February 27, 2011

How These Things Get started


I’ve never cared much for actor Frederic Forrest. I can’t say why. He’s been in some great films—The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, It Lives Again—but he’s just always grated on me. There is one exception, however. He starred in the 1974 made-for-TV film Larry (his fourth film), in which he played a severely retarded man who’d been institutionalized since childhood. Tyne Daley (who would later star in Cagney and Lacey) plays a doctor who becomes convinced that ol’ Larry there only acts like a retard because he’s spent his life surrounded by retards and being treated like a retard. Beneath all the drooling and mumbling, she believes, he’s really a man of normal intelligence. The bulk of the film involves Daley’s attempts to convince the institution’s administrators of this, while simultaneously trying to rehabilitate Larry into a normal functioning non-retarded adult.

            (One quick aside. The film also provided actor Ted Lange with his first non-blaxploitation role. Three years after Larry and a return to blaxploitation, Lange would throw all those Black Power lessons out the window to take a role as the grinning, hand-slapping Servant to Whitey on The Love Boat. It’s irrelevant, but I just wanted to point that out.)

            Back to Larry. Now, to the normal viewing audience, Larry was a heartwarming tear-jerker of a film. Not a dry eye in the house when the closing credits rolled. To a couple of off-balance nine-year-olds, though, it was something else entirely.

            Shortly after its original broadcast, Larry became part of the regular rotation on WFRV’s The Early Show (a local offering in Green Bay that aired uncut films every weekday afternoon. I never missed The Early Show). Whenever possible, whenever either my friend Gary or I learned that Larry was showing, we made a point of rushing home from school and watching it together. Long before I’d ever heard of El Topo, Eraserhead, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Gary and I turned Larry—this powerful and heartbreaking film about retards—into one of our own hilarious cult hits. Oh, there was a lot of eye rolling and spastic arm twitching involved, I’ll tell you.

            The scene that was the turning point in Larry was our favorite. Now, Tyne Daley, see, is showing a videotaped interview with Larry to hospital administrators in an effort to convince them there’s some solid reasoning ability behind those blank, beady eyes of his.

            (Face it, none of you are going to run out and track down a bootleg copy of Larry, so I’m not all that deeply concerned about giving away the big scene.)

            In the videotaped interview, Larry, eyes downcast, head lolling about, is pissed because the candy machine is out of his favorite snack. The doctor asks him what that snack is, and he mumbles something indecipherable while shifting around in his seat. She asks him to repeat himself, and he just mumbles and shifts around some more. (Being severely retarded of course, his speech is incoherent.) Finally she asks him a third time. At that point Larry looks straight into the camera, clearly frustrated. He points a finger at his mouth and says, slowly and deliberately: “Emmmm . . . ah . . . emmmm!”

            Man, it had us on the floor every time. But it wasn’t just cheap, momentary hilarity—it was a scene that quickly carried over into our daily lives as well.

            Needless to say, a bag of M&Ms took on a whole new meaning, and we could no longer eat them without one of us pointing to his mouth. The phrase “emmm ah emmm,” uttered in the same strangled, nasal Larry tones became a schoolyard jibe used to indicate anyone who said or did something stupid. Alternatively, such a person might also come to be known as “a Larry,” or just plain “Larry” (For example, “that Beth Ann is such a Larry” or “dig that Larry from Mr. DeGroot’s class over there.”) We drew Larry-themed comic strips and made up M&M commercial parodies involving Larry. “Emmm . . . ah . . . emmm” was our catchphrase for a few years there, and soon came to mean whatever we decided it would mean at that particular moment.

            It also began to spread. Other kids started picking it up and using it even though they’d never seen the damn movie. Once that started happening, I stopped using it (at least quite so often). It was already too late. The fakers and the poseurs and the phonies made it their own and completely ruined it.

            Those same kids who’d never seen the movie, who had no idea what “emmm . . . ah . . . emm” referred to brought it home with them. Their parents picked it up and subsequently brought the saying to work. Their co-workers and supervisors co-opted it and brought it to their own homes. Some of these people moved to new cities and spread the phrase around new neighborhoods and schools and offices. It began popping up in newspaper editorials and on soap operas. Did Gary or I see a penny of it? Were we given a lick of recognition? No sir!

            And now look at the world nearly forty years later. Frederic Forrest and Tyne Daley are two of the biggest box office draws Hollywood has ever known. M&Ms are advertised on television. A nasal white boy rapper began selling millions of records only after he started calling himself “Emm-ah-emmm,” my guess being that’s what all the other kids on the playground used to call him. Either that or “Larry.” And “Larry”! What about that? Prior to 1974 I don’t recall ever hearing the name “Larry”—but now just look at all the Larrys in the world! And where do you think their parents got the idea to name them that?

            I could go on, but I’d probably just get bitter. You get the idea. What started as a simple-minded (so to speak) if cruel in-joke between two friends has grown into a multi-faceted international cultural phenomenon worth billions. And now you know how it all started.

            So the next time you see someone on the street pointing at his or her mouth and saying “emmm . . . ah . . . emmm!” or calling someone “Larry,” ask them for a buck and tell them you’re just collecting some long-overdue royalties for Jim.


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