‘Very L.D., dad!’

Fri, 09/08/2017 - 10:45am

“What fresh hell is this?” — Dorothy Parker. 

I first read this quote while studying American humor in a special topics class while in graduate school at URI. Parker was what we would call a wit. The quote informs a person who is already experiencing a situational hell, and the quote suggests a new situation — of hellacious qualities. For example, I’m writing this in what is normally a quiet place; however, now it’s now filled with 10 loud, obnoxious, and unruly kids whose parents are making feeble attempts to control the yawping and squealing. I’m about to scream in an unacceptable manner, but I know I will get ejected from this hideout in the epicenter of Newport’s business district — that’s right, this is fresh hell! I laughed out loud when I read this Parker quote in class; I’m not laughing now.  

Years ago I was directing a one-act play by Parker called “Here We Are.” It’s a simple play, where we find two newlyweds on a train heading into New York City. I had the actors get off book in two days, and just talk during rehearsal. There was no stage business for them; it was all about the words. With this simple direction we rehearsed in coffee shops until the irony and snark revealed itself to the actors. The subtext of the play deals with a guy who wants to, ahem, consummate the marriage; however, the new bride has a whole other agenda, rife with familial matters and other minutiae. I needed the husband to cheat out some lines so that the audience would see his eye drama and then be able to read between the lines. We staged the thing and it worked. The play was short and funny and foreshadowed more disagreements and conflicts to come in that marriage. Parker’s writing was pure and wasted nothing.

For over a decade Dorothy Parker was part of a passel of writers and actors that hung around a place in New York City, called the Algonquin Hotel. They were referred to as the Algonquin Round Table, and were comprised of writers, actors, and critics. They were a group of sharp, witty, wisecracking characters, who would meet for lunch and have some drinks and smokes, all the while grinding out ideas to satirize or parody for their respective works-in-progress. The group was also known as The Vicious Circle. This was a crucible of sometimes caustic content which would later be found in the columns of the writers. Over the 10 years this group met, other writers became charter members, and some of the writers and actors went on to have great careers: actors Harpo Marx and Tallulah Bankhead, Harold Ross (editor at the The New Yorker), Robert Benchley (humorist), et al.

S. J. Perelman was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Providence, and attended Brown University. If we read Perelman we’ll find vestiges of his humor in the work of guys like Woody Allen and Larry David. After Brown, Perelman moved to Greenwich Village to become a cartoonist. He was a guy who believed it was important to copy from the material of others. I don’t mean copy in a literal sense, I mean observe and assimilate their ideas as a learning experience. He felt it was important to mimic the ideas of one’s heroes. Perelman did some work with the Marx Brothers; however, he wasn’t really wild about these guys. But, it was a gig. He wrote “Monkey Business.” It was not a big leap from being a cartoonist, and then morphing in to the act of writing, because a cartoon is the result of an observational narrative or vignette. Perelman loved New England and enjoyed walking the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard and Point Judith.  I’m sure this guy ended up on Block Island at one time or another. He did not like New York City. Woody Allen got many ideas from Perelman, who was wry and self-deprecating. Currently, there is a new movie starring Adam Sandler titled, “Sandy Wexler,” and the story arc is a spin on a Woody Allen movie called, “Broadway Danny Rose.” It’s about a guy who is a talent manager and it looks hilarious. I might actually go see this; the trailer shows Sandler doing a spit take. (Google this term.)

In the tradition of Perelman, we also have a curmudgeon named Larry David. I recently wrote a column about a pillow I acquired by reneging on a coin toss (check my archive “The Pillow from Hell”), and my daughter sent me a note from San Francisco, “You reneged on the flip? Very L.D., (Larry David), dad.” (I’m a bigger curmudgeon than Larry David, he’s a minor leaguer — ask my kids.) David produced “Seinfeld,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and he’s a funny, unedited geezer with an attitude about all things of the human condition. Again, like Perelman and Allen, this guy is extremely wry and beats himself up for his foibles — which are legion. But, we love this geezer because we are all a little L.D.

There are currently two very funny female writers who I’m reading. They have a sharp and intuitive sense of the absurd, and they both wrote for David Letterman. He was lucky to have them. These ladies make me burst out laughing like Dorothy Parker does. Julie Klam and Merrill Marcoe write books where their voice jumps off the page and make this Scribbler chortle, giggle, snicker, and LOL. ‘Nuff said.