Don't Want No Smart People 'Round Here
When I learned that Randy Newman's first hit single had been deemed "crass" by the Little People of America, it felt like deja vu. I'd known something like this was in the cards for almost a decade. I guess I should mention right here, as is customary in these pieces, that I myself am five nine. But that didn't stop me way back in 1969 from conceiving a group called Shorties Liberation, not any more than a comparable disability prevented the woman I lived with from conceiving a science-fiction novel in which progressive dolphins and chimpanzees struggled on behalf of their dumb (but sentient) fellow creatures in the vegetable kingdom.
For some reason, none of our Movement friends found these fancies as funny, or as refreshing, as we did. In fact, they often seemed to miss the point, and nothing in the controversy surrounding "Short People" indicates that things have improved much since. So although it's hardly appropriate, I'll try to state the dilemma without irony: As a result of inherited somatic differences, short people--like black people, women, and carrots--really do suffer. They are subject to physical intimidation; they are disadvantaged (and ridiculed) in most sports and many occupations; if they are male and heterosexual, they face absurd cultural impediments in their search for a mate. Black people, women, and perhaps even carrots have it a lot worse. But in a world where some feminist theorists trace the subjugation of women to size, it really is a little crass to make a joke of it.
Yet that is, among other things, what Randy Newman is doing--just as I was when I conceived Shorties Liberation. The temptation to mockery becomes almost irresistible at times, and in these two cases the reason is evident. Humor is, among other things, a socially acceptable way of unleashing socially unacceptable aggression. And what is there that arouses as much socially unacceptable aggression as the logic of oppression--the sense of each advantaged person that he or she is responsible for all the unfair suffering occasioned by the disadvantages of others--in which so many well-meaning humans became enmeshed during the '60s? Women's liberation was just beginning, but even in 1969 the militant feminist I lived with was wondering if it wasn't going to end not merely in vegetarianism, but in some cockamamy code according to which all food would have to die a natural death before being converted to Soylent Green. Yet she could only lash out ironically, so that friends often failed to understand her altogether, probably because they didn't want to face the awful, ultimate truth.
These days, of course, many of the well-meaning resist the logic of oppression without shame. You might expect an ironist like me to be pleased, but as it happens I'm no fan of swastikas, chic racism, or fag-baiting by putative libertarians. I wonder whether things wouldn't be better today if people had understood about Shorties Liberation in 1969, and I take a certain satisfaction in the anti-"Short People" reaction. It seems an appropriate response to a song that has been transformed from a rather wicked joke into a self-fulfilling masterpiece by its popular appeal, something that rarely happens in pop music these days. Just why is it, do you think, that a radio station in Buffalo played the thing for an hour straight? Because Randy Newman fans so detest intolerance that they longed to hear it squelched 20 times in succession? Or because someone was finally voicing the hostility they felt--not just toward short people, although they definitely take the symbolic brunt, but toward every minority that has demanded gingerly treatment since first Nagasaki and then the desegregation decision put an end to official racism in this land?
That the aim of "Short People" is to squelch intolerance is the line taken by Newman's manager, Elliot Abbott, as well as by most of the well-meaning people who get off on the song. Offered as proof is the break, sung by those three paragons of right-thinking, Glen Frey, J. B. Souther, and Tim Schmit: "Short people are just the same/As you and I/All men are brothers/Until they die." That they sound even simpier performing this duty than they do as Schmeagles goes unmentioned. Also ignored are the two song titles--"A Fool Such As I" and "It's A Wonderful World"--interpolated by the song's protagonist in Newman's rough, mumbled, immutably sarcastic drawl. At the Capitol Theatre in Passaic last Saturday, Newman, performing solo, sang the break himself, which made his rendering even more perfunctory than it would have been otherwise. A dozen or so souls applauded as the liberal shibboleths passed by. Significantly, though, the cheers for "You got to pick 'em up/Just to say hello" were a lot more enthusiastic.
What I'm saying ought to be obvious, but there's sure to be resistance, so I will restate. The shibboleths are a set-up. The platitudes about brotherhood are there to be shot down by the rabid but endearing know-nothingism of the jerk who sings the verses and chorus. This guy is so dumb he doesn't even know why short people are offensive--they don't drive "little cars" any more than anybody else. But he walks away with the song. After all, did those people in Buffalo want to hear Randy Newman, or the Schmeagles?
Despite my straightforwardness, the well-meaning must be wondering. If "Short People" does indeed insult short people, rather than achieving some clever but clear-cut "satire," can one in good conscience approve? Especially one who has suggested that the objections of certain militant short people lack neither merit nor poetic justice? Such questions illustrate the limitations of straightforwardness. For what makes the song worthy of censorship also makes it a masterpiece. The protests are essential to the song's truth because they make it harder to fudge. If you enjoy the song, you must now do so in the knowledge that your pleasure is someone else's pain--no doubt that of a hypersensitive crank, and a pushy one at that, but, since all men are brothers until the day they die, a fellow human nonetheless. Not that it matters. Some of your best friends are short, and they think the song is pretty funny, right? Or as Newman told AP: "Of course, no joke is worth hurting people's feelings, and some people are pretty angry about it. But I think it's only a tiny minority."
Newman is clearly made for such scrapes--the limitations of straightforwardness fascinate him. A few years ago Ralph J. Gleason, a well-meaner if ever there was one, got all twisted up trying to figure out whether Randy believed Lester Maddox was as worthy a human as you, me, or Ralph J. Himself. As I hear the song in question, "Rednecks"--which works much the same way "Short People" does, although it's more complex and chilling--he doesn't. But he does believe that when Lester Maddox gets put down for being a dumb redneck (so that his racism serves only as further proof of how dumb he is), a lot of other racist Southerners have an understandable gripe. Which is to the point here. Break or no break, "Short People" does function as an anti-bigotry song, because its protagonist is portrayed as dumb. Hence, bigotry itself is dumb. And hence, bigotry is bad. But only if the dumb aren't as worthy as you, me, and Ralph J.
This has always been the chief weakness of Newman's work--and of irony itself, which for the modern elite has served much the same protective function that traditional moralisms did for their predecessors. It's typical of how good Newman's work is that he explores this weakness, in "Rednecks" and perhaps even in "Short People" itself. But it's not good enough. My editor, a smart person, was somewhat skeptical when I suggested that her pleasure was someone else's pain. The irony, after all, was so clear. But the nature of irony is that not everyone understands it.
Dumb people--or smart people with a little touch of dumbness where the issue of height arises--don't necessarily get the joke. With Randy Newman, they rarely do. That's one source of his appeal--an appeal he has finally broadened with a novelty one-shot. Long before "Short People" became a hit, one reviewer suggested alternate adjectives: not just tall, but thin, fat, old, young, white, black, red, gray, gay, and straight. He left one out though.
A few years ago, a painter friend of mine figured out a way to tell Polack jokes. He changed them into artist jokes. Q: How do you tell the bride at an artist's wedding? A: She's the one who's braided her armpit hair.
Here's an artist joke for all you Randy Newman fans:
Don't have publication citation for this. "Short People" was in 1977's Little Criminals, so most likely this dates from 1977-78.