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Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:

Humor in American Film Comedy


The Music Man Poster


The frontier literature of the Midwest recognizes a hardened people to go with the hardening conditions.








It is the Wells Fargo Wagon coming down the street which is the essential vision of Willson’s comedy in The Music Man.














River Citians have a cultural inferiority complex that won’t go away.






But this goes hand-in-hand with an absolutely firm conviction of American exceptionalism.




Midwesterners decided to make an amazing public expenditure on music.








Within generic realities, a good comedy, much more a great comedy, has its own, individual comedic pattern and its own comedic assertion.






Music Man is political.






Bands don’t just happen.













There’s a deceptive “aw shucks” quality about Music Man.




The Wells Fargo Wagon symbolizes he theme of hope and dreams,




The commonality is that dreams are real and they are the stuff that real life should be made out of.







The structure of successful living in Music Man—is specifically about stiff-necked, potentially contentious and cantankerous, hardened people in a hardening land.



The hardness of their upbringing needs the leavening of music.



They are a politically conscious community.




Consider it sappy and flag-waving if you want.



Music Man’s very extensive comedic assertion of faith in community success could be made without the slightest recourse to humor.


The very spontaneity of humor makes over-hasty conclusions the occupational hazard of humor analysis.



Determining  dominant forms of humor in a literary work for the first time is like walking into a dark room.








Like a great deal of Word Play humor, the repartee of the opening scene gets funnier and funnier.














Word Play weaves through the Marian-the-Librarian rhyme pattern  and "Trouble," with a "T" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for pool.












The identification one of the two lead humors of a particular film has already done quite a bit of critical heavy lifting.




The next step is to discern what is clearly NOT a lead element.














Sympathetic Pain, in short, is typically deadened in Music Man.





Sympathetic Pain is not arguably part of the humor personality and texture.




The elimination of Sympathetic Pain brings us down to two contenders: for humor personality:  Advocate and Intellectual.




The elimination of humor for as dominant is accurate and insightful as a tool of literary criticism.



With the establishment of Word Play  and the elimination of Sympathetic Pain as dominant humor forms, our eyes have become more accustomed to the dark.



 We are then ready for the main bout of humor discrimination: Gotcha or Incongruity?













It seems that there is a great gotcha joke that is set up from the opening scene.






One of the greatest jokes in Music Man is precisely that we got it wrong.









The entire Gotcha structure so carefully worked up dissolves in the super-joke of Music Man.




The people of River City haven’t been got; they’ve been given.







There are some true Gotchas in the movie.








Step by step, not in one intuitive leap, Incongruity and Word Play emerge as the lead components of Music Man's Humor of the Mind.





Music Man Intellectual? Surely, there’s been some mistake!





We need to move beyond humor personality to a separate question, humor texture.






Music Man has a humor texture that tends to lack bitterness and vindictiveness.



Incongruity makes things less sure and certain.



Word Play is easily accommodated to quick minds.





The texture of the humor is matched by the texture of the music.









But what if we are wrong?








Abstract argument alone does not solve the problem of identifying lead humor elements.



The direction of the production can also be more or less Gotcha-inclined.




Let’s say that another analysis is sure of Word Play plus Gotcha as lead elements.





The dream march that ends Music Man can be interpreted as the sealed bargain in favor of public-education music.










A director choosing between these alternatives will be glad to make subtle changes in the humor structure to back one or the other alternative.




The best course of critical action would be not to decide too definitively between Advocate and Intellectual as humor personality.







































































































































Chapter 4:  The Music Man:

Think “The Minuet in G”



Beyond Chicago, population still thins out in the United States until it intensifies along the West Coast.  During the ‘50’s when Meredith Willson was propelled to international recognition for the incomparable musical, The Music Man, it was still standard academese to refer to the “Empty Quarter” or the “Great American Desert,” vaguely stretching between the Mississippi and the Rockies. From a standard East Coast perspective, beyond the Appalachians was possibly beyond civilization and beyond the Mississippi was—well, who could say?  When Robin’s parents moved from the banks of the Hudson to western Ohio in the early ‘60’s, a neighbor in the Oranges of New Jersey asked solicitously if there happened to be indoor plumbing in Ohio. Somewhere just in front of the Empty Quarter was Iowa with its own  mystique and legendary personality quirks, both of them probably related in the popular imagination to Iowa’s two favorite sons, Herbert Hoover and John Wayne.


The Midwest has been celebrated in literature by important figures like Willa Cather, Hamlin Garland, O. E. Rolvaag, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. One of the great commonalities in all their writing is their respect for a harsh and demanding land. Even today, saying one is from Minnesota is guaranteed virtually anywhere else to jump-start a discussion either of nasty weather or of wider extremes in annual temperature than anywhere else on the planet. The frontier literature of the Midwest recognizes a hardened people to go with the hardening conditions, people for whom talking is considerably less central than surviving. This taciturnity is often blamed on ethnic considerations, including an almost infinite number of jokes about inarticulate Scandinavians and other northern minorities.


Incongruously that taciturn, hardened Midwestern population was served by the Windy City of Chicago.  There’s an argument in the Midwest that Chicago is named for wind patterns off Lake Michigan, but as anyone from Chicago knows, don’t count on Lake breezes two miles in from the Loop.  But the alternate theory is that Chicago gets its sobriquet from its traveling salesmen, who pushed out from Chicago in all directions but particularly to the west, and through their breezy conversation brought a belated sense of the wider world to the Plains. Two great catalog merchandisers, Montgomery Ward and Sears, brought news of a growing affluence and the material goods that could go with it to the Plains where, in the words of Music Man’s Marcellus (played by Buddy Hackett),  “Anything these Iowa folks don’t already have, they do without.” All of which  became symbolized in the Wells Fargo Wagon, coming down the main street of innumerable small towns, bearing dreams and hopes with it.




Meredith Willson is yet another favorite son of Iowa.  And it is the Wells Fargo Wagon coming down the street which is the essential vision of Willson’s comedy in The Music Man. Hopes and dreams are what the Upper Midwest was built out of.  And in many ways it built a remarkably coherent, homogeneous, cooperative society.   Many rephrase that as parochial, narrow, and complaisant.  As the Upper Midwest came out of frontier days into the 20th century and specifically down to 1912, the Gaslight Era, and the 4th of July celebrations of Music Man ,a multi-generational society existed which is clearly depicted in the Robert Preston-Shirley Jones classic production.  The cast contains a remarkable number of old people seventy and even eighty years old.  They must have been in the pioneer days of the 1850’s and 1860’s—days of no roads and no houses, not just no toilets—the young men and women adventurers.  As directed in Music Man, they are still an integral, working part of society, and their conversation, values, and dreams are not at all dissimilar from their children’s, the middle-aged family people like Mrs. Paroo, the Shinns, and most of the Ladies’ Dance Society members.


