Drunk History Takes on the Father of Prohibition: The Ban on Alcohol in the U.S. Started 100 Years Ago This Month

There may be plenty of good reasons to restrict sales and limit promotion of alcohol. You can search the stats on traffic fatalities, liver disease, alcohol-related violence, etc. and you’ll find the term “epidemic” come up more than once. Yet even with all the dangers alcohol poses to public health and safety, its total prohibition has seemed “so hostile to Americans’ contemporary sensibilities of personal freedom,” writes Mark Lawrence Schrad at The New York Times, “that we struggle to comprehend how our ancestors could have possibly supported it.” Prohibition in the United States began 1oo years ago--on January 17, 1920--and lasted through 1933.

How did this happen? Demand, of course, persisted, but public support seemed widespread. Despite stories of thousands rushing bars and liquor stores on the evening of January 16, 1920 before the 18th Amendment banning alcohol nationwide went into effect, “the final triumph of prohibition was met with shrugs…. The United States had already been ‘dry’ for the previous half-year thanks to the Wartime Prohibition Act. And even before that, 32 of the 48 states had already enacted their own statewide prohibitions.”

We tend to think of prohibition now as a wild overreaction and a political miscalculation, and frankly, it’s no wonder, given how bonkers some of its most prominent advocates were. Who better to profile one of the most fanatical than the irresponsibly drunk comedians of Comedy Central’s Drunk History? See John Levenstein and friends take on the leader of the Anti-Saloon League, Wayne Wheeler, above,

Wheeler indirectly killed tens of thousands of people when his ASL pushed to have poison added to industrial alcohol to deter bootlegging in the 20s. His pre-prohibition tactics (he coined the term “pressure group”) recall those of the Moral Majority campaigns that took over local and state legislatures nationwide in the U.S. in recent decades, and it is largely due to the ASL that prohibition gained such significant political ground.

They allied with progressives in the North and racists in the South; with suffragists and with the Klan, whom Wheeler secretly employed to smash up bars. As Daniel Okrent writes at Smithsonian:

Wheeler’s devotion to the dream of a dry America accommodated any number of unlikely allies. Billy Sunday, meet pioneering social worker Jane Addams: you’re working together now. The evangelical clergy of the age were motivated to support Prohibition because of their faith; reformers like Addams signed on because of the devastating effect that drunkenness had on the urban poor. Ku Klux Klan, shake hands with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW): you’re on the same team. The Klan’s anti-liquor sentiment was rooted in its hatred of the immigrant masses in liquor-soaked cities; the IWW believed that liquor was a capitalist weapon used to keep the working classes in a stupor.

Dogged, uncompromising, shrewd, and seemingly amoral, Wheeler was once described by the Cincinnati Enquirer as a crusader who “made great men his puppets.” Prohibition may be impossible to imagine one hundred years later, but we surely recognize Wayne Wheeler as a perennial figure in American politics. Don’t trust a drunk comedian to give you the straight story? Get a sober history above in the excerpt from the Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition.

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A Whiskey-Fueled Lin-Manuel Miranda Reimagines Hamilton as a Girl on Drunk History

Drunk History: An Intoxicated Look at the Famous Alexander Hamilton – Aaron Burr Duel

Ben Franklin’s List of 200 Synonyms for “Drunk”: “Moon-Ey’d,” “Hammerish,” “Stew’d” & More (1737)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

38 Major Pop Songs Played with the Exact Same Four Chords: Watch a Captivating Medley Performed by the Axis of Awesome

When we call music a universal language, it’s usually understood to be a metaphor. In its purest theoretical form, music may be more like math—a truly universal language—but in its manifestations in the real world, it resembles more the great diversity of tongues around the globe. Each regional, national, and global music has its grammar of scales, rhythms, and chords, each its syntax of melodies and harmonies, though these share some important commonalities.

The syntax of pop music, like its blues predecessor, consists of standard chord progressions, easily swapped from song to song: repeatable units that form a range of available emotional expression. Want to see that range on full display, in a bravado performance by an Australian comedy rock band? Look no further: just above, the Axis of Awesome perform their live rendition of “4 Chord Song,” a stunning medley of pop hits from Journey to Missy Higgins that all use the same four-chord sequence.




