Sunday, August 14, 2022

James Thurber's My World and Welcome to It (1969).

This time things are going to be a little different.  Perhaps that also means things will get a bit more interesting than normal.  For instance, it's always been the job of the critic to do just one thing.  That's to try and examine any given work of art, and see if it holds up as worthy of an audiences' attention and merit.  It's hard to say when all that got started, it's just the way things have been for a long time now.  However, what happens in a situation when both the critic and the artist are left trying to examine the same piece of artwork?  What does it mean if both parties are stuck looking at the work of someone else, and each is left trying to figure out just what it all means?  I'm not sure what you'd call that kind of scenario myself, if I'm being honest.  The best way I can describe it is an irony of circumstance, one in which all the usual roles have been reversed.  However impossible that may sound, it's the situation I found myself in not too long ago.  Which is sort of the reason I'm even writing this article at the moment.  It's precisely because the current situation is so unique that I'm going to have to ask the reader's indulgence for a moment.  Would you take a look at the image below, and tell me what you think?

I suppose that it looks kind of unusual, right?  Not the sort of thing you expect to see even in the pages of a newspaper or a magazine, much less anything to do with real life?  Yeah, well, even if that's the case, what do they say about seeing is believing?  Then again, that could always be just another dirty lie.  For now, let's agree to take it as a given that, like Mt. Everest, the cartoon pictured above counts as "just there".  We don't know why it is, but it is.  All well and good (unless it's not).  So what on earth does it mean?  I have some thoughts on the image, and it is a matter of some explanation.  I guess the best place to start unraveling this whole head scratcher is by letting you know that you're not alone in being puzzled by it.  It's a picture that has even puzzled other creative talents out there.  Some of them, like Mel Shavelson, went so far as to try and write an entire story around that weird idea of a seal in the bedroom.  It seems to have been his way of arriving at the best explanation he could find for it.

If the name of Melville Shavelson is not a household word, then it's not surprising.  He was one of those lifelong journeymen scriptwriters and showrunners during the waning days of Hollywood's Silver Age, that fascinating span of time before the remains of Tinseltown's Golden Age bowed out to the then New Wave Cinema of directors like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen.  In fact, that last name, for better or worse, is somewhat pertinent to our purpose here.  Just bear with me, here.  I'll explain why in a minute.  For now, let's stick with Shavelson and the cartoon.  Mel got his start during the Golden era, and even managed to stick around during the Movie Brats period.  During all that time, however, that image of the seal behind the bed never quite left his mind, and its easy to see why.  It's one of those Mad Tea Party pictures, an imaginary snapshot so absurd that it manages to stick in the craw of memory. Like, seriously, how in the hell does a seal get into the average household bedroom?

The whole cartoon looks suffused with this odd sort of neuroticism that Woody Allen might have been able to appreciate, come to think of it.  Shavelson's thoughts must have been on a similar wavelength, because in 1969, when he helped launch a new TV series called My World and Welcome to It, one of the first things he did was to dedicate an entire episode of the show to trying to figure out the nature and meaning of the Seal in the Bedroom, and what it's implications could mean as a work of art.  That's where this article comes in.  I'd like to take a three degrees of separation look a Shavelson examining the work of another artist, and see if there's anything it can tell us after all these many years.

Some Necessary Context: James Thurber.

Not long ago I did an essay about a group of authors known as the Algonquin Round Table.  It was an impromptu tribute to a writer's collective who did mankind a service quite a while back.  Through the use of comedy and fantasy, they helped shape the early modern American voice in literature.  It's thanks to the likes of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, E.B. White, Harpo Marx, and Edna Ferber that we now have such tropes as Jaws (1975), Saturday Night Live, Erma Bombeck, and Charlotte's Web.  It's one of most eclectic, and inspiring results I've ever seen in the history of the Arts.  Today, I'd like to focus in on one of their erstwhile members.  This particular writer has a great deal to do with the subject of today's essay.  In fact, he sort of is the subject the article.  His name was James Thurber.  He was a humorist.  It's an accurate job description, so far as it goes.  Though it's kind of like saying that Muhammad Ali is a boxer and pro athlete.  It tells the truth, and barely even scratches the surface.  There's still a whole lot more to be known, and you can't do any of it justice in just one sentence.  At least guys like Ali have it easy.  He's still an icon and hero in and out of the world of sports.  These days, who on earth has ever heard of a schlub by the names James Thurber?  Does it even matter?

