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Copyright © 2003 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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if actresses were lamps
september 27, 2003
This past Tuesday, five o'clock in the morning, I woke up, got out of bed, blind, walking slowly forward, hands waving in front of me, and banged my inner right knee, hard, on something put together with bolts, as my waving left hand knocked over something tethered to electricity.1
Jokes are great, and here I'm referring not so much to the spontaneous witticism, where someone sees a situation, and suddenly realizes there's a combustibility, humor-wise, but rather the more structured jokes we hear or read and then repeat.2
Often there's a repetitive, knock-knock aspect to the narrative of a joke3, for example the one by Andy Kaufman, doing his foreign comic impersonation, in which he tells of two men and a woman dragging a cannon up over one mountain after another, until they reach a rocky ledge overlooking their target (I'm repeating the joke from memory). The first man says, "Oh my God, I forgot to bring the cannon balls with me!" The second man says, "Oh my God, I don't have any balls either!" They both turn to the woman who says, "Don't look at me!"4
The joke reminds me of the "bear went over the mountain" camp bus song:
And so on, and so on, ad infinitum, ad utrumque paratus.5
But then I start wondering, what is it like for the three of them, to have to climb over all these mountains, which by Kaufman's fake accent I assume are in South America, dragging this huge, heavy cannon along through the vines and the insects, stopping each night, skin slick, sides heaving, the woman sitting a little back from the campfire, having to know the only reason she's been included on this trek is to provide the punchline.6
I tend to speculate on the lives of people who live in jokes. That rhinoceros who went into a bar and was charged fifty dollars for a glass of whiskey, the bartender thinking, Hell, he's a rhinoceros, he doesn't know the cost of anything; it seems only fair to me, when the bartender remarks he doesn't get a lot of rhinoceri as customers, that the animal replies, "I'm not surprised, at fifty dollars a drink." Where was the rhinoceros before he ambled into that bar, and where was he headed afterwards? Was the whiskey a reward for a job well done, or a brace for a dreaded event he must now face, as the little ice cubes, all that's left, rattle against his big yellow fangs?
What is it like, to be a character in a joke?7
I thought I'd never find out, just like I'd never see certain early and not-so-early twentieth century films that no longer exist8, the film eaten by its acids, but then, because our master bedroom was so disarranged by our painting of it, so that there were ladders everywhere, and furniture pushed into unfamiliar locations, causing me to stumble about blindly when I woke up in the darkness to feed the cats and make coffee, it occurred to me I was living in the classic Helen Keller joke: How do you make Helen Keller mad? Rearrange her furniture.9
It was a good feeling, to actually be living in a joke, however briefly, one more experience I can now check off on my 'to do' list, so I made my way out into the kitchen, fingers feeling along our white wall, with a smile on my face.
Our home is in utter chaos right now, everything moved somewhere unfamiliar, while we paint our bedroom. You wouldn't think painting one room would cause so much disruption, but we've had to move a lot of furniture and photographs out of the bedroom, into the breakfast nook, discombobulating that space, and our kitchen counters are covered with old local newspapers, paint cans, brushes, rollers, plastic pails with red lids and white paint dripped down the side, metal trays to pour the paint into when we use the rollers, crumpled white rags with Rorschach of white paint, sniffing cats10, and our front entry hall is crowded with four long boxes, looking like flat coffins, like coffins for very shallow people, which contain the two black bureaus we're going to have to, one day, assemble.
But this chaotic phase is almost over. The bedroom is fully painted now, so that we can go back in, with three foot-by-three foot one mil plastic sheets, to create a frottage effect.11
And the huge, skyscraper tall twelve-foot stepladder is now on the other side of the bedroom, near my work area, so at least I don't stumble into it any more in the morning, only while I'm working.12
1Respectively, the twelve-foot stepladder I've been singing hosannas to these past few weeks, plus my bedside lamp, which I've knocked over in the middle of the night so many times now, or even in broad daylight, with the end of the six-foot pole I use to extend the reach of my paint roller, that when I click the lamp, about Holly Hunter size, if actresses were lamps, through its three switch positions, it just blinks neurotically at each click, with a "Please don't hurt me, mister" poignancy. [Back to the text]
2Which reminds me of the great New Yorker humorist, Peter DeVries, who wrote an essay once on what he referred to as "prepartee", as opposed to "repartee", by which he meant deliberately steering a conversation with someone he wished to impress, usually female, in a certain direction he had previously thought out, so that when she made a casual remark that was in fact anticipated, based on DeVries' previous comments, he could suddenly make a quip that appeared to be spontaneous. [Back to the text]
3I read in a study of humor that the repetition should occur precisely three times to be most effective. Less than that, and the repetitive nature isn't noticed; more than three times, and it's tiresome, like the endurance contest knock-knock joke where each time the participant says "Knock-knock", the jokester says, "Apple", until after about ten times, the reply is "Orange", the by now pissed-off victim says, "Orange Who", and the quipster says, "Orange you glad I didn't say Apple again?" [Back to the text]
