The other day, Anastasia and I were both in kind of a funk all day. I mean, me with my—this was in the midst of my… six days of insomnia. [Emphatic throat clearing.]
But Anastasia was not feeling good either, and uh, we were both kinda lyin’ around feelin’ mopey and blue… and there was a Joe E. Brown movie on television. I mean, I don’t wanna bore you about Joe E. Brown. He had a giant [laughter] frog mouth [laughter]. I’m not sayin’ anything, uh, uh, that he wouldn’t say himself! He was famous for his gigantic… mouth. And he was paired with Ginger Rogers… these were some movies from the early thirties. Uh… the one we saw was from 1932. And he was paired romantically with Ginger Rogers but the filmmakers couldn’t quite get themselves [laughter]… I mean, if he had tried to kiss Ginger Rogers he would’ve swallowed her head! It would’ve been hideous. I’m just—the thought of him kissing Ginger Rogers is… her whole face would’ve gone into his mouth. It’s horrible! I mean, the thought. Not his mouth, which is his, you know, “I’m just as God made me,” as Paul Benedict said.
So, Joe E. Brown, he was this… it was very… I mean, Anastasia said, “You should tweet about this movie!” afterward. And I thought, “There’s just no way to tweet.” In the—first of all, you’d have to spend ten or eleven tweets explaining the career of Joe E. Brown. [Abruptly truncated throat clearing.] And that’s before you started talking about how poorly and oddly this movie was structured. I don’t even know if I want to tell you about that, despite how many pages it would eat up. And that’s my goal: to eat up pages. I’m like a goat. I’m a literary goat. Eatin’ up pages.
[Sniff. Violent exhalation that comes close to throat clearing.]
Ah! To think of words as a kind of… disease that eats up… to think of words as gangrene, as an infection on the page… to think of the blank page as the… ideal state of the page…
[Sniff. Pause. Lip smack.]
So at the end of this… should I tell ya? I’ll just tell ya. He was a… uhm… you know, a rube from out west, a rancher with a money belt full of money. And some unscrupulous Broadway producers got him to invest in their show…
‘Course it was a big flop… but he bought ‘em out and… took it to Broadway and…
And now here’s, here’s the part where the… structure broke down. Instead of… I mean, they were setting it up perfectly for, for, for, for it to be misinterpreted as a comedy, much in the way, many years later, Mel Brooks would use that idea in The Producers, where they make a terrible show but people think it’s a comedy. So they love it.
Well, that was the idea here. Except they didn’t show any of that! They, they showed newspaper clippings: “ ‘Wonderful Comedy!’ Audience Exclaims.”
[Long pause. Mouth noise.]
They… they… yeah. They accomplish that part of the plot, which, I mean, that’s the only thing you wanted to see by this point in the movie. And they just skimmed over it with some quick—a quick montage of headlines.
Even stranger, the last ten minutes of the movie was taken up by a kidnapping plot that came out of nowhere. But it gave Joe E. Brown [swallowing coffee] a chance to, uh, ride a horse and shoot…
He’s in his element now, against these big city gangsters who have kidnapped Ginger Rogers, who, even when he rescues her, I mean, he’s not gonna… kiss her. As I said, his whole big mouth would open up and just swallow her head, it’s, it’s horrible to think about!
But he’s chasin’ these bad guys… they’re in a car and he’s on a horse… and he starts shooting, bang, bang, they get out of the car… he shoots a… I don’t know. I can’t remember. Some object. Oh, a light… the top of a streetlight, or something. And… it falls off and bonks a guy on the head. Then he shoots a bucket that… is being used on a construction site; he shoots a rope that’s holding up a bucket. The bucket falls down on somebody’s head, one of the bad guys.
And then… well, when the car crashed, it, it, it hit a… a sort of a power pole, which is now dangling precariously, and I thought when it happened… my mind was like, “Why didn’t—wh—was that a mistake? ‘Cause that power pole is just kinda hangin’.” It looked… it looked scary, it looked… you know, this is in the days when… you know, you’d lose a few extras, “Hm! It’s part of the business.”
So why is this power pole dangling over the scene like that?
It turned out… yes! It was a Chekhovian power pole. The director had something in mind for it. So… Joe E. Brown… I’m not gonna really get this across… it’s a more of a visual thing, plus everything is… I think the proper term is “under-cranked.” ‘Cause when you’re under-cranking it… under-cranking that camera, everything’s moving faster. So it’s under-cranked. And everything’s goin’ in fast motion. Or, or, a little bit fast.
But anyway, Joe E. Brown shoots at that power line that’s still holding up that power pole and down it comes—boom!—in fast motion; I can’t really express the, the rhythm… I’m not sure if it was the crudity or the expertise!
But okay. I don’t know how I can get this across in words.
Bang! Joe E. Brown shoots the line. Down comes the power pole in one swift motion, right down on a bad guy. And something about the violence of it… uh… lifted Anastasia and myself from our torpor. We were… suddenly… uh… giddy. I mean, we were laughing so hard we were cr—I was crying. I can’t speak for Anastasia, but I was laughing so hard I was crying. I know she was laughing really hard too. Because it was just so wrong. Just the—bang! Down comes a pole in what looked like a fatal [laughter]… I mean, it just looked so… the… God! What was so funny about it?
And here’s the thing! I’m still not certain, all these days later, whether I was laughing at the filmmaking or with it. A little bit of both, I think. I mean… it was set up perfectly… you have the comedy rule of three. Uh!
This object, that object, bang, bang, down on somebody’s head. And then a third thing, which is huge, which just crushes a guy! In fast motion. I can’t quite get it across. But part of the humor came from the… just unexpected swiftness of this… man’s… you know, [laughter] spine being crushed. Aah! Why do I laugh when I say that? Because, you know, we laugh… we laugh…
I don’t know why we laugh.
Jack Pendarvis has written five books. He won two Emmys for his work on the TV show Adventure Time. During a period of light employment, he spoke into a digital recorder whenever the mood struck him and transcribed the results, accumulating the two thousand pages from which this column has been extracted.