Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

Grundig Blaupunkt Luger Frug

The other day I was thinking back to what written material I had found the funniest in my life. A lot of it was Dave Barry, some Hitchiker’s Guide, some Keith Laumer, some Gene Shepherd, some Terry Pratchett, a crazy little ancient item called The Silly Book by Stoo Hamble, and then–words of fire appeared unbidden in my head:

Grundig blaupunkt luger frug
Watusi snarf wazoo
Nixon dirksen nasahist
Rebozo bugaloo

OMG! Unbeknownst to me, I had memorized a part of Bored of the Rings. And this is a good time to take up the topic of humor in fantasy and SF, since Bored of the Rings is now fifty years old.

I see in the book’s Amazon reviews that a lot of people thought it was hilarious when they were 12, and it falls flat now. Quite a few others had no idea why the book was supposed to be funny to begin with. Yes, it was funnier fifty years ago, granted. It was published when I was 16, in 1969. I was quite a Tolkien devotee by that time (I first read the trilogy in 1967) and not only did I think it was funny, I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever read.

I still have the 50-year-old MMPB. And I’m reading it, falling to pieces though it may be. Yes, it’s still funny. But I have the unfair advantage of an excellent memory for trivia. The problem with the book’s humor is that a lot of the things they’re making fun of no longer exist.

The four lines quoted above are what is written on the parody version of the One Ring. Every single word is real, and every single word meant something to most people in 1969. Fifty years later, I’d wager that all but the legendary Nixon have simply been forgotten.

The whole book gallops along that way: one 1969 cultural reference after another, interspersed with really obvious substitution parody and frat-boy crudities. I still enjoy it, but in a slightly guilty way that rubs my nose in the fact that I’m now 67. The best parts are in fact the original poetry and songs, which were parodies of style more than actual poems and songs. Another example, excerpted from a longer work that still makes me giggle:

Fearful were the chicken dwarves,
But mickle crafty too.
King Yellobac, their skins to save
The elves he tried to woo.

Sing: Twist-a-cap, reynoldswrap, gardol and duz
The elves he tried to woo.

Youngsters might be excused for being puzzled, even though they can look up all that crap on Google. The kicker is that they didn’t live the context, and in certain types of humor, context is everything. Broadcast TV ruled the world in 1969. There was (almost) no cable, and certainly nothing like our streaming services. The whole thing was supported by ads for minor products like toothpaste, not just luxury sedans and expensive pharmaceuticals. Ads seen several times an hour tend to stick in your head. So even if you never even once bought the products, you damned well knew what Gardol and Duz were. (I believe Reynolds Wrap is still a thing, though you don’t see TV commercials for it anymore.)

There are lots of ways to get a laugh. For simply exaggerating Tolkienesque imagery into absurdity and beyond, there’s little to match this longish paragraph, which comes at the climax of the story:

Black flags were raised in the black towers, and the gate opened like an angry maw to upchuck its evil spew. Out poured an army the likes of which was never seen. Forth from the gate burst a hundred thousand rabid narcs swinging bicycle chains and tire irons, followed by drooling divisions of pop-eyed changelings, deranged zombies, and distempered werewolves. At their shoulders marched eight score heavily armored griffins, three thousand goose-stepping mummies, and a column of abominable snowmen on motorized bobsleds; at their flanks tramped six companies of slavering ghouls, eighty parched vampires in white tie, and the Phantom of the Opera. Above them the sky was blackened by the dark shapes of vicious pelicans, houseflies the size of two-car garages, and Rodan the Flying Monster. Through the portals streamed more foes of various forms and descriptions, including a six-legged diplodocus, the Loch Ness Monster, King Kong, Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Beast with One Million Eyes, the Brain from Planet Arous, three different subphyla of giant insects, the Thing, It, She, Them, and the Blob. The great tumult of their charge could have waked the dead, were they not already bringing up the rear.

Admit it: That’s funny, though it’s not a species of funny people do much anymore. In the book the authors dip into every humorous mechanism ever invented, right down to breaking the fourth wall, as was one character’s habit almost every time he appeared:

“We cannot stay here,” said Arrowroot.

“No,” agreed Bromosel, looking across the gray surface of the page to the thick half of the book still in the reader’s right hand. “We have a long way to go.”

This brand of humor is almost dead, which is a shame. Depending on my mood, I variously blame the Flynn Effect, more people going to college, political correctness (where nothing is ever funny) and a remarkably sour zeitgeist, considering that the economy is in better shape than it’s been since, well, Bored of the Rings was first published.

In truth, I think the core problem is that there is no longer a single culture in the US. Social networking (and networking generally) has allowed us to find our own culture among the dozens on offer somewhere or another online–and if we don’t find one to our liking, we just invent one. We all once knew what Gardol was. Today, hell, there are liberal and conservative grocery stores, and forty shelf-feet at Safeway dedicated to different balsamic vinegar SKUs.

Basically, when a hundred different cultures exist side by side, nothing will be funny to all of them because nothing is common to all of them. So cultural references are fraught. I’ve actually had to explain some of the gags in Ten Gentle Opportunities to its purchasers and while writing it I consciously avoided having the humor too closely tied to any one culture or era. Sure, I included a veiled reference to Flintstone Vitamins, which are themselves a cultural reference to a cartoon show that ended in freaking 1966. And “sweets baked by elves.” I’m sure we all know what that refers to. Don’t we? Don’t we?

Maybe we do now. In fifty years, we won’t. By then, people will have as much trouble with any and all 2019 humor as people today are having with Bored of the Rings. I’m certainly sure of one thing: A thousand years from now, J. R. R. Tolkien will be having the last laugh.

