Writing So Bad It’s Beautiful – Part 1

I don’t want to talk about kitsch or camp. Not anymore.

Last week, I mentioned seeing the Family Guy episode where Peter and his friends track down the source of all dirty jokes. In the credits I saw it was based on a short story by Richard Matheson. A short story? And who?

The episode’s title is “The Splendid Source” which is also the title of Matheson’s story. I found it online. Here, after an epigraph from Balzac that gives Matheson his title, is how it starts:

It was the one that Uncle Lyman told in the summer house that did it. Talbert was just coming up the path when he heard the punch line: “’My God!’ cried the actress, ‘I thought you said sarsaparilla!’”

Guffaws exploded in the little house. Talbert stood motionless, looking through the rose trellis at the laughing guests. Inside his contour sandals his toes flexed ruminatively. He thought.

Later he took a walk around Lake Bean and watched the crystal surf fold over and observed the gliding sands and stared at the goldfish and thought.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said that night.

“No,” said Uncle Lyman, haplessly. He did not commit himself further. He waited for the blow.

Which fell. “Dirty jokes,” said Talbert Bean III.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Endless tides of them covering the nation.”

“I fail,” said Uncle Lyman, “to grasp the point.” Apprehension gripped his voice.

“I find the subject fraught with witchery,” said Talbert.


“Consider,” said Talbert. “Every day, all through our land, men tell off-color jokes; in bars and at ball games; in theatre lobbies and at places of business; on street corners and in locker rooms. At home and away, a veritable deluge of jokes.”

Talbert paused meaningfully.

“Who makes them up?” he asked.

Uncle Lyman stared at his nephew with the look of a fishermen who has just hooked a sea serpent—half awe, half revulsion.

“I’m afraid—” he began.

“I want to know the source of these jokes,” said Talbert. “Their genesis; their fountainhead.”

“Why?” asked Uncle Lyman. Weakly.

“Because it is relevant,” said Talbert. “Because these jokes are a part of a culture heretofore unplumbed. Because they are an anomaly; a phenomenon ubiquitous yet unknown.”

Uncle Lyman did not speak. His pallid hands curled limply on his half-read Wall Street Journal. Behind the polished octagons of his glasses his eyes were suspended berries.

At last he sighed.

“And what part,” he inquired, sadly, “am I to play in this quest?”

“We must begin,” said Talbert, “with the joke you told in the summer house this afternoon. Where did you hear it?”

“Kulpritt,” Uncle Lyman said. Andrew Kulpritt was one of the battery of lawyers employed by Bean Enterprises.

“Capital,” said Talbert. “Call him up and ask him where he heard it.”

Uncle Lyman drew a silver watch from his pocket.

“It’s nearly midnight, Talbert,” he announced.

Talbert waved away chronology.

“Now,” he said. “This is important.”

Uncle Lyman examined his nephew a moment longer. Then, with a capitulating sigh, he reached for one of Bean Mansion’s thirty-five telephones.

I’m floored and drop-jawed in awe by this writing. It it, yes, on the surface, full of every cliche and pitfall I now tell my students not to do. Dialogue tags made with “vivid verbs” and adverbs. The weird hyper-anatomical gesturing of toes. The odd, irrelevant metaphors. But there’s something both innocent and strong about it. Something about Talbert’s use of “capital” as an interjection, and his waving away “chronology” reveals him to be so utterly fictional.

Or no, it’s this: he’s so utterly shortstorial. Did I mention it was published in Playboy in 1953?

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