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Spring Is Here, but What Happened to Silliness?

April 06, 1986|James Kaplan | James Kaplan, whose fiction has appeared in the New Yorker and Esquire, will have his first novel published this year by Knopf

HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — What ever happened to wing walking? Flagpole sitting? Mah-jongg? What happened to "I'm A Ding-Dong Daddy From Dumas"? And "They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa," by Napoleon the XIV?

Yes, time came and swept them away. Perhaps luckily so. But where are their replacements? Where is The Great American Silliness?

Nowhere. Spring is here, the 209th of our republic, and there is seriousness in the land.

Oh, there's humor . There are three funny TV shows. Three. There are movies about goofy policemen and a there are a lot of sharp young comics on cable TV who make jokes about TV. Things are at such a pass that when one national magazine prints funny stuff, it feels compelled to say so on the cover: "Humor by Joe Blow Jr." Ow. This in a country that, until recently, actually had enough sense of humor to recognize humor when it tripped over it.

True, the world's in serious shape. No one would give you an argument on that. When everything out there's so solemn, it's kind of hard not to feel that way yourself.

Yet in the 1920s and 30s, in some very dark times indeed, there was plenty of gaiety in this country. (Then again, there was Eugene O'Neill). Of course, plenty of people drank heavily in those days, and when this didn't lead to Strange Interludes, it did lead to a substantial amount of silliness--lampshade-wearing and the like. But they drink a lot in Sweden, and nobody wears lampshades there. No, something was different then. Now, instead of drinking a lot of alcohol, people eat a lot of fiber. People do a lot of cocaine. Grim stuff, fiber and cocaine. Look at "Miami Vice." I don't know about their fiber intake, but there's lots of cocaine on this show, and the atmosphere is beyond even solemnity--it's meta-serious.

How about a new script? Two young doctors, one black and one white, dress extremely well and, to the accompaniment of portentous rock music, search out the dreaded purveyors of dietary smoothage . . . .

Watch. I'll get offers on that.

But listen, someone is bound to argue, what's all this talk about seriousness in America? Business is great. The Dow is up-up-up! There's an old saw that says romantic passion and laughter are mutually exclusive. And business these days is the national romantic passion. No laughing allowed. I wanted to do an article about a corporate fitness center in New York. Fitness is serious. Some of my work has been mildly satirical, and the media person for the corporation in question expressed a certain hesitancy about my getting into this. "These are people making millions of dollars a year, under incredible amounts of stress," the media person said, speaking of the executives who submit to the center's picturesque torture devices. "These are people who take themselves very seriously."

One could make the argument that working out combined with lightening up might really reduce stress, but--why be a wet blanket?

Maybe it's just that there are so many of us now. Maybe it makes us edgy.

Maybe it's--The Bomb?

In the old days--all of history until about 20 years ago, a lot of old days--people believed many silly things. People believed that cats attracted lightning, that spilling salt was bad luck, that God was in His heaven and all was right with the world. Science, fortunately, has taken care of that. And science, God knows, with the possible exception of particle physics, is very serious.

Then again, in the old days--I think of Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless--the future was always seen as a serious place, where people wore large projecting shoulder pads. Silly, those shoulder pads.

At Brown University, S.J. Perelman's alma mater, some upper-crust female students have allegedly been engaging in prostitution. One suspects--one knows--the Perelman eyebrows would have risen at this. One loves imagining the choice verbiage that would have flowed from the Perelman typewriter. One hears, instead, a deadly silence. In Perelman's absence, the whole thing seems like--what else? Business. I guarantee--guarantee--these women will end up MBAs. Where have you gone, Sidney Perelman? A nation turns its lonely eyes . . . oh no, it doesn't.

My old boss in the typing pool at the New Yorker, Harriet Walden, used to be Harold Ross's secretary. She once said to me, "Mr. Ross wanted this to be a funny magazine. But then the world got so grim. "

So the New Yorker went with the times.

No doubt about it, levity's on the ropes.

Fortunately, there's always Donald T. Regan. Tee hee.

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