Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A HAIKU ON THE OCCASION OF THE PASSING OF ALEX KARRAS: What do you do to mark the death of someone who was familiar to you (and to many of your generation) only as a bit player in an insubstantial bit of media* -- as the father in the second-most-popular white-people-adopting-black-children-with-glandular-problems-comedy-theoretically-ensues of your childhood -- but who was more familiar to an earlier generation in a less embarrassing way?  Allow me this placid tercet:

The dude from Webster
Something something NFL
Was not Dick Butkus

*Not mentioning Mongo, because come on, that shit isn't funny.


  1. Yesterday I saw a headline about former NFL player Alex Karras being really sick. I didn't recognize the name, so I didn't stop to read the article. Then today I wander over to CNN & there's his picture and I'm all "George died?! Oh no!" I don't think I even knew he ever played football. Oops.

  2. Adam B.9:44 PM

    I'm sorry; what's your problem with Mongo?

  3. I'll always picture him in bed with Robert Preston.

    And now I want to watch that movie again immediately.

  4. Additional random awesomeness from his Wiki page--before being drafted by the NFL, he spent 6 months as a pro wrestler, and returned to pro wrestling for a year when he was suspended from the NFL for having bet on NFL games.

  5. Joseph Finn9:45 PM

    Wait, was that a dig on Mongo, the single best performance by a former athlete ever? (Second place, obviously, is Kareen Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane!)

    And Karras was never a bit player; he co-created Another Ballgame with his wife before the network co-opted it as Webster to shoe-horn the kid in..

  6. Jordan9:46 PM

    He's right, that shit isn't funny. It's hilarious.

  7. isaac_spaceman9:47 PM

    The name "Mongo" is an intentional reference to "mongoloid," which was the choice epithet at the time for people with Down's Syndrome, and you can see exactly what Brooks is doing with the character, and no, I don't think that shit is funny.

  8. Joseph Finn9:47 PM


  9. isaac_spaceman9:47 PM

    As in, lordy, you're amazed I would make a connection that tenuous? Or lordy, I must be so easily offended? Or lordy, something else?

  10. Adam C.9:47 PM

    It does concern me a little that no one has yet mentioned "Sheriff from Porky's" among his career highlights.

  11. Marsha9:47 PM

    I thought he gave a lovely performance on Webster, and the real-life love between him and his on-and-off-screen wife was palpable. Yes, it was a dumb show about a precocious kid, but I liked the two of them a lot, and I'm sorry to hear he died.

  12. isaac_spaceman9:47 PM

    And just to expand a bit, if it's the former, I think it's a lot pollyanaish to think that that's not exactly what Brooks meant by "Mongo." In 1974, everybody in America would have understood the word "mongoloid" to mean either Down's Syndrome or just as a general catch-all for mental disabilities. If I'm not being clear enough, the word "mongoloid" was synonymous with "retard" in popular usage in the 1970s. It's not like Brooks was hiding his cards there. If the connection now seems obscure or tenuous today, it's only because the word fell quickly into disuse as soon as people decided it was offensive (which it is). I suppose that if you don't believe Brooks was making an explicit connection, I can't convince you, but it seems as plain as day to me.

    And if the "lordy" is because of how easily offended I am, I don't think I am. I don't really think there are things that can't be mined for humor. I just think that "hey look, a retard" is not actually a joke.

  13. So we can't appreciate the actor's performance, nor admit any enjoyment of the work overall, because of the author's choice for a character's name. Got it.

  14. Adam B.9:48 PM

    And not "humongous"? I will admit that I never gave this thought before, and Ngrams does show "mongoloid" peaking right around then.

    I always read the character as "dumb," not "retarded," but then again I didn't understand that the Stephen Stucker character in Airplane! was supposed to be read as gay for a long, long time.

  15. isaac_spaceman9:48 PM

    Did I say that? Enjoy whatever you want. And they're doing some pretty awesome chink jokes over on Two Broke Girls if you're into that stuff too. Not that I condone that kind of stuff, but the actor's performance is really something special.

  16. You didn't consider this week's Two Broke Girls, which had, as its substantially entire plot "Han is short, Asian, and peed himself" to be the pinnacle of humor? (Yes, I'm still watching, because for all the problems, Dennings and Behrs have quite good play off each other.)

  17. isaac_spaceman9:48 PM

    Hard to say using just the word usages, but "mongoloid," as you say, peaked in about 1970, and "mongo" (presumably used to mean "humongous") peaked about ten years later. My gut is that "mongo" as a synonym for "huge" was associated with the rise of valley-talk and skate/surfer culture, which is not at all what I imagine Brooks was mining for Blazing Saddles 7-10 years earlier.

