27 January 2013

Some Things That Made Me Laugh When I Was a Kid

Come back with me to this luxuriantly tree-filled township of clapboard houses in northern New Jersey.  Here, in the 1960s, you'll find a little boy: me.  I'm growing up in one of those white houses with my two brothers and my parents, listening to WABC on my transistor radio, walking to school down Van Houten Avenue under those towering oaks, or riding my quirky but cool little green bike with the red banana seat, stingray handle bars, and red rubber tires. 

I'm thinking tonight about a handful of  things that made that little boy laugh.

There were many many such things of course.  I was a fairly sunny kid, willing to laugh a lot.  I even got in trouble in school--ignominiously transferred into a different 2nd grade class!-- for the dreadful infraction of "being silly."  So why am I focusing on just these few jokes and a couple things I saw on TV?    No telling why these particular kernels have shaken out of the rusty sieve that is my 55-year-old brain. 

But here's a reconstruction of how this short list percolated up in my noggin.  Something I read at work recently referenced Napoleon, and that shook loose a ridiculous absurdist joke that I made up when I was 12 years old.  I will call it The Napoleon Joke.  So crazy and nonsensical was The Napoleon Joke that it was hardly a joke at all, but it was uniquely my own.  I loved it.  And I realized that it would make a good gateway into a blog about my little-kid sense of humor.  

Next thing to pop into my mind was the very first joke I ever made up, of which I was very proud. I didn't make up many jokes.

But there were also a few jokes I heard that so tickled me that I had to make them my own.  A couple of these dropped into the pool of my consciousnessOne I remember came from a book and the other I heard from some comedian on one of the many variety shows that were on TV in my 1960s childhood. 

Now my brain was chugging along on the topic of my childhood sense of humor.

I loved those jokes I made up, and the ones I made my own.  I would tell them over and over again, and it didn't matter that no one else ever found them as funny as I did.  No one ever could, but that made them all the more special to me.  It made them all the more mine.  I knew they were brilliant and funny and clever, and I was absolutely faithful to them.  They were like precious secrets, and I cherished them.

Along the same lines, though not jokes, there were a couple of names I came up with for prized possessions.  I'll include them here, too.

But let's start with a couple of things I saw on TV.  

Two Funny TV Things.

Blaze Glory (1969) - This was a short film Western spoof done in the pixilation format.  Pixilation (as opposed to pixelation) is a stop-motion animation technique where, instead of puppets or clay figures, human actors are made to 'move' artificially, photographed one frame at a time and moved slightly between frames.  Blaze Glory was a white-faced Western hero wearing an enormously tall old-style cowboy hat.  All the action of the gang of villains, the stagecoach robbery, and the heroics of ultra-clean-cut Blaze himself was done sans horses and even sans stagecoach.  My brother Roger and I, and our friend Chris, found this screamingly funny, seeing the gang gallop--legs wide apart, scooting at impossible speed--across the landscape holding the invisible reins of their invisible horses!  (Minus the pixilation, this idea was used hilariously a few years later in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) The stagecoach was a wooden platform with seats for the passengers which seemingly slid down the dusty roads.  The film aired on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.  Another bit that sent us into little-kid hysterics comes at the end of the film when, leaving town, Blaze doffs his gigantically tall hat to the townspeople. Underneath the tall hat is an equally tall head of red hair, prefiguring The Coneheads.  The film can be seen on YouTube, here. (If you watch it, keep it in small, not full-screen, format.  The atrocious picture quality looks much better that way!) Still pretty funny in parts, but the real hilarity of the pixilation is now an artifact of the past, submerged in the tsunami of stop-motion animation of the 1970s, including the computer-aided miracles of the Star Wars series.  I have to admit, I still find Blaze Glory funny, but I no longer writhe helplessly on the floor over it!

