"Denigrate the anti-gravitator!" ... "Decelerate right rudder three degrees aft of starboard!" ... "Shift the ballast takes for'ard!" ... "A meteor is approaching at three o'clock!" ... "A.m. or p.m.?"
Rex Lardner was an improbable character with a probable and perhaps foreordained life. Nephew of the far more famous newspaper sportswriter Ring Lardner, son of Rex Lardner, also a newspaper writer who started in sportswriting, and father of Rex Lardner, a sportswriter and television producer of sports, one might fairly think that writing and sports would play large roles in his life. And so they did. He wrote for all the major magazines from The New Yorker to Esquire, Look, and Holiday, and later went to - where else? - Sports Illustrated as a staff writer. It was over a tennis net that he met Ernie Kovacs and became his head writer, eventually getting nominated for a Comedy Writing Emmy for The Ernie Kovacs Show. He was such a golf nut that he wrote three books on golf and got a tournament named after him. He died in 2008 at the age of 88 on a tennis court while playing mixed doubles.
He was also the man who reviewed Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+ for The New York Times Book Review. That is improbable enough to run a spaceship off of, but it happened. Frederick Fell published a new edition in 1950 and the Times ran a review in its new Spacemen's Realm column, where they took SF as seriously as they did mysteries.
Hugo Gernsback wrote this novel in 1911. Besides containing a good deal of sound prophecy (radar, Musak, night baseball), it has a narrative style as quaint as the retarder on a Hupmobile. A fine book.
So. Humor, SF, and sports. Had anyone made them intersect before 1961? If so it must be a very small and select crew. Lardner did so in The Lardner Report, a spoof about the then trendy subjects of suburban middle-class life - this was the period of white flight from the cities - and the many Reports that followed The Kinsey Report. His suburbia is an embarrassingly goofy and white bread world of male bonding that plays like the flip side of the heavy horrors of Mad Men pathologies. At one point he describes the various party games that the couples play at their incessant weekend parties. I'm skipping over Sexual Chess, Musical Sex, Sexual Hangman, and the Baron Meets the Marquis, and presenting you the safer intellectual territory of Space Ship.
What's interesting about this is not the humor, which is negligible (my favorite line in the book is the ERATA, which notifies us that "'Erata' is mispelled," leaving us to notice that so is "misspelled"), but the casual way that complete familiarity with the jargon of space travel is presented. How many sci-fi movies of the 50s could suburban audiences be expected to see? The Mercury program isn't a possible source - the book probably was written before Alan Sheppard made his sub-orbital flight, which didn't involve any space travel, danger from meteors, or anti-gravity. Whatever the trigger, the game of Space Ship is an unappreciated indicator of just how deeply the notion of capital-S Space penetrated into the American psyche in those post-Sputnik days.
Excerpt from The Lardner Report
by Rex Lardner
Like all games, it begins with a premise. The premise is that the host's home is a space ship which has been successfully launched and is en route to Mars. ...
Ladies attending the party all play beautiful navigatrixes, space nurses or mathematical whizzes, chattering and gabbling (Martini, vodka or pombe?) as they help the pilot find his way to Mars. The men play the wisecracker from Brooklyn, Dr. Zarkov, pilots and crew. ...
As the game starts, the air is filled with cheery spaceship jargon: "Denigrate the anti-gravitator!" ... "Decelerate right rudder three degrees aft of starboard!" ... "Shift the ballast takes for'ard!" ... "A meteor is approaching at three o'clock!" ... "A.m. or p.m.?" ... "The auxiliary fuel pump is stuck!" ... "Throw the port engine into reverse!" ...
And then, when everybody knows the layout of the ship, the pilot gets up from his seat, staggers to the top of the stairs (ladder) and hollers: "Now hear this! I have serious news to report! The anti-gravs on our decelerator have busted and we're going to crash!"
This is the signal for general whooping pandemonium and hysteria, with pilots and mathematicians alike assuming an exhilarated end-of-the-world attitude. Completely doomed, the carefree voyagers now scamper about the ship ad libbing for the next few hours.