And then there is the younger generation, represented by Tommy Djilas, Zaneeta Shinn, Amaryllis, and Winthrop.  They of course find their elders a bit slow, tend to surreptitiously re-buckle their knickers below the knee when outside the home, like to read “Captain Willie’s  Whizbang” for au courante humor, and spice their conversation with an occasional irreverence like “So’s your Old Man.”


Despite these minimal inter-generational frictions, there is a great deal of value-base agreement.

Everyone is in the kid-raising business, even the kids. Community life is on a tight axis between the high school and the library.  Education is indisputably central and important, which of course means that the main controversies in town are education-centered.  One of those controversies centers on someone the older generation has probably never read but whose name as pronounced by Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn consistently sounds like “Balls Ack.” Evidently a second controversy is brewing if people can ever learn to pronounce the author of the “Ruby Hat.”  Inevitably, the school board (played by the musically famed Buffalo Bills) has hated one another for fifteen years. And because everyone agrees on educational hopes and dreams but not on a specific curriculum, Hawkeyes become known for being able to “stand nose to nose—and never see eye to eye.”


Iowans agree on other things as well, among them a happy turn of mind for honesty that often comes out as verbal crustiness.  Looking for a “fine hotel”?  “Try the Palmer House in Chicago.”





They also agree on an absolutely stupendous paradox, an incongruity to blow minds well beyond Iowa or even beyond the borders of the United States.  They believe, evidently without a single exception, that they are off on the frontier, that they are isolated and uncultured, desperately in need of education, far removed from the centers of real power and real culture (both of which they are tempted to think they really would never want to have anyway)—all of which is a threat to their hopes and dreams for the younger generation  And so it is not at all surprising that the most prestigious ladies in town, even when they have obvious infirmities like Ethel Toffelmeier’s girth, press themselves forward in exercises of grace and imitations, however inadequate, of “Desartes.” In short, River Citians have a cultural inferiority complex that won’t go away.


But this strident inferiority complex, paradoxically, goes hand-in-hand with an absolutely firm conviction of American exceptionalism, a clear conception of the American Political Experiment and every Iowan’s place within that experiment. That political certainty is behind every aspect of the 1912 4th of July exercises at the Madison Gymnasium of River City High School. It is epitomized in Hermione Gingold’s (Mrs. Shinn’s) off-key final flourish on the key words, “Thy banners make tyranny tremble/ when borne by the Red, White, and Blue.” 


(The off-key flourish is typical of Music Man’s humorous technique.  The greatest truths are consistently humorously undercut, and at the same time, the humorous undercut is also a highlight, as here, the highlighting is on the central political agreement of the participants.) This undercutting of sentiment and traditional values which at the same time sustains those very values is a common theme in Twentieth Century American humor, in film and also notably in greeting cards (Oring). It is not inconsistent with America’s awareness of exceptionalism and simultaneous inferiority complex.


And Midwesterners, living continually with this paradox of a clear inferiority complex and a clear recognition of their unique and important political destiny among the ages, somewhere on or about July 4, 1912, decided to make an amazing public expenditure on music, particularly band music so that Mayor Shinn’s “I’ll stake River City’s boys band against any west of Chicago” is symbolically an accurate picture of Midwestern political determination. Maybe it had something to do with Dvorak composing the New World Symphony in Iowa.  Or perhaps it was something far humbler, a recognition by these hardened people that they needed music to be anything more than hardened survivors. In any case, the choice of politically-sponsored band and other music is a pervasive Midwestern reality. 





Three random examples, admittedly all just across the Minnesota border from Willson’s Mason City, should suggest the profundity of this cultural reality. Just north of the Iowa-Minnesota border nine high schools from eight communities covering 15,000 square miles of Southeast Minnesota have been gathering annually since 1932 without interruption, for the Big 9 Music Festival. The logistics of such a feat in the Model-T era with the likelihood of a flat tire every 15 miles staggers the imagination. Moreover, one of those communities, Winona, Minnesota, features a bandshell where the oldest annually performing municipal band in the United States performs weekly summer concerts; Dvorak’s New World is a favorite. And 80 miles north of Mason City, St. Olaf College’s annual Christmas Fest has become, according to eastern magazines, a must-do Christmas event. When demand for tickets far surpassed the 16,000 seating capacity over four services, the Fest in 2007 was simulcast live into theaters around the nation. These are all reflections of the Midwestern musical realities which demonstrably were dear to Willson in writing Music Man, growing out of a poignant moment just after the frontier vanished amidst a nostalgically-remembered general agricultural prosperity.


But Music Man is not an historical snapshot. It is a work of musical and dramatic art, specifically, a romantic musical comedy. And comedies have comedic import. Comedic import can be some vague banality about the primacy of love or the need to find one’s own Someone to say goodnight to. If such answers are banal, it is not that they are untrue. They are generic, rather than relevant to the particular artistic statement of Music Man. Within generic realities, a good comedy, much more a great comedy, has its own, individual comedic pattern and its own comedic assertion. Such patterns are created through repetition, often repetition in disguise.


The search for comedic pattern starts with a recognition of disguised repetitions. Mayor Shinn and Tommy Djilas are a good example. Mayor Shinn spends most of the movie out for Tommy Djilas’ hide. Despite that seeming opposition, Mayor Shinn and Tommy share a remarkable trait: they are both natural leaders of their societies, Mayor Shinn the leader of respectable River City and Tommy Djilas the leader of the new generation (the third generation of statehood). Willson has Harold Hill make this point explicitly, prophesying that Mayor Shinn will want to shake Tommy’s hand when the boys band performs.


From that repetition alone, Music Man is political beyond the 4th of July exercises. It is premised in the American ideal that natural leadership must and should be recognized and must be allowed to win out. This political theme is expanded in the members of the school board who are central to the society and the polity, and whose 15-year quarrel epitomizes the bickering disintegration possible in that stiff-necked polity.





The political theme continues with Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn, an equal or superior political force to her husband. “There she blows,” Marcellus’ introduction of Mrs. Shinn, makes a great political, musically-enforced point: Mrs. Shinn is a political power, virtually a force of nature akin to Moby Dick, and moreover a more dangerous power than her oratory-mangling husband.  Willson has gone out of his way to emphasize the political nature of River City and its high- school–education-based political, democratic society.


While disguised, Harold Hill’s wooing of individual parents is a political campaign, a campaign that historically, was won innumerable times in Midwestern cities and towns. Bands don’t just happen. They are amazing coincidences of purpose, drawing on the financial and emotional resources of whole families of widely different backgrounds, abilities, and ultimate goals. Bands are political events, extravaganzas of expense and commitment and political organization.


