It’s Max Shulman’s birthday. Who the hell is Max Shulman, you may ask? Or some of you may ask? He was one of the most popular humorists of his day, who reached his peak of popularity in the 1950s. He’s the guy who created the Dobie Gillis character, featured in a series of short stories and a couple novels – which was then turned into a popular TV series, with accompanying comic books to boot.
Shulman was very successful – a star, really – and is now almost forgotten. Why? Maybe because satire doesn’t time-travel all that well? I don’t know. It baffles me. I think his stuff is hilarious. He had a syndicated humor column, which appeared in 300 newspapers. Shulman’s work was extremely popular on college campuses. He was also a regular contributor to Mad Magazine, which was established in 1952. Surprise surprise. You’d recognize that snarky anarchic style anywhere.
I like to pay tribute to the random figures who have come into my world – particularly very early on – before I was aware of what was supposed to be good or important or whatever. The stuff that wasn’t assigned in school, books I basically tripped over (more often than not in my first after-school job as a page at the local library). I was around 14 when I discovered Max Shulman.
The funniest thing though in retrospect is that, of course, my PARENTS knew who Max Shulman was, he was at his peak in THEIR high school years – and suddenly their teenage daughter asks, “Have you ever heard of Max Shulman?” it must have been surreal. Uhm, yeah. We’ve heard of him. Recently, my 12-year-old nephew referenced Eminem, and started to explain to me who he was. Like, kid, you don’t even KNOW. I’ve seen the man in concert. I was there WHEN IT ALL BEGAN.
But this is the great thing about art. It exists in an eternal present. It’s THERE to be picked up and discovered. I think Peter Bogdonovich said smething like “There isn’t any such thing as ‘old movies’. There are just movies you haven’t seen yet.”
So I was reading a book published in 1956 but it felt like it was about what was happening right then in my own adolescence. All the high school stuff: totally current. The humor? didn’t date. The book needed no translation. I read the book outside of its time, but as far as I was concerned, it was published last week.
Shulman was a Cold War satirist, a Mad Magazine contributor, and he hacked at Eisenhower-era conformity with glee, lampooning it, creating space around it.
Growing up before the internet, growing up before algorithms catered to your personal taste – you had to basically find your own fun and sometimes that fun was totally accidental. You just happen to pick up a book because you like the cover and you read it and it becomes a lifelong fave. The accidental part of it, I think, is what pleases me the most, and what I miss the most. Because you really felt like you were discovering something all on your own. Even if you were discovering something 30 years after the fact. But it’s never too late. I wasn’t even ALIVE when Max Shulman was writing, but I’m discovering it NOW. Everyone has to watch Citizen Kane or Rules of the Game for the first time.
I somehow tripped over Shulman’s I Was A Teen-age Dwarf when I was a teenager myself. It is the chronicle of Dobie Gillis’ “woman”izing when he was in high school (he was the shortest boy in town. Hence – the title.) Dobie Gillis was quite the lady killer, or so he aspired to be.
I came across the book in the library where I worked as a page. I have no idea why I would have picked it up: it’s kind of an old-fashioned looking book (the book I picked up had the cover I posted above, with Gillis on stilts). Maybe something in the 1950s-ish cover appealed to me. I was very into the ’50s. Happy Days was a hit. The Stray Cats were on the rise. Etc.
Once I brought the book home I learned my parents LOVED Max Shulman. They recognized his name immediately, both started laughing, and told me: “You HAVE to read Rally Round the Flag Boys!!”
I remember vividly my mother TRYING to tell me the name of one of the lead characters in one of Shulman’s books (The Zebra Derby), and she was completely incapacitated by laughter and couldn’t get the words out. The character’s name was Lodestone O’Toole. Even now – just typing those two words – I start laughing.
More memories of I Was a Teen-age Dwarf:
I was asked to leave my high school library because it was study period, and I was reading Teenage Dwarf, and I started laughing so loudly I could not control myself. I GUFFAWED into the studious silence. Tears streamed down my face. I was being “Sh”ed left and right. I finally had to just gather up my book bag and stagger out into the hall, where I stood, and literally HOWLED with laughter, by myself, for a good 5 minutes. I was a weird kid, perhaps. Hopelessly laughing about a book published in 1959.
