MODERN WISDOM: AMERICA’S ONLY HUMOR MAGAZINE
1. ARTICLES I PLAN TO SUBMIT
1) Papal boinking during the Renaissance.
2) Changing uses of the term “Pitiful helpless giant” since the 1970s
3) Swinburne’s feud with Emerson and the use of the term “autocoprophageous.”
4) Richard Wright and the use of the word “Naw” during the
early-20th-c. American South.
5) Resolved: The Black Death was neither black nor death-y.
6) The history of “abject opium addiction” in Southeast Asia.
7) Bordello ownership among public office holding-officials in early
8) The political origins of the devolution of the European “flaneur”
to “lounge lizard”
9) British imperial policy toward Indian snake charmers.
10) “We don’t sort books by their fucking color,” and other unexpressed
throughts of disgruntled bookstore clerks
2. HEY–WHAT ABOUT THAT CRAZY CELEBRITY?
If you’re like most people–and who isn’t?–then you’re probably just
like everybody else.
You think about celebrities 24 hours a day.
You wonder what makes them act this way, and perhaps you realize that
pondering this dilemma has given your own insignificant life added
I mean, I don’t want to beat this topic into the ground, but–they’re just nuts!
Not a day goes by that you don’t look at the front page of the paper
and see the following:
Remember that controversial musician?
Prosecutors declare the notorious musician will soon be investigated
“My lawyer has instructed me to not comment at this time” says the
musician to reporters.
And as for me–I. too, bask in the reflected glory of my own
controversial opinion regarding this matter–one that is identical to
millions of others.
In fact, it seems that everybody who makes the news for whatever
reason is, de facto if not de jure, a celebrity.
Because all too often, this is what you read in your typical
Remember that controversial sports figure/politician/criminal?
Fans/pundits/prosecutors say/think/declare the notorious sports
figure/politician/criminal will soon be investigated for
“My lawyer has instructed me to not comment at this time” says the
sports figure/politician/criminal to reporters.
What we really ought to be writing about is something like this:
Remember that controversial species?
The planet they called “earth’ was made an uninhabitable hellhole by
what one of their number deemed “the damned human race”.
After 16,000 years they have been replaced by a more clever race of
Or maybe even this:
STODGY BUT UNIVERSALLY UNDERSTOOD HEIROGLYPH ON ASTEROID
The Universe began collapsing yesterday.
In spite of its name, the Universe, also known as the “cosmos,” is
survived by other, more distant star systems.
The expanding universe was 13.73 Billion Years old.
3. HAPPYLAND: REJOICE, THOUGH GRIEVING
The worst, slummiest house I’ve ever been inside of belonged to a
family called the Alders. They lived on the aptly named Leech Street,
around the corner from 3 35th St in Pittsburgh, where me, my mother
and my Grandmother lived in what is still known as the Lawrenceville
Lawrenceville, abutting the Allegheny River and Herr’s Island,was a down-at-the-heels neighborhood formerly populated by steel-driving and dockworking Bohunks. By 1966 its population had become almost entirely Black below 35th Street (in the area formerly known as Croghansville), and almost entirely Polish above 35th Street. We lived at 3 35th Street. The Black folks across the street, recent transplants from the
South, listened to James Brown and partied on Saturday until hours wee
and recovered from their inevitable run-ins with the fuzz and from
their ensuing billy club breakfasts all day Sunday.
Meanwhile, on any given Saturday night, the Poles, with heads the size
and shape of jowly suitcases, would belly up to the bar, downing
whiskey-and-beer boilermakers, scarfing greasy fried fish sandwiches
that cost a quarter–yum yum eat ‘um up–and crying into their sleeves
because all the mill and riverdock jobs were drying up. On Sundays
they would either lay abed nursing their aching noggins and chasing
the previous nights debaucheries with a raw-egg-and-hot-sauce
katzenjammer remedy, or they would don their ill-fitting and
purpose-worn off-the-rack suits and drag their weary work-broken
carcasses to Church.
In Pittsburgh, then as now, other than the Church–and perhaps even
there–the only aesthetics were the aesthetics of Moloch.
