Zany: A Scholarly Inquiry

Webster‘s defines zany as:

1. being or having the characteristic of a zany 2. fantastically or absurdly ludicrous ex: A zany plan to drive cross-country on a motorized scooter.

While I hesitate to disagree outright I would go a bit further in defining this term. Zany more often than not involves a plethora of characters chasing each other around a room for indeterminate reasons — typically to the accompaniment of a Yakety Sax-style musical composition. The room in question can be anything from a mad scientist’s lair to an Old West-style saloon, any place, in other words, where oversized props are readily available and breakaway glass bottles can be easily procured. A man in a gorilla suit isn’t necessary, though it is strongly advised. And while I agree with Webster’s assessment that a motorized scooter is zany, I would posit that a dune buggy is better, while some sort of wheeled, overland boat-car is best. As for a plan being zany, as in Webster’s cross-country drive scenario, I would argue that zany cannot, by definition, be planned. The truly zany lacks reason.

For further study, let us look at the 1960s television series Batman. Any given episode might include one, if not all of the elements listed above, and it is notable for pioneering the use of the superimposed onomatopoeic exclamation — POW!, BAM!, KER-SPLOOSH!, et al. It thrusts the viewer into a crazy, upside-down world of ridiculous villains and nonsensical bat-gadgets without a single character to identify with, nor any context with which to orient oneself. This is enjoyably zany for a few minutes at a time, but to experience this episode after episode — Batman ran for three seasons from 1966-1968 — is disorienting. The zaniness becomes oppressive. It’s as if oneself is a hapless victim of a poisonous gas released by Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker. One can no longer differentiate between what is zany and what isn’t. If everything is zany, nothing is zany. Batman is, ultimately, too zany for its own good.

Equally reprehensible is that which is not zany enough. For that we turn to a 1966 film entitled The Wild World of Batwoman and re-released as She Was A Hippy Vampire. With its outlandish costumes, a mad scientist and plentiful go-go dancing, this would seem to be the apotheosis of zany. In fact, the story concerns an evil scheme to trick the Batwoman and her bevy of nubile crime fighters into ingesting a potion which makes them spontaneously go-go dance — a concept that sounds quite zany on paper. Yet witness the scene where the Batwoman shuffles boredly into the mad scientist’s lab and listlessly shatters the breakaway bottle over the head of one of Rat Fink’s minions. This should be a transcendent moment, an act of pure zaniness that sets off a chain reaction of even greater acts of zaniness. Instead, the Batwoman — or Hippy Vampire depending on which version one is viewing — turns away from the proceedings, begrudgingly frees the young girl being held captive, and shuffles back out of the room as Rat Fink‘s minions stare blankly after her. As for the much-hyped go-go dancing, the majority of it is done without any musical accompaniment whatsoever, creating an uncomfortable silence as the out-of-breath dancers bump into each other in a decidedly non-comical manner and their feet shuffle loudly upon the floor. The effect is not half as batty as the film‘s tagline claims.

As for the appropriately zany I offer up The Monkees, which ran from 1966 to 1968 — the same years, in fact, as Batman. From extended sequences set in fast motion to the motorized scooters that Webster’s so likes to herald to leopard-print costumes there is much zaniness in the series. Not only that, but there is a better balance here between the zany and non-zany than in Batman. Grounding the viewer is the central story of friends and band mates Mike, Mickey, Davy and Peter, four disparate characters who, through the course of each episode, learn to work together and overcome whatever obstacles may lie in their path, whether it be escaping from the ghost town where they are being held hostage by bank robbers in “Monkees In A Ghost Town,” or contending with a Red Chinese spy ring in “Monkee Chow Mein.” This isn’t zany for the sake of zaniness, but rather zany with heart, a purpose, a story to tell and a lesson to teach.

But what, exactly, is that lesson? Perhaps if the reader is to take anything away it is that the truly zany is as uncommon and singular as any so-called high art. Just as the producers of one of the titles above could never hope to match the technical perfectionism of Stanley Kubrick or one of the other great film directors so too would Kubrick be lost amid the zany. That manic energy, that go-for-broke, anything-for-a-laugh attitude so integral to the zany is not an accident, is not, when done right, a symptom of low-budget or poor script-writing; it is culled forth from the imagination and made real by the deeply passionate as much as any other form of art. Had Kubrick extended the gorilla sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey and released the movie under a title such as I Was A Hippy Ape-Man From Outer Space perhaps this would be a different story.

As it is, the public’s appetite for the zany declined in the late sixties. The cancellation of both Batman and The Monkees in 1968 coincided with what is thought of as the official end of the peace and free-love era that very same year. It’s quite sad, for in the war-torn and tough economic times in which we live, we might just need the zany more than ever. This author envisions a better, zanier world in which tanks are replaced with dune buggies, battleships are replaced with boat-cars, and peace talks are held in Old West-style saloons with plenty of breakaway bottles at hand. For it is these moments, when a pratfall is so perfectly punctuated with a slide whistle it borders on the sublime; when a gorilla gropes a bikini-clad girl at a limbo contest in order to remind us how far we’ve evolved and yet just how far we have left to go; when men and woman magically speed up, defying the laws of physics and leaving, however briefly, the confines of our world; it is these moments that are as rare and beautiful as any we are likely to experience. Life is, after all, zany. Let’s embrace it.

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