English Majors
Saturday, June 14, 1997
Listen

(BIG THEME)

 

TR: It's the largest secret society in America -- bigger than the Mafia --- millions of men and women and they know each other only by their elegant syntax and grammar, their excellent word choice --- and their use of the pronoun "whom" --

 

SS: Excuse me, but--- whom are you looking at, sir?

 

GK: I'm looking at you -- and you're an English major!

 

TR: Yes, once again it's time for THE LIVES OF THE ENGLISH MAJORS ---- stories of those who studied great literature with its powerful riptides of human emotion ---- standing in the front lines of sensibility, America's English Majors (MUSIC SWELLS AND UNDER FOR....)

 

GK: Years ago, when Dave Barry and I were roommates at St. Jude College just outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, we would stay up late at night drinking beer and balling up pages of our term papers and tossing them at wastebaskets and talking about what would become of us after college. (POP OPEN CAN OF BEER)

 

DB: We were English majors, of course --- I say, "of course," because that's a phrase that, of course, English majors use often, especially when saying extremely questionable things. But that goes without saying. (POP OPEN CAN OF BEER) Anyway, we liked to sit in the dim light and drink beer until we could actually feel Walt Whitman there in the room with us, which, of course, made it easier to think about writing a term paper about him.

 

TR: Walt Whitman, a kosmos, a Brooklyn guy,
Sensual, fleshy, not that bad looking,
Sensitive, caring, love sunsets, long walks, conversations, music of all kinds,
I celebrate myself and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
And I assume that you are single, about my age, not too heavy, masculine acting.....

 

DB: Great. Thanks, Walt---

 

GK: Dave and I sat drinking beer and thinking, as English majors of course do, about what would we do for a living after we graduated from college, considering that one of the profound effects of our education was to make us total and absolute cynics....

 

DB: Over and over, beauty and hope and truth are crushed by ugliness and obliterated by greed. So what's the point? I know disillusionment --- I've voted for Democrats --- and so--- I'm an existentialist. We live, we die, and who cares? Nobody. And that's why I'm not going into gastroenterology.

 

GK: What about dog walking. Or modelling underwear. Or teaching English. (POP OPEN CAN OF BEER)

 

DB: We could teach, of course.

 

GK: Of course.

 

DB: But why would we want to?

 

GK: Because we could make literature come alive for young people.

 

DB: Why would anyone want that?

 

SS: Hi, Dave.

 

DB: Why--- it's a young woman, wearing a letter made out of fine red cloth embroidered in gold....the letter A.

 

SS: My name is Hester, Dave. I'm from Amherst. I earned the letter for cheerleading. Cool, huh? Would you like me to do a cartwheel for you?

 

DB: I've been drinking an awful lot of beer, Hester. I'm not sure a cartwheel would be a good idea right now. (POP OPEN CAN OF BEER)

 

SS: Okay.

 

GK: I know what we could do for a living. With our keen sense of language. And, of course, our exquisite sense of timing. What about we write humor, Dave?

 

DB: Us? Write humor? Is this some sort of joke?

 

GK: Why couldn't we?

 

TR (AHAB): AYE, ME LADS, FOLLOW THE GREAT WHITE WHALE OF HUMOR --- FOLLOW HIM IN THE LONGBOAT AND WAIT FOR HIM TO BLOW ----- AND HURL YOUR BARBED LAMPOONS INTO HIS SIDE UNTIL HE SPOUT BLACK BLOOD! AYE, HUMOR, ME BOYS!

 

DB: I don't think humor is a good career choice. For either of us.

 

GK: Why not?

 

DB: Because ---- face it ---- humor means boogers and it means chickens.

 

GK: I don't think so.

 

DB: Oh, of course it does.

 

GK: All humor is about boogers and chickens?

 

DB: Inevitably, in some sense, it is. Dumbness is what humor is about down deep. Of course it is.

 

GK: But humor can also be about ideas. About philosophy.

