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Max Shulman’s Nonsense

Sgt. Dan Miller was strolling around his grassy green campus, circa World War II:

Leggy coeds flexed and posed, apparently to keep in practice, because, except for a few underage freshman, there were no men in sight. Emboldened by sharp whistles, I stopped and talked to a group of four coeds. “Nice day,” I said.

“It certainly is, Lieutenant,” cooed one, wiggling.

“This spring weather,” sighed another, slithering sinuously. “It does something to me. Does it do something to you, Captain?”

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“I feel so kind of cuddly and lovely, Major,” a third confessed, debarking a young spruce with her writhing back.

The fourth went all out. “Colonel,” she panted, “let’s.” --Excerpted from “The Feather Merchants,” 1944, by Max Shulman

OK, OK, so, when the great writers of the world are assembled, Max Shulman probably will be sitting way, way in the back of the Great Hall. But, nonetheless, he’ll be in the room, still “good, ole, green and globular,” as he described himself, and still cheeky.

His nurturings were often dismissed as something dug out of S.J. Perelman’s wastebasket (said one critic) or “roadhouse Wodehouse” (said another).

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But at his death at 69 last Sunday at his home here, the obit writers took summary note of his unique abilities to satirize and ridicule. His books, plays or movies included “Barefoot Boy With Cheek,” “Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” “How Now, Dow Jones,” “Tender Trap,” “House Calls,” etc.

An aging generation will recall his “limp sell” column syndicated in college newspapers by a cigaret company:

Marlboros come in soft pack and Flip-Top box. The makers of Marlboros come in dark suits and thin lapels--except on weekends when they come in yoke-neck jerseys and white duck trousers. White ducks come in flocks....

Before that, in the early ‘40s, he regaled his readers at the U of Minnesota with a lot of facts that they didn’t teach you in college, like that it takes a whale 48 hours to gather a day’s meal, leaving them almost no time for water sports or reading Melville.

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Having played the news game distant years ago in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, I interviewed Shulman on several occasions of home visit. It was always a special treat, since I had the addiction to Max-isms that were acquired in my formative seasons, the ribald, outrageous, careening humor that was no respecter of boundaries.

He wasn’t a raucous fellow in person: “If you met Lawrence Tibbett,” he told me, “you wouldn’t expect him to be singing, would you?”

Not unusual for many of our treasured comics, they came from humble circumstances. Shulman’s father was a Russian immigrant house painter from the Jewish settlement along Selby Avenue in St. Paul. Young Max worked all hours at a neighborhood deli, from “8 in the morning until 11 at night. But on Sundays we closed at 6.”

Then--the U of M: It was a resounding era, what with writers around like Norman Katkov, Dan Brennen, Ozzie St. George, Bud Nye, Harry Reasoner and, his special adversary, the angular, brooding Tom Heggen, who went on to write “Mr. Roberts” about his wartime service.

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Shulman and Heggen controlled the U of M Daily and the humor magazine.

They had been studying Vachel Lindsay, who would sell his poems for bread. So Shulman and Heggen stormed a campus bakery and sang “ribald ditties” to the stupefied proprietor. They came back to the Daily office with day-old bread and threw shreds around, yelling, “Here, peasants!”

The wits always battled. Shulman reclined at his desk, feet up; Heggen squatted on the desk top like a Buddha.

Shulman: Tom, is the Pacific a good ocean?

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Heggen: (At length) Max, about average.

Shulman wrote that he originally “found Heggen under a large flat stone”; Heggen found Shulman “in a bowl of soup carrying on a bigamous affair with two noodles.”

I only knew him through these few interviews and his work. I didn’t know him well enough to offer much special insight into his special sense of nonsense. But for any of us who knew his nonsense, the announcement of his death was an occasion for grim reflection. There’s a serious need for nonsense these days.

A memorial service for Shulman will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills.

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