entirely on an iPad.                          

Me, I saw the handwriting on the wall, and the handwriting said, “Go home.”  And, after a couple of rejected pilot scripts and an unsold screenplay, I did. 

It was definitely raining.  But I wondered, for the first time, if I may have retired to the indoors just a little too easily. 

An unconscious thought offered up a story.  And the story illuminated the unconscious thought. 

I discovered the connection this time.

I wonder what my other stories are telling me?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"A Tale Of Film Studio Responsibility"

An incandescent comedic image, once seen, is never forgotten.  At least not by me.

A couple of posts back, I recounted for your enjoyment an unforgettable picture gracing the cover of a children’s book from my rapidly receding childhood.  This reminded me of a similar epiphany concerning another visual that drove me into paroxysms of rapturous reverie and awe-stricken wonderment.  (Or something less flowery.)

I have written about this before.  Rather than retelling it, I would link you to that earlier post.  If I knew how to link, which, embarrassingly, I do not.  (Though I can embed Youtube videos, which is ostensibly more difficult, so go figure.)  People have shown how to link, but it doesn’t seem to stick.  “Woe to the accurse-ed who dwelleth in the techno-world beyond his own understanding.”  (Ezekiel –2:… No, I’m making it up.)

Unable to reproduce it, I shall retell the story, in hopes that those who have already heard it did not feel it was worth remembering and will as a result find it new and perhaps not worth remembering a second time opening the door to a yet third retelling down the line. 

“Indifference is the Mother of repetition.”

“Bartlett’s” called.  Not even close.

Thank you. 

The fact is, even if I did know how to link, doing so would require my recalling the title of the relevant post in question.  Which, once again – embarrassingly – I do not.  Falling victim to my sitcom writing indoctrination, where the show runners I worked for insisted upon ingenious “play-on-words” episode titles that the audience would never see because they were only written on the covers of the scripts for the edification of I don’t know who – the set decorators?  They didn’t care. – I have outsmarted myself by entitling many of my blog posts in such a “too clever by half” manner, that I am now unable to decipher what they mean, leaving me totally in the dark as to what the blog posts beneath those indecipherable titles are about. 

Aren’t I the crafty one?

This brings to mind the great W.C. Fields who, having grown up in poverty, once wealthy, opened numerous bank accounts throughout the country, so that, wherever he was, he would always have money.  Unfortunately, instead of registering them in his own name, Fields opened the hundreds of cross-country accounts using fictitious monikers, such as “Ludovic Fishpond” and “Cholmonley Frampton-Blythe”, names he was, subsequently, unable to remember. 

Not dissimilar to my post-title debacle.  I find it encouraging to have made the same mistake as a genius.  It gives me a somewhat twisted sense of elevation.

Okay, so here we go again.

The memorable image was discovered in a Woody Woodpecker comic book when I was twelve.  I believe it was at camp at the time, as I recall that the comic book’s pages were damp.  Everything at camp was damp.  You picked up a piece of Kleenex, and it felt already blown into.

What stays with me from that comic book were three consecutive panels, escalating to a sublime comedic payoff. 

The situation is, Woody Woodpecker is skiing uncontrollably down a hill.  (This is already a fantasy, because woodpeckers traditionally do not ski.  Wood skis?  They’d just eat them.)

The first panel – “The Setup”, if you will – shows Woody Woodpecker, finding himself careening towards a giant tree directly in his path.

The second panel – call it the “Calamitous Expectation” – is a close-up of Woody’s Woodpecker’s face, his panic-dilated eyes anticipating the inevitable – unquestionably life-ending –


The third and final panel – “The Resolution” – shows Woody Woodpecker, stopped further down the hill, looking upward, and seeing, tracked in the snow, one ski tread arcing around the tree on one side, and the other ski tread arcing around tree on the other.  His reaction is stupifying incredulity, as in,


Woody Woodpecker has been spared by a comic book writer’s imagination.  He seems to have safely skied right through a tree!

I could not take my eyes off that third panel.  Once again, I am thinking, perhaps as only a future writer would,

“How did they ever think that up?”

Like a trailblazing scientist, somebody relegated Reality to the bench, and made an innovative leap, yielding a transformational breakthrough that had never existed before.  When executed successfully, such scientists are prominent contenders for the Nobel Prize.

If there were a Nobel Prize for comic book writing – and if it were my call, there would be – the mind behind of that “out-of-the-box” comedic triptych deserves serious consideration for Stockholm’s preeminent honor.

Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker’s creator) – Einstein welcomes you to the club!