In a letter to Mary Fairbanks in 1869, Mark Twain referred to his “calling” to literature as a low one—humor. Authors Van Wyck Brooks, Bernard Devoto, and many others who came after have expended ink on Twain’s feelings of inferiority and desire to be taken seriously in the literary world. Twain is neither the first nor the last author/humorist to be labeled in this way—as if, somehow, humor can have no serious purpose. The “mere humorist” label has haunted many an author whose career has since exerted a lasting influence on American culture.
So, can we take the “mere” out of the “mere humorist” label, please?
Humorists have been combatting the labeling of their chosen vocation (a serious term, yes?) for generations. It seems that the world believes that humor has no place in a “serious” discussion. The two terms–serious and humor—come to most of the world as oppositions. And yet, humor can be deadly serious even as we are laughing fit to split. When we academically spend time and scholarly energy in an attempt to separate out the “serious” humorists from the “merely funny,” we trivialize and denigrate the very serious sociocultural work that humor has been doing for centuries to advocate and sometimes realize change. I would argue that the dichotomy itself is false, and ultimately neither useful nor germane. I would begin with a simple statement: All humor is subversive. Period. That being the case, such a dichotomy is a fraud that wastes valuable time that could be spent analyzing humor itself, how it works, and why it is such a necessary part of human lives.
For example, each year the Kennedy Center offers a Mark Twain Prize for Humor. The prize generates a great deal of controversy in Twain circles—those of us academics who study Twain’s life and work—as to whether or not that year’s winner is worthy of or as great a humorist as Mark Twain. In these arguments, we are perpetuating the dichotomy. Does being more or less like Twain make one more than a “mere” humorist? Or any less than a great one?
In 1773, Benjamin Franklin wrote “Rules by which a great Empire may be Reduced to a Small One.” The piece is a humorous essay designed to mirror the Declaration of Independence in style and format as an ironic open letter to Americans. It comically reverses the actions of England against the colonies, supposing that these actions take place because England is weary of administering its grand empire, and thus takes all of the actions later to be published in the Declaration in order to reduce the empire into something more manageable. It predates the Declaration’s publication and paves the way for agreement among the colonies that Revolution is inevitable. In hindsight, Ben Franklin is considered one of America’s first great humorists (and most likely, one of the “serious” ones). I would agree; however, I would also contend that during his own time, he was revered and remembered more for his inventions, diplomacy, and clever almanacs, and may well have been considered a “mere” humorist who did serious work as his actual calling. And although his humorous writing may not have been his “serious” work, it paved the way for acceptance and support for the Declaration of Independence later, and eventually support locally for the Revolutionary War. Humorous poetry flew back and forth during the Revolutionary War supporting both sides of the conflict. The authors of these works certainly considered their writing as “serious” in that they hoped to influence the War in one way or another.
The Civil War had its own humorists, also covering both sides of the conflict. One such was David Ross Locke, an Ohio newspaperman who wrote under the pseudonym Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby. In addition to his comic articles on the War, he wrote and lectured on suffrage, secession, and slavery.
Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ. – Alfred Hitchcock
[Hitchcock] only finishes a picture 60%. I have to finish it for him. – Bernard Herrmann
It’s almost Halloween, and nothing says Halloween like Alfred Hitchcock. So let’s take a look at the music in Hitchcock’s great comedy, Psycho.
Maybe comedy is a bit of a stretch. But Hitchcock himself has long held that his low budget, black and white 1960 thriller, which literally invented the genre of slasher films, is a comedy.
I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho…The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.
What did Hitchcock mean by this exactly? He was famous for his wry wit and it is possible the real joke was to later classify the film itself as a joke. But there is also a likely earnestness in his claim. Hitchcock elaborates that he envisioned Psycho as a thrill ride, akin to a “switchback railway,” or rollercoaster.
It was intended to make people scream and yell and so forth – but no more than screaming and yelling on a switchback railway…you mustn’t go too far because you do want them to get off the switchback railway, giggling with pleasure.
Audiences certainly enjoyed the roller coaster ride of the film, and continue to do so to this day, although perhaps not “giggling with pleasure” at its finish. Does this mean Hitchcock failed, went too far? Hardly. What separates Psycho from its countless imitators is precisely its darkness and heft, the superb performances from the entire ensemble, especially Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, and perhaps most importantly Bernard Herrmann’s musical score.
