Ask Me: Prepositions


I am a university student (a very mature student), studying Modern Languages and Second Language Education. I find it odd that I feel like I am getting less confident in my language skills the more I study language (in fact, I am feeling self-conscious as I write to you now–I hope this feeling will eventually go away). Anyway, I wonder about using the preposition at instead of in.  Please consider this example:  “We are living at a time when almost anyone can obtain a university degree.” I have spoken this way, and heard others do the same, but is it correct? Another example is, “I am a student at university.” I do not think it is, but it nags at me, and I am too embarrassed to ask one of my professors.

“Correctness” of prepositions is a notoriously dicey proposition (no pun intended), so please don’t be embarrassed! That is, a lot of the time, their use is purely idiomatic, with no particular relation to the meaning of the word. One example is the preposition that comes after “enamored” in the expression that means “in love with.” “Enamored of” used to be prevalent; now, I think, “enamored with” is more popular. In your example, I personally would use the word “in” instead of “at,” but judging from your experience, I bet “at” is gaining favor and will eventually prevail.”At university” is the prevalent British usage, I think. Americans would tend to say “I am a college student,” or “I am in college.” You don’t say where you live. From this example, and because you identify yourself as “a university student,” my guess is the U.K., or at least a Commonwealth country.

Ask Me: Lie or Lay?


When I was young, as part of her regular grammar corrections, my mother would say, “People lie, chickens lay eggs.” Apparently people regularly lay eggs or the use of “to lie” in the sense of being in a horizontal position has all but disappeared. I almost never hear anything but “lay” when people mean “lie.” E.g., “I was laying around yesterday” or “I’m laying on my bed.”

Unfortunately for me, this particular use (misuse) always makes me cringe, even as I try to be open to evolving language. It seems I’m either going to have to adjust or live with visions of humans laying eggs all about.  In British writing, I do see lie used correctly where U.S. writers would use lay. Based on this fact alone, I have contemplated emigrating to the UK! Do you have any thoughts on the usage of these two verbs?–Allison McNeill

Well, maybe “all but disappeared” is an exaggeration, but Allison is definitely right about the popularity of “lay” as present tense for the act of assuming a supine position. To give one example out of millions, The Oakland Tribune last week had this headline: “Girlfriend says Waterford man threatened to lay down on railroad track.”

It’s a little hard to precisely calculate the relative popularity of “lie” and “lay” in this context, since the latter has a lot of traditional present-tense transitive uses (not only what chickens do, but “lay down arms,” “lay a carpet,” “lay down the law,” and a venerable off-color use, alluded to in a famous Dorothy Parker crack). To eliminate some of these, I set up a Google Fight for the phrases “to lay around” and “to lie around.” “Lay” won by a more than 50 percent margin:

As Allison’s mother’s dictum suggests, this usage, and the dismay over it, have both been around a long time. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, predictably, shows that it’s been used by well-respected authors including Byron (“there let him lay”), O.Henry (“he laid down on his side of the bed”), William Faulkner (“he knowed where that old soon of a gun would be laying”), Flannery O’Connor (“I’m letting it lay”), and Harry Truman (“I don’t want anybody … to lay down on the job”). But note that Truman was talking in an interview, the O’Connor quote is from a letter, and the O.Henry and Faulkner examples are from an untutotored narrator and character, respectively. The point being that this usage has long been quite common in speech and other informal uses. And clearly, far from disappearing, it is inexorably rising.

Allison is right on the U.K. thing–all of the writers mentioned are American (except for Byron, and Merriam-Webster’s thinks he just used it for the sake of a rhyme with “spray” and “bay”). So, to answer your question, my main thought is that if you want be shielded from this, make sure your visa is in order.

 Ask Me: Origin of “Don’t Sleep On…”


What’s the origin of the suddenly ubiquitous “Don’t sleep on. . .” as a swap for “don’t underestimate”? It’s everywhere in sports the last year or two–Jeff MacGregor, ESPN, via Twitter (@MacGregorESPN)

I had to somewhat sheepishly tell Jeff that I had never enountered the expression. And there went my best excuse for watching so much sports on TV, viz., that at least it gives me a total command of sports announcers’ cliches. Checking the various databases, I saw, first, that he was right about the current popularity. Among hundreds of other examples, I found this line from a fantasy baseball blog: “Don’t sleep on using your disabled list spots in the draft.” (Don’t know that that one means, either.)

Going back in time on the databases, one of the most recent non-sports uses I found was from a 2009 Renita Walker novel, What’s Done in the Dark: “Don’t sleep on that second CD. It was the shit too.” That led me to hypothesize that the expression originated in African-American vernacular. The hypothesis was borne out as I got in the linguistic wayback machine:

  • “‘Don’t sleep on Oprah,’ said Columbia resident Jessica Jackson as she cheered wildly when Winfrey took the stage.”–Jet, 2007
  • “Don’t sleep on me homey, I bring nightmares to reality.” “Dreams,” a song by the rapper The Game, 2005
  • “Don’t sleep on Lil’ Fizz. He got a lil’ flow.”–Vibe, 2004
  • “Don’t sleep on C. DeLores Tucker, 67, the head of the National Political Congress of Black Women and lately (along with former drug czar William Bennett) one of the biggest critics of ‘gangsta rap.'”–Vibe, 1995
  • “Don’t sleep on ‘Go Wit The Flo,’ a jazzy rap-singing cut on Full Force’s Capitol long-player.”–Billboard, 1992
The earliest use of the phrase with this connotation seemed to come from a November 1989 piece by John Leland in Spin magazine: “Early odds that Two Live Crew will by year’s end release an alternative Green album As Environmentally Conscious as They Wanna Be, with songs like “Eat Pussy Not Irradiated Food Products,” are 1 in 238. Don’t sleep on it.”
I say “seemed” because it’s not 100 percent clear exactly what Leland, currently a writer at the New York Times, meant by the phrase. He and I have a mutual friend, so in a Woody Allen-Marshall McLuhan moment (see the video below if you don’t get the reference), I e-mailed Leland and asked him. He responded, “‘Don’t sleep on XXXX’ was common hip hop parlance at the time, and it had a bit of a competitive or warning edge to it: Don’t forget about XXXX or it’ll rise up and bite you.”
And the 1989 Spin reference? “If you tortured me,” Leland wrote, “I couldn’t remember writing that.”
Well, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and, until informed otherwise, will name John Leland the first print user of metaphorical “Don’t sleep on.”

