Friday, October 25, 2013

A nice memory

When Chomsky turned 50, the MIT department threw him a party. The invite list was restricted to the MIT community. Me and my good and great friend Elan Dresher were thus excluded, he being at U Mass and me at Harvard in the philo dept. Fortunately for us, we discovered a loophole that allowed us to get in. Jay Keyser, the impresario, was organizing entertainment for the event and Elan, Amy Weinberg and me decided to put together a skit in celebration of the event. Jay heard out our idea for the skit and conditional on our delivering it, we were in. This skit is probably the greatest contribution I have personally made to modern generative grammar. The scenario? A debate between Chomsky and Coco the gorilla about whether apes could talk. My contribution? I played Coco. It was great. Let me tell you a bit about it.

Amy played Nichol Nicholson (our Penny Patterson, Coco's handler), Elan played Chomsky. I was Coco. We wrote the skit in about two weeks and practiced it for about a week. Tim Stowell videotaped the whole thing (sadly for me, the tape has since been lost). The debate was furious. Coco marshaled a series of fairly good arguments I believe (laid out on large cue cards held up), each of which Chomsky knocked down (Noam came up to me afterwards insisting that Coco's arguments, though superficially convincing, were actually quite weak as they were based on presuppositions that missed the main point). The skit lasted 10 minutes. It was a huge hit! And everyone was there. I have never had the attention of as much of the linguistics community since. Plus, I never had them listen to anything I did so carefully, though I was afraid that some (e.g. Jakobson) might keel over they were laughing so hard.

Dresher was a perfect Chomsky. He even got the hand gestures down (rolling up the sleeves, removing the watch) and the cadence and intonation (always upping the rhetorical ante). Amy was perfect as Penny. But, to be honest, I was the star. I had rented a gorilla suit for the occasion and had it for a whole weekend. I wore it for three days. I went to pick Elan up from the bus station wearing it and he almost refused to get off the bus. I put it on in the bathroom before our first rehearsal and Amy screamed when I got out (and yes, she screamed because I was wearing it). I wore it at Harvard one day, carrying my school bag asking people directions to the primate lab in William James Hall. I also wore it in the philo department, with Bob Nozick being the only one to react intelligently: he calmly walked by and said "Good morning Norbert.". Contrast this with one office mate, who thought of jumping out the window to get away. It was great. If you ever get a chance to wear a gorilla suit for a day, don't pass it up.

You may be wondering why I am here reminiscing about these events that took place well over 30 years ago. It's because of this piece that just appeared in the Onion that Greg Sailor was kind enough to send my way.

Oh yes: after teaching a short course at IU several years ago and mentioning my exploits as a youth, some of the participants chipped into together and bought me my own personal gorilla suit. Every now and then I put it on, but it seems that Gorillas are not as scary as they once were, or maybe the outward appearance between me with and without such a suit is not as dramatic as it used to be.


  1. I was hoping this would make its way onto your blog! Tim has lots of photos from this event, even though the video he made is lost, as you say. There are also several hysterical photos of you from your more recent stint as a gorilla at the IU SyntaxFest. (The participants responsible for that gift were Byron Ahn, Robyn Orfitelli, Norvin Richards, and yours truly.)

  2. Yes, thx to all of you. It's a gift I cherish. I'd love to see the pictures.

  3. Thanks for sharing. re "... but it seems that Gorillas are not as scary as they once were, or maybe the outward appearance between me with and without such a suit is not as dramatic as it used to be." I think a decade+ teaching [excerpts of] 'The invisible gorilla' to cohorts of psychology and philosophy minors could be to blame. These days no one is fooled by any of these video anymore: Though showing this one still works at times - maybe usable for showing location of UG in brain as well? :)

  4. This is the best version of the story of this event I have ever heard. The world deserves to see the pictures although I am sure someone will keel over.