Splash: Not Your Average Boy-Meets-Fish Rom-com

Almost every weekend, my Mom dropped me and a friend off at the local movie theatre, The Tri-Cinema. Not one of those cool, historical “movie palaces” from the 1920s, the Tri-Cinema was exactly that: three theatres and a large concession stand in the middle of the lobby. No nacho bar, no arcade, no recliners inside. It was as if a furniture store and bowling alley had decided to move in together. They never showed the R-rated movie (note the singular of that phrase) during daytime hours. My parents never had to worry that we might buy a ticket for The Secret of Nimh, but actually sneak into Nightmare on Elm Street. Happiness was a large tub of popcorn slathered in butter “substance,” a Coke, and Molly Ringwald looking pissed and sad and sweet and pissed again.

My adolescence coincided with what felt like an endless buffet of rom-coms: Pretty In Pink, Sixteen Candles, When Harry Met Sally, Moonstruck, Mystic Pizza, Say Anything, Tootsie, Roxanne, Pretty Woman—the list could wrap itself around North America twice and still have a few feet left over. I hoovered them as eagerly as the salty popcorn. Because you know what else coincided with my adolescence? Adolescence. I was reading Judy Blume and feeling very confused about a body that appeared to be waging its own scorched earth campaign against me (Hello acne! Welcome breasts already growing alarmingly asymmetrical and, according to the girls in those Motely Crue videos, entirely too small). Those films were a window on the world for me. They transported me out of my dishwater town and away from my ordinary, dull-times-at-Ridgemont-High life to realities where the quirky, unconventionally pretty girl absolutely ended up with the handsome, popular Jake. Possibility. That’s what these films sold, and I gladly forked over my $2.50 week after week to spend 90 minutes entertaining the notion that this ugly duckling phase might end sooner rather than later. Reader: It did not.

Despite this and all the other ways these movies eventually warped my perspective of romance, I could never quit this genre. Rom-coms are often the perfect antidotes for the uncertainty, cynicism, and turmoil that blankets our day to day in the real world. The formula is as comforting and satisfying as a bowl of greasy mac-n-cheese. But that doesn’t make them disposable or insignificant. I’ve often found that somewhere underneath the meet-cute and run through the airport to stop her from getting on the plane are revealing insights into things like culture, politics, or, in the case of 1984’s Splash, masculine identity. Yes, really.  

Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (the team behind Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley and a ton of other films like City Slickers and Spies Like Us to name just a few) and directed by Ron Howard, Splash tells the story of Alan Bauer (Tom Hanks), an unlucky-in-love guy from New York City who falls for Madison (Daryl Hannah), a mermaid masquerading as your run-of-the-mill gorgeous, model-ready two-legged person.

While this might sound a little like something dreamed up by a 5-year-old, minus the “and then the boy turns into a spaceship and flies away” part, Splash has roots in the OG fish-hearts-boy love story, Hans Christen Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, published in 1837. Ganz and Mandel put their own spin on the tale, updating it for modern audiences: Madison learns to speak English by watching TV all day in the electronics department of Bloomingdale’s; she hasn’t traded her voice for legs, but instead, somehow, has legs on lease, transforming into her fin when she’s in water; and unlike the little mermaid who longs to stay human and marry the prince (Eye. Roll.), Madison makes it clear that she’s passing through. “Six days, until the moon is full,” she tells Bauer, apparently on a kind of mermaid Rumspringa with a heavy dose of fish-on-dude action. Respect. In short, Ganz and Mandel created a smart, warm, funny take on the source story that manages to still feel relevant more than thirty years after its release. The reason for this, I think, is Bauer: a male character navigating a hybridity that has nothing to do with scales or fins. 

The film opens with a flashback of a young Alan Bauer with his family on a boat somewhere off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He fixates on something in the water and impulsively jumps in. Underwater he encounters a little blonde girl. They smile and briefly hold hands before Bauer is rescued and pulled to the surface. Weirdest or most darling “meet-cute” in the history of the genre? You decide. Cut to an adult Bauer: he’s overworked and stressed out running his family’s produce business while his brother, Freddie (John Candy), parties his life away; and to top it all off, he’s just been dumped. After attending a friend’s wedding he drowns his sorrow at a bar, rambling to the bartender:  

I don’t ask that much do I? I don’t ask to be famous. I don’t ask to be rich. I don’t ask to play centerfield for the New York Yankees or anything. I just want to meet a woman. I wanna meet a woman. I wanna fall in love. And I wanna get married. And I want to have a kid, and I want to go see him play a tooth in the school play. It’s not much. But I’m kidding myself. It’s never going to happen. I’m going to grow old and grow lonely and I’m gonna die and I’ll be surrounded by a bunch of rotten fruit.

The 1980s culture of rugged masculinity positioned men as not only the pursuers of women and power, but as entitled to a playboy-like freedom to remain perpetually on the prowl, to shirk responsibility at will or choose none at all. In his thoughtful, sensitive-guy-next-door persona Bauer is already an outlier. This gets underscored in his monologue, which aligns him with a more conventional female perspective in two ways: First, that marriage and family are the primary destinations for women; and second, in how it evokes that cringey stereotype of a woman dying alone surrounded by cats instead of “rotten fruit.” Not to mention the line about the tooth—JESUS, HANKS! MY OVARIES! I can’t even imagine what single women in their 20s or 30s were experiencing watching this scene in the ‘80s, but it probably felt like somewhere between a mild stroke and an alien abduction.

Bauer stumbles out of the bar, hails a cab, and tells the driver to take him to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He has another boat mishap, falls into the water, and awakes on a beach to find a very naked Daryl Hannah standing in front of him. Before he can process much, she walks up to Bauer and gives him some serious lip action before turning and running back down the beach into the ocean. Now it’s Bauer’s turn to experience the mild stoke/alien abduction combo.

