Say what you will about romantic island getaways, you get more bang for your buck from desert island cartoons. Centuries of drama, from The Tempest to Gilligan’s Island, are distilled into an islet with just enough room for two people, both of them raggedy and at least one of them heavily bearded, and the essential single palm tree. One of the people is saying something like this (from the New Yorker, by the late Alain):
“Do me a favor, will you—stop saying ‘entre nous.’”
Very dry, that. More fellow feeling in this one by Michael Maslin: A raggedy man and a very large fish are sitting with their backs to the tree. The man is saying, “You’re here and you don’t have to be. That tells me a lot about you.”
It can’t be easy to draw a fish that looks to be needing reassurance, relationship-wise. But in recent years, desert-island jokes have come to be pointedly self-referential. Two castaways reaching out to a ship that has arrived. Salvation at hand! From the deck the skipper, smiling, maybe even envious, says to the raggedy two, “You must have thought up a million jokes.”
Is there ever anything Southern about desert-island humor? In a cartoon by Carl Rose, a raft is washing up with an old lady on it. The raggedy man is looking aghast. The raggedy woman is looking delighted, as she cries out, “Mother!” That could be Southerned up: Just change the one word to “Momma!” And it could be his or hers.
But the iconic atoll isn’t big enough for a dead mule, or even live dogs, let alone a jail, a train, a truck, Fort Sumter, or too much alcohol.
I don’t recall any desert-island jokes on Hee Haw. A common notion is that the ideal situation for a heterosexual male would be stranded on a desert island with several members of the opposite sex. Whether that holds true in practice, I cannot say. What I can do is picture Archie Campbell in conversation with Junior Samples:
“Junior, how many women would you want to be marooned with on a desert isle?”
Junior looks like he wishes Archie hadn’t come to him with this in the middle of a nap.
“Naw, well,” Junior says, “I don’t know—maybe rilly just the one.”
“Just one? How come?”
“Them others’re liable to tell.”
“What we got up to.”
“Cause they’re jealous? You’d have to share your self around.”
“Yeah, uh-huh…[Sighs.] But one thing—we would have to reach an understanding.”
“You and all those women.”
“What would they have to understand?”
“Dang it, why can’t they realize? I need some time to fish.”
Celebrities have long been asked to list the songs they would want with them if they were marooned on a desert island. Princess Margaret of England chose, surprisingly, Tennessee Ernie Ford singing “Sixteen Tons.” But that song (written, and sung better, by Merle Travis) has to do with coal mining. On your basic desert island, you couldn’t dig a half ton of dirt. Has a country song ever been set on a desert island?
I have been working on one. Just a single verse so far, and that one depends on familiarity with the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, but what do you want from me—the closest I’ve come to being marooned on a desert island, personally, is on a sandbar in the Mississippi River with lots of writers, musicians, fried foods, and liquor on the day after Julia Reed’s annual Greenville, Mississippi, Delta Hot Tamale Festival. One year several of us took a side excursion in a skiff driven by Julia’s friend Bo Weevil. Bo Weevil fired a pistol shot, whereupon ten, fifteen, twenty huge Asian carp started leaping up at us, banging in and out of the boat, glancing off of us—and afterward, you could almost hear those weird, bony, third-grade-child-size fish bubbling to one another down below: “Hey! Did you see the blonde? I swear that was Jessica Lange!”
It was, too. That’s the kind of party Julia Reed is known for throwing. Jessica Lange, of course, portrayed Patsy Cline in the biopic. Never will a desert island song hold up next to “I Fall to Pieces,” but how about something along the lines of this:
I caught you hugging my volleyball,
And you know that ain’t right.
Tween you and me and the coconut tree,
I won’t be home tonight.