And, politically analyzed, bands pay off in disparate ways around the community. This is seen in various guises throughout Music Man, but it is best summarized in the final meeting in Madison Gymnasium. Mayor Shinn asks that anyone against tar and feathering Hill stand. Marian, who has already affirmed to Winthrop that no one should regret Harold’s coming, reminds the assembled townspeople of all they have received from the idea and the reality of the boys’ band throughout the summer.


On Mayor Shinn’s repeated request, Mrs. Paroo rises from her chair. After all, Hill’s arrival has answered her prayers about a daughter who can’t quite start down the path of actual love in a world uninhabited by White Knights. Ladies of the Ladies Dance Society are next to rise, still dressed in their costumes from their triumphant rendition of Two Grecian Urns. We laugh at their incongruously amateur attempt. Yet, the ladies, as daughters of the pioneers, know how far their attempt has moved beyond the sod hut of the prairies. The ladies are followed by the school board members who are now never seen apart from each other in barbershop quartet. Other back benchers follow, then front benchers, and ultimately Mrs. Shinn herself. Mayor Shinn’s attempt to enforce political conformity on his wife fails (she may be “reticent, oh yes, reticent,” but she is a woman with a mind of her own). Mayor Shinn lost the vote of his daughter Zaneeta quite a bit before.


The scene emphasizes yet again the political nature of Iowa existence. In the homely Madison gymnasium setting, we are watching a prototype of the caucus system which still comes to the fore every four years as presidential candidates storm into Iowa for the caucuses and leave a seriously winnowed lot. Consider 2008 as typical of the Iowan experience. More than two dozen presidential campaigns breezed into Iowa, some as early as 2006, many with conspicuous planning over much longer periods. Iowans were bombarded with non-stop political commercials paid for by affluent members of American society in all 49 other states, much to the benefit of Midwest economic health.





And what was the result? Almost four fifths of the two dozen campaigns either died on the field in Iowa or left clearly mortally wounded. Of the winners and near-winners, Barrack Obama clearly left Iowa with a prestige and momentum that was almost unbelievable hours before the Iowa results were announced. Hillary Clinton left Iowa at least arguably crippled. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee left Iowa as a top-tier candidate despite a much advertised utter lack of campaign dollars. And Mitt Romney left Iowa crippled despite a much advertised superfluity of funds available to continue the campaign. Considering the world-history potential of the next President of the United States, it is no wonder that in other states editorial cartoons for the next week bemoaned Iowa’s ability to tell all Americans who were the real contenders among whom the other states now had a restricted choice. 


In short, there’s a deceptive “aw shucks” quality about Music Man as there is a great deal of deceptiveness in all great art.  Meredith Willson doesn’t make strident efforts to tell us how important the realities he is depicting are—quite literally—for all modern world history.


Another repeated theme, the theme of hope and dreams, is graphically portrayed in the arrival of the Wells Fargo Wagon.   The power of dream is also poignantly developed in Harold Hill, waiting for Marian on the footbridge, his mind wandering to the phantasm of a band in resplendent uniforms.  And seeing the phantasm, he begins to direct,  because Harold Hill who doesn’t  “know one note from another” and who invented a conservatory class to graduate with, that Harold Hill turns out to have had a dream of leading, not a political unit, but a band.  He’s even thought up a Think Method that allows his dream not to concern itself with his lack of musical training.


Marian’s problem is learning how to move beyond her dreams of a White Knight to the reality of a living man.  Harold Hill’s problem is not knowing himself enough to recognize his need for his dream.  The commonality is that dreams are real and they are the stuff that real life should be made out of. If that weren’t true, the Midwest would still be sod huts without toilets or a land left to the prophesied return of the buffalo.


 The assertion that life is made out of dreams is profoundly reiterated in Music Man. The band uniforms that Harold Hill has secured and that come marching in to save him in the gymnasium are pretty pathetic.  They may have a wide stripe down the pants, but we don’t know a band in the Midwest that wouldn’t dump them in the garbage without trying them on. Yet as the band proceeds out of the gym and Zaneeta is watching her hero, Tommy, as drum major, miraculously, she sees first Tommy and then his two cadence drummers changed into resplendent uniforms.  That miracle really happened, in fact incessantly and repeatedly happened, in one town of the Midwest after another, with one level of resplendence after another, so that the 1960’s film dream costumes look rather run-of-the-mill and outdated compared to uniforms in 4th of July parades today.





Zaneeta’s imagined uniforms are also only prototypes for the marching bands referred to in the opening credits, bands from Iowa and Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State that take the field every Saturday of the football season and vie with each other for the most utterly elaborate pictorial designs that a hundred-plus marching musicians can fashion themselves into. Music Man weaves these various pictures of uniformed bands together as emblems of the dream imagination of Harold Hill, the Music Man.  Harold may not know one note from another. He doesn’t need to.  He has a dream and the political gift of the blarney to put his dream in motion, however much he wants to chicken out at the last moment.  And as he has most persuasively argued, music is not ultimately taught. Like a whistle, it begins in a thought and ends in a melody.  And from that dream, the Midwestern marching band dream continues to unfold today.


These various comedic themes allow us to build a specific comedic formula for Music Man, though as inferential structures there is probably always room for some debate on particular details—around Iowa, debate on particulars is quite standard. The comedic redundant-repetition structure—the structure of successful living in Music Man—is specifically about stiff-necked, potentially contentious and cantankerous, hardened people in a hardening land. For such people, success requires a common spirit. That spirit may be the cantankerous, but it is the qualification on such ungracious exterior that is essential. Iowans can be unpleasant, but it has been announced (and repeated in disguise throughout), that they “will give you [their] shirt, and a back to go with it, if your crops should happen to die.”  They are ultimately soft-hearted people finding fulfillment in giving of themselves, especially to community-endorsed educative efforts.


Second, the hardness of their upbringing needs the leavening of music, and music once introduced leavens the whole lump.


Third, they are a politically conscious community, particularly because of their democratic institutions and because of their historical democratic ideals that are relevant not only in their insular communities but on the grand stage of history. And the potential of comedic success is almost incalculable when they have squabbled things out and arrived at community goals.





So, comedic success formula: a hardheaded people who believe in romantic love, family, and the future of their progeny growing out of hopes and dreams, empowered by democratic institutions, practices, and ideals and ultimately motivated not so much by what they can get as by what they can give, most typically in community-endorsed acts and centrally enriched by music which itself reflects political consensus and support. More poetically perhaps, successful living is not built on calculating ways to get out of town down to the last wave of the brakeman’s hand.  Successful living is not based on running away from dreams but from getting one’s foot caught in the door, fighting dreams through to reality with people who love and believe in you and work with you on a shared, expanding, musically-enriched dream reality.


