Popeyes and Port Comedy from a Fallen World
My sister was a child and I a teenager when we went with mom, dad and my grandmother (on dad’s side) to the zoo in Columbus, Ohio. I recall little of the outing, save for laughing at the monkeys and what happened next. We wandered into a cyclorama of venomous snakes. It was a dark theatre in the round with glassed-in displays of vipers slithering in replicas of native habitats. BANG!-G-g-g-g-g-gggg. My sister’s balloon popped. It echoed. The crowd hushed. Then, dad made an announcement: “The snakes are out! The snakes are out!”
Well, I thought it was funny. Dad’s quip was intuitive. Subliminal spontaneity. But I experience less spontaneity nowadays. Things seem more guarded and cliché. When I was a college chaplain, I asked some students about the funniest thing they’d ever seen. They all described TV comedians. I replied that most TV comedy is contrived and tends toward a mockery. Then I asked about uncalculated, real-life, belly-laughing humor. They didn’t say much. It was notable that no one mentioned humor on social media.
That got me thinking. Some TV comedians were indeed funny. And many TV comedians (that I’ve seen) were filmed live, though often edited. Performed comedy rarely works without a live, reacting audience. Some pop sitcoms needed fake applause, notwithstanding some of the rare “higher” forms of TV comedy. In any event, TV comedy used to put old content – like a live Vaudeville act – into a new medium.
I recall, in the ‘70s, when Tim Conway and Carol Burnett would adlib or go off-script in what was otherwise a rehearsed skit on The Carol Burnett Show. Those were their funniest acts. Watch a 1978 skit called “Tim’s Surprise.” That kind of comedy didn’t grow up in an electronic medium. It grew up in a world of live acting that impersonated real life experiences. (Ironically, the aforementioned skit is on YouTube – a case of old content in a new medium and then in a newer medium). But here’s something particular to TV humor: it rarely goes beyond the critical, that is, making someone’s fault the object. That’s not intrinsic to humor, but it looms large in TV comedy. The common ingredient in all humor is irony. Not all forms of irony work in every medium, save for live acts with solely live audiences. Secondary media – that is media removed from immediate experience (i.e. electronics) – narrow the possibilities of which kind of ironies can be played out in humor.
“The snakes are out!” was funny in real life. You had to be there. It would only be funny on TV if the snakes really did get out. Or, if the guy who said it got arrested. Neither of which would be funny in real life. “All media work us over completely,” said Marshall McLuhan. Electronics makes us want unresolved involvement. Insults, even comedic insults, are all about that. But “high” humor – which brings joy from irony – is not a content sustained on either TV or social media. The best that TV can do to for joy is to be hyper-sentimental, like a Hallmark movie (which isn’t really a movie). Otherwise, it’s rare. Electronics doesn’t know what to do with either irony or joy, other than overdoing the bitter or the sentimental. There’s no substitute for real life experience if one wants to feel the joy of humor.
A common cultural sense of a fallen world creates the irony from which we get humor and, thereby, comedy. That’s why American comedy, like psychology, is largely a Jewish thing. Comedians are psychologists. Read the Old Testament. You’ll find a cultural ground of experience from which came the great comedians who got their start in Catskill resorts back in the day. They were hilarious. They were often critical, but not necessarily so. More often they were lamenting – another form of irony that can be funny. I once read Psalm 78 and laughed. Read it in light of The Exodus: it’s chock-full of irony and comedic potential. Irony is the scratch from which humor is refined and thereby baked into comedy. So now, I offer you some real-life, irony-rich stories that created a culture of humor among those who’ve experienced them. These tales reveal a cultural basis of a non-critical humor, in a Catholic setting. Like our Jewish forbears, the main character suffered and felt the ironies of a fallen world.
Meet my great-grandmother, from New Orleans.
Her name was Ida Ragan Prados. We called her Momee. Pronounced Mum-mee. Her husband Rufus died from a heart attack during the Great Depression. The stress from his failing car business got the better of him. After his death, Momee had several suitors though she never re-married.
