If It Don’t Hurt It Ain’t Comedy

What do Joan Rivers and Shane Gillis have in common?
I had never heard of Shane Gillis until he was unceremoniously dumped from the incoming cast of Saturday Night Live. I’ll bet you never did either. Gillis got the hook when it was revealed that he had done fake Asian accents and made some racist jokes. It begs the question of whether anyone associated with SNL actually bothered to do any research, but several other things strike me. Some of you won’t like them.

I wonder why the same people who want to rein in the Second Amendment don’t give a damn about free speech rights guaranteed by First. I despise haters, but I’m not on board with anyone who would replace dialogues with monologues. Those seeking to make the world “safe” for marginalized people often do more damage than good. Gillis was once obscure; now he’s a martyr who will get lots of opportunities to spread what they find objectionable. He will become the darling of the right. When his jokes start showing up on You Tube, Facebook, and elsewhere, PC warriors will have no one to blame but themselves.

Noam Chomsky was right when he said that the answer to hate speech is more speech. I’d put Gillis on SNL and let his work address the court of public opinion. It will decide whether he’s funny or just a jerk. Maybe he’d stick even though he’s conservative–like Dennis Miller,  Norm Macdonald, or Jeff Dunham. IMHO, Miller is funny, Macdonald not so much. I also think Dunham and his puppets are a paint-by-the-numbers embarrassment, but  he’s not going away as long as he’s filling auditoriums.

My second point is that good comedy always has a butt, even if it’s humanity in general, one’s in-group, or oneself. Rodney Dangerfield was the master of self-deprecation; his tag line, “I tell ya’ I don’t get no respect” signals it’s his rear-end in the line of the arcing boot. Comedy exists in the absurdity that lies in the gap between logic and how we actually live and think. Lucille Ball made that approach classic and Steven Wright’s career is built upon it. Did anyone ever do it better than George Carlin? Carlin was assuredly not a PC kind of guy.

Where did anyone get the idea that comedy is pretty? The best comics bring the pain and derail the train. They often use profanity and ribaldry, even when they had to invent or twist it to get past the censors. W. C. Fields coined the word “drat” because he wasn’t allowed to say “damn.” Mae West pulled a fast one on the humorless when she uttered the hysterical line, “A good man is hard to find, but a hard man is good to find.” Give me stuff like that any day of the week over the cloying “cuteness” often mistaken for comedy.

Groucho Marx is my favorite comic of all time. On You Bet Your Life–one of TV’s very first quiz programs–Groucho interviewed people for the sole purpose of making fun of them. He once had a male guest who had something like 14 children. A leering Groucho remarked that he and his wife must be mighty friendly. The guy bit and said that was the case. That prompted Groucho’s immortal riposte: “Do you have any other hobbies?” Priceless!

Comedy also has context. In films made in the 1930s-40s, the Marx Brothers lampooned everybody and everything. A sequence in Day at the Races saw the lads smearing their faces with axle grease and ducking into a black community to evade the law. Today this and the song-and-dance number that followed are viewed as racist. It makes me cringe when I see them, but here’s the deal: In its day–not ours–the controversy was that the Marxes included African Americans at all.

I weary of those who read history from front to back. To be sure, there are comics who have been either total jerks or just not very funny. I have never gotten Andrew Dice Clay, for example. Nor did I like Don Rickles, whose one-trick insult of calling his target a “hockey puck” was only funny the first dozen times he uttered it. Still, truly brilliant comedians rub your noses in things you don’t want to hear–and make you laugh. Richard Pryor’s take-down of white culture was sidesplitting; Dick Gregory’s was a stiletto in the back. Chris Rock certainly isn’t known for being polite. And while we’re at it, don’t you privately feel that Louis C. K. was speaking truth to bullshit in his now infamous “N-word” routine?

How about the brilliant Joan Rivers? She made fun of suicide, women’s bodies, her husband’s penis, and whatever else came into her path. She once told a joke about some terrible condition–I don’t remember if it was cystic fibrosis or autism–that made an audience member blurt out, “That’s not funny.” Rivers’ response was, “Fuck you!” She said she had a family member with condition X and that humor made things bearable. Actually, she wouldn’t have cared even if that hadn’t been the case. Comics such as Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, and Wanda Sykes are her children.  