A day or so later, Hannah/Madison, like many immigrants before her, arrives on Ellis Island. She is naked. She doesn’t speak any English. She’s immediately swarmed by a park ranger and crowd of people losing their mind over the spectacle of a tall, blonde, naked woman strolling around as if she were shopping at The GAP. Having found Bauer’s wallet when he fell into the water, she shows his license to the police, indicating with delicate finger-pointing and a beguiling smile, “Him. Please. This guy.” Bauer gets a call at work about this buff blonde woman who apparently knows him and wastes about .6 seconds rushing to the station. Dressed in an oversized I “HEART” N.Y. tee-shirt, courtesy of the Ellis Island gift shop, Madison launches herself into Bauer’s arms for some more passionate mouth-on-mermouth business. The two head to his apartment to read War and Peace and play cribbage. I kid. It’s a one-way ticket to bone town.

Plot-wise, the movie runs along in a conventional way. Two things surface to threaten the lovers’ newfound happiness: One, we know Madison is just passing through; she’s adamant about the mysterious stakes of sticking around longer than six days: “If I stay longer, I can’t ever go back,” she ominously tells Bauer. Two, we meet Dr. Walter Kornbluth played by Eugene Levy, the Tolstoy of comedy. Kornbluth is a highly disregarded scientist stalking Madison in order to expose her true identity and prove himself within the scientific community. It doesn’t take a lot of sleuthing to figure out where the movie is headed.

So while we’re waiting for the inevitable to happen, we get to see Bauer thrown out of his masculine comfort zone. For instance, in a traditional courtship gesture, he buys her an expensive music box from Tiffany. Conversely, Madison trades her rare, seashell necklace to have an entire fountain with a sculpture of a mermaid installed at his apartment. The two had visited the fountain on a walk where Bauer remarked he always loved the piece and was dismayed to learn it was going to be torn down to make room for a new development. Madison gives him the gift that is deeply personal and intimate. It’s the BIG MOVE, the one usually enacted by a man that says something on a soul level like a signed first edition of her favorite book or raising her cat, Dragon, from the dead (Wait, wrong genre, but it’s the thought that counts, right?). It’s not that Madison has upstaged Bauer with a gift that is, let’s face it, a complete mic drop, but rather that we get to see Bauer experience what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such emotional overwhelm, which even by 2021 gender ideals feels a little radical.

Kornbluth prevails. Madison’s mermaid identity is revealed in a shockingly public manner. She’s captured and whisked away to a government research facility. Bauer is confused, hurt, and deeply humiliated. In one scene the research team put Bauer and Madison in a tank together to study their interaction. It goes about as well as you could expect after discovering the love of your life is a distant cousin of Moby Dick. Madison tries to explain, to apologize. Bauer is angry, but ambivalent. He cycles through a nuanced range of emotions that seem to say: I’m hurt. Was it ever even real? How could something and someone who seemed so perfect end up being (literally) something else? And isn’t this the lesson that women in real life have to learn over and over again—accepting a version of love and relationships that is perpetually imperfect over the fairy tale version presented in books and TV and films?

After he’s released, Bauer realizes he’s being a class A-dum-dum and about to lose the only woman he’s completely loved. Kornbluth undergoes his own change of heart and the two team up with Freddie to bust Madison out of marine jail (sorry not sorry aquariums: you are water zoos). They are successful until they’re not and end up being chased by the police and the military through the streets of Manhattan all the way to a pier at the edge of the East River. Decision time: Madison can stay forever, giving up her mer-powers while also being pursued by the government for the rest of her life or abandon Bauer and return to the sea. Literally standing on the precipice the situation appears hopeless until—WAIT!

Madison recalls that it was she who Bauer encountered under the water in Cape Cod as a kid. Not only that, he was safe with her, no scuba gear required. It’s the perfect land-and-sea package. This solves everything! Until it doesn’t. Madison gives it to him straight: If you come with me, you can’t ever go back. Huh. So, let me do the math here. We have a man who must decide if he’s willing to sacrifice the life he knows for a completely unknown, utterly foreign “ever after” with the woman he loves. Is that a cliché or what? Reader: it is not, at least not in the 80s where gender roles were more firmly entrenched and it was still women who were expected to acquiesce in some way—leave a career, move to a new place, drop a passion—to fit themselves into a man’s life and world.  

Does Bauer have the sack to put his money where his fish-worshipping-heart is? Negative. The military choppers circle. The police and army vehicles come screeching up to the end of the dock. “Go,” he says, crestfallen. “I love you, Madison. Go!” They kiss and she dives off the pier. Divers race after her. “Leave her alone!” Bauer screams to the armed frogmen because yelling will do the trick. The first time I watched this film and got to this point my stomach balled itself into a little fist of anxiety. Things were taking a tilt I did not appreciate, Opie. NUT UP, BAUER! I shouted in my heart. And, thankfully, he does because this is still 1984 and audiences would burn the movie theatre to the ground if they were denied their happy rom-com ending. Inches away from getting collared, Bauer realizes his future is under the waves somewhere. He leaps literally and figuratively.

At first, Bauer sinks like a stone. Realizing what’s happening, Madison swims back to him. She kisses him, reviving him, essentially saving him as she’s been doing throughout the entire movie (Eye. Roll.). Two divers close in. They tussle with Bauer and Madison. She lands a smartly-aimed flipper to the crotch on one while Bauer twists the scuba mask off another. Free and clear, the power ocean couple embrace and kiss again before swimming off into the sea version of the sunset. Who knows what awaits them, but one thing is clear: Bauer’s making a life, a whole new self, on Madison’s terms now, and that’s a “happily ever after” I can really get behind.

