Best John Hughes obit.

August 8th, 2009

Read this wonderful memorial. I came across is on Ken Levine’s blog   (for those of you interested in a good blog about TV writing).

What’s funny?

January 28th, 2009

This obituary is from the marvelous site, The Language Log. Victor Mair writes: “My old friend and comrade-in-arms, John DeFrancis, died at the age of 97 on January 2, 2009. The cause of his death was a bizarre, tragic accident, yet one that is supremely ironic for someone who devoted his entire adult life to the study, teaching, and explication of Chinese language: John choked on a piece of Peking Duck (italics mine) at a Christmas dinner in a Honolulu restaurant.”

I laughed out loud when I read it, but then I didn’t know the man. The writer of the obit, a longtime friend of the deceased, points out the supreme irony. But that doesn’t mean that supreme irony has to be a sure-fire laugh-getter.

But it does seem to be a “Chuckles the Clown” moment. This is from the Wikipedia entry: “One of the most remembered episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was ‘Chuckles Bites the Dust‘…In that episode, Chuckles is hired as the grand marshal for a circus parade where he dressed as a popular character, Peter Peanut. Tragedy struck when ‘..a rogue elephant tried to shell him..’ and he died from his injuries. Chuckles’s ironic death brings laughter to the newsroom staff…”

The “rogue elephant/shelling” joke is obviously very sit-commy. And the sit-commies have undermined American humor. But choking on Peking Duck, as humor, is mitigated by the man’s age. I’d be much less inclined to laugh if the man was young...(moment of reflection)… Well, no, I’d probably laugh even if he was a young man. Ah, but definitely not if he was a boy. Certainly not if he was a boy I knew.

I wouldn’t laugh at all if the man choked on a Chinese dish made toxic by lead paint because, while it would still be supremely ironic, it might tend to negatively affect sales of Chinese goods in America and cause further suffering for both the Chinese laborer and the American consumer. But then, lead poisoning doesn’t lead to choking deaths. It leads to lingering death that surely could come only long after the 97 year-old man died of natural causes.

Now if a 97 year-old scholar of the Chinese language died ordering Peking Duck in Cantonese from a Mandarin-speaking waiter who, as a result of a tonal miscue, brought him steamed monkey brains that caused monkey-brain fever — a fast acting hindbrain stressor that ushers death in just weeks — I’d find that funny.

Funny is what makes you laugh. Society is what makes you think it’s not supposed to be funny.

Flicker, and out.

September 22nd, 2008

My friend John died three weeks ago. We shared a room in the VA nursing home for the six months leading up to his death. He was 95, and with the exception of severe hearing loss, he was healthy until pneumonia quickly doused his flame.

The flame. One of the first things John told me back in March was how, just a month earlier, he’d been given the last rites after a stroke. He had a vision at the time: a candle was burning, but the flame was getting smaller and smaller. It began to sputter and he realized it would very shortly consume its last molecule of oxygen and he would be dead. Holding his fingers only a paper’s breadth apart, he told me how the wick sparked and the flame caught hold again. He realized he was going to live awhile longer. He said, as well, that the entire vision had been comforting.

Though John and I were friends, we weren’t always friendly. He simply would not lose an argument. He’d been a tenor in the Chicago Opera before entering WWII. His knowledge of music was huge, but not infinite. To buttress a point I was not even contesting, he mentioned something Beethoven told Brahms. I raised an eyebrow. “What?” he challenged. “Uh, Beethoven and Brahms weren’t alive at the same time.” He waved me away and said, without conviction, “I think you’re wrong on that, Fred.” It was as close to admitting defeat as I was ever to see from him. Even after that, I allowed myself to be drawn into argument — over the nurses aides (he disliked many of the ones I liked), whether a given staff member was a transsexual (I have no idea how this argument gained heat), and if it was acceptable to play more than the regulation number of Bingo cards (two). Most often I’d bite my lip and leave the room.

Ten days before his death, John was rushed to the emergency room with pneumonia. Four days later, he was brought back to the room. He had eaten nothing during the time and was down to maybe 110 pounds. He was hacking worse than ever. The next day I overheard him asking his doctor to help him end his life. She said only what she could say — she would make him as comfortable as possible, and that she would take no extreme measures to prolong his life.

