Sunday, May 10, 2015

What He Left Us: Deceased Artiste Richard Corliss (Part 1 of two)

I never felt comfortable calling him Richard. Even after we'd corresponded for a few years, even after I'd met him in person, I preferred to cheat in my e-mail salutations and start off simply with “Hi.” This, mind you, was my problem, not his. “RC,” – as he signed his e-mails, and as I came to think of him – was an uncommonly kind gent, one of the single friendliest movie experts I've ever known.

He knew what he loved about cinema and pop culture in general (more on that in the second part of this piece), but he kept his mind open about the things he wasn't as fond of or had never heard of (he remained as curious at 71 as I'm sure he had been at 15). What permeated his writing, both public and private, was an enthusiasm for culture that was thoroughly infectious. He loved sharing his obsessions and if he discovered that you were already attuned to his wavelength, he reached out and said hi.

Which is exactly how I first made his acquaintance. In the mid-Nineties, a publicist for a distributor of Hong Kong features told me that “Richard Corliss from Time magazine” had told her that my show Media Funhouse was covering HK cinema – many of us were utterly obsessed by it in that period – and I should be put on her list.

A few years later, in 2000, I received a phone call from Time office asking if I could supply images from my show to accompany a piece Corliss had written about it. I was delighted to read the review, since he had focused on the range of material I covered (from “high” to “low”), and he found time to convey the joys of the mighty Nelson de la Rosa.

I wrote to him to thank him and ask if I could take him out to lunch (this review having been a major boon for the show, both then and now). He said he had a policy of not meeting the people he wrote about – a policy he later thankfully broke – but what happened after that was that we became e-mail correspondents.

I will be eternally grateful for RC's continual plugging of the show and this blog in his writings, but (and I really do mean this), I was even happier about our e-mail exchanges. The fact that he would supply me with more info about something I'd covered on the show, correct me on a small point, or just make a connection between that item and something else in popular culture, was a delight.

Being a research junkie myself, I could sense in his writing how much he loved to “connect the dots” between cultural phenomena, as well as just being able to rhapsodize about something he clearly loved but was probably not going to be able to write about for Time (as the years went by, he continued to be one of the magazine's major film critics, but unfortunately wrote less and less about his other cultural passions).

Some of the pieces of the puzzle came together for me when I read in Richard T. Jameson's tribute to him that RC was plagued by insomnia (most likely the way he found the Funhouse). Our informational and fanboy e-mails usually had very extreme time stamps – I wrote to him very late at night and then received replies that were written in the very early morning hours. E-mail may have none of the personal touch of the handwritten letters of yore, but there is something more personal and intimate about the notes written at the beginning and end of the day.

At the end of 2012 my hard drive blew up and I lost a decade's worth of e-mail, including all of the notes from Corliss received during that time. (I thought I was backing up e-mail in addition to documents; in the blink of an eye, I found out I was wrong.) I notice that in one of the e-mails I do have from him (post late-2012) he notes that he, too, lost something over the years – “a database [of information about Hong Kong movies] I compiled over about seven years in my HK mania period. That 60,000-line list was lost, alas, when TIME changed from Quark to WoodWing.” (Damn!)

RC with some director-mogul type.
Thus, I don't have the bulk of our correspondence with him, but am left with the memories of what we gabbed about to each other in print: I shared certain pieces of “news” (usually deaths or appearances of local cartoon exhibits) and he passed on obits as well, while also sending other bits of news.

He told me in person that the only Funhouse episodes he wound up fast-forwarding through were my Jerry Lewis tributes (but he did note that I knew my subject well), but he was very good about sending me weird articles about Jerry that he had come across. He also would reflect on a topic I tossed to him, and supply anecdotes, odd trivia, and, occasionally, his own memories of having encountered the item for the first time.

At points he would let me know about non-review items he'd just published online: “At TIME.com, I keep jumping into the quicksand of ridiculous projects, like seeing and rating every available version of LES MISÉRABLES or spending too much time defending Patti Page against obit writers who never forgave her for 'Doggie in the Window.'”

We shared a fascination for the well-intentioned but poorly run Air American Radio. Corliss championed Rachel Maddow from the beginning (it was obvious to all who listened that Al Franken didn't care about what he was doing, Janeane Garofalo was a walking timebomb of crazed emotion, and Randi Rhodes was extremely knowledgeable but also a very hard listen).
Richard – it's too late now, but I think I can now bring myself to refer to him by his first name – championed Rachel early on, saying she had “a natural radio personality: sensible, charming, with an easy-going commitment and flashes of impish wit.” He followed her through all of her Air America incarnations. (I dropped off the train when she was on at 5:00 a.m. for one stinkin' hour, but even during that very lean period he listened regularly.)