As I said, possibility—ultimately that’s what Splash gave audiences and still does. Not just in terms of romance and soulmates and sweet endings that promise even sweeter new beginnings. But also in offering a glimpse into what masculinity might look and feel like were it expanded in some way to take into account feminine experiences and perspectives. It’s a peek at where male identity was always headed. In this respect Splash also feels hopeful: that a man like Alan Bauer is no more mythical or strange than a mermaid living amongst us in New York City.

The Revolution Will Be Unusual: Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”

The field of early-80s pop music was littered with artists packaged up and sold like the kinds of action figures I played with: Springsteen was the scruffy, denim-clad, blue collar guy; Huey Lewis was the amiable dad-next-door; Prince was the beautiful, erotic, quasi-androgynous art freak (sexual awakening sold separately).

Women of pop underwent their own marketing make-overs as the industry played catch-up with the power of music television. At the time, there was no way I had the language or consciousness to understand how women in music were, essentially, aesthetically pimped out in service of an easily recognizable narrative produced by the record company to keep the wheels of the money machine greased. But it was all there: In their tight, leather jeans, and defiantly short hair, Joan and Pat were tough girls, maybe bad girls! Madonna was the party girl, oozing sex in parachute pants and mesh crop tops. Annie Lennox was terrifying with a her orange buzz cut and big take-no-mess-mom energy.

I didn’t get how stupid and damaging and politically underhanded it all was because, hello, I was an 8-year-old still sleeping with my Miss Piggy doll. But I was already subconsciously primed to accept my part in upholding the framework of legible feminine personas. All that make-up and skin and coded fashion were like marks on a soundstage telling me where to place myself. For the pudgy girl in polyester who wanted nothing to do with boys and even less to do with whatever criminal activity Pat and Joan were most definitely involved in, I didn’t know where to stand. And then Cyndi Lauper showed up.

Hair the color of a rainbow snow cone, skirts made out of newspapers, belts worn as bracelets, bracelets worn as earrings, Cyndi’s “look” was the love child of a thrift store and a junk yard and and unmistakably her. Even with all the flourishes she applied to her appearance, nothing about it felt forced or theatricalized for the sake of standing out. Cyndi wore her quirkiness proudly, defiantly, like a badge of honor. She was the girl you could count on to team up with you to prank call the jerk who broke your heart. She’d keep all your odd, embarrassing secrets. She’d kick Joan’s ass if that’s what the situation called for and she’d do it all with pluck and a grin. Cyndi Lauper was a new breed of pop music female: she was a funny girl, and that was an action figure I could relate to.

In the summer of 1983, Cyndi dropped her single, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” off her album She’s So Unusual. “Girls” was originally written by Robert Hazard, a Pennsylvania songwriter who traveled a patchwork terrain of musical genres—country, folk—before coasting to a stop in the gritty electronic prairie of early-1980s music. Hazard’s “Girls” is an uptempo song that cooks along underneath a raft of distorted, synth-like guitars to create a 1950s rockabilly feel married with modern pop sensibilities. Add Hazard’s nasal vocals reminiscent of Elvis Costello and Gene Vincent and the whole song feels like it could double as the opening theme to an 80s sitcom about a family with a precocious 12-year-old girl named Dallas. (PS: I would totally watch that show).

When Rick Chertoff, Cyndi’s producer, brought her the song, she blanched. Sung from a male perspective, the tune centered male desire and male privilege: enjoying women without commitment or responsibility and, worse, justifying it within an assumed framework of women’s shallow, superficial needs: they just wanna have fun. Gross with a side of bitch, please! Said Cyndi. I’m guessing, but also a hundred percent sure that’s how that conversation went down.

After she had cleared that up for everyone, Cyndi went about finding the heart of the song, sung from a woman’s emotional perspective, to make it her own. She dropped it into a key better suited to her voice. She drew on reggae and blues influences. She added in a few magic hooks straight out of the Motown songbook and buttoned it up with a basic backbeat on an electronic drum machine to keep it in line with her overall pop style. A version of “Girls” emerged that has not only endured, but remained culturally and artistically relevant through the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and every Rolling Stones “farewell” tour from then until the present.

In her memoir, Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir, Cyndi talks about how it took a long time for radio to catch on to “Girls.” That might have been true in a national sense, but from where I was listening in my suburban town, “Girls” seemed to follow me from room to room ten times a day, drifting out of the junky table top radio tuned to the local Top 40 radio station. And just in case that earworm hadn’t burrowed all the way into my brain, MTV stepped in to finish the job. The “music television” channel was only three years old at that point, but already making its influence felt in pop culture. MTV was a Terpsichorean fever dream of spectacle and music and pop art and cultivated flamboyance and far too many male musicians working out their mother issues on camera.

Music videos were more than marketing tools. They dislodged music from their static relationship between artist and listener to generate a dynamic, immersive experience for the audience. Videos added a visual layer to the song far beyond what could be conveyed by cover or insert art. It was filmic storytelling condensed and compressed for television culture, inviting the listener, who was now also the viewer, inside a world within, but not necessarily directly representative of, the narrative of the song. For example, Bonnie Tyler’s video trashterpiece, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It’s a song about heartbreak, but a video about boys at a spooky Hogwarts-ish prep school who appear to be aliens. Also there are dancing ninjas. Also a group of guys in leather jackets show up who are maybe extras from Grease. Bonnie Tyler is possibly a headmistress or witch or the alien mother. The wind machine budget alone could have been a down payment on a house. All I’m saying is that MTV was not for the easily confused, readily offended, or sober.

