The Pencil Today:


“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” — Peter Ustinov


Two years ago tomorrow, the Reagan/Bush/Bush Supreme Court turned the national electoral process into a plaything for the uber-rich.

George W. Bush Introduces His Nominee For Chief Justice, John Roberts

Yup. The Citizens United decision came down January 21, 2010, with Justices Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Kennedy, and Scalia affirming that the more money you’ve got, the more precious your voice is.

Super PACs, the natural malignant outgrowth of the decision, already have proven to be huge influences in the 2012 presidential race. Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have benefited mightily from TV ads placed by their respective super PACs. Of course, both Romney and Gingrich shrug and look innocent when asked about the inflammatory rhetoric of their wealthy cheerleaders.

And don’t think Barack Obama’s own super PACs won’t flood the airwaves come September and October.


Humor is tragedy plus time. Not enough time has passed, for instance, for 9/11 jokes. Nor for even JFK assassination jokes. Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, on the other hand, has inspired the well-known “Otherwise, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” stand-alone punchline.

Some tragic events generated macabre jokes within minutes of their occurrence. In those pre-internet days of 1986, the Challenger space shuttle disaster was followed almost immediately by a rush of calls from office to office about Christa McAuliffe and colleagues, “vacationing all over the Atlantic.”

The Costa Concordia shipwreck story is hardly a week old. I haven’t heard any jokes about it yet. Still, the thing is rife with its own ghastly humor.

The Costa Concordia Before The Funny Business Started

I mean, honestly, have you read the transcripts of the ship-to-shore radio exchanges between Captain Schettino and onshore authorities as survivors still were being pulled out of the water? It reads like the script from a Marx Brothers movie, for pity’s sake.

When a port official first contacted an officer aboard the Concordia and asked if there was anything wrong, the officer replied only that there was a blackout on board. The port official seemed a tad skeptical considering he’d already been contacted by passengers on the ship who said they’d been ordered to don lifejackets.

Really, now. Wouldn’t Chico Marx, had he been the officer in question, have just as easily lied to the port official, saying the lights were merely out even as the big ship was sinking?

So the port official asked the officer if he should send help. The officer essentially said, Everything’s fine here (with the aside to the audience: As long as you ignore all those people jumping overboard).

Or Chico might have replied, You’d better or my career will be sunk.

But the real black humor came later after coastal guard Commander Di Falco got hold of Captain Schettino. He’d learned that Schettino (Groucho as Captain Spaulding) was safely esconsed in a lifeboat while passengers still were struggling to get off the ship.

Di Falco, naturally, must be played by Sig Ruman.

Sigfried Ruman As Commander Di Falco

Di Falco: Captain Spaulding!

Spaulding: How do you do, Di Falco? Not so hot, by the looks of you. (Real dialogue: “Yes. Good evening, Commander Di Falco.”)

Di Falco: Now you listen to me! Get back on that ship! (“Listen, Schettino. There are people trapped on board…. There is a pilot ladder. You will climb that ladder and go on board. You go on board and then you will tell me how many people there are. Is that clear?”)

Spaulding: I don’t like the tone of your voice, Di Falco. (“… [L]et me tell you one thing….”)

Di Falco: “Speak up!”

Spaulding: Are you out of your mind? That ship is sinking! (“In this moment, the boat is tipping….”)

Di Falco: You idiot! Get up there now and save the women and children! I’ll have your hide for this, you dunderhead! (“… [L]isten, there are people coming down the ladder of the prow. You go up that pilot ladder, get on that ship and tell me how many people are still on board…. Listen, Schettino, you saved yourself from the sea, but I am going to really do something bad to you. I am going to make you pay for this. Get on board, [expletive]!”)

Spaulding: Let’s be reasonable, Di Falco. (“Commander, please….)

Di Falco: “No…. You now get up and go on board. They are telling me that on board there are still….”

Spaudling: Say, Di Falco. There’s no need to raise your voice to me. The rescue is over — I’m safe! (“I am here with the rescue boats. I am here. I am not going anywhere. I am here.”)

Di Falco: “What are you doing, Captain?”

Spaulding: Why, I’m in charge here! Why do you think they call me captain? (“I’m here to coordinate the rescue.”)

Di Falco: You’re now the captain of a rowboat, you hoodlum! (“What are you coordinating there? Go on board! Coordinate the rescue from the ship…! It is an order! Don’t make any more excuses…! My air rescue crew is there!”)

Spaulding: (Looking around.) No wonder I heard helicopters. (“Where are your rescuers?”)

Di Falco: “My air rescue is now on the prow. Go. There are already bodies….”

Spaulding: Bodies? What bodies? (“How many bodies are there?”)

Di Falco: You should be telling me! Great Caesar’s ghost! (“You are the one who has to tell me how many there are! Christ!”)

Spaulding: This is an outrage, Di Falco. You’re asking me to get my new uniform wet. Do you realize how much the dry cleaner charges these days? Besides, it’s cold and dark. (“Do you realize it is dark here and we can’t see anything?”)

Di Falco: Would you like me to bring you a cup of hot cocoa, Captain? (“And so what? You want to go home, Schettino? It is dark and you want to go home? Get on the prow of that boat…. Now!”)

Spaulding: What are you worried about, Di Falco? The other rescuers are here. [He puts his arms around two comely female passengers.] I like it fine right here in this lifeboat. (“Commander, I want to go on board but… there are other rescuers.”)

And so on.

Later news reports have revealed that Schettino steered the ship dangerously close to the rocks that eventually sank it as a way of “saluting” a friend on shore. Oh, and that he had been seen drinking and carousing with a beautiful blonde just before the ship started taking on water.

Man. This Schettino character is a bigger clown than Captain Spaulding, Rufus T. Firefly, Otis B. Driftwood, and Dr. Hackenbush put together.


“Now there’s some sad things known to man….”

One thought on “The Pencil Today:

  1. Susan Sandberg says:

    The Marx Bros. sendup of the Italian tragedy is deliciously irreverent. And you include one of my personal favorite “dark side” lines, “so…other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” So bad it’s good!

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