As I watched last night’s Family Guy, my local Chicago station’s news teaser informed me of an unfolding tragedy to our West. Tornadoes were hitting parts of the Midwest and they were heading our way. As the second episode began, one character, Stewie, requested that they watch The Weather Channel because, “there are tornadoes in the Midwest and I like watching poor people scramble to save what little they have.” For those who didn’t initially notice it, the presence of an onscreen weather warning made the juxtaposition explicit.
This was not the first instance of Family Guy inadvertently finding extra sickness as their jokes took on new substance in relation to current events. The March 17 episode, “Turban Cowboy,” showed a character, Peter, drunk-driving his way through a crowd of runners to win the Boston Marathon. Later in the same episode, Peter unwittingly becomes involved with a terrorist organization, which leads to a gag in which he repeatedly, albeit accidentally, detonates bombs with his cell phone. After the attacks at the Boston Marathon less than a month later, these clips gained a lot of traction on the internet and Fox pulled the episode from its official internet sites and, at least for now, from future airing as reruns.
Over at Splitsider, Joshua Kurp lists similar situations in response to 9/11 with episodes of The Simpsons, Rocko’s Modern Life, Sex and the City, Friends, Married. . .With Children, and Spongebob Squarepants.
In these cases, where jokes get cut or entire episodes disappear from reruns, we witness a fascinating indicator of humor and television’s temporality in relation to more serious events in the “real world.” The inadvertent nature of these juxtapositions create a kind of dramatic irony that adds an extra element of humor to these episodes. But they also indicate interesting changes in what is considered to be acceptable discourse. Kurp’s article claims – and DVD commentary by writers backs him up – that many syndication markets pulled the 1997 Simpsons episode in which Homer visits New York and has a particularly hard time in the shadows of the Twin Towers. Even after its return, at least one joke remains edited for the sake of sensitivity. One man informs Homer that, “They put all the jerks in Tower One.” Entirely inoffensive in its original context, the concept that any “jerks” (aside from the hijackers) might have died on 9/11 has apparently become unfathomable. Of course, to say it out loud makes that idea sound ludicrous, but the construct that dichotomizes cowards and heroes in the wake of such events is a powerful tool of both psychological comfort and ideological reinforcement. That a joke made to the contrary – even one made in 1997 – cannot question that logic is apparently too radical for syndication.
For humor and media scholars, these prove especially interesting cases for thinking about the temporality of both. While often theorized as an essentially live medium, television in these cases seems to straddle a line between past-ness and present-ness as it shows documents from the past, but edits appear to deny their status as historical documents. The same might be argued of racist, sexist, or any other troubling -ist humor in other texts, but these are not judgments based on universal ethical or moral values. Instead, they reflect a fundamentally ahistorical reading of television comedy in relation to privileged instances of ideology.
May may just be the month of Marc Maron. The stand-up comedian is not new to the scene, having begun his forays into show business alongside the likes of David Cross, Sarah Silverman, and Louis C.K. in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but it is only in the last few years that he has garnered considerable attention due to the success of his podcast interview show WTF. In early 2011, the New York Times featured Maron’s podcast as a “must-hear” for comedians, and of course he has come up on Humor in America, most recently as “a revelation.”
This May, Maron is popping up in the mainstream as never before, issuing a new book entitled Attempting Normal, getting interviewed by Terry Gross, Howard Stern, and Jay Leno — and debuting his own television show on IFC, simply titled Maron.
One of the main reasons that stand-up comedians continue to have television shows built around their personalities is that the stand-up trade requires the creation of a detailed-yet-instantly-recognizable persona. It’s easily transposed to television, but Maron frequently refers to himself as an acquired taste, not for everyone. Indeed, the plot of the premiere episode makes much of that, as Maron cajoles a woeful Dave Foley into accompanying him on a hunt for someone who’s been pseudonymously insulting the podcaster via Twitter.
(By the way, I highly recommend Dave Foley’s real-life appearance on WTF for a discussion of the Kids in the Hall star’s ups and downs in Hollywood, including patented WTF-glimpses into Foley’s tangled personal life.)
For example, Dragonmaster tweets Marc Maron: “I would say don’t quit your day job, but you don’t have one, and it’s too late to get one.” Maron fans will recognize that as an external manifestation of Maron’s internal self-judgment. The dude is a volcano of self-judgment.