Believe Music Man’s comedic import if you will. Consider it sappy and flag-waving if you want. Comedic structure is not a popularity contest; it is an inferential reality built out of redundant repetition, and a reality which members in the audience can love or detest as they will. But we should probably recognize how well beloved Music Man instantly became when it hit the theatres in the early ‘60’s and how beloved it is still, half a century later, in a recent remake, incessant high school musical productions, and a thorough American acquaintance with the entire musical score.


Thus far, we have established comedic import based on comedic form of action as tragedy is a form of action.  And our discussion stands entirely independent of a discussion of humor. Every one of the component parts of Music Man’s very extensive comedic assertion of faith in community success could be made without the slightest recourse to humor.  And that leaves us ready to consider humor as something entirely separate from comedy but intimately symbiotic with it in Music Man,  as it is in most other comedies.


To make anything of the humor texture, in the present case to use it successfully in a quadrilateral discussion of the film’s use of Humor of the Mind, typically requires that we deliberately slow down our humorous appreciation and our thinking about it.  The appreciation of humor on stage or on screen is very close to instantaneous, measured even for Humor of the Mind in milliseconds. The very spontaneity of humor makes over-hasty conclusions the occupational hazard of humor analysis. For example, many people assume that humor is the equivalent of the sexual allusions, surprising violations of standard decorum, political irreverence, and general willingness to highlight unmentionables that characterizes, say, skits produced by Second City or the like. These are indeed humorous. They are not the subject of our investigation in this volume.





As an aid to slower critical, quadrilateral consideration, a standard practice needs to be developed of first identifying a “lead element,” that is, to consider all four of the humor-of-the- mind possibilities simply for the purpose of finding one of the four which must ultimately be one of the two humor preferences that together define the humor personality of the art work. Two critics, looking at the same literary work may not decide on the same lead element.  But it can be hoped that by focusing first on finding an absolutely stand-out preference for one of the four mental humors, we are, as it were, walking into a dark room and accustoming ourselves to the dark by first sensing the outlines of the largest pieces of furniture in the room. In Music Man, then, we must ask which humor absolutely stands out: Incongruity, Gotcha, Word Play, or Sympathetic Pain?


Mentally re-viewing the movie, or getting out an old videotape copy to enjoy yet one more time, should immediately highlight the humor of the opening scene, salesmen on the train as Harold Hill escapes the law and boards the train. A complicating factor in the humor analysis of Music Man is, of course, that so much of the humor is musical humor, humor that can best be appreciated and explicated by musicians. And that problem confronts us immediately in the first scene, because the first scene takes a primary element of music, rhythm, and extends it first to the wheels of a steam locomotive and then to the discussion among the salesmen.


For our more limited purposes, the humor of the first scene can be argued to heavily depend on Word Play.  As we have already defined it, Word Play requires the clash of two different word groups. But very often, one of the two word groups is entirely supplied in the readers’ or audience’s mind, as for example the Rubin joke mentioned earlier that depends upon our knowing the phrase “middle aged crisis” to collide with the actual caption, “middle ages crisis.” Here, we can say that Word Play is present throughout the scene, because the highly syncopated and consistently accelerating tempo of the salesmen’s conversation clearly deviates from the tempo of normal speech patterns.  Like a great deal of Word Play humor, it gets funnier and funnier the longer it can be kept up (compare this to a musical sense of humor in Mozart’s defense of The Marriage of Figaro to the Austrian Emperor in Amadeus).


Even a Mozart octet has to end sometime, and so does the tour de force train dialogue.  It ends with a second joke that has been developing all through.  The salesmen are talking about Harold Hill, who happens to be right in their midst.  Technically, this is dramatic irony and again raises issues beyond Humor of the Mind.  But the drive behind the discussion is clearly Charlie Cowell’s assessment of Hill’s depraved cunning that will certainly avoid Iowa.  Hill essentially takes up Cowell’s challenge, summarized in his line, “Gentlemen, you intrigue me. I think I’ll have to give Iowa a try.”  Cowell replies, “I don’t believe I caught your name.”  Hill replies, “I don’t believe I dropped it”—another Word Play joke—followed by Hill’s departure and the salemen staring at his name written in big letters across his traveling valise. Score one for Gotcha humor.  But how many are simultaneously scored for Word Play?





In River City, Hill is immediately into a series of one-line repartees. “That’s a fine animal you have there.” “For a horse.” “Where’s the center of town? “Down the center of the street.” “Where can I find a fine hotel?” “Try the Palmer House in Chicago.” All of these are Word Plays, typically in several senses, but particularly in that we all have an internal repertoire of appropriate civil responses to such questions, none of which is forthcoming.  Similar verbal humor spices Monty Python productions and has been intensely studied, á là Grice, as travesties on civil discourse (Fennel).


We could continue, scene by scene through Music Man in just such a fashion. We’d often find that one joke had at least two or maybe even three mental humors involved in it. “A fine animal—for a horse” clearly would set almost anyone aback, and that’s likely to create something of a Sympathetic Pain response of “That’s okay, buddy.”  Harold Hill, however, is probably the least set-aback person any of us has ever known. “Try the Palmer House” has an implied incongruity of the meaning of “fine hotel” in small-town Iowa compared to relatively cosmopolitan Chicago.


There isn’t space enough in this volume to do that line-by-line analysis of each joke in the movie, including the frequent tendency for two types of humor to be present in the same joke. Nor would there be patience in the average reader to endure it. But secondary humor forms aside, what we’ve already said heavily suggests that Word Play is indeed a lead element of the humor of Music Man.


Let’s just remember a few other high moments of Word Play later in the play: Hill’s verbal virtuosity in getting around Mayor Shinn, the school board, and individual skin-flint parents, Harold’s “Marian the Librarian” accosting of Marian in the library with continual Word Play but particularly the  Word Play of setting up the Marian-Librarian rhyme pattern only to find the triple rhyme in “carrion;” Mayor Shinn’s mangling of the form and content of oratory; Mrs. Shinn’s mangling of Omar Khayyam’s name, not to mention Balzac’s; the dance ladies’ description of Miser Madison who gave the gymnasium, the park, the library, and the hospital to the town  and didn’t have a friend in the world (note the heavy Incongruity which outshines and uses the vehicle of Word Play);  Zaneeta’s incessant and invariable  expletive in response to every situation;  Mayor Shinn’s attempts at metaphorical emphasis like “a button in well water,” “not a poop out of you,” and “watch your phraseology”; Tony Djillis’ politically perceptive response to Mayor Shinn, “Great Honk”; trouble starting with “T” which rhymes with “P” and stands for pool.





