The Yessence of Nonsen¢e
I’m not related to Danny Kaye, but he was my first “anti-establishment” hero. The establishment was the world of grownups. I am the youngest of four siblings, separated from the next eldest by nine years. My early life at times seemed governed by a household of real and substitute parents, and that entailed an abundance of negatives: no-no, uh-uh, and lots of other expressions calculated to close off, curtail, deny, rule out, shut down, set limits, and when combined with the economic strictures of post-Depression America, it is no wonder that to this day I have difficulty granting myself permission to do things that are not utilitarian, unless it has been disguised under the heading of “doing something for someone else.”
Now why did I find Danny Kaye so funny? I don’t remember most of the plots of his earlier movies, nor did I follow them that well as a child. He wasn’t heavy into slapstick like Laurel and Hardy, and unlike Stan Laurel or Charlie Chaplin, he wasn’t even made up to look funny. Although he knew how to mug, he was reasonably good-looking.
In a way, looks did have something to do with his appeal. The year was 1944; the movie, Up in Arms, Kaye’s first, a military comedy that doesn’t hold up as well as his later films (especially the 1956 chivalric spoof The Court Jester, and see if you can spot Basil Rathbone trying not to crack up). However, as Leonard Maltin points out in his movie guide, a couple of Danny Kaye’s “signature” patter songs still make Up in Arms worth watching.
The songs are what made me laugh as a child. It struck me as wonderfully absurd that this normal-looking guy who was the movie’s hero would do something as nonsensical as singing rapid successions of syllables that seemed to make no sense whatsoever.
Meaningless sounds, of course, have been an integral component of folk music since times of widespread illiteracy (as opposed to now?). Tra la las and fol de rols were facile refrains for those who couldn’t remember and/or read the words. The tradition may be traced through the great skat popular vocalists and, I suppose, even the doobie doobie dos of Frank Sinatra and his ilk. But I’ve never been overly fond of that kind of singing. Danny Kaye’s style not only featured nonsense syllables, but also was distinguished by rapidity of utterance. Patter songs are an old comedy tradition, examples of which may be found in the English music hall. Though on re-viewing Up in Arms I discovered that in at least one of his patter songs, Danny Kaye is actually communicating things over and around and through the gibberish – maybe that was clear to me as a child, but still the speed and silliness of the sounds prevailed. I perceived both meaning and nonsense in other songs of his, such as The Babbitt and the Bromide, in which a pair of stuffy chaps can’t break free of empty clichés even when they greet one another inside “the Pearly Gates.”
Foreign language gibberish was Danny Kaye’s specialty. There is an anecdote that he once met a Russian lady disembarking an airplane. He began talking to her in a rapid stream of nonsense. She turned to a companion and said, “I know he’s speaking Russian. but I can’t understand a word he’s saying!”
Saying silly things too fast was the cornerstone of my early taste for verbal comedy, and though I came to love other modes of quippery, the authors and comedians who influenced my writing (notably The Incredible and Amorous Umbrella novels) were those associated with this form of humor.
W. S. Gilbert was the first of the great humorists that I discovered. Somehow or other I acquired a 78 rpm album of Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs sung by Nelson Eddy, best remembered today for the unintentionally amusing musical films he costarred in opposite Jeannette MacDonald. Perhaps he was not the ideal G&S interpreter, but the songs fascinated me. Though they mostly made sense, they were so convoluted, polysyllabic, and just plain verbal that they opened new dimensions in my mind. One of my friends, Richard L. Wexelblat, who wrote a tome awesome to me, History of Programming Languages, played the complete recordings of several G&S operettas. He also explained vocabulary I didn’t understand, and there was a lot of that, let me tell you!
Gilbert’s so-called chop logic is a main contribution to the institution of literary nonsense. Little Buttercup in H. M. S. Pinafore switched Captain Corcoran and the seaman Ralph Rackstraw at birth, and upon revealing this knowledge, the two switch uniforms and social stations, which is enormously absurd … not to mention that the captain is in his middle years, while Ralph is a young man in love with the captain’s daughter. And if you can actually accept all that, as audiences do (more or less), then recollect that Little Buttercup ends up ready to marry the former captain.
