Friday, July 28, 2006

Who's got the button?

One of my favorite simple, sure-to-please stories is Syd Lieberman's retelling of "Joseph the Tailor." You probably know some variation of this Yiddish story. However, the only time I've known of dramatic tension in the story is through Lieberman's version:

Once upon a time, there was a tailor named Joseph, and he lived with his wife, Sarah. One day, Joseph made himself a big, beautiful blue overcoat. Now, Joseph looooved his overcoat, he wore it everywhere, but his wife Sarah, she hated it.

One day, Joseph's overcoat got so much mud on it that Joseph said, "Look, Sarah, my overcoat-- it's ruined!"

"Throw it away," said Sarah.

"Throw it away?" said Joseph (incredulously). "I'm a tailor."

So he cut and he snipped and he stitched and he sewed, and he turned his overcoat into a jacket.

Now Joseph loooved his jacket, he wore it everywhere, but his wife Sarah, she hated it....

I do quite a bit of improv with this story. The jacket gets holes ripped in the elbows, and Joseph turns the jacket into a vest, which gets runny egg all over it, which then gets turned into a scarf (coffee), a bow-tie (peach juice), and finally, a button to hold Joseph's trousers up. Each time something happens to Joseph's favorite bit of clothing, Sarah demands that Joseph throw the item away.

And of course, he won't.

Then, the day comes that Joseph loses his button. Distraught, he says, "Sarah! My button, it's lost."

Sarah puts her hands on her hips, and says, "This is the happiest day of my life. You can't make something from nothing."

Well, Joseph thinks about that. He thinks about the button, that used to be a bow-tie
that used to be a scarf, that used to be a vest, that used to be a jacket, that used to be an overcoat, and he says, "You know what, Sarah? You're wrong! I have just enough to make a story."

And that is the story I bring to you today.

The audience helps out with the cutting and snipping, the stitching and sewing. Inevitably, they chime in with Sarah when she says, "Throw it away." They yell "She hated it!" at the right times, too.

[Attention: Woe be unto you who decide you're "too cool" for audience participation. I will turn this little participation tale into a shaggy dog story of such epic proportions that you will wish you had rented The Aristocrats instead.]

I've been pretty snooty about versions of the "something from nothing" story that convey neither tension nor conflict. However, I recently found a version of the story as a song by Paul Kaplan, and I like it so much that I'm hoping to incorporate it into future gigs (I need to get permission first):

I Had an Old Coat

Had an old coat but the coat got torn,
what'll I do, what’ll I do?

Had an old coat but the coat got torn,
what’ll I do, what’ll I do?
Had an old coat but the coat got torn,
So I cut and I snipped and a jacket was born
And I'll sing every day of my life.

You can find the rest of the song here. It's the last verse I really like:

When that button was almost gone,
what’ll I do, what’ll I do? 2x
When that button was almost gone,
With what was left, I made this song
Which I’ll sing every day of my life.


Nonny said...

I'll participate, I swear ;)

I do find myself more prone to participation when my children are around. I also will sing outloud if they ask me too, much to the chagrin of my spouse and anyone within hearing distance.

Did you watch "The Aristocrats"?

Lone Star Ma said...

What a great story and song!

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

LSM I'm glad you like it. Please use it. Use it!

Nonny: I am the same way, though I'm better about participating when it's just adults... more out of support for the speaker/singer than out of an overwhelming need to clap (I'm more of a drummer). And yes, I did watch "The Aristocrats." Are you surprised?:) Some of the comics who were supposed to be soooo funny I didn't find funny at all (i.e. Gilbert Gottfried), but I liked Drew Carey. Also, Sarah Silverman is one of my guilty pleasures in tiny doses.

Nonny said...

Alkelda: I'm not really surprised. I know you have a dark (ie: lightest gray) side. The Aristocrats wore on me pretty quickly, though I agree, Sarah Silverman is very talented. She says the things I wish I could.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Nonny, Yeah I think that "The Aristocrats" would have been much better had it been an hour shorter... bringing it to a total of 29 minutes. I hope that Sarah Silverman really grows as a comedian. Right now, she says a lot of things that are just designed for shock value, but there are some real gems in there. I liked the bit where she talks about Martin Luther King, Jr. She says that everyone just talks about the good stuff, but they need to know about the bad stuff. The audience is thinking, "Uh-oh, here comes something really racist" and then she turns it on its head so that it's apparent that the whole thing (bashing MLK) is just utterly stupid and pointless. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but our society seems bent on people being utterly perfect or utterly corrupt. She's funniest (in a painful way, a la Chris Rock) when she's flaying our assumptions of what we think she's going to say.