The Alders were Old English stock, I assume, but gone very much to
seed. The Dad was a layabout drunk whose one modus vivendi seemed to
be angry hollering, and the mother was one of those prematurely
superannuated, overstressed neuropaths who don’t know how they’re ever
going to get through the day. Given this environment, it is small
wonder that, even at age 10, little Johnny Alder was beginning to go
as nutty as a shithouse rat.
Johnny Alder lived in unusual squalor–how could I ever forget his
house, with its awful mildewed living room sofa that reeked of sour
beer; the scratched and scarred dinner table; the filthy worn
carpeting stained a color beyond characterizing but best represented
by a deadly shade of green and gray?
He no doubt saw his brief life already scarred beyond any possible
future remedy; his past was a nightmare; his present, an ordeal; his
future, a joke, an interval to be filled, if at all, with acts of
heedless and headlong spite and despair. So the usual downward
trajectory was in firmly in place for him: gang membership, petty
theft, drug use, illicit sex. His sister, older than him by a year,
was very likely destined to be a high school dropout who went to work
as a washerwoman and married far too young.
The family’s every attempt at some sort of normal existence seemed to
be undercut by their dismal surroundings. They lived in a dreadful old
tumbledown shack, a shanty-style house behind which grew sinister
Catalpa trees, evil interlopers overhanging a gully. Every fall, these
trees gave forth poisonous cigar-shaped seedpods that never flowered.
“They’re Coming to Take Me Away (Ha Ha)” was the song that, in the
late summer of 1966, the neighborhood urchins would sing
when little Johnny Alder drew near, and started acting more crazy than
usual, probably because of his drunken Dad and his big sister had both
been teasing him about the fact that when he was two years old, he got
up on the Thanksgiving table and pissed all over the Turkey.
I well understood his feeling of wild and lonely desperation. My own
Mother was recently divorced, and drunk, it seemed, nearly all the
time, and she’d take me to bars with her where she’d hang out with her
drunken cronies and get into fist fights and the only contemporary
songs on the jukebox would be Herman and the Hermits’ “I’m Henry the
Eighth I Am,” an insipid and odious bit of music hall whimsey for
those who were too old to appreciate the Beatles, and “Winchester
Cathedral,” a novelty tune by the New Vaudeville Band, and the name
says it all.
The other songs would be blowsy big band standards and Sinatra and
Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin and local-boy-made-good Perry Como and
Dean Martin moaning about “Strangers in the Night” and the whole
atmosphere was grim and dank and smoky and the ambiance was of ill-lit
and ill-fated potential assignations.
It seemed as though the old folks in the mid-to-late sixties treated
sex, not like a sacrament or a pastime but like a sordid and dirty
business transaction. Unlike the nascent Hippies on the West Coast,
they weren’t looking for a secret land of bliss where they could carve
out some kind of modern-day Sleepy Hollow and enjoy the stolen fruits
of a sexual cornucopia; instead, they were seeking an unspeakable
fantasy–Shirley Temple’s face on Jayne Mansfield’s body. Was this how
the Alders met?
More than 40 years later, the Alder house is no longer there. The
ominous Catalpa trees are long gone; the gully has been filled in; it
is now a parking lot. What became of Johnny Alder I have never been
able to learn. But I am certain of one thing–like the ghost said to
dwell on Herr’s Island, which the gully once overlooked, the spectral
presence of the Alders still haunts terrible Leech Street.
Do their mortal remians now populate nearby Saint Mary’s Cemetary? I don’t know.
But I am sure of one thing. The Alders may have departed this life,
but they may never depart that neighborhood, at least, among those of
us who still remember them.
Life may be sad past saying,
Its greens for ever graying,
Its faiths to dust decaying;
And youth may have foreknown it,
And riper seasons shown it,
But custom cries: “Disown it:
“Say ye rejoice, though grieving,
Believe, while unbelieving,
Behold, without perceiving!”
4.YOUR VERY OWN PORTABLE CAVEMAN FOR PENNIES A DAY
This is not one of those essays in which I get all squishy over the
formerly quotidian antics of my (now-deceased) adorable kibble-hucking red-tick Beagle Fluke and his older pal, a superannuated Black-and-Tan Coonhound named Blue.