That’s not to say the film lacks the tongue-in-cheek quality Hitchcock intended. There are quite a few laughs in the film, mostly from the brilliant bit performances. Pat Hitchcock shines as Marion’s homely co-worker (“He was flirting with you. I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring.”) as does John Anderson as used car salesman “California Charlie” (“You can do anything you’ve a mind to. Being a woman you will.”) and Helen Wallace as the eccentric hardware store customer concerned with finding a humane insect poison (“They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless.”). Even Norman balances his darkness with humorous bits of awkwardness, such as his incessant Kandy Korn nibbling.
Alfred Hitchcock was a celebrity as a personality as well as a director, and served as a perfect pitchman for his films. The marketing campaign for Psycho is almost as infamous as the film itself. It began with pre-production: Hitchcock bought up every copy of the novel on which the film was based so that the story would be as little known as possible, he had the actors sign confidentiality agreements before filming commenced, and he openly refused to allow Paramount to photograph the set. This anti-publicity served as ingenious publicity.
Hitchcock appreciated the shock value in killing off his star less than halfway into the picture, so he Read more…
Today is the last day to register to vote in Texas. Check your status and vote.
Originally posted on Humor in America:
Most of the time, politics is a serious business. People tend to take the government fairly seriously–our laws, our government, our rights. True, traditionally Congress has been an object of fun, and politicians–from Abraham Lincoln to Sarah Palin–have been the butt of jokes. But the importance of political humor–from parody to cartoons to satire–might best be seen as a reflection of how seriously people take politics.
In this highly political year, I have been very interested in questions of how political humor functions in American society. Recently, I discussed the satire of the RNC and DNC conventions on the Daily Show. Similarly, Self Deprecate’s contributions to our site and his site have tackled the current state of political humor.
One political issue that I have been increasingly concerned with this year is distinctly not funny: voter suppression. While proponents of voter ID and other voting laws argue that…
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Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock
The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
In red weather.
– Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens was an enigma. A Pulitzer Prize winning poet, he was also a conservative, Harvard-educated lawyer who worked, until his death in August of 1955, as an insurance company executive. This solid scion of business published his first collection of poetry, Harmonium, at the age of forty-four. His poems are dense, meditative and often full of quirky, obscure humor and playful language.
The Emperor of Ice-CreamCall the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.— Wallace Stevens
Metaphors of a MagnificoTwenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.This is old song
That will not declare itself . . .Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Twenty men crossing a bridge
Into a village.That will not declare itself
Yet is certain as meaning . . .The boots of the men clump
On the boards of the bridge.
The first white wall of the village
Rises through fruit-trees.
Of what was it I was thinking?
So the meaning escapes.The first white wall of the village…
The fruit-trees…— Wallace Stevens
“Ha! ha! ha! – he! he! – a very good joke indeed – an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo – he! he! he! – over our wine – he! he! he!”
These giggling words are among the last uttered by Fortunato, the rather unfortunate victim of a deadly practical joke in Edgar Allan Poe’s memorable tale, “The Cask of Amontillado.” In that short story, the narrator Montresor directly discloses neither the “thousand injuries” he’d received from Fortunato nor the final “insult” that led him to vow revenge, but he does present his plan as the solution to a puzzle: “I must punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” In other words, Montresor must take his revenge upon Fortunato in such a way that the victim knows all, while the perpetrator is in no danger of being caught. Montresor’s elaborate charade with the wine, the catacombs, the trowel, and the stones reveals his ingenious solution. As is well known, Poe himself took great pride in his analytical, puzzle-solving abilities, and Montresor’s plot reveals a certain gift for ratiocination that Poe valued. At the final moment, after Fortunato has been almost completely immured, Montresor calls his name. “There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells.” And thus is buried another “jingle man.”
In this series of posts, “Joker Poe,” I have argued that Poe is best viewed as a literary prankster, a practical joker who employed his prodigious intellect, his acute awareness of the marketplace, and his gifts for writing to satirize the culture and society of his era. In a sense, his own readers are suckered in by his tales, poems, and criticism, while Poe himself is likely having a chuckle at their expense. Poe was the great theorist of “Diddling,” which he considered as one of the exact sciences, and he insisted that no diddle—a swindle, confidence-game, or prank—is complete without a “grin,” but only one that the diddler himself wears, seen by no one else. Poe’s propensity for diddling extended to his literary career, which can be seen not only in those works which are clearly hoaxes, but also in his poetry, his tales, and his criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe made enemies, some of whom have not been so sanguine in accepting the thousand injuries and uncounted insults visited upon them by the grinning diddler.
After Rufus Griswold, whose calumnious portrait of Poe in an obituary caused outrage but likely led to Poe’s eventual enshrinement in a popular-cultural canon, perhaps the most famous of the fabled detractors of Poe during his lifetime was also America’s leading public intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The phrase “jingle man” is well known in American literary studies, not to mention infamous in Poe Studies, as Emerson’s dismissive appraisal of Poe. That the Sage of Concord might dislike Poe is not surprising, since Poe was probably as ardent an opponent of Emersonian transcendentalism as anyone other than Herman Melville, and Poe’s invectives were especially caustic when it came to the Boston literati, many of whom appeared to be well-nigh slavishly devoted to Emerson’s thought. Poe also criticized Emerson himself as belonging to “class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever—the mystics for mysticism’s sake.” In a follow-up to Poe’s eccentric little series on “Autography,” in which he proposed to analyze the handwriting of famous authors, Poe humorously suggested that “[t]he best answer to his twaddle is cui bono? […] to whom is it a benefit? If not to Mr. Emerson individually, then surely to no man living.”
Bill Murray may be the coolest living celebrity. This is due in large part to his very approach to celebrity. Murray is one of the few movie stars that is able to balance a consistent public presence, amassing both commercial and cult status, with a genuine private life.
You may see him at Cannes, but not on Facebook. He’s on Letterman, but not Twitter. He is evasive without being reclusive, reserved without being withdrawn. He famously has no agent or manager and can only be contacted through a 1-800 number, which his own lawyer uses to reach him. He reportedly has homes in South Carolina (he is co-owner and “Director of Fun” of the minor league baseball team the Charleston RiverDogs) and near the Pechanga Indian Casino in Temecula, California, as well as PO boxes in New York and Martha’s Vineyard (at least). The truth is, Bill Murray is never in one place for very long and is notorious for randomly interacting with fans at bars, fast food restaurants and, of course, karaoke booths. He’s crashed birthday parties and engagement photos. He once drove a cab from Oakland to Sausalito so that the driver, who worked 14-hour days, could practice his saxophone, stopping for barbeque at two in the morning along the way. He doesn’t retreat from the world, he simply chooses his own entrances.
This healthy, almost admirable, approach to celebrity is part of what has fueled one of show business’ great third acts. Having enjoyed blockbuster movie stardom in the 1980s and 1990s with iconic films such as Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, Murray is highly sought after in middle age by indie filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola, who have used his sardonic, almost post-hip persona to help elevate their quirky imaginings of the modern world.
But before the film success, Bill Murray began his comedy career with the legendary Chicago-based improve group The Second City, and eventually achieved national fame on Saturday Night Live.
Murray created many memorable characters on SNL, the most beloved of which is Nick the Lounge Singer. Read more…
I was talking with a colleague recently about the hard transition from the easy, lazy, unscheduled days of summer to the overbooked, cramped, and face-paced fall routine. As a full-time graduate student and full-time senior lecturer, I’m finding it quite difficult to locate any semblance of a work/life balance. My friends from graduate school tell me I will find it (and my sanity) once I finish my dissertation, but I have never taken kindly to waiting, nor do I want to put my health and happiness on hold in my pursuit of the degree.
The researcher in me went to work. I read article after article on the relationship between stress and illness, unhappiness, and disease. I digitally paged through JAMA – the Journal of the American Medical Association – and found studies by neurosurgeons, psychologists, and general practitioners on the harmful emotional, mental, and physical effects continued stress could have on the body. I reread Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, a favorite analytical treatise, focusing on how the linguistic techniques of metaphors used to describe, categorize, and treat patients often discourage, stress, and alienate them all the more. I watched dozens of videos from motivational speakers on the work/life divide, some of them harsh, some humorous, others heartfelt and touching. I came across one video by BigSpeak with Juliet Funt, daughter of Allen Funt, acclaimed creator and host of the beloved show Candid Camera. In the clips, Funt speaks to 4,000 members of the emergency nurses association specifically about the work/life divide.
Through the vehicle of humor, Funt expresses sympathy and understanding about the impact of various life stressors on our daily lives. A favorite clip speaks to the acronym C.C.P.P., a list of attributes we as overworked Americans aspire to be: calm, confident, patient, and present. The conversation with my colleague, in conjunction with this clip, reminded me of the power of humor to bridge the mythical work/life divide. I feel the most fulfilled in my private and professional lives when the two are harmonious, when the personal and the pedagogical are one in the same.
This week in class, I emphasized the importance of stress reduction. I had students watch Funt in action. We discussed how our course readings were not just solitary, literary pieces, but small, applicable tales that, when used correctly, added some humorous sustenance to our daily lives and helped to close the illusory divide.
© 2014 Tara Friedman