With the exception of an original composition, “Birdplane,” the ensemble’s selection of 38 songs includes some of the biggest hits of the past few decades. The tonal breadth is surprising, as we leap from “Don’t Stop Believing” to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” to “With or Without You” to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” Imagine Natalie Imbruglia, Green Day, and Toto trading licks, or Pink, the Beatles, and A-Ha. Maybe these artists have more in common, linguistically speaking, than we thought. Or, as one of the Axis of Awesome bandmember asks, mock-incredulously, “You can take those four chords, repeat them, and pop out every pop song ever?”

Well, maybe not every pop song. One could choose other progressions and make similar compilations. These particular four chords have something of a melancholy sound, and tend to come up music with an undercurrent of sadness (yes, even “Barbie Girl”). One can quibble with some of the particulars here. “Don’t Stop Believing,” for example, throws a different chord into the second phrase of its progression. But the ubiquity of this melody in pop is quite revealing, and amusing in this musical mashup. See the Axis of Awesome in a polished video version of “4 Chord Song,” above, and consider all the other ways pop music recycles and reuses the same elements over and over to convey its range of feelings.

Related Content:

Music Is Truly a Universal Language: New Research Shows That Music Worldwide Has Important Commonalities

John Coltrane Talks About the Sacred Meaning of Music in the Human Experience: Listen to One of His Final Interviews (1966)

Alan Lomax’s Massive Music Archive Is Online: Features 17,000 Historic Blues & Folk Recordings

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Robin Williams & Steve Martin Starred in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (1988)

Despite the dourest demeanor in literary history and a series of plays and novels set in the bleakest of conditions, there’s no doubt that Samuel Beckett was foremost a comic writer. Indeed, it is because of these things that he remains a singularly great comic writer. The deepest laughs are found, as in that old Mel Brooks quote, in the most absurdly tragic places. In Beckett, however, characters don’t just tell jokes about the wretched exigencies of human life, they fully embody all those qualities; just as the best comic actors do.

It's true that some of Beckett’s characters spend all of their time onstage immobilized, but the playwright was also a great admirer of physical comedy onscreen and drew liberally from the work of his favorite film comedians. Veteran vaudeville comic Bert Lahr, best known as The Wizard of Oz's cowardly lion, starred in the original Broadway production of Waiting for Godot in 1956. “Beckett once wrote a film script for Buster Keaton,” notes theater critic Michael KuchwaraGodot’s central characters, Vladimir and Estragon, evoke one of the most renowned of comedy duos, many of their gestures “obvious derivations from Laurel and Hardy,” as film historian Gerald Mast notes.




It is fitting then—and might meet with the approval of Beckett himself—that Robin Williams and Steve Martin, two of the most riveting physical comedians of the seventies and eighties, should step into the roles of the bumbling, bowler-hatted frenemies of Godot. The production, which took place in October and November 1988 at the 299-seat Mitzi E. Newhous Theater on Broadway, sold out almost immediately. Williams and Martin weren't its only big draw. Mike Nichols directed, and the rest of the cast included F. Murray Abraham as Pozzo, Bill Irwin as Lucky, and Lucas Haas as the absent Godot’s messenger boy.

Sadly, we only have a few clips of the performance, which you can see in the grainy video above, interspersed with interviews with Martin and Irwin. These too will leave you wanting more. “I saw it as a comedy,” says Martin of his reading of the play. What this meant, he says, is that the laughs “must be served, almost first…. The comedy of the play won’t take care of itself unless it’s delivered.” Robin Williams, writes Kuchwara, delivered laughs. “His Estragon is a maniacal creature, verging out of control at times.”

Williams also veered “into some stage antics and line twistings that Beckett never would have dreamed of—giving hilarious imitations of R2D2 and John Wayne, complete with an improvised machine gun.” For his part, Martin had “a tougher assignment playing the subdued, almost straight man Vladimir to Williams’ more flamboyant Estragon.” Martin has always tended to submerge his maniacal comic energy in straighter roles. Here he seems perhaps too restrained.

