Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s
Pantheon (2003), 672 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, hardcover and paperback editions: out of print
When I started this book I was looking for a diversion, and from that perspective it was a particularly good choice. Nachman starts with Mort Sahl and concludes with Joan Rivers. Along the way he covers all the major names, including Steve Allen, Tom Lehrer, Phyllis Diller, Bob Newhart, The Smothers Brothers, Woody Allen, and many others. The writing is lively and the material interesting. My only issue with this book is that at 672 pages in the print edition it is just too damn long. I would reach a point where I wanted to say, “All right, enough already about Shelley Berman! Now let’s please move on.” Most, though not all, of the chapters could have been cut by half. Perhaps that is why the book is no longer available in a print edition.
Still, one learns some interesting things about folks, all of whom broke new ground in one way or another. I remember Mort Sahl from the sixties more than the fifties (I was too young in the fifties), but he appears in the fifties section of the book. While he was popular onstage people who knew him personally didn’t like him much.
Steve Allen also appears in the fifties section of the book, although he had a very long career. Nachman writes, “Allen had an astonishing skill at seizing on a word or a phrase, on someone’s name, occupation, or hometown, and, in a flash, finding its comic essence…. For no reason at all except that he liked the sound of a word or a phrase, Allen would get obsessed with it and repeat it because it cracked him up.” Indeed. When Terry and I lived in Mountain View on the San Francisco Peninsula in the 1990s we went to see Steve Allen at a comedy club in neighboring Sunnyvale. I was a technical writer in those days. Steve took questions from the audience, and he asked the first questioner what his occupation was. The questioner replied, “technical writer.” Without thinking I began clapping. Allen stopped and looked over in my direction, though he couldn’t see me because of the stage lights. He said, “Why would someone applaud at the mere mention of the words ‘technical writer’?” After that, “mere mention” popped up throughout the evening. My five minutes of fame with Steve Allen.
Nachman writes about Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. Both, of course, are well-known for their movies, but both had standup careers as well. While the author writes extensively about their standup work, he also discusses their movie careers. His chapter on Bob Newhart is interesting, and it is revealing reading about how Newhart got started recording vinyl albums to support his standup career before making it big in television.
Fun stuff, all of this. Well, most of it. Nachman does mention police violence in the civil rights movement and briefly notes Woody Allen’s less than stellar personal life. Bill Cosby gets a pass, but the book was published in 2003, before his reprehensible behavior really became public. Still, interesting reading if too long by half.
My dad’s house went on the market recently and we quickly received an offer. On the same day that we said goodbye to Tasha I learned the buyer had accepted the counteroffer that my brother, as co-executor of our dad’s estate, had submitted. That is good news for many reasons, of course, but it is sad to think that a house that contains so many memories will no longer be in the family.
My Grandma and Grandpa Monaghan, my mother’s parents, built it. They moved into the house in 1958, the year I turned five. When I was young the greatest treat I could have was staying overnight with them. I called it staying “all day and all night,” but it really was just late afternoon on Friday to midmorning on Saturday. Grandma would fix my favorite foods for dinner and breakfast. Grandpa would give me a lot of attention.
The house was the site of many family gatherings over many years. We would have Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthday celebrations there. It has a medium-sized family room and a big living room, so it could accommodate a lot of people. We had some pretty large Christmas and Thanksgiving events with family members coming in from out of town. I had many birthday celebrations there with more immediate, local family. Those events generally included Broasted chicken and spice cake with chocolate frosting.
Grandpa died in 1980, and when Grandma eventually moved into an independent living community my mom and dad moved into the house. Dad stayed there after my mother’s death in 1989 and remained in the house until his own passing last August.
The house is on a corner, with the front door facing north and the driveway on the other side of the house facing west. Next to the driveway is a gate onto the patio, which takes you directly to the family room via a sliding glass door. Local family and friends always came into the house that way. Out-of-town extended family and less frequent guests might use the front door. One time when Terry and I lived in the Bay Area and were visiting Hemet we went out to see Dad. For reasons I don’t recall we went to the front door. My dad’s greeting: “You think you’re so special coming in the front door?”
So many memories, indeed.
We said goodbye to our four-footed child Tasha on Monday. She had had a very difficult weekend, not being able to keep down any food, and moving around with great pain and discomfort. The vet said that he suspected kidney failure as well and confirmed for us we had made the right decision.