I'd argue that the answer is yes, it's just not so easy to tell why that is anymore.  Like most of the Round Tablers, Thurber was an artist known best for his wit.  So far as I can tell, he's the only other literary artist to be compared in stature to Mark Twain.  There may even be a least the grain or seed of a greater truth lying around somewhere within that statement.  If it helps at all to gain a sense of one artist through comparison with another, then perhaps Twain can help us understand Thurber a little more.  It's no simplification to claim that Twain was the author who gave America its modern, satirical voice, or sense of humor.  What ought to be emphasized here is the precise moment of time he helped capture it forever on the printed page.  Twain was a product of the nineteenth century who managed to live long enough to witness the start of the twentieth.  What he saw didn't seem to impress him all that much.  It was a unique opportunity that few writers of his time were granted.  By the time the year 1900 rolled around, Emerson, Poe, Dickinson, and many of Twain's other contemporaries had turned to ghosts, leaving him more or less alone, with just the voice of humor that he helped create.  This meant he was around long enough to shepherd the start of modern comedy into the waiting arms of the next generation of literary humorists and comedians, and Thurber turned out to be one of his successors.

The thing about Twain's humor was that it was the product of a country caught in a moment of transition, almost of national schism.  He took one look at the Civil War and ran for the hills of the "New Frontier".  What he saw must have left one hell of an impression on him.  Because Twain's best work displays the changes America was going through, and a lot of the existential fallout that schism of the American mind entailed.  His humor is lined with fresh faced settlers and newcomers looking for better prospects in the future, often to find themselves somehow caught in the same trap they were trying to avoid.  It's like a riff on that old Buckaroo Bonzai line: "Wherever you go, there you are".  That also includes all the personal problems you've been trying to outrun.  In Al-Anon terms, it's known as a "geographical cure".  The subject is searching for a change of scene in the mistaken belief that they can outrun their own personal issues. It's usually considered a big mistake in rehab circles, yet it's what the Westward Expansion amounted to, and Twain was there to capture it all with his new trademark of wry, observation humor.  It made him a chronicler of those constant fits, starts, stops, and even changes in the national character, right up to about the year of 1910.  Thurber picked up where Twain left off.

It's this switchover from Twain to Thurber and the rest of the Algonquins that helps explain the differences of expression between their shared sense of humor.  Twain's writing is a product of the American Frontier.  Even at his most scathing, there's this sense of expansion, and limitless possibility.  Thurber's satire is the product of the modern urban/suburban environment.  In Twain, you get the sense of a Country expanding.  In Thurber, the Frontier is over, and it seems the geographical cure didn't do much good (unless it did).  This accounts for the cramped, constricted quality of many of Thurber's most famous works.  He specialized in satirical portraits of the modern domestic situation.  It was his main setting for the majority of his life and career.  The main players on this Thurber stage also remained remarkably consistent.  They were the nuclear couple of the time.  Often this cast list came in the form of a nervous, neurotic, often dreamy, henpecked husband, and a fundamentally unhappy wife.  

In a way, it's difficult to see how this entire setup grants Thurber the status of a pioneer on account of the way the whole idea has been inoculated into the mainstream of American life and letters.  The Thurber setup, when reduced to its elements, amounts to nothing more than the basic ingredients of almost every sitcom that has graced the airwaves over the past fifty plus years.  Sometimes the characterization of the main cast gets shaken up a bit here and there.  Sometimes there are even extra characters thrown in, such as kids or (in Thurber's case) an ever present family dog.  The crux of the matter remains the same though.  The Thurber couple may not be exact replicas of Homer and Marge, yet they serve as the prototype of which The Simpsons just proved to be the most successful variation.  In that sense, Thurber's big breakthrough was the pioneering and development of the modern situational comedy.  It's an often overlooked aspect of his work, and yet it's also probably the most famous.  Perhaps it also qualifies as familiar, which is probably the reason Thurber's achievement is neglected.