If you were to make a list of truly great comics, there’s nothing “nice” about any of them. Henny Youngman was really sexist, but who can resist this joke: “My wife told me she wanted to go somewhere she’s never been for vacation. I said, ‘How about the kitchen.’” Remember the 1990s when every other standup pretender built acts around airline jokes. Nothing deathless about that prose! Who now recalls their names?

Let Shane Gillis do his act and we’ll decide whether he’s funny or not. If you want a monologue, talk to the mirror. If you need cute, watch cat videos. And if you need safe, join a monastery. But watch out for predator priests. Was that nasty? Yeah, but did it make you snort?



Curveball Resurrects the Story of a Female Baseball Player

Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone (2010)
By Martha Ackmann
Lawrence Hill Books, 211 pages + prologue, notes, bibliography, index

The recent dismissal of Boston Red Sox operations chief Dave Dombrowski touched off discussion that his place might be taken by a woman, Raquel Ferreira. The media has treated this as potentially path breaking, but that’s only the case if you don’t look very deeply into baseball’s past. As we move into time of the year where the World Series will be decided for the 115th time, let’s look at something that’s truly unique: the first woman to play professional baseball. And I mean on men’s teams, not in all-female leagues.

Maybe you missed it when it was first published in 2010, but Martha Ackmann’s Curveball tells the story of Marcenia Lyle “Toni” Stone (1921-1990), a second baseman who made her professional debut in 1945. Ackmann is a Mount Holyoke gender studies professor. Yes, this is an “academic” book, though there’s nothing dry about it; Ackmann is far more interested in presenting a compelling biography than in displaying her (considerable) scholarly prowess. Stone grew up loving baseball and was really good at, when she got a chance to display her talents. That required great determination. It was hard enough being a girl decades before anyone even dreamed of Title IX; try being a black female during the 1930s.

Stone had a few things going for her. First, her family moved from West Virginia–which bordered Jim Crow Virginia–to Minneapolis when Stone was just 10. Second, Toni didn’t buy into gender roles. At a young age she acquired a nickname that stuck with her for the rest of her life: “Tomboy.” (Even as a pro player she refused to do ‘feminine’ publicity shots until 1954, and even then it was in her baseball uniform, not a dress.) The third break was that Father Keefe, a Catholic priest, talked Tomboy’s family into letting her play ball. Stone’s earliest organized play was in the Catholic equivalent of Little League. Stone was also a diehard fan of the St. Paul Saints, the local white minor league team. She began playing semi-pro and American Legion baseball at the age of 15.

Stone was known as a sure-handed second baseman. She was never a power hitter, but she was good enough to make her professional with the San Francisco Sea Lions of West Coast Negro Baseball League (WCNBL) in 1946, after stints working in Bay Area defense industries during World War II. Note the timing: In 1947, Jackie Robinson would break Major League Baseball’s (MLB) color line. Stone wasn’t dreaming of MLB; she just loved competing in all sports, especially baseball. She played in the WCNBL though the 1952 season, first with the Sea Lions, then with two New Orleans teams, the Black Pelicans and the Creoles.

Her big break came in 1953: an invitation to join the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League. A few explanatory notes are in order. The Negro League began its downward spiral when Jackie Robinson signed an MLB contract. The best talent soon gravitated to major league teams and by 1952 just six Negro League teams remained. But do not think of this brand of baseball as any sort of minor league. The year before Stone joined the Indianapolis Clowns, it signed someone whose name you probably know: Hank Aaron. Ernie Banks played for the Kansas City Monarchs before being signed by he Chicago Cubs. Tomboy Stone also one got a hit off a famous Monarchs pitcher: Satchel Paige. If you think he let her get a hit, you know nothing about Satchel Paige!*

Another matter in need of redress is the Indianapolis team name of the Clowns. To modern ears this sounds demeaning. That was only partially the case. The franchise came to Indiana by way of Miami, where they were known as the Ethiopian Clowns because of their proximity to the Florida Clown College associated with the circus, which wintered in Florida. Moreover, the Negro League’s “season” was so loose that its biggest game of the year was its All-Star game, not its World Series.** Money was tight and teams often barnstormed to pay the bills. On that circuit, the Clowns entertained with humor and razzle-dazzle analogous to basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters. Stone didn’t mind hamming it up during exhibitions, but she insisted on being treated as a real ballplayer.