For reasons that have nothing to do with the play, the tragic heart of these clips is seeing Williams as Estragon. Yet in the final few minutes, trained mime Irwin shows why his Lucky may have been the most inspired piece of casting in the show. We get a taste of his performance as he recites part of Lucky’s monologue.  “Every gesture has been carefully thought out, not only for the comedy, but for the pain that lies underneath the laughs,” Kuchwara says.

Lucky is essentially a slave to Abraham’s domineering Pozzo, who keeps him on a leash. He gives one speech, when his master orders him to “think." But in his verbiage and bearing, he conveys the play’s deepest pathos, in the form of the archetypal tortured clown, who reappears in Alan Moore’s joke about Pagliacci. When Beckett was asked why he named the character Lucky, he replied, with mordant wit, “I suppose he is lucky to have no more expectations….” It is as though, Mel Brooks would say, he had fallen into an open sewer and died

Related Content:

Hear Waiting for Godot, the Acclaimed 1956 Production Starring The Wizard of Oz’s Bert Lahr

Steve Martin & Robin Williams Riff on Math, Physics, Einstein & Picasso in a Smart Comedy Routine

Steve Martin Performs Stand-Up Comedy for Dogs (1973)

Robin Williams Uses His Stand-Up Comedy Genius to Deliver a 1983 Commencement Speech

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Steve Martin Performs Stand-Up Comedy for Dogs (1973)

In what looks/sounds like his first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Steve Martin performs a groundbreaking comedy routine. As you'll see, you might not get the jokes. But your dogs will. Although recorded 46 years ago (February 15, 1973), the pooches will laugh as hard now as they did then.

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Related Content:

Steve Martin & Robin Williams Riff on Math, Physics, Einstein & Picasso in a Heady Comedy Routine (2002)

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Watch Steve Martin Make His First TV Appearance: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1968)

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Sacha Baron Cohen Links the Decline of Democracy to the Rise of Social Media, “the Greatest Propaganda Machine in History”

Presenting a keynote address at an ADL conference, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen wasn't kidding around when he painted a bleak picture of our emerging world: "Today ... demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. It’s as if the Age of Reason—the era of evidential argument—is ending, and now knowledge is delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities."

What's leading to these destabilizing changes? Baron Cohen could cite many reasons. But if pushed, he'll emphasize one:

But one thing is pretty clear to me. All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.

The greatest propaganda machine in history.

Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others—they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged—stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth. And it’s no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history—the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. As one headline put it, “Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.”

On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.

You can watch his sobering talk above, or read the transcript here.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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Trump’s Denials Turned into a Ramones Song: “I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO.”

Yesterday Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, had this to say to Congress: “I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?” “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

It was damning testimony. And it left the president with little choice but to try and exonerate himself. So he walked onto the South Lawn of the White House, and read some notes, written with a sharpie in CAPS, all supposedly documenting the real content of a call he had with Sondland several months ago: “I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO." “TELL ZELLINSKY TO DO THE RIGHT THING. THIS IS THE FINAL WORD FROM THE PRES OF THE U.S.”

Hours later, someone on Twitter turned the denial into a Ramones song. Punk comic relief. Listen above.

Improv Comedy (Live and Otherwise) Examined on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #20

 

What role does improv comedy play in popular culture? It shows up in the work of certain film directors (like Christopher Guest, Adam McKay, and Robert Altman) and has surfaced in some of the TV work of Larry David, Robin Williams, et al. But only in the rare case of a show like Whose Line Is It Anyway? is the presence of improvisation obvious. So is this art form doomed to live on the fringes of entertainment? Is it maybe of more apparent benefit to its practitioners than to audiences?

Mark, Erica, and Brian are joined by Tim Sniffen, announcer on the popular Hello From the Magic Tavern podcast, and a member of the Improvised Shakespeare Company and Baby Wants Candy (improvised musicals). He’s also written for Live From Here and other things. We discuss different types of improv, a bit of the history and structure of Second City, improv’s alleged self-help benefits, how improvisation relates to regular acting, writing, podcasting, and other arts, and more.

Here are a few improv productions to check out:

For further reading, check out:

For musical improv, try Nakedly Examined Music #30 with Paul Wertico and David Cain, and also #55 with Don Preston (Zappa’s keyboardist) whom Mark quoted in this discussion.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

 

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