As already mentioned, Music Man contains some of the very great moments in musical humor, like “Good Night My Someone” and “Seventy Six Trombones” turning out to be the same melody, simply rewritten in waltz and march time.  From the musical side, this isn’t within Humor of the Mind, but from the lyric side, the recognition that “Good Night My Someone” can be transformed into “Seventy Six Trombones” and in practice is passed back and forth between people who up to that point have mainly seemed on a collision course arguably ranks as profound Word Play.


We start then with the inevitability of Word Play as one of the two preferred types of mental humor in Music Man.  Given the evidence already cited, we will either refuse to believe or will be exceedingly skeptical of any argument that Word Play is not a lead humor element. Let’s pause on that sense of certainty long enough to notice that if Word Play is one of the two lead humors of Music Man, then on the Natural Order Circle, presented in Chapter 3, this is the equivalent of limiting Music Man’s humor personality and texture to one of three possibilities: Advocate, Consoler, or Intellectual. Just as true, identifying Word Play as a lead humor absolutely precludes the possibility of Music Man’s humor personality turning out to be Crusader, Bridgebulder, or Reconciler.


The identification of any of the four mental humors as definitely one of the two lead humors of a particular film, in other words, has done quite a bit of critical heavy lifting in and of itself. And because it has done so much heavy lifting, it should be carefully checked, humorous moment by humorous moment. If we rush forward here, that rushing should not deny the efficacy of such reviews, particularly since so little academic has been done previously to familiarize any of us with different humors.


But moving on and following the analogy of entering a dark room, if we at least believe we see the outline of Word Play as the most prominent piece of furniture in our humor room, it is often the better part of wisdom to next attempt to discern what is clearly NOT a lead element. We’ve already mentioned a Gotcha at the end of the train dialogue. And we’ve repeatedly noted Word Play operating in conjunction with Incongruity (“Good Night” and “Seventy Six Trombones” is clearly a superficial Incongruity as well as a profound Word Play, for example). We haven’t mentioned Sympathetic Pain except in Hill being uncivilly answered coming into town.





We must remember that we are talking about types of humor.  Sympathetic Pain and the other humors are not humors if they don’t cause a humorous response.  There are  many reasons for sympathetic responses in Music Man:  Marian’s inability to get from book ideality to the reality of love, Winthrop’s inability to pronounce s’s and his taciturn despondency after the death of his father, Mrs. Paroo’s exasperation in guiding her daughter, Zaneeta wanting a little space to like Tommy, Amaryllis wanting a little response from Winthrop. At least one of these, Mrs. Paroo’s exasperation, does have its comic moments, as for example her “Saint Brigid be praised” speech admitting she has used the “Think Method.” from the parlor.  But the list of high moments of Sympathetic Pain humor seems relatively short. Amaryllis’ frustration with Winthrop, for example is developed in “Good Night My Someone,” lyric romance, not in humor.


Many other moments seem to deliberately refuse Sympathetic Pain humor development. The one-line repartees as Harold makes his way onto Main Street, for example, are potentially moments for a Sympathetic Pain reaction, but as already noted, Hill is hardened against snubs and repulses of virtually all kinds and refuses to look for our sympathy as audience. As a result, the Word Play and Incongruity elements take center stage and Sympathetic Pain remains little more than a derailed potential. Such derailed potentials follow Harold everywhere, his encounters with the school board and rebuffs by Marian as leading examples. These are often funny, but the funny doesn’t analyze well as Sympathetic Pain humor precisely because Harold chooses just such challenges as the scotch in his soda.


And what is true for Harold is less prominently true for the citizens of River City. As pioneers and sons and daughters of pioneers, they generally do not go looking for sympathy, and they define the joy of life to include dealing with life’s difficult moments. We don’t, for example, have a strong sympathetic reaction for Mrs. Shinn when she thinks she is shot counting to twenty in the Indian tongue, when she stumbles over the pronunciation of authors’ names in her diatribe on appropriate adolescent reading, when Mayor Shinn says “not a poop out of you,” or when he demands that his wife sit down after her defiant vote against tar and feathering. We don’t waste much humorous sympathy on Ethel Toffelmeier struggling with obesity issues, Marcellus attempting to get Harold moving toward getting safely out of town, or even Winthrop navigating his way through “Gary, Indiana” as a song without too many s’s in it—it’s a cute scene, and mothers all over America fall in love with the little boys drafted into high school performances, but that doesn’t automatically qualify as Sympathetic Pain humor. Sympathetic Pain, in short, is typically deadened in Music Man.  We might almost make that our first point about its humor texture, that there is a characteristic deadening and denial of Sympathetic Pain as humor in Music Man and that in itself gives Music Man a “hard finish.”





Again let’s pause to see just how far we’ve gotten:  we are tentatively committed to the idea that Word Play as a lead element and that Sympathetic Pain humor is a definitely under-utilized humor in Music Man.  The identification of Word Play left us with only three possible humor textures: Advocate, Consoler, and Intellectual.  Now we have asserted that Sympathetic Pain is not arguably part of the humor personality and texture. This second determination eliminates the possibility of Consoler (Sympathetic Pain plus Word Play) as a possible humor texture.


We are then down to two contenders for the humor texture of Music Man.  It is potentially a play textured with Advocate (Word Play plus Gotcha) humor personality or an Intellectual (Word Play plus Incongruity). humor personality. The reason we still have two contenders is, obviously, that we have not decided which is the other lead humor element.  Is it Gotcha or is it Incongruity?  Important as this determination is, it should be emphasized that we have already accomplished 80% of the humor personality identification work. We have eliminated four candidates: Crusader, Bridgebuilder, Reconciler, as lacking Word Play and now Consoler as depending on Sympathetic Pain. We must eliminate one more.


Someone trying to understand Quadrilateralism for the first time may not be impressed by these eliminations.  For us, having analyzed the humor structure of a great many fine comedies, these eliminated possible humor personalities are powerful and even somewhat daunting. Consider Crusader, for example, one of our eliminated personalities. Isn’t Harold Hill on an unconscious crusade for boys’ bands?  Isn’t Marian on a clear crusade for culture?  Isn’t Mayor Shinn on a crusade for a well-run city? Isn’t Tommy Djilas on a clear crusade to force the older generations to back off a little and let the new generation have some respect?


And if there are so many crusades going on, isn’t the finale of Music Man an indication that the crusades have been reconciled at least momentarily in societal commitment to a band program? But then doesn’t this reconciliation suggest that Harold Hill with his crazy idea is something of a bridgebuilder, bridging what to many is an unbridgeable chasm between pioneer primitivism and an established cultured society?   If so, shouldn’t we label the film personality Bridgebuilder?


So let us not underestimate the eliminating power of the method proposed.  It is powerful. The question remains whether it is accurate and insightful as a tool of literary criticism.  And if it is accurately powerful, how can we understand its eliminations, much less its positive conclusions?