Dylan and AABA


No, that title isn’t a typo for the Swedish group ABBA. Rather, it’s a representation of the classic structure of the American popular song: Chorus (A)-Chorus-Bridge (B)-Chorus. Probably something over 90 percent of the Great American Songbook has this form, everything from “Over the Rainbow” to “I Get a Kick Out of You” to “The Lady Is a Tramp” to so many more (Including the Beatles’ poppish numbers, such as “Yesterday”). It was on my mind because today is the forty-fourth birthday of Bob Dylan’s album “Nashville Skyline.” I digress to say I remember the hubbub that occurred when it came out–yes, it reached even to the halls of New Rochelle High School. The conversations about how and why Dylan had gone country couldn’t have been that much less animated than the ones taking place just a few years earlier, when he had gone electric.

Anyway, then and now, my favorite song on the album was the ballad “I Threw It All Away.” Over the years, I haven’t been able to understand why it hasn’t become a country classic. Last I looked there were only about three cover versions, one by the very un-country indie rock band Yo La Tengo. The song is in that traditional AABA structure (the bridge starts out “Love is all there is, it makes the world go round…), and it occurred to me that this is also true of a number of other Dylan songs from the period. The first one he did, I think, was “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”–the final song on his pre-“Nashville” disk, “John Wesley Harding.” (Its bridge has the uber-Tin Pan Alley line, “That big fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon…”) Then, on “Nashville Skyline,” also in AABA were “Tonight I’ll Be Stayin’ Here with You,” “Lay, Lady, Lay,” “Peggy Day,” “To Be Alone with You,” and “Country Pie.”

On his next album, “New Morning,” there was “The Man in Me” (used brilliantly in “The Big Lebowski”) and “If Not for You” (cowritten with George Harrison). Coming next, the underrated “Planet Waves” (which should change its name to “The Underrated Planet Waves”) had “On a Night Like This” and “You Angel You”; the next year, on Dylan’s best album, “Blood on the Tracks,” another one of my favorites among his songs, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” was AABA. And that’s it, as far as I know: he used the form from 1968 to ’74, full stop. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like everything else, before and since, is either a variation on the  twelve-bar blues structure or the folk-songish verse-chorus, repeated as many times as deemed necessary, that you find in “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Stuck Inside of Memphis,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” and so many other Dylan classics.

“Something there is” about the AABA structure that brought out a special quality in Dylan, a true fondness and respect for old-fashioned traditions, coupled with solid song-craft and an element of fun. It reflects a lightness one can see in the Dylan of that period, and not many others.

Ask Me: “A” or “An” in Headlines


After completing a crossword in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, I turned to the page witha review of your new book.. The book review at the top of this page is titled ‘A N.J. town fights cancer.” Excuse me, but shouldn’t it read “An N.J. Town …”?–Naomi Sussman

It’s a great question. Not that the editors necessarily had this in mind, but I think the idea is how you imagine someone reading the headline aloud. That is, the whole a/an distinction is based on sound, not letters–we write “a unique” and “an unusual.”  So the logic goes, if someone were reciting the headline, would he or she  say (after the first word) “Enn Jay town fights cancer” or “New Jersey town fights cancer”? I guess on some level the editors thought it was the latter. I would probably go the other way, but I see their logic.

Ask Me: Personal That


I wish you’d write something about the common error of using the word “that” instead of “who” when referring to people. For example, “Ben is the one that wrote the article” or “the people that read Ben’s article will be enlightened.”–W.G. Moss

That kind of bugs me, too, W.G., and has since I started noticing it popping up in my students’ writing about six or seven years ago. I wrote about it in an essay called “The Elements of Clunk”–I took it as one example of an odd long-term trend of people wanting to elongate their writing, even if only by one letter. (Other examples are “one-year anniversary” instead of “first anniversary”; the comma after sentence-starting “But” or “And”; “amongst” instead of “among”; and the expression “not too big of a deal” instead of “not too big a deal.”)

But no matter how much it annoys you and me, it’s not wrong. “That” has been used to refer to persons for a very long time. Shakespeare writes, “By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me”; and Benjamin Franklin says that he gave two rolls “to a woman and her child that came down the river in the boat with us.”

The Google Ngram chart below shows, comparing relative use of “man that” and “man who” between 1700 and the present, shows that “man who” became more popular a bit before Franklin’s time and has continued to be so ever since. But “that” has persisted: Mark Twain wrote “The Man That Corrupted Hadleysburg” in the nineteenth century and Ira Gershwin wrote “The Man That Got Away” in the twentieth.

I still prefer “who.”

Presidents’ Day Special: Ask Me–Apostrophes


A timely “Ask Me” from Ed Hines of Roswell, Georgia:

Where you cite your experience under your new-book section on your home page, should not “years” indicate possession? A missing apostrophe perhaps?

The full quote Ed’s referring to says How to Not Write Bad “is based largely on my twenty years experience teaching writing at the University of Delaware.” And he suggests it should say “twenty years’ experience.” My answer to his first question is “No,” and because of that, my answer to his second question is, “Perhaps, but perhaps not.” (A clue to the [philosophical] place from which Ed is coming is the way he deftly hyphenates “new-book.”)

The apostrophe is without question the traditional way to go. But for some years there has been a move away from it for certain plural “possessives.” Sir Ernest Gowers brings this up in his 1965 revision of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Discussing “Five years’ imprisonment; Three weeks’ holiday, etc.”, Gowers says: “Years andweeks may be treated as possessives and given an apostrophe or as as adjectival nouns without one.” He allows that “the former is perhaps better.” But thirty-one years later, when R.W. Burchfield edited the next (and still current) edition of Fowler’s, he noted:

Since about 1900, many business firms, institutions, and journals have abandoned apostrophes in their titles, e.g., Barclays Bank, Citizens Advice Bureau, DIners Club, Farmers Weekly, Harrods, Mothers Pride Bread, Teachers Training College. (It can be argued that in some of these the word ending in s is a plural word used attributively.) … This trend towards the dropping of the apostrophe in such names and titles seems certain to continue.

And so it has, especially in the world of commerce. The company is Travelers Insurance, apostrophe-free. The magazine of the book industry of Publishers Weekly. Significantly, when the holiday formerly known as Armistice Day changed its name, in 1954, it became Veterans Day, sans apostrophe. The trend definitely holds in unofficial usage. A Google News search of “farmers market” yields, in the first three screens, twenty-two hits without the apostrophe and seven with it. (These are divided between “farmer’s market” and “farmers’ market,” about which more below.) And, to get to the “timely” aspect, a similar Google News search for “Presidents Day”–which is observed today in the U.S. today but is not an official holiday (it’s actually called “Washington’s Birthday”–you could look it up)–yields fifteen hits for both apostrophe and apostrophe-less forms. Again, in some of the latter the apostrophe comes before the “s” and in some it comes after.

