Inhaling pop culture

Today’s Zits, featuring teenage boys goofing off, but in a specific way:


Thereby presenting an exercise in cartoon understanding that’s a snap if you’re plugged into American pop culture of the past century, but is something of a challenge otherwise.

But first you need to know a bit of science. At the end of the first panel, we hear that Jeremy and Pierce are filling helium balloons, and then in the second panel they’re shrieking in hysterically jagged yellow balloons:

(a) Follow the yellow brick road!

(b) Alvin!

Put off for a moment the source of (a) and (b) and focus on what the hysterical yellow represents. From Wikipedia:

The speed of sound in helium is nearly three times the speed of sound in air. Because the fundamental frequency of a gas-filled cavity is proportional to the speed of sound in the gas, when helium is inhaled there is a corresponding increase in the resonant frequencies of the vocal tract. The fundamental frequency (sometimes called pitch) does not change, since this is produced by direct vibration of the vocal folds, which is unchanged. However, the higher resonant frequencies cause a change in timbre, resulting in a reedy, duck-like vocal quality.

If it quacks like a duck, it might have just inhaled He — which is then the link between the first two panels.

Appreciating the yellow brick road. What, however, does following the yellow brick road (in (a)) have to do with it?

Yes, it’s the road from the Wizard of Oz. First, as described in Wikipedia:

The Yellow Brick Road is a fictional element in the 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by American author L. Frank Baum [and in several sequels].

The road’s most notable portrayal is in the classic 1939 MGM musical movie The Wizard of Oz, loosely based on Baum’s first Oz book.

… from the third chapter of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy sets off to see the Wizard: “There were several roads near by, but it did not take Dorothy long to find the one paved with yellow bricks. Within a short time she was walking briskly toward the Emerald City; her Silver Shoes tinkling merrily on the hard, yellow road-bed”.

The injunction to follow the yellow brick road finally appears in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, where it’s set to music — as part of the long Munchkin scene early in the film. (I’ve always found this scene cringeworthy (and overlong), so I’m pleased when Dorothy and her little dog Toto set off for the Emerald City.)

From Wikipedia:

In the musical, the Munchkins first appear when Dorothy and Toto arrive in the Land of Oz after her house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East. The Munchkins hide from all the commotion until Glinda the Good Witch arrives reassuring them that everything is okay. Dorothy tells them how she arrived in the Land of Oz (through a musical number) and the Munchkins celebrate. To make it official, the Mayor of Munchkinland and his assistant have to make sure that the Wicked Witch of the East is really dead before the celebration continues. The coroner confirms this to the mayor by saying that the witch is “not merely dead”, but is indeed “most sincerely dead” while showing the Certificate of Death. The Munchkins then celebrate further as Dorothy receives gifts from the Lullaby League, and the Lollipop Guild. Near the end of the song, the Wicked Witch of the West arrives which causes the Munchkins to panic. After the Wicked Witch of the West leaves, Glinda tells Dorothy to follow the Yellow brick road to the Emerald City as the Munchkins guide her out of Munchkinland.

(#2) Dorothy and the squeaky-voiced Munchkins — the He connection

Apparently, stand-in actors recorded the dialogue in a studio using their natural voices, and the tape was then slightly speeded up to get the childish squeaky-voiced quality, and the Munchkin actors (all little people, aka dwarfs) lip-synched to this tape during filming.

In any case, to appreciate why following the yellow brick road appears in the second panel of #1, it’s not enough to get the reference to the Wizard of Oz story: you need to see the association with the 1939 movie, with a specific scene from the movie, with the Munchkins in that scene, and finally with the squeaky quality of the Munchkins’ voices, which you need to recognize as similar to He-inhalation voice.

Appreciating Alvin! in the second panel of #1 (in (b)) requires a similar feat of pop-cultural association. Who is this Alvin of which Jeremy speaks?

Either you know Alvin and the Chipmunks, in particular from their first novelty song, for Christmas 1958, or you don’t, and if you don’t, Jeremy’s call to Alvin will just be mystifying. From Wikipedia:

Alvin and the Chipmunks, originally David Seville and the Chipmunks or simply the Chipmunks, are an American animated virtual band created by Ross Bagdasarian Sr. for a novelty record in 1958. The group consists of three singing animated anthropomorphic chipmunks: Alvin, the mischievous troublemaker, who quickly became the star of the group; Simon, the tall, bespectacled intellectual; and Theodore, the chubby, impressionable sweetheart. … The characters became a success, and the singing Chipmunks and their manager were given life in several animated cartoon productions, using redrawn, anthropomorphic chipmunks, and eventually films.

The voices of the group were all performed by Bagdasarian, who sped up the playback to create high-pitched voices. This oft-used process was not entirely new to Bagdasarian, who had also used it for two previous novelty songs, including “Witch Doctor”, but it was so unusual and well-executed it earned the record two Grammy Awards for engineering.

(There’s a section on the supremely annoying Alvin and the Chipmunks in my 11/25/16 posting “medium-hater”.)

The recording, including the manager’s call to Alvin:


(#3) “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”, from Greatest Christmas Hits (1999)

So, to appreciate why an Alvin appears in the second panel of #1, you need to make the connection to Alvin and the Chipmunks, and specifically with the squeaky quality of the Chipmunks’ voices, which you (again) need to recognize as similar to He-inhalation voice.

Of course, if you can see the chain of associations for one of the expressions (a) and (b), you may be more likely to see it for the other. Giving two different associations — to the 1939 Munchkins and to the 1958 Chipmunks — then can serve as an aid to understanding the strip.

[As a bonus, you get an illustration of two dynamics in male relationships: guys “horsing around”, often in mock competition; and guys “egging each other on”, pushing each other to go further, in their goofs, pranks, and escapades. From NOAD:

verb horse around (or [BrE] about): informal fool around [that is, act in a joking, frivolous, or teasing way]: schoolkids laughing and horsing around.

verb egg: [with object] (egg someone on) urge or encourage someone to do something, especially something foolish or risky. ORIGIN Middle English: from Old Norse eggja ‘incite’. [note: no etymological connection with ova]

On the lexical domain of the first of these, from my 10/24/16 posting “Naked boys playing at liberty”

Horseplay ‘rough, boisterous play’ is the relevant lexical item here. (The word has been around since the 16th century. My sources are not especially helpful in explaining it, saying only that it’s horse + play. Perhaps the original alluded to the gamboling of foals in the field; certainly, play — especially mock combat — among young animals is widespread.) ]

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