 

DB: Sure, at first you can do that. You come out with this really slim book of, like, very conceptual humor, and it's so dry that even Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times thinks it's funny and he calls you the next Woody Allen, and the book sells about 800 copies and the other nine-thousand two-hundred copies are remaindered for 89 cents at K-Mart, and so you write your second book, and it's called Do Chickens Have Boogers? and it sells six million copies in hardcover and it's made into a movie with Barbara Streisand and Gerard Depardieu and what do you do then? You write a third book, called ---- The Knowing Heart, Poems: 1975-1989 by Dave Barry, and the publisher insists on putting on the cover in inch-high letters --- Author Of Do Chickens Have Boogers? --- so this book sells about twenty thousand copies. Your fourth book is called The Man Who Had A Chicken Up His Nose and there's a picture of you on the cover with your hand up your left nostril all the way to the elbow, and it sells a gazillion copies, and all your friends are sheepish about knowing you, and right-minded people everywhere despise you for your shallowness and stupidity, but what can you do? You're the chicken booger man. You'll keep writing the same book for years. I can't do it. I won't do it.

 

GK: Oh, I don't know. I still think it's possible to----

 

SS: Excuse me. Dave? Carson?

DB: Emily Dickinson?

 

GK: Emily Dickinson was there in the room with us -- she wore a white dress and her hair was tied up in a bun and she looked exactly as she did in her photographs except that she was wearing blue eyeliner. And she was with a guy named Rick.

 

TR: Hi.

SS: The Hummingbird ---- Flew where it Pleased
In Search of Pools of Sugar ----
When Suddenly ---- the Chicken Sneezed
Its Beak was Stuffed---- with Booger.

GK: You wrote that? Emily Dickinson?

SS: I wrote a lot of poems you never read anymore.
I never Mowed --- my Yard
I never Swept --- the Walk,
But Yours is rather Messy too
So who are You --- to talk?

DB: Rick?

Care for a beer? Emily? (POP OPEN TWO CANS OF BEER) We were just talking about what we're going to do after college---

SS: I can see you working in a drive-up window.

 

DB: What?

 

SS: You're talking to drive-up customers on a headset which leaves your hands free to scoop french fries into the cartons. You're asking if they'd like extra ketchup.

 

GK: But we're English majors, Miss Dickinson.

 

SS:
Because I could not --- Hire Death
He kindly Hired --- me
As Waitress in --- a Luncheonette
Perpetual Trainee.

I like to make --- a few Mistakes
To Help the Hours --- Go By
And (HAWK) --- into Vanilla Shakes
And then drop in --- a Fly.

I make the Coffee --- Boiling hot
And Full --- and then for Fun
I place a Napkin --- in Between
The Burger --- and --- the Bun.

 

DB: Listen, Emily ---- Carson and I are not going to wind up in the food preparation and hospitality industry, it's as simple as that. Take another guess.

 

TR (WHITMAN): I am Walt Whitman, I sing of the great arch,
Rising parabolically over the parking lot,
I sing of the food that comes quickly....

 

GK: No way, Walt ---- Dave and I are going to become authors.

 

SS: I got this other A by working at Arby's.

 

GK: Fine. But not us, Hester.

 

TR (AHAB): AYE, GIVE ME A WHALER, ME LAD. ON WHITE BREAD. WITH MAYONNAISE. A VANILLA SHAKE. TO GO! TO GO!

 

GK: No thanks. Dave and I are going to become writers. Real writers. Essayists.

 

DB: Essayists!!! HA! I'm going to write action novels --- watch this----- (GALLOPING HOOVES APPROACH, GUNSHOTS. ROCKET ZOOMS IN AND EXPLODES.) Got him.

 

GK: You got that horseman with a Cruise missile.

 

DB: Essayists!! Ha! I'm going to write books that haul off and----- (HE SWINGS AND PASTES TR ONE) ---- hit the reader right in the chops. ----Get it?