A few hours after that, he was taken upstairs to hospice. The night before he died, I went up to see him. He was heavily sedated, but clearly glad to see me. For ten minutes it was all he could do to utter monosyllables. Since there was no seat near enough for him to hear me, I stood, slung scarecrow-like over my crutches near the head of the bed, and dredged up the kinds of meaningless pleasantries appropriate to an end-of-life scene not in the movies.

Then there it was — the spark. John looked me up and down and strung a forceful sentence together: “Are you walking on your prosthesis yet?” “Yes,” I said. He didn’t say more. He just saluted with his fist, Tommie Smith-like, and let it drop. In a little while, he shut his eyes. I nodded to his son, and left the room.

He died the next day, around noon. I wonder if he saw the candle go out.

The funny thing is, ever since he told me story, whenever I’ve thought of John — while he was living, and now — my immediate image is his head as a jack-o-lantern, candle aglow through papery skin.

He might even find that comforting.

What happened to Rick?

May 28th, 2007

I guess Christian Scientists have the right to keep silent about the deaths of family members, but damn, they’re an incurious bunch.

My cousin, Rick Morrison, a professor of Spanish literature at Southern Illinois University, died this morning at the age of 64. Nobody knows why. Perhaps he swallowed a fly.

Even though by all appearances his siblings, nieces, and nephews loved him, the cause of his death interests them not a whit. I only know that he died at Peace Haven, a Christian Science end-of-life hostel (although they would not call it that) near St. Louis.

I don’t know how to characterize his older sister’s acceptance of his passing. Bland? Cool? Stoic? The most informative sentence in her email was, “He taught his classes up until the end of the year and then just seemed to run out of steam.” This is a level of detail consistent with Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” — a holier book than the Bible for believers.

I was brought up in the same church. Ricky and I were in Sunday school class together. One memory I have is from 1954. We were warned by our teacher to avoid watching an upcoming TV show about the sinking of the Titanic because its subject was “error” — the Christian Science catchall term for death, disease, violence, and other inconvenient facts of the universe. It wasn’t long after that that my parents quit arguing with me and I was free to do less oppressive things with my Sunday mornings. But Ricky seemed to enjoy Sunday school.

I can’t really knock Christian Scientists too much. They always seemed to be open-hearted people, optimistic and modest, despite being generally well-to-do. They did not proselytize (which certainly accounts for their shrinking numbers). But their denial of medicine drove me nuts.

It was selective. Dentistry was allowed. As was optometry. And as far as I know, most Christian Scientists in my generation were born with the assistance of a doctor.

My aunt Isabel, in her seventies, had a huge growth on her nose. One morning, outside the church, a boy made fun of it. She had my sister take her to the doctor to see about having it removed. The doctor took her vitals and said he’d have to treat her off-the-charts high blood pressure before he could remove the growth. Because this involved taking medicine internally, she nixed it.

But back to Rick. He was a twin. As kids, I couldn’t tell him from his brother, Bruce, by appearance. Just his personality, which was highly introspective. Me and my brother and sisters — by the late fifties all ex-Christian Scientists — fell out of touch with the Morrison side of the family. We were split by religion.

Seven years ago, Rick visited me for a few days. He was thirty or forty pounds overweight — nothing unusual in this land — and he walked with a cane. We ate chicken. We watched TV. We talked politics. I remember I was surprised we were in general agreement on things. He was funnier than I remembered him being. We had a really pleasant time. If this sounds like faint praise, sorry, I just have no better memory of the visit. I wish I did.

A little less than a year ago, I got an email from Rick saying he enjoyed my blog. He said he passed it along. I was greatly flattered.

Maybe there’s somebody reading this who knows him — a fellow professor, a friend of any kind — who might offer up the few concrete details the end of a life deserves.

Okay, a waitress turned Playboy Playmate-of-the-Month dies. I guess that makes her trailer-trash. Drugs may have been involved. Money is spilling all over the place. People can’t wipe the smiles off their face. Yikes!

