Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Boy Howdy!: On Mister Natural,
Little Hitchhikers...
and Robinson Crusoe
(Or: "Carbonated Life Forms! YAAAAAAY!"*)

When I was a lad in the 1970s, I had the most unhip Dad in the world.

Let me explain just how completely out of it he was.

When I was a very small munchkin when we moved into our house on Gladstone in St. Clair Shores, we were crammed, ten of us, into four bedrooms on the second floor: Mark and Jerry in one room, Raphaelle, Cecilia and Eileen in a second, Brian, John and myself in a third, and Mom & Dad of course in the master bedroom, all on the second floor of 28300. (There was only one staircase, and God have mercy on us if there had been a fire--no smoke detectors, remember!)

Bill had left home by the time we moved there, and Mark moved to his own place by about 1970 or so, and the process of the kids leaving home meant that we started to decompress.

By 1976, my brother John had gone to college, and, glorious day!, I inherited the larger bedroom that once belonged to Mark & Jerry. I cleaned the place out, repainted it a garish yellow and black, and moved in.

Anyway, during the process of cleaning that bedroom, I had found, buried in the back of the closet, an underground comic book by R. Crumb, featuring "Mister Natural" (seen above), obviously having been abandoned by Mark or Jerry years previously. The cover was missing, and the full page cartoon on the inside cover page showed Mister Natural with the logo: "Mr. Nacherel Sez...Keep On Truckin'".

((ADDENDUM: This is a picture of me, age 12, wearing that very image. Next to the Most Unhip Dad In The World, and my little sister. Legend is in my dad's handwriting.))
On this particular day--it must have been in September of '76 or so, but I remember the incident vividly--my dad came into my bedroom as I sat there reading it, took one look at it... and said "Nov Shmoz ka Pop!".... and walked out laughing.

I never realized what the hell he was talking about--sometimes my dad was just weird like that.

The day he died in April 1991, that incident popped into my head--and I asked my Mom just what in the hell was he talking about?

She told me with a chuckle--I think it was the only time she laughed that whole horrible week--that Dad was quoting a comic strip that had been popular in the 1930s--Gene Ahern's "The Squirrel Cage"--involving a character called The Little Hitchhiker, who wandered through hallucinigenic adventures speaking a nonsense language. His catchphrase, "Nov Shmoz ka Pop!", was apparently all the rage among kids in the Depression era.

But the core truth of why he laughed didn't become clear until I actually saw The Little Hitchhiker, which I found through the power of the Great God Google, thus:

And what I thought was my dad's unhipness became clear: the "new, cool, revolutionary" R. Crumb had stolen the entire schtick for Mister Natural from Gene Ahern. And in quoting a simple catchphrase, he discredited the entire claim of the 1960s by simply pointing out that there was nothing whatsoever new under the sun.

And I hadn't a clue as to what he was talking about.

Now, a few days ago, I posted something on Facebook; something particularly ill-fortuned occurred to one of my clients, and I kvetched about it. A dear friend of mine, Meredith, wife of my best friend Phil, responded thus: "Uh-oh, Chongo! Not good!"

Now THAT took me back.

Back in the day, in the late 1960s and early 70s, there was a kid's TV program produced by Hanna Barbera, with the set design by kiddy TV's version of R. Crumb--the Krofft brothers, Sid and Marty. The Banana Splits it was called. And that show--and it's drug-influenced followon, HR Pufnstuf--left nightmare images that haunt people to this day.

You had to see it to believe it.

Anyway, it had a particularly lame subsegment called "Danger Island", featuring a sort of a teenaged-wild-man-kid named "Chongo" who lived with a Robinson Crusoe kind of guy on an island in the Pacific. Very, very un-PC; it would NEVER get past the network censors today.

...and the catchphrase from Danger Island was... you guessed it.... "Uh oh, Chongo!"

I mentioned it to Meredith, and her response was, "Don't blame me, blame Phil! The Kroffts were before my time!"

It got me thinking--

So much of what we say is preprogrammed and habitual (hence the very phrase "Catch Phrase")--sometimes we just say the same thing over and over again and we forget what it means and where it came from. And sometimes the catchphrases we learn in our youths (in my case, 'Enough Comedy Jokes' or 'Yew Americas are Soooo Nayeeeve!' from Steve Martin, 'Nyever Mind' from Emily Litella, Seven Words You Can't Say on Television, Boy, Howdy!, and of course 'Beam Me Up Scotty' from somewhere-or-other). And our kids hear us saying them, maybe picking them up themselves. (Excepting, perhaps, the Seven Words You Can't Say on Television.)

And other people, who never saw Saturday Night Live, Classic Trek or heard a Steve Martin album, haven't got a freaking clue as to what we're talking about... leaving us like Robinson Crusoe...ahem, I mean like Chuck Noland on Castaway. Or those guys on Lost.


We're so unhip, yanno.

*That is from "Jimmy Neutron" and is my youngest son's favorite catchphrase. Go figure.

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Keep it clean for gene.