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The Great Comedy Albums of My Youth: “March Comes In Like A Lion . . . and Out Like a Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse”

“Now look, pal! I know a country where March comes in like an emu and goes out like a tapir. And they don’t even know what it means!” — John Belushi

Do you remember listening to comedy albums? I sure do. In the 60’s, I inherited some classic Bill Cosby disks from my folks, plus the great Allan Sherman. I wore the grooves off his debut record (below), which featured tracks such as “The Ballad of Harry Lewis,” “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max,” “My Zelda,” and “The Streets of Miami.”

According to the usually reliable Wikipedia, Sherman’s 1962 disk, “My Son, the Folksinger,” became the fastest-selling album up to that time. Think about that for a minute. Imagine everyone on the show “Mad Men” running around quoting Allan Sherman. Soon after, I guess, the Beatles showed up and changed everything.

The Cosby album that I loved was “I Started Out as a Child,” and again, I listened to it over and over again. Those routines are burned into my skull: “The Giant,” “Sneakers,” “Oops!,” “The Lone Ranger,” and “Ralph Jameson.”

As I got older, I remember when Pat Sweeney and I discovered his older brother’s album, “Big Bambu” by Cheech & Chong, which came out in 1971 (“Sister Mary Elephant,” “Ralphie and Herbie”). Oh my, oh my. The original album, as I recall, came packaged with rolling papers! We didn’t even know what they were for . . . yet. Comedy was taking on a new edge, an outsider status — and we loved that subversive quality. Just listening to it felt like a small criminal act. For that reason, we loved George Carlin, who raised the stakes considerably. In 1972, he came out with “Class Clown,” featuring “I Used to Be an Irish Catholic” and, most famously, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.”

Again, it’s hard to describe the naughty thrill we felt as boys huddled around the turntable. We lapped it up and laughed and laughed, and somehow that counter-cultural strain seeped into our consciousness and shaped the way we looked at the world. Looking back now, I realize that I was at the exact right age for that moment in America, a tween when all the hypocrisy was hilariously exposed.

In 1976, when I was fifteen, I got a new album for Christmas (it was on my list, taped to our refrigerator), featuring The Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players. We had moved past Watergate and Vietnam, the 60’s were morphing into the Carter era and Disco was beginning to thump from speakers — as the Sex Pistols began gearing up against the bloated rock excesses of bands like Pink Floyd — and somehow this troupe of Saturday Night Live regulars had its collective finger on the pulse of America.

The stars are now legendary: John Belushi, Garrett Morris, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd, Loraine Newman, and Chevy Chase — with a memorable guest appearance from Richard Pryor (“Word Association”).

The one skit that inspired me to write this today came from John Belushi, as a high-strung weatherman. Here he plays with the notion of March coming in like a lion and out like a lamb. (See full transcript below.) You can also click here to listen to a 30-second snippet of that routine, plus many other classics (“Emily Litella,” “News for the Hard of Hearing,” “Uvula,” “Dueling Brandos,” “Jimmy Carter,” and more). I loved that album, just as I loved the excitement of staying up late to watch the weekly show.

It may be an overstatement to say that comedy was dangerous, but it was definitely no longer my dad’s old Allan Sherman albums. Times had changed and it was reflected in what made us laugh.

Here’s the skit:

Chevy Chase:
Last week we made the comment that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Now here to reply is our chief meteorologist, John Belushi, with a seasonal report.

John Belushi:
Thank you Chevy. Well, another winter is almost over and March true to form has come in like a lion, and hopefully will go out like a lamb. At least that’s how March works here in the United States.

But did you know that March behaves differently in other countries? In Norway, for example, March comes in like a polar bear and goes out like a walrus. Or, take the case of Honduras where March comes in like a lamb and goes out like a salt marsh harvest mouse.

Let’s compare this to the Maldive Islands where March comes in like a wildebeest and goes out like an ant. A tiny, little ant about this big.

(holds thumb and index fingers a small distance apart)

Unlike the Malay Peninsula where March comes in like a worm-eating fernbird and goes out like a worm-eating fernbird. In fact, their whole year is like a worm-eating fernbird.

Or consider the Republic of South Africa where March comes in like a lion and goes out like a different lion. Like one has a mane, and one doesn’t have a mane. Or in certain parts of South America where March swims in like a sea otter, and then it slithers out like a giant anaconda.

There you can buy land real cheap, you know. And there’s a country where March hops in like a kangaroo, and stays a kangaroo for a while, and then it becomes a slightly smaller kangaroo. Then, then, then for a couple of days it’s sort of a cross between a, a frilled lizard and a common house cat.

