The Handsome Family Sparks Up TV

I am laughably behind on TV but I’ve done some catching up recently. I watched seasons and seasons of truly outstanding programs, unlike anything I’ve seen on the medium, or even beyond. There was Breaking Bad. Then there was Better Call Saul.

And most recently, the best TV series I’ve ever seen: True Detective, Season One, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.


“I can smell the psychosphere.”

As the older Marty might put it under debriefing,

You know, sometimes you can set the bar too high in life. And when you shoot that high, and actually hit it, well, it may feel good at the time. But after that, everything is . . . just, lower. And then you realize, it’s never going to be that high again.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s certainly how I feel as I look at my viewing options these days. Everything is suddenly unwatchable. It’s odd that the greatest TV show ever made may actually cure me of TV.

Anyway, as Rust might say, “I drift.”

Inextricably linked with Season One is the opening theme song, “Far from Any Road.” This dark, moody, soulful ballad has a way of getting into your head and not finding its way back out again.

From the album Singing Bones (2003).

At first I thought the singer was Johnny Cash, but it is actually Brett Sparks, and the female vocalist that comes in later is his wife, Rennie Sparks. Together they form the core of their band The Handsome Family.

Rennie writes the lyrics, Brett writes the music, and they both sing and play, and record, and tour. In addition to The Handsome Family’s astounding musical gifts, Rennie writes and paints. They’ve got a great website here.

According to Wikipedia, Brett accounts for the band name thusly:

“It’s just kind of a stupid name. We used to have this really obnoxious drummer, and he used to call me ‘Handsome’, that was his nickname for me, I think for sarcastic reasons… And he wanted to call it the Handsome Family… and we thought it was funny, too. We thought it was a good name.”

Now, ordinarily, the Name Funniness Index (NFI) might put Brett and Rennie out of the running for funny name status. Brett is about as ordinary as a name could be. Rennie is marginally better. “Sparks” obviously helps, and brings them close to the brink, but it’s the band name that seals the deal. That and Matthew McConaughey. And the fact that Dave and Arto are not watching the shop. And Fannie’s not very strict. Heck, she lets me get away with just about anything, these days.

I drift.

OK, how about this? The music director of True Detective, who chose the theme song, is Joseph Henry “T Bone” Burnett III, himself a major presence in the music world.

All that being said, I do hope you click on the link below and spark up Dave’s life in his time of need.

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For Ignaz Semmelweis Hand Washing is a Good Thing

Ignaz might have said, “Hand washing is a good thing.” I’m sure Martha Stewart would agree.
Legalese: published anywhere before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.

Welcome back Funny Names Fans. My favorite aunt once asked me to write a post about Ignatz Ratzkowaski. Only I can’t find him anywhere. But it did lead me to someone with an equally wonderful name.

Dr. Ignaz Phillipp Semmelweis entered the world on July 1, 1818 in Pest, Hungary, now part of Budapest. A Hungarian of German descent. He is now recognized as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures, but he wasn’t always.

After finishing medical school he was given a position with the First and Second Obstetrical Clinics of the Vienna General Hospital. Today’s equivalent would be chief resident.

In the early 1800’s European medical institutions began addressing the problems of infanticide of illegitimate children. At the time illegitimate children could not marry and had few legal rights.

Maternity wards across Europe were set up as free institutions and offered care for the infants. This made them attractive to poor women⏤including prostitutes.

Dr. Semmelweis noticed the high maternal mortality rate from “Childbed Fever” in the First Clinic and the low mortality rate at the Second Clinic run not by doctors, but by midwives.

The clinics rotated admission every other day for delivery of children. The First Clinic earned such a poor reputation, that on their day to accept patients, many mothers preferred to deliver their children in the street outside the hospital. The women would pretend to have given birth en route to still qualify for infant care.

The mortality rates due to infection drove Dr. Semmelweis to distraction trying to figure out the differences between the two clinics.

The First Clinic was a teaching hospital for medical students. Part of their day was spent studying cadavers, the rest of the day spent in obstetrics. The second clinic had midwives and no medical students.

Sadly, the breakthrough occurred when his good friend and fellow physician, Jakob Kolletschka, died after he was accidentally stabbed by a medical student’s scalpel while the student was performing an autopsy. Kolletschka’s own autopsy showed a similar pathology to the women who died from “Childbed Fever”(puerperal fever).

Dr. Semmelweis instituted a policy of hand washing using chlorinated lime and saw the death rate drop, when he added the cleaning of medical instruments it dropped to almost zero deaths.

Unfortunately, the germ theory of disease had not yet been accepted by the medical community of Vienna. So his theories conflicted with the medical and scientific communities of the time. Some doctors were offended that they needed to wash their hands. They were, after all, gentlemen and the idea their hands were not clean was inconsistent with being a gentleman. (Cough, cough.)

Semmelweis eventually offended most of his peers and his boss with his insistence on the importance of hand washing, and was eventually replaced. The mortality rate climbed back up, but no one mentioned it because of Semmelweis’s unpopularity.

Semmelweis moved his family to Vienna, but could only get pro bono work, no one would pay him, yet the clinic he ran showed the same improved results.