I’m tired of the winking jokes. The sarcasm. As if to be sexy is less worthwhile than to be musical, mathematical, athletic, funny, mechanical, or artistic. You work with what you get. Most people endowed with these gifts will flaunt them. Use them to make a living. Why should Anna Nicole Smith be an exception?

She married a rich old man and it made him happy. It should have made her wealthy. But the angry son of the rich old man thought that somehow, in the grand scheme of things, he was worthy of every penny of this fortune. Then the son died in the midst of the battle, so the wealth still remains in question. Today, a lot of this money is up for grabs. And there’s a five month-old baby, who could have been sired by any one of the men in her life, and will, once the DNA tests are in, push the chips in one direction or another.

Breast implants don’t turn a woman into a joke. Nor does died blond hair. Nor does a refrigerator full of methadone and trimfast. Although I must admit that odd juxtaposition would trigger a smile if the last six months of this woman’s life hadn’t been so sad.

There are a couple rules for sarcasm. Is it funny? And is it deserved?

In the JibJab Jokebox (JibJab’s the much overpraised satiric flash animation crew) is a casket with big boobs carved in it. Another knee-slapper: CNN’s Jack Cafferty asked on camera, “Is Anna Nicole Smith still dead? (a beat) Yes.” Somebody else posted a picture of a beached whale and identified it as Anna’s cadaver. It goes on and on.

The confusion about who gets what portion of how much wealth is endless. Naturally, everybody involved is portrayed as a sinister, money-grubbing prick. But the money’s there, it should be awarded to somebody, and these things are bound to involve fights.

One sad figure is Anna’s estranged mother. She makes what appears to be reckless and baseless claims about Howard K. Stern’s involvement in what she regards as her daughter’s murder.

One refreshing figure has been Anna’s bodyguard and sometime lover, Alexander Denk. He spent most of his time talking about the good things Anna accomplished. And when asked about Howard K. Stern, he found only positive things to say.

I guess I’m beginning to sound like a pollyanna. Sorry. This story will end soon and we can refocus on Britney.

Has her pubic hair grown back?

Molly Ivins.

February 1st, 2007

Today’s New York Times obituary of Molly Ivins recounted her famous remark concerning Pat Buchanan’s ugly keynote speech at the 1992 Republican convention. She said, “It sounded better in the original German.”

There was another story I remember — and I’ve been attributing it to her without knowing for certain it was, indeed, her remark. In the 90s there was only one state that refused to officially recognize Martin Luther King Day. Arizona. The Governor wriggled and jiggled and sliced and diced all the factors he could to justify his decision. It was a weak and unconvincing performance. Some public figure had the decency to note the obvious — that Arizona’s decision was an example of hate, pure and simple. Ivins followed with, “Yes, but it’s a dry hate.”

I rarely enjoy puns, but if I could commit ones like that, I would be proud to do so.

I hope I’m right in my attribution. If I’m not, let me live in ignorance. It sounds too much like Ivins to be anybody else.

The following, from the NYT obit:

“There are two kinds of humor,” she told People magazine. One was the kind “that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity,” she said. “The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule. That’s what I do.”

The times call for ridicule. Heavy duty, liberty strength ridicule.

Died. R. Lawrence Trousdell (b. 6/26/1936).

Mr. Trousdell was the choreographer who taught president George W. Bush to walk like a cowboy.

In 1996, Trousdell, then artistic director of the Houston Summer Dance Theater, was asked by Karl Rove (1950-2011), Bush’s Texas gubernatorial campaign director, to help the candidate with his body language.

“I had just directed Copland’s ‘Rodeo’, and I know how westerners move,” said the choreographer. “I looked at a number of videos and, believe me, Mr. Bush looked like any other middle-age MBA scurrying across a bank lobby.”

Mr. Trousdell trained staffers Rove and Dale Clawson in the ‘string technique.’ “I had the two aides tie strings to Mr. Bush’s elbows while walking alongside and slightly to his rear. When Mr. Bush’s elbows fell too close to his side, they would pull the strings outward. It was simply a matter of Pavlovian conditioning — Mr. Bush, a recovering alcoholic, was rewarded with Necco wafers when he got it right on his own.