(Chevy Chase tries to interrupt him)

Wait wait wait wait. Then it changes back into a smaller kangaroo, and then it goes out like a, like a wild dingo. Now, now, and it’s not Australia! Now, now, you’d think it would be Australia, but it’s not!

(Chevy Chase tries to interrupt him)

Now look, pal! I know a country where March comes in like an emu and goes out like a tapir. And they don’t even know what it means! All right? Now listen, there are nine different countries, where March comes in like a frog, and goes out like a golden retriever. But that- that’s not the weird part! No, no, the weird part is, is the frog. The frog- The weird part is-

(has seizure and falls off chair)

As a final comment, and coming full circle, I have to confess to lifting some of those ideas for a brief scene in Jigsaw Jones Super Special #1: The Case of the Buried Treasure (maybe my favorite out of all the Jigsaw books, and amazingly still in print). I don’t think I consciously made that connection to Belushi and SNL, but in hindsight I can see that my roots were showing.

Setup: Jigsaw and Mila are at the bus stop, talking with Joey Pignattano. Note to teachers: the book focuses a bit on similes — it’s a minor theme running through the story — and you may find that instructive/helpful.

“I was wondering,” Joey Pignattano said to me. “What kind of animal do you think January would be?”

“What?!” I replied.

“I mean, if January were an animal, what kind of animal would it be?” Joey pondered.

“Do you understand what he’s talking about, Mila?” I asked. “Because I sure don’t.”

Mila smiled. At least I think she smiled. There was a big, fluffly scarf wrapped around her head like a hungry boa constrictor. “Maybe Joey is trying to think of a simile,” she offered.

Joey nodded gratefully. “You know how they say March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb? Well, I’m thinking that January would be an aardvark.”

I sighed. “Let me get this straight. March comes in like a lion. So you think January comes in like . . . an aardvark?”

“Yes,” Joey answered. “Or do you think maybe it’s more like an American bald eagle?”

“A woolly mammoth,” Mila stated.

I turned to her in surprise. “Nuh-uh,” I retorted. “January is definitely a skunk. This weather stinks.”

Fan Mail Wednesday #78-80 (Thursday Edition)

My apologies — bloggy weirdness going on with my typeface below, but I’ve already spent too much time trying to fix it. The truth is, I’m not good at letting these things go (I like my i’s dotted and my t’s crossed). But, enough. Here’s a three-for-the-price-of-one deal!

Letter #78:

Dear Mr. Preller,

I am Miguel. I am in 4th grade. I like the Jigsaw Jones especially the Groaning Ghost because one part they said don’t eat the evidence and the end when they had a party. I have 3 brothers. 1 brother is in 1st grade the other two are four years old. What’s your favorite book you wrote? Do you like to play any sports other then baseball. How many books have you wrote? What new books are you writing in 2010? How many books are you writing in 2010-20ll? I hope you write more books of Jigsaw Jones.



I replied:

Dear Miguel,

Thanks for your letter. I’ve got you beat by one brother. Growing up, I was the youngest of seven children, five boys and two girls. We had the girls outnumbered! But you’ve got LITTLE brothers, whereas I specialized in the BIG ones. Jigsaw Jones is the youngest in his family because I know all about that. In your case, Miguel, you could write about being the oldest, and how the younger ones sometimes drive you crazy (wild guess).

When I was your age, I didn’t play many organized sports, but I constantly played DISORGANIZED ones! That’s the big difference between kids when I grew up (born in 1961, back in the waaay back) and kids today. I played pickup basketball behind the local elementary school, and we played tackle football almost every day until it snowed. Then we played some more. No adults standing around, no fancy equipment, nobody setting up teams, blowing whistles, or settling our disagreements for us. We had to work it all out for ourselves. It’s like a lost skill.

(Sorry if that makes me sound old, but I guess I kind of am.)

I have a new book coming out this summer, called Justin Fisher Declares War! It’s set in a 5th-grade classroom and involves a boy who attracts trouble. It’s pretty funny, I think, but that’s not really for me to decide. Very quick and easy to read.

I’d love to write another Jigsaw Jones book, but right now there are no plans for that. It’s up to my publisher. Fortunately, I wrote 40 of them, so there should be enough to keep you busy for a while!


Letter #79:

you are the best author in the world. I love your books more then ice cream. my name is natessa but people call me Tessa i am in second grade in illinois. maybe you can visit my school. love tessa

I replied:


Thanks for that great email. More than ice cream?! Really? Any flavor?

Wow, that’s something — I never dreamed of beating ice cream. But I have dreamed of eating ice cream!

I love to visit schools and talk to kids. Maybe someday I’ll meet you in Illinois!

In the meantime: read, think, feel, grow!


Letter #80:


My four year old was given the Jigsaw CD (via Wendy’s), The Case of the Mummy Mystery, and that got him hooked on all the books. He has the mummy book memorized, which is hilarious when we read it to him and make any ‘mistakes’ at all, he’ll correct us. I typically read the first couple words and let him finish the paragraph. He LOVES Jigsaw Jones and often calls his 1 year old brother ‘Theodore’ instead of his given name, Eli. He also calls me ‘Mila’ and says that he is ‘Joey’. Not sure why he’s Joey Pignatano and not Jigsaw, but you can’t decode the mind of a four year old, can you?

Just thought I’d send out my big thanks and congrats because these books are a big hit in our house and Ethan’s first ‘big boy’ book that he’ll sit the entire book through without concern for ‘no pictures’.

I particularly love that there are not any rude words in the book, name calling, or other random things that some authors think they need to pull the kids in. There are couple books we read that I have to change the words (idiot, stupid, that’s not fair, shut up, etc. are not cool in our house).

Love your work and excited to be picking up more books. Take care, love to your family.


I replied:

Dear Trinity:

Thank you for sharing that story. Your description of Ethan reminds me of when my middle child, Gavin, was in his Beatrice Potter stage. He was three or so and had a complete set of all the books. Used to carry them around everywhere, a challenge that required great effort. It was wonderful — a little nutty and eccentric, yes, but wonderful — and I loved the opportunity he gave me to read those books over and over again. Such lovely stories, true classics. I enjoyed discovering the lesser-known titles (to me, at least), but still remember The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies as my personal favorite.

We frequently played “Peter Rabbit.”

I’d be Mr. McGregor, chasing Gavin all around the house. Lisa would stand in as Peter’s mother. Maggie, Gavin’s younger sister by eighteen months, would want to play, too. Which led to this memorable exchange:

Me: “Okay, who do you want to be Maggie?”

Maggie: “Butter!”

Me: “What?”

Maggie (more insistent): “Butter!”

Me: “Butter?”

This went back and forth for a long while, to the point where we had linguists flown in from Princeton University, all to no avail. The house was in crisis. Maggie, frustrated and angry. Finally, we got it: Not butter — “Potter!”

She wanted to be Potter!

Thanks for reminding me of that story. As for the memorization, Gavin did the same with Peter Rabbit. I distinctly remember him reciting, almost word for word, the first 25-30 pages of that book. Three years old! Craziness. These kids are such sponges. I felt grateful for Beatrice Potter, that his young developing brain was filled with such incredible images and language.

I was happy to read your closing comments about the Jigsaw Jones series. My children were taught that words like stupid and fat were bad words. And truly, bad thoughts to have about other people (and “words” and “thought” are indelibly linked). So I made it a point to keep these words and therefore those thoughts out of the Jigsaw Jones books. And like you, I’ve often been disappointed by some of the (unnecessary) choices made in children’s books and movies in the hopes of bringing in that older, edgier audience. There’s time enough, later in life, for that stuff. I mean to say: I totally hear what you are saying and couldn’t agree more. I’m not trying to sit in judgment. It’s just that as writers we all have to make choices of what we want to put out into the world. And likewise, as parents, what we bring into our homes.

My best,


“So How’s the New Book Going?”

Today, I got asked this question three times before ten o’clock: “So how’s the new book going?

It’s a well-intentioned question, and it comes from friends. I don’t know how to answer, in part because I don’t know the answer. It’s not like I get daily phone calls from my publisher, “We just sold seven in Maine!”

I guess I could say, “Um, no word from The Today Show or Oprah just yet — though my publisher did send an ARC to a blogger in Boise, Books I Feel Like Blogging About . . . And Other Stuff! So we’re hoping!”

Though I first published at age 25, in 1986, I don’t have a lot of experience in the hardcover world. My first hardcover, Cardinal and Sunflower, went to HarperCollins and sank like a stone. “Temporarily Out of Stock” on Amazon for the past nine years. It did not earn back the modest advance, was never picked up in paperback. I don’t think that’s an atypical story. How’d that book go? Um, it went, but thanks for asking.

For ten years, I wrote Jigsaw Jones books — and there was never any professional reaction, other than the letters I’d get from kids (fabulous!) or random comments I’d receive from teachers and parents. But hey, let’s not forget the ultimate measure: royalty checks. All that creative work gets reduced to simple mathematics. If it’s a big number, the book went well; if it’s a small number, disappointing, worrying. Those Jigsaw Jones books were never reviewed. Series paperbacks, you know. The kids seem to like ’em, but. If one was better or worse than another, nobody said so. After a while (read: after the first book), the publishing folks at Scholastic didn’t much read them either, other than those young editors who did so as part of their job description.

The furnace beckons. If sales go well, my publisher asks for more. If sales go down, the furnace grows cold. They try burning something else. It’s almost entirely outside of any concept of quality. (Perhaps that sentence was too generous, I’m not sure.) The numbers don’t lie. And again, this is a business. I get it. Chug, chug, chug. The train has got to keep moving down that track.

I want to be clear about this: This doesn’t make anybody a bad guy. It’s reality. I don’t curse the sky when it rains. But I’m not going to pretend the sun is shining, either. Books are products, after all; they must move. For most of us — who don’t land on the New York Times Bestseller List, or who don’t somehow cut through the clutter, as they say — it’s just how things go. Don’t cry for authors, Argentina.

Now, of course, writers today can get another helpful number over at Goodreads — if they dare. At the present moment, four people read Bystander, two reviewed it, and the score is 2.67. Or something close to that. I’m guessing that somebody didn’t care for it much. I have a nervous disposition; I generally don’t read reviews.

So how’s the new book going?

No parades yet. One official review, which was brief and mildly positive (read: bums me out they didn’t love it), and that’s about it. I think, in truth, that’s the way things go for the overwhelming majority of authors. It’s not like the world changes. Or even stands up to take notice. With Six Innings, I was lucky. Some good things happened. A blog review here, another there. A starred review, then another! It took time for the book to find an audience, and it was astonishing to me when a year later it hadn’t fallen off a cliff. Miracle  of miracles, it was named an ALA Notable Book. I mean to say: It kicked Cardinal & Sunflower’s butt up and  down the block.

With Bystander, who knows. I wrote the book, it’s out there, it’s out of my hands — like a little craft I built of balsa, cork, Krazy Glue, and dowels. A boat I pushed out into the water. I don’t control the journey. It floats, it sinks, it gets caught up in a current and travels hundreds of miles. I’m that kid staring helplessly at the edge of the pond. Swim, boat, swim. Go find readers.

I also get useful advice, like that same boy, now at home plate, after he swings through a fastball. “Elbow up, head in, lay off the high ones.” In this case: Hire a publicist, get an agent, promote yourself, go on Twitter, make a Facebook page, film a book video and put it on Youtube, etc.

Do you blog? Oh boy, do I ever!

Anyway: Please check out this short, satiric piece in The New Yorker, “Subject: Our Marketing Plan,” by Ellis Weiner. Every author should read it. A tip of the hat to Deborah Kovacs for bringing it to my attention. The one-page article begins:

Hi, Ellis—

Let me introduce myself. My name is Gineen Klein, and I’ve been brought on as an intern to replace the promotion department here at Propensity Books. First, let me say that I absolutely love “Clancy the Doofus Beagle: A Love Story” and have some excellent ideas for promotion.

To start: Do you blog? If not, get in touch with Kris and Christopher from our online department, although at this point I think only Christopher is left. I’ll be out of the office from tomorrow until Monday, but when I get back I’ll ask him if he spoke to you. We use CopyBuoy via Hoster Broaster, because it streams really easily into a Plaxo/LinkedIn yak-fest meld. When you register, click “Endless,” and under “Contacts” just list everyone you’ve ever met. It would be great if you could post at least six hundred words every day until further notice.

If you already have a blog, make sure you spray-feed your URL in niblets open-face to the skein. We like Reddit bites (they’re better than Delicious), because they max out the wiki snarls of RSS feeds, which means less jamming at the Google scaffold . . .

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow

Here’s another in a series of “inside stories” about my Jigsaw Jones books, with the idea that it might be interesting and/or useful to teachers and students engaged in the writing process. Hopefully I’ll work my way through all the titles eventually, but don’t hold your breath. For similar posts, click here, or here, or here.

Illustration by Jamie Smith.

I’m not great at saving things; I’m more of a chucker than a keeper. But before writing this post, I pulled out my folder for this book, Jigsaw Jones #15: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow. In it, I found a mess of index cards with words scribbled on them. Brief, typed passages had been taped to most cards (see below).

