Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Funny Medical Disorder

We are here today to talk about an involuntary contraction of the diaphragm, which is known by doctors as a synchronous diaphragmatic flutter.  It may be hard to believe, but this disorder has been a reliable source of comedy.  Amusement comes from the fact that, when a person experiences this contraction, their vocal cords are forced to close and they emit a loud "hic" sound from their throat.  The disorder is known by us more common folk as a hiccup.  The hiccup is something that people have likely laughed uproariously about since the beginning of mankind.  Hiccups have gotten more attention in comedy films than other similar afflictions, including coughs, yawns and sneezes.

Hiccups can be brought on by intense emotions, including fear, anxiety, excitement or happiness.  Home remedies for hiccups include headstanding, drinking several glasses of water, being frightened by someone, breathing into a bag, and eating a large spoonful of peanut butter.  Frightening a person with hiccups really helps.  A person reacts to a sudden fright with a gasp, which relaxes their diaphragm and reopens their vocal cords.  You can see that we have in this ailment the makings of good comedy.

Let me list hiccup routines of film and television in chronological order.

A 1909 Gaumont comedy, A Sure Cure, presents the comic efforts of a wife to rid her husband of the hiccups.  When a number of remedies prove unsuccessful, the wife sees that she needs to take more drastic measures.  The wife makes several attempts to frighten her husband, but nothing that she does works.  As a last resort, she summons her mother to their home.  The terrifying sight of his mother-in-law brings the husband immediate relief.

Charley Chase found a unique way to use hiccups in Tell 'Em Nothing (1926).  Chase, a divorce lawyer, receives an unexpected visit at his home from a pretty blonde client (Vivien Oakland).  He hides the woman under his bed when his wife (Gertrude Astor) arrives home suddenly.  Oakland gets an attack of hiccups, which Chase tries to conceal by pretending the hiccup noises are coming from him. 
Bebe Daniels helps to cure Neil Hamilton of hiccups in Take Me Home (1928).

Charlie Chaplin introduced humorous sound effects into his comic repertoire in City Lights (1931).  At a party, Chaplin accidentally swallows a penny whistle.  Having the whistle lodged in his throat brings on a distressing case of hiccups.  The funny twist is that, every time that he hiccups, he makes a whistling sound, which annoys a singer who is attempting to perform an aria.

Oswald does everything he can to cure his dog, Elmer, of hiccups in Elmer, the Great Dane (1935).

Fred MacMurray applies his unique expertise to cure Carole Lombard of hiccups in Hands Across the Table (1935).

A barber develops hiccups while cutting a man's hair in Once Over Lightly (1935).

Dopey hiccups bubbles after he accidentally swallows a bar of soap in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Joe Penner gets an attack of hiccups whenever he kisses a girl in Millionaire Playboy (1940).

A chronic case of hiccups causes Merle Oberon to seek medical help in That Uncertain Feeling (1942).  This film establishes that a hiccup can be a psychological tic that develops when a person is anxious.  When the film opens, Oberon has just recovered from one of her reoccurring hiccup episodes and she is being advised and comforted by close friends.

It is curious that the director, Ernst Lubitsch, avoided opening his film with his beautiful leading lady engaged in a comical hiccup fit.  Was hiccup humor not elegant or sophisticated enough for the classy director?  But, no, we do eventually see Oberon produce a hiccup.

Daffy Duck consults a doctor to cure his hiccups in The Impatient Patient (1942).

Dave O'Brien struggles to find a cure for his hiccups in the Pete Smith Specialty short Sure Cures (1946).

In Helter Skelter (1949), a detective (David Tomlinson) gets involved with a wealthy socialite who can't stop hiccuping.

In Hic-cup Pup (1954), Tom and Jerry's fighting abruptly wakes Spike's son Tyke, causing the puppy to suffer a violent onset of hiccups.

Hiccups became a considerable source of amusement on television.  An early example is an episode of The Honeymooners ("The Loudspeaker," 1956).  Ralph (Jackie Gleason) is excited to learn that he has been named Racoon of the Year, but he is in the midst of preparing his acceptance speech when he is stricken with hiccups.

This episode may have been the template for many sitcom episodes that followed.  A character would be nervous about a big event and their anxiety would arouse hiccups.  Many actors have tried to draw laughs by making a funny chirp, squeak or "huff" as they struggled with hiccups, but Gleason sets the bar high with his wildly agitated hiccups.  This same plot was recycled on a number of top-rated shows.  Wally Cox, a symphony percussionist who's nervous about performing with a big New York orchestra, develops a bad case of hiccups in an episode of The Lucy Show ("Lucy Conducts the Symphony," 1963).

Barney is afflicted with hiccups right before an important physical examination in The Andy Griffith Show ("Barney's Physical," 1964).  

Fred helps Barney to get rid of his hiccups in an episode of The Flintstones ("Barney the Invisible," 1962).

Of course, the hiccups are exaggerated to monstrous proportions in an episode of The Munsters ("Herman's Sorority Caper," 1966).

Grandpa (Al Lewis) performs the Transylvanian Brain Freezer to rid Herman (Fred Gwynne) of his hiccups.

Peter, who is nervous about performing in front of a big producer, gets a stubborn bout of hiccups in an episode of The Monkees ("Find the Monkees," 1967). 

Davey, Mike and Mickey attempt to cure Peter's hiccups by scaring him with monster masks.


Paula Prentiss is beset with hiccups as she gets ready for a party in an episode of He and She ("The Coming Out Party," 1967).

A explosive pill gives Woody Allen the hiccups in Casino Royale (1967).

Hiccups ruin a wedding night for Richard Dawson and Anjanette Comer in an episode of Love, American Style ("Love and the Hiccups," 1971).  The ruined wedding night was a staple of the series.

A fantasy element freshened up this old premise in an episode of Bewitched ("Sam's Psychic Slip," 1971).  Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) develops the strangest case of hiccups.  Every time she hiccups, a bicycle magically appears.

In a 1975 episode of Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase plays a minister who gets hiccups while trying to deliver a eulogy.  The grieving family tries various methods to stop the hiccups.

A king's guard gets the hiccups in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

The anxiety premise returned after a brief respite in an episode of Alice ("Alice's Decision," 1979).  Alice (Linda Lavin) has her big break at a singing career thwarted by an attack of the hiccups.

Bull (Richard Moll) tries a range of remedies to get rid of hiccups in an episode of Night Court ("Futureman," 1990).

Roberto Benigni makes himself a nuisance with his chronic hiccups in Down By Law (1986).

Who knew that a rhythmic series of breathing spasms could be so funny?

The Three Stooges in Men In Black (1934)

The Transylvanian Brain Freezer


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