What can John Cleese and The Avengers teach us about human psychology? UPDATED!
Dealing with difficult people is like walking on eggshells. This fact is known to teachers, therapists, ministers, and gurus. Some people are balanced so precariously that, like Humpty Dumpty, they’re bound to take a great fall. What can one then do?
Sadly, sometimes not very much. Owing to their rigid rules and canalized thinking, some individuals stand little chance of getting off the conveyor belt which they themselves have set in motion. They are, at least for a time, ill-fated.
Such is the case with Marcus Rugman (played by John Cleese), an eccentric “egg man” who lives in perpetual fear that his collection of clown faces painted on eggs will come to harm:
(Any problems with the video, try dropbox link.)
This combination of obsessiveness and fragility reminds me of the main character in Rain Man. A consultant on the movie, Dr. Darold Treffert, writes:
A variety of persons, especially Dustin Hoffman, felt that the portrayal of an autistic person, with all the typical associated rituals, obsessiveness, resistance to change and relatively affectionless behaviours might make a more interesting character for Raymond Babbitt, one the public had never really been exposed to on screen.
Dr. Treffert goes on to explain that the Raymond Babbitt character is actually a composite of autism and savant syndrome. In the earlier Avengers clip (from Season 6, Episode 11), Marcus Rugman exhibits some of the same traits in comic form.
He’s clearly a savant on the subject of clown faces painted on eggs, but his rigid rules for entry into his world, coupled with his utter lack of warmth, mark him as a character destined to take a fatal pratfall. Then, as John Steed and Tara King remark: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…”
Of this episode, French critic Gérard Dulapin trenchantly observes:
The diversion of childhood imagery to conspiracy Mortifier has already been explored during Nothing goes more in the nursery. If the fancy burlesque predominates, an episode like Maille to go with the taties had already introduced the absurd in season 4, appearing like a predecessor, certainly mezzo voce, of this one.
— Gérard Dulapin, via Google Translate
Among (possibly) interesting egg facts: There was a real-life egg man, Stan Bult, who did memorialize clown make-up on eggshells. And while the goose egg is understandably unpopular among men and women of sport, it is prized in clown egg circles for its crusty insouciance. According to a site celebrating International Clown Week:
The collection continued to be lent out after Mr. Bult’s death but sadly most of the eggs were destroyed in an accident at one such exhibit around 1965.
Clown Bluey became chairman of Clowns International in 1984 and resurrected Mr. Bult’s practice of recording clown members’ faces on eggs. This time a professional artist was used and the faces were painted on china-pot eggs instead of chicken eggs. Over the years, many of the lost older eggs have been reproduced, and new eggs are added frequently.
In the U.S. collection, the faces are hand-painted on goose eggs (more durable than chicken eggs), and decorated with various materials (such as clay, wire, felt, tiny flowers, glitter, etc.) to obtain as accurate a representation of the clown face and costume as possible.
Though failing to mention Stan Bult (thus inviting a clown fatwa), Salman Rushdie has his own take on egg men in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which — like all great children’s stories — is laced with jokes for adults:
Haroun noticed that among the crowd were many men and women who, like the man on the balcony, had smooth, shiny and hairless heads. These people all wore the white coats of laboratory technicians and were, clearly, the Eggheads of P2C2E House, the geniuses who operated the Machines Too Complicated To Describe (or M2C2Ds) which made possible the Processes Too Complicated To Explain.
‘Are you—?’ he began, and they interrupted him, for being Eggheads, they were extremely quick on the uptake.
‘We are the Eggheads,’ they nodded, and then, with looks on their faces that said we can’t believe you don’t know this, they pointed at the shiny fellow on the grand balcony and said, ‘He is the Walrus.’
‘He’s the Walrus?’ Haroun burst out, astounded. ‘But he’s nothing like a walrus! Why do you call him that?’
‘It’s on account of his thick, luxuriant walrus moustache,’ one of the Eggheads replied, and another added admiringly, ‘Look at it! Isn’t it the best? So hairy. So silky-smooth.’
‘But …’ Haroun began, and then stopped when Iff dug him hard in the ribs. ‘I suppose if you’re as hairless as these Eggheads,’ he told himself, ‘even that pathetic dead mouse on the Walrus’s upper lip looks like the greatest thing you’ve ever seen.’