We cannot move immediately to answers.  We are only at step two of a quadrilateral method.  The next step is typically hardest, to determine which of the two remaining humors is the second lead humor. Again, returning to the metaphor of the darkened room, we are now in need of making much finer discriminations.  We’ve identified the major furniture (the undoubted lead element) and the major paths clear of furniture (the undoubted not-major element). And something else has happened in the process.  Our eyes have become more accustomed to the dark—or more literally, our sense of the difference between humors and our ability to sort out differences between humors have been sharpened by the two steps of analysis already undertaken.  It would even be reasonable at this point to stop to review both our major lead humor decision and our not-major decision. Reviewing and challenging such preliminary judgments will almost necessarily increase our humor-discriminating abilities.


We are then ready for the main bout of humor discrimination.  We are down to the final match.  So which is it? Gotcha or Incongruity?


Quick verdicts are often false verdicts here. It is tempting to rule in favor of Incongruity.  After all, Incongruity is often proposed as the essence of all humor.  How can it not make the final two? A little reflection suggests shallowness here.  First of all, it isn’t based in any specific evidence from Music Man.  And second, if Incongruity is strong in all humor, it is also universal in perception.  Paul is sitting as he writes at a wooden oak desk with light yellow varnish.  Outside are a green pine tree and a white birch, partially in bright sunlight and partially in deep shadow. In that short description is a long list of incongruities.  Green contrasts with both yellow and white, sunlight contrasts with shadow, oak contrasts with pine and birch.  Incongruities abound, but are they funny?  Throughout almost all of life, we stare incongruities in the face, finding nothing funny about them or even remarkable about them. 


So before anyone jumps to an Incongruity conclusion, Gotcha humor deserves its own serious consideration. And in that consideration, we probably must realize that not all jokes are born equal.  That is to say, there is a big difference between a one-line riposte like “try the Palmer House in Chicago” and a joke that takes a whole scene or perhaps many scenes to develop.  The Gotcha on Cowell that his fulminations are entirely heard by Harold Hill himself grows through the entire length of the opening train scene and is thus in an entirely different league from the Palmer House joke.





Now what if there were a joke that took the entire length and breadth of Music Man to develop and finally spring on the audience?  Such a joke would be in its own major league compared to everything we have discussed so far. These are not matters of better/worse or significant/insignificant difference. Just what kind of difference for the film and the humor preference must be sensitively determined probably for one film at a time or one dramatic work at a time.  For example, a few years ago, Paul devoted a whole paper at the ISHS annual conference at Northeastern Illinois State University in Chicago to the “Five Great Jokes of Shakespeare’s Henry V. One of those jokes is the “little touch of Harry in the night.”  It is developed for a full act. Another is the “never was such a sudden scholar made” joke developed throughout the first act. And a third is the war hero-turned-awkward lover joke developed throughout Act V. All five of these great jokes take act-length development and are clearly contradistinctive to any of the small jokes that rush by in Fluellan, Bardolphe, or Mistress Quickly. The Five Great jokes form their own set and their own level of humorous analysis.


In Music Man, it seems that there is a great joke that is set up from the opening scene and that is eventually sprung, the great Gotcha on Harold Hill, the man who has timed everything “down to the last wave of the brakeman’s hand.” Thought you were smart, didn’t you, Harold, and then you got got, didn’t you?


And it certainly seems that the joke is elaborated in Harold’s careful analysis of the ways of women in “Sadder but Wiser Girl for Me.” Very clever, young feller. You made just a couple of mistakes. The first one is that Marian is not a sadder but wiser girl. And what’s the second?  You were right—she ties knots no sailor ever knew!  A two-tone descending whistle seems entirely appropriate for Harold at this point, just as it was appropriate in response to the sheriff’s information that Mayor Shinn was Zaneeta’s father and the owner of the billiard parlor. Instead, Harold says to Winthrop that he can’t leave, that for the first time in his life, he finds he’s got his foot stuck in the door.


Round One then for Gotcha humor.


But precisely because we are talking about one of the greater jokes, we have to make sure we’ve gotten to the end of the joke. And one of the greatest jokes in Music Man is precisely that we got it wrong; that wasn’t the end of the joke. Hill is brought in handcuffs to the gymnasium and threatened as we have already seen with tar and feathering—funny to us but a rather gruesome punishment if contemplated at all seriously. And despite a standing vote, Hill is not saved when Mayor Shinn reminds the crowd they’ve been taken and demands, “Where’s the band?”  The Gotcha is building, especially in Mayor Shinn’s eyes, because he’s sure there isn’t any band or any uniforms.





At that point the band marches in preceded by Tommy Djilas.  The political consensus of River City again trembles under the concussion.  But boys in uniform, even boys in uniform with musical instruments aren’t a band. (So notice that the Gotcha on Shinn of a band showing up is a temporary Gotcha, or preferably, a pseudo-Gotcha.  Shinn’s still in this political battle.)

And then Marian takes charge, demanding that Harold believe in himself, believe in the boys, believe in his Think Method, believe in his dream. The high moment of demand is marked by a physical joke as she breaks the blackboard pointer down to an appropriate-length baton for a manacled band maestro.


And Harold repeatedly quails at the idea.


But tar and feathering is gruesome and not a bit funny. So Harold implores the boys to “Think, men, think” and begins to direct the “Minuet in G.”  The cacophony that follows is not pretty, but the first fourth-grade band rehearsal of the year never is.  (There is a musical cheat here in that at least one trumpet has a rough idea of following a melody, making the whole cacophony musically intelligible if also excruciating.) And in that trumpet-led moment, amidst parents’ dreams of musical children being realized, the entire Gotcha structure so carefully worked up dissolves in the super-joke of Music Man.


The anti-Gotcha joke is that Harold has not been got, and neither has Mayor Shinn nor the townspeople nor the kids. They haven’t been got; they’ve been given.


Actually, Marian explained the whole anti-joke a scene earlier in speaking to Winthrop as the town closed in on Harold. No one should be sorry that Harold came to town. No one should forget everything they have been given by the dream and the reality of band things all summer.  And Winthrop is the emblem of Marian’s argument, for he has been given the most, not just a trumpet and a uniform with stripes down the pants but a renewed joy in life and with it a sudden explosive verbosity that must make all the high school actresses playing Marian just wait to get off stage to wash the spit off.


The great anti-joke can then be run backward in our minds. The school board wasn’t got by a shifty salesman; they were given a unity and harmony that had eluded them for 15 years. Mayor Shinn wasn’t got; he can start staking River City’s band against any such organization west of Chicago. Admittedly, he will lose a few, but in band competitions at innumerable Midwest festivals each summer, there are numerous losers for every grand champion, except that they are all winners in their own eyes and in the crowd’s.) Mrs. Shinn wasn’t got with Hill’s line about grace and form in the rotation of an ankle in response to a bunion; she may not be Desartes, but she is much more graceful and grace-conscious from that moment on.