He was very happy when she wound up being the only person to emerge as a “star” from the AAR fiasco. His overjoyed piece on her new primetime show is here. To my knowledge Rachel hasn't acknowledged the passing of one of her earliest champions in the press, although she was so pleased by his initial write-up that he and his lovely wife Mary attended a party thrown by Rachel and her partner in the West Village.

Richard was thus a valuable cheerleader, and he was great at conveying his unbridled enthusiasm. Around 2009, I became utterly obsessed with the work of an amazing crop of British humorists (standups, actor/writers, TV producers) and began to show their work a LOT on the Funhouse TV show. I had a feeling I might be driving away some of my regular viewers who were more attuned to my presentations of European filmmakers and vintage American film and TV.

Richard tapped into my enthusiasm and wrote, thanking me for my on-air “101s” about the work of Stewart Lee and Armando Iannucci, among others (those were the two whose work he particularly cottoned to). He passed on notes about his fascination with Jerry Springer: the Opera, the controversial musical cowritten by Lee that was decried as sacrilegious and has been rarely staged in the U.S. (He had seen it in London.) He encouraged me to dig even deeper into this well of recent British comedy by, again, supplying anecdotes, compliments, and info, in a discursive, wonderful-to-read fashion.

He also dropped lines after my “Easter blasphemy” episodes, wherein I show Christian kitsch to acknowledge my status as an ex-Catholic (very ex-). His take on the one that aired just a few weeks back was that it was as another “great/dreadful” episode. (That was intended and taken as a compliment; the show contained a bushel of new Xtian kitsch I'd discovered at Honest Ed's, as well as an amazingly sentimental/corny/bizarre film with an Xtian message called The Drum Beats Twice.)

At one point in e-mail he began enumerating the ways in which the new Superman movie portrayed Soup as a Christ figure – he concluded the recitation with this remark: “Funny, those refrigerator-magnets of memory from a Catholic-school education....”

I finally met Richard in late 2011 when he and Mary invited me to a gathering they had celebrating a book published by the brilliant film historian David Thomson. He was exactly as amiable, generous, and friendly in person as he had been in e-mail (Mary is a delight as well). I inquired about his movie collection and was shown walls of beautifully crafted shelves (on wheels so as to “disappear” into the wall) containing DVDs and probably a few thousand VHS tapes.

We spoke about our former infatuation with HK cinema (which petered out for most of us in the late 1990s after Hong Kong became a “special administrative region” – read: colony – of mainland China). He also showed me a shelf of tapes that contained episodes of the Funhouse (my work was shelved below his Disney VHS collection – he loved animation deeply – and above “miscellaneous auteurs”).

The last time I contacted him, the wellspring of his generosity flowed again. I had begun to write a piece on the comic novelist Max Shulman – something Richard and I had talked about back in late 2013 (the finished piece appears below). He had started research for a piece on Shulman that I believe would've dovetailed with the release of the complete Many Loves of Dobie Gillis DVD box set.

I wrote to him asking if I could use quotes from e-mails he'd written me back in '13 (with citation). He gave his blessing and sent along his notes for the Shulman profile piece he never wrote – profile pieces were indeed the kind of thing he did brilliantly, so more's the pity this particular one got swept away. He mentioned that he was considering resurrecting the piece in 2019, on the occasion of Shulman's centennial, “but who plans that far ahead?”

In the meantime he attached his “raw notes” for the piece that he never wrote. I wound up not making use of them in my writing – the quotes from his e-mails offering a capsule “summing-up” of Shulman were more valuable, so I went with those, citing him as the source for the quotes. The very act of him sending his notes on again defined him for me – *no* writer sends another writer his/her notes unless they are close friends, or the one who has done the research has been assured that he/she will get a nice credit on the finished piece (or cash in hand).

The fact that he sent them on to help me write the piece was an offhanded gesture that I don't think he thought about in much depth, but, again, demonstrated his selflessness and generosity. He thought it might be fun to see me pay tribute to Shulman, and so he sent on the fruit of his labor to make that happen. Believe me when I say that doesn't happen a lot in the world of film reviewing.
*****

Richard and I corresponded a lot about celebrity deaths. He enjoyed my “Deceased Artiste” tributes and I absolutely loved his obituaries on time.com. I consider several of his obits to be definitive, sprinkled as they were with anecdotes, effortless puns (he loved a good – or in fact bad – pun), and historical context for the work of the person being profiled. (Perhaps that was the secret right there – his obits read as post-mortem profiles, not as “let us now mourn this wonderful performer...” eulogies; they were introductions as much as farewells.)

