Yes, We Have No Chihuahuas, Part 1

In honor of the upcoming one-year anniversary of returning to Oregon, I’m going to post the first essay I wrote about living in the middle of Mexico. At the time, it was a stand-alone essay. I did not know it would become a chapter in a book about our experiences south of the border (ahem, Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak). The essay became the chapter titled “Yes, We Have No Chihuahuas,” which, as you can guess, is about dogs. I am including it here in three installments.

If you’re interested in reading the entire book, please visit my publisher’s web page: http://fuzepublishing.com/products-page/books/nobody-knows-the-spanish-i-speak/

Or order the book from Amazon. Vaya con nachos! Here’s the first passage:

Yes, We Have No Chihuahuas

Regarding the canine species in Mexico and a commentary on how at least some dogs are doing in the central highlands these days

There are several fine books, chapbooks, and even coffee table books available about the doors, windows, and churches of San Miguel de Allende.  But what about the dogs?  I asked myself that question as I made my way through the town’s small, eclectic bookstore for non-Spanish-speaking types.  After all, in the short time we’d been living in that beautiful spot, I’d noticed at least six distinct subspecies or supraspecies of canines.  Surely, I thought, these dogs deserve as much attention and photo-spread space as a mere door.

Take Canis barkus obnoxious, for example, a mixed breed with an obvious chip on its shoulder.  This dog was usually kept locked inside of a casa or courtyard, and was always heard but rarely seen.  Highly valued by Mexicans and expats alike, especially homeowners of the paranoid sort, this local celebrity dog was worth his or her weight in table scraps.  Much cheaper than a home security alarm and consistently more effective, the dog could be found in most neighborhoods, from the center of town to the outlying residential areas.  However, if you lived next door to this breed you could kiss a good night’s sleep goodbye, for they were relentless barkers.  They had one skill, barking, and they knew how to sell it.

A similar breed to your basic courtyard guard dog was Canis rooftopus, a subset of highly specialized canines that guarded a house from the roof only.  These dogs were always seen and usually heard.  Apparently, any size canine qualified for this, ahem, lofty position, and it was not unusual to see two pint-sized terriers working the same roof.  Or two German shepherds.  Or a rottweiler and a Shar-pei.  More so than your average guard dog, this breed typically worked in teams of two and three.  Canis rooftopus was as effective as broken glass cemented to the top of an exterior wall and much more ecologically and esthetically pleasing.

Just below rooftopus sat and barked Canis balconynonus, typically a breed of a very small type that appeared infrequently at a balcony’s iron grill.  This dog was clearly well taken care of, preferred to work alone, and only visited the balcony as the mood struck, which meant you had to show ample patience when looking for it.  However, a sighting of balconynonus was worth catching, for its bark was often both enthusiastic and hilariously high-pitched.  If you didn’t catch this dog on a balcony, you needn’t worry.  This species was often seen around town pulling its frustrated owner in several directions.

On the ground was where you usually found Canis roadkillsimilaris, otherwise known as the “Is It Still Alive” dog.  These dogs were everywhere and resembled some expat retirees in their fascination with siestasCanis roadkillsimilaris was the very definition of sloth.  In fact, it was often hard to detect if this species of dog was still breathing, short of performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on it.  This breed was usually found sprawled out in a driveway or on the side of the road.  Although roadkillsimilaris preferred to sleep in the sun, during the hotter periods of the day or year it usually curled up in whatever shade it could find and considered itself on the job.  I’m not sure how or what or when roadkillsimilaris ate, since I had never seen any of these dogs actually move other than to swat a fly.

While Canis roadkillsimilaris never moved, Canis wanderlustus was always on the go.  Usually traveling in packs of three or more, wanderlustus moved, shark-like, from house to house and neighborhood to neighborhood, searching for food and water.  Put your garbage out for collection too soon, and you could bet that wanderlustus would find and “trash” your trash faster than you could say, “Beware of dog.”  Although they often traveled in packs, I never felt threatened by their presence.  If I encountered one of these dogs, I simply picked up a rock and pretended to throw it.  The dog was sure to leave me alone since this bohemian breed consisted mostly of lovers, not warriors. — to be continued…

 

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Three Cheers for Lewis & Clark, Part 3

“Packaging” is the third comedy sketch in my Lewis & Clark series. The play was produced during the ShowOff! Festival of ten-minute plays in Southern California. The theatre company did a wonderful job with the piece and sent me a DVD of the production. The play, of course, is silly and anachronistic. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. One more cheer for you, the reader.

Three Cheers for Lewis & Clark, Part 3

Three Comic Vignettes Celebrating What Might Have Happened Before, During, and After the Great Expedition

SKIT 3: PACKAGING

CHARACTERS:

CAPTAIN LEWIS – Dressed in explorer’s regalia; very serious type

“CAPTAIN” CLARK – Also dressed as an explorer; not as serious as his partner

CHUCK – Male or Female owner of a powerful talent image company; a self-proclaimed visionary in marketing and promotion

LOIS – Well-dressed 20-something, high energy

LISA – Also 20 and in expensive clothes, high energy

SETTING: Expensive, traditional interior, a cross between a board room and a library.  Large table.  Comfortable chairs.

TIME: Present day

 

AT RISE: A man sits in one of the comfortable chairs, reading from a “journal.” He wears an early 19th century trapper’s outfit.  It’s CAPTAIN LEWIS.  

After a couple of beats, “CAPTAIN” CLARK enters, also wearing his explorer’s outfit.  

Lewis leaps to his feet and greets his friend half-way.

LEWIS: Clark.

CLARK: Lewis.

LEWIS: Hale and well met.

CLARK: Hail and Willamette.

LEWIS: Long time –

Clark makes a wavy action with his hand.

CLARK: No Sea.

They both laugh.  It’s an old joke between them. They hug.

Three modern-day business types enter with a flourish.  They’re all dressed in stylish suits.

Two women and one man (or all three women).  The leader, CHUCK, owns the company.  His associates are LOIS and LISA, both carry and write in small notebooks.  All three act as if they have caffeine rather than blood coursing through their veins.

CHUCK: Whoa.  Get a motel, would ya.

Lewis and Clark separate from the hug quickly and look away, embarrassed.

Chuck extends his hand to Lewis.

CHUCK: You must be Clark.

They shake hands.

LEWIS: Meriwether Lewis, sir.

CLARK: William Clark of Kentucky.  At your service.

CHUCK: Welcome, Captains.  I salute you.

Chuck salutes the men.  Lois and Lisa do the same.

CLARK: Technically speaking, I am not a true captain, unlike my esteemed and worthy friend here.

LEWIS: Nonsense, Clark.  You are every bit a captain.  We’ll have none of your modesty.

CHUCK: Yeah, right, whatever.

They shake hands.

CHUCK: Name’s Chuck.  My Associates.  Lois and Lisa.

LOIS: Lewis.  Clark.

LEWIS: Lois.

CLARK: Lois.

LISA: Clark.  Lewis.

CLARK: Lisa.

LEWIS: Lisa.

Awkward silence as the women walk over and check the men out.  The women SNIFF and are disgusted by what they smell.

LEWIS:  May I ask your purpose in bringing us here?

CHUCK: Glad you asked because we’re here — TA DAH!  To make you famous.

CLARK: We’re not?

CHUCK: Not what?

LEWIS/CLARK (Together): Famous?

CHUCK: I’m afraid you’ve had your fifteen minutes.  Right now you’re stuck between the margins and the dust bins of history.  Same ol’ story: yesterday’s front page, today’s back page, tomorrow’s footnote.  Not to worry.  We’re here to change all that.

CLARK: Did you read our journals?

CHUCK: Loved the drawings.  But here’s a tip.  Don’t send this to anyone until you run it through a spell checker.  I don’t think there are sixteen different ways to spell “Breakfast.” And it’s “se-PA-rate” not “per-rate.” Got it?  Now, let’s start discussing our package.

LEWIS: Package?

LOIS: You’re in the hands of the best.  Chuck packages talent.

CHUCK: Please sit.  We’ll take over from here.

They sit but look nervous, confused.

LISA: What can you tell us about the expedition?

LEWIS: We were commissioned by President Jefferson to explore the Missouri River and any other waterway, as needed, to discover a western path to the ocean.  I offered to Captain Clark to assist me in this endeavor and he graciously accepted.

CLARK: (Nods at Lewis) And I am forever in your gratitude for allowing me to participate in this momentous expedition.

CHUCK: Enough with the mutual admiration society.  We need a good name for the expedition, something punchy.

LOIS: How about Clark and Lewis Expedition?

CHUCK: Doesn’t work for me.

LISA: Lewis and Clark Expedition?

CHUCK: Still doesn’t sing.

CLARK: We paved a trail all the way to the Oregon Territory, if that helps.

LOIS: Oregoon Trail, hmmm.

LEWIS: Orygun.

CHUCK: Orygane?

LEWIS: No gane.  No goon.  Just gun.

LISA: We need something more drums-along-the-mohawky.

LISA (CONT’D): How about, “Trials and Tribulations Along the Oregon Trail?”

CHUCK: Still not catchy enough.  I got it: “The O.T.” for Oregon Trail.  Get it?

LOIS: Get it?  Love it.

LISA: Love The O.T.

CHUCK: Needs more.  I can feel it.  It’s coming.  Yes.  Yes.  “The O.T.: Desperate Explorers.”

LISA: Here’s the tag, Chuck: “They’ll do anything to reach the ocean — and already have.”

CHUCK: I can work with that.

LOIS: What else can you tell us about your expedition?

LEWIS: What else?

LISA: You know, anything that makes it stand out from, say, a typical vacation?

LEWIS: Vacation?!?

CLARK: Well, there’s Sacagawea.

LISA: Sack?

CLARK: Sacagawea. She was our Indian interpreter.

Chuck jumps to his feet and walks over to the two explorers.

CHUCK: There’s our hook: She.  Was she a hottie?  Did she have Grand Tetons?  Legs to die for, eh?  I bet she had a tight —

LEWIS: –I should say not.

CLARK: She had a child.

CHUCK: A child.  Perfect.  And she doesn’t know who the father is.

CHUCK (CONT’D) (Points to Lewis): Either you … (Points to Clark) Or you.

LEWIS: Balderdash!  She was married.  Quite married.  In fact, her husband, Mr. Toussaint Charbonneau, a fine, reliable chap, traveled with us.

CHUCK: But behind his back, she was having an affair with the both of you.  She was swapping.  The Ol’Beast with Two Backs.  Getting the Ol’ Rockies off, eh?  I can picture it.  Middle of the night.  The husband sent off to guard the perimeter, wearing the horns of a cuckold.  While you enter her teepee, remove her leather leggings and slowly make your way up the confluence of her thighs–

Lewis stands and POUNDS HIS FIST on the table.

LEWIS: –Sir!  This was a scientific expedition.  We explored no such place.  We held ourselves to the highest of civilized standards and extended courtesy and respect to all, under extreme conditions, I might add.  We discovered plants and rivers.  My good friend Captain Clark drew maps.  We spotted and recorded great herds of buffalo.

Chuck relaxes.  Now pursuing a new idea.

CHUCK: Buffalo, you say?  That’s good.  That’ll work.

LOIS: Timely.

LISA: Trendy.

LOIS: Healthy.

LISA: Marketable.

LOIS: It’s got bling.  If that’s a word.

CHUCK: It is now.  You know what I’m thinking?

LOIS: Go with it, Chuck.

LISA: We’re down, Chuck.

CHUCK: Buffalo roam everywhere.  Am I right?  Big, ugly, disgusting suckers.  Right?  Dumb as an ox.  Anyone know what Buffalo tastes like?

LISA: Like chicken?

CLARK: Actually, if I may interject, in point of fact, buffalo tastes more like beef.

The three marketers stare at Clark in disbelief.  A beat, then…

LOIS: But I’ve heard it’s leaner than chicken.

CHUCK: There you go.  The perfect food.  Tastes great, good for the heart.  I see it now.  An entire Lewis and Clark line of Buffalo products.

LISA: Even Buffalo by-products.

CHUCK: Buffalo burgers.  Buffalo top sirloin.  Buffalo gizzards.

CLARK: I seriously doubt buffalo have gizzards.

CHUCK: They do now.

LEWIS: This is complete and utter balderdash!

Lewis returns to his seat.  Chuck walks over to both men and puts his arms around them.  Chuck looks at the ceiling.

CHUCK: Captain Lewis, Captain Clark.  When we’re done with you, they’ll be celebrating your journey for one hundred, no, make it two hundred years.  And you know what’s even better?  We’ll be able to sell more stuff.  Important, cheap stuff.  Like kitchen magnets.

LOIS: How’s this for an apparel idea, Chuck: “My ancestors followed the Oregon Trail and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”

Chuck walks away from the men as he brainstorms with his team.

LISA: We can celebrate where The Oregon Trail, The O.T., ended.

CHUCK: Why limit ourselves to one end?  Why not many?  Let’s claim the Oregon Trail ended in Seaside.  And it also ended in Astoria.  Oregon City.  Beaverton.