I can count the writers on one hand who are that funny.
Some years back, it became my mission in life to find all of his old books again so I could own them. Many of them are long out of print, and hard to find (at least were hard to find. Amazon has now made it easy). I find it strange that his reputation has not survived, except among the lucky few like myself who tripped over them.
Member the famous Christmas pageant scene in A Prayer for Owen Meany? If you don’t, or if you haven’t read it: CATCH UP. Max Shulman’s books are that funny all the way through. The Strand sometimes had copies of his books. I always checked whenever I was there. I got some of his lesser known titles but the holy grail (I Was a Teenage Dwarf) eluded me. I was dying to know if the book would be as funny to me as an adult as it was when I was a kid. I let my dad know, librarian that he is, what I was looking for so he could keep his eyes open if he came across copies.
Eventually, a box arrived on my doorstep, with my dad’s handwriting on the label. I opened it. And took out two books: Rally Round the Flag, Boys and I Was a Teenage Dwarf. This was who my father was. He had read these books when he was a kid. Now he was sending them to his daughter. I was younger then. I didn’t consider what it must have felt like to him.
I immediately took Teenage Dwarf up to my roof, with a thermos of coffee, and sat there in the autumn sun, tearing through my old childhood favorite. I finished it in a couple of hours.
And for the record? It was even funnier than I remembered. I was older then. My sense of humor had developed, along with my experience in romance. The book is way MEANER than I remembered. It’s biting, bitchy, merciless. I sat up there on my roof, the memories just flooded back, and I was howling.
Dobie Gillis at one point has a girlfriend who is a tomboy. She is constantly playing stickball and climbing trees and falling down. She always has cuts on her knees. Hence, her nickname: Red Knees. RED KNEES. Her PARENTS call her “Red Knees”. Dobie Gillis, kissing her on the couch, whispers lovingly into her ear, “Ohhh, Red Knees …”
A mind who thinks something like that up is sick and perverse, and my kind of person.
Here’s an excerpt from the Red Knees chapter. I love Red Knees.
I hate Red Knees like poison, but I’ll tell you a funny thing: sometimes I kind of like her. I mean sometimes I can’t help it, she’s so cuckoo. She’s got the biggest braces on her teeth of any girl I ever saw, and her hair is a million laughs because she keeps cutting it with a nail clippers. Sometimes when I look at that comical hair and the braces and the red knees which she keeps skinning because she is always running and falling down, I can’t help myself, I just have to bust out laughing. This gets her pretty sore, which I let her do for a little while and then I grab her and hug her to calm her down. That’s the only time Red Knees is really quiet – when I am hugging her.
Here’s an excerpt from another one of Dobie’s romances, with a girl named Tuckie Webb. (Shulman is excellent at naming characters).
Last spring at John Marshall Junior High, after my reprieve from military academy, Tuckie and I had a romance that warmed the heart of the entire school. I mean Alma Gristede had been just a feeble flicker by comparison. Every time we walked down the hall holding hands everybody would smile and say, “Here comes Tuckie and Dobie walking down the hall holding hands.” Even Mr. Knabe, the tin shop teacher, would say it, and he hated me like poison because I once used up fourteen feet of sheet brass trying to make a charm for Tuckie’s charm bracelet.
Tuckie and I were together all the time. We came to school together every morning. We went to classes together. After school we got on our bikes and went to the Sweet Shoppe together for a lime Coke, Dutch treat. Every Wednesday night we went to the early show at the Bijou, Dutch treat, Saturday mornings I picked her up at ten and we played tennis, or went to the beach. Saturday night there was always a party at one of the kids’ houses, and we ate little tiny sandwiches and looked at television and kissed each other. Tuckie only let me kiss her on Saturday night, which was all right with me because kissing really takes it out of a guy.