RC and Mary Corliss
Corliss the writer wasn't just a great wordsmith, he was an excellent (and quite dedicated) researcher. His obits for celebrities dealt with their public image, but he always delighted in illuminating the more obscure corners of their careers and connecting the dots between their work and that of their contemporaries (or successors).

Because of his own expertise in the craft of paying tribute to “the passing parade” and his very sudden passing, I find it very difficult to write anything like a linear Deceased Artiste tribute for him – thus this lopsided collection of very fond memories. It's a helluva lot easier to say goodbye to someone you never knew in person.

Richard overcame that obstacle beautifully in his heartfelt tributes to his friends Andrew Sarris and Roger Ebert, and his critical hero, Manny Farber. I was always impressed by his obits, so when confronted by the dilemma of how to pay tribute to him, I was brought back to his sunny (the word he used to describe Max Shulman) summations of the lives and careers of his fellow critics.

Of the three, Ebert was the most famous and yet the least significant writer (my opinion, not that of Corliss). The two remained friends for decades, even though Richard had earlier written an extremely eloquent piece lamenting the dumbing-down of film criticism, which he partially attributed to the Siskel & Ebert method of rating movies as if they were Roman emperors passing judgment on gladiators. (I already expressed my opinion about the twinkle-twins of Film Crit Lite here).
R. Schickel, K. Turan, R. Ebert, R. Corliss
Interestingly, in his obit Richard acknowledged Ebert's skill at “branding” himself: “He could not have achieved this ceaseless prodigality if he did not also have an enlightened capitalist’s organizational mastery of his midsize empire of journalism and movie love. You don’t build a career like his — actually, there was no career like his — without optimism, discipline and a sharp business sense. He made millions and earned every penny.”

He noted that their friendship began when Corliss put Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on his 10 best list – this when he was writing for The National Review. (I was always surprised that the very liberal Richard had worked for that pub early in his career.) Back to him praising BVD in print: “As amused as he was amazed by the citation, Roger would frequently refer to it, if only to raise doubts in the minds of listeners about my own critical acuity.”

The strangest note in the obit is struck when Richard reveals that the only time he and Mary ever met Roger in Manhattan (where they lived for their nearly half-century of marriage) was “a night in the late ’70s when the three of us went to the sex club Plato’s Retreat, as observers only, tiptoeing on a boardwalk in the middle of the room as women and their hairy mates in socks took their pleasures.”

An image out of a Jerzy Kosinski novel to be sure (Jerzy used to go there to scope out the action as an observer), but quite wholesome compared to the story Russ Meyer delighted in telling, wherein Ebert was sitting poolside and flapping his feet like like a seal as a comely lass went down on him (that image will not leave my head – Russ, we didn't need to know that....).

Corliss' goodbye to Andrew Sarris (seen at right with unidentified Brit) was as tied up with the critic's art as much as his life. Sarris was clearly an “elder” figure to him (there was 16 years between the two gentlemen); he referred to the man he knew as Andy as “the Galileo of film critics.” Given the space to summarize what Sarris had taught us about film, Richard pretty much summed his own philosophy (since this was, of course, his wording anyways): “the Voice... gave him a weekly pulpit to promote his view that the director was the author of a film and, more important, that cinema was a form of aesthetic expression as rich as life and much more beautiful.”

The most interesting reflection he makes on Sarris' work is about his “gerontophilia.” At first Richard doubted Sarris' premise (formulated when he himself *wasn't* an old duffer) that “advancing age can stoke genius, and a high hack can grow, not decline, into an auteur. But now I am touched by the sentiment. It pointed to his respect for the old moviemakers whom he had rescued from anonymity. As Disraeli said, and Andy loved to repeat, 'In the long run, we are all dead.' That is true. It is also true that, thanks to Sarris, some directors and films will never die. He was the prime reviver of our ragged, treasured art.”

The third and final Corliss obit I will spotlight here is one he wrote for a figure who seemed to truly daunt him, Manny Farber. Farber is well-regarded by film critics and students, but is unknown to most moviegoers (unless they go “deep” into the well of brilliant writing about film). That piece by Corliss ends up being about his admiration for Farber's work, his admiration for Farber himself, and, ultimately, Richard's own love of research.