However, it was a playground for directors and filmmakers of all stripes to be as off-beat and creepy and funny and artistic as they could dream. With so much airtime to fill—before the network added game shows and broke into reality TV—MTV had this attitude that amounted to: give us your strange and over-thought, your high-brow directors as well as your stuff shot on super-8 by the Pet Shop Boys yearning to be free. It’s not surprising that Cyndi’s playful, cheeky approach to music would be right at home in this digital land of Oz.

“Girls” tracks the lyrical narrative pretty faithfully. The video opens with a shot of Cyndi dancing along a wet street, coming home “in the morning light” to a worried-looking mother (played by Cyndi’s real mom) at the kitchen table. When Cyndi arrives, the two women interact through the lyrics:

Mom (lip syncs): When you gonna live your life right?

Cyndi (rolls her eyes, shrugs, and leans down to give her mom a reassuring squeeze): Oh mama dear, we’re not the fortunate ones! And girls, they wanna have fu-un! Oh girls just wanna have fun!

She dances off down the hallway.

Similarly, the next verse depicts a scene between Cyndi and her on-screen dad, professional wrestler Captain Lou Albano. Albano is a squat, meatball of a guy with thick, curly black hair and a beard.

Dad (lip syncs, adding a goofy, exaggerated finger-wag for emphasis): Whatcha gonna do with your life?

Cyndi (shakes her head, scolding him right back): Oh Daddy dear, you know you’re still number one!

As she sings, she deftly twists Captain Lou’s arm behind him, playfully pinning him up against the wall like a cop collaring a perp. “But girls,” she sings as she releases him, “they wanna have fun!” He lumbers off down the hall like a hairy, Italian porcupine who’s just been run off the farmer’s land. Cyndi looks at the camera and shrugs and laughs and launches into the chorus.

The slight “girl” disarming the beefy tough guy is not only a moment hammed up for visual laughs, it hints at what’s really going on with song: a call to revolution. It’s these brushstrokes of humor—some sly, others silly– applied throughout the video that enable the song’s subversive message to resonate and stick. In someone else’s hands, “Girls” could be saccharine and dismissive—those ditzy broads! But Cyndi not only understood what the song could convey, she was cognizant of how humor might function to open up a larger, more complicated, and, in 1983, definitely unsexy, dialogue about women’s rights. The “fun” in the lyrics has less to do with sexual freedom than it has to do with autonomy and an insistence on the primacy and recognition of a woman’s inherent value, of her rightful place in the world:  

Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world.

I want to be the one to walk in the sun!

Oh girls, they wanna have fun!

As the music rounds like a carousel, Cyndi smiles and laughs and rolls her eyes and tosses her head and kicks up her heels as she dances. On the surface she codes herself as harmlessly feminine (we just wanna have fun!) when she’s actually modeling power for all women.  

This is made visual near the end of the video. Cyndi and a bunch of women form a human train dancing through the city. They gleefully conga down the steps of a courthouse, up the stairs of a subway station, and through some kind of rooftop lounge. It’s as if they are filling up every nook and cranny of the world, taking up space in a way that women would articulate more fully in the next century.

In one part of this sequence they snake through the middle of a street lined on each side with construction workers and other bystanders witnessing this unusual display. Cyndi and some of the other women reach out to give a few of them lighthearted little swats as they make their way through the crowd. It’s an innocuous scene that also works as a quiet revelation. Cyndi and her crew control the spectacle. By making themselves the active agents of the scene, they deflate the more typical dynamic of the objectifying public male gaze to replace it with a suggested reality that privileges women’s participation in her representation as well as in her lived experiences.  

In the end, no one can sit out of Cyndi’s pop feminism parade. A stream of people from all walks of life spill into Cyndi’s small apartment. They swan past her scandalized parents, cramming themselves into her tiny bedroom: a couple of firefighters hump a hose, a guy lifts a stack of pizzas overhead, and even a young Dan Aykroyd, dressed as his SNL character Beldar Conehead (!!!), bounces and grooves to the beat of joy and possibility in a swarm of beautiful, diverse people. And in the midst of it all is Cyndi Lauper herself, jumping up and down in time with the music of an unassuming song that would eventually become an anthem of a new era of social activism. She twists and hops and sings with her arms raised and fists pumping like a prize fighter in the throes of victory.

Me & Cyndi Lauper at a meet-and-greet, 2013. Not pictured: 8-year-old me floating above her body

“Tired of Playing the Game:” The Feminism of Lili Von Shtupp

Not helicopter parents, not coma parents, my parents were more like casting agent parents: don’t call us, we’ll call you. It was the late-70s, okay? They made sure we were fed, clothed, law-abiding citizens, but beyond those basic things, they didn’t actively try to dictate our activities or aggressively influence our interests. The exception: comedy.

This was my Dad’s department. He was an alcoholic and, likely, suffered from some form of depression. Not laughing matters, but, man, did laughing really matter in our house. Early on he introduced my older brother and me to the funny legends he grew up with: Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Imogene Coca, Danny Kaye as well as the comics shaping his generation like everyone on Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show, George Carlin, and Mel Brooks. Brooks toed the line between silly and slightly naughty. He stacked his films with enough goofy sight gags, puns, and broad comic material to make ding-dong kids like us laugh, which meant that we were delighted and distracted enough not to really notice the more arch, adult humor that, honestly, my Dad had zero interest explaining to either of us. Win/win.