There are some true Gotchas in the movie, most of them reserved for Charlie Cowell. He is got in the opening scene, he is perpetually got by Hill, the more-masterful salesman who has “been the raspberry in his wisdom tooth” far too long. He is got by a Carmenized Marian, intent on learning moves Harold might later appreciate.  And in the final credits, Cowell looks back over the town from the train depot—and drops his sample anvil on his own foot.  Like all true Gotcha butts, he’s done it to himself.


Careful analysis of Gotcha virtually eliminates it as a lead humor element in Music Man, and by default if nothing else, that leaves Incongruity as the second lead element.


It is actually pretty hard to imagine a conman film that doesn’t have Incongruity humor, because every move is predicated on the difference between reality and the con. And in Music Man, in some ways the greatest con is that Harold has conned himself into conning, into never believing in himself as anything but a fake. It takes the true music professional, Marian, to recognize that there is a great musical truth in what Harold professes. In the same period when Harold thought that the Think Method was a great scam, Scott Joplin and the great pioneers of blues and jazz both in New Orleans and Chicago were proving the Think Method of self-education and laying it as a chief cornerstone of American dominance in popular music. But are these reflections ever the base of laughter in the movie?


Instead of such abstract reflections, better humor analysis examples of the presence of Incongruity would include Marian the professional musician suddenly becoming the ardent champion of the Think System, Harold and Marcellus singing “Sadder but Wiser Girl” to a laughingly innocent Amaryllis, Ethel and Marcellus having to switch places to get someone off his feet in Shipoopi, Mrs. Shinn leading the national anthem she can’t sing on key, the school board thrown off their deputized track by a discussion of Lida Rose Quackenbush, Mayor Shinn’s inflated oratory being deflated most by Mayor Shinn’s oratory, Mrs. Shinn and her ladies dressing up as Indians and as Grecian matrons.


Thus, step by step, not in one intuitive leap, and finally by finding funny Incongruities just about everywhere, we’re forced to conclude that Incongruity and Word Play are the analytic lead components of Music Man’s Humor of the Mind. And if so, Music Man’s humor personality and texture are Intellectual!





We were daunted by Music Man not possibly being Crusader, Bridgebuilder, or Reconciler.  Isn’t it more daunting still to think of it as Intellectual?  Surely, there’s been some mistake!


If Intellectual  humor personality seems strange for Music Man, remember that virtually the entire town operates on an axis between the library and the high school, the library crowded with students in the middle of July when school is presumably out and the weather is fine—“if you like to walk around in your drawers all day.” And of course the central figures of the play include an inarticulate ideologue for a mayor with a culture czar for a wife, four members of the school board, a radically progressive-education librarian, and a visionary “professor.” These are strong arguments in favor of the compatibility of Intellectual humor personality with the comedic plot structure of Music Man.


Consider that Willson as one of our most highly accomplished composers is one of the musical professionals most competent to know that the Think Method is a reality in American music. Consider also that Willson throughout Music Man shows a clear knowledge of how dreams on the receding edge of the frontier have developed step-by-step, town by town, institution by institution into one of the great cultural achievements of Midwest America, the marching band that dominates major college campuses every fall and Disney World virtually non-stop all year long. Pretty heady stuffheady stuff that can certainly justify a humor personality


But at this point, we need to move beyond humor personality to a separate question, humor texture.  The plot of Music Man is compatible with Intellectuality and compatible with an Intellectual humor personality. But what kind of texture can we expect to be called Intellectual?  Personality is one thing.  Texture is something else.  Texture might sometimes be translated “feel” as in the feel of cotton compared to the feel of polyester or the feel of denim compared to the feel of corduroy.


Intellectual texture is not primarily a matter of knowing. That’s for egghead intellectuals which is not our definition. Our definition is of a mindset that avoids the personal issues inherent in Gotcha with its sense of poetic justice and Sympathetic Pain with its sense of mercy. Our Intellectual instead backs off into the non-personalized world of intellect, the dealing with words, things, and ideas as important in themselves.




The texture created by Intellectual is likely, as already suggested, to be rather “hard-finished,” significantly so from lack of a Sympathetic Pain component.  It is also a texture that tends to lack bitterness and vindictiveness, both of which are likely to increase rapidly as Gotcha humor increases. Music Man doesn’t have time for hard feelings. There’s a world to be built out there on the edge of the desert, homes and schools to be built, culture to be introduced, and most of all, there’s a grand democratic dream shared by older states in the east and younger states in the west that puts it all on a world stage.


Incongruity in the humor formula is probably going to make things less sure and certain—note how the entirety of Music Man leaves us uncertain to the very end whether Gotcha is the real center of its meaning.  The Midwest is full of Incongruities, especially Incongruities between original hard times and dreams of a bright and important future.  That makes the status of any present moment at least a little tentative.


And Word Play in the humor formula is always most easily accommodated to quick minds, or at least minds trying to be quick—quick to catch the trend, the nuance, the not-quite-said.  Mayor Shinn may massacre great swaths of the English language. Nevertheless, we admire his verve for language, his unending quest to say something right and something forceful. We may even be tempted to say things as clearly as a buttonhook in  bell water (I think he means “well water.”)  There is a quick, lively, gifted, sure-fire texture throughout Music Man. That texture is no doubt immensely related to Willson’s musical virtuosity and his enormous musical jokes. But at least Word Play humor plays a good supporting role.


So limiting ourselves  specifically to humor texture and ignoring, if we have to, humor personality, the texture created by Humor of the Mind in Music Man is quick, sure-fire, pyrotechnic, gifted, hard-finished, not given to bitterness or hard feelings of any kind, forward-moving, and perhaps most complexly a little tentative, probing forward without necessarily having all the final answers.


In Music Man we have an absolutely clear reality of a comedic assertion independent of analytic consideration of humor. And there is a clear reality of a definite Intellectual humor personality in Music Man which fits nicely with its plot and thematic considerations. Along with that humor personality, we have the texture of that personality. The texture of the humor is matched by the texture of the music. The texture of both precludes great sentimentality, highlights the progressive, pioneer-influenced no-nonsense character of Iowa, emphasizes the education theme that dominates the literary reality of Music Man and the historical reality of Iowa, and elucidates the kind of paradoxical political ambiance of Iowans as a heady people looking to play a prominent part on the world stage of history even as they have a clear intellectual recognition of their inadequacies and the paradox involved. And the two humors of the mind, Incongruity and Word Play, which equate to the humor personality and create its texture, work together with the formal comedy, work symbiotically as horse and carriage, love and marriage in the creation of an enduring work of art.