LEWIS & CLARK (Together) Beaverton???

CHUCK: Okay, forget Beaverton, Oregon.  Nothing meaningful ever happens in Beaverton.  But, think about it, my courageous friends.  They’ll name schools after you.  Colleges.  Restaurants.  Taverns.  Rivers.  Ball teams.  Slums.

LISA: Your faces will be on everything from billboards to postage stamps to milk cartoons.

The two explorers look at each other, nod, then stand.  They walk to the door.

CHUCK: Where are you going?

LEWIS: I am going back on the Trail.  I would rather eat fleas than do business with people like you.

CLARK: Would you mind if I tag along again?

LEWIS: I would be honored.  Let us get out of here while we still have our good names, Captain Clark.

CLARK: Right behind you, Captain Lewis.

The two explorers exit quickly.

CHUCK: NAMES?  By the time I’m done, every household in America will know who you are.  Parents will name their sons after you.  Think about it.  An entire generation of boys named Meriwether.  Ah, let them go.  Who’s next?

LOIS: Some dour runt from France named Napoleon.

CHUCK: Napoleon?  Napoleon.  Now, THAT’S a name I can work with.  We’ll put some lifts in his shoes and name a pastry after him.  What do you think?

(END OF PLAY)

Three Cheers for Lewis & Clark, Part 2

Here’s the second of my three comedy sketches about Lewis and Clark that I’m posting in honor of Presidents’ Day. I’ve always been amazed how some people are naturally loquacious. I’m mostly quiet, at least until I’m two drinks into Happy Hour. At that point, it’s game on.

 

Three Cheers for Lewis & Clark

Three Comic Vignettes Celebrating What Might Have Happened Before, During, and After the Great Expedition

SKIT 2: STICK IT

CHARACTERS:

CAPTAIN LEWIS – Male, quiet and introspective. He does not suffer fools easily; mostly a ray of gloom. His facial expressions speak volumes.

“CAPTAIN” CLARK – Male, incessant talker, a chatter box full of good cheer and optimism; mostly a ray of sunshine.

SETTING: On a hilly slope near the Pacific coast of what eventually becomes the state of Oregon.

TIME: Daytime, circa 1803.

AT RISE: CAPTAIN LEWIS and CAPTAIN CLARK trudge up a slope.  Both dressed in rugged hiking gear.  Lewis holds a surveyor’s telescope in one hand.  Like a beast of burden, Clark is loaded down with a backpack.  To help him negotiate his way amid the rocks and shrubs, he relies on a large stick, his walking staff.

 

CLARK: At first, I didn’t understand why we traveled all this way with forty others, only to leave them behind just before reaching our goal.  Then I realized.  You wanted all the others to remain back at camp so we could have a private, special moment viewing the ocean.  Just the two of us.  Breathe in the glory, well done, jolly good effort, bon ami and all that pats-on-the-back stuff.  Right?

LEWIS: Something like that.

CLARK: We’re like heroic figures out of classic literature, Lewis.  You and I.  You are stoic, serious, quiet, introverted.  A true visionary on a mission for the ages.  And I your trusty, outgoing associate.  When you think about it, our relationship is symbiotic.  We back each other up.  Like the birds on the back of a hippo in the Great Africa.  You’re like, like Don Quixote de la Mancha.  And I am your loyal Sancho Panza, without a donkey or a paunch.  I’ll say one thing, all this trekking has been good for my health.  I’m fit as a fiddle.  Now, there’s an odd expression.  How fit can a fiddle ever be?  How do they measure a fiddle’s fitness for duty?  No matter.

(Beat)

CLARK: Yes, sir.  We complement each other.  I’m the outgoing, gregarious, good-natured one.  And you.  Well, you always seem to have a lot on your mind.  Like Don Quixote, you even wear the woeful countenance.  More so since we had to hole up for that long winter with the Mandans in North Dakota.  It was good luck for you and the others that I’m such a natural conversationalist.  I kept us all entertained through the long, cold, dark days and nights.  ‘Course it was unfortunate about Sargent Phillips, running out into the snow and shooting himself in the head like that.  But the winter takes its toll.  Especially in North Dakota.  The winter takes its toll.

(Beat)

CLARK: I hate to continue harping on this, Lewis, but I still think we should name our trip the “Clark and Lewis Expedition”.  After all, “C” does come before “L” in the alphabet and historians will need an easy way to catalogue our journey.  It just makes sense.  To do otherwise violates generations of good librarian cataloguing conventions.

LEWIS: Have you ever heard the expression “Silence is Golden”?

Long beat while Clark chews on Lewis’ comment.  Then…

CLARK: Ever wonder where expressions like “Silence is Golden” come from?  I mean, think of all the expressions we use.  Haste Makes Waste.  Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth.  As Proud as a Peacock.  A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush.  Every Cloud has a Silver Lining.  I believe that one refers to the bright aura around the perimeter of a thundercloud.  A Stitch in Time Saves Nine.  In other words, if your garment starts to fray, hem it now before it’s too late to repair the damage.

(Beat)

CLARK: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.  Every Dog has His Day.  Cats are included in several expressions.  A Cat has Nine Lives.  Curiosity Killed the Cat.  Hmmm.  If it was killed by curiosity but it has nine lives then what’s the big deal?  Unless, of course, it’s too curious and gets killed nine times.  I have a favorite cat expression.  Ask me.  Go ahead, ask me.  No, wait.  Guess.  Try and guess it.

LEWIS (mumbles): In One Ear and Out the Other.

CLARK: What’s that?  I didn’t catch it.

LEWIS: I give up.

CLARK: That’s okay.  You’d never guess it anyway.  My favorite cat expression is.  Are you ready?  IT IS A BOLD MOUSE THAT NESTLES IN A CAT’S EAR.  I love that one.  The image of that tiny critter curled up inside the unsuspecting feline’s head.

(Beat)

CLARK: Of course, it’s not just about the cat.  In fact, it’s more about the mouse, now that I think about it.

(Beat)

CLARK: Now, here’s an expression I’ve never quite understood.  Tell me if this isn’t a strange one.  “The Moon is Made of Green Cheese.” Oh, really now.  I mean, how do we know for sure?  How do we know it’s not made of a crumbly Cheshire.  Or a tasty, sharp Cheddar.  Or even your basic but classic Stilton.  For all we know it could be made of rock, not green cheese.  Personally, I’ve never tasted green cheese, except but once, at the Snout n’ Gout Inn, the one by the Potomac, and I was sick for a week.   So, someone out there, some “authority”, thinks the moon consists of rotten cheese and the rest of the world quotes him as if he knows what he’s talking about?  I’m sorry but I just don’t see it.  And how come people repeat that expression over other expressions?  We could come up with better ones on our own.  I’m convinced of it.  Out here in the middle of nowhere.