As Haroun passed through the huge doors of P2C2E House, his heart sank. He stood in the vast, echoing entrance hall as white-coated Eggheads walked rapidly past him in every direction. Haroun fancied that they all eyed him with a mixture of anger, contempt, and pity. He had to ask three Eggheads the way to the Walrus’s office before he finally found it, after mazy wanderings around P2C2E House that reminded him of following Blabbermouth around the palace. At last, however, he was standing in front of a golden door on which were written the words: GRAND COMPTROLLER OF PROCESSES TOO COMPLICATED TO EXPLAIN. I. M. D. WALRUS, ESQUIRE*. KNOCK AND WAIT.
In Rushdie’s satire of good (or bad) government, the Walrus is the chief bureaucrat, and the Eggheads are the techno-geeks who actually run the place. As in The Avengers, Rushdie’s Eggheads are savants with not-terribly-winning personalities, kind of like Microsoft tech support peeps. (“You want to reinstall Windows? Okay, I’ll need a blood sample, your firstborn child, and you should take a half pound gefilte fish and swing it around your head while screaming like a chicken.** Then just enter these 42 lines of code at the command prompt.”) But I digress…
The second part of The Avengers clip sports a more cheery message: Two people who think they have nothing in common can manage to hit on a subject that lights up both their faces: Music Appreciation!
A more bittersweet exploration of the same theme is found in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, where Sandra Locke and Alan Arkin send each other muted signals:
(Any problems with the video, try dropbox link.)
And taking the premise beyond the edge of absurdity, there’s this classic sendup of “Mr. B Natural” by the Mystery Science Theatre gang:
There’s always a possibility that two people might manage to communicate across barriers which seemingly divide them, as when Linda Thorson first pokes her head in the door of the establishment where John Cleese keeps his clown egg collection. In David and Lisa, a 1962 film about mental illness, David (Keir Dullea) is afraid of being touched, and Lisa (Janet Margolin) speaks only in rhymes; yet their shared experience forms a fragile duet:
(Any problems with the video, try dropbox link.)
There isn’t any. This is one of those posts where I’m content to let things remind me of other things. Any wisdom to be found is in the journey itself, not the summing up.
Yet, like Marcus Rugman, we tend to spend a score or more years amassing a brittle collection of behaviours which comprise our lives, only to find that death breaks the shell we have so painstakingly constructed. Would it not be better to be more fluid and flexible in our approach to life, so that at the appointed moment we can dissolve gently into the wind? I am tempted to paraphrase the Christ, if I have the temerity to do so: This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but lay no eggs there.
Oh, and try not to prance about carrying a sousaphone…
The Avengers episode in question bears the prolix title “Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers…” Airing in 1968, it was written by Dennis Spooner, who also wrote for Doctor Who. If the succession of comic wardrobe changes at the end seems familiar (and somehow Whovian), it’s because Tom Baker went on to do a similar quick-change in his premier episode as the Doctor (though Spooner didn’t write that one).
Janet Margolin later co-starred in a number of films, including Woody Allen’s Take The Money and Run (1969). Keir Dullea had a major role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
*For further info on I. M. D. WALRUS, see the collected works of John Lennon.
**Recipe update: In response to reader feedback, please note that you can modify this recipe to use 2 pounds haddock and scream instead like a banshee. Be sure and split the haddock, though splitting haddock is rightly found under category “Ailments.”
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy Tells Two Egg Stories
The Ploughman Versus the Christ
There were two great artists from Florence — Donatello and Filippo Brunelleschi. Once, when Donatello was quite young, he made a crucifix of wood and thought he had achieved nothing short of perfect perfection. He invited his dear friend Brunelleschi to offer his wise comment. Needless to say, inwardly he was dying for the best possible appreciation, which he felt he so rightly deserved. Alas, his dream-world was shattered to pieces when Brunelleschi said to him, “I see a ploughman on the cross instead of the Saviour.”
Donatello was utterly mortified by this unexpected criticism from the older artist. He said, “You are a great judge! But let me see you do it yourself. You say I made a ploughman instead of Jesus Christ. Let me see your masterpiece of the crucifixion.”
