The Liberty of the Ad Lib

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Did you see what I did there?

“Liberty”…

“Ad Lib”…

Get it?

OK. I have to admit. It is a bit of a stretch. At least from a literal standpoint. The “lib” of “ad lib” doesn’t stand for “liberty.” It’s actually the short form of the Latin phrase ad libitum.

Ad libitum literally translates to “at one’s pleasure.” There’s no “liberty” in it at all. Our word “liberty” derives from the Latin word liber. In Latin, liber and libitum mean two different, albeit not wholly unrelated, things.

The Latin liber means “free” or “unrestricted.” You can easily see how we get “liberty” from this word. Just to confuse you – as if all the different decinations aren’t enough, the Latin liber (from the genitive of libri), also means “book” or – get this – “the inner bark of a tree,” from which we get the word “library.” But we’ll skip this branch of the Latin tree.

The Latin libitum, (the perfect passive participle of libet, which means “it is pleasing”), on the other hand, translates to “pleased” or “one’s pleasure.”

I know what you’re thinking: “Won’t you derive pleasure from being free and unrestricted? So, aren’t liber and libitum really the same thing?”

Believe me, this is the kind of question that has vexed libertarians from before our country’s founding. Indeed, the libertarian philosophy seems to have two competing heads.

The first can be traced back to 17th century England and the writings of John Locke, who has been called the Father of Liberalism. Locke’s work (primarily his Natural Rights philosophy of “life, liberty, and property”) attracted the attention of America’s Founding Fathers. You may recognize Thomas Jefferson’s adulation of Locke in the phrasing he used within the body of the Declaration of Independence (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). (For Founding Father aficionados, Jefferson’s change of the third item represents an homage to Aristotle.) Let’s call this the liber part of libertarianism.

The second head of libertarianism – perhaps you might refer to it as “The Dark Side” – seems to have its roots in the French Revolution. (For those with a scorecard, Thomas Paine represents a key link between the American and French Revolutions.) Many cite Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thoughts on the intersection of morality and freedom and the springboard to the part of libertarianism that speaks to anarchism. Let’s call this the libitum part of libertarianism.

But we don’t want to judge the word libitum too harshly. After all, it’s a critical part of the phrase ad libitum, which, in turn, gave us the term “ad lib.”

And “ad lib” is a good thing.

Ad lib gives us the personal freedom that defines liberty.

But that might represent too great a leap for the casual reader. Let’s start where many of us experience ad lib to our great delight: the arts.

If you like jazz (or the Grateful Dead), then you’ve experienced the joys of ad lib. These musical journeys often allow free ranging instrumentation. While at least a single band member is tasked with keeping the tempo, one or more of the musicians have the freedom to play at their pleasure. (There you go, again. A combination of liber and libitum.)

Still, with skilled players, the average concert-goer might not recognize when the music veers from the score. There’s another stage, however, where the audience knows for sure they’re experiencing a purely unscripted event: improv theatre.

Here, comedians will ask the audience to throw out a few random nouns and verbs. The troupe then makes a coherent (and hopefully humorous) story out of those words and phrases. In this case, the audience derives pleasure (libitum) from the comic’s unrestricted use of the elements presented them (liber).

The beauty of ad lib is often captured for all to see in major cinematic releases. This requires very talented actors who are well-versed in improvisational comedy. In fact, when you place several qualified actors like this in the same movie, you have the recipe for a comedy classic… or a complete dud.

You don’t remember the duds, but you do remember the classics. I had the pleasure (libitum)to attend “An Evening with Chevy Chase” at the Kodak Center last Friday. They brought the 75-year-old comedian on the stage for an hour of, well, an old Chevy Chase. There were snippets of his wit, but, when the audience had to finish his sentences for him, well, you know, you’re free (liber) to interpret that any way you’d like.

Except for one thing. Before ol’ Chevy sauntered onto the stage, attendees laughed through a full presentation of the uncut version of the movie Caddyshack.

The comedy, an acclaimed classic, started as a completely scripted coming-of-age movie. Most of that script, however, ended up on the cutting room floor. (After filming, the first edit of the movie clocked in at 4½ hours long.) When the editors finished, what was left was mostly a series of ad lib performances by Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield. These were just too good to cut. Audiences agreed.

The final cut (a run time of only 98 minutes) features a story that was created in post-production. In a sense, these ad lib comedians represented such a powerful force that only an ad lib final edit could do it justice.

And it did.

But at a cost.

While Caddyshack boosted the careers of its well-known stars, it soured the career aspirations of its younger actors. Quite a few quit the business as a result of the anarchy that ruled the set. In fact, the movie was filmed in Florida just to avoid the watchful eyes of its Hollywood overseers. (It was pitched to the studio as Animal House on the golf course. Little did they know…)

The production set was less about making a movie and more about having a party – for some. When the set broke, half the crew didn’t want to leave while the other half couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

It’s been said freedom isn’t free. The actors who created such an iconic movie had the freedom to do so. Our cinematic canon is all the more valuable for their efforts. While not originally scripted, some of the lines have found their way into our language, etched into the culture of (at least) the generation that grew up with Caddyshack.

Yet, there was collateral damage. Most of us will never see it, and it does take a certain amount of energy to dig up evidence of this damage. And why should we? The trade-off we derive as a society for this masterpiece – how it has enriched our lives (it morphed from a coming of age story to a Marx Brothers morality tale) – makes it worthwhile.

After all, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Wow. That doesn’t sound very liberating at all. How about this:

After all, without the ad lib, you’d never be able to realize your own Cinderella Story.

Groucho Speaks! A Book Review of The Groucho Letters

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The_Best_Game_Ever_250Who’s the best comedic commentator too many people haven’t really seen? Long before Jon Stewart, ages prior to SNL’s Weekend Update, decades in advance of Johnny Carson and even years ahead of Bob Hope, the world had Groucho Marx. A biting satirist when needed, Groucho had an advantage over all these heirs: He had no pretentions about his own humble beginnings (vaudevillian slapstick can do that to anyone). How did Groucho achieve this while Stewart, SNL and, at times both Carson and Hope, fail the snideness test?

Many credit Irving Thalberg with the successful relaunch of the Marx Brothers. After a five year run with Paramount, the Marx Brothers left the studio over a disagreement. Thalberg picked up the act for MGM. Though their Paramount movies proved popular, those pictures lacked something. Thalberg knew what the films overlooked. Besides a traditional story line, Continue Reading “Groucho Speaks! A Book Review of The Groucho Letters