Then there’s Rally Round the Flag, Boys! First of all, let’s consider the title and that it was published smack-dab in the middle of the Eisenhower years, with the ramping-up of the Cold War and the beefing-up of the military-industrial complex – completely changing the landscape of America (and creating many jobs too, part of America’s new-found “prosperity”. Blue-collar workers could suddenly afford houses. Returning GIs went to college on the GI Bill). The lampoon of Shulman’s novels came out of the Pleasantville-esque stifling conformity of the post-War years. Also: with all that prosperity, teenagers suddenly rose in importance. Teenagers suddenly had tons of free time that they didn’t have before that: adolescence lasted longer. Teenagers had money to burn. Rally Round the Flag, Boys! was made into a movie, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In it, there is a spoof of the “commuter lifestyle,” which had become de rigeur with the explosion of that little thing called THE SUBURBS. We are moving into Mad Men territory here. This is some bleak and brutal shit.
EXCEPRT FROM Rally Round the Flag, Boys!
Living in Putnam’s Landing was a blessing not entirely unmixed.For one thing, it cost more money than Harry was making. For another, it required more hours than there were in a day.
Once, on a dullish afternoon at the office, Harry set down a time-table of a typical day in his life. It looked like this:
6:30 a.m. Rise, shave, shower, breakfast.
7:00 Wake Grace to drive me to station.
7:10 Wake Grace again.
7:16 Grace starts driving me to station.
7:20 Grace scrapes fender on milk truck.
7:36 Arrive station.
7:37 Board train for New York.
8:45 Arrive Grand Central.
9:00 Arrive New Yorker Magazine.
5:18 P.M. Leave New Yorker Magazine.
5:29 Board train to Putnam’s Landing.
6:32 Arrive Putnam’s Landing. Grace waiting at station.
6:51 Traffic jam at station untangles. We start home.
6:52 Grace tells me sump pump broken.
6:56 I ask Grace what is sump pump.
6:57 Grace tells me sump pump is pump that pumps sump.
6:58 I say Oh.
7:00 Grace tells me Bud swallowed penny.
7:02 Grace tells me Dan called his teacher an “old poop”.
7:04 Grace tells me Peter is allergic to the mailman.
7:06 Grace tells me she signed me up to work all day Saturday in Bingo tent at Womans Club Bazaar.
7:12 Arrive home.
7:13 Dan, aged 8, Bud, aged 6, and Peter, aged 4, looking at television. Dan and Bud want to look at Looney Tunes. Peter wants to look at John Cameron Swayze. (?) Grace rules in favor of Peter. Bud swallows another penny.
7:30 Grace puts children to bed. I go out on lawn to pick up toys.
8:01 Mrs. Epperson, baby sitter, rings doorbell. I ask Grace what we need with baby sitter. Grace says tonight is PTA meeting. I remind Grace we just went to PTA meeting three days ago. Grace says that was regular meeting, tonight is special emergency protest meeting. We go to special emergency protest meeting.
8:32 Arrive special emergency protest meeting. Special emergency protest seems to be about a hole in the school playground. Chairman of Board of Education, a conservative Yankee type, says no appropriation in budget for fixing hole. Grace rises and demands special appropriation. Chairman of Board calls this creeping socialism. I doze off.
9:51 Grace jams elbow in my ribs, wakes me to vote on motion to refer hole to Special Committee to Study Hole in Playground. Motion carried.
9:52 Meeting adjourned.
9:53 Grace and I go to Fatso’s Diner with O’Sheels and Steinbergs, fellow PTA members. Women discuss hole further. Men yawn.
10:48 Leave Fatso’s Diner.
11:25 Arrive home. Grace asks Mrs. Epperson, baby sitter, if everything all right. Mrs. Epperson says Bud woke up once and started crying but she gave him some pennies and he went back to sleep.
11:58 Grace and I go to bed.
12:04 Grace says she hears animals around garbage can. I go out.
12:05 Grace is right. There are animals around garbage can. I go back in.
12:53 Animals finish garbage.
1:10 I sleep.
