The Name Game

The Genius of Paul Rhymer, II

By Jim Sizemore

The following short essay about Paul Rhymer’s classic radio program “Vic and Sade,” is one of several I wrote 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 start, I recommend the show “A Letter From Aunt Bess.”

In humorous writing, the name of person, place or thing takes on an importance they seldom have in real life. The names in a funny novel, TV show, play, movie — whatever— often tells us something about the behavior and appearance of a person, or provides interesting clues about the place or thing being depicted. The name “H. K. Fleeber,” for instance, suggests someone given to “dorky” behavior — certainly not a character we would expect to be a brain surgeon. In funny fiction the character of a place may also be defined by its name. If one were to visit a town called “Dismal Seepage, Ohio,” say, one would not be surprised to find oneself in a geographical location featuring a swamp. The same idea applies with named things. A food item called “beef punkles” is a good example. We all know what beef is, but what the hell is a “punkle?” To me, the latter word suggests toughness, a cut of meat that requires forever to cook in the vain hope of rendering it tender enough to eat. (And the word “punkle” alone is — well — it just sounds funny.)

The above examples are from “Vic and Sade,” the radio show by Paul Rhymer that was broadcast on NBC from 1932 to 1944. During that time Mr. Rhymer wrote over three thousand 15 minute scripts, but only a few hundred of the shows still exist on tape. “Vic and Sade” is a simple program. The episodes, which were sandwiched between the popular “soap operas” of the day, consist entirely of conversations between and among the four family members: Vic and Sade Gook, their son Rush, and Sade’s Uncle Fletcher. All the other characters — and there are scores — are vivid despite the fact they are never heard on the air. Rhymer manages to breath life into them through the artful way he has the on-mike characters talk about them, or talk to them on the telephone. The strange names and behaviors he gives them also serve to make them memorable.

Rhymer admitted to being influenced by Charles Dickens, and that influence can be found in the names of his off-mike characters. A few more examples: “Mr. Chinbunny,” the high school principal; “Ike Kneesuffer,” Vic’s next door neighbor and indoor horseshoe-playing buddy; “Ruthie and Ted Stembottom,” Vic and Sade’s card playing neighbors; and other relatives and friends such as “O. X. Bellyman;” “Y. Y. Flirch;” “J. J. J. J. Stunbolt;” “Elton Wheeney;” “I. Edison Box” (love the rhythm of that one); “Miss Edith Klem;” and “Gus Blink.”

Place names come in for the same creative treatment. (How could you ever forget the name of that swamp town in Ohio? You haven’t, have you?) Vic’s friend “Homer U. McDancy” resides in “East Brain, Oregon.” The Gook’s favorite restaurant in town is called the “Little Tiny Petite Pheasant Feather Tea Shoppe.” Sade never misses the washrag sales at “Yamiltons Five and Dime.” Vic is endlessly being billed for his two dollar payment overdue at “Kleeberger’s Department Store.” Several of Uncle Fletcher’s friends live downtown at the “Bright Kentucky Hotel,” which is so close to the railroad tracks that vibrations from passing steam engines cause the beds to “walk” across the floor as hot cinders fly in the open windows.

Paul Rhymer also likes to do switches on place names. He sets an anecdote in “Chicago, Maryland,” for instance, or “St. Paul, Kentucky.” The device may at first seem forced — that is, until one looks at an actual map. There one finds real place names like “Hollywood, Florida,” “Paris, Texas” and “Rome, Georgia.” And did you know that the name of actor James Stewart’s hometown, near Pittsburgh, is actually “Indiana, Pennsylvania?” Rhymer’s humor is based firmly in reality and his place-naming technique points up the fact. The names may be exaggerated, a bit off center, but they’re plausible. They have a familiar sound that adds to the fun.

In addition to his playfulness with the names of people and places, Paul Rhymer enjoyed inventing strange foods, flowers and other everyday items, and he gave them names that on first hearing sound as though they might be real but at the same time are — once more — just slightly off. In her garden, Sade cultivates a species of flower called “Panther Blood.” It’s never described in the scripts, but I always visualize it as being a deep reddish-purple, the color of over ripe eggplant. And when Sade prepares those tough, slow-cooking beef punkles for lunch, Vic is often late getting back to his office at the “Consolidated Kitchenware Company, Plant Number Fourteen,” where he is chief accountant. (His secretary, by the way, is named “Miss Olive Hammersweet.”) For a beef punkles side dish, Sade occasionally serves “scalded rutabaga” with a slice of “limberschwartz” cheese melted on top. Sounds, uh, sort of delicious . . . ?

One last Paul Rhymer food item that I can’t resist. Seems a friend of Uncle Fletcher’s invented “Stingeberry Jam” and a mysterious breakfast cereal called “Brick Mush,” and has persuaded Fletcher to enlist Fletcher’s niece, Sade, to selling the products to her neighbors — much like a milk or bread route. Sade likes Brick Mush but she refuses the Stingeberry Jam franchise because, she says, “It smells bad and churns and writhes and crawls and breathes in the jar.”

This is an edited re-post from June 30, 2008

Copyright © 2013 Jim Sizemore.
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