Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Let us ponder the riddle that is Orson Bean

Orson Bean admits to having eaten the baloney.

Orson Bean on Match Game.
Orson Bean. It's very possible that this name will mean little to you, dear reader, especially if you're under 40. You cinephiles out there may remember him as dotty old Dr. Lester, the lecherous, carrot-juice-drinking boss from 1999's Being John Malkovich. ("My spunk is to you manna from heaven.") He was also the voice of Bilbo Baggins in the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit. Connoisseurs of TV reruns may recall him from his appearances on The Twilight Zone, The Love Boat, or The Facts of Life. He did 146 episodes of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman back in the '90s, too, if that's what you're into. (Hey, there's no shame in it. My sister loved that show.) If you were lucky enough to have the Game Show Network back when they showed many of the old panel-style game shows from the 1960s and 1970s, Orson Bean should be a familiar face to you. He logged countless appearances on Match Game, To Tell the Truth, What's My Line, and more. In fact, I think of Orson Bean as a sterling example of a now-dying breed: the all-purpose professional celebrity with no particular specialty. Bean was an actor of stage and screen, of course, as well as a comedian and author, but his real claim to fame was as a "personality." Need a familiar face for your talk or game show? Just call Orson! He possessed numerous traits that made him ideal for television: an impish sense of humor, a vast storehouse of jokes and stories, a winning smile, impeccable diction, and a flair for accents and dialects. The man was born to talk into a microphone.

The Orson Bean discography.
Speaking of which: Like most stand-up comics of his generation, Orson Bean put his act down on wax a couple of times for posterity. He released At the Hungry I, recorded at the legendarily-hip San Francisco nightclub, in 1959. A decade later, however, Orson released the album that concerns us today: a collection of songs, poems, and "street jokes" entitled I Ate the Baloney. I first heard the title track, an irreverent religious-themed anecdote set to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel," on The Dr. Demento Show in the 1990s. Just this year, I found the entire LP had been uploaded to For reasons I cannot adequately explain to you, I have listened to I Ate the Baloney in its entirety at least 20 times in the last few months, almost becoming able to lip sync the jokes as Bean tells them. I just like the sound of his practiced voice, especially when he slips into an Irish brogue. There's a vaudevillian old-fashionedness to the entire affair I find comforting and satisfying.

Since this LP comes to us from the 1960s, Bean can still openly acknowledge ethnicity in ways that would draw tremendous fire today. Take a conceptual bit called "The American Restaurant," in which Bean affects a broad, almost caroonish Chinese accent. One might be tempted to call the bit racist because of this, but in fact, Bean is poking fun at racism and stereotypes in a clever, insightful, and even subversive fashion. The Chinese characters in Bean's story talk about Americans in the bigoted, reductive way we Americans too often talk about the Chinese. It's a classic role reversal, as when the speaker ponders an infamous urban legend about sex. "Not look now," the man says to his giggling buddies. "American girl sit a-next table. Ooh, that's a nice lookin' girl! Built like a bamboo house! I don't know... American girl... I always wonder. I don't think so either. That's old Army story!"

But the track from I Ate the Baloney which has really captured my attention has nothing to do with religion or ethnicity. Instead, it's a brief bit of comedic doggerel about the plight of an urban commuter. The poem describes a man's experience aboard the IRT, which is what New Yorkers used to call the subway because it was run by a private operator called the Interborough Rapid Transit Company. I don't have much experience with the IRT, not being a New Yorker, but I do commute by train to and from work each day and can thus sympathize with the hero of Bean's poem. Some of the humor and pathos come from Bean's performance, but I think the words are worthy of study, too. In that spirit, the entire text of the poem is included below:

                         Last week, I'm ridin' in the IRT,
                        And this poor slob is sittin' right across from me.
                        So he's sittin' in the subway, kinda slumped in his seat,
                        Like a tired old dog, so dead, so beat.
                        His clothes, his face, everything looks sad,
                        And I'm thinking what a rotten life he must've had.
                        So I look in his face, and what do I see?
                        He looks like he's feelin' sorry for me!
                        But you don't know the IRT!
                        The windows are filthy. The lights are dim.
                        It was my own reflection, and I am him!

On the LP, this actually leads into entire bit about whiskey ads on the New York subways.  But I will leave that one for you to discover on your own. Bean is so convincing in delivering this particular hard-luck story that he elicited actual sympathy from the audience. Periodically throughout the recording, you can hear a tender-hearted woman in the audience say, "Awwww." Incidentally, Orson Bean is still alive at the age of 86, thanks to all that carrot juice. He worked as recently as 2014 in a parody of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman entitled Dr. Quinn, Morphine Woman. More intriguingly, back in 2008, he recorded a delightful little 10-part series of YouTube videos called "The Art of Joke Telling." Here is possibly my favorite of the ten:

Incidentally, that patch on Orson's shirt commemorates the Flying Goose Brew Pub & Grille in New London, NH. Sounds like a nice place.