He was fond of summing up the figures in his profiles physically. (If called upon to do so about Richard, I would have to say he had the serene countenance of a wise old polar bear – with striking black eyebrows.) While Sarris was a “panda man,” his description of Farber dips into B-movie mythology: “his receding hairline gave him a forehead as high as Jeff Morrow the Metalunan's in This Island Earth, and inside this gigantic braincase all manner of creatures crawled, gnawed and sang.”


He includes a rather startling story to give one a sense of Farber's deep-seated cantankerousness. In 1990, they were both at the Telluride Film Festival, and “after I'd taken some conversational flight at what [Farber] considered too great an altitude or length, he stared dreamily into the middle distance and wondered aloud, 'Do you think that if I broke your jaw they'd have to wire it shut?' ” (So much for impressing your heroes.)

The most interesting thing about this obit, and the reason I'm closing out on it, is because Farber's death caused Richard to reflect on who really were, in his estimation, the best writers on film (or as he phrased it, the critics whose work “makes me jealous”). He offers a list (not a “listicle,” mind you) in the piece that I will reproduce, since it does seem like he had a solid grasp on the cream of the crop.

They were (in what appears to be chronological order) Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Robert Warshow, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Richard T. Jameson, J. Hoberman (whom he cited as a Farber disciple), Ed Gonzalez (one of the “new guys”), and David Thomson.

But that digression into creating a Sarris-ian “pantheon” of film critics isn't all. Richard also recounts his attempts to discover which reviews Farber had written for Time when he was the main film critic for the magazine for a mere five months from 1949 to 1950. The reviews had no bylines, but he discovered that they contained identification in the copies kept in the Time offices. He thus was very excited to find “undiscovered” writings of Farber's (which, he noted to me in an e-mail, he was disappointed to see didn't make it into the book collecting his work).

RC and Margaret O'Brien
He provides a number of film titles and then instructs the interested reader to check them out, if they happen to have a time.com subscription. He had noted to me that he had one, since the Time search engine is impossible to navigate as a non-paying “outsider” – as is easily demonstrated by putting Richard's own name into it and finding generic links to older issues of the mag and not a full list of his many, many reviews and articles available for free.

What is interesting is that, even in a “summation” of an artist's career, Richard was able to turn the assignment into one of discovery. Therefore the only way I could think of to truly honor Richard's memory was to publicly spotlight how much of his art was bound up in his love of research (not just the viewing, but the reading, the consulting of books, the scouring of the Net). He was a master at it, it was part and parcel of his enthusiasm for cinema.

I want to further discuss his writing in the weeks to come, but for now I will simply say that he won't be forgotten. The Funhouse will always be dedicated in a very strong sense to his memory.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The good-natured satirist: Max Shulman’s ‘Large Economy Size’

Any devoted reader of a specific author winds up taking a “journey” with them. In this case, I don’t mean just the journey to the locations in which their books take place, I mean the journey of discovering their work and the process of acquiring their books. Which, in the pre-Internet world, was a lot more lively and active hobby. In the case of comic novelist Max Shulman, I first encountered him in a newly opened used bookstore in my hometown of Jackson Heights, Queens, a few decades ago.

I was there with my father, from whom I had acquired my love of various comedians, from Groucho and Fields to Sellers, Woody, and Mel Brooks (I developed my fixation with Keaton, Kovacs, and other favorites on my own in later years). The bookstore in question was a paradise for the rabid bibliophile, a store jam-packed with paperbacks from floor to ceiling, named (naturally enough) Jackson Heights Discount Books.

The place was a nirvana (albeit a firetrap nirvana — no problem for me; in those days I was young and lithe), so filled with books that I didn’t know where to start. So I wound at the usual stops, as I was moving away from comic books at this particular time: the movie section (and even more amazing, several shelves labelled “TV/Movie tie-in”) and the humor department. Shulman’s books were both in with the general fiction and in the humor section, shelved with the 20th century’s most important wits and Larry Wilde ethnic joke books (did I note there was only a vague semblance of alphabetization in JH Discount Books?).

My father pointed out three or four humorists I never would’ve found on my own, people whose books he had loved in the Forties and Fifties. The writer with the hands-down most colorful covers — boasting cartoons that featured the lead characters (guileless, lovesick males and cute, ponytailed, busty females) — was Max Shulman.

