Monologue/Dialogue

May 1, 2013

The Genius of Paul Rhymer, I

By Jim Sizemore

I wrote The following essay about Paul Rhymer’s classic radio program “Vic and Sade” on April 20, 1995, to promote a talk I gave at the University of Baltimore. The program featured 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.”)

Paul Rhymer’s knack for writing dialogue is nowhere more evident than when a character delivers a telephone monologue. Sometimes it’s Vic on the phone curtly dealing with a salesperson or a wrong number, or Rush gabbing with Bluetooth Johnson, Nicer Scott, or another of his buddies from the neighborhood. Most often, though, the telephone monologue falls to Sade when she’s home alone taking a break from her domestic duties. The monologue I’ve chosen as representative is from an undated script, most likely from the early 1940s, since Sade’s amiable Uncle Fletcher is featured. Uncle Fletcher joined the show as an on-mike character around that time, and here makes one of his slapstick entrances. When he enters, in the company of Rush, Sade’s telephone monologue, or “solo,” is transformed into a trio. Actually it’s a quartet if you count “Ruthie,” on the other end of the telephone line.

ANNOUNCER: Well, sir, it’s early afternoon as we enter the small house half-way up in the next block now, and here in the living room we find Mr. Victor Gook all by herself. Mrs. Gook is at the telephone conversing with her close friend and confidante Mrs. Frederick Stembottom. Listen:

SADE (to phone): I didn’t take you away from anything, did I, lady? Well, ish, I haven’t really got anything to say now that I’ve called you. (giggles) Yes . . . well, what happened I went like a house a-fire all morning long and done nine million jobs around the house and then got dinner and pitched in on my upstairs the minute the boys left for the office an’ school, and finally did quit and wash and put on a clean apron and then discovered I’d been on the go so much I couldn’t settle down. (laughs) You know how that is lady. Person gets theirself all keyed up and they hafta slow down gradual or the boiler explodes. (laughs) Yes . . . so I telephoned you. Hey, maybe that’s not very complimentary. (loud lady laugh) No, but you appreciate how I mean, Ruthie. Sure. Yes, isn’t it a quiet afternoon. One of them hushedy-hushedy afternoons where a person sits and listens to pins dropping. Little bit ago I was out on the back porch shaking my mop and ‘way off in the distance somewhere I heard some fella say giddap to his horse and I bet twenty-five cents he was clear away over on Chestnut Street and that’s eight hundred miles from here if it’s an inch. Yeah . . . you run inta real still afternoons every so often. Like Sunday kinda. I was sayin’ to . . . say, lady, hang on a second, I think I heard my kitchen door. (calls) Hello? Groceries? You, Irving?

RUSH (off): Hi, Mom.

FLETCHER (off): Afternoon, Sadie honey.

SADE (calls, in some surprise): Well—hello. (to phone) Uncle Fletcher and Rush just walked in, Ruthie. I can’t imagine what Rush’s doing home from school. (crash in the kitchen) Oh, my goodness. (calls) What happened?

FLETCHER (cheerfully, off) Fell down.

SADE (calls sharply) Who fell down?

RUSH (off, cheerfully): We both fell down.

SADE (not loud): Oh, for mercy’s sake. (to phone) What, Ruthie? No, we don’t need to hang up. There’s no reason why we hafta cut our conversation short just because . . . huh?

RUSH (approaching): Uncle Fletcher tripped on his shoelace, Mom.

FLETCHER (approaching, cheerfully): No broken bones, Sadie, Honey, no broken bones.

SADE (to phone): Well whatever you say, lady. Seems like a shame though. I take you away from whatever you’re doing and just because my family busts in we hafta cut short our . . . (giggles) . . . well, ish.

RUSH (coming up): Principal called a special teachers’ meeting, Mom.

FLETCHER (coming up): Using the telephone, are you, Sadie?

SADE (to phone) No, you needn’t bother to call back, Ruthie.

FLETCHER (gently): Mama’s using the telephone, Rush. I’d stop my titters, whimpers, and guffaws.

RUSH (amused): O. K.

FLETCHER (sententiously) When the older folks is using the telephone it’s always best to let up on the titters, whimpers and guffaws.

RUSH (chuckling): I’m letting up on ‘em.

FLETCHER: You’re a good boy.

SADE (to phone): Well, all righty, Ruthie, whatever you say. Dandy. Fine.

FLETCHER (to Rush, sententiously) There was a little boy in Detroit Michigan neglected to let up on his titters, whimpers and guffaws while Momma was using the telephone and he disappeared and all they ever found was one of his tiny patent leather booties, the tassel singed at the bottom.

RUSH (chuckles): I’ll remember that.

FLETCHER (gently): Yes—it teaches us a lesson.

SADE (to phone): All righty then, Ruthie lady, we’ll leave it like that. You bet. All righty, Ruthie. You betty, lady. Goodbye. (hangs up)

The Last Word
Even before Uncle Fletcher and Rush enter in this example, Sade’s monologue—through Rhymer’s word choices and emphasis, including pauses, giggles and laughs—becomes a dialogue. It really is a solo, of course, but written so skillfully that we can almost hear her duet with Ruthie on the other end of the line. clip2Rhymer, by his example—assuming we’re interested enough to pay attention—is teaching us how to write humorous dialogue even when what he presents appears, at first, to be a monologue. As with the example above, all his lessons are subtle. If we want what he has to teach us, we have to dig it out. After all, Rhymer’s purpose in “Vic and Sade” is not to conduct a writing craft class, he simply want’s to entertain us. But sometimes it does seem that he also intends to instruct us directly, as in the following excerpt from a 1939 script. As we join the Gook family this time, Sade is explaining to Vic that she has been asked by Mr. Gumpox, the garbage man, to circulate a petition in the neighborhood. Seems he’s unhappy with his rate of pay and will consider staying on the job only if Sade can get six hundred signatures, which he assumes will influence the city to give him a raise. (Click on image above to read the caption.)

SADE: Let’s see. I think I can remember most of that petition. “We, the undersigned, being in sane mind an’ sound body, do hereby command, request, an’ implore that Francis Gumpox be retained by the city. As homeowners with a passionate love for a beautiful town in which to live we feel that this community could never stand to lose the services of Francis Gumpox, who knows and loves garbage like no other man on earth.”

VIC (laughs): Oh, for gosh sakes, does that guy . . .

SADE: Wait a second, I left out a word. “Who knows and loves garbage disposal like no other man on earth.”

VIC (chuckles): Thunder.

SADE (giggles): The other word sounds funny . . . “knows an’ loves garbage like no other man on earth.”

VIC (chuckles): It all sounds funny.

© 2013 Jim Sizemore
This is an edited re-post from July 14, 2008

 


The Name Game

April 24, 2013

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.

Neil Simon On Playwriting

August 24, 2011

Adapted from: The Craft of the Playwright

The New York Times, May 26, 1985

I grew up in New York and worked in radio and in television for 10 years. Then I said, “If I don’t start to write a play and start to get out soon, I’ll be writing ‘My Three Sons’ for the rest of my life,” which I did not want to do.

There will never be any satisfaction for me unless I can write what I feel I want to say. And I wrote that first play (“Come Blow Your Horn”) — and it was a matter of life and death for me.

Mike Nichols and I were doing “Plaza Suite” in Boston many years ago, and the first act was too long — it wasn’t that it was too long, we were getting too many laughs in a scene that we thought was basically serious. So Mike and I started to cut out all of the laugh lines, and they started to laugh at other lines that they had never laughed at. They just wanted to laugh!

I’ll write a scene that is really funny, and then I try to switch it quickly, because I think that happens in life a lot. You know, in the middle of some wonderful moment you get a phone call with tragic news. There have been a few occasions in plays when I’ve done that, and the audience is really thrown by it. Sometimes it works, and sometimes they resent it. They feel that they’ve been taken or had a little bit.

My experience has been that if you write a situation well enough, the tension is so great that the audience will laugh whether you provide it or not. But many times when it’s either laugh or cry, a lot of them don’t want to cry. And they will pick out a moment — a line, a gesture, whatever it is — to laugh at. It becomes part of the play after a while. I expect it night after night — never having intended it in the beginning. There’s just so much that they can handle. You force the audience to deal with a great deal in the theater.

The thing I think most about when I’m writing is what goes on in the bedroom between the husband and wife. I don’t mean the obvious, but what they really say to each other.

