Or at least that one weird bit about minstrels
“White Christmas” (the song) is the bestselling single of all time and the 1954 film that shares its name is a beloved holiday favourite that baby boomers obsessively revisit every year. The song is a heartfelt lament about missing -40 C winters after (sensibly) moving someplace warm. As for the film — well for some reason despite being a Danny Kaye fan the only part of the film I can remember (other than the title song) is the “Minstrel Number” a bizarre interlude in which the cast musically tries to explain how awesome old-timey Minstrel Shows were. That’s a pretty tough product to sell guys.
To Danny and Bing’s credit they don’t dress up in blackface. In fact the entire number has nary a speck of blackface to be seen and really it had fucking better not even in the mid-’50s. It’s almost as though the performers are aware that they shouldn’t be promoting minstrelsy (yes it’s a real word) since after a scant two minutes of awful “jokes” they give up and segue straight into a somewhat more normal song-and-dance number in which the name “Mandy” gets repeated a lot along with the pointed suggestion that “there’s a minister handy.” No doubt the guys saw the ocean of blank stares in the audience and gave up on their minstrel schtick mid-song in order to escape a well-deserved pelting with rotten fruit.
I put the word “jokes” in quotation marks earlier (and again just now) for a good reason — these utterances are so bafflingly devoid of humour that the only way present-day audiences can identify them as jokes is from contextual clues. There’s no audible laughter in the film itself so when today’s viewers see White Christmas on TV the “Minstrel Number” gets the silent response it deserves.
The “Minstrel Number” kind of sounds like a pitch; the kind of thing you say to a Hollywood producer in order to get him to finance your show. You just need to imagine a modern-day producer’s voice interrupting from time to time:
“Danny! Loved you in Walter Mitty baby! Great stuff! We’re gonna have to remake that flick one of these days. Bing baby! Great to see ya! So hey I hear you’ve got an idea for a show. Lay it on me fellas!”
I’d rather see a minstrel show than any other show I know!
Ah those comical folks with their riddles and jokes!
“All right. Comedy. Good. I’ve never heard of this ‘minstrel’ thing you’re singing about but go on. Make me fall in love here.”
And here is the riddle that I love the best: Why does a chicken go… you know the rest!
“Uh… what? I don’t I don’t get it. What?”
Mr. Bones! Mr. Bones! How do you feel Mr. Bones?
Mr. Bones feels rattlin’! Haha that’s a good one!
“Seriously what the hell?”
How can you stop an angry dog from biting you on Monday?
That joke is old the answer is to kill the dog on Sunday!
That’s not the way to stop a dog from biting you on Monday!
How would you bring the thing about?
Have the doggie’s teeth pulled out!
“You’re aware that you’re saying these things out loud right? And that people can hear you?”
Oh Mr. Bones that’s terrible!
Yes Mr. Bones that’s terrible!
“Okay calling attention to the fact that it’s terrible doesn’t improve things. It’s not fucking funny. It resembles no humour of any kind. But hey what do I know? Maybe this is some kind of avant-garde anti-humour that’ll play to the hipsters. I don’t know enough about that shit to say. In fact give me a minute here; I’m just going to Google “minstrel show” on my smartphone — maybe this’ll all make sense to me… ah here we go.”
(Producer reads silently to himself. Reacts with horror. Stares at Danny and Bing like they just shat in a teacup.)
“Get the fuck out of my office.”