Sure, Blue’s delightful habit of jumping on my bed to slobber over his
rawhide treat is absolutely adorable, and Fluke’s amazing ability to
torrentially piss on just that spot on the carpet I am guaranteed to
walk over in my bare or stockinged feet is cunning, and the misdeeds
of that mischievous duo could very well be the subject of a mighty
swell short feuilleton which might very well make for boffo laffs
among big-stick whittlers and other yokels off in the far hinterlands.
But we sophisticated city dubs are far too savvy to wax sentimental
over our adorable pets, n’est–ces pas?
Well, actually, no.
But I am not a goony old coot given to committing the pathetic fallacy
in regards to my companion animals. They are neither my offspring nor
No, I keep these animals around me in spite of their maddeningly
persistent parasites and snappish behavior around foodstuffs for one
Owning a dog is an anthropological education. It’s like having your
own little caveman running around.
I note their caveman-like behavior more when thunder roars and
lightning flashes cross the heavens. Into the closet cowering goes the
otherwise fearless big dog, a brute who once nearly attempted to
excavate a significant chunk of gristle from the leg of a full-grown
woman when she imprudently attempted to extricate a paper bag
containing a stale doughnut from the iron jaws of that slavering cur.
I also note with the keen and coldblooded interest of a heartless
adherent of the scientific method the shrewdly anthropoidal instincts
of the little dog when the room is cold and the lights are low. Onto
the bed he hops, and arranges himself uncannily close to my backbone.
I have not yet attempted to discover whether they are afraid of fire,
or willing to trade shells and colorful glass beads among themselves
to procure goods. Nor am I entirely convinced that, left alone for a
sufficient period of time, they would proceed to erect a ziggarut to
Moloch or whatever god du jour happens to reign amongst the canine
But I am convinced that observing them is very much like peeping
through a window into the distant past. That’s why I keep them.
Plus, I just happen to like dogs.
“Non-conformity–it’s not for everybody. But then–it doesn’t try to be.”
But as for Conformity–Everybody knows that it’s God-given.
The ubiquity of commonality.
The apelike ritual urge to insist on regularity in all things.
Damn the defiant. Oddball out. The sport must be bitten; the queer,
smeared; the jabbering fluke, stymied.
We underestimate its power at our own peril.
6. STALIN, CINEASTE
In an interview with Theodore Van Houten, published in Van Houten’s
book on Trauberg, the veteran director asked his interlocutor:
‘But do you know what Stalin’s favourite film was?’
‘The Youth of Maxim ?’
‘No, no, it was a very famous film. A very good film. A very good
film, with Spencer Tracy ‘ Boys’ Town. Stalin saw it 25 times. There
is a sequence in the film where the boys are fighting. At that moment
Stalin would grab the arm of the person sitting next to him, he would
squeeze and say: ‘Look at that, look at that . . .’ The projectionist
told me personally.’
Boys’ Town was a 1938 Hollywood movie, directed by Norman Taurog and
admired for Spencer Tracy’s performance as a priest who rehabilitates
juvenile delinquents in a kind of camp, through what we might call
‘tough love’, but not a film that would normally be considered a
masterpiece. I imagine it must have suggested to Stalin that his own
camps and re-education programs could be seen in a sweetly
Stalin, like Hitler, was also a big fan of musicals
The world of standup comedy is a nation of Caligulas.
Comics, like boxers, are all a little crazy.
Writing stand-up is an awful lot like writing poetry, with the added
difficulty that it simply MUST be funny.
There are types and degrees of funny.
The fellow who likes Dane Cook probably wouldn’t understand S.J.
Perelman, and vice versa.
As for the merits of various pretenders to the stand-up throne: my
philosophy is simple:
Different strokes for different folks.
You simply cannot categorically declare that a person is “not funny”.
The mob mind imagines that it speaks for all minds.
The wise man knows that he speaks only for himself.
You can, however, say they are:
1) Way past their sell-by date
I think a lot of whether we find someone funny has to do with our
overall aesthetic preferences,
No one person can be an infallible judge of humor….
But I think Carlos Mencia’s brownface act is squirm-in-your-seat awful.
Joe Rogan claims it isn’t even his own act
Mencia is even stealing material from Bill Cosby
Now, comics have always been accused of stealing from each other.
And with good reason.
Because they always have.
Back in Vaudeville days, before radio, comics would “share” material.
