Thanksgiving Is Ruined
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?
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.