Episode One does a decent job setting up some of the Maron essentials. This includes his Twitter addiction, of course. His first ex-wife. His cats. The tension between his exhausting self-involvement and his deep self-awareness. The podcast set-up in his garage.
Today, May 12th, would have been George Carlin’s birthday. Born in 1937, Carlin was one of the key figures of the stand-up renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s. Carlin is listed as #2 on the Comedy Central list of the 100 most influential comedians of all time and was awarded the Mark Twain Prize in American Humor.
“Seven Dirty Words” originated on Carlin’s 1972 album, Class Clown, and was revisited on 1973′s, Occupation: Foole. Carlin was arrested on July 21, 1972 for performing the routine in Milwaukie. The case was dismissed when Carlin’s routine was judged indecent, not obscene. Carlin’s explication of the words led to a court case that eventually ended at the Supreme Court in Federal Communications Commission vs. Pacifica Foundation–a decision that is a modern touchstone in the debate over obscenity (here is part of the FCC transcript of Carlin’s monologue).
Every once in a while, I try to think what those seven words are–can you think of them?
Stephen Colbert, in the inaugural episode of the Colbert Report (October 17, 2005), coined the word truthiness to capture the underlying absurdity of the human preference to assert a truth that arises from a devout belief in one’s gut rather than one supported by facts (see:Colbert Introduces Truthiness). Truthiness reflects the desire of a formidable section of the population (or is it the entire population?) to assert that what they believe to be true is true, not necessarily because the facts support it but because they want to believe it so strongly. Colbert, in character, asserted that the nation was at war between “those who think with their heads and those who know with their hearts.” As Colbert put it in an interview with the A.V. Club by The Onion (January 26, 2006), “facts matter not at all. Perception is everything” (see: Colbert Interview).
To say that the word took off is a lame understatement. A Google search of “truthiness” yields 969,000 hits. Wikipedia–where I get all of my facts with full enjoyment of the ironic potential of that statement–has an article on the word that offers 57 footnotes pointing to a wide range of popular culture and media sources. If you are so inclined, you could follow #truthiness on Twitter and receive a constant string of observations from some of the brightest minds of the time, but I can’t recommend that in good conscience.
In no uncertain terms, truthiness is in the American grain, politically and socially. Colbert claims that the word–and its satirical context–is the thesis for the Colbert Report itself. Whether all of his viewers really get that could be debated, at least if one considers viewers early in the run of the show. See the 2009 article examining the complicated range of audience responses to the Colbert Report by Heather LeMarre here: The Irony of Satire. I have commented on that conundrum in an earlier post questioning the power of satire – Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically). That essay was followed by a first-rate essay by Sharon McCoy reaffirming at least some of my optimism — (Embracing the Ambiguity and Irony of Satire). By 2013, however, Colbert has appeared out-of-character enough and has built such a clear following, it would be much more difficult to find an audience who would be as confused regarding his true political thinking as some viewers were in 2005. He is too big, and he has appeared more often out-of-character via interviews in a variety of outlets. He is liberal, OK?
I would argue that no humorist has ever called into service a word with more usefulness to cultural and media critics, and to lovers of irony. But the concept behind truthiness is not Colbert’s. It’s the cornerstone of American humor, and our greatest writers and characters have built a tradition of humor forever exploiting the grand American attraction to self-delusion, to the power of desire over the power of facts. It is what makes us so funny.
Washington Irving gave us our first enduring humorous character through the sleepy ne’er-do-well Rip Van Winkle, a man who abandons his family for twenty years and returns after his wife’s death to become a grand old man of the town, living the life he always wanted–talking and drinking with friends. Irving brings Rip to readers through his narrator, “Geoffrey Crayon” who takes the story from “Deidrich Knickerbocker,” who takes the story verbatim from Rip himself. That’s a lot of room for creative use of truthiness. Rip is no match for the idealized romantic heroic male of the revolutionary era, the Daniel Boone’s who built it, so to speak. He presents a different kind of American. He does not fight for love of country or for political freedom; he sits out the war. He does not build a homestead thus failing to accept his role in the making of the national Jeffersonian dream. Nope. Within the story are all the facts to show that Rip is a sorry excuse for a man and a lousy American, a troubling subversive. But we love him because he seems like such a nice guy, and his wife is such a pain–as Rip tells it. Of course, his narrative is self-serving–and successful. Although some townspeople clearly know he is a liar, most accept his story of sleeping for twenty years–because it feels right, or at least it allows them to go about their business. They are willing to believe in the mysteries of the hidden corners of the Catskills, but more importantly, they are eager to believe in a man they like. It just feels right. And easier.