As I recall, it was an experiment in plotting, inspired by a method employed by a famous film director (forget who). I had this vision of all these color-coded index cards thumb-tacked to the wall, helping me see the flow of story. Some examples:


Scene: Jigsaw talks w/ X about Solofsky, who is always a suspect.

“He’s a real stone in my shoe.”


“It’s like a pain in the neck. Only lower.”




Tough questions.

What If —

Who profits from this, and how?



Mrs. Rigby on sidewalk. With broom. Witch-like. Scary.

Gives credence to magic scarecrow theory.

Does she say something to support this notion?

This goes back to my haberdashery comment from the other day. Like many writers, I begin with scraps and remnants that occur to me in the early stages of brainstorming — snatches of dialogue, an idea for setting, a key moment for a character — and later try to stitch them all together. In the process, a lot of fabric get pushed aside, swept into a heap, thrown away. In this case, the idea on CARD #3 was never used.

An early draft of the book begins with Jigsaw opining:

Don’t get me wrong.

I like leaves. But I like ’em when they’re hanging around. Not when they’re falling to the ground.

Sure, it’s not their fault. You can’t blame a leaf for being a leaf. It’s not like they want to dry up and die. So I blamed my father instead. He’s the one with the big ideas. Every year he makes us rake the yard . . . .

By the final draft, I deleted that preamble and began the book:

Every fall my dad makes us rake the yard, front and back. He calls it “The Big Fall Cleanup.” I call it something else.


There’s a strong Beatles element to this story. At one point, Jigsaw has to venture out alone for a dusky, dangerous meeting:

I walked down Abbey Road. The evening chill nibbled on my ears like a pet parakeet. I turned right onto Penny Lane.

The other Beatles connection is the old, lonely widow who lives in the spooky house, “the Rigby place.” If she keeps her face in a jar by the door, I never mentioned it. But I did think of my own grandmother when I described her:

There was nothing remarkable about Mrs. Eleanor Rigby. There were probably ladies like her all over town. She lived alone in a big old house. She had white hair. She wore a pink sweater with large white buttons. Her right arm, I noticed, trembled nervously.

And she smelled of butterscotch.

What else?

* I usually reference a real book in these stories, and in this one it’s Owls In the Family by Farley Mowat.

* There’s a moment when Kim Lewis, clearly upset over losing a necklace, hires Jigsaw. I like the way he responds internally, when his thoughts speak to the heart of detective work.

I’d seen the same look on other clients. Kim was counting on me. That’s the way it is when you’re a detective. You’re the guy who is supposed to make everything right.

And for a dollar a day, you do the best you can.

* The book features a Double Backward code in a note Jigsaw sends to Mila: EM RETFA DESAHC DNA EVILA EMAC WORCERACS A YRROS.

* People ask me to name my favorite books, and I’ll often reply that I have favorite “moments” in my books, chapters that I like, passages. Here’s one sly bit of humor, with a brief description that I think deepens the mood. While searching for clues, Mila and Jigsaw inspect the scarecrow in front of the Rigby place:

Mila slapped her forehead and exclaimed, “How could I be so dumb!” She reached behind the scarecrow and fumbled with the shirt collar. “My father’s a neat freak,” Mila jabbered. “He organizes everything. He even writes my name in the back of all my clothes.”

She smiled triumphantly. “Look,” she said.

I craned my neck to read the label. “We’re looking for a kid named Eddie Bauer,” I said.

“That’s the clothing label!” Mila said. “Read the other name!”

I read the name that was printed in black marker: BUZZY LENNON.

I looked up at the trees. There were hardly any leaves left. The sky was crisp and bright. Halloween was next week, then Thanksgiving, then the frozen days and nights of winter. I turned to the front door of the sad, old, silent house. “Let’s see if the doorbell works,” I said.

The door slowly opened with an eerie squeak. Mrs. Rigby’s small, red-rimmed eyes blinked in the sun.

“Yes, what is it?” she asked.

* Mrs. Rigby’s name was originally McCartney, to complement the character of Buzzy Lennon, but that changed along the way. Do young readers notice such things? Do they care? Probably not. But I like it, these little homages, and figure a few parents might enjoy them, too.

Alas, Haunted Scarecrow is yet another Jigsaw Jones title that appears unavailable in trade. On sad days, when rain streaks the windows, it doesn’t feel like I’m promoting these books — it’s more like I’m giving them a proper burial. The good news is — and there’s always good news — you can contact Scholastic Book Clubs at a toll-free number, 1-800-724-6527, or go to this website for more information. I hear they are receptive to customer’s requests, and will try to do everything possible to be helpful.