My first Mel Brooks movie was Blazing Saddles. Set in America’s wild west in the 1870s, the plot revolves around a town (Rock Ridge) that unceremoniously inherits an African-American sheriff named Bart (Cleavon Little). This is part of a larger power play by the villainously inept Gov. William J. Le Petomane (Mel Brooks) and his oily political flunky Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman) to drive the residents from Rock Ridge so that they can take the land, run a railroad through it, and make millions. But really it’s a satire about racism. Also there’s a scene entirely about farting, a fight sequence that devolves into a ludicrously epic pie fight, and this cartoonish bit with an exploding candy box. A guy actually punches a horse, which I would have felt a lot more guilty laughing over if it weren’t for the hilarious look of anthropomorphic shock on the horse’s face. But seriously, racism. Very smart, insightful, sly take down of bigotry American style. Promise.  

In my 8-year-old opinion (the same one defending my Barbie lunchbox as very cool), Blazing Saddles was pitch perfect. More pie fighting please! There was only one wrinkle: The weird part where the blonde lady sings some stupid song in her underwear about something stupid.

I’m talking about the venerable, unparalleled Madeline Khan who plays Lili Von Shtupp, a bawdy songstress and seducer-for-hire enlisted by Lamar to ruin Bart and run him out of Rock Ridge. Khan’s part is relatively small, which makes her ability to nearly steal the entire movie all that more impressive.* Her featured scene is a musical number, “I’m Tired,” a torch song alla Marlene Dietrich, complete with German accent and slightly off-key, improvised warbling. This was 1983. We were a “watch it on network TV household.” There was no “fast forward” or “option to skip” because had there been, I would have jammed my thumb on that button and sped through whatever the hell this time-filling scene was about. Slow! Gross! Boring! MORE BEANS, BROOKS!

Feminism is a lot like puberty: It sneaks up on you. One day you barely notice there aren’t any women on American currency and only ONE girl Smurf in the entire village and the next you’re wearing a T-shirt that says “My Body My Choice” and refusing to laugh at some cute boy’s dumb ass jokes, which actually were just recycled, poorly delivered Dana Carvey bits. Sad.  This was my experience. Once I had my mind pried open and rearranged around how women were or were not represented, how we were treated (poorly) and considered generally (not great), I couldn’t shut it off, couldn’t adjust the prescription strength of those lady issue lenses. And that’s how, many years later, I eventually appreciated and understood what Lili Von Shtupp was all about in Brooks’ sausage fest of a flick.  

Billed as “The Teutonic Titwillow,” Shtupp is set up as a stereotypical saucy showgirl. The entrance music plays her onto the saloon stage. She sashays to center all pure sex in high-heels and red lipstick. And just when you think something lurid might happen, Khan sinks wearily onto a chair and begins to drone in a bored, slightly deflated key:

I’m tired

Sick and tired of love

Tired, tired of being admired

Tired of love uninspired

Let’s face it

I’m tired

What follows is a wry laceration of what men think passes for both romance and women’s sexual gratification:

I’ve been with 1000s of men

Again and again

They promise the moon

They’re always coming and going

Going and coming too soon

Right girls?

The lyrics are funny enough in how they baldly dismantle the idea of someone like Lili Von Shtupp existing for no other reason other than as object of male fantasy fulfillment. It’s the physical and verbal nuances Khan brings to the song that lifts it out of simple parody and puts it in a lane of sophisticated comedy all its own. She delivers each verse with such pronounced disdain and ennui they practically become additional stage companions. There’s no suggestive shimmying or undulating you’d expect from this kind of showgirl piece. There’s zero attempt at sexiness besides what Khan wears. Instead she stalks the stage, hands on hips like a general; she kicks over a chair. She pauses to “work” the crowd. One of the cowboy sits with his feet propped up on the apron:

LVS: Tell me cowboy, what’s your name?

COWBOY: Tex, Ma’am!

LVS: Well, Tex Ma’am, tell me, are you in showbusiness?


LVS: Well then why don’t you get your friggin feet off the stage! (she kicks his feet)

A burly, grimy cowboy climbs up on the stage and comes at her for an embrace. “Put’er there!” he leers, laughing. Khan obliges by laying one hand on his shoulder and giving him a knee to the groin. Throughout the crowd whoops and hollers. They can’t get enough of this woman insulting them, but sort of enticing them, but, no, actually calling them pigs and morons right to their faces, but, also, being a little naughty about it, maybe, and also, really, really telling them to piss off. Lili Von Shtupp is mean! Being a guy is hard!

Near the end, the song switches tempo and a group of Prussian soldiers burst onto the stage because this is still a Mel Brooks movie and that kind of nonsensical thing is bound to happen. They dance and sing a reprise of the early verses. With her shoulders sagging, Khan lumbers over to another chair. She rests her head on her hand. She appears to doze. The less effort she exerts to be seductive or even life-like, the more wild the crowd gets. Again, idiots, which is the point. Here was an unexpected burst of smart, insightful, subversive feminist comedy to dovetail with the film’s comments on race and bigotry and white supremacism. Brooks wrote the lyrics, but Khan deserves all the credit for making the scene truly transformative. It’s her control and confidence in who this character really is—powerful, dangerous, a stand-in for any women “tired of playing the game” and ready to do something about it—that rescues the scene from being a parody of tawdry erotics and Lili Von Shtupp the butt of its joke.

Madeline Khan was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Blazing Saddles. She didn’t win, but she deserved it. At the time, Khan was making her way in film, television, and theatre alongside women like Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers, Jo Anne Worley, and Fannie Flagg. Women who were being “discovered” in publications like The New York Times as “a new breed of funny girl who can be both funny and feminine at the same time” (Barf). “I don’t ‘hide,’ Khan wrote in a journal. “I choose to stand out and up for myself at the same time [and] to set an example for others to do so.” Here was another arena where women were also “tired of playing the game,” and there was Khan on and off screen showing them how to change the rules and write a new playbook entirely.

*In his excellent biography of Khan, Madeline Khan: Being the Music, A Life, author William V. Madison writes that Gene Wilder, one of Khan’s other co-stars, had very little screen time with Khan, but made sure to be on set during the filming of “I’m Tired.” Wilder said, “I told Mel that if the movie were just her one number, it would be worth the price of admission.”  

Rock Rebuttals

Image courtesy ©rockinchalk

Him: Heard it from a friend who, heard it from a friend who, heard it from another you’ve been messing around.

Her: Wow. Really? That’s what this is all about, Greg? Some third-rate intel from, who, exactly? A friend of a friend who got it from a stranger? Wait, did you mean Sharon? Because everyone knows she is crazy jealous of me because of that time we spent the summer at Hampton Beach and I won the Miss Fourth of July Firecracker Contest and got that $100 gift card to Applebees and the cute bartender invited me to go jet skiing with him and not her. So, consider the source, Greg! But seriously, now I’m intrigued. Tell me, what else are you getting from this super savvy, high-level intelligence chain? Stock tips? Government secrets? The cure for diabetes? Maybe instead of listening to gossip that is flimsier than your online cosmetology certificate, you should put some time and effort into this relationship, Greg. Maybe we should go to Hampton Beach this summer. I still have that Applebees gift card you know. I can get us a lot of free drinks. That’s all I’m saying.

Him: Pour some sugar on me!

Her: Eww! Gross! No! Babe, c’mon, we have wall-to-wall carpeting, how would that even work? We put plastic down like serial killers? I suppose the kitchen is an option, but we just got rid of our ant problem. Uggh, just talking about this is giving me flashbacks to when I was six and my family spent a summer at Hampton Beach. I was fishing sand out of my places until February! I’m sorry, babe. Besides, you know I’m doing a month of paleo to slim down for my sister’s wedding. I’m off sweeteners, I told you! I could pour some room temperature carrot juice on you? How about that?  

Him: She’s my cherry pie, put a smile on your face, ten miles wide.

Her: Hello! Hi! My name is Lisa. I have a PhD in gender studies as well as degrees in botany and art history. I was a Rhodes Scholar—twice–and recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to do research at the Sorbonne next year. I am fairly confident I speak for most women when I say that we really don’t appreciate being objectified as food objects to satisfy your juvenile oral fixation. Moreover, this kind of overt sexualization contributes to the systemic misogyny upholding patriarchal institutions and attitudes vis-à-vis women’s inherent value and power. Not to mention that it dangerously conflates capitalist desires with sexual ones—women are not made to be “consumed.” The ongoing fetishization of women’s bodies is a hallmark of toxic masculinity, which makes you part of the problem. You know what? Here, I’m going to text you the deets to our feminist book discussion group. We’re working through the fifth edition of The Feminist Theory Reader, but I’m sure you’ll be able to catch up. And don’t worry: we don’t bite! Ha! Just kidding, we feast on the tears of white male fragility. See you at seven. Bring snacks—vegan, responsibly sourced, fair trade only.

Him: Baby, talk dirty to me!

Her: You know what I want to do to you? I want to slide your hands all over this hot, wet compost pile. Are those eggshells? *Giggle* Mmmmm. I want to feed you week-old sushi from an unlicensed food “truck” in Tucson. I want to skinny dip with you in an overflowing Venetian sewer drain in August. Ooooh baby! Yeah. Let’s eat each other’s boogers! Let’s run naked through an abandoned junk yard overrun with feral cats! Oh God! Oh Yes! ATHLETE’S FOOT! BODY LICE! NASTY, NASTY TOOTH DECAY!!! YESSSSSSS!!!!

Him: My blood runs cold! My memory has just been sold. My angel is the centerfold. Angel is the centerfold.

Her: Sure, I did some “modeling” when I was in college. My Mom has MS and she needed a new electric wheelchair that the insurance company wouldn’t pay for, those dirty sonofabitches. The economic and class disparities in our health care system are egregious. That’s why I became an organizer. I’m with a community action group that works with politicians on the local and state levels to shape healthcare policy. We’re always looking for donors. If you can afford a magazine, surely you can spare something extra to support what is, in my opinion, the most critical problem facing our modern society as well as putting the well-being of future generations in peril. You know what? Here, I’m going to text you the deets to our next strategy meeting and also put you on our snail mail, email, and text lists so you’ll never miss a notification or update. Oh! We’re staging a public protest Saturday, outside of that sonofabitch insurance company downtown. Since you’re into print stuff, you can pick up supplies to make signs and banners. New guy always gets coffee and doughnuts for everyone, too. It’s BYOBC: Bring Your Own Bolt Cutters. That’s a little activist humor! So, so cool we got reconnected! See you there!

Him: You give love a bad name.

Her: OH YEAH? WELL YOU GAVE ME GONORRHEA AND A TERRIBLE CREDIT SCORE! I never should have let you use my credit card to buy that stupid food truck. Who is going to buy sushi from a truck in the middle of the desert? Idiot!

Him: Saying ‘I love you’ is not the words I want to hear from you. It’s not that I want you
not to say, but if you only knew how easy it would be to show me how you feel.

Her: You’re right, John. Sometimes it does take “more than words” to express love in a relationship. How about, I don’t know, emptying the dishwasher for once in your goddamn life? That hair in the shower drain I’m constantly scooping out? Not all mine! Maybe you can take Kiki to the vet to have her dewormed. Actions matter, John. Right? Isn’t that what you’re getting at here? So would it kill you to “show me how you feel” by ASKING ME ABOUT MY DAY OR LISTENING TO ME WHEN I TELL YOU ABOUT THE FIGHT I HAD WITH MY SISTER, NOT THE ONE THAT EVERYONE HATES, BUT THE OTHER ONE! But please, fine, go ahead, tell me more about how you want me to do that disgusting thing with my elbow you saw on some website once.