I know when my unconscious is doing the writing, because when my conscious is doing it, it seems familiar to me when I see it later on. Let’s say I haven’t seen the play in eight weeks or something, and I go and watch it. I say, “I didn’t write that. That has nothing to do with me. That came out of somebody else.” I know that’s the unconscious writing. And that’s where the surprises come from. And that’s like mercury. You just grab that if you can; it’s really hard. I can’t pin it down, but I know it’s probably very important to my psyche — that bit of information. I say, “That’s what I’ve been keeping hidden.” It’s a dangerous game. If you don’t grab it, then you don’t have it anymore. But it’s also the most exhilarating. I can get up and go, “What? That was terrific! You just caught a great long fly ball.”

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” took nine years from the inception of the idea. I let it sit for six years. It just kept going in my mind. I would think about it, and six years later I wrote 35 pages. I said, “This is good, but I don’t know how to write the play.” I’d never written a play like that — sort of a tapestry, where everybody’s story is very important. I generally had written plays about two characters and the peripheral characters and how they are involved in it. And it took a long time — another three years. And then I sat down and went right through the play. But the unconscious is doing the work. It’s typing away.

I don’t know what it’s like not to write. I don’t do it every day of the year, and I do take time off, but I feel empty if I don’t have something to work on. The trick is not  to get caught up in something that’s not working just for the sake of working. But I feel very happy when I can say I’ve got an idea for something that I think is worth doing. And then I can leave it alone and not work at all — it can just do its own work there while I go to the beach or play some tennis.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


Paul Rhymer

April 6, 2011

The following post is the Foreword, written by Jean Shepard, to “VIC AND SADE: The Best Radio Plays of Paul Rhymer.” The book was published in 1976 and edited by Mary Frances Rhymer, Paul’s widow. The Shepard essay runs a bit over 2600 words, very long for a blog post but, in my humble opinion, well-written and worth the effort. If you’re already a Rhymer fan you know what I’m talking about. If not, you may well be one by the time you’re finished this entertaining introduction to the show. For additional posts from the DoodleMeister archives about Paul Rhymer’s work, including pictures of the cast, type his name (or the name of the  show) into the little window at the top of the sidebar and tap the “search” prompt, then scroll down to the older posts.

By Jean Shepard

One day when I had to stay home from the Warren G. Harding School because of some Kid problem like a sty or a case of diarrhea and everything was quiet in the house in the Northern Indiana steel-mill town where we lived, half-way up in the next block on Cleveland Street, I suddenly heard my mother laughing uproariously in the kitchen.  I struggled out of bed to see what was going on.  There she was, sitting at our white enamel kitchen table, wearing her rump-sprung Chinese Red chenille housecoat, her hair festooned with aluminum rheostats, laughing her head off.

“What’s up, Mom?”

She waved weakly at me. She giggled again.

“What’s happening, Mom?”

She wiped tears away from her eyes with a soggy dishtowel.

“Walter’s kneecap is acting up again.”

“Huh?” I asked in the best Rush Gook style.

“Go back to bed.  Can’t you see I’m listening to the radio?”

She was indeed.  She had a white plastic Sears Roebuck Silvertone radio with a cracked plastic cabinet, badly repaired with adhesive tape, on top of our beloved Hotpoint refrigerator.  It was her constant companion.  It hummed and gave her shocks continually, but out of its imitation gold speaker grill flowed her secret world of fantasy and entertainment.  She was one of millions of lucky and discerning housewives who had the good fortune to  actually hear ‘Vic & Sade’.  They are, naturally, a decreasing band, the lucky ones, but they all, to the last one, remember whole episodes and places, people, and the Chicago and Alton freight yards.  Paul Rhymer was  unknown to most of them, as he is to most of the civilized world today.  There is just no one to compare him with.  As far as I know, no one working in the mass media has ever created such a complete and flawless world, peopled with characters so fully realized.

Most work done for the mass media is highly perishable by its very nature.  Unfortunately, also by the very nature of mass media, the mediocre and the banal tends to outlive the truly creative and original. The ‘Lone Rangers’ and ‘Green Hornets’ are forever dredged up as examples of “The Golden Age of Radio,” while unfortunately the true gold is mentioned rarely, if it all.

My memory of the actual show as broadcast is episodic because ‘Vic & Sade’ was a daytime show.  Radio, in those days, as television does to this very day, reserved its night-time prime hours for the “important” shows.  Daytime hours were packed with things designed for “housewives”, usually a term tinged with slight derision in network offices.  Therefore, not only was the great work of Paul Rhymer burned up by the nature of mass media itself, it was doubly cursed by being cast among the quicksand shoals of the world of Soap Opera.  It’s as though “Death of a Salesman” or “Our Town” had debuted on a typical Wednesday afternoon between “As the World Turns” and “Against the Storm”, followed by “The Hollywood Squares”.