Let me address that issue first: if you do use an apostrophe in such cases, it should (almost) always come at the end. This admittedly can be hard to figure out. The trick I use is to think about what I’d do with a word whose plural doesn’t end with an “s.” Thus, you would write “women’s issues,” “the men’s department,” and “children’s toys,” not “women issues,” “the men department,” or “children toys,” which are the equivalent of the apostrophe-less form. It’s almost always, because there are such expressions as “farmer’s tan,” “mother’s little helper,” or (to invoke another holiday) “Mother’s Day,” which refer to attributes, qualities or possessions of a protypical and singular farmer or mom.

I’d say that in a non-business setting, you still do have to use an apostrophe for strong possessives of plurals. By “strong,” I mean where the thing referred to does really belong to the group; you simply could not eschew the apostrophe in the brothers’ room, the Martins’ house, or the bosses’ wishes. But it’s different for “weak” possessives, in which the relationship isn’t one of possession or ownership, but rather association or proximity, and can sometimes be expressed by “for” or “having to do with,” rather than “of.” Getting back to Ed’s question, the “twenty years” don’t in any sense possess the experience; they are associated with it. In these situations, including the apostrophe sounds a trifle fussy, dispensing with it sounds a trifle fast and loose, but you can go either way: “farmers market” or “farmers’ market”; “Presidents Day” or “Presidents’ Day”; “girls club” or “girls’ club”; and “twenty years experience” or “twenty years’ experience.”

Fun on Twitter


In my never-ending attempt to get with the social-media program, I have been regularly posting writing tips on Twitter, with the (logical) hashtag #YagodaTip.

To give you a taste of how much you can cram into 129 characters (I have to leave room for the hashtag) here are a couple of examples:

  • “A lot of good writers use the semicolon well; a lot of bad writers abuse it. There’s one very common semicolon error; this one.”
  • “Do good writers use rhetorical questions? Yes–but they make sure to answer them (or explain why they can’t) in the next sentence.”
  • “A seemingly obvious but often overlooked remedy for word repetition is the use of … wait for it… pronouns.”

If this kind of thing is your cup of tea, follow me: there’s plenty more where that came from.

Ask Me: The Word Stuck


My daughter recently wrote the sentence, “If someone other than Dullhead touched the goose, they stuck.” I think we need something like “got” or “became” before “stuck.” I also think it needs a preposition afterwards saying what he got stuck to (the goose).

I looked up “stuck,” and most online dictionaries say it can be both past tense and past participle.  I would almost never say, “The caramel spilled all over the floor, and I stuck in it.”  I think I could say that, but “I got stuck in it,” or “I became stuck in it,” would be more likely.

Now this could be avoided entirely if she had written the summary of “The Golden Goose” in the present tense.  I recently came across a writing book for children that said, “When you talk or write about what happens in a story, you should always use the present tense.”  In all my years of schooling, I don’t remember ever being instructed to do that.  Have I been doing it wrong all these years?

In the present tense, my daughter’s sentence could read, “If someone other than Dullhead touches the goose, he sticks.”  I prefer to add, “to the goose,” or “to it,” at the end. In the past tense, do we need to add something before “stuck,” and does there have to be a preposition afterwards to explain what he is getting stuck to?–Kimberly Tench

Wow, Kimberly. That’s a lot of questions. Starting with the present-tense plot-summary thing, yes, that’s right, and it’s true not only for children but for graduate students, who would write, for example, “Holden Caulfield leaves his prep school and travels to New York City,” or “Gatsby falls in love with Daisy,” or whatever. A fine point is how to describe something that happened prior to the point in the story you are at. For that, oddly, I favor the past participle, e.g., “Huck’s mother had died years earlier.” Also, you generally use the present tense when referring to the author: “Shakespeare portrays Hamlet as paralyzed by thought.” But, when you shift (sometimes subtly) from talking about the sort of self-enclosed world of the work to the circumstances of its composition, you change to the past tense: “Shakespeare started writing the play shortly after hearing that his mother had died.” (I made that up.) Of course, some writers favor the so-called historical present: “Shakespeare moves to London in 1591…” But that’s a subject for another day.

Moving along to “stuck,” you raise two issues: the need for an auxiliary verb before it and a prepositional phrase after. For both (perhaps unhelpfully), I would say, “It depends.” I would use “get” or “become” if I were emphasizing the state of being stuck and leave them out if I were emphasizing the action of sticking. For example, “We tried to drive the car out of the mud, but it got stuck.” On the other hand: “We rubbed ten balloons on our sweaters and threw them against the wall, but only one stuck.”

You’ll notice that neither of those examples states (there I go using the present tense again) what the thing got stuck to, because it’s clear from the context. If it’s not clear, then you need to specify. For example, “I covered the ball with glue, so when I threw it, it stuck to the house.”

Bottom line: I like your daughter’s summary.

Ask Me: “Advocate For”


Does it bother you that writers in the Times and other publications have recently been putting the word “for” after the word advocate, which already means speak for and hardly needs another “for”?–Richard Dudman

My first impulse was to answer the question, “Not especially.” But on reflection, I’ll change that to “not at all.” One of the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) definition for the verb advocate (without the for) is: “To act as an advocate for; to support, recommend, or speak in favour of (a person or thing).” There is a citation as early as 1599, but nearly two hundred years later, it still met with disapproval as a neologism. Benjamin Franklin wrote in a 1789 letter: “During my late absence in France, I find that several other new words have been introduced into our parliamentary language. For example I find a verb..from the substantive advocate; The gentleman who advocates, or who has advocated that motion… If you should happen to be of my opinion with respect to these innovations, you will use your authority in reprobating them.”

The OED has a separate entry for advocate for, with the same meaning, and citations dating from 1607, including this from Daniel Defoe in 1704: ” I am not Advocating for the Dissenters, but for Representing things as they really are.”

It seems to me that over the years, the two forms have developed different, and useful, meanings. Advocate=recommend. Advocate for=speak or argue on behalf of (as Defoe used it). So, getting back to Mr. Dudman’s question, I’m all for the for.

Another Ask Me: The Passive


Hey, this is fun. Tim Riley writes:

Dear Ben, longtime fan, first time caller. Can you help me explain “passive” construction to my journalism students? Are there any examples when passive tense makes sense and proves useful? And what does the verb “TO BE” have to do with it, or not.

Tim, turn your radio down. I don’t know if this would help with the students, but I always start out with the active voice, which is classic SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT form. That is “Dick kicked Spot.” To make it passive, you turn it around to OBJECT-VERB-SUBJECT: “Spot was kicked by Dick.” The verb “to be” is always part of a passive construction, I think. The example I gave obviously doesn’t seem ideal, for one thing because it adds two extra words (never a good thing in journalism, or in general). A problem also occurs when the passive leaves in its wake the insistent question “By who?” (or “By whom?”). Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, famously said in 1973: “We would all have to say the mistakes were made in terms of comments.” The quote went down in history because Ziegler tried to fudge the key point: who made the mistakes?

