Heigh-ho, gang. Over here at Diary of A Wimpy Catholic, it’s been a melancholic week — less a case of “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” than “Why doth Thou not just forsake me and beget it over with, already?” If you relate well enough to my writing to have become a regular reader, you must know the drill firsthand, bless your heart.
Around midweek, I began searching for a cheap, wholesome, non-addictive cure for the blues. My first stop was Slate. This online magazine, brainchild of Michael Kinsley and former property of Microsoft, is usually good for a pick-me-up. Running articles with titles like “What It’s Like to Film Polar Bears in the Arctic When You’re Five Months Pregnant,” the editors seem to assume I can relate to yuppies with adventurous streaks who ooze joie de vivre like a calzone oozes grease. I can’t; in fact, I think people like that should be blindfolded and put to work clearing minefields in Central Africa. (They’ll be allowed to write about it winsomely later on, if they’ve hands left.) Still, I do feel flattered by the editors’ assumption. I’d hate to be told, “No, this is too frivolous for you. For people in your tax bracket, we’ve got stories about heart disease and obesity, with all the big words spelled out phonetically.”
Anyway, it was looking for a minute like good old Slate had come through again. Yesterday, David Haglund posted a video comprising every single Itchy and Scratchy short. With The Simpsons in its 23rd or 24th season, the material takes up just over 48 minutes. Eager to be lulled by irony and allusion and blood, I tuned right in.
What a bitter cup that turned out to be. Seeing a cartoon mouse kill a cartoon cat is a lot less visually interesting than I remembered. Basic anatomy limits the number of potential outcomes: Scratchy’s eyes get knocked out; his flesh gets eaten away, exposing his bones; he gets flayed, Marsyas-style; he gets blown or chopped into pieces. Yes, the writers do their best to deliver these thrills in combination, but after about 16 minutes, I realized I’d seen it all.
As the Protestants say in their Bibles, the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. The Simpsons’ writers must have been reading King James, or else they wouldn’t have brought in Poochie for that one episode. For anyone fed up with the cyclical nature of his own existence, that lesson is bound to feel like one hard kick in the clanging cymbals.
Worse, I realized I’d misunderstood the relationship between Itchy and Scratchy. I’d always figured it was one of mutual antagonism — the opening sequence, where they’re hitting each other with bats and mallets, tends to support this reading. Though this is true in some episodes, in others, Scratchy serves as nothing less than Itchy’s sacrificial lamb. He comes to grief not because he’s slower on the draw, but because he’s too trusting, or even too generous. In “Cat Splat Fever,” Itchy catches Scratch’s eye by crying, “Goodbye, cruel world,” and jumping into a well. Desperate to save the mouse, Scratchy jumps in after him, only to find Itchy lying in wait on a ledge halfway down, armed with a shotgun.
It must have been about five minutes into the crying jag when I remembered my mother’s constant complaint about my beloved Three Stooges: “Their relationship is tragic and dysfunctional. They ought to be in therapy.” She must have been about 40 — exactly the age I am now. Maybe, past a certain age, life tenderizes people to the point where dark or transgressive humor becomes a hit or miss affair. Just as my mother wanted to refer Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, Joe, Curly-Joe and Emil to some object-relations guy on Central Park West, I felt like seizing Scratchy by the scruff of his neck — as his own mother must surely have done — and staging an intervention.
“Choose your friends wisely,” I’d tell the cat, shaking him to drive home the point. “Some people are simply not to be trusted. No matter how much they may seem to need you, THEY WILL DO YOU OVER THE MINUTE THEY GET WHAT THEY WANT! GIVE TOO MUCH OF YOURSELF AND YOU WILL GET RODE HARD AND PUT AWAY DIRTY! ARE YOU TAKING THIS IN, YOU TENDERHEARTED MORON, YOU STUPID SAP? DO YOU WANT TO BE A VICTIM FOREVER?”
Realizing I was shouting this aloud — and not at Scratchy, who was nowhere in sight — I decided I’d better find my magic pill elsewhere.
I had some luck re-reading the stories of Saki. “Saki” was the pen name of Englishman Hector Hugh Munro, an arch-conservative journalist who managed to get himself killed on the Western Front in 1916, at the age of 44. Before that, he made himself master of the short short story. A typical Saki offering runs fewer than 1,800 words, and ends with a 90-degree, O. Henry-style twist. Many of his stories, particularly “Sredni Vashtar,” are dark and transgressive enough to make Itchy and Scratchy look like the Smurfs in comparison. But since his characters are all insouciant sprigs of nobility — he could have titled every story “The Continuing Adventures of Jack and Gwendolen” — he normally gives me the same vicarious social boost as Slate.
In “Cousin Teresa,” a 40-year-old ne’er-do-well of a playwright named Lucas Harrowcluff comes up with something he considers “immense.” It’s not a plot, or a character, or even a musical number; instead, it’s a single couplet:
Cousin Teresa takes out Caesar,
Fido, Jock and the big borzoi.
Around that one couplet, an entire musical writes itself, and the musical becomes a hit. The couplet about Cousin Teresa taking out these four dogs soon appears on the lips of every cultured person in England. “Restaurant proprietors,” writes Saki, “were obliged to provide the members of their orchestras with painted wooden dogs on wheels, in order that the much-demanded and always conceded melody should be rendered with the necessary spectacular effects, and the crash of bottles and forks on the tables at the mention of the big borzoi usually drowned the sincerest efforts of drum or cymbals.” To honor his contribution to the culture, the Crown grants Harrowcluff a knighthood.
It should go without saying that this is every writer’s dream, the equivalent of winning the Lottery. Some silly shit that comes to him in the shower (or in Lucas’ case, while dressing) hits just the right note at just the right time. (“Politics and patriotism are so boring and so out of date,” Saki has a “revered lady” say. “That is why one welcomes an intelligible production like ‘Cousin Teresa,’ that has a genuine message for one.”) In the case of “Cousin Teresa,” it actually makes sense — with dogs and a silly-sounding word like “borzoi,” the couplet makes a perfect earworm. What’s not to love?
But then, just as I was picturing some Lillian Gish look-alike strutting across a Belgravia stage, wooden borzoi in tow, something happened. I realized that somewhere up in the stalls, one man, preoccupied by Belgian atrocities in the Congo or Irish Home Rule, would be seething. He’d want to take a hatchet to the borzoi, Fido, Jock, and even Cousin Teresa herself. His scathing review of the musical would show up in some obscure magazine, to be read by absolutely nobody, leaving the embittered author to kill himself slowly with opium and absinthe. This vision brought me right back to square one.
I’m starting to realize that, for melancholic types like me, the search for joy is something ongoing. We have to grab it where we can find it and suck it down quickly like nitrous oxide out of a cartridge. When it wears off, we’re left to wander in search of more. One thing we can never do is stop. We’re like sharks, forever moving and devouring. If that’s not ideal, it beats the alternatives of standing still and starving.
And with that, I think it’s time for me to move on again. Look for me among the South Park clips or the P.G. Wodehouse titles.