I read most of Shulman’s books as a preteen but returned to them recently to see if they were as funny and frantic as I remembered them. The good news is that they are, and they also contain some sharply drawn (and sometimes surprisingly nasty) satires of social institutions I couldn’t have understood when I was younger.

So who was this Shulman guy? Fans of classic TV know him best as the creator of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63), TV’s first teen show that adopted a teenage “voice” and got right down to the things that teenagers care about — avoiding schoolwork, finding dates, and obtaining money from their parents.

The best episodes of the Dobie Gillis series are either based directly on Shulman’s original short stories (collected in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, the only Shulman book that is still in print), or they are close variations on the themes he introduced. Shulman has thus gotten the rep of being a “teen humorist” (he was of course a middle-aged family man when writing the Dobie TV series), but he in fact primarily wrote humorous novels that were aimed at adults (particularly his later novels about suburbia and adultery).

What is most interesting is that while Shulman’s lovesick protagonists primarily describe people in ways that render them cartoonlike creations, they will “paint a picture” of their objects of desire that make them three-dimensional (perhaps because Max knew libidinous young men — and soldiers — were reading his books….).

[The Feather Merchants, p. 45] I did not try to conceal my satisfaction as I watched her walk across the sidewalk to the car. In ten years a Lane Bryant customer without a doubt, but now — five foot three, 125 pounds, black hair, blue eyes, small nose, small mouth, pointed chin, milk-white skin, high, disassociated breasts, narrow waist, a pelvis that could accommodate a pair of water jugs, full-calved legs which filled her Nylons so completely that if you tried to gather a pinch of stocking between thumb and forefinger you would fail, narrow ankles, size 4-AAA shoes. She was wearing a small, dark, veiled hat cocked low over one eye, a dark blue silk dress which billowed demurely where it didn’t matter, clung brazenly where it did. 

The most striking (and inviting) thing about Shulman’s books is their light tone. Time critic Richard Corliss, who has written brilliantly about the most sublime aspects of Fifties culture, has handily summed up the appeal of Shulman's work: “A bestselling author and anthologist of college humor, Shulman was a satirist with a sunny disposition… a Woody Allen without neuroses.” Woody himself put Shulman in the category of Perelman, Benchley, and Frank Sullivan as having “a real prose style that’s funny.” (Go to 1:40)


In rereading Shulman’s books, I was struck that his earlier novels are frequently punctuated by the device that these days is considered quite original when it appears on Family Guy, namely “cutaways” that allow the writer to make jokes about other topics, and jolt the audience in the process.

One seeming purpose for Shulman’s many “cutaways” to other material — usually stories being related by eccentric characters that our hero encounters — was that this kind of construction would’ve made it easier for him to excerpt fragments of his books and potentially sell them to magazines as separate stories. (The novels I’m going to discuss here are episodic, and can quite easily be “broken apart.”)

Shulman situated his kooky cutaways quite solidly, though, and they pertain to a rich comic tradition that he referred to in passing in two of his first three books. In The Feather Merchants, our soldier-boy antihero meets his English teacher on a train:

[Feather Merchants, p. 18] “Well, Daniel, do you remember anything you learned in my English class?”
“I was just thinking of something I learned there, Miss Spinnaker. The Canterbury Tales.
“Why those, Daniel?”
“Well, that’s what we’ve been doing on the train — travelers telling stories to pass the time away.”
“Why, so we have,” she said.
She felt much better. 

One of Shulman’s favorite devices was the use of oddball names for his characters. Corliss has noted that “Shulman, like W.C. Fields and Groucho (i.e., his writers Kaufman and Perelman), loved eccentric names.” Sorority girls Sally Gelt and Wilma Urbane; communist radicals John Das Kapital, Sam Nihilism, and Natashya Fiveyearplan; and my favorite, the young lovers Bob Scream and Peggy Orifice.

Corliss — who has written quite eloquently about the expert crazy-name creator that was S.J. Perelman — quite rightly notes that Shulman’s naming prefigures the memorably colorful monikers used in Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22.

Shulman’s penchant for “college humor” early on in his career came from a very legitimate source — he started out writing for the University of Minnesota humor magazine Ski-U-Mah. Thus, while his often-zany, sometimes sober, and sharply satirical writing was very original, it also adhered to a comic tradition he was all too happy to refer to. In The Zebra Derby, our hero’s garrulous girlfriend (picturesquely named Nebbice Upcharles), tells him a story: “This jellyfish I had in mind who was turned into a tiger by love was a friend of mine named Tristram Shandy. Most timid fellow you ever saw.”

