The Genius of Paul Rhymer
The following short essay about Paul Rhymer’s classic radio program “Vic and Sade” was written to promote a talk I gave titled Writing Humorous Dialogue at the Institute for Language, Technology, and Publications Design, University of Baltimore, on April 20, 1995. The program featured local actors reading from Vic and Sade scripts. If you want to know more about the work of Paul Rhymer, or listen to one of the taped shows, click on the “Paul Rhymer” and “Vic and Sade” links in the sidebar. For a good place to start, I recommend the show “A Letter From Aunt Bess.”
Here’s a quote from Jean Shepherd, writing in his forward to Vic and Sade: The Best Radio Plays of Paul Rhymer. “Perhaps one of the things that Rhymer did best was to illuminate and dramatize lightly, effortlessly, and without at any point lecturing, the vast gulf that exists between types of people.” Paul Rhymer certainly uses subtle dialogue techniques to point out the gulf that exists between the genders—Sade’s loyalty to her sister’s boring letters, for example, and Vick’s lack of appreciation for same, or their different takes on something as commonplace as table manners. In a 1938 script, the game of baseball serves to point out that men and women will often come at some things from opposite directions. Here’s a bit of that script. (Note that at several points both Sade and Rush refer to Vic as “Gov,” his family nickname.
ANNOUNCER: Well, sir, it’s late afternoon as we enter the small house half-way up in the next block now, and here in the kitchen we find Mrs. Victor Gook and her son, Mr. Rush Gook. This latter individual has just entered from out of doors and at the moment is lightly tossing his cap underneath the sink. Listen:
SADE: All right; go pick that up.
RUSH: I plan to leave again pretty soon.
SADE: Go pick it up. Call that civilized?—a monstrous big high school boy throwin’ his hat on the floor like a pigpen? We got hooks.
Sade’s line, “throwin’ his hat on the floor like a pigpen?” is a malaprop—a jumbling of words which at first doesn’t seem to make sense but still somehow does—and very much in character for her. After a bit more protesting, Rush goes to hang his hat on a nail in the cellarway. In the lines that follow, notice Rhymer’s meticulous attention to visual detail.
RUSH (moving off): Certainly been a fine day outside.
SADE: Hasn’t it though?
RUSH (still moving off): Around noon it was just plain hot.
SADE: Uh-huh. Mr. Gumpox came through the alley an’ I noticed he had his coat folded up an’ layin’ beside him on the seat of the garbage wagon.
RUSH (off a way): Mom, I don’t see any hook. They’re all full of overalls an’ aprons an’ junk.
SADE: You’ll find a place if ya look. There’s squillions of nails there. Hey, what’s your father an’ Mr. Drummond doin’ so much talkin’ about?
RUSH: Where are they?
SADE: Garbage box. Just wavin’ their arms around.
RUSH (returning): They weren’t’ there when I come past just now.
SADE: prob’ly walked home together an’ stopped by the garbage box to finish their talk.
RUSH (almost up): If they’re talking about baseball they never will finish.
SADE: Why do they get so excited? Person’d think one had stole the other’s pocketbook or bumped into his automobile or something.
SADE: Baseball’s only a game ain’t it? (short pause) Guess the argument’s all over. Here comes Gov toward the house.
RUSH: He acts like Mr. Drummond got the best of him. See the little quick steps he takes an’ the way his face is?
SADE (giggles): Uh-huh. (raises voice) Hello there, mister.
VIC (cheerily enough): Hi, everybody. How’s tricks? (to Sade, as door closes) Paper come yet?
SADE: I doubt it. Boy very seldom shows up this early. What were you an’ Mr. Drummond havin’ such a to-do about? Never saw so much arm wavin’ in my life.
VIC: The arm wavin’ you saw through the window will in no wise unbalance the equilibrium of the world. Life will go on as before.
SADE: No, but a person watchin’ would get the idea you fellas were about to have a fight.
VIC: That may come to pass one of these days. (to himself) The big boob.
SADE: Are you mad at him?
VIC: I wouldn’t condescend to get mad at a creature so handicapped. Mr. Drummond is short the normal quota of brains. Mr. Drummond moves helplessly in a fog of stupidity. Mr. Drummond, in short, is a half wit.
Let’s pause here to fully appreciate Rhymer’s humorous rendering of Vic’s fit of pique, savoring how the angry discourse builds through several stages to its curt climax, the succinct punch word “halfwit.” That word would not have the power it does without the three lines that precede it. This is Paul Rhymer demonstrating the importance of the “set-up” in creating a humorous effect. And no stage directions are required; Vic’s high-toned anger comes through clearly in Rhymer’s word choices. We rejoin the script just in time to enjoy more of Vic’s deconstruction of Mr. Drummond’s intelligence—or lack thereof. (Click on above image to read the caption.)
SADE (giggles): Did you tell him that?
VIC: I intimated as much—an’ more—only I couched my barbs with such subtlety they went over his head like soft summer clouds.
RUSH: Baseball, huh, Gov?
VIC: How’s that?
RUSH: You an’ him were discussin’ baseball?
VIC: One could hardly refer to it as a discussion. I’d vouchsafe a thoughtful opinion an’ Drummond’d come back with a splatter of meaningless words boorishly strung together.
SADE: I was just askin’ Rush, Vic, how grown-up men can work theirself into a frenzy about such stuff.
VIC: Am I worked into a frenzy?
SADE: You acted like you were worked up into something out by the garbage box just now. You an’ Mr. Drummond both.
VIC: What did Master Rush reply when you quizzed him?
SADE (giggles): He said he didn’t know.
VIC: That would be his rejoinder when quizzed on any topic, I believe.
RUSH (chuckles): Aw, c’mon, Gov, don’t take it out on me.
SADE (to VIC): No, but really. If there was a baseball eleven in this town an’ your brother was in it or somebody an’ a fella run down your brother an’ his baseball eleven, I could halfway see why you might let yourself be upset. But these baseball elevens in Chicago an’ around. What do you care?
VIC: Baseball, Sade, is a strong American institution.
SADE: is it?
VIC: Baseball is a wholesome vent for excess nervous energy.
SADE (giggles): Prob’ly is if you’re fullback on the team or somethin’. But all you an’ Mr. Drummond can do is talk about it. I always think of baseball as a game Rush an’ the kids play over in Tatman’s vacant lot. Can’t understand why grown-up men should lose sleep because New York beats Pontiac.
Here Paul Rhymer is using Sade as the “wise fool,” a humorous device popular since before Shakespeare. By making her willfully ignorant of baseball, her seemingly innocent questions skillfully point out the absurdity of Vic and Mr. Drummond’s intense emotional investment in what is, in her eyes, only a child’s pastime. The script goes on for three more pages with Vic offering the high-minded argument that he and Mr. Drummond are passionately interested in baseball because it is a “science.” But we soon discover that their fight out by the garbage box was really over a childish disagreement about who would get to wear the pitcher’s glove if and when they scheduled a regular game of catch to “unwind” after work. Rhymer gives Sade the last word.
SADE: You mean to tell me that two great big men with offices an’ families can jump at each other’s throat over a thing like that—who gets to be pitcher?
VIC (stubborn): Sure.
SADE: Is that baseball, Rush?
RUSH (chuckles): Uh-huh.
SADE: Is that science?