One of the things I've learned during all of my recent time off is that there's hardly ever anything on television worth watching. An occasional movie or perhaps a football game, but that's about it.
Last week, I was surfing through the chanel guide trying to find something, anything, to watch, when I saw a listing for a documentary film called "The Tao of Gumby" over on the IFC Channel. Okay, I'll bite - I clicked over and dropped in on the movie in progress. I had jumped in just in time to hear Gumby creator Art Clokey discuss how we came up with Gumby's friends Prickle and Goo.
"I was a friend of a psychologist in Hollywood. He invited me to go with him up to San Jose to a convention of psychologists. I was interested in psychology at the time. We were in the lecture hall at San Jose State, and one psychologist would get up and make a speech. It was pretty boring for me. But the MC happened to be Allen Watts, the Zen Philosopher of Sausalito. He would crack us up and tell funny stories and get our blood circulating again. And they would put on another psychologist to bore us again.
"At one of these little humorous intermissions, he said there were two kinds of people in the world, the prickly and the gooey. The prickly are rigid and uptight, analytical, and critical. The gooey are easygoing, flowing in the here and now, friendly and jolly.
"I said I have got to make two characters to symbolize those two types of people. Then people all over the world will be able to identify with them. So we created the little, yellow dinosaur with his spines, and named him Prickle. Goo is a very gooey blue mermaid."
So, it would seem that Prickle and Goo were inspired by - if not outright created by - "the Zen Philosopher of Sausalito," Alan Watts. Curious, I went on line and a Google search quickly led me to the above animation over on YouTube. Even more surprising to me than the Watts-Gumby connection, though, was that the clip was animated by none other than the notorious Trey Parker and Matt Stone of "South Park" fame. And since there were other animations of Watts talks by Parker and Stone, unrelated to Prickle and Goo, one of which I've posted previously, their interest was in Watts, not in Gumby. Go figure. For those of you interested, what I think is the whole of the Parker/Stone animations of Watts has been posted by Mumon over on his web site.
Watts' 1957 book, "The Way of Zen," was one of the first "serious" books on Zen I'd read back in the mid-1970s, after having first read "The Dharma Bums" and some other Kerouac and finding that wanting, and various hippie books on Buddhism that were equally uninformative. As I've mentioned before, this early interest in Zen was effectively squashed when I read Janwillem van de Wetering's account of his time in a Zen monastery, "The Empty Mirror." Eating nothing but rice, sitting in one position without moving for hours on end, sadistic monks who beat you with sticks? - it all sounded horrible. Oddly, some people I know have told me that the very same book is what got them into Zen. My dharma barrier turns out to be some people's dharma gate. I've purchased a new copy of the book and I'm looking forward to re-reading it to see if it now sounds different to me. I'll get to it just as soon as I get through the other dozen or so books in front of it that I intend on reading.
But back to Alan Watts. He certainly does have a compelling way of speaking, and even if I find his approach to Zen more philosophical than practical (as in the "practice" of zazen) - the term "Zen Philosopher of Sausalito" seems particularly appropriate, in every sense of each term - his contributions to spreading the dharma in America should be noted and appreciated. However, he is not treated very kindly in James Ishmael Ford's "Zen Master Who? A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen." In a first-person account of a meeting with him, Ford notes that Watts "seemed intoxicated" and was accompanied by a "fawning young woman" who "seemed not to be wearing any underwear." Even less kind is the name of a biography written about Watts, "Genuine Fake." The man certainly courted controversy.
As I noted above, I have a few bones myself that I would like to have picked with Watts, but this unkind treatment is unwarranted in my opinion. As a public intellectual, the man did more to champion the cause of Zen in the West than anyone else I can think of, even lecturing stoned hippies on Zen between acts at the Fillmore West back in the 1960s, and if he were also a libertine, well then that was his nature, even if it did offend a few priggish monks.
After all, aren't we all a little bit Prickle and a little bit Goo?