In Ackmann’s telling, Tomboy spent her life defying expectations. She played baseball with men, but broached no nonsense. When a New Orleans player harassed her on the team bus and her manager told her to settle the matter herself, she did; she took a bat into her hands and clobbered him. Stone showed little interest in dating and her clothing choices led many to assume she was a lesbian. They were shocked when she married Aurelious Pescia Alberga in December 1950. She was 29 and he was 67!

Curveball is also a rich trove of Negro League facts and lore. There are good books on Negro league baseball, but most deal with its “golden age” in the 1920s-30s when such legendary figures as Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Rube Foster, Josh Gibson, and Willie Wells were at the height of their powers, and Effa Manley smashed a few gender roles as owner of the Newark Eagles. Ackmann’s book takes us inside the waning years of Negro league ball. Stone’s elevation to the big time was motivated in part by the hope that audiences would come to the park to see the novelty of a female player, but Stone refused to be a sideshow act. She played for the Clowns in 1953, but left the team over a money dispute and the signing of Connie Morgan, who also played second base. Tomboy then signed with Kansas City, but quit when it was clear that they too only wanted to cash in on her novelty. ***

Did gender barriers prevent Stone from following other black stars into the majors? No. She was more than a PR stunt, but she hit just .243 and would not have held her own in stiffer competition. Nonetheless, hers was a fascinating life that we are indebted to Martha Ackmann for resurrecting it.

Rob Weir  

  * The Clowns were the last Negro league franchise to fold. It barnstormed through 1967. I saw Satchel Paige pitch when the Clowns came to my Pennsylvania hometown that last year. Even at age 60, Paige could pull off his diamond trick. He took the mound with a catcher, a first baseman, and one infielder and retired the side. The next inning, Paige threw a strike and then motioned the two fielders to the bench. In just 8 more pitches he struck out all three batters.

** Because teams needed to make money through exhibition matches, it was impossible to prepare any sort of normal schedule. Were you to look at league “standings” in a given year you’d discover that some teams played a 100 or more “league” games while others might play around 40.

***One more female player took the field before the Negro League disappeared. Between 1953-55, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, a pitcher, registered 33 wins against 8 losses.


Prisoner of Heaven Reveals Triology Mysteries (but should it?)

The Prisoner of Heaven (2012)
By Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Harper Perennial, 273 pages.

If there were an Ambiguity Index in which 0 meant “I can’t abide the very hint of ambiguity” and 100 is “I see no reason whatsoever to engage in explanation,” where would you reside? If you are anywhere in the 0-50 range, you will probably be very satisfied with The Prisoner of Heaven, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s concluding book of his The Shadow of the Wind trilogy. Lots of loose ends are tied up. We find out about Fermín’s life before he showed up at the Sempere bookshop and why David Martín was haunted. We also discover the nature and identity of Martín’s tormentor.

These things make sense of mysterious things in books one and two, but the vital question is whether or not one wishes to know these things. Is it perhaps more fun and more intriguing intellectually to speculate than to know? I’d read anything that includes the delightfully roguish Fermín Romero de Torres, but I come down on the side of wanting to keep enough hidden under the covers to make him at least partly inexplicable. Ditto David Martín.

Luckily there is enough intrigue in The Prisoner of Heaven to keep one entertained. Fermín and Daniel Sempere are off on another caper, one that could put Daniel in harm’s way. This one takes place on the eve of Fermín’s wedding to Bernarda and threatens to sandbag the nuptials. A stranger enters the bookstore and purchases the shop’s most expensive volume, one kept under glass. He also leaves a chilling message for Fermín. Once again, we are thrust back to the dangerous early days of Franco’s dictatorship; again, we learn that some things are never completely over, especially when we assume that they are. We pay another visit to the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books and again learn that those who appear to be the most dangerous aren’t the ones you should most dread. 

All of this is well and good, but at heart The Prisoner of Heaven is a beat-the-clock caper book. This puts it into the category of being an exhilarating read, but lacking the literary excellence of The Shadow of the Wind or the spine-tingling creepiness of The Angel’s Game. Fermín and Daniel are decidedly take offs on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, so there’s plenty of irreverence, mayhem, and unorthodox adventure when they get together. One can also count on Fermín for ribald and snarky remarks, and like the previous two novels it’s up for grabs just who the namesake Prisoner of Heaven might be.

For all of that, the concluding novel is simply too neat and too conventional for my blood. I guess my Ambiguity Quotient rests in the 90th percentile.

Rob Weir