19 Comments

  1. Orvan Taurus says:

    I’m a *bit* younger, but then some seem surprised that I am not older than I am and I get much of that – but I did grow up in at least the echoes of that time (and that there’s a Grundig multi-band receiver a few yards.. er, meters.. away might have some slight effect).

    Not sure I got the Flintstones Vitamins ref (I might have, but it isn’t leaping out at atm) but if I missed it, the false-absence didn’t detract any.

    What’s been a bit of challenge for me has been some bits of this wonderful tune and animation:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JIts1xIalg

    1. Oh wow, that brought back memories (and I feel old now…)

      1. Orvan Taurus says:

        “I feel old now” has a translation: SURVIVOR.

        Congratulations!

  2. Jay Maynard says:

    I still maintain that Bored of the Rings says everything that needs saying about Tolkien, and only needs 150 pages to do it.

    A friend and I once nearly gave another a stroke by quoting long stretches of the book at him. Turned out he was a Tolkien nut.

    And some things do last. “‘Shut up’, agreed Goodgulf”, as one example, even if nobody knows what Goodgulf is any more. (Yes, Reynolds Wrap is still a thing. We have a couple of different rolls in our kitchen.)

    Nobody writes on supercharged Smith-Coronas any more, either. Time marches on.

  3. Jason B. says:

    Similarly, the cartoon Animaniacs now feels like it didn’t age well at all, however funny it was in the early 90’s.

    You really had to expect that from a cartoon where the opening theme song mentions “Bill Clinton plays the sax”… even if Hillary’s husband were still topical nowadays, that Arsenio Hall Show appearance long ceased being the first thing that comes to mind when people think of him.

  4. The thing about topical comedies is that they’re topical.
    It makes them hysterically funny when they come out and grants them outrageous sales during their run, but they fade quickly with time as the people who loved them move on.

    When I lived in NY, you could tell what the next movie was going to be by what book everyone was reading on the train to NYC during their commute to and from work. I have no idea if that is still true, but in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s it most certainly was.

    1. Orvan Taurus says:

      And yet, it can be done well. Consider Looney Tunes… funny long after many of the references are far more dated.

      1. As Bugs Bunny turned to the audience once and said, “You know how it is with these “A” cards…”

        My dad had to explain that one to *me* in 1960 or so.

        1. Orvan Taurus says:

          I could make a similiar point with Rocky & Bullwinkle – as a kid I missed SO MANY references, that I later ‘got’ years and years later.

          I suppose it might help that I’ve known Eric O. Costello who once maintained a work explaining the 1940’s references in LT – but I found them funny LONG before having encountered EOC and his work. (And fwiw, ‘Open the Door, Richard’ gets old VERY fast – no wonder they took a shot at it, so to speak, with Yosemite Sam.)

      2. You’d be surprised to find out just how much has been edited out of those cartoons by Turner because it was ‘racist’ and how many have been pulled from public distribution.

        1. Orvan Taurus says:

          Alas, I fear I would not be at all surprised. Considering what the last TV network to air them on Saturday mornings did to them… no wonder kids said they made no sense and weren’t any good. When you take one of the ‘Hunter Trilogy’ (“Duck Season” “Rabbit Season” etc.) and CUT out EVERY gunshot… blargh.

  5. Carrington Dixon says:

    Which also explains why only folks of a certain age find Stan Freberg funny.

  6. Tom Roderick says:

    Bingo! I think you nailed it Jeff when you said we have lost our common culture. At 72 I do remember when there was a common culture and while there were disagreements and arguments a plenty, at least there was some common background so each faction or group could at least listen to and understand the others. Now we have devolved into tribes with different languages and cultures and communication between or among them is now virtually impossible. Glad I am 72 and not 27.

  7. Roy Harvey says:

    YES!!!!! One of the funniest – and most age-dependent – bit of humor I have encountered.

    Actually I think there are plenty of brand names that could be used today, it is just that they can be so ephemeral.

    Bullwinkle… to a large degree my personal humor is based on Bullwinkle. And Bugs Bunny is another of my foundations.

    In terms of books that make me laugh over and over, I would have to add No Time for Sergeants. The movie with Andy Griffith follows it very closely, and both are great. The TV show was horrible.

    1. Orvan Taurus says:

      Ah, Bullwinkle. Watched that when Rather Young and enjoyed it. Watched it so many years later and got (more of) the jokes. The animation might be lousy, but it was well-written and that DOES matter.

  8. Lee Hart says:

    Jeff, I think you nailed it. Humor requires a “control normal” reference. The way to make something funny is to contrast, parody, or satire what is “normal”.

    As we lose our sense of what is normal, it becomes much harder to write good humor.

    It’s very hard to write good humor that works over time. To do so it has to contrast with bedrock foundations in human behaviour that are universally true.

    The humor of Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” is a good example. He could do topical (like Simple J. Malarkey for Sen. Joe McCarthy). But he also did universal humor (like his timeless Christmas carol “Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla Walla wash, and Kalamazoo, Nora’s freezing on the trolley, Swaller dollar cauliflower alley’garoo!) Most of his characters and the situations they get in are completely familiar today; and probably will be for the forseeable future.

    1. Orvan Taurus says:

      That’s sort of a curious thing. For me, the “Boston Charlie” bit seems to fall flat, but the rest works fairly well.

  9. ZUrlocker says:

    I had this book in paperback in the early 70s and though it was the funniest thing since Mad magazine. As Twain (or Nietzsche or David Gerrold) said, good taste is the refuge of the witless! You can’t have humor without the willingness to push a boundary somewhere.

  10. Zurlocker says:

    I had this book in paperback in the early 70s and though it was the funniest thing since Mad magazine. As Twain (or Nietche or David Gerrold) said, good taste is the refuge of the witless.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *