Both times I’ve been in my dentist’s office, I cannot help but see an image of McTeague, the title character in Frank Norris’ 1899 novel. In my mind he is there, this strange and huge red-haired man, with ancient tools on a grubby table next to him, debating if he shouldn’t just pull my teeth out with his own fingers, or have another sip of his rapidly flattening Steam Beer. However, none of the people in my dentist’s office are men, and none of them embody the, “foul stream of hereditary evil,” that McTeague supposedly suffers from. (The primary theme in the book is that of circumstance & environment having more effect on us than our own dreams and desires… which is a complicated way that Norris used to say, “capitalism is bad.”) I still haven’t figured out why I think about this while I’m getting my teeth cleaned. Perhaps because the second and third thoughts in my mind are: 1.) “How much is this gonna cost?” and 2.) “When can I have my next beer?”
It seems to me that Dentist’s occupy a strange place in our culture. The fact that Neolithic Man practiced Dentistry makes this position harder to make sense of: Dentistry is perhaps the second-oldest profession on the planet. Any number of people, with their own quirks and oddities, have been dentists. (My mind just called forth the image of an unkempt man wearing animal skins and carrying a club telling me, “You say ‘aaaahhh.'”)
Of course, my personal exposure to Dentists is quite small. I have been a total of three times now: once when I was 17, and twice in the last month. (I’ll be going again in two weeks to get some more fillings, at which point I can enter society again as a “normal” person who will have “regular” check-ups, as my dentists have demanded I do. How come nobody told me real life was so expensive?) So the majority of my thoughts regarding dentists have been shaped by media.
My favorite Dentist is, of course, Orin Scrivello from Little Shop Of Horrors (best played by Steve Martin in my opinion, whose version of “Dentist!” is one of my favorite Karaoke songs). I think most people think of something similar when they imagine going to the Dentist: a slightly sadistic maniac with access to drugs who people fear because of horrible childhood experiences. (I always think of the line in the song, “Patient: Ow that hurts! / Wait I’m Not Numb! Orin: Oh Shut Up, Open Wide, Here I Come!”) This fear of Dentists seems to be the staple of bad sitcom fodder too, and probably has something to do with how nervous I get when I sit in the chair myself.
There also seems to be a certain amount of odd mystery to the profession, as captured in the music of The Dentists, an English Band with an ear for ’60’s Garage Rock, who were active in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s. While I haven’t heard a lot of their stuff, what my roommate has played for me evokes a much less menacing, and much more “odd” feeling. These Dentists are studious, thoughtful, clever, and fun. While the name itself has a specific connection to the career in question, the music seems to dance around this in a way that does not point to the creepiness that is so often present. For some reason this always reminds me of the Dental Hygienist that Larry Underwood dated in The Stand, because I now imagine her being into that kind of music, and not the Pop Pap that he became famous for.
Then, of course, there’s the oddest piece of literary work I’ve ever encountered: Dentologia: A Poem on the Diseases of the Teeth and Their Proper Remedies with Notes, Practical, Historical, Illustrative and Explanatory by Solymon Brown, DDS. Originally published in 1833, this five-canto epic has to be read to be believed. Solymon was a dentist too, and this poem was actually published in dental journals. Solymon was even asked to write more dental poems. (Oh, to live in a time when people liked to read dental poems!) Excerpts from this poem (you really wouldn’t want to read much more) appear in Very Bad Poetry, a book whose title so perfectly delivers exactly what it promises that it counts as the least-disappointing publication every put to paper. I used to do dramatic readings of poems from this book for friends, and it always managed to get a good laugh. (I just found out today that Solymon was also instrumental in getting the American Society of Dental Surgeons started in 1840, and also wrote a shorter, follow-up poem entitled, “Dental Hygeia — A Poem,” and later another epic entitled, “Cholera King.”)
I was also just reminded of Judd Apatow’s old stand-up routines, where he would do “impressions” with Cheek Retractors in place. (He paid homage to this in Freaks & Geeks, when Dr. Schweiber has an entire conversation with Samm while wearing Cheek Retractors, in the episode The Garage Door.
All of this got me thinking: what’s your favorite piece of Dental Media? Send me your favorites…