In his book, The Art of James Thurber, Richard C. Tobias gives what is probably the most convincing artistic summary of this early, sitcom setup.  These early examples represent a domestic excursion into what might be called the impossibility, or absurdism of modern life.  Tobias refers to it as "the flummery of a complicated civilization.  Peter De Vries says that in these books Thurber puts into action a comic Prufrock, an epithet which is both appropriate and accurate.  The characters never quite dare, and when they do, they are squelched by dogs, psychologists...shower faucets, and overcoats.  These books contain the vintage Thurber; he springs to life full-grown in them without any faltering juvenalia (8)".  Even if that's the case (and Tobias's study is good enough to earn a recommendation) the irony still remains that his mature output still rests on a catalogue of collective immaturity on the part of seemingly grown adults.  Thurber seems to be hinting in these pieces at perhaps the greatest dirty secret of modern civilization.  The truth being that perhaps there really are no grown-ups.  That all we've ever been are little more than just a bunch of big kids stumbling our way along like always.  The funny thing is this setup doesn't come off as a cause for despair in Thurber's work.  His writing suggests that if each of us is willing to get out of our own way, then things might just begin to improve.  It's a familiar, and easily marketable idea.  So it's easy to see why Thurber could lend his talent to a television sitcom.

Further Context: My World and Welcome to It (1969). 

The information I'm about to share next is the best I can find in terms of behind the scenes history.  None of it is mine own.  If you want to know more than just the bare outline I'm about to relate here, then I'd urge anyone with a further interest in the show I'm about to talk about to please go and enjoy the findings at TV  They are the one's who have done all the difficult research that allows me to tell the story of James Thurber's forgotten career in the Golden and Silver Ages of Television.  The first persons to ever have the idea of bringing the work of Thurber to the small screen were Jules Goldstone, and the aforementioned Mel Shavelson.  From what I can tell, the two counted as a pair of old showbiz veterans, the sort of types who get their start by entering the ancient Hollywood studio system at its height, and then parlay their experiences there into a future going concern by eventually branching out into what used to be the wave of the future, the world of home television.

That was where they found a knack for behind the camera work in terms of shopping around ideas for various TV series, and sometimes even writing and producing them.  The most familiar example of the kind of gig that Shavelson and Goldstone enjoyed would have to be the work of TV legends such as Norman Lear.  They may never have achieved the pinnacle of fame that Lear still enjoys.  I can't tell if either Shavelson or Goldstone ever had the guts to conjure up a figure like Archie Bunker or George Jefferson.  However, while the result differed among all three of them, each was united by the same job description.  The best way to describe Goldstone and Shavelson is that they were professional players, or series showrunners, to use the modern terminology.  They were also die hard James Thurber fans.

By the time Jules and Mel managed to hit the jackpot with My World and Welcome to It, they'd been at this TV gig since the early days of the medium.  During almost that whole time, the idea of bringing Thurber's concepts and comedic ideas into audiences living rooms turned out to be the goal that just got stuck in their minds, for some reason.  They'd even petitioned the writer himself for permission to bring some of his stories to life.  Thurber's response to all this appears to have been a mixture of cautious skepticism living alongside a willing, grudging indulgence.  It was enough for the old comic sage to at least give Shavelson and Goldstone a shot at what for the longest time proved to be a very lofty goal.  Perhaps it was even a case of reaching too high, because the stars they were aiming for remained out of reach for quite a while.  It wasn't until the tail end of the revolutionary 1960s that the stars were in reach at last, and the two producers finally had a shot at seeing their shared creative ambition realized.

By then, Thurber had been out of the frame since 1961, and Mel and Jules were continuing to build their clout and reputations in the business.  In all that time, however, the Thurber TV show idea never went away.  Instead it became like this mental Parnassus that each of them worked their patient way towards.  They reached the top of the mountain when NBC  finally agreed to give the idea a slot in its 1969-70 season, and with that green light in place, Shavelson and Goldstone hit the ground running.  By then they'd had plenty of time to fine tune their idea for what a Thurber TV show would be like.  After a whole decade of cutting and pairing, the entire layout of their idea was simple in its essentials.

The premise of My World and Welcome to It centers around the life and daily foibles of one Mr. John Monroe.  He's an average working stiff with a not so typical, outsized imagination, and a bit of a personal attitude problem.  He's a professional cartoonist and humorist for a local city rag known as The Manhattanite.  The magazine bills itself as one of those publications that at least try and aim for something approaching sophistication in journalism and the arts (if such a thing ever truly exists (and it probably doesn't, and never has or will).  All John knows for sure is that he can find all of the inspiration he needs to provide the magazine and its editor, Hamilton Greeley (Harold J. Stone), with enough material for its humor columns to last through the years.  In Monroe's case, inspiration comes easy when the mere facts life are enough to drive you up the wall.  He's got a well kept house in Connecticut.  A loving family in his wife, Ellen (Joan Hotchkis), and daughter, Lydia (Lisa Gerritsen).