Being a kid at the time, daytime was spent going to school, or outside just fooling around, but on the few times that I did hear ‘Vic & Sade’, Blue-Tooth Johnson, Rooster Davis, Third-Lieutenant Stanley and Mr. Gumpox’s horse Howard became firmly embedded in my subconscious–forever.  I remember nothing of ‘The Lone Ranger’ except “Hi Ho, Silver!”, which is not much of a line when you think of it.  All I remember of Fred Allen is his phony Chinese accent when he was playing a detective, but Smelly Clark’s Uncle Strap taking his lady friend to Peoria for a fish dinner somehow got me where I lived.  Maybe it was because Paul Rhymer created TRUE humor.  He did not deal in jokes, but human beings observed by a sardonic, biting, yet loving mind.

Rhymer has been compared to Harold Pinter by some, Mark Twain by others.  Personally I feel that Rhymer was a complete original.  Curiously enough, Rhymer READS better than any of the so-called “serious” writers of his era.  The ‘Vic & Sade’ scripts are not only still fresh and funny, but are absolutely recognizable as an authentic picture of American life which persists in millions of homes today.  Yamilton’s Department Store, Peoria, the peanut machine at the Depot, Consolidated Kitchenware, Plant Fourteen, The Sacred Stars of the Milky Way were never touched by Steinbeck or Odets.  The Okies are a quaint period piece, but Gloria Golden is still playing at the Bijou.  Her name may be Faye Dunaway or Raquel Welch.  Rush’s complaint “All they ever have in movies is Love, Love, Love. Boy, they sure are boring” could have been said yesterday afternoon.

Another thing that amazes me is Rhymer’s wild and subtle imagination.  Wild in the sense of being totally unpredictable, and subtle in that he touched at all times on the faint vein of madness that runs through all of us.  He rarely went for the obvious; hence he preceded the Theater of the Absurd by decades.  In fact, it is my opinion that in some ways he is far closer to Ionesco in spirit than he was to Thornton Wilder, who sentimentalized American life in a way that Rhymer’s sense of irony refused to allow.  For example, “The Washing Machine is On the Blink” combines the American Do-It-Yourself syndrome, Masochism, and the continual breakdown of modern technology in such a totally nutty way as to be completely logical in the way a Marx Brothers scene involving a grand piano, a stuffed duck, a bolt of lightning and an out-of-work Fire Chief does.  In some twelve minutes of inspired dialog, Rhymer convinces us that two otherwise sane human beings, down in the basement trying to fix the washing machine, begin to enjoy electric shocks, experimenting with various electric shock techniques, finally conspiring to lay one on an unsuspecting mother, all the while cackling maniacally in ecstatic pleasure.  There are very few minds that could possibly conceive of the electric shock as pleasure, but that’s Rhymer for you.  I, personally, am curious just what your average nice, hard-working housewife of the period thought when she heard that one.  I suspect more than a few crept down into the basement covertly and tried sticking their fingers into hot AC outlets while standing in puddles.

Another example of Rhymer at his surreal best is the little gem called “Caramels on a Hot Day”, in which we find Rush, as he puts it, “stirring up a little excitement” by sitting on the front porch, making round balls out of square three-for-a-penny caramels.  Think about that for a moment.  a hot day, caramels, and boredom.  This is exactly what a kid does do, squatting on a front porch in the heat of summer, but who thinks to build a fifteen-minute drama to be broadcast to millions out of that dynamic situation?  Better yet, who but Paul Rhymer could pull off such a feat, or would have the courage to do it even if he could?  Rhymer obviously was very sure about his work in a medium where that kind of security and self-knowledge is almost non-existent.

In a way it’s too bad that Paul Rhymer never wrote for the more recognized media. Great reputations exist in the theater or the novel on far less profound and effective work than Rhymer’s. In fact, he probably wrote more funny lines in one month of daily scripts than the combined output of five of the leading playwrights of modern times. Not only that his characters were truer, more consistent, and far better realized. Remember, reading these scripts in published book form is barely skimming the thinnest surface of the body of Vic & Sade. These works were written to be performed, and yet in spite of that they come alive, snapping and crackling, off the page. One reason, technically, is that Rhymer created a vast cast of unseen and unheard people who were every bit as alive and interesting as Vic, Sade, Rush, and Uncle Fletcher. Fred and Ruthie Stembottom and their continual snaillike drives in Fred’s old automobile to Chenoa, Illinois, and Ruthie’s “scared rabbit” smile; Mr, Ruebush, Vic’s boss at the plant; Ike Kneesuffer’s indoor horse-shoe set in his basement; Miz Husher’s continual peevishness, and, of course, Vic’s beloved lodge brothers in the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way – Robert and Slobert Hink, Y. Y. Flirch and H. K. Fleeber, are all part of the well developed cast of millions.