(Beat)

CLARK: Say, there’s a thought.  Why not?  We can add ’em to our journal.  Come on.  What do you say, Lewis?  Let’s create our own aphorisms.  I’ll start.  Let’s see.  Something allegorical.  Something with an animal in it.  Maybe one of those prairie dogs we saw in Kansas.  I have it.  Here you go: A Prairie Dog Crossing Water is Wetter than a Cat in Church.  (Beat)

CLARK: How’s that?

(Beat)

Lewis stops walking and holds up his hand, as if to tell Clark to stop.  

Lewis walks slowly to the edge of the cliff (stage).  

He bends down and grabs a rock.  He lets the rock drop and watches it fall.  Lewis turns, looks at the audience and smiles for the first time.

CLARK: Well.  Yes.  The important thing is to just get the basic sentiment down.  I wanted a cat in there somewhere because they’re very popular across most cultures.  A prairie dog crossing–is “fording” better than “crossing”?  Let’s not dwell on the details.  We can review our aphorisms later and tighten them up before publishing.

Clark sits and makes a note in his journal.

CLARK: Prairie dog.  Cat.  Okay.  That’s one.  Your turn.

LEWIS: Ah, we’re here.

CLARK: I must say, Lewis.  I’m disappointed.  That’s not a very creative expression.  “Ah, we’re here.” Is that really the best you can do?

LEWIS: I mean to say we have arrived at the cliff.  We are here.  We have reached the ocean, the end of our journey.

CLARK: The end.

LEWIS: Yes.  The end.  Please join me over here on the cliff and experience the sweeping view.

Clark removes his knapsack and runs up to the cliff.  

CLARK: The Ocean!!!

Clark leans on his walking stick and scans the horizon.  For the first time, he is speechless.

Lewis walks back from the cliff.  Then, he extends his telescope out from his chest, like a bayonet, and takes a run for Clark’s back.  Clark turns suddenly and swings his walking stick, accidently knocking Lewis off the cliff (stage).

CLARK: Look.  A whale!

LEWIS: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Clark stares in disbelief for a couple of beats at the fallen Lewis, then turns to grab his knapsack.

CLARK: Well, that settles it.  We’re calling it the “Clark Expedition.”

He starts to walk away, seemingly dejected then brightens suddenly, as he is struck by a thought.

CLARK: Hey, I have my second expression: A Stick in Thine Saves Mine.

He takes out his journal and makes a note.  Lights down.  

(END OF PLAY)

 

Three Cheers for Lewis & Clark, Part 1

Several years ago, I wrote three short plays, aka comedy sketches, that were performed by a comedy troupe in Astoria, Oregon, in celebration of the achievements of Lewis & Clark. My talented playwright friend, John Donnelly, also had plays performed during the festival. I wrote three pieces, one set before the great Lewis & Clark expedition, another during, and a third one set long after they had returned. In honor of Presidents’ Day, I will be posting my short sketches in my blog. “Minor Adjustments” is the first of the three sketches.

 

Three Cheers for Lewis & Clark

Three Comic Vignettes Celebrating What Might Have Happened Before, During, and After The Great Expedition 

SKIT 1: MINOR ADJUSTMENTS

SETTING: A government office in Washington D.C..  A desk with a comfortable chair.  In front of the desk are two comfortable, upholstered arm chairs.

TIME: Daytime, circa 1803.

AT RISE: BUREAUCRAT sits behind his desk, reviewing paperwork.  He shakes his head, makes notes in a ledger.  Shakes his head again.  There’s a KNOCK on the door.

 

BUREAUCRAT: Yes?

MRS. SNYDER, his executive secretary, steps in.

MRS. SNYDER: They’re here.

BUREAUCRAT: Very well.  Send them in.

MERIWETHER LEWIS and WILLIAM CLARK, dressed in their explorer outfits, complete with “Davey Crockett” coonskin hats, strut in. 

Bureaucrat stands, smiles broadly, walks out from behind his desk and greets the two men.

BUREAUCRAT: What a great honor it is to meet you both at last.  Please sit.

Lewis and Clark nod, then sit.  Bureaucrat returns to his chair behind the desk. 

NOTE: Throughout the exchanges, Lewis and Clark take turns standing or pacing.  The official sits erect in his chair, unmoved by their comments.

BUREAUCRAT: I have just returned from a joint session of Congress and on behalf of all members, both in the Senate and the House, I wish to congratulate you on your upcoming scientific exploration.

LEWIS: We are humbled in the service of our president and our country.

CLARK: What’s best for America will remain upmost in our minds throughout this adventure whose outcome only God can know.  I assure you, we shall neither cross a single river nor climb a sole mountain without first thinking of our new country and those who have so graciously given so much toward the success of our mission.

LEWIS (Bows to his friend): Well said, Captain Clark.

CLARK (Bows to his friend): Thank you, Captain Lewis.

BUREAUCRAT: I am very glad to hear those words.  Very glad.  That’s the kind of Can Do spirit that forged our great nation.  I especially like your words about what’s “best for America.” And would hope you would keep those words in mind when you listen to what I am about to say.

Lewis and Clark sit.

LEWIS: Am I to assume you have bad news?

BUREAUCRAT: Let’s just say I have both good news and bad news.  It’s about your budget.

LEWIS: I was under the impression the budget had been approved.  We stopped by today to merely tie-up loose ends, sign some paperwork and pick up the requisition for our supplies.  We start for the Pacific at dawn tomorrow.

BUREAUCRAT: There’s been a slight hitch.

LEWIS: Slight —

CLARK: — Hitch?

BUREAUCRAT: You are correct, Captain Lewis.  The preliminary budget had been approved.  But the final budget is what we must live by and that budget must ultimately be approved by both chambers.  Changes were made, as Congress is wont to do.  I assure you, these are minor changes, adjustments mostly.

CLARK: Mostly —

LEWIS: — Adjustments?

BUREAUCRAT: Compromises were reached.  It is, after all, what politicians do best.

LEWIS/CLARK (in unison): Compromises?

BUREAUCRAT: As you might already know, the Louisiana Purchase, although quite possibly a wise investment, was not an approved budget item.

LEWIS: We bought it for four cents an acre!

BUREAUCRAT: Yes.  To the non-accountant that might seem like a sound financial investment, and it probably is over the long run.  However, that’s still four cents an acre that we had not budgeted.  Factor in the more than eight hundred thousand acres purchased, do the math, and you’re looking at a cost of fifteen million dollars.  I think you can appreciate our situation.

LEWIS: Situation?  What situation?

BUREAUCRAT: Yes.  Well.  Again, there’s good news and bad news and I’d like to review a few line items in your proposed budget, if you will indulge me.  I think once we do that, you’ll have a better appreciation for the situation.

LEWIS: We can defend every nickel in our proposal.  Every nickel.

BUREAUCRAT: I am glad to hear you say that because a nickel is a good starting point.  You see, your per diem has been re-established at a nickel a day.

LEWIS: There must be some confusion.  I was told it was to be a dollar a day.

BUREAUCRAT: Congress felt a reduction in your per diem could be made without jeopardizing the overall success of your mission.

CLARK: A nickel a day for each man, then?

BUREAUCRAT: Sorry, I wasn’t exactly clear.  It’s a nickel for the lot of you.

Both Lewis and Clark stand.

CLARK: Outrageous!

BUREAUCRAT: Congress feels that since you will be dining out, so to speak, most of the time, living off the fat of the land, so to speak, that a nickel would suffice.

LEWIS: Split thirty ways?!?

BUREAUCRAT: I’m glad you mention the number thirty because it leads me to our next topic.  Since staffing is typically our largest single expense, we thought it best to make our major changes there.  We think your original request exceeded reasonable expectations even under the best of circumstances.  Instead, we’d like you to limit it to five.

LEWIS: Five?

CLARK: Excluding the two of us, of course.

BUREAUCRAT: Including you both.  But that still gives you enough for a good game of mumblety-peg around the campfire, eh?

LEWIS: And our request for watercraft?

BUREAUCRAT: The president donated his summer raft.

CLARK: Our horses?

BUREAUCRAT: Denied.

LEWIS: Mules?

BUREAUCRAT: Sorry.  But we are issuing you a new mobile contraption that the President is particularly excited about.  I believe it is called a “buy-cycle.”

LEWIS: What about our provisions?  Surely our basic provisions were approved?

BUREAUCRAT: Good news and bad news there too, I’m afraid.

LEWIS: The bad news?

BUREAUCRAT: You will not be provided with provisions, as such.  It is felt that since you will be living off the land, which, as the honorable Senate Majority Leader reminds us, “builds character,” you will not need to burden yourselves with provisions.  It is felt that by not carrying provisions you would be more efficient and could cut as much as three days off your journey.

CLARK: No provisions?  What’s the good news?

BUREAUCRAT: Congress agreed to double your allotment of dogs.  As sort of a contingency back up.

CLARK: Back up?

BUREAUCRAT: I’ve been told in some cultures they’re quite the delicacy.

LEWIS: No provisions.  No watercraft.  No horses.  But the expedition is still on?

BUREAUCRAT: Yes.  By all means. Of course. But with one other additional, albeit minor, adjustment?

LEWIS: Minor —

CLARK: — Adjustment?

BUREAUCRAT: Instead of traveling west, Congress would like you to explore the mollusks along Chesapeake Bay.

LEWIS: Mollusks!?!

CLARK: Mollusks are soft-bodied invertebrate, such as clams, snails, and sea slugs.

LEWIS: I perfectly well know what a mollusk is, Captain Clark, thank you just the same.  My confusion rises at the very concept.

BUREAUCRAT: What with all the other adjustments Congress requested, it was considered only fair to lower the Country’s expectations of what you could reasonably accomplish.

LEWIS: Am I to understand that our great mission to discover an overland route to the Pacific ocean and, along the way, to record all manner of species, fauna and flora, has been reduced to a clam dig along the coast of Maryland!?!

BUREAUCRAT: In a word, yes.

Lewis and Clark pace, throwing their fists in the air as they walk.

LEWIS: This is outrageous.

CLARK: Preposterous.

LEWIS: Disgusting.

CLARK: Demeaning.

LEWIS: Humiliating.

CLARK: Unpatriotic.

LEWIS/CLARK (in unison): Treasonous!

BUREAUCRAT: Please sit.  Both of you.

Lewis and Clark sit, as told, but continue to fidget.

BUREAUCRAT: Simply put, there’s not enough money in the budget for your excursion, as originally planned and noble that it might be.

Pause. The words sink in.

LEWIS: If it is strictly a financial matter, as you say, then if we can somehow find the money, will we be permitted to carry out the expedition as planned?

BUREAUCRAT: I’m glad you brought that up.  There’s good news —

LEWIS: — And bad.  We know, we know.  What’s the bad news?  (Turns to Clark) It can’t get any worse.

Bureaucrat rings a bell on his desk. Mrs. Snyder enters.

MRS. SNYDER: Yes, sir?

BUREAUCRAT: Please bring in the package.

Mrs. Snyder leaves, then returns almost immediately with a box.  She walks over to the explorers and sets down the box. 

BUREAUCRAT: The bad news is, the expedition, although still on and slightly modified, has been postponed.  You will not be leaving at dawn tomorrow.

CLARK: The good news?

While her boss talks, Mrs. Snyder opens the box and withdraws two baker’s aprons and two floppy baker’s hats. 

BUREAUCRAT: Well, the good news is — first, will you gentlemen be so kind as to stand, please?

Lewis and Clark stand but their eyes remain focused on the Bureaucrat. 

Mrs. Snyder removes their hats.  She puts the apron and baker’s hats on them. 

BUREAUCRAT: Thank you.  The good news is, Congress has agreed to change its mind and help fund the original mission to the Pacific providing the Administration is able to raise at least half of the funds separately.  Put another way, Congress will match whatever funds are raised.  President Jefferson has personally given his support to the effort and will assist in any way possible.  (Beat) There’s one more bit of news, I’m afraid.

LEWIS: More bad news?

BUREAUCRAT: It could be good news.

LEWIS/CLARK (In unison): Yes?

BUREAUCRAT: You’re holding a bake sale tomorrow on the Capitol steps to help raise the necessary funds.  Mrs. Snyder will escort you to the White House kitchen.  Good day, Gentlemen.

Mrs. Snyder leads the stunned explorers off stage, now dressed in their baker’s outfits.

Bureaucrat walks over to the chairs and picks up one of the explorer’s hats.  He puts it on. 

BUREAUCRAT: Explorers.  Ya gotta love ‘em.

(END OF PLAY)

A Short, Silly Valentine’s Day Play

 

BE MY GHOUL

A struggling ad agency pitches an unusual pro bono account.

