The Resounding Laughter of Marvin Himmelfarb
Dr. Andy reflects on the hearts, souls, and departed spirits of the best friends of Davey Marlin-Jones
Sometimes we tell ourselves stories that cycle through our own disappointments or even that explore imagined worse-case scenarios. Suffering awaits the traveler down that path. It’s the luckier storyteller who can use stories to make his beloved departed come back to life, thus relishing their presence one more time, and sharing their lives with others who never had the pleasure their company.
In a recent Smartless podcast interview, the actress and comedian Tiffany Haddish said that she uses mind-mapping techniques to figure out how she will attach her amusing thoughts and outrageous punchlines to stories, for everyone loves to hear a story. She herself has powerful stories to tell about orphanhood, homelessness, faith, and persistence, the last being a requisite for any sort of sustained accomplishment. As a friend told me at a conference this past Friday, the “P” in PhD stands for “Persistence.”
Yesterday evening, after I returned home from my daily walk with Jukie, I sat down with my son Truman to talk about movies and to tell stories. When I asked him about his day at school, he told me that reading (and reading about) The Code of Hammurabi in his World Civilization class reminded him of a Mel Brooks interpretation of a system of laws. I smiled at his reference, and told him that, speaking of Mel Brooks and world civilizations, my friends and I thought Brooks’ History of the World, Part I was hilarious when it was released in 1981 (when I was Truman’s age), even though it earned only a 47% Metacritic score.
Truman reminded me that we still have yet to watch the Brooks classic Blazing Saddles, which we own on DVD, so I reminded him that my late godfather, John Hillerman, appears in that film. Truman looked up Hillerman and then remarked with surprise that he also had fifth billing in the film Chinatown, and that he had early 1970s roles in films with Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier, Jeff Bridges, and Barbra Streisand.
Because John’s film and TV career took off soon after I was born, I saw him rarely. John never had to step in to perform any godfatherly duties, so I didn’t have many stories about him to share with Truman. But my brother Oliver’s godfather, Marvin Himmelfarb, came to the house all the time. In response to Truman’s questions, soon I was regaling my son with stories of Marvin and my dad getting louder and louder over the course of an evening as they would talk about writing, theatre, sports, and, rarely, politics. I even did my Himmelfarb impersonation, filling our little Davis home with his voice the way he used to do for my even smaller DC home in the mid-1970s. While films make characters come alive, stories do the same for the people behind the camera, or, in the case of my godfather, the people behind the characters.
I’ll never be able to introduce Truman to my father, nor to his best friends John and Marvin, but as we reflect on those whom we have lost (and we have all had additional occasions to do so over this last week’s September 11th remembrances), we can delight in the opportunity to reanimate such vibrant, funny, and generous people with the stories that they have left behind. Doing so reminds the storyteller and the listener alike of the joy that inhabiting and reanimating such connections can hold for all of us.
Such familial narratives are rich with meaning, but do they console us, or remind us of our losses? Well, as Orson Welles, the narrator of the aforementioned History of the World, Part I, once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” The actors in our life’s stories are necessarily ephemeral, but the stories they continue to participate in may never stop as long as someone is there to keep telling them.
Special thanks to all the teams that support these newsletters and the Pub Quiz on Patreon.
P.S. Here are three questions from last week’s Pub Quiz:
Books and Authors. What Russian master of the short story worked his entire short life as a doctor and as a playwright, penning Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard?
Current Events – Trending Names in the News. What notable American in 1777 implemented the first mass military inoculation (in this case, of Smallpox)?
Sports. What football team recently signed cornerback Josh Norman and released cornerback Dontae Johnson?
P.P.S. Happy birthday to the Sacramento writer, professor, and musician David Merson, the man responsible for getting me hooked on Pub Quizzes about 20 years ago. He and I were texting about Dungeons and Dragons this morning, and this is what he said:
“Oh, I wrote a silly Dungeons and Dragons song for the Judge John Hodgman podcast. He challenged listeners to write a song about [Dungeons and Dragons creator] Gary Gygax entitled "Gygax Departed" that mentioned "an infestation of Bigfoot" and the Greyhawk planet Oerth, which no one knows how to pronounce: https://soundcloud.app.goo.gl/6AWrKkuowxzVn9Aj8.” Happy birthday, David!
I have not yet managed to convince my kids to watch the classic Mel Brooks films with me, although I figure the longer we wait the more references they'll get. And: The P in entrepreneur also stands for persistence. Nice piece, Dr. Andy.