Not all of Vic & Sade’s episodes were pure fun and games. In fact, they rarely were. Practically every episode had little shafts of insight, and often sadness, that would come and go like the brief hints of darker things we all have in our own lives, Sade’s tenderness over poor old Uncle Fletcher’s wandering mind; Vic’s understanding of Rush, and his obvious love for Sade, comes through in a beautifully written and subtle episode called “Vic Confides in Rush about Mothers.” It contains hints of the inevitability of death, references to the “Empty Nest” syndrome (Rhymer was thirty years ahead of psychiatrists on this one), overlaid with a beautifully realized treatment of masculine relationships. In addition, he managed to be funny. Rhymer must have been a hell of an interesting man to know.

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. I have never read a better short story touching on the smothering boredom, yet natural concern we feel in the presence of close relatives than in “Vic Reviews a Vacation Week with Bess and Walter in Carberry.” Poor Walter and Bess, trying so hard to entertain Vic, and Vic trying so hard to be entertained, while Sade all the while blithely chatters on with her sister Bess, never realizing that Vic’s only vacation for the year is going down the drain. This episode, by the way, points out another quality in Rhymer’s work. He never ridiculed or put down people merely because they are what they are. However, he is razor-sharp when it comes to blasting the fraudulent and the inane. “Vic Is Elected to the Congress of Distinguished Americans” is a classic example of Rhymer putting another one right in the bull’s-eye. This particular con has been around for a long time, and there are countless walls in dens all over the country upon which hang framed scrolls proclaiming “officially” the profound and notable greatness of the yahoo who pays the rent. In fact, it was only last week that I received, personally, three notices in the mail informing me that I had been selected “to be signally honored” by outfits with names very much like The Congress of Distinguished Americans. I remind you that this particular episode was aired ’way back in the Thirties.

Some of Rhymer’s funniest stuff dealt with that all-pervasive goofiness of the moth Century – the movies. Vie, particularly, was great on the subject. In fact, in “Stembottom’s Invitation to Drive Thirty-five Miles to a Double Feature” we find Vic emitting “low, painful groans” for three full pages of dialog when faced with the nightmare of attending a double feature of two pictures he had already seen, and hated the first time around, and which he describes as “rotten, rotten, rotten.” Nobody in today’s situation comedies is ever remotely as honest about a fellow medium. Does Archie Bunker ever blast the movies, or even mention them at all? Does Mary Tyler Moore? Never. That’s the thing about the characters in Vic & Sade. They lived in the real world, where people really do say such things as movies are rotten, or Yamilton’s Department Store is throwing another one of “them phony Sales.”

Judging from his scripts, if Rhymer were alive today he would probably snort in derision at the pompous tone of this foreword, but I also suspect he would secretly have enjoyed it. Rhymer was an artist, and no artist who ever lived ever turned down a tribute to his work. I think I should point out a few techniques that Rhymer used that everybody tries but few master. Most contemporary writers for mass media simply feed a series of one-liners to their characters, go for the cheap laugh, and hope that no one is the wiser. Rhymer, in contrast, wrote dialog; succinct, spare, yet with an absolutely true ear for the rhythms and infections of American speech. This is much easier to talk about, or discuss in class, than to accomplish. Obviously, Rhymer was a very gifted listener. A few brief examples:

SADE: Sounds like somebody’s trying to knock our front door in.

RUSH: That stug cookin’ on the gas stove okay, Mom?

SADE: Why?

RUSH: Makin’ a gurgling sound like it needed water.

Now that’s nice. People talk like that. This, if you wish to read the rest of the dialog, which gets better as it goes along, can be found in “Manual for Wives of Sky Brothers in the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way.” There is also some very nifty Latin, a language not often heard on mass media. No pun intended.