Tasha had quite the life and we are glad that she had it with us. We had lost Misty, the fox terrier that Terry brought home from Oklahoma after her grandmother’s death when Misty was already ten years old. Terry was between jobs and had time on her hands, so she went to the local shelter. She was looking at a terrier who looked a bit like Misty when behind her this small, energetic dog seemed to be saying, “Hey, you. Over here. You don’t want that sad, blue-eyed dog. You want me!” Terry and I had agreed that we would name our next dog either Tasha or Kira, both Star Trek names. She called me at work and said, “I think we’ve found our Tasha.” We went to the shelter together to visit her and she did everything she could to entertain us in the play area. We put down our money and visited her every day until we could take her home, after being spayed and getting her shots.
We brought her home on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2005. When we took her to our vet, she told us that Tasha appeared to be about a year and a half. We decided we would establish her birthday as May 1st, in memory of my Grandma Monaghan, whose birthday was that day. That made her two on May 1, 2006. So Tasha was over sixteen years old when we lost her.
On that same visit to the vet she told us that Tasha looked like a beagle-terrier mix. That made sense to us. But one of Terry’s friends gave her a dog calendar each year for Christmas, and one day Terry pulled off the picture for the day and there was Tasha! The caption read “border terrier.” We were well versed in Tasha’s herding tendencies, so we knew that was it: she was a beagle-border terrier mix.
Tasha was always the energetic girl, and she made sure she had two walks a day. She was very active going up and down our stairs in Gilroy. When we moved south to Hemet in 2015 Tasha did a superb job of making that dreaded I-5 trek with us. She was happy to be with us in our new one-story house, and when our furniture arrived three days later she was pleased to have all of her familiar smells.
Tasha was a dog of routine, more than any other pet Terry or I have ever had. Here in Hemet, when 6:30 p.m. came around she wanted to make sure that one of us was in the kitchen starting dinner. After dinner, when it was time to put our feet up on the bed, read the newspaper, listen to jazz, and enjoy our adult beverage, Tasha (being the beagle-border terrier mix that she was) made sure that we were headed in the right direction, and checked up on us if one of us was in the wrong part of the house.
She was always the loyal and loving dog. Terry had her knee replacement surgery in October 2018. I had my intestinal surgery in February 2019 and a setback in March. Tasha was fully there for us each step of the way. Terry’s surgery was outpatient and we were home that evening, but I had two hospital stays. Terry says that Tasha wondered where I was when I was gone, and I experienced her right there for me when I came home.
Tasha had her health issues, as older dogs do. She was on thyroid medication for several years. Later added to that was a probiotic for her digestion, and after that pain medication for her arthritis. Still, she thrived and did well, and she was an integral part of our lives each and every day. She did pretty darn well until the last few days.
We love you, Tasha. We miss you big time. And we are relieved to know that you are no longer in pain.
A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order
Narrated by Julia Winwood
Basic Books, October 20, 2020
$25.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
A Place for Everything is, as the subtitle makes clear, a study of the history of alphabetical order, and it is a fascinating one. The author reminds us early and often that alphabetical order is not necessarily the most logical way in which to arrange material. In the introduction she points out that in the eighteenth century colleges that we now refer to as Ivy League schools did not list their students in alphabetical order, but rather in descending order of the social status of their parents.
Flanders gives her chapters titles such as “A is for Antiquity” and “Y is for Y2K.” The material is largely in chronological order, though she does circle back at times. She tells us that the ancient Greeks accepted that their alphabet had a set order, though they did not necessarily arrange content that way. The author does demonstrate that the idea of alphabetizing material began very early on, but for many centuries it was used inconsistently.
We learn that in medieval times scholars had a variety of ways of organizing material. For example, a list of characters in the Bible might be in the order in which they first appear. An encyclopedia-like compendium of information might be arranged hierarchically: God, archangels, angels, humankind, animals, etc. Flanders tells us that as monasteries began to build up their libraries they might have a list of the books they owned, but it was not a catalog in the sense that the list didn’t tell one where to find the book on the shelves. She explains that in the early modern era a wealthy gentleman might catalog his library by noting a book could be found five volumes to the right of the bust of Cicero.
