Category Archives: Monty Python

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to America: The Wit of The Beatles

Bodie Plecas

 

The Beatles were a real good thing for music, because they were funny at the same time – Randy Newman

Costumed-Beatles

A hard and rough port town, which offered many dead-ends and few opportunities for upward mobility, Liverpool had humor as the balm that could ease the often crushing burden of reality that was its daily milieu.

Its locals were, and are, famous for their Scouser wit – often delivered in deadpan style; it is sharp and often biting. Verbal jousting is an art form, and generally good-natured. On its dark side, Scouser wit can be a weapon intended to do damage. An overwhelmingly Irish town in the middle of the last century, the locals had some ancestral history with humor.

Even their name for themselves – Liverpudlians – is the Scouser’s inverted joke in which the pool becomes a puddle.

Why does the River Mersey run through Liverpool? Because it doesn’t want to get mugged.

In this puddle fermented with wit, where one was required to have a sharp sense of humor and judged by its quality, were born the Beatles – as individuals and a band. And like the thematic spine that runs through any good story, Scouser wit was the spine of their career – it affected every aspect of their existence as a band, to the point of being responsible for their initial success until their songwriting caught up.

John Lennon’s humor was often underpinned by the dark nature that was part of his personality. Separated from his father, left to live with his aunt by his mother, who subsequently died in a tragic accident, left by the beloved uncle who died unexpectedly, he used humor to cover the pain of abandonment by those he loved. He used it to turn his inner rage on an outside world he felt had betrayed him. Early in school that humor took increasingly sharp turns towards the surreal, and often cruel, in poems, stories, and illustrated magazines he created to communicate with the world outside.

Tragedy struck Paul McCartney as well when he lost his mother in his early teens. Always a people pleaser on the surface, his sense of humor could also be sharp and biting, but was more often obscured under layers of protection. He also came from a large, boisterous, and close knit extended family in which humor, good-natured for the most part, was the currency of affection.

Like his older friend, George Harrison came from a family that was affectionate, loud and immersed in jokes and cut-ups. Falsely referred to as the quiet Beatle, he was a talker, and his wit took a dry, sarcastic tone.

The Reeperbahn, the seedy red-light district of Hamburg where the Beatles had several lengthy stays playing at loud and often dangerous clubs, backing strippers or playing between their sets, was the anvil on which the band was hammered into what was arguably the best live band of Northern England at the time. The lubricant that greased their way through this maze of dangers and endurance was humor.

John, Paul and George quickly found their shared sense of humor helped the intense bond they shared grow. They riffed off of each other like veteran comedians, often finishing each other’s jokes and jabs. Entertaining the jaded and uninterested thugs and blue-collar workers that came to drink at the Kaiserkeller, The Top Ten Club and Star Club, took more than music – it took jokes. Lennon trotted out his well-worn cripple routine, or ridiculed the crowd with Nazi jokes and Hitler imitations. Once amphetamines entered their world, the jokes took on a manic persona and wearing a toilet seat around your head while playing in your underwear was just another tool in their entertainment chest.

It was those personalities, imbued with their unique bond and sense of comic surreality that helped Brian Epstein see their potential. But pushing them on every record label in England came to nothing for the aspiring manager with the passionate belief in his charges. His last hope was George Martin, who headed the poor relative record label Parlophone.

Martin first had success with Beyond the Fringe, a comedic stage review featuring Dudley MoorePeter Cooke and Jonathan Miller. Those records are considered a key linchpin in the ascendance of satiric humor in Britain.

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Parody: A Lesson

 Don and Alleen Nilsen

An essay based on a lesson, the Powerpoint of which can be found (along with many others) here

In the New Yorker, Wolcott Gibbs wrote that parody is the hardest form of creative writing because the style of the subject must be reproduced in slightly enlarged form, while at the same time holding the interest of people who haven’t read the original.  Further complications are posed since it must entertain at the same time that it criticizes and must be written in a style that is not the writer’s own.  He concluded that the only thing that would make it more difficult would be to write it in Cantonese.

Obviously, it is easier for people to enjoy a parody if they know what the original was.  In our increasingly diverse culture, memories of “classic” children’s books may be one of the few things we have in common.  Advertisers, broadcasters, cartoonists, journalists, politicians, bloggers, and everyone else who wants to communicate with large numbers of people, therefore turn to the array of exaggerated characters that we remember from childhood books.  Chicken Little represented alarmists; Pinocchio stood for liars;The Big Bad Wolf warned us of danger; Humpty Dumpty demonstrated how easy it is to fall from grace; The Frog Prince gave hope to women of all ages; and Judith Viorst’s The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day lets us know that we all have really bad days.

Some of Lewis Carroll’s parodies were just for fun.  When Lewis Carroll wrote a parody of the poem “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.  How I wonder where you are,” it became, “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Bat.  How I wonder where you’re at.”  This is merely fun word play.  But some of Carroll’s parodies had a deeper significance.  Lewis Carroll lived in a time when the Victorian poetry tended to be filled with sentimentality and didacticism, so many of Carroll’s poems parodied that sentimentality and didacticism.  G. W. Langford wrote a poem that not only preached to parents, but also reminded them of the high mortality rate for young children:  “Speak gently to the little child! / It’s love be sure to gain; / Teach it in accents soft and mild; It may not long remain.”  Carroll’s parody turned this poem into a song for the Duchess to sing to a piglet wrapped in baby clothes:  “Speak roughly to your little boy. And beat him when he sneezes. / He only does it to annoy / Because he knows it teases.”  The  poem “Against Idleness and Mischief” by Isaac Watts read as follows: “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour / and gather honey all the day / From every opening flower!”  Lewis Carroll’s parody is much more fun, and much less didactic: “How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tail / And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale?”

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