That very day Brunelleschi began working on his crucifix. In due course, Brunelleschi completed his sculpture. One day, by chance, he met with his dear friend Donatello in a grocery. Brunelleschi said to his friend, “Tonight you will have supper with me. Please do me a favour. I have bought these items and I have still more items to buy. Will you be good enough to carry these items to my house? I shall be coming home shortly.”
Donatello gladly complied with his friend’s request, carrying a few eggs and some cheese in his apron. Upon entering Brunelleschi’s studio, he got the shock of his life. Perfection incarnate was Brunelleschi’s sculpture of the crucifixion. Utterly amazed, he lost his outer senses and dropped the apron containing the eggs and cheese. Everything was smashed and all was perfect chaos before the immortal sculpture.
On his return, when Brunelleschi saw the great calamity, he said to his friend, “What is the matter with you? What are we going to have now for dinner?”
Donatello said, “Sorry, I have already had my dinner. Your supremely great achievement has fed me to my heart’s content. I feel sorry for you that you have nothing to eat. Now, listen to my sincere heart. The difference between you and me is this: you know how to make the Christ and I know how to make a ploughman.”
— Sri Chinmoy, from Transfiguration and Other Stories, Agni Press, 2007
Perseverance, Patience and Self-Giving are of Paramount Importance
Once two partridges, a husband and wife, were going out on a trip. Before they left, the wife laid some eggs near the ocean. Then the husband said to the sea, “We are going on a sea voyage. You have to take care of these eggs for us. On our return, if we don’t find the eggs, then we shall empty you.”
The sea agreed to take care of the eggs, and it kept the eggs safe. A few days later the two partridges came back, but they could not find the eggs. They began screaming at the sea. The sea wanted to give the eggs to them, but it could not find them anymore. The birds cursed the sea and started emptying it. The husband and wife each began taking out a drop of water at a time, throwing it onto the land.
“We are going to empty you,” they said to the sea.
Some little birds saw all this and they asked, “What are you doing?”
The partridges replied, “We are punishing the sea. The sea is very bad because it didn’t keep its promise to look after our eggs.”
The little birds thought it was a noble task and they joined the partridges. After a while, some big birds took up their cause. They were very sympathetic and self-giving, and they also started taking out water drop by drop. This went on for days and weeks.
One day, the Conveyor of Lord Vishnu, Garuda, came and asked, “What are you doing?”
The birds said, “Can’t you see? We are emptying the sea.”
Garuda said, “You fools, how long will this take you? You will never be able to do it. The sea is very vast, infinite.”
But the birds answered, “No, we have determination and perseverance.”
Garuda was very surprised and said, “Let me show them some compassion. Let me ask Lord Vishnu to help them. If Vishnu helps them, then certainly they will be able to find their eggs. If the eggs are still in good condition, Vishnu will be able to return them. But if they are destroyed, he can do nothing for them.”
He went to Vishnu. “Vishnu, I have never seen fools like these. If you really care for fools, then will you do them a favour?” Garuda then told him the whole story.
Vishnu said, “No, they are not fools. They are showing the spirit of patience and perseverance. This is how human beings must try to empty the ignorance-sea, drop by drop. It is what the seekers must and should do. Ignorance-sea is very vast. If sincere seekers want to empty it to replace it with knowledge-light, then they have to do it the same way, drop by drop. So I am very pleased with those partridges. I am commanding the sea to return the eggs.”
Garuda said, “The sea wanted to give them the eggs but it misplaced them and feels that they are all destroyed.”
Vishnu said, “I am using my own occult power to show the sea where it has kept the eggs.”
He used his occult power and the sea immediately found the eggs and returned them to the partridges. Then Vishnu said to the birds, “Perseverance, patience and self-giving all are of paramount importance to fulfil one’s divine task.”
— Sri Chinmoy, from Great Indian Meals: Divinely Delicious and Supremely Nourishing, Part 2, Agni Press, 1979
Special thanks to Priyadarshan Bontempi and SriChinmoyLibrary.com for providing a great storehouse of Sri Chinmoy’s works.
And here is where the — ahem — EGGS TERMINATE!!!
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