So – how old is she?
Another language game, which might be called phantasmagorical impossibility, occurs in Gilbert’s “The Nightmare Song” from Iolanthe. In it, the Lord Chancellor, wrestling with an emotional problem, has a nightmare he describes in excruciatingly difficult-to-sing lyrics. Near the end of the song, a
number of “dream sailors” treat retailers as though they were all vegetables (the syllable is italicized to show how the actor is supposed to pronounce the words, a typical Gilbertian tweak of verbal form):
You get a good spadesman to plant a small tradesman
(first take off his boots with a boot-tree),
And his legs will take root, and his fingers will shoot
And they’ll blossom and bud like a fruit-tree.
Besides Gilbert, English letters boasts two other important nonsensical writers, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. I especially admire Carroll for his coinage of the portmanteau word: a combination of two ideas crammed into a single utterance, thereby expressing both meanings. “Jabberwocky” is full of them – “slithy, for instance, in Carroll’s own definition, is ‘compounded of slimy and lithe.” But he also coins “Tove,” which he claims is “A species of Badger. They had smooth white hind legs, and short horns like a stag; lived chiefly on cheese.”
Carroll also is an early practitioner of concrete poetry, verse whose arrangement on the page resembles some visual thing. In the third chapter of Alice in Wonderland, there is an auditory and visual pun when Alice hears the Mouse’s “long and … sad tale,” a poem arranged on the page to resemble a multi-curved tail. (Prose variations of this device appear in Michael Moorcock’s The Black Corridor, and my own Fantastique, two decidedly unfunny novels.)
Another important humorist who used nonsense that, on reinspection, made a lot of sense, whether satirical or sardonic, was Walt Kelly, the late lamented author of Pogo. Side by unsimilar side with Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Pogo was one of the greatest humorous comic strips in the history of the art. In addition to the brilliantly drawn Okefenokee Swamp where the often-frantic action took place, Kelly played with language idiosyncratically and brilliantly. An avid Pogophile can (and will!) endlessly quote the dialect and warped English of critters like Howland Owl, the turtle in the pirate hat Churchy La Femme, the attractively skunky Mamselle Hepzibah, the hilariously hammy bloodhound Beauregard T. Bugleboy, and of course the titular Pogo, who often played straight possum to my own favorite character, the cigar-chomping Albert the Alligator.
Kelly coined words and expressions that were both superbly nonsensical and yet held lucid meaning as, for instance, “Reedickle-dockle,” or (when Albert got angry), “Rowrbazzle!” One time, a swamp dweller sees Albert approaching with (if memory serves) a kettle on his head rendering speech unintelligible; the critter astutely proclaims, “Behold! A big Gibber speaking Gibberish!” Kelly also created portmanteau coinages like “Slopposition,” and lunatic verses that made a strange kind of sense:
Oh, the parsnips were snipping their snappers,
While the parsley was parceling the peas,
And parsing a sentence from handle to hand
Was a hornet who hummed with the bees.
– and above all, there was that classic of redacted Christmas carols, “Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!” Pogo nerds sang it every Yuletide. Beauregard even tried to substitute his own version: “Bark us all bow-wows of folly!” but it never caught on.
Pogo also appeared in sixteen Dell comic books. One bit of banter between Albert and Pogo remains in my memory. (I’m not sure how the name appeared; I have to approximate.) Albert, who wants to play Robin Hood, greets Pogo thus: “Alan-a-dale, as I live and breathe!” This provokes this exchange –
“Alan-a-dale? Who he?”
“Who he? You he!”
“Me he? How me he? Me me! He who?”