Jason and the Argonauts (1963):  The Skeleton BattleRemember this classic sword-and-sandals Greek-type adventure film where, at the end, the King of Colchis strews the teeth of the Hydra on the ground and up rise the Children of the Hydra's Teeth?!  Right out of the ground, an army of skeletons to battle Jason and his warriors!  Ten-year-old me and my brother Roger convulse with cackling laughter at the sight of these flimsy bone creatures stumping around, swinging swords, grinning their skull grins.  The high point of hilarity comes when one of the Greeks lops off the skull-head of one of the fighting skeletons!  This was so funny in a way that I can no longer fathom that I know it must have some deep psychological underpinnings.  Or was there something about stop-motion animation itself that mercilessly cracked up 10-year-old me?  Whatever it was, I've since found I wasn't alone in this:  at least one other friend, Ron, found this scene ridiculously funny. The skeleton battle still looks really good, though, animated by that genius Ray Harryhausen.  Unfortunately, there are only truncated versions of the scene at YouTube, some missing the original soundtrack

A Couple Jokes I Liked.

Old Cowhand - This is just a little riff on the old Johnny Mercer novelty song, "I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)."  The joke assumes that you and your listeners are familiar with this song.  It strikes me that, while most people in the 1960s--and certainly most little kids--would know at least the beginning line that is also the song's title, that might not be true today!

This is a sight gag.  It was one tiny bit in some TV comedian's routine, but it stuck with me.

Here's what you do:
1.  Hold your fisted hand up next to your head in the attitude of a sock puppet.
2.  Sing the first line of the song:  "I'm an old cowhand. . ."
3.  Instead of going on with the next line, make a long, somewhat plaintive "Moooo!"  as you raise and lower your "cow hand" fist by the wrist.
4.  Enjoy the chuckles or gales of laughter from your audience (or else the polite, puzzled looks!)

(By the way, until I looked it up I didn't know anything about the 1936 Johnny Mercer song.  The tune was just one of those pieces of popular culture from my parents' time that collected in my little-kid head.  The song was made popular by Bing Crosby, and his fun, swinging version can be heard here.)

Wing Three Times - Another sight-gag joke that involves making a fist.  

This one I think I read in a book.  Let's get right to it:

1.  This joke requires a prop.  It is best to make the prop right in front of your audience.  (Your audience, by the way, is one person.  Others might be watching, but you are pulling the gag on one person.) Fold a piece of paper into a strip a couple of inches wide and maybe 6 to 8 inches long.  The resulting strip should be stiff.  Fold a small section at each end of the strip down.  (The exact size of this prop depends on the size of your audience's hand.) 
2.  Tell your audience to make a fist and hold the fist with fingernails down and back of the hand up, parallel to the floor.
3.  Place the paper strip across the fist, with the two folded ends hanging down.
4.  Tell your victim to "Say the word 'wing' three times."
5.  They say:  "Wing.  Wing.  Wing."
6.  You pick up the strip and hold it up to the side of your head and say, "Hewwo?" (That's "Hello" in your best Elmer Fudd voice!)

This is still a delightfully dumb, funny joke.  I wonder if modern telecommunications technology is undercutting its impact, though, since it depends on the old-time image of a handset-type telephone.  It is weird to think that for many young people, such a standard telephone would only be seen in old movies or period pieces.

Interlude:  A Couple of Names.

I had a couple of prized items in my kidhood that I gave names to.  These names were not supposed to be funny, just perfectly appropriate.  By naming them I made them mine in a way that only I understood fully.  It's ironic that now the names come out humorously to an adult's ear:

My throwing knife - My father's one-car garage was awash with a flotsam and jetsam of old tools, washed up from his many years as a dedicated do-it-yourselfer and genius mechanic.  Somewhere on or around the grease-imbued workbench or in one of the many toolboxes I found a knife.  This was not a jack knife, but rather a smallish straight-handled dagger-like implement.  I took it and made it my own.  It was the perfect knife for throwing at one of our big oak trees in the front yard.  It would stick once every 15 or 20 throws.  I named the knife Corpuscle.  I knew that "corpse" was just short for "corpuscle," and that they both meant the same thing, so I found this name wickedly appropriate.  Our big oaks were ringed with green ground cover plants that had a funny name of their own:  pachysandra.  Well, one time I was out there throwing Corpuscle at the oak.  As usual, he fell down into the pachysandra.  But this one time, I looked and looked for Corpuscle. . .and never found him again.  To me, this rings like a line from Greek tragedy:  Corpuscle fell in the pachysandra and was never heard from again!

