Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?
December 02, 2006
Why Gracie Allen is so funny

Here’s a transcript of a radio comedy routine (from, I think, February 10, 1949) that I find quite amusing.

Burns: Why did you turn off the radio, Gracie?

Gracie: Sam Spade got the wrong man tonight.

Burns: What?

Gracie: I'm positive that Jenkins the butler wasn't guilty. An innocent man's gonna get the hot plate.

Burns: Hot seat. And don't worry. He'll only get it on the radio.

Gracie: Well, who cares where they put it? When he sits down it will burn. Oh, I've got to talk to Sam Spade right away.

Burns: Honey, Sam Spade is not a real detective.

Gracie: I'll say he isn't. Any man who'd make an innocent butler sit on a hotplate...

George: Gracie. He'll get a hot seat.

Gracie: He sure will after he sits on a hot plate.

George: Look, here's what I mean. On his program, Sam Spade is a private detective. But in real life he's just an ordinary guy. Just like on your program you're a nitwit, but in real life....

[Long pause. Laughter]

That won't work. Anyway, Gracie, what you just heard was only a radio program.

Gracie: I know that. The real crime happened last week. Every Sunday night Sam Spade broadcasts his most thrilling case of the week.

George: You still don't understand. Sam Spade is just a character.

Gracie: I'll say he's a character. Making that poor innocent butler sit on a hotplate.

George: Hot seat! Let me try to explain this once more. Sam Spade isn't even the fellow's real name. He's the brainchild of Dashiell Hammett.

Gracie: Oh, oh, you mean his real name is Sam Hammett?

George: No. His real name is Howard Duff.

Gracie: Then why isn't his father's name Dashiell Duff?

George: Look, Sam Spade doesn't have any actual father or mother. He came from Dashiell Hammett's typewriter.

Gracie: Oh, George, you're so innocent. You know, I'll bet you believe that old story about coming from under cabbage leaves, too.

George: What's the use? OK, Sam Spade is a naughty detective and he's sending an innocent butler to the hot plate.

Gracie: Hot seat.

George: Good night, dear.

Gracie: Good night.

Why is this funny?

Gracie Allen, I half-assedly theorize at the moment, was able to convey a truth that we all know inside somewhere, about the limits of language. To listen to her is to be reminded of the endless ability of human beings to misunderstand each other. As creatures of (prisoners of?) language, we’re often stuck in talking directly past each other, whether we want to do it or not. We do it in ever new, creative ways, despite ourselves.

Burns and Allen’s routines show that, in avoiding such pitfalls, the parties’ respective benign intentions or generally kindly attitudes towards each other count for nothing. Gracie’s verbal sparring partner, after all, was her husband, an epitome of the sympathetic interlocutor. So their routines leave aside how the capacity of words to become horribly unmoored from what we think they mean can be intertwined with mirrored suspicion, fear and mistrust, and compounded, when attempted communication occurs across divides of culture, class, background, nationality, linguistic system, material interest, or in the midst of stressful, emotional or irrational circumstances, etc.

Burns & Allen’s comedy routines demonstrate every progressive stage of the dynamic of verbal mutual mistake. First, unrecognized ambiguity sneaks into the discourse. I like how Gracie’s wikipedia entry picks up on the way that her comic sense captured the ambiguity lurking like a hidden landmine in even the commonest verbal interaction: "If a word had multiple meanings, Gracie could be counted on to choose the wrong one every time" (e.g., what are the meanings of the words "character"? "real"? "came from"?).

When one of the two parties discovers the ambiguity, a backing away from a feared past or future misstatement causes an accidental stumble directly into another and worse one.

Repeated efforts to clarify meaning, by piling on more words, backfire and harden the parties' beliefs that their interpretation is the only possible, correct one. Or, as summarized in a line from the very nicely done George Burns-related Broadway show from a few years back, Gracie’s motto could have been, "When I misunderstand what you say, I always know what you’re talking about." The gap of misunderstanding widens. The disconnect takes on a life of its own.

Finally, it seems that the only way out, to preserve the peace or at least to limit the damage, becomes a mutual withdrawal into silence. A "good night." When you’re in a hole, stop digging. No more words. Almost Beckettian.