Surely, some of you remember the 1946 Disney film “Song of the South.” Set on a Reconstruction-era plantation, it features kindly old ex-slave Uncle Remus telling a couple of kids stories of the adventures of Br’er Rabbit, who, like Bugs Bunny vis-à-vis Elmer Fudd or the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, invariably outwitted Br’er Fox and his numbskull companion, Br’er Bear, both of whom lusted for roast rabblt.
The stories themselves were told in animation: Br’er Rabbit shouting in increasing frustration at the mute Tar Baby — “I said, ‘How-DEE!’” — and finally punching it (big mistake); the reverse psychology he used to fool Br’er Fox — “Please, please, please, don’t throw me in the briar patch!” — and the song he made up and began singing even as Br’er Fox hung him, tied to a spit, over a blazing campfire. “Everybody’s Gotta Have a Laughin’ Place!” It doesn’t sound so great when I listen to it now, but obviously it made an impression, to have stuck in my head for more than 70 years.
It’s been quiet around here for about four years now, what with Mother in a nursing home and then leaving us. I watch TV only when I’m cooking and dining, and keep the sound off on the computer. I don’t mind the quiet at all. Kiki’s mute, as well, except when I turn her loose on the yard. But I don’t know how many times I’ve come across something interesting — one of our old houses for sale, an obituary, a news item — and thought, “Wait’ll she ...”, only to remember she’s not there to share it with anymore.
So about a year ago, recalling that old song of Br’er Rabbit’s, I started thinking about a laughing place — something different and absorbing, not necessarily funny, that would divert me temporarily from whatever was bothering me and threatening gloom or torpor.
There are books all over the wall behind me. One of my favorites is “The Best-Loved Poems of the American People,” which my parents gave me at Christmas 1946. It’s in pretty tough shape now, but it’ll last as long as I do. It’s full of chestnuts that would never make The New Yorker these days. I opened it just now to a bookmarked place and found I’d been reading “Vitaï Lampada,” a beautifully English verse comparing the lessons of the cricket pitch to a desperate battle against the Mahdists in Sudan — “But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks, ‘Play up! Play up! and play the game!’” Another bookmark opens to “Casey at the Bat,” “Casey’s Revenge” and “Casey — Twenty Years Later.” My favorite lines:” “High, fast, and far that spheroid flew; it sailed and sailed away; It ne’er was found, so it’s supposed it still floats on today.”
Then there’s “Huckleberry Finn,” always good as a reminder of what can be done with American English, a larger-than-life setting, and a revolutionary point of view. Lots of Dickens, too, who could juxtapose bathos and hilarity as perhaps no one else ever has. Robert Frost, whose “Mending Wall” helps keep me sane during the current idiocy over the proposed Mexico border wall.
Then, at the right-hand edge of my computer screen, there’s a folder labeled “Picker-Uppers.” It’s a rotating library of items I love to click on, turn up the sound, and just flat enjoy. There’s an incredible women’s a capella quintet “singing” Vivaldi’s “Spring.” Six Irishmen sitting at a bar singing “The Parting Glass” in close harmony. John McCormack’s “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.” That’s hardly a picker-upper; rather a heart-breaker. But I sang it a few times to Mother during her last weeks: “To me you’re as fair as you were, Maggie, when you and I were young.” It recalls a precious time.
There are Youtubes of my favorite funny people. W.C. Fields in “The Fatal Glass of Beer” gives a master class in visual comedy, singing and playing a sentimental ballad on an autoharp while wearing fur mittens, then chucking the harp carelessly into an empty trunk. Jimmy Durante, a ragtime pianist who used his fedora as a prop, running up the scales to the end of the keys and falling off the end of the piano bench. He climbs back up, adjusts his hat, and says, “I coulda gone foider, but I run outta piana.” Archie Bunker showing Meathead how to put on his shoes. Ed Norton driving Ralph Kramden nuts. Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar. Red Skelton. The Marx Brothers. They all came up through vaudeville, and does it ever show!
But I guess my favorite laughing places are half a dozen commercials. There’s some serious talent working here and there on Madison Avenue. The golden retriever puppy they’ve created as a mascot for the Budweiser Clydesdales is a warm fire on a cold night. There’s the one-minute ad for Labatt’s Blue that’s a genuine picker-upper. Google “Labatt’s Sweet Caroline.” But my favorite is the little girl who goes into a pizza parlor with her grandfather and orders a Pepsi. The counterman gives her a Coke instead. She takes a sip, and suddenly her voice changes to Marlon Brando’s. Everybody in the restaurant stops eating, the pizza baker’s bubble gum bursts loudly, and ... What a pleasure it is to have so many laughing places!
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.