“In addition, I had a pair of corrective boots made for the candidate, which caused a slight pigeon-toeing, and gave the illusion of a man with large testicles.”

Mr. Trousdell and Mr. Rove became life partners in 2009, but chose not to marry (even though Texas liberalized the marriage statutes in 2007) due to Rove’s strong anti-gay marriage feelings.

Within four hours of Jerry Garcia’s death — that is to say at 7:00, following his 3:00 a.m. death — a friend called me with the new Ben and Jerry’s flavor: Bury Garcia. This was before anybody I knew had access to the internet. It was the fastest turnover I’d ever seen.

Well, it’s 10 a.m., and Ken Lay must have died sometime in the night. It wasn’t in the morning papers, but it was on the radio and the N.Y. Times online edition. No time of death was given. Only that he had died of a heart attack at his vacation home in Aspen.

It occurred to me that Tookie Williams spent his last moments in the death chamber at San Quentin. How much nicer it would have been for him, his family and friends, the reporters covering the event, and of course for the death-penalty protesters, if he could have been put to death at a vacation home somewhere. Maybe a beach house near Santa Barbara.

I do not equate Ken Lay’s crimes with those of Tookie Williams. Tookie killed four people in cold blood. Ken Lay ripped off, but did not directly kill, thousands. Still, I’m sure a few elderly people in California died from the Enron manufactured power outages a few summers ago. And I can’t help but think that many Enron employees — suddenly out of work, with only a fistful of worthless stock they’d been encouraged to purchase by a prevaricating CEO — have since died. Stress related deaths, I would imagine, just as Ken Lay’s must have been.

He had posted a $5 million bond so that he might enjoy the Colorado mountains prior to beginning his sentence in October. If I were writing a joke, I might start there. Another wellspring of humor might be his relationship with George W. Bush. Early on in Bush’s first term, Ken Lay was brought into the white house to help develop energy policy. Hmmm, is there something there? And then there’s the nickname. Anybody who’s anybody in Bushworld gets a nickname bestowed on him, like a medal of freedom or something, by the President himself. Ken’s was Kenny-boy.

Unlike the Decider-of-Nicknames, Ken Lay was actually a self-made man. Brought up poor, he worked hard until he made a name for himself. That counts for something. But it does not make up for the misery he brought to his workforce and the public who suffered under his policies. It does not appear that he was deliberately cruel — only that he presided over the callous machinations that destroyed a section of our economy. When, and if, the American economy crashes entirely, Enron will be one of the black boxes that hold the answers. Much has happened between Lay and the administration that has not been divulged.

I’ve often thought that wise public figures should hire comedy writers to pre-write their death jokes. After all, most of them have pre-written obituaries sitting in the files of major publications, just waiting for the light of death. Take Edward Kennedy, for instance. If he could find somebody to write something really, really funny about his back troubles, it might eclipse any jokes about his drunkenness that caused the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick.

Maybe Ken Lay had some kind of foible — a penchant for antiques, or a silly little hitch in his golf swing — that could be turned into a story hilarious enough to distract from his crimes. It might have been worth his trouble.

It is now 10:22 a.m. and I have yet to hear a Ken Lay joke, so I feel it is my duty as a writer to get the ball rolling:

Ken Lay steps up to the Pearly Gates. St. Peter squints in the golden glow and frowns when he sees who it is. “We’ve had a lot of power outages, Mr. Lay. In fact, a couple years ago, those golden lights kept going out. And the air-conditioning, too. Heaven’s not supposed to be hot.” St. Peter gives Lay a warning look, pushes a button and lets him in. “You’re lucky the gates are working.”

A gorgeous angel ushers Mr. Lay to a lavish suite. She removes his clothes and stands in front of him as he experiences the greatest erection he’s ever had. He’s thrilled. After a few moments, he timidly asks her if she is going to disrobe and have sex with him. Oh, no she says, as she opens a large double-door to reveal a snarling eight-foot grizzly.

“You liked fucking the people of California so much, St. Peter thought you’d enjoy fucking the bears.”