I was interested to read that in the eighteenth century playing cards were cheap and abundant, and that the backs were blank. They were, therefore, used like 3 x 5 cards were in the twentieth century. A major government cataloging effort in France used playing cards, but the project was never finished due to the French Revolution.
Flanders finishes the book by noting how, in the twentieth century, we simply assumed that alphabetical order was the correct way to arrange material. She then states the obvious, describing how, with Google and Wikipedia, alphabetical order is in some respects irrelevant.
Julia Winwood does a marvelous job of reading the audiobook, and it was a delight to listen to her pleasant English accent. If you enjoy the pleasures of language and literature you will like this book.
The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars
Dutton (September 1, 2020), 399 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $24.21
The Human Cosmos is a look at how humankind has looked at the heavens through the ages.
The author describes how the earliest civilizations tracked the movement in the sky and how a king’s astronomers could help him solidify his power. The ability to predict an eclipse could reinforce his legitimacy, while an error could make him vulnerable.
The book goes on to follow human achievements in astronomy through classical, medieval, and early modern times. Marchant describes how observing the cosmos influenced the transition from the American colonies to the new United States. Oddly, the author goes off on a tangent recounting the events of the American and French revolutions, the only connection seemingly being that Thomas Paine used some of Newton’s principles in his writing.
But when she returns to the world of astronomy the book gets interesting again. She describes the current science and shows how a meteorite found in Antarctica turned out to be a chunk that was blown off of Mars. She also talks about pulsars and writes about the desire of many to believe that the signals occurring at precisely timed intervals were artificial and the creation of an intelligent source out there. So far, most of the signals seem to be natural events, emitting from rapidly spinning stars near the end of their life cycles. She does tantalize us, however, by saying a couple of the detected signals have not been adequately explained.
If you enjoy astronomy and/or the history of science you will like The Human Cosmos.
On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom
Counterpoint (October 14, 2014), 384 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $15.61
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $3.99
This book is Dennis McNally’s attempt to document the fight for racial equality and social justice in America through the nation’s popular music. The idea of Highway 61 is that it roughly parallels the Mississippi river, near which so much of the social justice movement had its roots. However, he begins with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts and ends with Bob Dylan in (mostly) New York, though he makes a token attempt to return to the Highway 61 theme in the closing paragraphs of the book.
McNally writes about the early music of the slaves before the civil war, and the white musicians who adopted their style, put on blackface, and made a living doing minstrel shows. He discusses the earliest days of jazz and follows the art form into the twentieth century, with the likes of Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong. In fact, a disproportionate portion of the book is focused on jazz and blues.
The final section is focused on Bob Dylan, though others in the folk movement, including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary are mentioned. McNally describes how the group Peter, Paul and Mary was put together by promoter Albert Grossman, which I knew. That Grossman was also Dylan’s personal manager I didn’t know. But that explains why the group sang so many Dylan songs. McNally says of Grossman, “In a left-wing folkie world that valued spirit over finance, Grossman was a barracuda surrounded by dinner.” ‘nuff said.
McNally writes briefly about the relationship between Joan Baez and Dylan, but not enough to really make clear its importance to the music of each. But there are other books to discuss that. Positively 4th Street comes to mind.
I bought this book in the Kindle edition when it showed up in an Early Bird Books email for $3.99. It was well worth the price. But $13.99 full price for the Kindle edition? Maybe. Maybe not.
Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece
Narrated by David Timson
Blackstone Publishing, September 22, 2020
print edition published by Abrams Press
$13.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
The study of ancient Greece in large part focuses on the history and culture of Athens and its relationship with its sometime ally, sometime enemy Sparta. Certainly that was my experience as a classics major at Pitzer College in the 1970s. It so happens, however, that Thebes was central to the history of ancient Greece as well, both in its own right and in its interactions with Athens and Sparta.
Paul Cartledge, Emeritus A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Clare College in the University of Cambridge, goes a long way to correcting that omission in this book. He looks at both the Thebes of myth and the Thebes of history and provides some insight into the importance of the polis in the ancient world.
The author reminds us that the Oedipus myth cycle comes out of Thebes, and the god Dionysus had a close association with the city. He points out that Hesiod, the early post-Homeric author of The Works and the Days and the Theogony was from Thebes. He explains that the lyric poet Pindar made his home in Thebes as well.
