Issue number: 19
Posted on: July 4th, 1999
The next issue will appear, like clockwork, some time pretty soon.
(of people you never heard of but you knew they had to exist )
Henry Zebar, 85
Originator of jokes and slang
Henry Erwin Zebar of Baltimore, Maryland died at home of congestive heart failure last Thursday. Although few people knew him by name, almost everyone in the English-speaking world has already spent a measurable percentage of his or her lifetime repeating the many expressions and stories he created over eight decades as America's foremost coiner of jokes, gags and slang terms.
Zebar started his long and illustrious career in his childhood home of Cincinnati, introducing the now-classic "Walk much?" retort when he was only 4 years old, just two days after his younger brother William began to learn to walk. Again inspired by his younger brother, he followed up with the immortal "You and what army?" just one year later, before turning his attention to the potential hilarity inherent in telephonic communication. As William recounts in his 1977 memoir, Life With a Yokmeister, the Zebar household had their first private telephone line installed on September 11th, 1923, at about 1:30 in the afternoon. A mere two hours later young Henry was dialing away, debuting his seminal "Do you have Sir Walter Raleigh in a can?" routine, which has spawned thousands of spinoffs and imitations over the years. According to a recent five-year study by Pacific Bell, this gag alone, in its original form, still accounts for an estimated 8,000 unwanted prank calls per day in the United States and Canada.
Known throughout his life as "H.E." to his friends and co-workers, Zebar graduated summa cum laude from his local high school but chose not to attend college, devoting himself instead to full-time joke coinage. He opened his own humor agency, Zebar's Jests, Japes, Cracks and Quips, at age 17 and soon landed his first major contract: a double gross of "priest and rabbi" stories for the Pantages Vaudeville Circuit. This was to be the genre that made his career, and one that he continued to explore with success throughout his life. In fact, after his death a draft was found among his papers for an unfinished anecdote that begins: "A priest, a rabbi, seven Baptist preachers, a Hopi medicine man, a Taleban warlord and the Dalai Lama were sitting next to each other on the Space Shuttle." Sadly for the world, we will probably never know the rest of the story.
Zebar achieved newfound prominence in the mid-1960s with his venerable "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" jokes, in which all the punchlines are based on the first phrase of the popular song. Setting a trend that became one of his hallmarks, he released one series of "clean" jokes in parallel with a "dirty" series, in this case accompanying the "Chattanooga" collection with the "Stormy Weather" take-offs. There then followed a long period when he concentrated on elaborate set-ups with punchlines based on syllable inversion in common sayings and aphorisms. His "carp-to-carp walleting" and "Opporknockity only tunes once" are still enjoyed by middle-brow punsters the world over.
But perhaps Zebar's finest work was as a slang coiner. His most creative period occurred in the late 1940s when he single-handedly invented, popularized and perpetuated virtually all of the slang terms of the day. Among his lasting coinages are "cool" to signify "good", "bread" for "money" and "hep", which he later revised to "hip". He continued to make slang contributions all through the fifties and sixties, being the first person ever to say "split" to mean "leave", "rap" for "talk", "crash" for "sleep", "pad" for "apartment" and "rip off" for "cheat" or "steal".
Zebar is survived by his wife and three daughters. Mourners are asked to make no contributions to any charities during the next five years and to cough up for twice the flowers they normally would have if they hadn't read this.
Hortense Duprag, 73
Designer of dire neckties, ill-advised hairdos and oppressive wallpaper
Hortense Ursula Duprag died of cancer in Lawnview Hospital, Saint Louis, last Thursday. Hers was hardly a household name, but virtually no one in the Western world has remained untouched by her prolific work as a designer. The daughter of Harriet Ruth Dulk, the original creator of the "paisley", Duprag started out as a pattern cutter at Nate's Natty Neckties Inc. of Chicago. Realizing that there was a huge market for gag-reflex-inducing designs in men's neckwear, she assiduously set forth to create the most repugnant, unspeakable violations of good taste she could possibly dream up. Her peculiar talents soon won her widespread recognition, and orders began pouring in from private clubs, insurance salesmen and used car retailers around the world.