 

CHARACTERS:

OLIVER – 30-something male, high-energy and confident

ALLEGRA – 30-something female, a bit shy and conservative

ROMERO – An “ageless” well-dressed zombie in a suit who shuffles when he walks

SETTING: Contemporary small ad agency board room.

TIME: Present day, afternoon

AT RISE: Oliver and Allegra scurry about, setting up the conference room table for their next meeting.

OLIVER: How do I look?

ALLEGRA: Killer, as always.  You’ll knock ‘em dead.

OLIVER: Not sure that’s necessary with this client.  Or even possible.

ALLEGRA: You’re so talented.

OLIVER: Why should that stop us?

ALLEGRA: What?

OLIVER: You know what.  The money.  Do I have to ask again?

ALLEGRA: I won’t start off in debt.  Financial problems are the leading cause of failed marriages.  I’ve seen the stats.

OLIVER: Statistics have nothing to do with the heart.

ALLEGRA: The heart has nothing to do with paying the bills.  Let me put it this way, if we don’t land this account, we’re goners.

OLIVER: As in dead meat?

ALLEGRA: The deadest. … Don’t worry. He’ll love the campaign.

OLIVER: My dear, I hope so. You inspired the campaign.

ALLEGRA: You did such a great job with the nail biters group.

OLIVER: I did, didn’t I?

ALLEGRA: Getting Nine Inch Nails to perform at the closing ceremony was brilliant.

OLIVER: Didn’t do so well with the Hemlock Society.

ALLEGRA: What do you mean?  Reusable membership cards is saving them thousands of dollars each year.  And those Hemlock action toys for seniors you placed in the fast food hamburger chain boxes?  Big hit.  Huge.

OLIVER: Perhaps.  But organizing their Christmas Party was a disaster.

ALLEGRA: Guests should have known better than to drink from the punch bowl.  I mean it was the Hemlock Society.  Hello!

OLIVER: Allegra?

ALLEGRA: Yes?

OLIVER: Would you help me with the pitch?

ALLEGRA: You know better, Oliver. You’re the creative genius around here.  I’m just the bean counter.  I answer the phone, order supplies, do the books.  You do all the magic.

OLIVER: It’s the kind of pitch that would work better with a partner.  You wouldn’t have to say much, just read a slogan or two from the comp boards.  Besides, he’s not a very talkative client.  He mumbles and groans a lot and feels a little insecure because of it, I suspect.  Nice man, though, with a great sense of humor.  They have a huge budget for the campaign and the deep pockets to back it up.  This could be the break we’re looking for.

ALLEGRA: Who is it again?

OLIVER: Mr. Romero.  He’s the publicity director for ZONA, Zombies of North America.  They’re trying to upgrade their image.

ALLEGRA: And I inspired this campaign?  I don’t know whether to be proud or to run for the door.

Several clumsy KNOCKS on the door.

OLIVER: He’s here.  Please let him in.

Allegra opens the door and is startled by what she sees: a Zombie in a suit.  He enters stiff and zombie-like, because that’s what he is.

ALLEGRA: Oh!  [beat]  Welcome.  Please come in.

ROMERO: (Mumbles a greeting)

Romero leans in to kiss her on both cheeks.  She’s appalled. 

OLIVER: Welcome, Mr. Romero.  I trust you had an enjoyable flight?

ROMERO: (Mumbles a response)

OLIVER: I share your pain.  The TSA lines can take forever.

Oliver shakes Romero’s right hand and the zombie’s arm falls off.  It drops to the floor.

ROMERO: (Groans)

Allegra gasps.  Oliver picks up the arm and hands it back to his client.

OLIVER: So very sorry.

ROMERO: (Moans)

OLIVER: Yes, I imagine it does happen all the time.  But we all have our little embarrassments, don’t we?  Sometimes I whistle when I talk.  Don’t mean to.  Never could as a kid.

ALLEGRA: I always spill food on my blouse.

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: No.  The campaign’s not going to cost you an arm and a leg.  Good one, though.

ALLEGRA: Could I get you something to drink, mineral water perhaps?  Coffee?

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: I hear you, staying awake is not your problem.  The last thing you need is caffeine.  I’ll get right to the point.

Romero sits, puts his detached arm in front of him.  Oliver stands next to the flip chart, ready to turn the first page.

OLIVER (CONT’D): Our market research indicates that most people associate zombies with Latin America, especially Haiti, and not the United States.  I can imagine your organization is tired of living in the shadow of your cousins to the south.

ROMERO: (Moans)

OLIVER: We have found that one of the best ways to improve a group’s image is to tie the group to a holiday.  Mothers have Mother’s Day.  Fathers Father’s Day.  There’s Veteran’s Day.  Boss’ Day.  Labor Day.

ALLEGRA: Groundhog Day.

OLIVE: Guy Fawkes Day.

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: I’m not sure who he was but he has a whole day to himself. He’s listed on our events calendar.

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: Well, no.  I’m not proposing a Zombie’s Day per se.  I suspect that would be a little too ambitious at this point.  Instead, I’m proposing –

Romero raises his one good arm.

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: Yes.  I know your group is normally associated with Halloween but that’s one day a year and there’s so much competition, what with monsters, witches, animal masks, masks of former presidents.  It’s hard for you and your fellow zombies to get the attention — and respect, I might add — you all deserve.  The Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, for example, lasts for two-three days.  That’s why I’m proposing we think out of the box.

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: No pun intended, sir.  Out of the box is, yes, well, what I recommend is that your organization actively promote zombies during …

Finally, Oliver lifts the first sheet off the flip chart to reveal the words: Valentine’s Day.

OLIVER (CONT’D): Valentine’s Day.

Romero grabs his severed arm and stands.  He’s heard enough.  Allegra jumps in.

ALLEGRA: Picture it, sir.  It’s that time of year again.  Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.  What better time –

OLIVER: What better time to crawl out of the grave and celebrate with that significant other?

ALLEGRA: And now you can.  With… with …

Allegra flips the next page and it has the word “Zombieseez” on it.  She stares at it for a moment.

ALLEGRA (CONT’D): … with Zombieseez. [pause]  Oliver?

OLIVER: Zombieseez.  The love candy created by Zombies for Zombies.  Just for you and what’s left of yours on that special Night of the Living Dead.

Romero sits.

ALLEGRA: Remember, anyone can give decaying flowers –

OLIVER: — But it takes a special someone to give rotten candy.  Zombieseez.  When you care enough to say, “Because you’re dead and I’m grateful.” Now with sixteen decomposing colors!