Cartledge describes Thebes in its political alliances, sometimes allied with Sparta and other times with Athens. He discusses in detail the importance of Thebes in both the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.
The book is ably narrated by David Timson, who delivers an enjoyable listening experience, keeping up a lively pace even at those few points when the text is dull. The downside to listening to the audiobook is that the illustrations, of which there are a couple dozen, are missing. Still, if you enjoy ancient history you will find this book very much worth your time.
Today is a day of great animosity and acrimony in Washington, D.C. and it is causing many of us, myself included, a fair amount of stress, something I am trying to manage as best I can. One way of managing that stress is to remember that today is also the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem and bringing to an end the season of Christmas. Just because that season is ending, however, doesn’t mean that we should let go of the spirit. I think Howard Thurman expresses the essence of celebrating the Epiphany and moving forward into the new year about as well as can be done. I have shared this here more than once before on Epiphany, but I think his words are especially important to remember this year. Peace, Joy, and Love to all.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.
I have published this here before, but given that we will not be able to experience a live Rose Parade this year, either in person on the cold street in Pasadena or watching it on television from our warm living rooms, I thought it was appropriate to share again. I hope you enjoy my 1970’s reminiscence.
December 31, 1975. I had planned on a quiet evening in my Olive Street apartment. My roommate George and his significant other (and my good friend) Alison were at home with their families. I splurged by buying a halibut fillet, which I was just taking out from under the broiler when the lesbian pair Anne and Ann burst into my apartment and told me they were taking me to see the Rose Parade.
I’d always talked about seeing the Rose Parade in person. And it sounded like a lot more fun than spending the evening alone listening to soft rock on Stereo 93, KNX-FM. Besides, the two Ann(e)s can be very persuasive individually, and as a couple were often an irresistible force. I allowed myself to be kidnapped and taken to Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena.
When we got there and we finally found the group with whom Ann and Anne were rendezvousing, I discovered that I was the only male in the group and the only straight person as well. I was in fact in the midst of the undergraduate lesbian elite of the Claremont Colleges.
They did come well provisioned. Included in the supplies were vodka, pineapple juice, and a tray of brownies. There being no orange juice, I started fixing myself pineapple juice and vodka drinks (what would you call that?) and munching on the brownies. It didn’t take me too long to start feeling sleepy and light-headed. It was only months later that I understood the true source of my condition. I don’t remember how the topic came up, but I remember Ann saying to me in a tone of voice that betrayed her impatience with my naiveté, “Mike, it wasn’t the small amount of vodka you drank that caused you to feel that way!” Oh, yeah. Right. Got it now.
The evening wore on, and eventually 1976 arrived. There was a brief burst of energy at midnight when people driving by honked their horns and everyone shouted “Happy New Year!” back and forth to each other. Things calmed down before too long, and we eventually decided it was time to get some sleep. I got into the sleeping bag that had been provided for me, and found myself wedged in between two members of the Claremont lesbian community.
I quote from an essay I wrote in the summer of 1976, something I aspired to get published, but which in fact never made it out of draft form.
I slept about as well as one might expect when lying on a street with a jacket for a pillow, but it was better than no sleep.
About five a.m. I was awakened by the sound of a car idling nearby and the voices of four or five men and women. Apparently the people next to us, a group of three couples, had decided that they had no intention of sleeping on the pavement, and so set up six chairs and took turns guarding their claim. I was hearing the final changing of the guard. After a lot of details being worked out in voices a good deal louder than I would have liked, the car drove off and a new couple took command of the post. It was at about this time that my bladder had begun hinting to me that I wanted to do something other than merely sleep, while the new woman next door found it necessary to do a commentary on what she saw about her.
“Look at those people in their sleeping bags,” I heard her say, “They’re so cute!” Perhaps to someone who had just gotten out of a warm bed my companions and I looked cute.
I, of course, felt anything but cute. I was sore, sleep-deprived, and wanted nothing more than a shower and a shave. I extricated myself from my spot on the street and made my way to the nearest set of portable toilets. When I returned the spot I had occupied had of course been filled in, so there was nothing for me to do except sit and take in the sights and sounds.