She once dated a guy who ran a monkey farm and gave her a baby monkey. When taking her kids on a car ride to somewhere, Momee gave the baby money to her youngest, Rufus, Jr., to hold it in the back seat. It bit him. He screamed. It screeched and ran around the car. Momee crashed into the guardrail of a bridge over a canal in Metairie. Her youngest daughter, Amelie, now known as “Aunt Puffy” (recently deceased at age 99) laughingly told the rest. (“Puffy” is an extraction from the French “poupée,” which means “little doll”). Momee called the police from a pay phone and a cop answered. She told him in a panic, “The monkey bit Rufus and I wrecked the car!!!” Amelie, who was with her, overheard the cop through the phone’s receiver yelling to his colleague. In her telling, the cop yelled, “Hey, get ova’ hea’. Ya’ gotta’ hea’ dis!” Speaking into the receiver, he said, “Say dat again, ma’am.” “The monkey bit Rufus and I crashed the car in the bridge!!!!”
Momee loved to entertain. Two years later, when my future mom, Ida Celine, was fourteen, Momee took her and two other granddaughters to the Court of Two Sisters, a restaurant on Royal Street in the French Quarter. She bought them crème-de-menthe Grasshoppers and taught them how to smoke cigarettes, insisting that women don’t inhale. (Grandmas: try that today). Nothing Momee did was conventional (except for not inhaling), which is why conventions are important. Without them, nothing would be either ironical or funny. To be sure, Momee broke conventions, not morals. Her life was one irony after another in a conventional world. And from that flowed lots of laughter in tales told to this day.
From the ’50s until her death in the late ‘80s, Momee infallibly kept a water-pitcher full of gin in the fridge, ready to mix martinis or gin-and-tonics served with a tray of Oysters Rockefeller. On a distant table visible from the dining room she had a glass jar full of M&Ms, peppermints and butter mints. That was lunch for the kids. It kept them away from the adults but within view. If parents objected, which they did, Momee would say, “It won’t hurt them.” They’re baptized.
The gin pitcher is still a family a legend. Trips in and out of Moisant International Airport often entailed a martini layover with Momee. During these first class visits, tunes like Artie Shaw’s band playing “All the Things You Are,” or June Christy and Benny Goodman performing “Taking a Chance of Love,” or Nat King Cole singing “Nature Boy,” pervaded the background from the radio. In 1960, when dad flew in from Newark for his wedding, he made the customary stopover at Momee’s, which was graciously hosted with Aunt Puffy. When Momee offered him a drink, Puffy shouted to her mother, “Don’t forget the Holy Wata’s in the gin bottle. That’s not for drinks.” At age 99, Puffy still told the tale with tearful, red-faced laughter: “Ya shoulda’ seen the look on ya’ daddy face!” Of course, he was a Presbyterian from Jersey.
If Holy Water occupied the gin bottle, gin occupied the water pitcher. My Uncle Chuck, a college student in the ’60s, found this out when he stayed a hot summer’s night at Momee’s after going out with friends in the city. Returning to Momee’s in the warm wee hours, cotton mouthed from beer, he went to her fridge to pour himself a nice, tall, cold glass of water….
My last memory of Momee is from the winter of 1987. As was custom, it followed upon a Piedmont Airlines landing at Moisant, a Christmas return from graduate school. In her declining years, Momee’s gourmet palate took to Popeye’s fried chicken paired with port. I owe Providence a debt of gratitude for having had such a great-grandmother.
Aunt Puffy said this of her mother, with an affection that only a New Orleanean could feel: “She neva’ grew up.” From the trials of childhood, an early proposal to marriage (she was proposed to at age twelve and married at sixteen), an early adolescence spent in a convent (her mom put her in the Ursuline Academy until she was old enough to marry Rufus), and the tragic death of her husband, she became childishly holy. Everyone has a common testimony about her: She never had a bad word about anyone. She was all cheer, about everything and everyone, even people who took advantage of her. She was hopelessly naïve. In her mind, people were not capable of malice, except the Soviets. She thought that because she, herself, wasn’t capable of malice. It’s said that when the ladies gossiped at bridge games, she’d say, “You don’t know the whole story,” throwing cold water on hot words and another card on the table, taking another sip of her martini and another drag of her cigarette (but not inhaling).
En route back to UVA that January, we dined for the last time on Popeyes and port. In the damp cool winds of a New Orleans winter, she entered assisted living. She wheelchaired around telling everyone how wonderful they were. My father recalls his last encounter with her. He kissed her goodbye. She looked at him through her blind eyes and said, “Kiss me again.” She knew.
She never grew up. But grace wanders into the intricate contours life and death in this fallen world. From that we get humor and laughter. It points to heaven. Thank you Momee. Thanks for the suffering, the faith and the humor you passed to your family. It was light in a fallen world. Your humor suggested a heaven that shines through sorrow.