Finally, I should point out that the announcer was also an integral part of the daily drama. My mother, for one, loved him. I think his name was Bob Brown. His subtle, confidential style set the tone for the daily session of eavesdropping in the small house halfway up in the next block. My mother to this day tells about the time, not more than five minutes into the episode, the cast, including the announcer, got to laughing so hard over some nuttiness that Rhymer had come up with that the entire show was a shambles. They just laughed and chuckled until finally they gave up trying to be Vic and Sade and Rush and Uncle Fletcher and went off the air, hooting and hollering and leaving millions of listeners in kitchens everywhere doing the same thing. When I was just beginning in the business, I had the rare honor to meet the fine actress who played “Sade.”’ She looked just like Sade should look. She looked, well, like Sade. The series was long off the air, but was rapidly growing as a legend. I asked her what was the hardest thing about playing Sade on a daily basis, year in and year out. Naturally, I figured she’d say something like “endless rehearsals,” how tough the grind was, and so on.

“Well, son, I’ll tell you,” she said, sounding exactly like Sade about to straighten out Rush on some fine point of life. “The hardest thing was to keep a straight face. Sometimes those scripts were so funny that we had to fight all the way through the show just breaking up, And the more we rehearsed, the funnier it got. Why, I remember one day having to turn my face to the wall while Uncle Fletcher was telling me about a trip he took to Cairo, Illinois, in the company of one of his friends. The engineer was on the floor, the announcer had to leave the room, and I can tell you it wasn’t easy.”

What better compliment can an actor pay a writer?

I have one practical suggestion for those of you who have had the great sense to pick up this volume of scripts. Read them aloud. Get three or four good friends together and decide who’s going to play Vic, who will be Sade, and finally Rush and poor old Uncle Fletcher. You can call in your next door neighbor to do the announcing. Ten to one you’ll be doing VIC and SADE episodes until five in the morning. Have fun. That’s what Paul Rhymer and Vic & Sade are all about.

Copyright © 1976 Jean Shepard.

Today’s Gag

May 10, 2010
Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

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Monologue

July 14, 2008

The Genius of Paul Rhymer

The following short essay (the last of three) 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 start I recommend the show “A Letter From Aunt Bess.”)

Paul Rhymer’s knack for writing dialogue is nowhere more evident than when he has one of his characters deliver a telephone monologue. Sometimes it’s Vic on the phone curtly dealing with a salesperson or a wrong number, or Rush gabbing with Bluetooth Johnson, Nicer Scott, or another of his buddies from school or the neighborhood. Most often, though, the telephone monologue falls to Sade, usually when she’s home alone taking a break from her domestic duties. The monologue I’ve chosen as representative is from an undated script, most likely from the early 1940s, since Sade’s amiable Uncle Fletcher is featured. Uncle Fletcher joined the show as an on-mike character around that time and here makes one of his slapstick entrances. When he enters, in the company of Rush, Sade’s telephone monologue, or “solo,” is transformed into a trio. Actually it’s a quartet if you count “Ruthie,” on the other end of the line.

ANNOUNCER: Well, sir, it’s early afternoon as we enter the small house half-way up in the next block now, and here in the living room we find Mr. Victor Gook all by herself. Mrs. Gook is at the telephone conversing with her close friend and confidante Mrs. Frederick Stembottom. Listen:

SADE (to phone): I didn’t take you away from anything, did I, lady? Well, ish, I haven’t really got anything to say now that I’ve called you. (giggles) Yes . . . well, what happened I went like a house a-fire all morning long and done nine million jobs around the house and then got dinner and pitched in on my upstairs the minute the boys left for the office an’ school, and finally did quit and wash and put on a clean apron and then discovered I’d been on the go so much I couldn’t settle down. (laughs) You know how that is lady. Person gets theirself all keyed up and they hafta slow down gradual or the boiler explodes. (laughs) Yes . . . so I telephoned you. Hey, maybe that’s not very complimentary. (loud lady laugh) No, but you appreciate how I mean, Ruthie. Sure. Yes, isn’t it a quiet afternoon. One of them hushedy-hushedy afternoons where a person sits and listens to pins dropping. Little bit ago I was out on the back porch shaking my mop and ‘way off in the distance somewhere I heard some fella say giddap to his horse and I bet twenty-five cents he was clear away over on Chestnut Street and that’s eight hundred miles from here if it’s an inch. Yeah . . . you run inta real still afternoons every so often. Like Sunday kinda. I was sayin’ to . . . say, lady, hang on a second, I think I heard my kitchen door. (calls) Hello? Groceries? You, Irving?