But using the passive can make sense and be useful. That’s the case, I would say, when the emphasis is on the object, rather than the subject, including times when the identity of the subject isn’t readily apparent. So (speaking of presidents and journalism), Tom Wicker’s lead sentence in the New York Times on November 23, 1963, was: “President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.” Think how much weaker it would have been if Wicker had felt compelled to avoid the passive, and produced: “An unknown assassin shot and killed President John Fitzgerald Kennedy today.”

A New Feature: Ask Me


I frequently get questions over e-mail about writing, grammar, and usage. It struck me that it might be interesting and enlightening to share some of these on this blog, under the tag “Ask Me.” So please go right ahead and e-mail me any questions, with the subject line “Ask Me.” I’ll answer you right here.

The first entry is below. Here and henceforth, please feel free to weigh in with comments, disagreements, even slings and arrows.

While considering for the umpteenth time what might be a rule to support what I think is the correct comma usage in a particular situation, I thought I should actually check. So I did, and found nothing on the usage. Perhaps you’ve considered the following use and would be willing to provide your views.

If Jane Doe sends me helpful information in an e-mail, I might reply with a message that begins, “Thanks, Jane.” It seems to me that a comma belongs after the declaration of thanks, in part because “Thanks Jane” looks like a sentence but isn’t constructed like one. That’s not a very good reason for a comma.

In your view, does a comma belong before the addressee? Why, or why not?–Joe Nierenberg

Thanks, Joe. And, as that suggests, my answer is that under traditional usage, the comma belongs. Asking “why” is tougher. I guess my reason would start with the fact that “Thanks[,] Jane” is an ellision of a longer sentence, which could be phrased this way: “I hereby thank you, Jane.” The comma belongs in that one because “Jane” is what some usage manuals call “nonessential” (or “nondefining”) element, which calls for a comma before it. For example: “She had a picture taken with the president, Barack Obama.” Or: “My best friend, Jane, is a taxidermist.” Or “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

That said, the general trend is less punctuation over time. That’s especially true in conversational forms like e-mail, texting, and social media posts, in which writing “Thanks, Jane” almost makes it sound like you’re wearing a dark suit with suspenders at a beachfront barbecue. So more and more we’ll be seeing “Thanks Jane” plus related usages like “Hi Jane” and “Text me Jane.”


Doing Good and Doing Well


Today is the official publication date of my new book, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. (Pause for collective “Yay!”) Like every author I know, I’m obsessed with the rankings of my books on If you are not so obsessed, I’ll explain that the site ranks the relative sales of every book it offers, from number one–currently American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History–all the way down to, oh, number 3,000,000 or so.

On pub day, or when a positive review or a national interview comes out, it’s nice to track your book’s number as it progressively plummets. I recognize that’s a pretty narcissistic endeavor, however, so today I want to combine it with a bit of philanthropy. Here’s the deal. How to Not Write Bad is currently number 2,502. Please order the book! Every time its ranking drops by another 100 (that is, to 2400, then to 2300, etc.), I will donate a copy of the book to one of my favorite enterprises, Mighty Writers. If somehow it gets to 100, then I’ll give a copy every time it drops by ten.

Mighty Writers is a Philadelphia-based operation, founded and headed up by Tim Whitaker, whose website says: “Our mission is to teach Philadelphia kids (ages 7 to 17) to think and write with clarity, so self-esteem grows and success is achieved at school, at work and in life.” To that end, MW offers (at its cool downtown HQ) daily afterschool Academy, plus long- and short-term writing classes at night and on the weekends. Crucially, they also provide intensive SAT Prep courses and college essay writing classes.

I’ll provide updates through the day on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #HelpMightyWriters.

So go out there and help the cause!

The Kindness of Comedians



I’m just now catching up with Vanity Fair’s January special comedy issue guest-edited by Judd Apatow (props to VF for not using the word “curated”!). I’m somewhat bemused by Apatow’s having assumed the position of comedy’s capo di tutti capi; his funniest movie by far, in my thinking, is “Superbad,” which wasn’t even really his movie. (He produced, Greg Mottola directed, and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the screenplay.) But I am a fan (one of the few, it sometimes seems) of Apatow’s “Funny People,” a painfully truthful portrait of an unhappy and not nice comedian, played by Adam Sandler. I guess the big thing I respect about Apatow is that at least he takes comedy seriously.

The Vanity Fair issue has a lot of good stuff in it; if you can find it at a yardsale or read it online, I commend it to your attention. There’s a nice profile of one of my favorite all-time funny people, Martin Short, and a meaty oral history of the cult-classic TV show Apatow produced, “Freaks and Geeks.” And there’s Apatow’s Q and A interview of someone I comically revered long before I heard of Short. I refer to Albert Brooks. Brooks grew up in Beverly Hills, steeped in the entertainment industry. Here’s the beginning of Wikipedia’s entry on his father:

Harry Einstein (May 6, 1904 – November 24, 1958) was an American comedian and writer, usually known by the name Harry Parke, but who was variously credited asHarry Einstein, Harold Einstein, Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein, Parkyakarkus andParkyarkarkus. He became famous as the character Parkyakarkus (or Parkyarkarkus) — park your carcass; that is, sit down — who garbled Greek on Eddie Cantor’s radio show and appeared in eleven films using this name from 1936 to 1945.

If you thought calling yourself Parkyarkarkus was funny, well, you probably thought it would be funny to name your baby “Albert Einstein.” That, in any case, is what Harry and his wife did; Brooks’ decision to take a stage name was one of the more slam-dunk such moves in show business history.  (His two brothers are more conventionally named Bob and Cliff. Bob created the character “Super Dave Osborne” and performed memorably on two of the most brilliant TV comedies ever, “Arrested Development” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”) When Albert was eleven, something horrific happened. Wikipedia again:

Parke died from a heart attack at a Friars Club of Beverly Hills Roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on November 24, 1958… He had just finished his testimonal to a house full of laughter and Art Linkletter’s remark, “How come anyone as funny as this isn’t on the air?”, when Parke slumped onto Milton Berle’s lap at the event. Berle asked “Is there a doctor in the house?”; this remark was met with laughter, as the crowd was unaware that Berle was being serious. Emcee Art Linkletter then directed crooner Tony Martin to sing a song to divert the crowd’s attention; Martin’s unfortunate choice was “There’s No Tomorrow.”

