LAUGHING AT ALL THE WRONG PLACES
(HOW A MOVIE HOUSE CAN SHAPE OR MISSHAPE A YOUNG MIND)
As a writer/editor of humor for most of my professional life, I've been asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" countless times by people employed in more "normal" endeavors. Depending upon the situation, my response will range from wiseass, "Costco, but you have to purchase a package of 24 since they won’t sell them individually," philosophical, "There are no new ideas, only recycled old ones," or the simple truth which is, of course, "I don't really know -- they just pop up whenever they feel like it."
But thanks to a longstanding, albeit limited love affair with my computer (we plan to be married in the eyes of Microsoft and God if and when the Supreme Court finally legitimizes such couplings), I'm beginning to think there exists an analogous connection between the brain (hard drive) and the funny bone (a very floppy disk) which might help explain how a satiric bent can find a home on that range where the RAM and the ROM roam.
Thoughts graze freely and byte indiscriminately upon the fertile plains of our personal experience, altering the logical and chronological links between the actual and the abstract, the real and the fantasy.
A humorous idea, then, is nothing more than the simple residue of this complex process that somehow floats to the top of our consciousness. And these are not my sediments alone. In an interview focused on the humorous elements of his brilliantly imaginative films, Federico Fellini stated, "I suffer from a singular form of color blindness which prevents me from ever clearly distinguishing the real situations from the imaginary ones. For me, the humorous is a feeling one has about reality, and the imagination participates in this feeling as an activating and energizing element."
Who am I -- or you -- to argue with Mr. Fellini, right? So let's move on to...
A lady I was dating for a reasonable period of time was very much caught up in her therapy. She frequently focused on early recollections, moments when certain aspects of her personality may have played an important role in her current behavioral patterns and choice tendencies. As a result, many of our conversations were stimulated by this topic. One evening she asked me when I first became aware of my talent as a “humorist." Hilarious ideas from my less than innocent youth came to mind, like our annual Halloween tradition of setting manure-filled parcels ablaze on the doorstep of some deserving victim (i.e. chase us from our stickball games on the street in front of his house) so that we could witness them stamping out the flames from our hiding places and regale when they learned an even worse fate awaited them when they finally became aware of their sopping shoes. But these were immediately rejected by my friend when I admitted that any one of the usual suspects in my Brooklyn neighborhood (including the humorless ones who went on to become prominent doctors, accountants, and labor negotiators) could have and often did conceive many such pranks.
“No,” she insisted, I had to remember a particular moment when my personal observation led to a gag that would reveal the professional satirist-to-be in me.
“Hmmm... I remember being a pain in the butt every Saturday afternoon in our local movie house.”
"Ah, that's more like it." After further prodding I recalled how in those early days when neighborhood movie houses showed two films (known as "A" and "B" features), "shorts" (Three Stooges, Our Gang, etc.), several animated cartoons, and an adventure serial which we called "chapters". Despite my devotion to these delightful Hollywood offerings, my running dialogue at the expense of any serious feature’s lack of reality, logic, weak plot, etc. wasn't especially appreciated by my cronies.
Alas, I couldn't RAM home a decent example at the time, but years later, when that lady herself had become only a memory byte, it hit me...
Stupidity and absurdity often exist in a symbiotic relationship (much like many politicians today) and one night as I watched a Turner Classic Movie with Tyrone Power as Zorro, I recalled the seminal moment when I first became aware of that coupling. Back in the old movie house, one standout scene in an installment of a serial entitled "Zorro's Black Whip" came to mind. The premise of that series was that Zorro is seriously injured in the first episode and is rendered almost helpless. Rather than let the bad guys know this and freely act out their dastardly deeds, Zorro's sister puts on the disguise and assumes our hero’s persona. What?
"Yeah, sure, his sister just happens to be the same size and built in the same proportions as he is!" I began. “No wonder she’s not married and has no boyfriend!”
"Shut up, creep,” came the typical response from my friends.
As the story unfolds, it seems that Ms. Zorro intends to continue this masquerade until her brother is healed and can once again assume his role as protector of the oppressed. Nothing earth-shattering here, just your typical cliché serial plot outline.
But then we get to that brilliant chapter in which Ms. Zorro is searching through the bad guy's headquarters for plans for their next hold-up. The doorknob clicks and slowly begins to turn. She hears the click and quickly steps behind the window drapes for concealment. Unbeknownst to her, the drapes don't quite reach the floor and the tips of her boots can still be seen by anyone looking in that direction. The bad guys enter.
"I thought I heard a noise in here," the boss says.
The bad guys look around the room and one of them spots the boot tips. He motions silently to signal his discovery to the others.
"I guess I was wrong," the boss pretends. "Let's talk about our plans for the robbery," he says as they all silently draw their guns from their holsters. He gives the signal and they each empty their rounds into the drapes. End of episode.
How was Ms. Zorro going to escape that one? For a full week, no one came up with a reasonable solution. My offering, "With the sister dead, now Zorro's mother will put on the costume and..." was met with, "Get lost already, will ya?” And, “Don’t be a schmendrick all your life," etc.
On that following Saturday afternoon we were there in full force. The recap showed Ms. Zorro ducking behind the drapes, the boots being spotted, the guns being drawn, and the barrage of
bullets. Then... nothing! Our hero’s riddled body does not drop to the floor!
The bad guy boss pulls the drapes aside to reveal a riddled wall and only Zorro’s boots. They look out the balcony window and see our hero galloping away safely. I broke out in maniacal laughter. But, alas, I was laughing alone.
I couldn't believe it. I was not in the presence of fools, but no one else seemed to be aware of the absurdity of what had just taken place on the screen.
"Why did she take off her boots and leave them there?"
I asked in wonderment.
"To fake out the bad guys, putz!"
"C'mon! If you had only a few seconds to climb out a window to escape with your life, would you stop to take off your boots, stupidly plant them behind a curtain to leave evidence that you had been there, and then, to top it off, ride away barefooted? That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen!”
After that, I was no longer welcome to join the Saturday afternoon forays, having transcended from irritant to spoiler. Like normal, average moviegoers, my pals enjoyed being "faked out" and were willing patsies for even the most absurd Hollywood manipulation. While my smartass remarks could be tolerated to some degree, exposure to one's own gullibility could not be.
I was destined, or better, sentenced to carry on the fight alone, to laugh at all the wrong places in movies as a way of life.
Many years later as a writer/editor, I was asked to leave the movie theater (in those days they had ushers with flashlights for such purposes) while taking notes for a satire of “Love Story.” Instead of shedding a tear when Ali McGraw, after being an acerbic, super bitch for the entire film, uttered, “Love is never having to say you’re sorry,” I cracked up! And like so many times before, my audience neighbors didn't.
Nor was my laughter appreciated during many scenes in “Titanic,” especially at the end when the old babe tosses a priceless piece of antique jewelry into the sea which she figured deserved it far more than her devoted granddaughter who cooked and cared for her and shopped for her Depends.
"Where do I get my ideas?" Well, until Google offers a more tangible explanation, I’m going to stick with my own theory that the answer may be hidden somewhere behind those bullet-ravaged drapes and empty boots...
Nick Meglin is a writer living in North Carolina.