He eventually publicly denounced his peers for not following his methods. Then he began to show signs of some sort of “cognitive disorder”, at the age of 47, which fixated around his theory. So the medical leaders at the time had him committed to an insane asylum, where he was beaten by the guards and died two weeks later from a gangrenous wound possibly caused by the beating.

It wasn’t until Louis Pasteur’s discoveries confirmed the germ theory of disease that Ignaz Semmelweis was recognized for his contributions to medicine.

Tracy – Fannie Cranium’s Guide to Irreverent Wisdom

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Please consider donating to our founder, Dave, and his fight against a cancerous brain tumor, all while he goes to medical school to learn to fight the very thing he is battling.

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Ethel Merman Revisited

Ethel Merman 1967

Ethel Merman, what more needs to be said?

Belated greetings Funny Names Fans. A few funny things happened on the way to today’s tardy Tuesday post. Yes, I know today is Tuesday, but . . . I was supposed to post last week. Let’s just say between recovering from the flu, my computer suffering the black screen of death, and the data transfer from my back up to my new computer hasn’t gone well. Somehow I think the back-up is speaking in “Basic” and the new machine is speaking in “Linex”.  So if you will bear with me for a fresh post until next month, this month I would like to re-introduce you to the Belter of Broadway. Take it away Ethel . . .

Ethel Merman, a siren of song, stage and silver screen.  Born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman in Astoria, Queens, New York in 1908. She graduated from high school in 1924 taking a job as a stenographer at the Boyce-Ite Company earning $23 a week. Moving over to Bragg-Kliesrath Corporation for a $5 a week increase and eventually promoted to personal secretary of Caleb Bragg, whose repeated absences from the office racing automobiles gave her time to catch up on the sleep she lost the previous night performing at private parties.

When she began performing at nightclubs, she thought her name too long for a marquee. She considered taking her grandmother’s maiden name, Hunter, but shortened it to Merman to pacify her father. Lucky for us.

Her next step, performing with Jimmy Durante at Les Ambassadeurs. Not long after starting she endured a tonsillectomy while fearing it might damage her voice. But after recovering she belted stronger than ever.

Auditioning in 1930 for George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy singing, “I Got Rhythm”, she was cast straightaway. After it opened George Gershwin told her, “Well, never go near a singing teacher…and never forget your shorthand.” She never did.

This might be what important shorthand looks like. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't written it myself.

This might be what important shorthand looks like. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t written it myself. (Literal translation.)

She performed in Humpty Dumpty in 1932, it opened in Pittsburg in August and closed the next month. I’m guessing irony may have helped here. Rewritten and retitled Take a Chance, it ran for 243 performances at the Apollo. By this time she earned $1,500 a week. Not bad for a stenographer during the Depression.

Fast forward to 1945, recovering from a C-Section after the birth of her second child she was offered the role of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun which featured her now signature song, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” It ran for 1,147 performances. She went on to star with Donald O’Conner and Marilyn Monroe in the film There’s No Business Like Show Business which borrowed its name from that famous song.

Married four times, the marriage to her last husband, Ernest Borgnine, lasted 32 days. In her 1978 memoir, Merman, she included a chapter, “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine.” It’s one blank page.

She didn’t miss a beat, in 1979 she released “The Ethel Merman Disco Album”, with the 71-year-old performer singing her Broadway hits to a disco beat. While never making the Billboard charts it was a hit, and played regularly at Studio 54 with live appearances by the star herself.

Her last film, the 1980 comedy Airplane!, she played Lieutenant Hurwitz, a shell shocked soldier who believes he’s Ethel Merman. In the performance Merman leaps out of bed belting “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” as the orderlies rush to sedate her.

Which leads me to why you’re reading this today. Last October, Dave blogged about the band Mungo Jerry and attached the video to “In the Summertime”. Planting a song worm in my brain until Ethel arrived.

Take it away Ethel and friends. . .

Tracy–Fannie Cranium’s Guide to Irreverent Wisdom

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Music of the Spheres: Thelonious Sphere Monk

Sometimes BoFN subjects surprise because what is assumed to be an assumed name turns out to be real. Such is the case with Thelonious Sphere Monk.

Monk is the family name. Thelonious is the given name. (It was initially misspelled either “Thelious” or “Thelius” depending on how one deciphered the scrawl on Monk’s birth certificate.) And Sphere comes from Thelonious’s maternal grandfather Sphere Batts.


Thelonious Sphere Monk

Monk’s name is not just real, but uncannily appropriate. So much so that I just ransacked King Dave’s “Funny Name Theory” to find the right theorem. There’s nothing there, so I guess I have to work out the proofs myself.

If you heard Monk’s name for the first time and did word association you might come up with a list like this: scholastic, intellectual, geometric, mathematical, planetary, cosmic, monastic, spiritual, contemplative, silent, austere, ascetic, basic, spare, minimalist . . .

That is Monk all over. Thus, we can formulate a new theorem:

The Thelonious Monk Self-Description Prescription Prediction:
The funny birth name of a creative innovator will predict the creative innovation of the creative innovator.