A wink and a nod is thus given to the reader who understands (or cares) about the grand tradition of comic storytelling in fiction. Over the course of his nine books, Shulman drew on this tradition to lampoon aspects of politics, the Army, big business, advertising, television, motherhood, fatherhood, teenage rebellion, the Fifties flight to the suburbs, and (a personal fave of mine) false patriotism. He did this all while keeping his heroes schlemiel-type outsiders who feel incredibly awkward when they are “inside” the system.

His social satire was in fact so friendly that at points it’s hard to recognize it as satire rather than just simple comedy. By spotlighting his first three novels, all bestsellers that were published during WWII from 1943-46 (now sadly out of print), I'd like to show how he couched very wise and sharp satire in the guise of “good-natured ribbing.” The three novels in question were collected in one volume called Max Shulman's Large Economy Size in 1952; I'll be discussing this particular collection because it provides a great “entryway” to discuss Shulman's humor and writing style.

There isn't any definitive biography of Shulman online, with the exception of his New York Times obit. Suffice it to say that he was born in 1919, the son of a Russian house painter. He grew up in the Selby-Dale neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn, and was given his first big break by a Doubleday editor who was on a “talent hunt.”


Shulman supplied this tongue-in-cheek author bio to the Armed Services edition of his first novel: “Squat, moon-faced Max Shulman is a twenty-five-year-old sergeant in the Army Air Force. His life before his enlistment was placid to the point of monotony. He grew up in a steam-heated house in St. Paul, attended the University of Minnesota, where he met and married a squat, moon-faced classmate, and was graduated in 1942.

“While in college he wrote an irreverent column in the student newspaper, and increased his reputation as a tomfool with his blithe editing of the campus humor magazine, Ski-U-Mah (an Indian word meaning: ‘Close the window. Can’t you see it’s raining?’).”

His first novel, Barefoot Boy with Cheek, was published when he was a mere lad of 24 in 1943. That title perplexed me for years (this is pre-Internet, kids), until I read somewhere the 1855 poem “Barefoot Boy” by John Greenleaf Whittier (“Blessings on thee, little man/Barefoot boy with cheek of tan/with thy turned-up pantaloons/And thy merry whistled tunes...”).

Chronologically, Shulman came into prominence after the heyday of the Algonquin wits, was simultaneous with the brilliance of Perelman and Thurber, and anticipated the delirious anarchy of Mad magazine. To my mind he was a clear-cut forerunner of Kurtzman and company because he eagerly populated his early books with over-the-top characters in outlandish situations.

His work was also defined not only by his own deft comic flourishes, but by those of the illustrators whose drawings accompanied his text. Playboy cartoonist Eldon Dedini is the illustrator most identified with Shulman’s work, but Bill Crawford, who provided the illustrations for the first four novels, also did a great job of visualizing Shulman’s stranger-than-life vision.

Shulman was not a “Jewish humorist” per se (he could be most accurately described as “Midwestern”), but he did inject Jewish elements (names, Yiddish-tinged language, shaggy dog humor) when he thought they would be funny. The key to his work, especially these early novels, is exactly that — what would be the most jarring and funniest thing to introduce at a given point?

And what is funnier than notes made during wartime rationing on a menu in Yiddish dialect? [Feather Merchants, p. 47] The menu was unchanged from the last time I had seen it except for doubled prices and these two notices penciled on the bottom by Hrdlicka, the partner who could write: “ON ACCOUNT OF THE DURATION, YOU ONLY GET ONE PAT BUTTER” and “DON’T GET SO HUFFY IF THE SERVICE IS SLOW. HOW DO YOU KNOW MAYBE YOUR WAITER GAVE A QUART BLOOD THIS AFTERNOON?” 

Making Shulman's work eminently re-readable is the fact that he kept his books short and varied his style, delivering both lengthy spoofs and fast gags. The specter of the king of quipsters, Groucho, emerges when Shulman's best tossed-off jokes fly by.

[Barefoot Boy with Cheek, p. 195] “The legislature was stirred to action. They not only passed the appropriation, but they also lifted Bryan on their shoulders and carried him around the Statehouse. This, however, was not too difficult because Bryan was only six years old at the time and puny for his age.” 

One of the things Shulman clearly loved to was to spoof purple prose, from desiccated classics to poorly written pop fiction (which inevitably tops the bestseller list – then and now).