Readers, moreover, do the same. They like him; they hate Dame Van Winkle. They forgive Rip his indiscretions and welcome him back into the fold. They believe him because he seems so earnest. Rip abides, bless his heart. They believe, for the similar reasons, in the exploits of Daniel Boone. But I digress. All of Rip’s late-life success in becoming a center of attention is made possible by his willingness to lie and the inherent desire of most of the townspeople to believe his story simply because they want to. Facts and deductive reasoning be damned. That is funny.
Washington Irving, in giving us Rip, deserves recognition as the first worthy exploiter of truthiness in American humor. The great master of the 19th century was, of course, Mark Twain–who I will come back to in another post. There are many others, from the eternal optimism of Charlie Chaplin, to the befuddled female misfits of Dorothy Parker, to the secret dreams of Walter Mitty envisioned by James Thurber, to the disturbed struggles of Lenny Bruce, to the white Russians of the Dude from the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. It is a long list that has as its current master-artist Stephen Colbert. It is a timeline of writers, characters, comedians, and satirists covering just under two hundred years (using the 1819 publication of “Rip Van Winkle” as my starting point).
For some reason, there is still a need for satirical minds to tell subversive stories and to exploit the absurdities of American culture because there also remains a powerful urge for many Americans to shun facts and go with their gut to serve their own desires and belief systems. They find regular affirmation in popular culture and politics. One could be somewhat disappointed that after all this time there is still so much work to be done to defeat the powers of truthiness in our political systems and social structures. Not me. I believe things will get better. I can feel it in my gut.
Because Rip abides.
ABE’s post from earlier this week highlighted the institution of the “editor’s chair,” which I have taken a seat in several times before to inform you, my dear readers, of the goings on for Humor in America and in humor studies more generally. Often, these postings have been inspired by the truest of all journalistic motives–a missed deadline.
So it goes.
I have also often written posts about milestones with the site. This morning, we passed 130,000 views. Our overall readership has been a steady 150 views or so for several months, following a summer and fall of larger readership. I have a theory that our current readership reflects a more accurate count of our reach, following the inflated numbers that followed Ricky Gervais tweeting our post and the traffic from an aggregator that referred hundreds a day during the fall and then fell out of love with us. I thank you for reading us.
On to the news:
* Steve Brykman and Phil Scepanski commented on this news story on humor in times of tragedy, specifically in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.
* There is a new issue of Studies in American Humor that members of the American Humor Studies Association recently received in the mail. The issue is a special issue on Kurt Vonnegut edited by Peter Kunze and Robert Tally. You can get the journal by joining the AHSA, as well as on some versions of EBSCO.
*Speaking of Studies in American Humor, I am the book review editor of the journal. I am currently looking for reviewers for 4-5 books. See here. The reviews would be for the Spring issue and due in the fall. If you know of a book that we might want to review, please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Up for review
*Also arriving in the mail is the newest issue of To Wit, the newsletter of the AHSA. The issue features a version of one of Jeffrey Melton’s pieces from Humor in America. Also in the newsletter is the listing of AHSA, Mark Twain Circle, and Kurt Vonnegut Society panels at ALA in Boston (May 23-26). Hope to see you there.
Up for review, too.
* The summer also features the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (what I call “Mark Twain Summer Camp“) in Elmira, New York. Four of the editors of this site will be there.
*The 2013 ISHS Conference will be held from July 2 to July 6, 2013 on the campus of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, USA.
Yes, up for review!
*We have a twitter account where we post articles on humor, links, etc. Al Franken, Baratunde Thurston, David Brent, and Walt Whitman are followers… maybe you should, too.
*Please let me know if you have any news, CFPs, etc. on humor studies. Thanks.