Leslie Nielsen 1926-2010

Well, I’d hoped this was just a Twitter rumor, but apparently it’s not. Actor Leslie Nielsen has passed away at 84.

I think my favorite Nielsen moment (aside from “don’t call me Shirley,” which probably tops a lot of lists) is in The Naked Gun 2 1/2 when the bad guy tells Drebin (Nielsen): “I want the pleasure of killing you myself.”

With gravity and an edge of menace, Drebin replies, “The pleasure is all mine.”

Nielsen did great slapstick (like trashing the office of Ricardo Montalban’s villain in The Naked Gun), but his biggest asset was delivering absurdity with utter solemnity and dignity. Lt. Drebin was clueless nearly all the time, and Nielsen played that flawlessly, remaining completely unflappable—or acknowledging some massive screwup with little more than an “oops” look—throughout the chaos Drebin created.

Which is not to shortchange Nielsen’s career as a dramatic actor. On the contrary, he probably wouldn’t have been so funny without it: he inhabited Drebin as a character, instead of clowning with him as a schtick.

So long, Leslie. We’ll miss you.

Bad Poetry Contest Results

The results are in, and…and…

Maybe I’m taking this too seriously. Or maybe I’ve transmogrified into an insufferable comedy elitist (though that seems unlikely, given my BASEketball and Tenacious D predilections).

But.

For my money, this poetry just isn’t bad enough. It isn’t even close.

I’m not going to open the how-do-we-judge-poetic-quality can of worms. Not that it would be much of a can of worms, given that I could probably count the people who read this blog on one hand. (This reminds me of Mariah Carey, who, when asked whether she had slept with a particular man, replied with her inimitable phrasing, “I can count the men I’ve been with on less than one hand, and he’s not on the hand.” Now that’s comedy.)

Let’s have a look at the proffered samples. From the first:

Thee! Vile rhymester who, like a worm, doth into this Bad Poetry Contest creep,
Where your twisted, awkward verses tread on clomping, platform-shoe’d feet.
Thy bloated similes and metaphors lie there, like day-old roadkill on the street.

This isn’t crap poetry so much as an apparently intelligent person being funny by dishing out some faux Romanticism. The gag is cute, but, unfortunately, the verse is competent. It doesn’t suck. (As a gag, the place it really stumbles–a stumble that is a staple of these bad-writing contests–is the channeling of olden days on one hand while inexplicably slipping in modernisms–platform shoes? roadkill?–on the other. Maybe I’m missing the boat and that kind of inconsistency should be hilarious. To me it just clunks.)

Our next sample is simply titled “Bleed,” and in its entirety reads:

Nothing on tv,
Nothing to read.
Think I’ll slit my wrists
And watch them bleed.

Come on now–this is the goth Dorothy Parker! And that’s the trouble: it reads like it’s supposed to be funny. So why is it singled out for mention in this contest?

Of those the editors chose to highlight, the next sample comes closest to genuine suckitude:

You see I’m struck with Cupid’s infection, which has caused this erotic obsession.
I’ve an aphrodisiac possession and there’s a need for confession.

Ouch. This sounds like somebody who just got exposed to hip-hop for the first time and decided to try his hand at it. This one feels the least self-conscious of the lot, like it could have come from someone sheepishly submitting something he wrote fifteen years ago as a teenager. If bad poetry is what we’re celebrating, it gets my vote.

But then we’re back to intentional comedy. The next sample offers:

And If milk got on the bees, and you made the bees’ wings cheesy until they couldn’t flap, then
I’ll bet bees wouldn’t make honey, and people would get stung as they sucked cheese off the bees’ bodies.

This just sounds like a Jack Handey maxim. That isn’t an insult, but it isn’t in the spirit of bad poetry, either.

Finally we are handed the envelope: the grand prize winner! It is an “epically awful elegy to the recently deceased inventor of Ramen noodles.” Well, maybe I’m a dork–scratch that, I know I’m a dork–but I found this lighthearted farewell to be entertaining and apt. Where’s the suck?

Like I said, maybe I’m taking this whole thing too seriously. But, you know, I wanted to laugh. And I kept not laughing. I didn’t set out to pick nits; I’m picking nits because I want to know why the results weren’t funnier.

So go have yourself a look at the master, William McGonagall, and his brilliant “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” the touchstone for this competition. I’d never read it before tonight. I laughed out loud. Old William blows these wannabes out of the water. Look at that giggle-inducing opening line: “Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!” (Er, Bill, did you actually look at the thing before you wrote this?) And his beautifully lame refrain: “On the last Sabbath day of 1879,/Which will be remember’d for a very long time.” On he goes through further literary crimes until he brings us to his staggeringly unlyrical moral:

I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Buttresses? Who the hell tries to rhyme anything with buttresses? (For those of you who are into this sort of thing, I read “buttresses” as a dactyl, so it doesn’t even go with the amphibrach “confesses.”)

Part of McGonagall’s gift is the solemnity with which he dispenses his painful verse. The nature of author’s intent can be debated ad nauseam–another can of worms I’d rather leave closed–but the guy sure as hell sounds serious to me. Most of the Slate entries I’ve read come off as intentional attempts to be bad, and when that motive shows through, the poem’s precious guilelessness is gone.

Bad-writing contests tend to attract people who find humor in bad writing. That’s the problem. They know too much. Incompetence is like innocence: hard to fake and damn near impossible to replace. It’s easy–the norm, arguably–for literate people to do mediocre work. But deliberate spectacular failure is harder than it sounds.