One comic would use a set’s worth of material on the West Coast, and
another one would use it on the East Coast, and yet another one in the
Milton Berle was called “The Thief of Bad Gags.”
So many people stole Will Jordan’s Ed Sullivan impression that Ed
wouldn’t book him anymore. For his big comeback, Jordan came up with a
Hitler routine; Lenny Bruce is said to have stolen Will Jordan’s
Hitler bit. Then Mel Brooks turned around and stole it from Lenny. You
may remember it; it was called “The Producers”.
In 1984 the writer Mark Evanier (very well-versed in the California
entertainment scene) wrote a comic book story about an (unnamed) comic
whose entire act consisted of material stolen from other comics.
I have no doubt that Mencia steals material. Lots of comics do. But
most of them at least try to put their own twist on it. Seems like
Mencia just basically takes it outright. But that’s not why I dislike
it. It’s because his whole schtick seems fake and flat and forced.
What’s really odd is when two comics come up with the exact same bit
independent of one another. I know from personal experience that it
And the reason that it happens is that there are certain topics that
are just ripe for comedy, and it’s practically inevitable….
So it is remotely possible that Mencia came up with that Mexican wall
bit all by himself.
But after reviewing the evidence it’s pretty likely that no jury in
the land would fail to convict him….
So–who really is the funniest stand-up performer ever?
Debatable but defensible.
It’s a hard call.
If we assume that by stand-up comic you mean the post-WWII period,
then there are a great many contenders.
Shelley Berman, for one. Lenny Bruce, for another.
In any art form, there are the craftsmen and the innovators.
And Hicks was an innovator like Lenny Bruce, no doubt about it.
For my money, I’d have to go with Richard Pryor.
Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent is now living in Castro’s Cuba.
Sgt. Carter fled in the wake of a passion slaying and is living in
Mayberry under an assumed name, where he is ruthessly abused by Gomer
Banker Drysdale lives out his declining years working in a bait shop
near Venice, CA.
Jughead: Big league alcoholic who lives in a boarding house in one
filthy room with the floor covered with old newspapers.
Holden Caulfield: Held for observation at MCI Bridgewater since 1966.
Fuckface Connie: Has her own reality tv show.
The smooth, polished stone that as a child you so cruelly tore from
its Pleistocene creekside home now adorns the rock garden of a fascist
9. WHERE ARE THEY NOW? PART TWO
The Old Witch
At 152 years old, the beloved horror icon presides over “Tubby’s
Trough,” an all-you-can-eat emporium in Dalhart, Texas.
Gunned down in a filthy alley after a dope deal went south.
Conan the Barbarian:
Runs a website for transsexuals. Username: Onan the Barbarian.
Will be eligible for parole in 2017.
Runs a battered woman’s shelter far from Riverdale.Mickey Mouse:
Blows sailors for chump change on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.Horace Horsecollar:
Drinks for free at Vesuvio, telling wide-eyed tourists profane
personal gossip about Uncle Walt.
Now the Prosecuting Attorney of Franklin County and has never lost a case.
I unfortunately remember (albeit with great fondness) four Superman
comic book stories from my ghastly misspent youth in which the
narrator was a garrulous and rather whiny piece of kryptonite.
For more about this see:
I have, I confess, torn a leaf from the now-mildewed pulp pages
rendered by the the anonymous scriveners at DC Comics and have
composed my own version.
I am beer. I LOVE you, man.
I am wine. I’m not an alcoholic, I just like a glass of–IS THERE
SOMETHING WRONG WITH THAT?
I am whiskey. Who are YOU looking at? VOMIT? NOT MINE!
I am vodka. I think I’d better lie down for a minute.HEY–WHO STOLE MY PANTS?
I am absinthe. Strawberry…GROTTO!
I am grain alcohol. HEY! Who turned all the lights out?
11. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America
I’ve finished reading Hadju’s The Ten Cent Plague, and I’ve noticed
several things that give me pause.
Although a highly readable account of the whole controversy, and very
well researched on the ground (he interviewed a great many comic book
creators and cited numerous primary sources), Hadju makes several very
elementary mistakes. I attribute this in part perhaps to his editors,
who may have made him eschew boring exposition for exciting literary
flourishes of dubious accuracy.
The problematic aspects of his historical account start near the very beginning.