The texture which Intellectual humor engenders will hopefully be much clearer as we consider related but contradistinctive textures in the following chapters, notably in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.





◄►◄A Short Digression on Error ►◄►


But what if we are wrong? What if Word Play and Incongruity are not the two lead humor elements in Music Man?


We’ve moved rather lightly over Incongruity, and perhaps the argument against Gotcha isn’t nearly as strong as we’ve presented. What if upon review, the referees decide the match in favor of Gotcha rather than Incongruity?


This is an important question to confront early on, particularly because humor is such a subjective area.  What is funny to us is related to what is important to us. Switch audiences so that the new audience has rather different priorities than the original audience, and it is not surprising if some jokes become less funny, even incomprehensible, while other jokes become much funnier and prominent. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is an interesting example.  Our sense of the play is increasingly dark. It probably would have been somewhat lighter in Shakespeare’s day because the incessant low-life joking about venereal disease has lost a good deal of its punch for us. Modern audiences have recourse to powerful medical treatments for such things. Shakespeare’s society saw venereal disease as close to a death sentence. And what threatens and concerns us is material for valued humor.


Thus, abstract argument alone does not solve the problem of identifying lead humor elements.  Different audiences may easily have somewhat different senses of what’s funny, and given the right script, such audience differences can subjectively switch lead humor elements. If we were to conclude that Incongruity is not the second lead but Gotcha is, that would probably come from a sense that many of Mayor and Mrs. Shinn’s bloopers are Gotchas on themselves. Compared to the Gotchas in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to be discussed in the next chapter, these are gentle and tame, but a Gotcha-inclined audience might push Music Man in that direction.


We are treating the Robert Preston-Shirley Jones version as definitive, but it is worth noting that the direction of the production can also be more or less Gotcha-inclined.  Paul Ford as Mayor Shinn is a fundamentally congenial figure. Disney’s remake 40 years later made Shinn, played by Victor Garber, considerably less congenial and therefore much more the butt of Gotcha humor.  If Mayor and Mrs. Shinn can be made more the butts of Gotcha humor by choices of either the director or the audience, can we stretch Gotcha through audience interest, directorial preference or even actor’s nuance to include Ethel Toffelmeier getting down on her knee as part of the Grecian Urn scene, only to be unable to arise without help from the other ladies? 




We’ve already discussed and tentatively answered whether Harold Hill’s falling in love can be considered his getting got. Given the direction of the Preston-Jones production, we don’t see this as creating much humorous response, but perhaps a Gotcha-inclined audience would emphasize Harold tied in knots no sailor ever knew as getting got precisely where he thought he was smart.


So again, let’s say that another analysis is just as sure of Word Play plus Gotcha {as lead elements} as our discussion has been in arguing for a humor formula of Word Play plus Incongruity. Word Play plus Gotcha would make Music Man Advocate in humor texture. Can this be surprising in a script which emphasizes Marian advocating for progressive educational readings, Mayor Shinn trying to advocate the Union and repeatedly failing to recite beyond the first few words of the Gettysburg Address, and absolutely centrally, Harold Hill advocating for boys bands? An Advocate humor personality would certainly be consistent with plot themes of the screenplay.


If Advocate humor personality would consistently harmonize with thematic material, Advocate texture, compared to Intellectual texture is probably more forward-driving, and Music Man certainly has a driving feel about it compared to ivory tower intellectualism. Advocacy tends to emphasize doing business and sealing the bargain. The dream march that ends Music Man can be interpreted as the sealed bargain in favor of public-education music. Advocacy implies a verbal loudness, while intellectualism probably suggests the library quiet Harold so consistently disturbs.


Accepting Gotcha rather than Incongruity as the second lead humor of Music Man would then make some difference in emphasis across the whole direction of the film—some difference in the meaning of plot elements, difference in the supporting humor personality, difference in the humor texture  None of these differences, however, is fundamentally disquieting. 


We need to  remember that the comedic assertion (not the personality) of Music Man is heavily political, and a kind of political that glories in the American Political Experiment and its humble embodiments in proud  support of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Union, remembering the Maine, and the Golden Rule.  This comedic assertion is fundamentally comfortable with a Midwestern commitment to kids, family, education, boring morality, and community involvement and decision-making. All these facets of comedic assertion can easily end up on the bull’s-eye of criticism as flag-waving and provincial self-righteousness. If the humor tone of Music Man is Intellectual, the film disarms a great deal of such criticism in its detached, somewhat amused and lightly critical air. Willson certainly is not provincial or self-righteous even if his characters are.




But if the humor texture of Music Man is Advocate, then there is an added stridency to Music Man that perhaps does wave the flag and perhaps does ask if anyone has a major problem with that. Does anyone want to argue that tyranny doesn’t or shouldn’t tremble?  And as forceful advocate, the film may also ask if the audience can find or even imagine a more acceptable political solution for the desires of mankind than the kind of open public meeting which is the general ambience of River City.


Thus  beyond the Preston-Jones version which we are considering definitive, the screenplay of Music Man allows for a key directorial decision, either to be intellectually detached or forcefully, even stridently advocatory for an American sense of its unique place in world history and politics. A director choosing between these alternatives will be glad to make subtle changes in the humor structure to back one or the other alternative.


What difference, then, would it make if we are wrong in identifying Music Man’s humor texture?


It would make many differences.  Watching the Preston-Jones and Disney versions of Music Man suggests that strong differences in feel are possible. But substantial as these differences might be, they are nothing like the difference it would make if we suddenly decided that the true texture of Music Man was actually Consoler or Bridgebuilder, a point which reemphasizes how much important work is accomplished simply by deciding which of the four humors of the mind cannot possibly be considered one of the two lead humor elements.


At this point in a book-length discussion of the comedy-humor symbiosis, we are still in a quite dark room of humor analysis. A little light may now be reflected through a crack in the doorway.  And as we further enlighten the room, making final hard-and-fast critical distinctions will become easier. But there is a usefulness in the very little light we have. In that very dim light, it may appear that the best course of critical action would be not to decide too definitively between Advocate and Intellectual as humor personality and texture for Music Man. There’s something to be said for both. Why not leave it that way?  In which case the personality and texture of Music Man is Advocate-influenced Intellectual or Intellectually-influenced Advocate. Let individual directors and separate audiences lean a little one way or the other, with subtle shifts in the final artistic achievement.




We’d be very happy if readers came to just such a conclusion.


For ourselves, we remain committed to using the Preston-Jones Music Man as a prime example of Intellectual humor personality in support of an extraordinarily American comedic assertion and a stellar celebration of America’s musical heritage. We are not discomfited by the suggestion that second to that Intellectual personality and texture is a related strain of Advocate texture, which is fairly minimized in the Preston-Jones production but may be much more emphasized in remakes and new stage productions of the play.



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