 

TR: Wow. This is some book.

 

DB: Why? Because for the past four years, writing about subtexts and narrative arcs and archetypes, I have longed for the day when I could start blowing things up. (DISTANT SEMI HORN)

 

GK: There's a semi heading straight for you, Dave ---- get out of the way---- (TRUCK APPROACHING FAST) Dave---- look out, Dave ----

 

DB: Watch. (EXPLOSION OF TRUCK, REVERBERATING AND ECHOING)

 

 

GK: I can't believe an English major would do that.

 

DB: Only an English major could do it. ---Why write novels where men stand at the window and there's a lot of vague imagery and reflections of candles and snow falling through the birch trees and flashbacks to childhood and all ---- why not have the guy grab that candle and light a fuse with it (FUSE) and throw it through the window (GLASS BREAKAGE) at the helicopter (CHOPPER APPROACH) as it comes in low over the garden (EXPLOSION) and suddenly there are dark figures running through the birch trees and you pull out your magnesium rocket flares (ROCKETS) and they illuminate the garden and there's nothing there ---- nothing ---- and then (THROAT CLEAR) you turn, and it's Yuri ----

 

TR: (RUSSIAN) So---- Mister Dave Barry --- I see you know how to blow up birch trees. (HE CHUCKLES) That's fine. But I am the one with the pistol in my hand. And you stand there holding a silver candlestick. You must be an English major. (HE LAUGHS) Give me the term paper.

 

DB: What term paper?

 

TR (RUSSIAN): The term paper you wrote on elements of post-structuralism in the work of Emily Dickinson. That term paper, Mr. Barry.

 

DB: You'll never get your filthy commie hands on that term paper, let me tell you.

 

TR (RUSSIAN): We have our ways of making you talk. Don't make me hurt you. Where is it? In the hard drive?

 

DB: In your dreams, Russkie.

 

TR (RUSSIAN): Very well. Then I will have to break open your computer.

 

DB: No! My solitaire program is in there! Don't---- (CRASH, CRUNCH) ---- you're going to be sorry.

 

TR (RUSSIAN): Talk. Where is the term paper?

 

DB: It isn't here. Because --- I didn't write it.

 

TR (RUSSIAN): You did not write it!!!???? Ha! It was due on Friday. Of course you wrote it.

 

DB: You don't know our culture very well, do you.

 

TR (RUSSIAN): Very well ---- start talking. (CLICK OF PISTOL HAMMER) Tell me about post-structuralism, English major. Now.

 

DB: You're going to rue those words, Yuri. And sooner than you think.

 

TR (RUSSIAN): I will rue nothing, English major.

 

DB: I suggest you take a look behind you----

 

TR (RUSSIAN): Oh sure. It's the old look-behind-you trick. Well, I wasn't born yesterday, English major. Look behind you.

 

DB: Why -- Mr. Moto!

 

TR (JAPANESE): That's light, Engrish majol. (JU JITSU SOUNDS)

 

DB: Look behind you, Mr. Moto. (CHICKEN)

TR (RUSSIAN): A chicken? you think I should be afraid of a chicken, English major?

DB: This is not just any chicken, Yuri. Take a look. (CHICKEN)

TR (RUSSIAN): It looks like ---- what is that---- its beak ---- it's beak is full of ----- no----- away from me (CHICKEN FLURRY, GUN GOES OFF)

DB: Missed! (HE HAULS OFF AND SLUGS TR) And here's one for you, Moto----- (PUNCH, TR REACT) Not bad---- for an English major --- I'd say. (CHICKEN) Here. Blow. (CHICKEN BLOWS) (THEME RISES)

GK: Once again we see that when brute force and evil play their hand, a clear grasp of language can win the day ---- here on THE LIVES OF THE ENGLISH MAJORS ----

(MUSIC OUT)

© 1997 by Garrison Keillor

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

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