Duprag, known as "H.U." to her friends, was also renowned for her work in hairstyling. Her first job as a teenager in her childhood home of Seattle had been as shampoo assistant in a hair salon, and ostentatious, uncalled-for hairdos remained her first love throughout her life. In fact, it was she who originated the "lion's mane" style popularized by Farrah Fawcett Majors in the mid-1970s: a blow-drier-intensive cut that looks fine, or at least tolerable, from straight on, as the wearer sees herself in the mirror, but from any other angle looks as though she had stood in front of a cinematic wind machine and emptied an entire can of hairspray onto her head just before falling face-first onto a solid marble slab.
Turning to wallpaper later in life, Duprag's designs were soon in demand by seedy hotels the world over. Her patterns, which in the words of one admiring colleague "looked 60 years old the second she finished them", were voted most popular wall decoration among fourth-attempt suicides and melancholic drunks on benders exceeding three weeks in Harvard Business School marketing surveys for five years running (1979 through 1983).
Duprag continued to mull over new outlets for her creative energies right up to the end. Just after her death, a notepad was found on her bedside table on which she had written the single word: "tattoos?"
She is survived by her mother, father, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, great-great-great grandparents, and so on back 13 generations. Some pathologists interpret this as proof that bad taste is indeed fatal after all.
Herbert Kingfit, 68
Author of the original answering machine message
Herbert Owen Kingfit of Peoria, Illinois passed away in his sleep last Thursday due to an undisclosed illness. Although few people would be able to cite his name in a telemarketing survey, almost everyone who has ever dialed a telephone has been tortured at one time or another by his widely-quoted prose. A former employee of Bell Labs, Kingfit was a technical writer who in 1972 was called in as a consultant by Panasonic when the low-denominator consumer electronics company was developing the first telephone answering machines for the general public. Kingfit, known as "H.O." to his friends and family, thus came to write the now famous standardized outgoing message beginning: "This is an automatic telephone answering machine." The message stayed in common use well into the 1990s, assumably for the benefit of the three people left on earth (two of whom are deaf in the first place) who remain ignorant of the existence of the device and who in all likelihood would talk over the message anyway, yelling, "Hello? Hello? Hello? Jimmy?! Hello?!"
Anyone who has ever had the excruciating experience of waiting, waiting, waiting to leave a message while a first-time answering machine owner, very obviously reciting from the user's manual, gravely intones at the speed of mildew: "We can't come to the phone right now. (Four-second pause) But if you leave your NAME, (two-second pause) your TEL-E-PHONE NUM-BER (five-second pause) (another five-second pause) AND the time of your call, (pause) we'll get back to you (pause) as (pause) soon (pause) as (pause) we (pause) (pause) (pause) can. (Ten-second pause) Thank you!" will want to visit the grave at Finster Memorial Park (217W, exit 12, left after the Shell station, section D7, row 5). A special urinal-shaped headstone topped with a spittoon has been designed for the convenience of visitors to the gravesite.
Heloise Potelle, 83
"Patron Saint" of university housing directors
Heloise Eloise Potelle died of complications from a stroke in her home town of Tampa, Florida last Thursday. Although not well-known outside of academic circles, she was lionized by mid-20th century university housing directors for her designs of narrow, squeaky dormitory beds and cafeteria equipment for the cost-effective mass-production of utterly tasteless food.
Potelle initially attracted attention in the late 1940s by designing the first extra-narrow, ultra-loud dormitory bed: the legendary "Brandeis Banshee" model. Bolted in position to prevent its being replaced by mattresses piled directly on the floor, it was precisely 1 cm wider than the average 19-year-old's body and released sound levels of up to 180dB upon the application of any repetitive, rhythmic stress.
Potelle, who was called "H.E." by her many friends and associates, followed up this triumph five years later with her "Fordham Foghorn" model. A special "Edvard Munch" limited edition featured a metal frame whose joints were hand-filed to achieve carefully-calculated tolerances that caused the bed to emit screeches approaching the threshold of pain. Students who had slept entire semesters on this bed were known to scratch blackboards to calm their nerves.