  18. Ma'am and George were married in real life? I never knew that. Aww...that's sweet.

  19. Jordan9:48 PM

    I never thought of that, because clearly, I'm way too young to have heard it in this context. I'll have to rewatch it, but like Adam, I never saw him as "retarded" but "big, tough and dumb." He rides a longhorn and punches out a horse.

  20. Adam B.9:48 PM

    Three notes:

    1. "Humongous" itself is of very recent vintage -- Webster's says c. 1967 -- as an amalgam of huge + monstrous. I did not know that.

    2. Whatever it meant in 1974, by the 1980s I think "mongo" meant "like the Mongo character in Blazing Saddles." I don't believe Steve McMichael chose his nickname because he believed he was exemplifying the attributes of persons with Down's syndrome.

    3. Back to Brooks: something that gives me hesitation before signing onto your interpretation, Isaac, is that whatever stereotypes are given to people living with Down's syndrome, "insanely strong" and "flatulent" are not among them. But you've given me something to think about.

  21. Adam B.9:49 PM

    According to an AV Club reader -- and I've seen a few references which seem to verify it -- Mel Brooks has stated that the character is named solely as an allusion Cuban jazz percussionist Mongo SantamarĂ­a, for the joke when Mongo enters the town and the peasant shouts out, "Mongo! Santa Maria!" before fleeing.

  22. Adlai9:49 PM

    My dad owned (and probably still owns) at least 1 Mongo Santamaria LP, so that's what I assumed it was.

  23. isaac_spaceman9:49 PM

    Making a "Mongo ... Santamaria" reference is not inconsistent with the reference I'm talking about. You can have jokes about more than one thing in a movie. It is a hallmark of Mel Brooks's style to make character-based jokes out of names ("Lili von Shtupp"; "Count de Monet"; "Empress Nympho"), and there isn't any joke I can figure out about the relationship between Mongo the character and Mongo Santamaria the jazz musician. Meanwhile, the character is barely capable of speech and has a name that everybody at the time would have recognized as the first two symbols for "mongoloid." What is the more likely explanation to you? Intentional joke or total accident that the mentally disabled character had a name basically synonymous with "retard"?

    On your other points:

    1. So the notion that "mongo" is a derivation of humongous is off the table.

    2. What it meant by the 1980s doesn't tell us a whole lot about what it meant in 1974.

    3. Just because not every part of a character is a grotesque stereotype doesn't mean that the character doesn't incorporate parts of a grotesque stereotype. There is no stereotype of Mexicans as mice or dogs, but Speedy Gonzalez and the Taco Bell chihuahua are stereotypes.

  24. Adam B.9:50 PM

    I actually think the fact that "humongous" was relatively new slang strengthens the possibility that it was the root of "Mongo," not weakens it.

    The question (well, there are many) is whether Mongo is intended to be seen as merely dumb, versus mentally disabled, and part of what I'd like to know is what Western characters or tropes that he was supposed to be parodying. I think you may be right, but I'd like to know more.

  25. isaac_spaceman9:50 PM

    I don't really need to know any more about the racist bullshit on that show. Something about that show obviously speaks to a lot of people, but what it says to me is "fuck you, people like it when I belittle you." So I guess I'm not in the target demo.

  26. spacewoman9:59 PM

    Well, if you think making fun of people with intellectual disabilities is funny, there's probably no convincing you that it's not. Which says a lot about you.

  27. Which of course doesn't mean Isaac's not also right - just that I only saw the 1 level the first time I saw it.

  28. Jordan10:21 PM

    I know the new comment system is a little screwy and hard to follow, but if you look at the time stamps, I wrote this before Isaac pointed that out and replied to him that I had never seen the term used as such, and would have to rewatch the film--since I wasn't alive in 1974, I just remember him for the horse-punching. Hope that clears things up a bit for you.

  29. spacewoman10:45 PM

    I'm sorry, Jordan! I did not realize that; this is the first time I've read any comments since the new system started. I'm glad I was wrong, and I apologize for jumping to the wrong conclusion.

  30. Jordan11:01 PM

    No worries. I like the new just takes some getting used to.

  31. Perhaps because the usage changed over time, I never, ever, until today made any connection between Karras/Brooks' Mongo and Down Syndrome. Your case about that connection, however, is powerful. Anecdotally, I did believe for ages that the character was named "Mungo" rather than "Mongo" and perhaps that's because I grew up in a largely post-valley-girl America where "humongous" seemed like an obvious connection.

    I'm having trouble digesting this, as a new and ugly angle on a character for whom I have not inconsiderable love.

  32. Marsha12:36 PM

    Yup - for 32 years, according to one obit I read. Her name (which slipped my mind when I posted originally) is Susan Clark and it seems they worked together quite a bit. She always struck me as a rather unusual actress for Hollywood - pretty in a classy sort of way, but able to play both sweetness and aloofness at the same time.