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Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

Tag Archives: Marx Brothers

The Chaos of Others

What rough beast … Slouches toward Bethlehem ? — W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Pittsburgh opened its arms, er paws, last week to the Anthrocon convention. The Furries came to town in rags, tags and velvet gowns. The event was a testament to the region’s diversity and tolerance. It also brought in a ton of money.

Ten years ago, the same week as the Furries’ arrival in Pittsburgh, terrorists’ bombs went off in London. Fifty-six people on subways, trains and buses died. Hundreds were injured. All to defend religious belief and identity. 

Open a newspaper or a website and chaos arrives at your virtual doorstep: news from nowhere and everywhere. The world is a scary, confusing place filled with sound and fury (as well as furry). One week it’s a misguided young man in Memphis shooting folks at a church; the next refugees fleeing Somalia. 

We work hard to convince ourself the world is orderly nonetheless. We tell ourselves stories in order to live — myths to impose structure and meaning. We cannot help seeking the sermon in the suicide, wrote Joan Didion (who also wrote an essay inspired by Yeat’s poem.)

We seek solace in technologies that allow us to control nature1 while subverting our better natures. People stare at their smartphones on the bus or subway or while driving as if gazing into a Delphic oracle. In a high-tech society where we purport to make rational, scientific decisions based on statistics and datamining, online fantasy games and graphic novels about magical worlds are increasingly popular.

Given the above, the fact that people pursue drugs like marijuana and heroin as a pathway to an alternate reality is no surprise, though no less pernicious.

Or, one can live in a part-time fantasy world, dressing up in costumes, uttering spells and engaging in strange rituals with others of similar beliefs. Religious dogma offers consolation with the condition that we buy into whatever story is told by those in authority that reassures us we are among the elect.

Soccer, baseball and other sports fans know this as well. Pittsburgh Steelers football fans dress in black and gold and go tailgating.

What if some people deal with the chaos around them and in their own lives by impersonating cats, dragons and other creatures and wearing a tail?

Personally, I’m a fan of humor. In the film Duck Soup a country (not Greece, but just sayin’) goes to war to pay its debts. The Marx Brothers turn the considerable chaos and danger of their 1930s world of Hitler and Mussolini and fascism on its head. Look, they say, this silly stuff can’t hurt you. Look how absurd. Shakespeare does that in plays from Midsummer Night’s Dream to Twelfth Night.

Illustration by Erin Fletcher. For more information please go to http://erinsartportfolio.blogspot.com/2014/02/pandoras-box-illustration.html

Comics like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams open the Pandora’s box of our identity (with the emphasis on Id) and allow us to peek briefly at the darker angels of our natures2 — little Grendels aching to get out and smash the world or blow it up. Dancing on the knife edge of sense and nonsense led each of them to the edge of sanity and beyond. Do we forget their loss so cheaply?

What is mental illness but a mind overwhelmed with chaos? Maybe depression, schizophrenia and other maladies are alternate stories a desperate mind tells itself to make sense of the world.3 Our treatments address the damaged neurochemistry or faulty wiring while still ignoring the suffering spirit. The rest of us may be deluded, or stupid, or heavily medicated, but we manage to keep our suffering – and that of others — at arms length. Compassion requires entering, or at least acknowledging, the chaos in others. This is uncomfortable and scary, because it echoes the potential or actual chaos within each of us as individuals and societies. But if we fail to do so, chaos grows, takes on a life of its own and perpetuates evil. Like terrorists blowing up subways, trains and buses, or shooting strangers.

If the alternative is dressing like anthropomorphic creatures and strutting around town, I’ll serve the FriskiesTM. — CDL

1See John McPhee’s The Control of Nature

2 Not to say Weeping Angels

3 Read Susan Sontag’s llness as Metaphor

Radio in the ‘Burgh

I enjoyed the first installment on AM radio in the ‘Burgh in the Post-Gazette. I vividly recall personalities such as Jack Bogut and shows such as KDKA’s Sixty-to-Six (not to mention Bob Prince) on my visits to Pittsburgh.

Retro Radio

Bob Prince broadcast Pirates baseball on a set like this during summer evenings on my grandparents patio.

Of course,commercial radio started in Pittsburgh.  One thing left out of the 10/13 article (at least the first one) is that the William Penn Hotel was the site of the world’s first live orchestra broadcasts in the 1920s and broadcasts of the Count Basie and Lawrence Welk orchestras in the 1930s. We are partnering with Arcade Comedy and the Omni to evoke this experience with a sketch comedy show on November 1st and a live radio adaptation of ‘The Thin Man’ on November 23rd.  Please see the following links for more information and tickets:

Retro Radio Review at Arcade Comedy Theater November 1st (sketches inspired by radio scripts from the 1930s and 40s)

‘The Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh’ Live Radio (at the Omni William Penn November 23rd)

Incidentally, one of the stars of the original Thin Man film, William Powell, was a native of Pittsburgh. With a grant from the Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts, we are hoping to do a live broadcast and streaming webcast of the Omni event during Pittsburgh’s traditional start to the holiday season. Ironically, the local stations we approached so far say that the technical demands and logistics of doing a broadcast on location in 2013 make this a challenge!

Advertisers, the news media and education often give the mistaken assumption that new technology (e.g., podcasts, Instagram and Facebook) inevitably supersedes older, established technology such as radio (and newspapers ; – )). In reality human beings rediscover and reapply older technology all the time to meet problems and create new forms of expression where there is a need and benefit.  Just ask anyone who owns a Prius or a 1904 Columbia Electric Runabout.  Please see the following links:

The Marx Brothers on Radio (marx-brothers.org)

An Appreciation of Damon Runyon  (by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker)

Original Inner Sanctum Mystery Radio Recordings (Realaudio at OTR Network)

A Few Words About Copyrights  (Interesting take on a confusing subject from the Generic Radio Workshop)

– CDL

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