The morning wore on and eventually my companions started to stir. Those organizing the event started making quesadillas on a Coleman stove. They were quite good, actually.
The street was full of vendors, including one very clean-cut young man who struck me as perhaps a law or accounting student walking up and down the street with a cart and megaphone saying repeatedly in a pleasant, mild tone, “Good morning. Kodak film.” I wasn’t sure whether we was really trying to sell film, or simply wishing it good morning. I still wonder whether he actually sold any.
Eventually the streets were cleared and the parade started. It was fun seeing the flower-covered floats in person, but we were also all tired and happy when the parade was finished.
Anne had dropped Ann and me off at our camp site the night before and then parked the car. We headed off to where she said she had left it, only to find no car. Again, I quote my essay:
Both Ann and I had shared an apartment with Anne [Ann at the time, me earlier the previous summer ], and we knew how scatterbrained she could be. Our immediate assumption was that she left the car in a no-parking zone and it had been towed away. Anne insisted that she had done no such thing, and that we call the police department at once. One would not have guessed just how difficult it is to find a phone booth in downtown Pasadena.
After walking twenty or thirty blocks, and asking innumerable people where we might find such a rarity, we found a pay phone on Colorado Boulevard, next to an abandoned automobile showroom. The phone shortage in Pasadena that day was acute, and Anne had to wait in line for ten minutes before even getting to use it. I don’t suppose that we could have expected otherwise, but once she got through to the switchboard, she was put on hold. After just enough delay to make us fidget a bit more, Anne discovered that she had, in fact, parked legally, until the police decided that they needed that particular street for through traffic, and summarily towed away all of the cars parked thereon. But she did not tell us this until she finally returned with the car. She merely mumbled something about a high school and 200 blocks, and went wandering off, leaving Ann and me to sit, dressed for a cold night, in a sun that was becoming increasingly warm.
Nor did we have a particularly panoramic view front of us. It was past noon by this time, but traffic officers were still at all of the intersections directing an interminable flow of departing spectators. The gutters were a mass of trash, and tired purveyors of pretzels were returning their carts to some spot near where we were waiting. I had some change in my pocket, so I wandered across the street to a tiny and somewhat seedy-looking liquor store and picked up a soft drink and candy bar for Ann and myself. Then we sat and waited. I tried to write a letter and got nowhere. It got warmer. We became more sore and more tired. At length Anne reappeared in front of us and asked, “Anybody want a ride home?”
We were too exhausted to even throw our empty soda cans at her.
We headed back to Claremont and piled into the local Howard Johnson’s. We were slightly surprised that they let us in given how we looked: three people who came straggling in off the street. But then, we did just come straggling in from off the street. We had a mid-afternoon breakfast, and the Ann(e)s dropped me off at home.
I don’t recall what I did when I got inside, but I must have either taken a very long soak in the bathtub or stood under the shower until the hot water ran out.
Since that adventure, seeing the Rose Parade at home on television has always been more than adequate for me.
“2015 Rose Parade” by motleypixel is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Some months ago a food writer wrote, tongue only slightly in cheek, words to the effect of, “Shouldn’t you make use of that big bag of white beans you bought when there was nothing else on the shelf at the store?” I did and I should. Guilty as charged, your honor.
So when Terry showed me this recipe for winter white bean and Italian sausage soup and we had a cold, wet, rainy Monday in the forecast, I decided to make use of that stash.
You need to understand my relationship with dried beans. I have never been a soak-the-beans-overnight person. When I cook dried beans, which is almost always to make tostadas, I use my old, reliable stovetop pressure cooker. This time, however, I decided to be different. I took some of my white beans and soaked them for twenty-four hours. I then cooked them on the stove for another hour. Next, I drained the beans and added the ingredients specified in the recipe. Along with the canned tomatoes and basil I put in the sausage, which I cooked in a frying pan, and the broth, using vegetable rather than chicken, something I always do. In the aftermath of the Christmas rush, the grocery store was out of frozen spinach, so I used frozen peas and corn, which I had on hand.
The result was a very tasty and hearty dinner (to which I added garlic bread), on a cold, rainy winter evening on which Tasha kept going out into the back yard and getting herself wet. (She loves Terry toweling her off.)
A small measure of comfort and pleasure in difficult and unsettling times.