Brooks’s father had been very ill and overweight for some years before that, and he tells Apatow that the experience of living with impending death was actually harder on him than the actual event. Either way, I always thought that his whole surreally show-biz childhood and youth–when his best friends were Rob Reiner (son of Carl) and Larry Bishop (son of Joey)–contributed to his unbelievably influential approach to comedy. I encountered this approach for the first time in 1971, when I picked up a copy of Esquire Magazine from our coffee table at home. (My father had bought an annual subscription to the magazine for like $2.97 four or five years before, and even though he didn’t renew, Esquire kept coming to our house, presumably on the principle that it was more valuable to keep their subscription base up than to get a few bucks a year from the Yagoda household. And that was how I got exposed to some of the best New Journalism of the late ’60s and early ’70s, as well as a lot of other things.) Anyway, in the February ’71 Esquire was a … I don’t know what to call it … I guess “package,” purporting to be an advertising section for something called “Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians.” It was a takeoff of the cheesy mail-order academies like The Famous Writers’ School and The Famous Artists’ School, which at that time had not yet dwindled to nothingness. I recall that Cleveland Amory was on the “board” of the Writers deal, and Ben Shahn and Norman Rockwell on that of the Artists.

Brooks’ production was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. At the very least, it opened up for me a whole new approach to comedy, which I guess you could call smart, knowing and affectionate but cold-eyed comedy about comedy. The flavor can be gleaned from the hacks, tummlers, muggers and slow-burn specialists Brooks selected for the School’s “Advisory Board,” shown in a photo sitting in a steam bath and wrapped in towels: Jack Carter, Frank Sutton (“Everybody’s favorite ‘Sergeant’–star of Gomer Pyle“), Orson Bean, Totie Fields, Joe Garagiola (“baseball’s loss is TV’s gain”), Eddie Albert (the Dean), Stu Gilliam, and Steve Rossi (“one half of American’s best-loved comedy team–also a fine singer”). The piece went on to show some of the skills the students would acquire through the school. My favorite was fine-point instruction in a classic comedy maneuver:

To learn more about the piece, check out Dave Nuttycombe’s good and extensiveessay on “Famous School for Comedians” at the comedy website “Splitsider.” And certainly, if you see a copy of the February 1971 Esquire at a yardsale, snap it up. (By the way, if “Famous School for Comedians” sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because Brooks did a film version of it the following year, for the PBS series “Great American Dream Machine,” which has been aired on several subsequent occasions.)

Then Brooks started showing up on the Johnny Carson show. Brooks’ website says he made more than forty appearances; tracking them down online will be a nice pursuit for my remaining years. I caught a dozen or so in real time back then, and they always blew my mind. On the air, combined with the brilliant meta comedy stuff was his self-presentation: open handsome face, Jewish Afro, very, very earnest in way suggesting that nice car salesman who tries just a little too hard. His character (and he had a character, no less than Stephen Colbert) had devoted himself to solving the riddle of comedy. He never quite got there. In my favorite bit (apparently not posted on YouTube), he does a comedy version of the spinning-plates act from the Ed Sullivan Show: eight “volunteers” from the audience are lined up, and Brooks endeavors to have all of them laugh at the same time. In another routine from 1973, he “confesses” to having run out of material and considers his plight.

Brooks’ early-seventies stuff influenced every one of the many comics who have subsequently trod such ground: Steve Martin, Martin Mull, Andy Kaufman, Gary Shandling, Larry David, David Letterman (and through him Conan O’Brien), and almost everyone who ever appeared on Saturday Night Live, notably Bill Murray, Billy Crystal, Marty Short, and Will Ferrell. Brooks was actually asked to host SNL when it went on the air in 1975, but he turned down the offer because he wanted to get into film; he did contribute six great video shorts to the show’s first season. The first feature Brooks wrote, directed and starred in was “Real Life” (1979), an almost chillingly prescient satire of what would come to be called “reality television.” (At the time, the only exemplar was PBS’s documentary about the Louds, “An American Family.”) He followed it with the brilliant “Modern Romance” (1981) and “Lost in America” (1985). At that time, his comic spark and his edginess were in equal balance. In subsequent movies, in my humble opinion, the edginess has prevailed and it all feels a bit forced (though there are hilarious moments, like his exchanges with Debbie Reynolds in “Mother”).

But Brooks is still smart, funny, and creative. Two years ago he published a novel called “2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America.” He has carved out an impressive career as an actor, notably in “Taxi Driver,” “Broadcast News,” “FInding Nemo” (the voice of Marlin), “Drive,” and Apatow’s latest, “This Is 40.” He won a bunch of awards for his supporting turn in “Drive,” and when he was passed over for an Oscar nomination, he tweeted: “And to the Academy: ‘You don’t like me. You really don’t like me’”

Still, it’s that early Brooks stuff that is truly glorious. He returned to that era at the close of his Vanity Fair interview. Apatow asked him which comedian had the biggest influence on him. He said it was Jack Benny:

“Because of his minimalism. And the way he got laughs. He was at the center of a storm, he let his players do the work, and just by being there made it funny. That was mind-boggling to me,” Brooks says. He tells Apatow that early on in his career he performed on The Tonight Show one night when Benny was on.  “There was always that last two minutes where Johnny was asking people, ‘Thank you for coming—what do you have coming up?’ And during the last commercial Jack Benny leaned over to Johnny Carson and said, ‘When we get back, ask me where I’m going to be, will you?’ So they came back. Johnny said, ‘I want to thank Albert. Jack, where are you going to be performing?’ And Jack Benny said, ‘Never mind about me—this is the funniest kid I’ve ever seen!’”

“And it was this profound thing,” Brooks continues. “Like, Oh, that’s how you lead your life. Be generous and you can be the best person who ever lived.”


D-Day Minus 2


That’s D as in “drop,” the music-industry slang term for a record’s release. I am determined to use it whenever possible in reference to the publication on Tuesday of my new book, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Errors and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. If you are so inclined, please go ahead an pre-order the book here. (Or, if you’re coming to this post after 2/2, you can go ahead and order it.) No salesman will come to your door.

The book has already gotten some nice attention, in large part thanks to the efforts of Fiona Brown, crack publicist at Riverhead Books. A few days ago, Katy Steinmetz of Time Magazine did a nice Q and A interview with me under the title “The Secrets to Not Being a Terrible Writer.” Explaining to her that I’m a writer, not a talker, I asked her to be kind with my halting stammering, and at a couple of points she made me appear witty, as in this exchange:

Is the widespread usage of exclamation points a problem?