4I didn't get this joke the first time I heard it, I think on Saturday Night Live. I thought the point was that the foreign comic was so hapless he was telling jokes that didn't have a punchline. It was only years and years later, when I happened to be flipping around, and saw the routine again, that I got it. Boy, did I feel foolish. [Back to the text]
5That's a scary song to me, in its bleak existentialism, a little like Sisyphus rolling that boulder up the slope, though the song is usually sung exuberantly, overheard by passing trucks and taxicabs. Who is this poor bear, and what did he discover he's being punished for? [Back to the text]
6I assume they were rebels, thin books of Spanish poetry in the back pockets of their camouflage pants, black berets on their sweaty heads, their mission to lob a cannonball on the capital of the unnamed South American nation they were at war with. What happened afterwards? Did the (presumably) corrupt regime survive, since no cannonball landed, rounding up the city's sympathizers, dunking their heads backwards into aluminum tubs filled with water? Or did a less comical group attack from the east? [Back to the text]
7I think of characters in jokes as living the sort of looped life, slightly speeded-up, you find in demonstration CDs, where the male and female heads turn slightly off-speed, and they're demonstrating painting techniques, or how to lay carpet. [Back to the text]
8Only ten to fifteen percent of the films made during the silent era still exist. The rest are gone forever. We've lost the 1917 movie, Cleopatra, starring Theda Barr, Lon Chaney's The Miracle Man and London After Midnight, and thousands of others with stars such as Greta Garbo and Douglas Fairbanks. More than half of the 21,000 feature films and shorts made on nitrate stock before 1950 are also lost forever. There are no longer any negatives that have survived for an incredible number of classics, including Stagecoach (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1960), as well as all the films made by Shirley Temple, Will Rogers, and Betty Grable. Every single color film made on Eastmancolor stock between 1950 and 1975 is slowly fading away. The most important medium of the twentieth century, movies, has had a significant part of its oeuvre destroyed in less than a hundred years. [Back to the text]
9The Helen Keller jokes were part of a subgenre known as 'sick jokes', meant to be less polite than puns and 'Laughter Is The Best Medicine' Readers' Digest stories, and which appeared out of nowhere in the late fifties, of which my favorite example, growing up, was the story of the expectant father in the waiting room of the maternity ward, box of cigars on his lap. After ten hours of the father rereading all the magazines in the waiting room, even their editorial mastheads, the nurse comes out cradling an infant wrapped in white towels. "Here's your new son." The father rises, tears in his eyes, but then the nurse throws the baby against the wall, grabs it up, drop-kicks it through the waiting room's fifth story window. She turns to the man, patting the air between them in a placating gesture, raising her eyebrows in jest. "April Fool! It was already dead." [Back to the text]
10Just like little kids like to smell gasoline, and teenagers glue, cats apparently really, really like to smell paint. No matter how high up on a ladder we place a metal tray filled with white paint, waiting for our rollers, the cats will one by one work their way up the rungs, rumps dangling off the rung edges as they swing their rear paws out for claw holds, to the tray, dipping their paw in, or bending their heads down so far into the tray for an investigative sniff it's obvious what they've been up to. "Button, have you been sniffing the paint again?" "What, sir? Sniffing the paint?" "Have you?" "No! No, sir, certainly not." "Then why is the tip of your nose white?" "It is, sir? I don't know. I don't know how that happened. It isn't paint, though." "I'm holding the color chart from Home Depot to the side of your nose, and the colors match exactly!" "They do, sir? I don't know." [Back to the text]
11Originally, we were going to do a different effect, I forget what it's called, although it's probably another French word, where you combine your design paint with glaze, dip the big bristles of a huge handheld brush into it, then drag the bristles down the surface of a wall, creating stripes. It looked cool in the examples we saw, but the more we thought about it, the more it seemed like it just wouldn't work. For one thing, since one of the walls we would have to treat that way is fourteen feet high, it was hard for me to imagine us being able to climb all the way up the slant of the ladder, start dragging the brush down from fourteen feet up, stepping down and backwards, slanting away, and be able to maintain the vertical straightness of the lines. Do you see my point? [Back to the text]
12Which is a bit of a sticky wicket of a problem. In order to get to my work desk, located in a bay window alcove in our bedroom (unlike my writing desk, which is upstairs), I have to duck and cakewalk my way through and under the structure of the stepladder. While I'm sitting at the desk, working, if I don't keep my head bent slightly forward, in other words if I straighten my head fully up at some point, the top of my scalp bangs against one of the horizontal inner support bars of the stepladder. And the thing about that is, even when I'm not under the stepladder working, when I'm preparing dinner, or reaching under the sink for a new trash bag, or up here typing this sentence, I subliminally feel like that support bar is still behind my head, if you know what I mean, much like if you watch a hidden camera-type show on TV, and afterwards watch a drama, and without fully realizing it, you're still in the mode of the candid camera show, so that during the drama, cops questioning a seated suspect with twitchy forearms, you start wondering when the host is going to pop out from behind the scenery, laughing his handsome head off, gleefully pointing out where the hidden cameras are. [Back to the text]
In other, unfootnoted news, my short story, "Fish", is in the latest issue of the U.K. magazine ROADWORKS, Number 16. It's one of my Recorded Occurrences stories.