Her biggest triumph in the field of hormone deterrence came in 1963 with the "Rutgers Rutbuster", which was actually an entire installation system. In an ingenious innovation, each bed was placed next to a foot-square "ventilation duct" that was in fact connected to a PA system so that any noise generated by the bed frame would immediately reverberate throughout a two-kilometer radius.
Also an expert in cafeteria equipment, Potelle's proudest achievement was the "Vegepulper", an oversized microwave-cold fusion oven designed to render whole bushels of any type of fresh produce or meat into barely recognizable, colorless and flavorless mush with an average time savings of two hours over the conventional boiling methods then commonly in use.
Potelle continued to work right up to her death. Her last project, which sadly remains uncompleted, was the "Gemini Food Twin leftovers conversion unit" into which any type of plate scrapings, including silverware, dirty napkins and cigarette butts, can be loaded and converted according to the setting on a dial into "Shepherd's Pie", "Spanish Rice", "Chicken a la King" or "Hamburger Surprise".
Services will be held at Hannah Xaviera Lovakian Memorial Chapel on the campus of City State University on July 7th from 8:00 am to 11:00 pm with no breaks. Attendance is mandatory. And no fidgeting either.
Harold DeMayle, 97
US business policy trendsetter
Harold Xanadu Nelson DeMayle of New York City was killed in a skiing accident in the French Alps last Thursday. Although well-known only within a small coterie of power brokers, DeMayle wielded a direct and profound influence on the lives, and deaths, of millions of Americans. A much-respected senior member of the US business community, he served on the boards of some 20 major corporations in a career spanning four and one-half decades as a top-echelon decision-maker.
Revered as the "Director of Doom", he was best-known for leading off the "new business" portion of virtually any meeting by piping up with his signature line: "I've got an idea! Let's let thousands of people die preventable, painful, premature deaths this year!" That's when everyone around the table knew that "H.X.N.", as his friends and colleagues called him, had come up with another innovative money-saving plan. Applying his "3P's" rule, as he called it, DeMayle came up with proposal after proposal that stood as unshakable guidelines for many of America's major corporations over the decades, saving them an estimated combined total of $655 billion. Among his towering accomplishments were:
- Delaying the installation of seatbelts, and later airbags, as standard equipment in commercially-available automobiles until decades after the technology existed.
- Promoting high-pollution, high-risk nuclear generation of electrical power to the virtual exclusion of other safer, renewable energy sources.
- Allowing the existing, extensive, relatively safe rail network in the US to fall into disuse in favor of the private automobile and long-distance trucking of freight. DeMayle's goal here was to boost sales of fossil fuels and rubber tires while making flimsy, lead-spewing individual vehicles under constant threat of annihilation by unroadworthy behemoths driven by sleep-starved secondary school dropouts on tight schedules effectively the only form of transportation for most people in the United States. As today's overcrowded highways attest, his project was an unqualified success.
DeMayle was called out of retirement in the early 1970s to save the very trucking industry he had created when the international oil crisis and burgeoning environmental consciousness threatened to make it obsolete. His solution was a stroke of pure genius: to make truck drivers into latter-day folk heroes based on the sophomoric culture of CB radio, in the process making it look admirable for them to break the law and waste fuel by exceeding the speed limit.
In his later years, he was often invited to Washington by Congressional committees to share his views on gun control. Many top business analysts found it strange that, in spite of being wooed throughout his entire career by all the major powers in the sector, DeMayle never worked for the tobacco industry. "They don't need me," he was quoted as saying. "They're doing just fine all by themselves."
Family members reported that in his final days, DeMayle had been reading a dossier on a new dashboard computer system for passenger cars that would limit their top speed according to road conditions and visibility and automatically prevent collisions with other vehicles. His last words were, "I sure would like to get my hands on that one!"
In honor of the passing of this great American, the United States Congress will observe one full year of silence starting next Thursday.
¨©1999 by David Jaggard. All rights reserved worldwide.