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Calling All Social Critics and Comedians!

July 31, 2014

As I finalize my selections for a course on American Counterculture from the 1960s to present day, I slyly grin at the allotment of time dedicated to the late great cultural rebel George Carlin. The truth is, I miss him. I never had the opportunity to meet him or see a live show, but I’ve watched and read so much on, about, for, and from Carlin that he feels like an ostracized yet beloved great uncle. As with Lenny Bruce before him, Carlin’s work demonstrated the honesty, passion, and brilliance of his predecessor. A look at a compilation of The Best of George Carlin proves this:

From the 1970s until his death in 2008, the self-proclaimed lover of language elucidated his countercultural propensities in albums such as FM & AM and Class Clown – the latter containing what would later become know as his infamous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” shtick. His jokes pertaining to religion, politics, drugs, war, government, human interactions, and relationships were legendary and established Carlin’s unapologetic career in comedy. Through humor, he begged audiences in a 2004 CNN interview to “first of all, question everything you read or hear or see or are told . . . [a]nd try to see the world for what it actually is, as opposed to what someone or some company or some organization or some government is trying to represent it as, or present it as, however they’ve mislabeled it or dressed it up or told you.”

As social critic and thinker, Carlin used humor as his vehicle – he did not mean for audiences to be purely and purposelessly entertained. I use Carlin to introduce students to humor as counterculture but also to show how to clearly support claims with evidence, how an informed participant is better than an unenlightened observer, speaker, and writer. His genius – as well as his comedic charisma – will hopefully illustrate the power of passion and awareness in a course dedicated to both.

Noticeably absent from my selections are women who were/are social critics and comedians. After watching Women Who Kill, a 2013 Showtime special highlighting Amy Schumer, Rachel Feinstein, Nikki Glaser, and Marina Franklin, I couldn’t help but wonder if what was presented in this 59 minute show was the best I could find. I patiently watched each comedian present her ideas on dating, abuse, children, weight, and fashion with clever language and verbal trickery, but finished the show having laughed, felt, or thought very little.

I realize the pressure of the ‘Carlin comparison’ – no human, male or female, can match the genius of George, but the sustenance from his shows, and the shows of the likes of Bruce and Hicks, seems to be deficient in modern comedy, especially that showcased by females. Many comedians use a new sensationalism – similarly to what the modern world now relies on for entertainment purposes – which seems more grating than gift. In an article titled “Laughter the Best Medicine: Muslim Comedians and Social Criticism in Post-9/11 America,” author Amarnath Amarasingam explores the role of Muslim standup comedians who challenge misperceptions about culture, religion, and relationships and could do well to be defined under Gramsci’s classification of “organic intellectuals” (467). Comedians such as Azhar Usman and Maz Jobrani challenge societal expectations and push the limitations of previously held thought. Through discussions of social criticism, their humor is welcomed among the drivel so disliked by many, including Carlin himself.

© 2014 Tara Friedman

Joker Poe, Part 4: The Critic’s Laughter

July 28, 2014

In this series thus far, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps best viewed as a literary prankster or practical joker. In Part 1, I argued that the great theorist of “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” was also, in his various works, a master “diddler,” frequently putting one over on his readers. In Part 2, I discussed the “poet as prankster,” suggesting that even Poe’s poetry is not always as serious as it seems, while examining one poem (“O Tempora! O Mores!”) that was itself composed and presented as part of an elaborate practical joke. In Part 3, I argued that many of Poe’s most well-known stories, which are usually read as Gothic horror or mystery, might be considered as humorous, frequently functioning as comical send-ups of popular fictions of the era. In this entry, I want to consider another genre of writing for which Poe was quite famous in his own time: literary criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe’s literary criticism bears the mark of the prankster’s spirit, as his book reviews and essays are often filled with sardonic humor.

twofisted_poe As a literary critic and book reviewer for a number of magazines, Poe developed an infamous reputation as a “tomahawk-man,” a harsh critic who, in the words of his great contemporary James Russell Lowell, “seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his inkstand.” Lowell’s own humorous aside does not detract from his judgement, stated one line earlier, of Poe as “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America.” Perhaps because of this discriminating, philosophical fearlessness, Poe-the-critic was loathe to suffer fools gladly or even at all, and some of his best known zingers have come at the expense of his fellow poets and fiction writers.