And this inevitably brings to mind another important kind of language fun,
the cross-talk that vaudeville comedians like Abbott and Costello perfected. I have heard and seen “Who’s On First?” countless times, and still laugh. The same is true of Bob and Ray’s “Slow Talker” routine, in which Ray plays a radio host whose next guest is an officer of the Slow Talkers of America. I saw them perform it on Broadway and on television, but it was funnier on radio, since dead air is a no-no, and when I first heard the routine back in the 1950s the pauses Bob took seemed endless. My memory may be faulty on this, but I recall the routine going on much longer on radio. Although I was convulsed with laughter, I also couldn’t help but share Ray’s apoplectic frustration … would this man EVER stop talking?!!
I find it fascinating to contemplate how far along the road to comedy an early appreciation for nonsense took me. There were other favorites when I was in high school and college, with Roger Price high on the list with his still-funny philosophical spoof, In One Head and Out the Other and its later rewritten reincarnation, Avoidism. Price’s ideology promulgated do-nothingness – avoidism – as a remedy for the stress of modern society, which he termed “copelessness.” A trained avoidist learns to discourage conversation with a series of dull and unanswerable comments such as –
“My little boy will be eight years old next month. You ought to hear him talk.”
“I got this suit three years ago in Pittsburgh for fifty dollars.”
“I used to live down that street.” My personal variation is “I had an aunt who lived on that block, but she moved.”
Price even claimed to have an avoidist uncle who could make anything he said come out sounding ‘like. “I had one grunch but the eggplant over there.”
About the time I was reading Price I also discovered Tom Lehrer. This was long before he became “establishment” by composing and singing songs for the educational TV show, The Electric Company (though Lehrer’s unique vocal style even made a song as vanilla as “Silent E” come out sounding snotty). Lehrer’s vintage songs were razor-edged satires, often gruesome, though he also wrote two in homage to Danny Kaye: a musical catalog of the names of the chemical elements to the tune of G&S’s “A Modern Major General” and “Lobachevsky,” a rapid-fire paean to plagiarism which features the names of a lot of Russian place names in the manner of Kaye’s starmaking solo in the old Broadway musical, Lady in the Dark (Moss Hart-Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin), which contains the jawbreaking patter song of the names of virtually every polysyllabic Russian composer (Mandy Patinkin sings it one of his CDs).
Nonsense literature abounds in the theatre, especially in the century just ended. Ring Lardner wrote a number of cleverly crazy one-acts that critics have likened to Dadaism. One of them contains this challenging (to the actor) stage direction: “Mama enters from an exclusive waffle parlour. She exits as if she had waffles.” Another playlet, The Tridget of Greva, features several men sitting in rowboats pretending that they are fishing. One says to the other, “What was your mother’s name before she was married?” to which the other logically (?) replies, “I didn’t know her then.”
Another American playwright, Thornton Wilder, employed surreal elements in his comic history of mankind, The Skin of Our Teeth, and a brilliantly absurdist staging device in The Long Christmas Dinner, in which a family sits and eats throughout the entire action, all holiday meals being compacted into one. When someone enters from one door, it means he or she has just been born. The other door, of course, signifies death.
Have we come a long way from nonsense language? I don’t think so, and neither does Martin Esslin, author of the essential theatre textbook, The Theatre of the Absurd. In analyzing great absurdist playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet, and many others, Esslin traces the absurdist movement to four literary/performance techniques: theatrical mise en scene such as special effects, as well as juggling, magic, and other circus skills; jester and clown humor, including mad scenes (Ophelia, Lear); “The literature of dream and fantasy, which often has a strong allegorical component.” (August Strindberg especially comes to mind with his expressionist dramas A Dream Play, The Ghost Sonata, and To Damascus). Lastly, Esslin lists verbal nonsense.
Ionesco’s plays abound with all of those elements, plus fantasy. In Amedee, or How to Get Rid of It, a married couple unsuccessfully attempts to ignore the gigantic corpse, symbol of their marriage, that is growing in their apartment (wouldn’t you hate to be on the props crew of that show?) In Rhinoceros, humanity is becoming transformed into the title animal, and liking it (a theme later explored by Stephen King in `Salem’s Lot, the metaphor there, of course, being vampires). There is also plenty of nonsense in Ionesco. The Bald Soprano is an astonishing collage of verbal lunacy; the professor in The Lesson figuratively and literally employs verbalism to commit rape and murder, and in The Chairs, an elderly couple greets a huge crowd of people represented solely by the chairs they arrange. The invisible audience is eager to hear the great message of an orator who, when he finally arrives, speaks nothing but gibberish.
