Randy Newman and Short People

Short People

How do you teach irony? It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times over the years and the only answer I can offer with any degree of honesty is  – with great difficulty. There’s a simple reason for this. With irony you either get it or you don’t, and trying to help those who don’t get it is, believe me, not an easy task. That’s why, when I teach irony, I reach for Randy Newman.

I thought of Randy Newman this week when John Bercow (5ft 6in), in response to a joke made by David Cameron that referred to the Speaker of the House of Commons as one of the Seven Dwarfs, questioned whether such ‘heightism’ was any more acceptable than racism or sexism.

It reminded me of the great Newman song ‘Short People’

Here he is singing it – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NvgLkuEtkA

 

And here’s the first verse –

Short People got no reason

Short People got no reason

Short People got no reason

To live

 

They got little hands

Little eyes

They walk around

Tellin’ great big lies

They got little noses

And tiny little teeth

They wear platform shoes

On their nasty little feet

 

Well, I don’t want no Short People

Don’t want no Short People

Don’t want no Short People

`Round here

 

Is this a song that hates short people? It certainly seems to be and, clearly, a lot of people in America at the time of its release thought it was. In 1978, legislation was introduced in the state of Maryland to make it illegal to play “Short People” on the radio.

So, it seems that Randy Newman hates short people. They’ve got ‘no reason to live’ and he doesn’t want them around. The question to ask, though, is whether the words are his. Once you realise that the words are the words of a character and they are being presented for our disapproval because we know, like the writer, that such views are clearly absurd and extreme, you begin to get the point. The speaker’s prejudice against short people is irrational and extreme, a form of outrageous bigotry about which we can only feel critical. What Newman is doing is exposing all forms of prejudice and discrimination in all their absurdity. He’s showing that John Bercow in equating ‘heightism’ with sexism and racism, is absolutely right.

The trouble is, though, that like any form of irony, not everyone will get it. Those who complained to radio stations clearly didn’t, nor did some of the good people of Maryland.

That anyone shouldn’t get ‘Short People’ seems especially strange when you consider that Randy Newman makes it quite clear in the song itself what he thinks, and what we are supposed to think, about the expressed attitudes. In the next verse (the part he calls ‘ the nice and friendly part’ in the Youtube clip) he drops the voice of the speaker and gives us another

Short People are just the same

As you and I

(A Fool Such As I)

All men are brothers

Until the day they die

(It’s A Wonderful World)

He’s still having some ironic fun with those brackets, but this clearly is someone else’s voice, someone who is standing up for those much-maligned short people.

Then we’re back to the bigot –

Short People got nobody

Short People got nobody

Short People got nobody

To love

 

They got little baby legs

That stand so low

You got to pick ’em up

Just to say hello

They got little cars

That go beep, beep, beep

They got little voices

Goin’ peep, peep, peep

They got grubby little fingers

And dirty little minds

They’re gonna get you every time

Well, I don’t want no Short People

Don’t want no Short People

Don’t want no Short People

‘Round here

 

So there you have it – a lesson in irony. Work out where the writer stands in relation to what’s being said and where he wants you to stand. If you’re lucky you’ll get a little helping hand but if you’re not you’re on your own and just have to bring to your reading the sense that sometimes what you read or hear shouldn’t be taken at face value.

You can teach irony and satire through other songs. The Kinks do it admirably in ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ and ‘Well Respected Man’ and even 10CC’s ‘I’m Not in Love’ can teach the lesson of speakers sometimes meaning the opposite of what they say. Ironically, one of the songs which is of little use in teaching irony is Alanis Morissette’s ‘Ironic’.

Randy Newman, though, is the king. He pulls off the ironic trick time and time again (check out ‘Rednecks’ and ‘Political Science’), presenting speakers and attitudes that we are not intended to trust and that we are supposed to criticise. He is one of the supreme satirists, a master of mordant irony  – the English teacher’s (and John Bercow’s) best friend.

(NB I am 5ft 8”)

 

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