Reviewed in this essay: Fifty Shades of Black by Arthur Black, Douglas & McIntyre, 2013
Fifty Shades of Black collects the latest humour by Arthur Black, an ex-CBC broadcaster and two-time Stephen Leacock award winner. Mostly reprints from his syndicated column, these 82 essays showcase the same colloquial style and easy wisdom of his fifteen previous books.
As always, Black blends news commentary with personal anecdotes, some of them his own. I wouldn’t accuse Black of a lack of originality. He just loves telling other people’s jokes. Still, amid rehashed yarns from comedian Rita Rudner, Israeli ex-Prime Minister Golda Meir, former Arizona Senator Lori Klein, Winston Churchill, Medallion Financial president Andrew Murstein, Black’s cab-driving pal Eddie, and others, he manages to squeeze in some of his own material.
It’s generally uncontroversial stuff. His chapter on mustaches, for example, says, “they’re not much good for anything.” No argument there. A separate essay on beards maintains: “Abe Lincoln had a beard. Santa Claus has a beard.” Did anyone deny it?
On radio broadcasting: “it’s radio, nobody can see you. I could read the six o’clock news wearing a Bozo the Clown nose … and no one would be the wiser.” Some of Black’s eldest readers may not – yet – have taken the plunge and invested in their very own crystal sets. The rest of us already know that on the radio, nobody can see you.
However, Black’s occasional insipidity is part of his technique: first lull his audience by gaining their unconditional agreement, then follow up with stronger material.
Provided he doesn’t lose the reader first, it works.
Fifty Shades of Black carries an old-fashioned streak that exceeds its author’s years. Black loves to ham his age, especially in a baldness essay (“’Tis the Season of the Chrome-Dome”) and chapters called “How Old Is ‘Old’?” and “Everything New is Old Again.”
Sometimes it’s just part of his act. For example, the mustache piece (“Male Vanity”) alludes to former NHL player Lanny McDonald’s facial hair. Lanny retired in 1989. The essay ran in April 2013. That’s either 24 years of contemplation on Lanny’s ‘stache, or a deliberately stale reference for comic effect.
But a genuine bewilderment with modernity soon emerges – in fact, bewilderment with anything post-1975.
In “Make Mine a Double-Double,” Black puzzles over the rise of Starbucks. How do those franchises stay in business, given their comfy chairs and free wifi? Why doesn’t everyone queue in Tim Horton’s, which Black compares to a Chrysler assembly line? This isn’t just a humourist casting for gag fodder. He sincerely wonders.
Then Black yearns for the good old days of non-mechanized dairy. “I can remember when milk came to our doors in milk wagons hauled by patient, shuffling teams of horses.”
But is it really so remarkable that milk wagons were conveyances for milk? And I’ve never seen a horse “shuffle.” But I guess things were different in Black’s day.
Cavils aside, I recommend the book to fans of gentle Canadian humour.