The progression from nonsense to a great deal of sense is an important and natural one in literature. We might ask why nonsense abounds in every culture’s art forms, and may well answer it simply by saying it’s fun. Certainly it plays a significant role in children’s rhymes and word games. I think its universality is a product of its paradoxical function as a way to turn reality on its head or side or bottom and view it with new, often unflattering perspectives.
Nonsense is a tool for satirizing. By looking at old things in new ways we are able to find the loopholes and flaws and rock-bottom stupidity of outmoded social institutions, behaviors, value systems. Taken to its illogical extreme, the mind learns to play with larger entities than words: ideas, character traits, geography, ethical values, and new worlds are created, sometimes as an integral or disruptive part of this earth, sometimes in fanciful flights of the imagination. It is one long short step from nonsense rhymes to the strangely beautiful Elvish tongue of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
From slanguage through tales about snark hunts through verbal lowjinks like the following exercise in rhyming the unrhymeable –
There was a young man from East Orange
Who injured himself on a door hinge.
He flopped on the couch
And hollered out “Ouch!”
So loud that he itised his laryng
– nonsense challenges us to leap denotative gaps, discover implied analogies, and ultimately laugh at this strange pompous business called life.
Which brings me back to my initial love of rapidly-uttered gibberish. When I first saw Danny Kaye, I was approximately six years old, and very much aware of language as a difficult tool I had to master. A grownup producing non-sounds seemed splendidly irresponsible to me – a child growing up in a houseful of parents.
To be able to play with words – what an idea! It took me one important step along a path that eventually led me to write (to date) fifteen novels, six nonfiction works, and to edit thirty-plus anthologies.
But there is a down-side to so much verbalism. My father was one of the first TV repairmen in Greater Philadelphia. I never understood why at the end of the day, he was not interested in watching TV with the family. Now I see why. The burden of seeing and entering, one letter at a time, thousands and thousands of words (The Masters of Solitude was approximately 150,000 words long), produces headaches, eyestrain, tense fingers and wrists, and those are the less serious side effects. Language is the writer’s albatross. I’ve become seriously overburdened with the words I write, the words I read, the words I hear and see. (“What are you reading?” asks Polonius. Hamlet replies, “Words, words, words.”) What’s more, I’ve been an actor all my life, and recently performed at New York’s Jekyll & Hyde Club, and also used to appear with Please Don’t Feed the Actors, an improvisational comedy company run by Carole Bugge’. The challenge of making up scenes and songs on the spot involves a lot of practice. Actors all talk to themselves, but improvisers also have to sing.
So when I am alone, I talk to myself aloud. I can still recite several Shakespearean soliloquies by heart, though I worked on them decades ago, and when I walk any distance I sing songs I’ve composed, or make up news ones. When I can’t sleep, I recite from memory the titles of all of Shakespeare’s plays, including the apocrypha. (I always get stuck on the comedies.)
This surfeit of words brings to mind (mine, at least) Jack Point’s conundrum in G&S’s The Yeomen of the Guard about brain-pans and over-wound clocks. And at last, I have found an antidote as logical as it is cyclical.
Instead of improvising new things or soliloquizing too-familiar thoughts (feeling like Woody Allen’s tape recorder saying to him, “1 know, I know!”), I revert to my earliest verbal fascination: gibberish … sometimes prose, sometimes verse, sometimes sung it, and occasionally, just for practice, with a foreign accent: Russian gibberish, French gibberish, Yiddish gibberish.
You might think I’d be afraid of confessing in print that I traverse my Manhattan apartment spouting long monologues and songs of totally improvised nonsense – but that’s not what worries me.
What worries me is, I’m beginning to understand myself.