[The Zebra Derby, p. 190] ”Lodestone! Lodestone! Lodestone!” The name cascaded from my lips, and then the name was gone and there were only sounds, deep-throated yet curiously tender. Then there was a sweet flailing, a dulcet thrashing, a soft probing. Urgency came and controlled desperation and desperate control. Then colors that were heard and sounds that were seen, a chromatic arpeggio, an audible pastiche. Then a settling. A fast settling. A slower settling. A slow settling. Settled.” 

The central question that haunts humor writing is whether or not it is dated — because, much as each generation's notion of what is sexy is very specific, the notion of what is funny is just as specific and often sadly short-lived. In its particulars Shulman's work is indeed dated — two of his early novels concern the war and the way it turned American life upside down; in his later books he tackled consumer society in the Fifties and Sixties (which is once again of interest, thanks to Mad Men).

Like most great humor, though, Shulman's best work is timeless. Guys are always going to be pathetic lovesick creatures when confronted by their dream girl, some Americans will always take their patriotism to ridiculous lengths, and underdogs will always be trying to “beat the system” with hastily conceived schemes.

Which brings me to the first item in Large Economy Size, an essay called “How to be a Writer, or Oblivion Made Simple.” Written in 1948, the piece spoofs many formulas for good writing that have been dispensed over the years. Shulman loved to mock such quick fixes and so he offers a few incredibly simple and silly rules.

In the process he ends up showing how ridiculous any set of ironclad "instructions" for creativity can be. His exploration of all the possible types of flashbacks reaches brilliant levels of weird invention:

[from Large Economy Size:] False telescoping true flashback — A character remembers an incident in his past. The incident is narrated. This incident really happened. A character who appears during the narration of this incident remembers an incident in his past. This incident is narrated. This incident never happened. 

Here he's making things as ridiculous as possible, but damned if he also wasn't anticipating the "everything is possible" approach of the later French nouveau roman novelists, for whom all narratives could exist simultaneously.

BAREFOOT BOY WITH CHEEK
Shulman’s first three novels, the second and third written while he was in the Army Air Corps, are contained in Large Economy Size. Shulman’s debut novel is told from the point of view of an eternally optimistic — some might say dense — character, one Asa Hearthrug. Asa is from farming stock, but he dreams of going to college, and so he is thrilled to be enrolled as a freshman at the University of Minnesota.

He quickly is recruited by a fraternity and (like many lovesick Shulman heroes) falls for not one but two girls, sorority sister Noblesse Oblige and the fiery communist lass Yetta Samovar. At one point Shulman offers us a comic tour of his alma mater while Asa ponders his romantic fate.


The book ends with him returning to his original hillbilly girlfriend, Lodestone La Toole. As the above synopsis indicates, the plot is merely present to provide premises for comic set-pieces (and crazy stories told to Asa, many crazy stories). Shulman toned down the cartoonishness of his universe as he went along, but he was always game to insert a digression if it was funny enough and produced a properly deadpan reaction from our clueless hero, who acknowledges all he hears as being equally profound. (There are overt references to Chaucer and Sterne in this trilogy, but I’d also be willing to bet that Shulman had read or was well aware of Candide.)

Barefoot Boy with Cheek was turned into a Broadway musical in 1947 (the show ran four months). Shulman wrote the book, with music by Sidney Lippman and lyrics by Sylvia Dee. Yetta Samovar was played by later TV star Nancy Walker (Rhoda’s mother and director of Can’t Stop the Music!); the wonderfully monikered Shyster Fiscal was played by a young Red Buttons.

The star was William Redfield, a noted character actor who is best known for his work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, among many other supporting roles. More interesting to me: Redfield either cowrote or himself wrote Mr. Peepers, a sort of novel, the tie-in book for the Mr. Peepers TV show (I love the series and was surprised to also love the book); he’s thanked by Wally Cox (the only listed author on the title page) for his help on the book. 

THE FEATHER MERCHANTS 
I will confess that, as a teen, I never read two of Shulman’s novels — Anyone Got a Match, because I couldn’t find a copy of it in the used bookstore or at the library, and this book, because I didn’t enjoy “service comedies” (Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates, Martin and Lewis’ At War with the Army, etc). As an adult I now realize that it is inarguably the best early Shulman, because it isn’t a service comedy but is instead a priceless satire of faux patriotism and self-aggrandizement by civilians during wartime.

Shulman was such an amiable, charming humorist that he was able to get away with sentiment that might’ve seemed phony coming from another writer. And so The Feather Merchants offers a fascinating and funny reflection on the “greatest generation” and how their service was being acknowledged while WWII was going on (their not-so-glamorous return home became the subject of Shulman’s next novel).

