Saturday, May 14, 2011

Where's the tusk a-loose'a?

Budding Ventriloquist: Influences
Chapter 4: Groucho Marx

This is a republishing of this magnificent tome because there was a big "oops" at Blogger.Com, my usually charming host.  I feel bad for them. I should put a link for that "So Ya Had a Bad Day" song. At least someone should.  My fellow bloggers are getting kind'a mean to them. I'm sure they did their best.
See the end of this post the full introduction ("The Rationale") to this series. I'm compulsive about making sure my prickle* of regular readers - new and tenured - know the premise. I'm not just doing this for my health! No! There's important journalistic reasoning and rationale behind this.

Like so many that fall into the category of "comic influences,"  there's no pithy turn-of-phrase I can add to the volumes already written about why Groucho Marx  and the Marx Brothers were funny.

But there were watershed days in my understanding of their shtick, particularly Groucho's.

My Lydia Moment
At the age of 12 or 13, I memorized every word of the At the Circus performance of Lydia the Tattooed Lady.  I had taped the song off Doctor Demento's  radio show. So, along with the song Shaving Cream and Nervous Nervous's song Transfusion and a dozen other masterworks of doggerel, I was listening to this while my schoolmates where listening to Tie a Yellow Ribbon and other life classics by the incomparable Tony Orlando and Dawn.

This made me pretty unique as I entered seventh grade and junior high school.  Surprisingly or perhaps not surprisingly, the other "uniques" and those attracted to unique became my friends. 
But this was not the Lydia Moment.

Then, in about 1976, the movie Animal Crackers was re-released to the big screen in actual big screen theaters that only had one big screen in one big room. My friends and I were off to the theater at Mayfair Mall, where we laughed for hours and left singing Hooray for Captain Spaulding. Though not as dense and complicated as Lydia, it was a marvelous film moment and a brilliant piece of musical theater.

Most important, I got all the wry, sardonic wit that was Groucho and his brothers. 

But this was not my Lydia moment.

That moment came one night when I was about 18 years old.

And before I explain this "great ah-hah," please know I do not think I was unusually naive or uninformed or a stranger to sexual innuendo at 18. My vocabulary was large for my age, and my sense of humor was not unsophisticated (for 18, which is to say I had abandoned fart jokes as quite uncouth - yes, quite).

But I had thought of Lydia as just kind of a naughty, ridiculous song about a tattooed lady, and naughty only because it was about a woman's body.**  I had even filed it away in my deep memory for a few years, spending more time being amazed with the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live.

Then for some reason I hearkened it back into my working memory, probably to perform it for friends, probably over the beer that was legal for 18-year-olds to drink back then. And when it dawned on me the double entendre of:
She once swept an admiral clear of his feet
The ships on her hips made his heart skip a beat
and now the old boy's in command of the fleet...

Oh. Oh, my.

He's in command of the fleet, huh?

Then I went back to the beginning of the song, got over feeling dumb for not getting a 100 things the first 100 times I listened to the song, and suddenly re-understood  a 100 more lines in Marx Brothers movies in the wink of an eye.

The words "clever" and "witty" meant something different to me from then on and to today. Something much better.

My After Lydia Moment
Legend has it that Groucho ad libbed a line in Night at the Opera that stopped the shoot until the crew could stop laughing. Margaret Dumont, the ever-present foil, is said to have never understood what was so funny because presumably she didn't get most of the jokes.

The brothers and Dumont are heading up the gangplank, with the men carrying luggage and steamer chests up the steep ramp.  Dumont, in the lead, turns and asks Groucho, "Do you have everything?"

Groucho quickly replies, "Well I've never had any complaints."

Once you get that one, there's no going back.
The Rationale

I hear it all the time. The question the world wants answered. And it usually comes out this way:
"Dan. Can I call you 'Dan'? Dan, how did your mind get this way? Where did the buds of the Budding Ventriloquist come from?"
Well, that's actually two questions. Three questions if you count the ingratiating 'Can I call you Dan' thing.

There's no one answer, of course. But sorting out the riddle leads to this series, Budding Ventriloquist: Influences. Intentionally, there's no particular order to who goes first, no attempt to be linear. A sense of humor that developed in a straight forward way is not a sense of humor at all. That is just not how it works.
* A prickle is a group of porcupines.

** I guess I feel like I need to explain this with more clarity to not seem so geeky (or is it dorky?), but perhaps if I just say "Catholic upbringing" you understand.
No, this wasn't posted from my smartyphone. Not even close. First, I have to figure out how to stop calling people by mistake, answer it when it rings, and stop turning on the dang weather app.

Then watch out!

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