My lamby-pie - I knew distinctly that I was "too old" to have a stuffed lamb, especially one that I gave a precious name to.  I was a boy of 10, maybe 11 years.  Way too old for a cute, nubbly-napped lamby-pie. . .and partly for that very reason, I had one.  I was kind of daring my parents, especially my father, to say something about it, to take it away from me by force, perhaps.  They never did.  I brought this treasure on a family vacation one time, I recall.  The small, cute stuffed lamb needed an appropriately cute name, so I called it Kindling.  I knew that the "kind" in "kindergarten" had to do with little children, so I took it and put a cute, diminutive ending on it:  Kindling.  I'd like to report that Kindling came to some hugely symbolic ending as did Corpuscle. . .but I don't remember what happened to it.

My Jokes.

Here are a couple of jokes I made up.  They pretty well express my absurdist sense of humor.

My first joke came to me while sitting at my desk in maybe third grade.  That would make me eight years old or so.  This is strictly a sitting-in-your-desk-in-school joke.  That is certainly the best place to "pull this gag."  And you have to have someone sitting in front of you.  This doesn't work for the first kid in the row. 

Here's what you do:  you tap the kid in front of you on the shoulder.  That kid turns around.  You are now looking obliviously about, as if you did not tap your schoolmate.  Suddenly you look at the kid and say, "I didn't tap you!"

Get it?!  Get it!?  Ha ha!! Yes, that's the joke. . .the ENTIRE JOKE!!  I admit, it doesn't read that well on paper, but just try it on the kid in front of you.  You'll love it!  

The Napoleon Joke - This "joke" came to me in a dream when I was twelve.  I told it originally to my brother Roger and our friend Chris.  The three of us had a singing group together, called The Punxutawney Pluckers.  We made up parody, Mad Magazine-like versions of songs.   

That has nothing to do with the "joke," really, except to say that the "joke" relies completely on performance.  To get it right, you have to really throw yourself into the "answer" part of this simple catechism:

Q:  What did Napoleon say after the Battle of Britain?
A:  BOWM!!!


(more silence.)

(. . .)

Yes, friends, that's my famous Napoleon Joke.  That answer part, by the way, is pronounced like the German word for tree:  Baum.  It strikes me that there are no easily-findable English words that rhyme with it.  But basically it should come out loud and boisterously, like a giant kettle drum rebounding after being hit violently.  So again, that's the sound as in 'bound,' but with an 'M' at the end.  

This is important.

How do I feel about this "joke" now?  Well, as I write this, I have a smile on my face.  It still amuses me.  it's hard to say why.

I put "joke" in quotes very deliberately, because The Napoleon Joke (which never had a name before this blog) is obviously something other than a standard joke.  It has the question/answer format of many jokes.  But that's about it.  

I still like it because it is absurd from the word go.  It is absurd even before you get to the "joke's" non-answer answer.   The question itself is absurd.  

So, to get really pretentious with The Napoleon Joke (and I often think that I am nothing if not pretentious) let's call it a zen koan.

There, I said it.  I didn't really want to say it, but your puzzled looks tore it out of me.  I won't repeat it.

In Conclusion, kinda.

Finally, let me say that writing this blogpiece has been an interesting kind of confessional journey for me.  Putting these things down on paper ("paper" - hah!  Get it?  "Paper"?!) has been a process of looking at them again and redefining them.  They are mostly, let's face it, dumb jokes.  That I found them shriekingly funny at a young age shows something about childhood, or about my childhood specifically. I'll leave it up to you to decide what it shows.

Or maybe the lesson is something about why I no longer laugh like a madman watching those skeletons swing their swords, or don't regularly tap people on the back and then say "I didn't tap you."

But no matter how I may feel, think, or react to these things now, I'm happy to report that I can still feel that 10-year-old boy inside me, telling and retelling these hilarious jokes, taking pride in the names he made up for his prize possessions, laughing like a wild baboon at these movie scenes!

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