Him: Beth, I hear you calling. But I can’t come home right now. Me and the boys are playing
And we just can’t find the sound.

Her: Hey Jerry, it’s Beth, again. I guess you’re still at band practice. Really hope that the Roach Riders find their sound. I know how important that is to you. I wanted to do this in person, but I can’t seem to get a hold of you, and, again, I get it, the art and everything. Anyway, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with my old college roommate, Rachel. You remember Rachel. We rented that condo at Hampton Beach one summer. Yeah. Those were some legit crazy days. Remember how Rachel almost got clocked trying to break up a fight between these two girls at an Applebees? Bananas. Anyway, the thing is, spending so much time together with Rachel again made us both realize that, well, we’re more than friends. Like, way more, like, in ways that we can’t even put into words. I mean, Jerry, she’s the love of my life. Wow. Holy shit! I haven’t even said it like that to her yet, but, yeah, that’s it, that’s how I feel! She’s the real deal, Jerry. She’s my everything. We’re planning to move to Tucson to open a bakery. Hope you understand or, I don’t know, maybe you can get a song out of this? I’m babbling. I actually don’t care! I’M IN LOVE, Jerry! Okay, the moving truck is here. Gotta go. Lose my number. Bye!

Party of None

Top 3 recurring anxiety dreams:

Being chased, usually by a shadowy, terrifying something: a cougar, a monster, Ben Affleck and his gnarly, mealy freak-beard.  

Rolling into class at the end of the semester and realizing A. I’m totally unprepared to take the exam. B. I’m totally unprepared to teach the class. C. I skipped the class all semester, which is why I am not prepared to take the exam. The immediate realization sets in that I will fail the entire course and won’t graduate. If this is the type of monumentally dorky pit-sweat fantasy filling my sleeping hours, just think of how wild my waking life must be.

Throwing a party that no one comes to.

You might think the onset of some version of maturity would knock that last one off the list. Maybe it would be replaced with dread related to something relevant: getting an emergency root canal without anesthesia (I could have gone with “without insurance,” but I live in America where you hardly need to dream up that fear). Nope. That would be a shockingly benign gift from the Gods of Adolescence who ruled with iron fists of acne, body odor, braces, and shattering insecurity. Grow out of the incessant need to be liked and celebrated? And then the Gods of Adolescence said LET THERE BE SOCIAL MEDIA! Welcome to your waking nightmare, loser.

In 2019 I did a book. The League of Extraordinarily Funny Women: 50 Trailblazers of Comedy, published by Running Press, (BUY MANY COPIES HERE) became my first general readership book. Before this one, I had turned my dissertation into an academic book published by The University of Michigan Press because at the time I was angling for a life in academia and getting a job without a book was a little like trying to get to Prague with an expired passport. Reader: I am not a professor nor am I summering in Prague. You do the math.

The Internet—that repulsive love child of technology and animus that is half abject David Lynchian hellscape and half quasi-utopic commune of good—makes it possible for a new author to learn so, so much about the do’s, don’t’s, maybe you should’s, we haven’t tried that one, yet’s, sorry, we would deny that in a court of law’s, about the journey (gack) from writing to publication and beyond. It really makes the whole thing sound like Lord of the Rings minus the parts with the elves lounging around on white satin couches sighing while gauzy curtains blow around them as if Rivendell were actually just a sound stage for a Stevie Nicks video.

Writing anything that makes it to the public light of day is much more like the Mad Tea Party ride at Disney World. Whiplash and upchuck will happen. It is unpredictable. There are break-downs and slow downs and let downs. There are incredible moments of profound gratitude and joy that slink past you far too quickly. There is relief. Fear. Anxiety. There is ruinous self-doubt followed by a god-like sense of impenetrability (this withers the instant you realize you have to start all over and do this VERY HARD THING again with even less sense of how you’ll pull it off).  These are not complaints, just realities of the journey (gag, gorf) that you are crazy ass lucky, lucky, lucky to be on. Acknowledge. Often. I sure have.

If there is something that gets you over the steeper hills in the climb, it’s two things: seeing your book on a real shelf in a real bookstore that is definitely not also a church basement or even a regular basement. And doing signings. Sorry, that’s a term I grew up with in the days when we discovered fire and had phones the size of Kleenex boxes screwed to the wall. They’re called book or author events now and resemble little of the ones you might have seen on TV or in films. Samantha Jones will not be booking a fabulous club filled with glitterati and delicious, twee artisanal cupcakes. Hopefully an angry ex or seething nemesis will not show up and make a messy scene in the middle of your reading or at the signing table, unless, of course, that was the whole reason you wrote the damn book to begin with. In which case, way to play the very long, painful revenge game.

I’ve attended a few high-profile author events: David Sedaris, Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Sarah Vowell, who was probably my favorite. She was at a Unitarian church that sits on the edge of the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sarah Vowell’s writing style is wry wit laced with lethal intelligence as is her public speaking persona. At the end of her reading, she took questions from the audience. The third person in line was a Zuckerberg-ish clone who executed a classic D-bag move by essentially asking a non-question in an attempt to come off as smarter than Sarah Vowell (As. Freaking. If): “When you were researching, did you consider also looking at yackety yack yack yack?” Vowell tolerated Mark Zuckerberg IV, patiently waiting for him to come to the end of his own dissertation. When he did, she leaned into the microphone and responded: “No. Next question?” That was probably ten years ago, but I still dine out monthly on that delicious morsel of burn with a “sit down, son” dipping sauce.