Our hero here, Sgt. Dan Miller, is a sharper character than Asa Hearthrug. He understands what is going on around him but is powerless to do anything about it. He is a very unheroic hero — serving time in Oklahoma instead of overseas —who is constantly lectured by his friends and neighbors about the ways in which they are helping fight the war. He is branded a hero when a friend’s fake story (told, natch, to impress some girls) is picked up by the local press, and suddenly he has to figure out how to be the “demolitions expert” he’s supposed to be.

There are a number of very funny and bizarre moments in the book, but my personal favorite has to do with a visit to a strip club. An extremely patriotic strip club…


The Zebra Derby 
The last book in the trilogy features Asa Hearthrug again, this time as an ex-solider whose family does not want to hear his tales of battle.

[The Zebra Derby, pp. 8-9] "How ghastly it must have been in the miasms of the Pacific. But of course you don’t want to talk about it.” 
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “I do.”
“That’s all right, Son,” said Father. “You don’t have to. I’ll understand.” 
“But I want to.” 
“No, Son, no. Don’t wake a flood of horrendous memories on my account. I know how it was. Didn’t I see Don Ameche get it in the guts in Perils of the Pacific, in the head in Beast of the East, in the thighbone in Hara-Kiri for Two, in the spleen in My Mother Was a Flat-Top, and true in the heart in I Love to See Dat Risin’ Sun Go Down? Do you think I don’t know how it was?”

Shulman spoofs the ads that tout companies’ participation in, as we now call it, “supporting the troops” (“Having contributed in no small measure to the final defeat of our insidious enemies… LUCKY STRIKE GREEN IS BACK FROM WAR.”) Some of the most memorable scenes in the book, though, concern Asa’s attempts to find a job and, when that fails, trying to fit in back at the University of Minnesota. At one point a veterans’ program adviser (named “Max Ivycovered”) swears he’ll help Asa overcome his supposed killer instinct.

[The Zebra Derby, pp. 170-71] Mr. Ivycovered shrugged. “We've got to let you go to school, Hearthrug. It's your right, even if you have been turned into a ravening beast, a bloodthirsty engine of destruction.”
I snarled and kicked over a lamp.

“How can we expect to interest you in the liberal arts?” said Mr. Ivycovered. “How can the humanities and social sciences claim your attention? For you have been schooled in mayhem and uproar, in ferocity and tumult, in outrage and infraction.”
I upset a settee and clawed plaster from the walls.
“All barriers have been stripped from you,” said Mr. Ivycovered. “You demand commotion and frenzy, rampage and fulmination, turbulence and riot.”
I butted my head through a window and set fire to a bookcase. 

While Zebra is written in the same broadly comic style as the preceding books, Shulman does a brilliant job in one scene (a radio show heard by Asa on the radio) spoofing corporate America and its vision of a free and unfettered post-war climate. A gathering of "the National Association of Rich Millionaires" discusses how important it is that the government not regulate their companies' activity. (As I noted, good humor is always timeless....)




Lest he be thought of as some kind of socialist (not that there’s anything wrong with that), Shulman devotes a good amount of space to describing a wonderfully awful communist play later in the book. (“MAX: We are undone. SWEET ALICE: I am tired. I think I will sleep now and have a dream sequence.”)

Large Economy Size represents the first “era” of Shulman's writings. His Fifties books offered up the ultimate vision of the frustrated but resourceful American teenager in Dobie Gillis. He followed his cartoonlike, episodic novels with two more conventionally structured novels (Rally Round the Flag, Boys and Anyone Got a Match?) that dovetail perfectly with the colorful, wonderful critiques of consumerism by Funhouse favorites George Axelrod and Frank Tashlin.

I hope to write more about Shulman, but will note that his final two creations — the 1978 movie House Calls (he also subsequently scripted an episode for the short-lived 1979 TV series derived from the movie) and the comic novel Potatoes Are Cheaper — showed that he still had the same light touch and sharp satirical sensibility in later life that he had as a young tyro writing this trilogy.

There was a lot more to the guy than Dobie Gillis….
 

NOTE: The quotations and Max Shulman passages above are copyrighted by the Estate of Max Shulman. This blog entry was intended as a study of Shulman’s work; the books can be found at very reasonably prices (with the original, awesome covers and illustrations!) on both Amazon and eBay. My thanks goes out to RC for the quotes about MS, and my dad for pointing the way in the first place.