Sunday, May 3, 2015

Things Fred Flintstone Never Taught You

Well, I can’t find it with a Google search today. But I’m almost sure I remember an episode of The Flintstones in which Fred thinks he’s having a baby. If it wasn’t Fred Flintstone, it was some other animated husband from the classic era of TV cartoons who mistakenly gets someone else’s test result at the doctor’s office. I thought the joke was funny when I was a kid. I know more details now, but I certainly knew then it was ridiculous, and I laughed. In fact, the story is funny because the man who accepts this news doesn’t know as much as the eight-year-old who’s laughing at him. But it’s not funny, you say. Well, I came across the story again last week in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Apparently it was funny in the fourteenth century, and it’s still funny to me in the twenty-first now that I’m quite a bit older than eight.

On each of ten days, Boccaccio’s ten characters each tell one another a story, for a total of – yes, you did that math right – one hundred stories. On most days, the stories center around a single theme. But on the ninth day, the troupe is free to tell any story they want. The results, like the genres, are mixed. There’s the story of a woman who doesn't heed the warning of her husband's dream and then is mauled by a wolf, which doesn’t come across today as either scary or dramatic  And there’s the very uncomfortable story about a man who learns (from Solomon, no less!) to beat his wife in order to keep her in line. At least Boccaccio knew enough to have the women in his group of storytellers disapprove.

But the ninth day offers plenty of entertainment in its comedic tales involving sexual romps, tricks played on fools, or both. For instance, in the second story, an abbess gets up in the middle of the night to catch a nun who has a man in her bed, but the abbess shows up with a man's pantaloons on her head instead of her wimple, so all the women decide not to say any more of the matter. Story 6 finds two traveling men staying the night with a family in their one bedroom. The family has a teenage daughter (of course), and there’s almost no end to the sequence of characters getting up to relive themselves and then stumbling back in the pitch dark to the wrong bed. And finally, there’s the story of Calandrino, a fool who features in several of the stories of the Decameron. Here on the ninth day, a physician looking for a good laugh tells Calandrino he’s pregnant. "This happened because she wanted to be on top!" the distraught Calandrino shouts. Now that’s a part of the old joke that didn’t make it to The Flintstones.

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