For lack of any better word, John Monroe has made it in life.  He's been able to realize his own personal share of the American dream.  He's got a job he's good at, and a household that cares about him.  So naturally, almost every single living thing about his existence irks the absolute shit out of him for some reason.  Better amend that to reasons, because Mr. Monroe has got to be one of the most acute, walking talking, bundle of nerves in existence.  When he's not complaining out loud, he's pouting in silence.  And if he doesn't have anything to complain about, then he gets even more worried.  As far as John is concerned, that's like being stuck in a hot air balloon on a foggy day, and you can't find a good place to land anywhere in sight.  Not that the clear days are any better.  When his wife makes a reasonable request of him, for whatever reason, all John can hear is his mind is the same trombone sound that Charlie Brown hears every time and adult in the room tries to talk to him.  At least ol' Chuck was better at being able to handle it all.  For that, Monroe would be envious of him.  He's never shown going to therapy for his problems, and perhaps that's just as well.  One afternoon with John would be enough to send even the most professional of psychiatrists into a fit of hysterics.  Let's just say it's best to hope that Monroe never meets up with Bob Hartley.  If neither one is careful, their whole world could end.

Basically, the delicate way to put it is that the mind of John Monroe runs the gamut from inspired loon to craven coward.  Sometimes these two facets of his mind are able to occupy the same space at any given moment regardless of circumstance.  It's what allows him to make a living hell out of what should be an ideal existence.  It's also what enables him to have his peculiar sense of wit.  For instance, this is his train of thought once his daughter, Lydia, comes down with a minor case of the sniffles.  "I've just come back from the drug store, downtown.  Where I spent forty-five frantic minutes trying to find a prescription department.  It turned out to be next to the delicatessen.  Every time I hear the Noble Prize being awarded for medicine, I think of the common cold...So far, the only progress made to the cure of the common cold has been the totally inadvertent discovery that a hot Rum Tonic, taken occasionally, won't do a single bit of good; but it isn't a bad idea.  However, in the case juvenile victims, this method is frowned upon unless they can produce a driver's license.  Has it ever occurred to you, as a reflection on our civilization, that no one in this country is allowed to become intoxicated until they've learned how to drive a car?...Step into my world - and welcome to it".

So I guess this means we have to add a third element to Monroe's characters.  In addition to the neurotic and the dreamer, there is also the comic.  This outline fits in rather well with all the artistic elements that John's real life model was most famous for.  The diatribe on the common cold, for instance, is one of the most scatter-brained, and off-the-wall things anyone has ever said.  It also serves as a pretty good example of the kind of humor James Thurber was known for.  With a character setup like this, it comes as almost a given that the only keeping Monroe's head tethered to reality is the help and care of his wife and daughter.  It's not unexpected, though you have to admit it's more than just possible to feel disappointed for the both of them.  The one compensation is this.  They're the real heros of the series.

Conclusion: An Entertaining Rorschach Test.

All of this is just the necessary setup required to bring us full circle again.  It's time to return our attention back to where we started, with the curious case of the Seal in the Bedroom.  If some of you reading this have still been turning that picture over in your minds, or wondering what all of this context has to do with the cartoon itself, then answer is simple.  Your not the only ones who found themselves shaking their heads while trying to make sense of the image.  It was written and drawn up by none other than James Thurber himself, and Mel Shavelson and Jules Goldstone appear to have been just as puzzled by it as the next reader.  Thurber's enigmatic drawing first saw the light of day on Saturday, January 30th, in the pages of the 1932 issue of (where else?) The New Yorker.  It has since gone on to become one of his most iconic illustrations.  From what I've been able to find out, Thurber seems to have held the idea in a kind of fond regard, even going so far as to give it pride of place as the title of a book collection of some of his best magazine cartoon work.  I can't tell from all this just whenever Shavelson and Goldstone each got a look at the picture, however it must have had a peculiar staying quality if it was able to lodge itself in their minds anywhere from the 1930s all the way up to the Flower Power era.

Like many of you, they find it both amusing and puzzling in equal measure.  Perhaps that explains the curious fascination its had for readers throughout the ages.  It's become this strange cypher or cryptogram in the minds of decades of viewers, and many of them are left with the desire to try and crack this curious code Thurber has left behind.  In Goldstone and Shavelson's case, they appear to have been obsessed with the Bedroom Seal enough to devote an entire TV episode organized around it.  They even went so far as to give the episode the same title as the illustration.  It's still just, The Seal in the Bedroom.  The plot of the episode centers around the same cartoon, except this time it is written and illustrated by the show's fictional Thurber stand-in, John Monroe.  When he takes the cartoon in to show it to his publisher, Hamilton Greeley, everybody just sort of gives him and the picture that same, uniform, puzzled look.  Greeley apparently can't make head or tails of it.  Turns out he's that very particular kind of reader; the one with the simplest tastes in entertainment.  He likes whatever he can understand.  If he can't understand it, it's no good.  If he can't understand a joke, then it's not funny.

Greeley therefore wants to put a hold on Thurber's (that is "Monroe's") cartoon, before deciding whether or not it's fit for a spot inside the pages of The New Yorker.  I mean "The Manhattanite", sorry.  Perhaps it should also be pointed out that none of the material in the episode is drawn, in the strictest sense, directly from the life.  It's impossible to find any proof that the actual Bedroom Seal drawing gave anyone at the real life magazine any sort of headache.  In fact, the ease with which it saw the light of day points to it being a moment of serendipity that was well received by all including the public.  It's just that there's always that segment of the reading audience that is left shaking their heads and asking themselves what could be going on in that image, and above all, why?  These seem to be the questions preoccupying Goldstone and Shavelson's minds, because its the same inquiry they keep bombarding their Thurber surrogate with throughout half the show's runtime.  The showrunners begin to arrive at a possible answer for themselves, and their audience, when a colleague of Monroe's not only finds the drawing funny, yet is willing to offer an explanation as to why it works as a piece of comedy.

According to John's colleague, "It doesn't matter how (the seal) got there.  What matters is why would any man want to put it there"?  This is the point where Mel and Jules offer up what amounts to little more than an actual critical commentary in a half-hour episode format.  It's something that makes the entire show unique, and that's sort of the reason it seemed worth talking about.  In all my years, I've never seen a film or TV series where the artist devotes an entire story towards trying to figure out the artwork of another creative talent.  I've seen plenty of films and series that reference other works, or they will draw from, riff on, or else flat out parody the works of others.  Even with all the years devoted to such practices, this one single episode of an obscure TV show remains unique.  Nowhere else have I ever seen another artist try to use his medium, or stage, to try and reach an understanding of another writer's work.  That right there has got to be some sort of unacknowledged accomplishment.

Anyway, the critical consensus that Shavelson and Goldstone reach is that it's all meant to be symbolic and psychological.  Monroe's colleague takes a few moments to examine the Seal in the Bedroom, and arrives at the conclusion that the presence of the seal itself is a metaphor for the artist's conflict with his own mother.  Strange as it may sound, their conclusion is very much in a similar vein as that found in the films of Woody Allen.  Perhaps this isn't too much a surprise once you realize that James Thurber is one of the main influences that Allen has drawn from in the past as an inspiration for his own comedy.  The key difference between them is that Thurber never got himself into any controversial trouble at all.  It's a novel premise either way, and to their credit, Goldstone and Shavelson both stick to their interpretation.  It allows them to put the series trademark style to good use.  One of the key elements of My World and Welcome to It is that it allows the showrunners to take Thurber's original New Yorker illustrations, and bring them to life as animated cartoons.  It's something that is utilized throughout every single episode of the series.  It's incorrect to call this sort of thing a gimmick.  

Shavelson and Co. take things a lot further than just mere sight gags.  While those types jokes can be found here and there, by and large, the strategy of the whole show is to find ways of using the art style, dialogue, and even whole scenarios from Thurber's original writings in order to craft their humor.  This includes dramatizing sketches drawn from books like My Life and Hard Times, or a routine involving a drunken Ulysses Grant at Appomattox.  They also hired Friz Freleng, one of the animation grandmasters (and one of many brainchilds behind the Looney Tunes) to take Thurber's cartoon of the Bedroom Seal, and make her move, think, and even talk with a feisty, neurotic attitude.  The result of the whole amounts to a remarkable discovery.  Here we have an unsung piece pioneer work.  It's little more than a precursor to the type of animated humor that The Simpsons and a host of others would later make famous.  And the irony is we have Thurber and Freleng to thank for pretty much all of it.

The final result is an interesting mix of the satirical and the critical.  Like I've said before, I'm not real sure just how much of this particular kind of commentary art is out there, as I'll swear I've never seen the like before.  I guess this means that in addition to the usual evaluation of the quality of the art itself, I'll also have to make a judgment call on the artist's critical dissertation as well.  When it comes to making sense of someone else's aesthetic analysis, then I suppose I'll have to give Goldstone and Shavelson credit where it is due.  Their take on Thurber's drawing lacks for neither creativity, or intelligence.  It's clear that we're in the hands two artistic talents who also happen to be well read in both art and the tools needed to give it a proper evaluation.  They seem to have arrived at an assessment of Thurber's Seal that is psychological in nature.  It begs the question of where the critique is meant to apply?  Are Shavelson and Goldstone making a comment about Thurber himself?  Or is it limited to their author stand-in of John Monroe?  Considering that the figure of Monroe is meant to be an avatar of Thurber himself, does the distinction even make any difference?  I'm not sure what the answer is.

The basic conclusion that Shavelson and his collaborator arrive at is that Monroe (or is it Thurber?) is suffering from some unresolved parental issues.  It's part of the overall problem that's causing him troubles both at work and, more importantly, in his home life.  This is something his unconscious imagination picks up on, and so the problem is reflected back at him in the form of The Seal in the Bedroom.  Indeed, when it comes time for Friz Freleng to bring Thurber's Seal to life, it is given the exact same voice, and overbearing attitude of Monroe's mother.  Now, to be fair, it should go without saying that Shavelson and Goldstone have done their homework here.  They knew their subject inside and out.  The truth is the real Thurber did grow up in a household ruled by a domineering, neurotic mother.  She was a combination of the invalid, the melodramatic, and even the tender and nurturing.  From all accounts, it was a heady and complicated mixture for any growing boy to deal with, and yet somehow, Thurber seems to have coped.  Part of the reason why could be because he found an outlet for all his complicated feelings about his family (in particular, "Mother, Dear") through the use of his drawings and comics sketches.  Perhaps here is where we ought to note Thurber's creative development.

It's not at all out of bounds to claim that Thurber himself was a lifelong neurotic.  His childhood household is best described as an exercise in functional-dysfunction.  It's the tap well for his inspiration as a comedian.  Woody Allen appears to have been roughly the same.  The difference is Thurber was better at holding himself together.  The latter guy also never got himself in the kind of trouble Allen did.  Instead, when to go and look at the way Thurber handles his mother figures, what you soon discover is an interesting sort of process going on.  She starts out as your typical, shrewish bundle of nerves.  However, as time goes on, it's as if the artist begins to discover that one of his constant figures is more than just a one dimensional punchline.  The more Thurber wrote about this Mother figure, the more he was able to discover layers of complexity hidden underneath the comic exterior.  A major turning point is reached when Thurber begins his fairy tales.  Here is where not just the Mother, but also the artist's whole mental landscape and horizon gains a sense of opening outward.  We can see Thurber learning how to gain a sense of wonder at reality itself.  The change is notable in his final phase.

When Thurber returns to the figures and situations of his earlier sitcom work near the end of his life, it's obvious that a change of mind has taken place.  He's still a comic, and it remains his job to entertain, and he has all the cast of characters necessary for that task, and he's professional enough to see it through.  This time, however, there's a genuine sense of fondness, even tenderness amidst all the screwball comedy antics.  Thurber is now treating his stock company with a sense of loving affection that wasn't quite there before.  One gets the sense of the author learning to forgive and forget.  Sometimes, there's even a sense of celebration for all the quirky eccentricity.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the evolution of the Mother figures.  Before, they were neurotic.  Now, there's this sense of playfulness about them, like they're a big sister that was never appreciated until just now.  The whole evolution of his career points to Thurber arriving at a sense of personal reconciliation, both with his family, and just plain, whatever it is you call life in general.  This could be what Shavelson is getting at.

The entire outline of Thurber's life given just above comes from Richard Tobias's study of the writer's life and art, and I'm willing to allow the possibility that if Goldstone and Shavelson were as big a pair of Thurber fans as say, Hal Holbrook was of Mark Twain, then there's no inherent reason for them not to have read up on and studied their subject enough to be able to arrive at similar conclusions.  Maybe they were even familiar with Tobias's study.  It's true this is pure speculation, yet I am also willing to give the creators benefit of the doubt in this case.  Artistic don't always mean dumb, ya know.  Even if most of this gig involves little more than make-believing as you go along, that's not to say you can't be smart about it sometimes.  Or at least as intelligent as you can be when waiting for the muse to speak.

It's for all of these reasons that I'm willing to more or less break even with Shavelson's take on Thurber and his Seal in the Bedroom.  I'll go ahead and meet them half the way, and at least allow that he and Goldstone might be on to something like a valid reading  of the text and imagery.  At the same time, something tells me to remain cautious, and always leave the door open to further interpretation, without also throwing away the insights that have already been offered.  It is just possible that the psychological reading that Goldstone and Shavelson give is the correct one.  At the same time, I think it also kind of helps if we keep in mind the literary traditions that Thurber was up drawing from in pursuit of his art.

The whole picture in itself looks like a snapshot, or storyboard for an unmade Screwball Comedy.  Something that Preston Sturges, or maybe Howard Hawkes might have tossed off as freebie in between more ambitious projects.  In fact, the whole thing reads like a rejected early draft to films like Bringing Up Baby.  That's another creative project involving the mishaps brought about through the intrusion of a wild animal.  In the latter film's case, however, it was a leopard, and not a seal that caused all the trouble.  It wouldn't be all that surprising to learn that Hawkes, or maybe one of the writers of his film took a possible leaf from Thurber's cartoon as an inspiration, something like the necessary creative idea needed to power both the forward momentum of the plot, and it's sense of the comic absurd.  It's a trait that the Thurber cartoon and the Hawkes film both share in common with the Screwball mode of comedy popular in that era.  It's what helps put Thurber up on the same shelf as Robert Benchley, or Harpo Marx and his Brothers. It's a strand of comedy that probably still exists in some form, it's just that the mode of expression has had to keep pace with the times.  So it's no surprise if it isn't quite as recognized as it was a long time ago.  It's also a legacy that Thurber shares in, alongside a great many other comic talents.  I'm starting to wonder if part of the problem for readers like Goldstone and Shavelson is that their sense of humor can't find room for the same, Screwball wavelength.  

Maybe that's the real problem plaguing Thurber's cartoon this whole time.  It's what might be called a lack of "Contextual Literacy".  Maybe the unspoken, dirty secret of all literature is that the ability to form a proper understanding of any given work of art is that the audience will always have to rely on some form of awareness of the contexts, tropes, and modes in which all potential narratives are told.  This idea makes sense when you realize that no artist operates in a vacuum.  Stephen King, for instance, has been working his whole career within the bounds of a tradition that was marked out and mapped in the American continent by Gothic writers such as Poe, and Hawthorne.  In just the same way, Thurber is working within the same confines of humor as that laid out by Mark Twain, and the American Tall Tale tradition.  His cartoon is meant as a snapshot of Screwball Absurdity.  It's a moment drawn from a much larger comedic tapestry, in other words.  Thurber doesn't seem to have been able to follow the narrative lead of the picture, if indeed it was even suggesting a through line to follow.  However, this might just be a rare case where I don't think it's entirely necessary in order to achieve a comedic effect.

This is not to denigrate Goldstone or Shavelson's efforts.  On the contrary, at the most important level of criticism, they succeed in their efforts with flying colors.  I've been watching more episodes of their sitcom than the one under the microscope today, and it's a pleasant and unexpected surprise to be able to report that it holds up pretty well, on the whole.  This story, in particular, is like being presented with an interesting Rorschach that slowly takes on a life of its own.  Then it's as if two psychologists enter the room, and each of them take turns trying to figure out what the images mean.  If I'm making this sound like some dry, stuffy academic exercise then I owe you all an apology right here and now.  That wasn't at all my intention.  On the contrary, Shavelson and Goldstone manage to imbue their story with a frenetic, nervous energy that keeps the audience invested over the fate of a simple drawing.  The result is something lively, vivacious, surreal, and above all funny.  It might even serve as welcome introduction to the work and humor James Thurber, and I hope that's the case.  He just happens to be one of the great, unsung comic talents in the annals of American Humor.  It's with all this in mind that I'm able to say that the TV series, My World and Welcome to It, gets an easy recommendation from me.

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