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: Yes, we took into account the special dental problems of your membership.  I assure you, these candies, unlike the typical hard Valentine’s Day message candies, will be soft and chewy, almost fleshy in texture.

Oliver and Allegra are on a roll.  When one flips, the other reads.  On each page is a different saying for a piece of candy, similar to Valentine’s Day heart-shaped message candy. 

OLIVER (CONT’D): Be My Corpse!

Oliver flips another sheet.  Allegra reads.

ALLEGRA: You Look Like Death Warmed Over.

Allegra flips, Oliver reads.

OLIVER: You Make My Skin Fall Off.

Oliver flips, Allegra reads.

ALLEGRA: Let’s Go Gnaw On Someone.

Allegra flips, Oliver reads.

OLIVER: I’ll Be Your Ghoul Fool.

Oliver flips, Allegra reads.

ALLEGRA: Let’s Share Some Worms.

Allegra flips, Oliver reads.

OLIVER: Be My Mummy.

Oliver flips, Allegra reads.

ALLEGRA: Zombies Rule The Night.

Allegra flips.  They read it together.

OLIVER/ALLEGRA: Your teeth are rotten. Your eyes are missing. Your limbs are forgotten. Let’s do some kissing.

Oliver and Allegra embrace and kiss.  They knock over the chart. 

ROMERO: (Coughs)

OLIVER: My apologies, Mr. Romero.  But do you understand where we’re going with this, sir?  The campaign?  Love conquers all.  Love and Death.  It’s as simple as that.  Love.

ROMERO: (Grunts and nods in approval)

OLIVER: It’s nothing less than Romeo and Juliet.

Romero stands, walks over to Oliver. 

ROMERO: (Mumbles)

OLIVER: I’m very pleased to hear that, sir.

Oliver extends his hand to Romero’s as if to shake on it.  Romero shakes his head No and holds up his severed arm as a reminder.

OLIVER (CONT’D): Of course.  How silly of me.  It’s a deal then?

Romero nods Yes and shuffles off.  Oliver opens and closes the door for him and returns to the room. He’s expressionless. Beat.

ALLEGRA: Oliver?

OLIVER: What a team!  We got the account!

They kiss, then separate.

ALLEGRA: If love can conquer everything, even death, it can surely conquer our financial problems.

OLIVER: It’s just money.

ALLEGRA: And not much of it at that.  Now it’s my turn to ask.  Will you marry me?

OLIVER: You mean be together forever?

ALLEGRA: For better or for worse.

OLIVER:  In sickness and in health.

ALLEGRA: Till death do us part.

OLIVER: We’ll stay together even after death.

ALLEGRA: Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  I’ll be your ghoul.

ROMERO: (O.S. Groans)

OLIVER: And I’ll be yours.

Lights down.

(End of Play)

PEN International Talk – 12

Ideas are everywhere. They’re free. And they’re often funny.

The task of a humorist is to make you see and laugh. But the truth is: there is no bibbidi-bobbidi-boo to writing humor, no secret handshake, decoder ring or chemical formula that works every time.

I was walking in downtown Portland, Oregon, on my way to meet a friend for lunch. Two men approached me from the other direction. It’s as if I had called central casting and asked them to send me two twenty-something males, very Portlandish, Mutt and Jeff-types (but not too Mutty or too Jeffy), both should be wearing ragged jeans and backpacks, leather vests and no shirts.  Chest hair optional. Because it’s Portland, both must have several piercings and tats, and they should be heavy smokers. As we passed each other, I overheard the short one, dramatically waving his cigarette in the air for emphasis, tell his tall friend: “That’s when I had my run-in with the Amish.”

I consider myself fortunate to be a writer. Unlike a mason, who must rely on bricks, or a carpenter, who can’t work without lumber, or even a chef who needs a storeroom full of meats, starches, and greens, I never run out of the raw material I need to tell stories. Someday I might even get lucky and have my own run-in with the Amish.

I’d like to close with my favorite quote about the power of creativity. It’s from a child’s letter to Dr. Seuss. In the letter, the child simply wrote: “Dr. Seuss, you have an imagination with a long tail.”

May your imagination be long, wide, and deep. Thank you and good night.

PEN International Talk – 11

Final Observation: Where do humorists get their ideas?

Everywhere.

I wrote “The Job Fairy” after the company I worked for had suffered six layoffs in 13 months. The first one or two layoffs targeted low-performing employees or high-maintenance ones. However, beyond that it was difficult to figure out why the company kept certain employees and let others go. I concluded there must be a job fairy, a creature similar to a tooth fairy that made such decisions for senior management in the wee hours of the night. It made as much sense as their other management decisions.

I wrote “O. Henry’s Shoe” in response to a request for plays that either begin or end with a shoe.  “Oedipus and Hamlet Walk into a Bar” was the title I used for a workshop I gave on humor. I liked the title and wanted to reuse it. Once I realized both tragic male figures had mommy issues, I had my theme for a play about two rednecks, Ed and Ham, sipping on bottles of long-necks in a bar, while arguing about the ethics of dating older women.

I was interviewing a candidate for a job. When I walked into the conference room, along with two much younger co-workers, the job applicant looked at me and said, “Boy, am I glad to see you.” I asked why? He said, “You’re as old as I am.” That was the thread that led me to write “Half Alligator, Half Man,” which is about how one man responds to ageism in the workplace.

I was at a writers’ retreat on the Oregon coast with four other writers. At night, one of the playwrights read aloud to the group from Game Change, the book about the 2008 presidential campaign. She read the part where John McCain’s senior advisor asked a woefully unprepared Sarah Palin if she was worried about the campaign ahead. She told him she wasn’t worried because it was God’s will. I thought, hmm. Why not get rid of the middle man. The next day I started writing my short play “The Running Mate,” which is about what happens when a major political party’s candidate for the presidency picks the Supreme Being for the #2 spot on their ticket.

Vincent Van Gogh wrote letters to his brother, Theo. The letters were collected and edited and published by author Irving Stone, under the title of “Dear Theo.” Woody Allen used those letters and that book as an idea for his very funny parody “If the Impressionists had been Dentists.”

New Yorker writer Ian Frazier, author of several books, including Great Plains, On the Rez, and Travels in Siberia, wrote one of my all-time favorite parodies. It’s titled “Coyote v. Acme,” and it is the opening statement in a product liability lawsuit brought by Wile E. Coyote against Acme Corporation. No creature, real or imagined, in history ever had a stronger product liability case to pursue than the much aggrieved Mr. Coyote. Where did Frazier get his idea for this hilarious parody? By watching Saturday morning cartoons.

