Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Art of the Insult

The Round Table at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel was known for its sophisticated witty repartee, or its catty put-downs covered in self-congratulation, depending on your viewpoint. The Round Table was also known as the “Vicious Circle,” and this was the title of Margaret Case Harriman’s account of the intellectual humour of the denizens thereof, published in 1951 by Rinehart.

One would think the clever waggishness of the Round Table would be viewed upon favourably by radio critic John Crosby, not only because he was an adroit purveyor of words, but because he dealt daily with the pedestrian and obvious verbiage in sitcoms, quiz shows and soap operas. However, his column of July 14, 1951 bespeaks a tiredness with the former as well as the latter. Still, he manages to mine some nuggets of wit from the ranks of radio programmes, which he passes on to his readers. One of them involves someone in the social sphere of the Vicious Circle—“the glamorous, unpredictable Tallulah Bankhead.”

Once, during the rehearsal of “The Big Show,” the producer was trying, over Tallulah Bankhead’s strenuous objections, to cut a few of her lines just as a matter of timing. It was an epic battle, I’m told, but the producer finally won though he didn’t escape entirely unscathed. Groucho Marx, who was within earshot, took the cigar of his mouth just long enough to mutter: “The Timing of the Shrew.”
I don’t know why I’m telling you all this except that too many people are reading “The Vicious Circle” and quoting too much of it to me. Said Noel Coward to the highly tailored lady: “You look almost like a man.” Retorted the highly tailored lady to Noel Coward: “So do you.” The art of insult, especially that one, is still around in different form, though perhaps not so succinctly expressed. Said Tallulah to Bob Hope: “Hope, leave this stage until I call for you.” Said Hope to Tallulah: “Don’t lower your voice to me. I knew you when you were Louis Calhern.”
The art of insult which I inspect annually along with dumb women jokes, political jokes, and tax jokes, has declined a little in the past year. But there have been a few — all of them, I expect, modifications of Max Beerbohm’s or Oscar Wilde’s but still, I think, at least as quotable as those in “The Vicious Circle.” There was that one on “This Is Show Business,” for instance.
BERT LAHR: I told this same joke recently at the Capitol theater and you could hear them laugh across the street.
CLIFTON FADIMAN: What was playing over there?
Then there was Ronald Colman on the Jack Benny program.
COLMAN: I never told you this, Jack, but I heard the first radio program you ever did.
BENNY: Gee, Ronnie, I didn’t know that. The very first program?
COLMAN: Yes. How have they been since?
Well, after all, there were some pretty old jokes in “The Vicious Circle,” too, but they were on the whole more vicious. People just don’t insult one another with the zest they once used, so we’ll have to turn elsewhere. (If Bennett Cerf can get away with this, I can try, too.) I rather like Groucho Marx’s brief patriotic oration which ran: “We owe a great deal to the government. The question is, how are we ever going to get the money to pay for it?”
That last is known as the tax joke which in sheer numbers is far out in front of my joke file. Radio and television actors and writers make much more money than is good for them; the government takes it away for their own protection and this solicitude preys on their minds. Pretty soon they write hokes about it. Or if they get real mad, they vent their spleen on the politicians. “My boy friend is out making speeches to draft Eisenhower. He wants to draft Eisenhower before Eisenhower drafts him.” (Gene Autry show).
Or if they get too depressed to write jokes about either taxes or politics, they can always fall back on the woman driver joke. “Well, I signaled for a left turn and then changed my mind and signaled for a right turn. Then I decided to take a short cut down the sidewalk because there were too many manly drivers cluttering up the street. Well, this weasel was hogging the sidewalk and I was late getting to the beauty parlor so in order to avoid an accident I just ran over him.” (Red Skelton show).
It’s been a good year, all around, for women jokes. Gracie Allen returned the eight day clock George bought her because the eight days were up and at least one girl bought “Little Women” for a friend because he was marrying a midget and Dave Garroway broke the news about the perfume that was driving women mad–it smelled like money—and my friend Irma . . . well, let’s not get into my friend Irma or we’ll be here all day.
We started with Groucho and we’ll finish with Groucho:
GROUCHO: If you like the sea, why aren’t you a sailor instead of a landlubber?
CONTESTANT: That’s not a very good way to raise a family.
GROUCHO: The fish manage pretty well.
I plan to collect them all in a book some day but not until the winter after the Christmas jokes are in. “Second Story Jackson is in jail again.” – “What’s he in for this time ?” – “He was doing his Christmas shopping early.” – “Early?” – “Before the store opened.” (Duffy’s Tavern.)

Crosby was so oft quoted in his day—though not as much, perhaps, as the Algonquin Round Table—it would have been nice if someone published a collection of his columns. Interestingly, someone did, in a way. After writing this post, I happened upon an issue of Swing magazine, which had reprinted this particular column and several others. Swing was the publication of WHB (“Your Favorite Neighbor”) in Kansas City. It was a pretty ambitious publication for a radio station and while it may not have engaged in the slicing wit of a Benchley, Woollcott or Parker, it did have the sense to give readers a monthly dose of Crosby. You can leaf through PDF scans at David Gleason’s exemplary repository of old broadcasting publications HERE.

No comments:

Post a Comment