Nonny said...

It's her bravado that endears her to me. She'll just say it, whatever it is. If it flops, fine. If the audience loves it, even better. She's very fearless.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

I like pointless tales where listeners await a meaningful ending and find a drifting away instead - because the telling is itself often more important than the ending.
...Did I ever tell you the story of Alkeda the Dominatrix?

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

YP: No, do tell! Have I ever told you the story of Cecil the Cornflake? I learned it in 5th grade.

Cecil was a cornflake who lived in the bottom of a cardboard box with other cornflakes. Cecil wanted to get out of the box, so he climbed and he climbed, and he climbed... but just then someone took the box off the grocery shelf, and Cecil fell to the bottom again.

Cecil's adventures go on and on, from the check-out in the grocery line to getting in the car, etc. Each time, he is almost at the top of the box when he gets shaken down into the bottom again.

At some point, the listener should ask (and may need to be cued), "When will this story ever end?"

The reply is, "It never ends... it's a serial (cereal)."

Drumroll, please! (Followed by the sounds of overripe tomatoes thrown in the general direction of the shaggy-dog tale teller.)

Really, I like the story of the mustachio squid better. I could actually tell it to you and you might laugh because you'd get it without explanation. (It's a bona fide British shaggy dog tale.)

goddess of clarity said...

I just saw The Aristocrats again a couple nights ago. I agree; way too long and approaching tedious. The only two tellings that made me laugh out loud were Sarah Silverman's and the guy who tells it to a Guardian Angel, ending with the line "and here's the kicker: Grandma's dead!" That one gets me every time. I don't know why, and I'm too scared to investigate.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Goddess: It's funny in itself what sorts of things set us off. Did you ever see the episode of Babylon 5 with Penn and Teller playing intergalactic comics? The jokes in themselves weren't as funny as the various aliens' (i.e. non-humans') responses.

Let's make a short, short film about the silliest joke in the world. Now, to find out what that silliest joke is...

The Moy said...

Ever heard the song, "Fetch me some water?" It's kind of the evil twin of your story. It opens with:.

"Will you fetch me some water,
Dear Zekiel, dear Zekiel,
Will you fetch me some water,
DearZekiel my love?"

"In what shall I fetch it,
Dear Liza, dear Liza,
In what shall I fetch it,
Dear Liza my love?"

"In a bucket,
Dear Zekiel..."

But according to Zeke, the bucket has a hole in it, so it must be repaired, but the staw is to long to repair it, so he must fetch an axe to cut it, but the axe is too dull...

The water never does get fetched.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

The Moy: I know this song, alas, from the Sesame Street days. I'd rather get my teeth drilled than hear it again! I felt the same way about "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly," though I'm slowly coming 'round.

Brad the Gorilla said...

Hey! I'm on the cover of the August issue of GQ. Look at me, me, me.

Lone Star Ma said...

I know that Cecil the Cornflake joke! It was always a favorite of mine. Maybe I learned it from you througha third party; I can't remember.

Lady K said...

BRAVO! I can't stop smiling right now.

BTW, I collect buttons. I don't sew, I just...collect them.

The Moy said...

Never heard it on Sesame Street. Our family sang it on long car trips. Nor have I heard The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, though it sounds like it would have been right down my alley when I was a kid.

Ever read Mark Twain's wonderful "The Story of Grandfather's Old Ram?" It's one of the funniest stories about a long pointless story ever written.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Lady K: I'm a button-glutton, too. As the clerk at the knitting/button store said, "There are worse things to be."

The Moy: I've not read the Mark Twain story! Thanks for the recommendation. Hmmm, I wonder if it's online. I enjoy Mark Twain quite a bit, even though I've not read his work extensively. The way I look at it, I've got a lot to look forward to!

The Moy said...

Here's a link to the Twain story: