Nick Danger: an appreciation

My iTunes woke me this morning with “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye” (from Firesign Theatre’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All (1969)). It’s packed full of playfulness, silliness, and absurdity, much of it linguistic.

A sampling of material from the radio show, in sequence from this episode.

1. Silliness.

NICK: I was sitting in my office on that drizzly afternoon listening to the monotonous staccato of rain on my desktop and reading my name on the glass of my office door. “Regnad Kcin”.

The rain on his desktop. His name backwards on the door.

2. Hippie times and a subtle ambiguity.

NICK: I didn’t hear him enter, (creaky door/walking) but my nostrils flared at the smell of his perfume… Pyramid Patchouli. There was only one joker in L.A. sensitive enough to wear that scent and I had to find out who he was.

First, patchouli, evoking hippies, lots of pot smoking, flower power, peace signs, sitar music, incense, crystals, etc. Pot references abound in the episode; some will be noted below. On patchouli:

Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin …) is a species of plant from the genus Pogostemon. It is a bushy herb of the mint family, with erect stems, reaching two or three feet (about 0.75 metre) in height and bearing small, pale pink-white flowers. The plant is native to tropical regions of Asia, and is now extensively cultivated in China, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as West Africa.

The heavy and strong scent of patchouli has been used for centuries in perfumes, and more recently in incense, insect repellents, and alternative medicines. The word derives from [a Tamil expression meaning ‘green leaf’].

Then: “the only joker in L.A. sensitive enough to wear that scent”. At first, this seems to be picking out someone known to Nick, but then it turns out to be a description of an unknown person; this is the distinction between referential and attributive uses, respectively, of definite descriptions. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

[Keith] Donnellan (1966) … argued that definite descriptions can be used in (at least) two different ways. On a so-called attributive use, a sentence of the form ‘The F is G’ is used to express a proposition equivalent to ‘Whatever is uniquely F is G’. For example, on seeing murder victim Smith’s badly mutilated corpse, Detective Brown might say “The murderer of Smith is insane” thereby communicating the thought that some unique individual murdered Smith and that whoever that individual is, he/she is insane. Alternatively, on a referential use, a sentence of the form ‘The F is G’ is used to pick out a specific individual, x, and say of x that x is G. For example, suppose Jones is on trial for Smith’s murder and is behaving quite strangely at the defense table. I point at Jones and say, “The murderer of Smith is insane”, thereby communicating the thought that Jones is insane (whether or not Jones is the actual murderer).

3. Rocky Rococo.

ROCKY: Good afternoon, Mr…. Danger. I’m Rocky Rococo.

An allusion to Beatles music, in this case “Rocky Raccoon”, from the White Album (1968); the song will reappear shortly. In addition, there’s an allusion to Rocky Road ice cream, which also cmes up later in this episode.

4. A Spoonerism.

NICK: Why, that’s nothing but a two bit ring from a Cracker Back Jox.

That is, Cracker Jack Box. This passes by without comment.

5. Pseudonyms.

ROCKY: Worthless?! Ha! Ha! Ha! (cough cough) Not to Melanie Haber!
NICK: Melanie Haber?
ROCKY: You may remember her as… Audrey Farber?
NICK: Audrey Farber?
ROCKY: Susan Underhill?
NICK: Susan Underhill?
ROCKY: How about… Betty Jo Bialowski! (organ fwah)
NICK: (thinking) Betty Jo Bialowski! I hadn’t heard that name since college. Everyone knew her as Nancy.

(On pseudonyms, see this posting.)

“Rocky Raccoon” again:

Her name was Magill and she called herself Lil
But everyone knew her as Nancy.

6. An absurdist frat house.

NICK: It was Pig Night at the Om Mani Padme Sigma House.

This combines the Sanskrit mantra “Om mani padme hum” with Greek-letter naming patterns for college fraternities and sororities (as in the fraternities Alpha Gamma Sigma, Phi Beta Sigma, and Phi Kappa Sigma).

7. An exploited idiom.

ROCKY: Danger! (running away) You haven’t seen the last of me!
NICK: No, but the first of you turns my stomach!

The idiom is to see the last of, to which Nick counterposes the unidiomatic (but entirely comprehensible) the first of.

8. The story and the story-tellers.

NICK: Four hours later I parked my car in the carriage house and (cornstarch footsteps) walked up a grey gravel driveway between a line of dwarf maples towards the pillared entrance of the Same Mansion. It had been snowing in Santa Barbara ever since the top of the page and I had to shake the cornstarch off my mukluks as I lifted the heavy obsidian doorknocker.
… CATHERWOOD: All right, come in out of the cornstarch and dry your mukluks by the fire. (fire/cellophane/door close) Let me introduce myself. I am Nick Danger.
NICK: No, let me introduce myself. I am Nick Danger.
CATHERWOOD: If you’re so smart, why don’t you pick up your cues faster?
NICK: Are those my cues?
CATHERWOOD: Yes, and they must be dry by now. Why don’t you pull them up out of the cellophane before they scorch. (stop cellophane)

Throughout the episode, the characters go back and forth between being characters in the main story and actors in a radio play.

(As a bonus, there are expressions that the Firesign guys just liked for their sound: dwarf maple, mukluks, obsidian.)

9. Another ambiguity.

CATHERWOOD: Now, I assume you’ve come to see my mistress[,] Mr. Danger.
NICK: I don’t care about your private life or what his name is.

Catherwood’s line is read so as to allow Mr. Danger to be understood either as a vocative (Catherwood’s intent) or as an appositive to my mistress (Nick’s reading).

10. Chiasmus.

CATHERWOOD: You may wait here in the sitting room or you can sit here in the waiting room.

Switching wait and sit.

11. A terrible pun.

NICK: (thinking) There was something fishy about the butler. I think he was a Pisces, probably working for scale.

Pun on scale: scale of a fish (evoked by fishy and Pisces) or scale in the idiom to work for scale.

12. Yet another ambiguity.

NANCY: (muffled) Nick, we can’t talk here.
NICK: (muffled) We can, um…
NANCY: (muffled) We can’t talk here!
NICK: (muffled) What do you mean we can’t talk here?!
NANCY: (muffled) We can’t…!
NICK: (muffled) Oh. You’re right. We can’t. What should we do?
NANCY: (muffled) Follow me. This way.

Can’t ‘be unable to’ (which is the case in this scene) vs. can’t roughly ‘mustn’t, shouldn’t’ (which is what “we can’t talk here” would ordinarily convey.

13. Another terrible pun.

NICK: (sobbing) Catherwood. Catherwood, can’t you see you’re upsetting Nancy? (Nancy blowing nose) Leave us alone.
CATHERWOOD: Well, how much would you like, sir? Five hundred? A thousand? I could…

Clear in the spelling, but of course the scene is spoken, and leave us alone and leave us a loan are homophones.

14. Pot pun.

CATHERWOOD: Rococo! You slimy blackmailer. How did you get in here? You don’t have a key!
ROCKY: No, only half a key.
ROCKY: I had to split it with the sound effects man.

That’s key for locking and unlocking a door vs. key ‘kilo(gram) (of pot)’ — a clipping. And note Rocky shifting from a character in the story to an actor in the radio play.

15. Phrasal overlap portmanteau.

ROCKY: Oh, yeah? Didn’t you ever see Casablanca? Half a Key Largo?

Half a Key Largo = half a key [as in 14] + Key Largo [the film].

16. Another Beatles allusion.

NICK: [Lt.] Bradshaw would never listen to my story now. It had more holes in it than Albert Hall.

From “A Day in the Life”, on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967):

I read the news today oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.

17. An even worse pun. Catherwood the butler eventually splits in two (it’s complicated, but the important point is that a time machine is involved). Then:

YOUNG CATHERWOOD: … I wanted to give you the swellest honeymoon a girl ever had. We’re going to Greece!
NANCY: And swim the English Channel?
YOUNG CATHERWOOD: No, no. To Ancient Greece, where burning Sappho loved and sang and stroked the wine-dark sea, in the temple by the moonlight, wa da doo dah…

Groan: Greece the country, to grease ‘spread with grease’ (as for swimming the Channel). The quotation that Catherwood drifts into — he’s a decidedly asociative thinker — is from Lord Byron’s “The Isles of Greece”.

18. Another pot pun.

OLD CATHERWOOD: Why don’t we sing something?
YOUNG CATHERWOOD: Well, I’ve forgotten the key.
OLD CATHERWOOD: That’s all right, I’ve got a lid out in the car.

This time it’s musical key vs. key ‘kilo’.

There’s a whole lot more. Quite something to start the day with.


5 Responses to “Nick Danger: an appreciation”

  1. Men and their pickles | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] As phallic symbols, pickles are of course almost automatically risible. Some pickle play from “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye” (from Firesign Theatre’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All (1969)), appreciated on this blog here: […]

  2. Ed Says:

    I’ve listened to “Nick Danger, Third Eye” a good 150 times…still love it!

  3. Micahel Minnig Says:

    Listen with headphones and you can hear, after “I had to split it with the sound effects man,” a faint reply of “Thanks, Rocky!”

    Presumably from the sound effects man.

  4. D. Major Says:

    “…and I had to shake the cornstarch off my mukluks…”

    Foley (sound effects) technique for the sound of walking on hardpacked squeaky snow is to squeeze a box of cornstarch. Hence, the sound of Nick Danger walking through snow to the door of the Old Same Place was produced with a box of cornstarch.

    (NOTE: To prevent the fine cornstarch powder from blowing all over the studio when squeezing the box, foley artists know to put the box into a sealed plastic bag first.)

  5. D. Major Says:

    “…in the temple by the moonlight, wa da doo dah…”

    Old minstrel song, “In the Evening By the Moonlight” was later “jazzed up” with a bit of “wa da doo dah”. Catherwood drifts from Byron to minstrelsy.

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