There’s exclamation point inflation, so that one isn’t enough. You don’t want to get to the point where it’s like the boy who cried wolf, where you have to have multiple exclamation points just to indicate that you really mean it. So is it a problem? It’s not a problem like global warming.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published a short essay I wrote based on the book: “In Writing, First Do No Harm” (their title, not mine–but I like it). Of course, nowadays when you publish something online, it’s not the end of the process. I’m talking about comments, of course. There are four up on the WSJ’s site so far. One praises the piece, and one’s author thinks it’s badly written and hence ironic, given the subject. Fair enough. Here are the other two:

  1. In the phrase “. . . and the majority of my (bright) students put me in mind . . .” the word “put” should be “puts” to agree with the subject “majority.”
  2. “… the road to not writing badly …” Rule #1 ? Do not split infinitives…

One of Facebook friends commented (comments are everywhere!) that these two folks were suggesting that my article was following Muphry’s Law. This is an axiom defined in 1992 by an Australian editor named John Bansgund as “the editorial application of the better-known “Murphy’s Law.” The main principle is: “if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”

Make no mistake: I have been a victim of Muphry’s law in the past, and have witnessed on many occasions the actions of its iron hand on all sorts of critiques of writing, editing, and usage. I believe in it so strongly that I’m sure there’s an error or three in my Wall Street Journal piece (as well as in this very post). But I propose a corollary, Yagoda’s Law, which states: “If you write anything about writing or usage, people will nitpick you.” Both WSJ commentators gleefully pounce on “errors” the dubiousness of which is matched only by the commenters’ confidence in their own rightness. Both “rules” may have prevailed in high schools and middle schools half a century ago, but aren’t endorsed by Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage or any other contemporary authority.

Bottom line, the changes they propose–“the majority of my (bright) students puts me in mind…” and “the road to writing in a not-bad manner”–are stilted and harrumphing. Muphry’s Law, anyone?

Merrel Jungle Mocs and Other Things I’d Carry


By no means outweighing the bad effects of Hurricane Sandy, but heartening all the same, was some outstanding journalism. While the hard-news coverage stood out, there was also some amazing feature stuff, much of it marked by a single trope: if you had to suddenly abandon your home, what would you take? Michael Winerip, one of my favorite journalists of all time, had an outstanding example of the genre in the New York Times. Winerip was actually covering himself: his home town of Long Beach, N.Y., was especially hard hit, and he wrote a moving column about the unexpected stuff, including his daughter’s pool pass from the 2002 season, he came to realize he valued. It had nothing to do with Sandy, but a couple of weeks later, Kevin Riordan of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about having reached the point in life where he and his siblings–their father deceased and their mother no longer able to live on her own–decided to sell their childhood home. He found, as one does in such moments, that certain objects called out to him over the years:

I’ve saved a couple of her beloved bridge trophies. I’ve got the birthday telegram she sent to my father after he was called up for active duty stateside during the Korean conflict. And I found a pocket ledger from a jewelry store, showing the six faithful months of $5 and $10 payments my father made until he could bring home an eight-place setting of Rutledge for my mother.

Partly as a result of these pieces, I’ve been thinking about things. This also has to do with reaching a certain point in my own life. In earlier decades, objects of various kinds held promise and allure. There was this notion that if one procured just the right ones, and organized and arranged them in just the right ways, great happiness and delight would follow. I have since been disabused of the notion, and am currently in the process of a great culling.

However, I am not going to deaccession everything. It turns out that a small number of things have in fact provided me with contentment and satisfaction and even a measure of meaning over the years, for all sorts of reasons, including that they work really well. They are keepers. Hence this series of posts, The Things I’d Carry.

I’m slightly sheepish about starting out with Merrell’s Jungle Moc shoes. That’s because, I just learned, they were featured in Morgan Spurlock’s recent film “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” They were featured because Merrell paid Spurlock to be in the movie, which is about product placement. In one scene, Spurlock (who is still most famous for his McDonald’s documentary, “Supersize Me”) hands Ralph Nader a pair of free Jungle Mocs and Nader–Ralph Nader! the guy for whom Al Gore was not a sufficiently pure presidential candidate!–says, “How’s the arch support?,” then takes ’em. (Interviewed on the NPR show “On the Media,” Spurlock recalled doing a subsequent press conference with Nader: “We’re doing the Q&A together, and he goes, ‘What, you couldn’t send me a pair of shoes with laces?’ … So the next day I made sure he got a pair of shoes with laces.”)

Well, Merrell didn’t pay me, and they didn’t give me any free shoes. They don’t have to, because these are, as a commenter says on Zappos (average review: five out of five stars), “Greatest shoes ever.”

I bought my first pair of Jungle Mocs at a Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, joint called B&S Shoes. It’s an old-fashioned place, with a guy who brings you the model you ask for, pushes and prods your foot, and offers his professional judgment on whether or not it fits. B&S specializes in shoes for wide feet, which I have. Actually, I don’t have wide feet. I have very wide feet, so much so that for years, I would buy shoes fromHitchcock Wide Shoes for Men, a Hingham, Massachasetts, mail-order outfit. Only I don’t usually buy mail-order from Hitchcock. They have a showroom which is open 8:30 AM-3:30 PM (embarrassing that I’ve memorized their hours) and every summer when I visited Massachusetts, I would spend the morning their trying on shoes, and emerge with my footwear for the year. For various reasons I don’t go to Massachetts that much anymore, hence my visit to B&S.

It’s not just that the Jungle Mocs fit, though they did, perfectly. (Merrell produces such a wide last that a simple 12W did the trick, as opposed to my customary quadruple E.) They had all these other qualities as well: very comfortable, very good support, very durable, very good-looking. Proof of the first three is that I wore them the majority of days for a year, and I cannot say that they showed even a sign of wear. As for the fourth quality, judge for yourself; here they are:

Those are actually not the ones I got from B&S. That pair was in Taupe, a slightly lighter color. After the aforementioned year of wearing them, I happened to drop a drop of something I was cooking on them, and couldn’t get the stain out. (I still wear them around the house; still no apparent wear.) I went back to B&S and got a pair in the above color, Gunsmoke. In addition to hiding all manner of stain, they go well with gray pants, and borderline okay with black ones.

They will run you $90 at Zappos. If you are a male, get them. You cannot go wrong.

A Scene-Piece Scandal


We’ve gotten used to journalistic scandals: Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, Jonah Lehrer, and all the rest. The scenario is generally that some high-flyer is caught having committed plagiarism and/or fabrication, is duly dismissed and shamed, and then all is quiet till the next incident.

But the latest such episode, as described a couple of days ago by the New York Times, is a little different. The Times piece by Katharine Q. Seelye starts out this way:

HYANNIS, Mass. — When an editor at The Cape Cod Times was reading the newspaper last month, she thought an article about the Veterans Day parade from the day before seemed slightly off. The article, written by Karen Jeffrey, a longtime reporter, told of a Ronald Chipman, 46, and his family from Boston. The Chipmans apparently were oblivious to Veterans Day until they saw the parade. Ms. Jeffrey described the family in detail, including a scene in which the parents used their smartphones to find information about the holiday, creating a “teachable moment” for themselves and their children.

