Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mr. Drew’s Improbable Vocabulary

I won’t lie; I was reminded of this word as a result of the preceding post.
Feghoot (FEG-hoot) — noun: a humorous short story or vignette ending in a pun.
Rarely do I get to reference “Little Bunny Foo Foo” in my writing, but today I can. Thought it’s been a long time since the Wee Sing Silly Songs album has figured into my life, I can remember being confused by this stupid bunny song back when I was a kid. As you’ll recall, Foo Foo, the protagonist, is warned by some genius loci fairy woman to treat field mice more kindly. (Admission: In trying to remember the lyrics, I at first thought that Foo Foo was “scooping up the field mice / and pooping on their head,” but this isn’t the case. He’s actually “bopping them on the head,” which seems more appropriate for a children’s song but also like a far lesser crime, if you ask me.) If he continues acting the park of the jerkass, the fairy explains, she will transform him into a “goon,” whatever that means. I couldn’t tell at the time. I asked, was told that a goon is like a henchman, more or less, and acted like that solved the problem even though it totally didn’t. Even looking up the word today, there’s no widely used definition for goon that would explain the fairy’s threat.

After reading about Feghoots, I understand that the only reason that the word goon was included in the lyrics was to set up the atrocious pun the serves as the moral of the story. Although I have no recollection of this, the song ends after Foo Foo has been turned into a goon, at which point the narrator notes that the lesson to take away is “Hare today, goon tomorrow.” (Forced smile. Eye roll. Vomit. Eye bleeding. Death rattle.) This is what Feghoots do, more or less, and despite their tendency to induce cringes and (I’m assuming) the tendency for audiences to murder the people who tell such tales, they persist. You might also know about Feghoots if you ever watched Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons. The “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History” segments — you know, the ones with the snide, effeminate dog and the developmentally disabled boy he inexplicably hired as an assistant? — each end with Mr. Peabody offering a terrible pun. (Example: In this installment about the formation of the Texas Rangers, Mr. Peabody and Sherman meet the Dallas Kid, whom Peabody claims went on to found an amusement park so famous that a book was written about it. Sherman: “Durrrr, really? (drools) Mr Peabody: “Why yes. Haven’t you ever heard of Dallas in Wonderland?” Egregious, I know, but it illustrates the point.)

A question you may be asking: Why would the term for these sorts of stories be a word that sounds like what a hateful immigrant woman would call the confirmed bachelors upstairs? According to Wikipedia, this sort of storytelling device originated with the science fiction series Through Time and Space With Ferdinand Feghoot, written by Reginald Bretnor (under the anagram name Grendel Briarton) beginning in the 1950s. (Not sure where Bretnor came up with Feghoot as a name, however.) Sort of like the Mr. Peabody shorts, the stories had Ferdinand Feghoot traveling through time and going on adventures that last only a few paragraphs and always finish with a play on a well-known phrase. Feghoot fans still write new stories today. Some even ones without the Feghoot character. Take this one, from the online Feghoot collection Tarzans Tripes Forever:
After Mary Poppins became older, she gave up being a nanny and retired to the West Coast of the United States. After a while, she became bored and decided to open up a small detective agency specializing in solving crimes using her psychic ability and strong nose. She opened a small space on Hollywood Boulevard and posted her sign proudly. It read: “Super California Mystic, Expert Halitosis.”
Gut-busting, right? Your gut, busted.

I dwell on bits of culture that I consider to be awful, mostly because I want to understand what fans see in them. Such is the case here. The stories themselves are insubstantial — flash fiction, really — and really only serve to generate a painful pun. I actually wouldn’t be surprised in the least if the pun were written first and then the story constructed just to get from point B to point A. But I’ll bet most people don’t write them; they just read them. Why? Does the satisfaction lie in seeing how the author wraps up the various stray bits into the word play punchline? Is this like people who eat the poisonously hot chili peppers or something? Is it a test of endurance that you can make it through these without becoming so annoyed they swear off the written word? I’m at a loss.

Fun word, though. Feghoot.

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