In his prologue, Hadju states as his thesis that “Through the near
death of comic books…postwar popular culture was born.” But he fails
to demonstrate this in any significant way.
He also mentions that the controversy was also about “class and money
and taste,” but he seems blissfully unaware of the writings of
historian Staughton Lynd, not to mention those of Russell Lynes (who
in 1949 formulated the “Lowbrow Middlebrow Highbrow” formula), and
Dwight Macdonald. He also fails to even so much as mention the work of
Adorno, Walter Benjamin, or any of the members of the Frankfurt
To give Gershon Legman’s “Love and Death” a scant paragraph seems
misguided, since he was well-known to Wertham, who eventually wrote a
book-length expose of comic books. Hadju doesn’t even mention
Neurotica, in which chapters from “Love and Death” were serialized. He
doesn’t mention McLuhan’s THE MECHANICAL BRIDE, in which crime comics
are given the once-over (chapters from which were also first printed
Also: The famously vindictive gossip columnist and political
commentator Walter Winchell had a good deal more to do with EC’s
decline and fall than he supposes. If Hadju had actually read
ShockSuspenstories, he might have been interested to learn that they
published a devastating expose of Winchell titled “Mightier than the
Sword.” The story was written by EC’s then-business manager Lyle
J. Edgar Hoover also took a deep interest in EC comics. Had Hadju
consulted the website “The Smoking Gun” he would have learned all
Nor does Hadju seem to have read the comic book source material in any
more than a spotty or cursory way. He provides no evidence of having
read more than perhaps a representative sample of the problematic
comic book genres such as Jungle, Amazon, Horror, Crime, or
Romance–except perhaps such as have been anthologized in
compilations. If the topic is as significant as he attempts to claim
(and even if it isn’t), there’s really no excuse for such
Hadju does get some things right. The role of the Catholic Church in
the controversy. and the various state initiatives to ban the comic
book. And his overview of the Kefauver hearings is well-presented,
though he reveals nothing of Kefauver’s personality other than the
most superficial details. (It is well-known that in later life
Kefauver was a notorious womanizer who was being blackmailed by the
very mob he had initially set out to investigate.)
Nor does Hadju tell us very much about Wertham’s personality, or the
numerous errors that bestrew his book, Seduction of the Innocent
(which incidentally, was not a Book of the Month selection but an
ALTERNATE Selection. A small, but telling inaccuracy). In fact, he
barely seems to have read either that book, or any of Wertham’s myriad
others, which he merely name-checks. Had he done so, he would have
realized that as late as 1957, Wertham was still harping on crime
comic books, even though the Comics Code, which had been implemented
in 1954, had driven all of them off the stands. Hadju also fails to
mention the work of other comic-book denigrators such as Geoffrey
Wagner’s “Parade of Pleasure” and, even more significant, Robert
Warshow’s 1955 COMMENTARY essay called “Paul, the Horror Comics, and
Dr. Wertham,” reprinted in his book The Immediate Experience (1962;
the revised 2001 edition also reprints a previously omitted review of
Legman’s “Love and Death”).
Worst of all, perhaps, his section on EC Comics perpetuates the error
(perhaps owing to editorial elision) that Gaines turned the comic book
MAD into a magazine to elude the ACMP comics code. Only in a footnote
does he clarify that it was possibly because Kurtzman had been offered
a magazine job that Gaines made the conversion. He also makes several
errors about EC’s output that an intimate familiarity with it would
have obviated. For instance, he states that the EC title “Piracy” was
part of EC’s “New Trend”. It was not. It preceded it by several
months. (Had he even carefully read Geissman’s comprehensive book on
EC he would have realized his error.)
The book closes, not with a bang, but a whimper, with an almost
perfunctory interview with Robert Crumb about the influence that MAD
had on the undergrounds. This is a serious omission–he could have
spoken to countless others who would have given him much more detail
regarding the intrinsic link between the eight-pagers, MAD, and the
undergrounds. But Hadju doesn’t even mention the eight-pagers–which
are the real ancestors of both MAD and the underground comics. He
doesn’t even seem to be aware of them. It would be as if I had
presented myself as a Shakespeare scholar without knowing that
Shakespeare wrote in English but had also adapted the works of
Plutarch to the stage.
In sum: The book succeeds as journalism, But as history, it is a