This post contains spoilers for Twin Peaks as well as other films and TV shows that feature murderous madmen singing “Mairzy Doats.”
Twin Peaks, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s groundbreaking exploration of small-town secrets and sins, isn’t exactly lacking for extraordinarily creepy scenes: There’s Bob crawling over the couch, Laura telling Cooper “Meanwhile,” whatever was going on with Nadine and her drapes—but Leland Palmer’s musical numbers are in a class of their own. Whether he’s cutting a rug to “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” getting the folks at the Great Northern onto the dance floor, or racing his way through “Get Happy,” any time Leland Palmer and music are in a scene together, things are going to get really uncomfortable. But of all Leland’s unfortunate performances—indeed, of all the show’s creepiest moments—nothing else in the series has ever come close to Leland’s horrifying rendition of 1943 novelty song “Mairzy Doats” in his grand entrance in the Season 2 premiere:
There are so many perfect things going on in this scene: the ominous carpet story that bookends it, Leland’s hair, nearly every acting choice Ray Wise makes (but especially the part where he’s marching in place), Grace Zabriskie’s horrified reaction. But how did a novelty record from 1943 become the perfect musical cue to signal a descent into madness?
Though the song’s origin story eventually got as garbled as the lyrics, songwriter Milton Drake did at least get it right the first time: His 4-year-old daughter came home from school singing a similar nonsense rhyme with different animals (“sharksy doisters,” for example), which reminded him of “Mairzy Doats,” a similar rhyme from his childhood, which he then set to music with the help of co-writers Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston. In later versions of the story, the long-forgotten childhood rhyme disappears, and Drake, Hoffman, and Livingston use Drake’s daughter’s rhyme as a jumping-off point to write their own nonsense lyrics, but this was plain gobbledygook: The lines about mares and oats were older than “Why did the chicken cross the road?” with versions of them dating back to at least the 15th century. In Drake’s time, they could be found everywhere from a 1940 issue of Punch to a 1930 novel. In any event, it was Drake, Hoffman, and Livingston’s version that eventually made it to Twin Peaks, so to hell with the earlier writers. Here’s its best-known recording, a 1944 chart-topper from the Merry Macs:
That same year, there were also hit recordings of “Mairzy Doats” from the Pied Piers and Al Trace and his Silly Symphonists—but to get a real sense of how inescapable it was in 1944, take a look at the old versions of the sheet music for sale on eBay, which advertise the song as also being a favorite from performers including Bing Crosby, George Olsen and His Orchestra, Freddy Martin and His Orchestra, Sammy Kaye and His Orchestra, Guy Lombardo and His Orchestra, Eddie Cantor, and of course, the Korn Kobblers!
Picture the biggest song of the summer, except it’s “Mairzy Doats,” and you’re not at the club, you’re in a death struggle with global fascism, and you begin to have some idea how often the average American was hearing this song in 1944. A war correspondent for the Chicago Daily News reported hearing it blasting from the loudspeaker system of a battleship shelling Normandy on D-Day. An American pilot told the Chicago Daily Tribune that he sang the song on a forced march at a Japanese prison camp. And the same paper reported that when the Allies took Italy, the Venetian gondoliers learned to sing it to please (or annoy) American soldiers on leave. “Mairzy Doats” was everywhere. Its rapid success was held up by music publishers as a bellwether for the public taste: Variety reported that they were giving up on pushing patriotic songs like 1942 hit “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” in favor of the escapism the public clearly wanted.
But by the time Leland Palmer serenaded his family with it, the reputation “Mairzy Doats” once had for being cheerful nonsense had already been replaced by something darker. And to understand how that happened, you have to look at how it was used in the movies.
The Big Noise (1944)
“Mairzy Doats” first appeared on film in September of 1944, at the end of Laurel & Hardy’s The Big Noise. Stan and Ollie, for reasons too stupid to recount here, have ended up stranded on a buoy in the middle of the Pacific with nothing but a concertina to keep them company. To pass the time, Stan plays an instrumental version of “Mairzy Doats,” delighting the local fish. But despite the fact that being trapped on a buoy listening to Stan Laurel play a concertina version of “Mairzy Doats” seems like a more baroque punishment than anything Bosch ever dreamed up, there’s no suggestion in the film that there’s anything creepy about the song. Yet.
36 Hours (1964)
The first cinematic hint that something might be a little bit off about “Mairzy Doats” appeared in 36 Hours, George Seaton’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s short story “Beware of the Dog.” On one level, the song is nothing but a period detail: The film is set in the summer of 1944, when “Mairzy Doats” was completely inescapable. But the movie is about a plot to gaslight an American military intelligence officer by convincing him that the year is 1950 and he’s recuperating from amnesia, so, in the world of the film, “Mairzy Doats” is also a period detail. “Everybody was whistling this one six, seven years ago,” the fake Nazi DJ says over the fake radio on his fake broadcast from the fake year of 1950 before the tune starts up. Putting the incessantly cheerful song under a tense, suspicious conversation between James Garner and his “nurse” Eva Marie Saint is essentially the same trick Twin Peaks uses; Twin Peaks just goes much further.
The Ruling Class (1972)
“Mairzy Doats” makes a cameo in both Peter Barnes’ play and Peter Medak’s film The Ruling Class, where its lyrics show up briefly in the ramblings of an insane British aristocrat (played in the film by Peter O’Toole) who believes himself to be Jesus Christ. This seems to be the first movie that suggested that “Mairzy Doats” was the sort of pop-culture fragment a lunatic was likely to seize on; it would not be the last. (For another direct line between The Ruling Class and Leland Palmer, check out O’Toole’s manic performance of “The Varsity Drag.”)
Radio Days (1987)
It took Woody Allen to give audiences their first taste of full-on “Mairzy Doats” lunacy. In Radio Days, Allen’s nostalgic look back at the golden age of radio, the song plays over the “nervous breakdown” of a Mr. Zipsky, who runs up and down the street waving a meat cleaver. Even with the cleaver, Mr. Zipsky seems a lot less threatening than Leland Palmer, but the link between nonsense lyrics and homicidal mania was, by now, firmly established.
Twin Peaks (1990)
Peak “Mairzy Doats.”
The Cell (2000)
Finally, in Tarsem Singh’s psychedelic horror film The Cell, which takes place largely inside the dreamscape of a comatose serial killer, “Mairzy Doats” reaches its fall-of-the–Roman Empire decadent phase and collapses entirely. When you’re picking out a song to be played on a music box wound with intestines inside Vincent D’Onofrio’s mind, it doesn’t pay to be subtle. But letting D’Onofrio slow it down to a dirge kills any remaining tension between the music and the visuals. After a half-century of accumulating associations forged between “Mairzy Doats” and violent psychosis, the lyrics might as well be about eviscerating Vince Vaughn with a crank. If today’s filmmakers want to achieve a similar effect, they better find a more innocent tune, because “Mairzy Doats” has all become jumbled.
Read more in Slate about Twin Peaks.