And so passed the days of Harry Bannerman’s years. If it wasn’t a meeting, a caucus, a rally, or a lecture, then it was a quiet evening at home licking envelopes. Or else it was a party where you ate cubes of cheese on toothpicks and talked about plywood, mortgages, mulches, and children. Or it was amateur theatricals. Or ringing doorbells for worthy causes. Or umpiring Little League games. Or setting tulip bulbs. Or sticking decals on cribs. Or trimming hedges. Or reading Dr. Spock. Or barbecuing hamburgers. Or increasing your life insurance. Or doing anything in the whole wide world except sitting on a pouf with a soft and loving girl and listening to Rodgers and Hart.
It was more and more on Harry’s mind – the pouf, the phonograph records, the long, languorous nights. He would look at Grace in a nubby tweed skirt and a cardigan with the sleeves pushed up, rushing about dispensing civic virtue, wisps of hair coming loose, her seams crooked – and he would remember another Grace in pink velvet lounging pajamas, curled up like a kitten next to him on the pouf, in one hand a cigarette lazily trailing smoke, the other hand doing talented things to the back of his neck.
He would look at his house – the leaks, the squeaks, the chips, the cracks, the things that had to be repaired, recovered, rewired, replaced, remodeled – and he would recall the days when all you did when something went wrong was phone the landlord.
He would look at his children. He would watch them devouring sides of beef and crates of eggs; poking toes through stockings and elbows through sweaters; littering the yard with balls, bats, bicycles, tricycles, scooters, blocks, crayons, paints, tops, hoops, marbles, bows, arrows, darts, guns, and key bits of jigsaw puzzles; trailing mud on the rugs; breaking off the corners of playing cards; eating watermelon in bed; nailing pictures of athletes to walls; leaving black rings in the tub; getting carsick – he would observe this arresting pageant and he would think, “Yes, they are fine children, they are normal, I love them very much, and I will guard and keep them always … But, oh, how sweet and satisfactory those golden days on the pouf!”
See, stuff like that is why I think he is so funny. And so subversive.
Shulman completely destroys the gaga-eyed “American ideal” of the idyllic white-picket-fence domestic life, so stifling at that time it was basically State-run propaganda.
Max Shulman: a witty madcap satirist with a ridiculous and yet very HUMAN sense of humor. He saw the hypocrisies. He saw the dangers of convention and consensus. His work is a “rallying cry” against the stifling sense of duty, mindless patriotism, “settling down”.
It’s still a valuable lesson. I feel the same conformity and LOVE of consensus forming today in very alarming ways. What you can say, how you are “allowed” to say it, humorlessness and literalism, distrust of the silly, the invented, the romantic, the not-for-any-other-reason-but-to-have-fun-ness of life. I have always distrusted consensus, except for things like “The Nazis were bad and needed to be destroyed.” (Now, though, it appears there ISN’T a consensus on that, never mind the World War we fought.) At any rate: Shulman’s voice was a welcome breath of fresh air then – and it should be one now too. We are in an age when satire can barely exist, not when maniacs burst into a newspaper office and kill everyone there because of satirical cartoons. And so-called tolerant people actually say, “Well, maybe they shouldn’t have published the cartoons …” You think it’s okay to kill someone because of a satirical cartoon? What are you defending here? Some woman on Twitter said (not about the cartoons, but about something else): “There’s a time and place for satire.” She is a writer and cultural critic. A “time and place” for satire? Do you even know the purpose of satire? You do not know what you are talking about. Satire has always been dangerous. Satire attacks the status quo, and satire goes after power. In times of trouble and strife, satire is needed more than ever. The powers that be have ALWAYS tried to shut down satire. The people EXCUSING a bunch of murdered cartoonists should not be so complacent, should not presume that this kind of silencing – as in: FINAL silencing – won’t eventually come around to THEM, and how would they like it THEN? Defend free speech, even speech you don’t like, because eventually the culture will boomerang – it ALWAYS does – and then YOU’LL be in the firing line. There are always lines over which you must not cross – speech that civilization must not tolerate. We fight these battles. These are battles that should be fought. But be very careful with how far you are willing to go to silence others. Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot.
Shulman made jokes about things that many Americans took very very seriously. Considered sacred, even.
We need voices who take NONE of it seriously, consider NOTHING sacred.
His fans were, once upon a time, legion.