Monk is to jazz what Van Gough is to painting, Kafka or Flannery O’Connor are to fiction, William Blake is to poetry. All of them wielded what seemed like rough, spare strokes to realize a vision totally outside the box, pared down to bare essentials yet rising to inter-planetary heights. And while none of them got runaway popular success in their lifetimes, we can’t imagine imagine jazz, painting, fiction, or British poetry (respectively) without them.

What would jazz be without “‘Round Midnight,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Blue Monk,” “Monk’s Dream,” “Monk’s Mood,” “Misterioso,” “Epistrophy,” or “Well, You Needn’t”?

Though a quasi-informed jazz buff, I wrongly associated Monk with the Beatnik era and cool jazz. I learned in Candace Allen’s excellent retrospective that Monk was a foundational force in the bebop era of the 1940s, making his music even more remarkable. As the sub-header for Allen’s piece puts it, “He played angular and slow when the fashion was for fast and sun-drenched.”

To be honest, I never completely adjusted to Monk’s playing, and appreciate Monk’s genius most when his standards are played by other greats, especially Miles. But according to Allen, Miles himself had similar views.

Even a collaborator such as Miles Davis asked why Monk persisted with the weird chord changes that just sounded wrong. But to Monk, his chords weren’t weird, they were the logical result of countless hours of musical exploration.

True to his monastic name, finally there is silence. Allen again:

For Monk, silence was at once muse and the centre of his gravity . . . . It’s Monk’s encyclopaedic and joyous considerations of silence that secure his place in the pantheon of past, present and future improvisational music as much as his jewel-faceted tunes and mould breaking/remaking harmonics.

Speaking of “Well You Needn’t,” you needn’t, but it would sure help. Please help our founder Dave fight cancer. Click on the icon below:

UPDATE!!! The Thelonious Monk Theorem has been peer reviewed by King Dave hisself and has earned a slot on prestigious The Funny Name Theory page. It’s a dream come true, folks!

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Chicken Alaska, Doesn’t that Sound Delicious? Revisited.

Greetings Funny Names Fans! Today I’m celebrating a milestone—five years of contributing to this wonderful blog. So what better way to celebrate than revisit my first post on the BoFN. Without further ado, take it away Fannie of five yester-years ago.

Chicken, Alaska, not to be confused with Baked Alaska, is a town of no large proportions and a delicious name.

There may be other cities in the US in which Chicken appears in their name, but none so elevated as Chicken, Alaska, located just north of the 64th parallel at 1,621 feet. Sandwiched between the the towns of Eagle and Tok (pronounced Tōk). I’m making no judgement here but the brownies may be delicious. Settled in the late 1800’s by gold seeking miners near the south fork of the 40-Mile River before the Klondike Gold Rush.

With a scarcity of food back then they took up eating the ample Ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird, which looks something like a chicken. Not to be confused with the Pukeko of New Zealand, which also starts with a “P” and looks something like a chicken but I digress.

In the beginning residents wanted to name the town Ptarmigan but couldn’t agree on the spelling. Nor did they want the name of their fair town to be an embarrassment. So when they incorporated in 1902, they choose the name Chicken. They’ve made the most of it ever since.

Depending on who you ask, there may be between 6 and 37 year round residents. There’s no electricity (except by generator), no phones, no internet (they have a website but it’s managed outside of Chicken) and no central plumbing. I’ve used their public outhouse, the Chicken Poop. In the local vernacular, it’s a “four holer” and you don’t have to cross the road to use it.

Now this is the ultimate in marketing.

Now this is the ultimate in marketing.

The main street boasts The Chicken Post Office, Chicken Liquor Store, Chicken Saloon, Chicken Mercantile Emporium, (where I purchased a copy of Outhouses of Alaska, a must read for any outhouse user), and Chicken Creek Cafe, which I probably should have mentioned before the outhouse. They keep the mascot chickens between the cafe and saloon. However, there was no sign explaining which came first. . .

Some things you just have to see for yourself.

Some things you just have to see for yourself.

The colorful ceiling of the saloon is lined with burned undies and baseball caps. In questioning the bar tender, he demonstrated this feat with a small home made cannon and a fellow traveler’s cap. After stomping on the flaming cap, he attached it to the ceiling. I’m sure they’ve run out of room by now. (Update: They did remove all of the caps and underwear, not sure if they’ve started over again.)

To get the cluck to Chicken try traveling on the gravel paved Turner Highway, pot holes included for your driving pleasure. Then there’s the Chicken Airstrip, if you prefer to travel where Chickens don’t fly. I doubt they call it the Chicken Strip.

There may be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there's only two ways to get to Chicken.

There may be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there’s only two ways to get to Chicken.

For some fun reading, check out the Chicken Alaska Not So Frequently Asked Questions. It’s a hoot or is that a cluck?

Many thanks to Dave, Rob and Arto for inviting me to join the world of funny name appreciation.

Tracy – Fannie Cranium’s Guide to Irreverent Wisdom.

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Please consider donating to our founder, Dave, and his fight against a cancerous brain tumor, all while he goes to medical school to learn to fight the very thing he is battling.

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