RUSH (off): Hi, Mom.

FLETCHER (off): Afternoon, Sadie honey.

SADE (calls, in some surprise): Well—hello. (to phone) Uncle Fletcher and Rush just walked in, Ruthie. I can’t imagine what Rush’s doing home from school. (crash in the kitchen) Oh, my goodness. (calls) What happened?

FLETCHER (cheerfully, off) Fell down.

SADE (calls sharply) Who fell down?

RUSH (off, cheerfully): We both fell down.

SADE (not loud): Oh, for mercy’s sake. (to phone) What, Ruthie? No, we don’t need to hang up. There’s no reason why we hafta cut our conversation short just because . . . huh?

RUSH (approaching): Uncle Fletcher tripped on his shoelace, Mom.

FLETCHER (approaching, cheerfully): No broken bones, Sadie, Honey, no broken bones.

SADE (to phone): Well whatever you say, lady. Seems like a shame though. I take you away from whatever you’re doing and just because my family busts in we hafta cut short our . . . (giggles) . . . well, ish.

RUSH (coming up): Principal called a special teachers’ meeting, Mom.

FLETCHER (coming up): Using the telephone, are you, Sadie?

SADE (to phone) No, you needn’t bother to call back, Ruthie.

FLETCHER (gently): Mama’s using the telephone, Rush. I’d stop my titters, whimpers, and guffaws.

RUSH (amused): O. K.

FLETCHER (sententiously) When the older folks is using the telephone it’s always best to let up on the titters, whimpers and guffaws.

RUSH (chuckling): I’m letting up on ’em.

FLETCHER: You’re a good boy.

SADE (to phone): Well, all righty, Ruthie, whatever you say. Dandy. Fine.

FLETCHER (to Rush, sententiously) There was a little boy in Detroit Michigan neglected to let up on his titters, whimpers and guffaws while Momma was using the telephone and he disappeared and all they ever found was one of his tiny patent leather booties, the tassel singed at the bottom.

RUSH (chuckles): I’ll remember that.

FLETCHER (gently): Yes—it teaches us a lesson.

SADE (to phone): All righty then, Ruthie lady, we’ll leave it like that. You bet. All righty, Ruthie. You betty, lady. Goodbye. (hangs up)

The Last Word
Even before Uncle Fletcher and Rush enter, Sade’s monologue—through Rhymer’s word choices and emphasis, including pauses, giggles and laughs—becomes a dialogue. It really is a solo, of course, but written so skillfully that we can almost hear her duet with Ruthie on the other end of the line. Rhymer, by his example—assuming we’re interested enough to pay attention—is teaching us how to write humorous dialogue even when what he presents appears, at first, to be a monologue. As with the example above, all his lessons are subtle. If we want what he has to teach us, we have to dig it out. After all, Rhymer’s purpose in “Vic and Sade” is not to conduct a writing craft class, he simply want’s to entertain us. But sometimes it does seem that he also intends to instruct us directly, as in the following excerpt from a 1939 script. As we join the Gook family in the little house halfway up in the next block this time, Sade is explaining to Vic that she has been asked by Mr. Gumpox, the garbage man, to circulate a petition in the neighborhood. Seems he’s unhappy with his rate of pay and will consider staying on the job only if Sade can get six hundred signatures, which he assumes will influence the city to give him a raise. (Click on image above to read the caption.)

SADE: Let’s see. I think I can remember most of that petition. “We, the undersigned, being in sane mind an’ sound body, do hereby command, request, an’ implore that Francis Gumpox be retained by the city. As homeowners with a passionate love for a beautiful town in which to live we feel that this community could never stand to lose the services of Francis Gumpox, who knows and loves garbage like no other man on earth.”

VIC (laughs): Oh, for gosh sakes, does that guy . . .

SADE: Wait a second, I left out a word. “Who knows and loves garbage disposal like no other man on earth.”

VIC (chuckles): Thunder.

SADE (giggles): The other word sounds funny . . . “knows an’ loves garbage like no other man on earth.”

VIC (chuckles): It all sounds funny.

END


Baseball

July 7, 2008

The Genius of Paul Rhymer

The following short essay about Paul Rhymer’s classic radio program “Vic and Sade” (the second of three), 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 most likely always come at some things from opposite directions. Here’s a bit of that script. (Note 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.

RUSH: Yeah.

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?

The third Rhymer essay, Monologue, will post next Monday.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.