Here’s an excerpt from The Philadelphia, a play by David Ives, followed by what Ives said about its inspiration. There are two main characters, Mark and Al, along with a Waitress, and the action takes place in a New York City diner:

MARK: What is it? What’s happening to me?

AL: Don’t panic. You’re in a Philadelphia.

MARK: I’m in a what?

AL: You’re in a Philadelphia. That’s all.

MARK: But I’m in—

AL: Yes, physically you’re in New York. But metaphysically you’re in a Philadelphia.

MARK: I’ve never heard of this!

AL: You see, inside of what we know as reality there are these pockets, these black holes called Philadelphias. If you fall into one, you run up against exactly the kinda shit that’s been happening to you all day.

MARK: Why?

AL: Because in a Philadelphia, no matter what you ask for, you can’t get it. You ask for something, they’re not gonna have it. You want to do something, it ain’t gonna get done. You want to go somewhere, you can’t get there from here.

MARK: Good God. So this is very serious.

AL: Just remember, Marcus. This is a condition named for the town that invented the cheese steak. Something that nobody in his right mind would willingly ask for.

And here’s what David Ives said about his play:

“The Philadelphia was my affectionate revenge on the City of Brotherly Love after I’d spent many miserable months there… such as the morning when I tried to get a cheese omelette for breakfast:

Ives: I’ll have a cheese omelette, please.

Waitress: Sure, what kinda cheese you want?

Ives: What kind do you have?

Waitress: Any kinda cheese. You name it.

Ives: Okay. I’ll have Swiss.

Waitress: Sorry. We don’t have any Swiss.

Ives: Oh. Cheddar, then.

Waitress: No cheddar.

Ives: Monterey Jack?

Waitress: Just ran out.

Ives: Jarlsberg …?

Waitress: What’s that?”

PEN International Talk – 10

  1. Humorists enjoy making connections that might escape the notice of other people

Here’s Bill Bryson commenting on a common dining utensil in his Notes from a Small Island:

“… I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?”

The first sentence tips us off. But it’s the setup that works here, as well as the final description of “a pair of knitting needles” as a callback to chopsticks.

In a New Yorker cartoon, the setting is a sparse room where a bearded adult male in a hat stands at a table and makes furniture. A young boy watches. Chairs hang from a nearby wall. In the caption, the furniture maker says to the young boy: “No, lad, we aren’t movers. We’re just Shakers.”

In another New Yorker cartoon, a nervous job seeker sits across the desk from a hiring manager. It’s clear from the drawing the manager had just made a phone call. As he sets the phone down, he tells the job seeker in the caption: “Your references asked me to hold you here until the police arrive.”

Cartoonists, especially, like to twist clichés. For instance, in a drawing by Brian Savage, a man crawls in the desert under a hot sun. His clothes are in tatters, his face and body sunburned. He looks up and sees four people sitting at a table starring at him. They’re all dressed for hot weather and wear wide, shade-providing hats. One person smokes a pipe, another wears sunglasses. In the caption, the crawling man says, “Thank God. A panel of experts.” In a cartoon by B. Kliban, the setting is a highway flanked by smokestacks and ugly buildings. We see the back of a man in a tuxedo running down the highway. The caption? “Houdini escaping from New Jersey.”

Kliban made one of my favorite statements about cartoonists. He said,

“But the technologists have got their toys and they’re going to play with them.  Like, if cartoonists had all that money we sure as hell would use it.  There would be weird cartoon sculptures five hundred feet high, and free rubber chickens, regardless of a person’s religious belief.”

Then there’s this gem of association from comedian Warren Hutcherson:

In elementary school, in case of fire you have to line up quietly in a single file line from smallest to tallest. What is the logic? Do tall people burn slower?

And, finally, this food-related comment from David Sedaris:

“What’s the trick to remembering that a sandwich is masculine? What qualities does it share with anyone in possession of a penis? I tell myself that a sandwich is masculine because if left alone for a week or two, it will eventually grow a beard.”

This is what humorists do best: they make wild yet seemingly logical connections. Who knew a sandwich had gender? David Sedaris, that’s who.

PEN International Talk – 9

  1. Humorists have fun with language

Whether naming characters or naming their works, humorists delight in playing with words. From P. G. Wodehouse:

As for Gussie Fink-Nottle, many an experienced undertaker would have been deceived by his appearance and started embalming on sight.

Charles Dickens was a master at naming characters: Anne Chickenstalker, Luke Honeythunder, Charity Pecksniff, Wackford Squeers, and Prince Turveydrop, to cite a small sample.

Humor writers often pick funny titles for their works, to set the proper tone. Three examples: If You Can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?!; My Ten Years in a Quandary and How They Grew; No Sex Please, We’re British.

David Ives created his own language in his whimsical play “The Universal Language,” in which a student shows up at the School of Unamunda to learn the next universal language, which, of course is named Unamunda (e.g., in the made-up language of Unamunda, “Velcro” means “Welcome”; “Harvardyu” means “How are you?”; the word for “English” is “Johncleese”; “How do you say” becomes “Howardjohnson” and so on).

I had fun with my chapter titles in Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak, including titles such as “How are Things in Doctor Mora?” and “Yes, We Have No Chihuahuas.” I named a chapter about the art scene in San Miguel, ahem, “Frida’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Paint.” So far my favorite chapter title in the sequel is a chapter about the dogs of San Miguel. I titled it “A Dingo Ate My Baby Ruth.”

I recall a magazine cartoon from many years ago. A standing hot dog with arms, legs, and a face is stranded on a patch of dirt with one coconut tree in the middle of an ocean. A bottle has just washed ashore with a message inside. In the caption, the hot dog reads the message, which says “Congratulations. You may already be a weiner.”

It is estimated that Shakespeare used over 3,000 puns in his plays.

PEN International Talk – 8

  1. Humorists know the best humor is character-driven

Bertie Wooster is pretending that he and Jeeves are chums (for the Communists at his table) – NOT master and servant. Bertie tries to get the kettle boiled for tea.

Bertie: “I don’t know what you’ve been doing to the cooker, Comrade Jeeves, but I don’t seem to be able to get the gas lit.”

Jeeves gets up and whispers to Bertie as he slinks by: “It’s electric, Sir.”

Plus, the funniest characters don’t realize they’re being funny. They are dead serious about what they do or say. Roy Blount Jr., again, talking about Charles Portis:

“His fiction is the funniest I know, but the last thing in the world his characters have in mind is putting themselves across as comical. They are taking on the world in earnest. … Lesser comic writers drag their characters onstage and shout, ‘Get a load of this guy!’ Portis’s characters just show up.”