It turned out that the Chipmans didn’t exist. Neither, an investigation by the newspaper discovered, did a total of 69 people described by Jeffrey in her articles going back to 1998. The odd thing–and what makes this scandal stand out from the others, to me–is the kinds of stories in which Jeffrey committed fabrications. Seelye writes:

She had covered the police and courts for many years, and there were no questions raised about the people in those stories. It was only her features — about parades, a Red Sox home opener, a road race — that contained fabrications.

Jeffrey has not made any public comments since the news broke, but someone who knows her said she was “down in the dumps” about being taken off the police beat a few years ago. He speculated: “By making her do community-type reporting, she thought it was a demotion and an insult to her, and maybe that’s why she did what she did.”

Tha narrative is interesting to me because I have a professional interest in it. When I teach feature writing to my journalism classes at the University of Delaware, I generally organize the course by genre: The Profile, The Trend Piece, The Explainer, The First-Person Guinea Pig Piece, and, until recently, The Scene Piece. I defined the last in aessay I wrote about three years ago for the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Think the mall on Black Friday, or outside the arena of a Phish concert. The idea is to go to a colorful event, soak up the atmosphere, fill up a notebook, stitch together some quotes, color, and characters, and close with a ‘kicker’—a pithy quote.” It’s a venerable form, and great things have been done with it by scribes from Jimmy Breslin up to the Times’ James Barron. But even back in 2009, I had concluded that it had no place in journalism’s future. It’s too leisurely and ephemeral in a media world where a piece of writing has to demand our attention. I decided I wouldn’t teach the scene piece anymore, and I haven’t.

And now a reporter, relegated to the scene-piece beat, apparently was sufficienty shamed so as to sabotage her stories and her career. Let’s prevent future pain. Stick a fork in the scene piece!


A Sad Day for Writers


It’s a sad day in the kingdom of letters. Today’s Times has obituaries of two of its longtime distinguished staff members, Ada Louise Huxtable and Harvey Shapiro. The paper generally does a good and thoughtful job assessing the lives of its contributors and editors, and today’s obits are no exception. The paper’s architecture and development reporter David Dunlap assesses Huxtable, who in 1963 was hired as the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper and in 1970 won the first Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism.

Dunlap provides some great quotes from her work, proving, for one thing, that she didn’t pull her punches. In 1971, assessing the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, she played the Nazi card, and carried it off:

Albert Speer would have approved.The building is a national tragedy. It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried.

And this in 1964 about the short-lived Gallery of Modern Art on Columbus Circle: “The new museum resembles a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops.”

She could praise as well as deride. Dunlap says she was a fan of “Lever House, the Ford Foundation Building and the CBS Building in Manhattan; the landmark Bronx Grit Chamber; Boston’s City Hall; the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; Pennzoil Place in Houston,” and New York City itself. She wrote in 1968:

When it is good, this is a city of fantastic strength, sophistication and beauty. It is like no other city in time or place. Visitors and even natives rarely use the words urban character or environmental style, but that is what they are reacting to with awe in the presence of massed, concentrated, steel, stone, power and life.

Shapiro was the quintessential Timesman, non-reporter division. The obit, by the superb Margalit Fox, says that between 1957 and his retirement in 1995, “He was variously an editor at The New York Times Magazine; the editor of The Times Book Review, a post he held from 1975 to 1983; and deputy editor of the magazine. But Shapiro’s passion was his after-hours vocation, poet. Fox quotes wonderful brief poems of his. Here, in its entirety, is  “New York Notes,” from his collection “How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems” (2001):

Caught on a side street
in heavy traffic, I said
to the cabbie, I should
have walked. He replied,
I should have been a doctor.

When can I get on the 11:33
I ask the guy in the information booth
at the Atlantic Avenue Station.
When they open the doors, he says.
I am home among my people.

She closes with some beautiful lines from “In a Bad Time,” published in his last collection, “The Sights Along the Harbor” (2006):

Who created you? Jacob J. Shapiro
and Dorothy Cohen. They created me,
and my dead sister, Annette, and my
younger brother, Allan. Who will uncreate
you? Impossible to predict just now
but my money is on pastrami.

Word came last night–too late for an obit in today’s Times–of the passing of a third distinguished writer, Richard Ben Cramer. Unlike Huxtable and Shapiro (who were 91 and 88, respectively), Richard died young, at 62. I call him by his first name, though (like a lot of people, I suspect), I felt I knew him more than I really did. I met him in 1992, when I profiled him for Philadelphia Magazine in connection with the publication of his book about the 1988 presidential election, What It Takes: The Way to the White House. Richard was an estimable stylist–the most successful, and maybe the only, journalist to carry forward the innovations of Tom Wolfe–and I undertook to write my piece in the manner of Cramer. I thought of it more as homage than parody, and he was gracious enough to take it in that spirit. “Ben,” he said, “you wrestled me to the ground.”

Richard was probably the most charismatic person I have known. He had a sort of football-coach Southern accent–odd for someone raised in Rochester and schooled in Baltimore–and was, unfailingly, generous, warm, and thoughtful. He followed What It Takes (the reputation of which has grown over the years, and will continue to do so), with a biography of Joe DiMaggio, and for years had been struggling on a book about another baseball star, Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod, I suspect, was ultimately too small a figure for Richard, and the project appeared to wrestle him to the ground. That, and cigarettes.

In researching the piece on him for Philadelphia Magazine, I interviewed another journalist, Hank Klibanoff, who told me what I think of as the quintessential Cramer story. Before talking to any of the candidates, Richard talked to anyone and everyone he could who had known the candidates. So he journeyed to Russell, Kansas, and spent weeks there interviewing Bob Dole’s tenth-grade teacher, Bob Dole’s grad-school buddy, and so on. Flash forward a few months, and Dole is scheduled to appear in Russell for a campaign event. I’ll let Hank tell the rest of the story. (Note: when I originally posted this, I relied on my faulty memory for the details, and I’m grateful to Hank for providing the correct ones.)

On the evening in Russell, Kansas, when Bob Dole returned home to officially announce his campaign for the Republican
nomination, I (writing a forgettable magazine piece on Dole) was on one side of a large barn-like room, when a happy buzz arose from the other side of the room, near the entrance.

“That’s Bob,” said one local authoritatively.

Heads strained to see through the crowd.

“Liddy with him?” asked another.

“Sure is and Robin, too,” said a man who pretended he could see Dole’s wife and daughter.

I broke away and walked to the front door. It was too easy. No security, no Secret Service, but the ebullient mood and cheering continued as folks
crowded around an incoming dignitary.

As I got close, I asked a taller man if he could see what was happening.

“Oh yes,” he said.

“Senator Dole?”

“Oh no,” he said, proud to be revealing something even more important.

“It’s Richard Cramer, the writer. You know Richard? Everybody here knows Richard.”