Of course, I am not Sarah Vowell or Elizabeth Gilbert, nor do I have a tenth of the talent that David Sedaris has in one of his toenail’s cuticles. But did I lie awake at night sometimes, whispering the pithy answers to questions from the audience standing in line at my book events? Yes. When I was a fourteen year-old baked potato with braces did I think I could become a Broadway dancer? Also yes. Look, if a bit of delusion helps power your dreams, is it really wrong? At some point it will burn off like the chemically slicked Cuyahoga and you’ll either be compelled to put in the real work and sweat equity to make your dream a reality or you’ll shove it to the back of your glove compartment next to some stray rubber bands and car wash tokens.

Samantha Jones was not returning my texts. Booking book events was all on me. Fortunately, living in New England I could easily drive to a store in a whole other state in less than thirty minutes (suck it California. Just kidding, Avocado Mafia, please don’t blacklist me). I made a spreadsheet (wretch); I put together introduction/pitch emails and reached out to lists of bookstores; I did my due diligence and harangued people on social media to come to these events. With each one that responded with a warm, “We’d love to have you!” I felt a little more smug, a tad more confident that I, too, would have the chance to put an irritating mansplaining youthful miscreant in his place in front of, at least a decent bunch (!), of people, right? And that’s when the Gods of Adolescence said, “Hold our beers.”

My first few events drew what I thought was a reasonable crowd for an essentially unknown author—ten or twelve people with a few who maybe drifted over from browsing to stand and listen for a couple of minutes before disappearing back into the stacks. Then, just like in every classic horror film where the number of dopey, horned-up teens dwindles after each bloody encounter with Hatchet Man, so too did the amount of attendees at these events. If only Hatchet Man would do me the honor of showing up to one of these, I would happily throw myself in front of the five other people in the room. A willing sacrifice that might actually sell a few more books.

And the thing was everyone I encountered was incredibly lovely and gracious. The booksellers and four others were always enthusiastic and supportive and so nice that I almost wanted to just take everyone out to the bar across the street and open a tab. I hardly felt like I deserved any of it. Wasn’t I letting these amazing stores down by failing to bring in Elizabeth Gilbert-sized crowds, to, essentially, throw the PARTY OF THE YEAR that everyone at school would talk about in perpetuity? It might be okay to admit here that I am a Type-A overachiever with outsized, unrealistic expectations about myself. And the problem with that besides the obvious (unless you’re skimming this piece because, I get it, no one has been reading things since 1998) is that it causes you to double-down and hurl yourself onward like a human battering ram.  Maybe the smarter move is to step back, asses, reflect and process, and then figure out your next move. That is exactly what I did not do when I was invited to a bookstore in NEW YORK CITY.

Because it would surely be different in “the greatest city in the world,” (#Hamilton).

Because instead of doing the rational thing called “thinking this through,” all my brain wanted to do was fast forward to me at Christmas parties casually-not-so-casually telling people about my insanely great author appearance in NEW YORK CITY!!! (cue the Sex in the City theme)

Because the Gods of Adolescence, now very, very drunk, were all “Fuck it, we’re breaking out the Cristal!”

One car trip, a train ride, and a criminally expensive Lyft lift later I arrived sweaty from the roasting August weather and nerves, eager to make a good impression on the folks who were kind enough to have me—Lady Nobody of the Obscure Writers, all the way from East Over There Abouts—to their wonderful, hip, funky indie bookstore. There was a display of my books and the event info on this adorable sandwich board kind of marquis thing by the register. I had to try very hard to stay in my body. I also had to pretend that I was just scrolling on my phone and not actually taking as many photos as could be stored in my iPhotos.

The store held events after hours. They closed and I took my place over in area that had been rearranged for the event. Three young people took their seats. The manager took hers. And a woman who had been in the store browsing, drifted over to sit on the end of a row near a shelf containing nature and science books. Here we were, again: the gang of five in the, uh (clears throat), greatest, (chokes back tears), greatest city in the… (begins to turn to actual dust inside) in the worlllllld (becomes oxygen molecule. End scene).

I launched into my talk, spieling along for my five pals when I notice the woman seated on the end is not so much what you would call listening as BROWSING. She’s picking up books and flipping through them. She’s SHOPPING. Noted. I start to read and talk about the book. I hear another voice and glance over to see the woman has added TALKING ON HER PHONE to her list of activities. To review, those include: 1. Shopping 2. Talking on her phone 3. Not listening to me. Aces!

I truck on in a very show-must-go-on-Baby June kind of way. I notice the look in the poor manager’s eyes, which is a combination of horror, embarrassment, and rage. It was as if she had walked in on her best friend canoodling with her boyfriend in the pantry. Thanks for ruining those chocolate-covered pretzels forever, Steve. In that instant, I felt far worse for her than I did for myself. How did she know I wasn’t one of those meglomaniac creatives who would take to Twitter about this in a scorched earth campaign to wipe this gentle hippy, progressive store off the map? I smiled. If I didn’t start smiling, I knew I would start laughing at the delicious absurdity of it all. I saw the Gods of Adolescence text for an Uber to take their gin-soaked asses home.

I wrapped it up and opened the floor to questions from my new BFFs. We sat in a little circle and had a lovely and smart and fun discussion about comedy and gender and mental health and patriarchy and who in the book deserved a reality TV series. At some point the woman, STILL ON HER DAMN PHONE, slunk out of her row and out of the store. “Say hi to your sister for me! She’s right, Craig does sound like a major tool!” I wanted to yell.

Afterwards, when I had finished signing those three books and another five for the store, the manager apologized profusely. “I’ve never seen that woman before,” she said. “We have regulars, but, I don’t know. I’m so, so sorry!” I shrugged and told her not to worry about it. This was New York. And it’s the kind of thing that could happen to anyone, really, even Sarah Vowell.