Then I saw Richard, his leather coat open, his hair unruly, his smile as wide as the plains, hugging his way through the crowd, calling people by
their first names, stopping to ask about grandchildren. Then the news circulated that the candidate, the Senator, was, indeed, approaching the building. The spontaneous buzz died immediately, replaced by a perfunctory one

 Songwriters’ Top Ten


On his XM satellite radio show on Friday, Jonathan Schwartz played a Jimmy Van Heusen song and reflected that Van Heusen would belong on a list of the top ten American popular composers. He started ruminating about who else should be on such a list; and as best as I recall, these are the other names he offered: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jule Styne, Harry Warren, Duke Ellington, and his own father, Arthur Schwartz.

It got me to thinking about my own top-ten list. But before going on, some caveats are in order. First, Schwartz was talking about composers, not lyricists–so that figures like Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, and Yip Harburg aren’t eligible. Johnny Mercer wrote both words and music, but his most significant achievement was as a word man, and his music won’t get him to the top ten. In addition, he was talking about contributors to the mythical Great American Songbook: sophisticated, melodic, relatively complex, jazz-inflected songs the flow of which had begun to diminish by about 1950 and pretty much was done by the time the Beatles hit these shores in 1965. Thus, he wasn’t thinking of such undeniably great songwriters as Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, and Burt Bacharach. They are all post-rock-and-roll figures, working in a completely different idiom.

Anyway, as I see it, there are five complete no-brainers, equivalent to the first players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936 (Christy Matthewson, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson). I have in mind Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, Porter, and a name Schwartz overlooked but which, I am positive, he would agree with–Richard Rodgers. I also feel that a sixth name, slightly younger than the others, belongs on the list without any question. That would be Harold Arlen, writer of “Over the Rainbow,” “Blues in the Night,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “It Was Only a Paper Moon,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “That Old Black Magic,” “The Man That Got Away,” “Accentuate the Positive,” and so many more.

That leaves four spots. Schwartz named Styne, Ellington, Warren, Van Heusen, and Arthur Schwartz. I believe Frank Loesser has to be considered as well. Of course, one has to deal with the Sondheim question. Stephen Sondheim was born in 1930, which makes him seventeen years younger than the next youngest candidate (Van Heusen), but it’s not strictly for generational reasons that I’m going make an executive decision and leave him off my top ten. Sondheim has indeed written killer stand-along songs: “Send in the Clowns,” “Not a Day Goes By,” “Going, Going Gone,” “I’m Still Here,” “Marry Me a Little,” and others. But he is much less a songwriter than a writer of complete theatrical productions. His songs serve character, story, and theme; “Send in the Clowns” excepted, they are pretty rarely performed by singers and jazz musicians.

I am also, with regrets, going to remove Arthur Schwartz’s name. His talent is undeniable (“Dancing in the Dark,” “Alone Together,” “That’s Entertainment”), but his body of work isn’t just corpulent enough to make the top ten.

So that leaves us five candidates (Styne, Ellington, Warren, Van Heusen, and Loesser) for the four spots. Oy vey. If only this list, like the amplifier in “This Is Spinal Tap,” could go up to eleven! But it can’t. So here is a lineup of the candidates, with an (admittedly and inevitably) arbitrary list of their top six songs.

  • Harry Warren (1893-1982): “The Lullaby of Broadway,” “There Will Never be Another You,” “September in the Rain,” “The More I See You,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “At Last.”
  • Duke Ellington (1899-1974): “Satin Doll,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “In a Mellotone,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” “Come Sunday.”
  • Jule Styne (1905-1994): “Time After Time,” “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” “Just in Time,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” “Never Never Land.”
  • Frank Loesser (1910-1969): “If I Were a Bell,” “I’ll Know,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Heart and Soul,” “Never Will I Marry.”
  • Jimmy Van Heusen (1913-1990): “All the Way,” “But Beautiful,” “I Thought About You,” “Darn That Dream,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “Swingin’ on a Star

Well, it’s clear to me now. Much as I love Frank Loesser–and I think that “Guys and Dolls” is the greatest achievement of the American musical theater, if not America–he belongs in the second ten, along with such worthies as Arthur Schwartz and Vernon Duke.

What do you think?


And that Was Just the Girls


As it slowly recedes into the past, the wonders of twentieth-century American popular culture appear ever more wonderful, and remarkable. Jazz, musical comedy, Hollywood movies, popular song, and rock and roll deservedly get a lot of attention. But not so much for another uniquely American creation, standup comedy. It takes many forms, of course, as is merely suggested by listing such names as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Klein, Richard Pryor, and Jerry Seinfeld.

Watching the telecast of the Golden Globes Awards this past Monday put me in mind of one particular standup artifact. The hosts for the event were Tina Fey and Amy Pohler, wearing glamorous movie-star dresses (about which more in a minute). Besides their many other attributes, the two have a smart and deep appreciation for comedy and its traditions. The particular joke I have in mind came a few minutes into their opening monologue (duologue?). They’re running through some of the nominees and Fey says: “‘The Hunger Games’ was one of the biggest films of the year … and also what I call the six weeks it took me to get into this dress!”

Then Pohler: “Ang Lee’s been nominated for ‘The Life of Pi’ … which is what I call the six weeks after I took this dress off!”

You can see the video on YouTube:

Ok, so admittedly those are dumb jokes. But they’re genius, too, or rather a lovingly presented example of a particular standup trope that has a special place in my heart. Basically, it’s a certain kind of play on words, similar to the “daffynition,” which Wikipedia defines as “a pun format involving the reinterpretation of an existing word, on the basis that it sounds like another word (or group of words).” The standup version is to play off a title or common phrase, and follow it or precede it by a surprising but credible interpretation. The element of surprise, the perfect wording, and the comic’s (usually winking) attitude provides the humor.

So on the talk shows of my youth, Bob Hope might be on and say, “But I wanna tell you, I was at a banquet the other night and saw Raquel Welch sitting next to Paul Lynde. Now that’s what I call The Odd Couple!”

A variation is to pull out the catch-phrase in response to what someone else said. One of the defining characteristics of Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott on NBC’s “The Office” is a variation on this gag. Thus, one of his co-workers will say on a summer’s day, “Man, it sure is hot and sticky.” Scott: “That’s what she said.” (One of the many brilliant things about the Michael Scott character is that he’ll say, “That’s what she said” when it doesn’t really make sense.”)

My daughter, Elizabeth Yagoda (incidentally a big fan of Fey and Pohler), has a similar go-to line. Someone will say, oh, “It took forever for the subway to get there” and she’ll come back with: “Sounds like my Saturday night!”

I know these jokes have no intellectual content or social commentary. In fact, they are silly. But they have the beauty of a perfectly constructed machine, they honor a great tradition, and they give me joy.

That’s what she said.


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