For example, in an 1843 review of William Ellery Channing’s Our Amateur Poets, Poe writes: “His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all.” A paragraph later he calls for the author to be hanged, but—out of deference to his good name (Channing Sr. having been a “great essayist”)—Poe urges that the hangman “observe every species of decorum, and be especially careful of his feelings, and hang him gingerly and gracefully, with a silken cord.” Presumably, the remainder of the book review represents that figurative execution.

Read more…

Cracking the Codes of Comedy: On the Anatomy of Jokes, Part 1

July 24, 2014
Why did the chicken cross the road?

Why did the chicken cross the road?

What is your favorite joke? Do you know why it works for you?

In answering the first question, many people have clear, definite jokes in mind; others may have to run through their memories to choose from several. In either case, most humans enjoy the prospect of having “favorite” jokes, and sharing them. They are far less interested in considering WHY the joke works for them, that tougher second question from above. “Why? Because it’s funny as hell. That’s why.” There could follow a series of insults to the questioner for ruining the whole idea of a joke. Hearing jokes can be funny; talking about why they are funny is not. So it follows that teaching humor, though a very good gig by all teaching measures, is still rather a risky proposition on the whole.

The Humor Code

The Humor Code

The study of humor has earned quite a bit of attention in scientific circles in recent years, moving well beyond the more standard interests in the humanities (my comfort zone). Most recently, and most successfully in the marketplace, is the book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny (2014) by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. The book has received quite a bit of publicity and attention from media. For a good overview of the topic and links to some of this popular attention (For example, see: Slate article with links on Studying Humor). It sets up the basic questions that start this post and applies both a journalistic and scientific methodology to seek answers. It is a good read, and often very funny in its own right.

Peter McGraw has been building the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado–Boulder, and has aggressively applied a scientific method to the study of humor. His approach, though not the first, has gained some worthy attention. Teaming up with a journalist is a stroke of geniuses (or common sense, really). Joel Warner helps provide an appealing voice for the study and makes sure the writing succeeds where so many academic books fail: it is readable. The Humor Code should appeal to teachers of humor on the whole. McGraw and Warner frame their study in terms of a romantic quest for scientific understanding of the seemingly inexplicable nature of laughter. It is a worldwide search for the keys to understanding the human sense of humor, that amorphous but essential part of the human experience. That is simply a great idea for the framing of a book, and it is hard not to hate them both for coming up with it.

Let’s start with the book’s epigraph from E.B. White. It reads:

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

Frogs and Language

Frogs and Language

McGraw and Warner follow that quote with: “Let’s kill some frogs.” I should add here that no frogs will die in the process of reading this post. The E.B. White quote has earned formidable commentary on HA! already. See the related posts by Sharon McCoy and Tracy Wuster: Sharon McCoy on Dissecting Jokes and Tracy Wuster on Objects of Humor.

This beginning to the book hits home with any teacher of humor because it captures the dilemma exactly. E. B. White’s comment gets plenty of play, as it should. It is a compelling statement that rings true but is a bit disingenuous with the facts in creating its metaphor of killing frogs. White asserts that any dissecting of a joke like a frog kills either party. Who needs dead frogs or dead jokes? Nobody.

My memory of 8th-grade biology is foggy, but I seem to recall that the frogs were quite dead before any of us started hacking away at them. Perhaps I am being defensive, but I don’t want to be accused of killing frogs anymore than of killing jokes. I have spent a good, and pleasant, portion of my adult life dissecting jokes and asking others to do so as well. I think they (both the jokes and the students) survive the process. The “thing” does not die on the table, and the process of dissection does not require a scientific mind; rather, it demands only a curious one. A scientific method, however, can be helpful with funding. But I digress.

Frog with Glasses

Trying to get students (or anyone) to begin examining the components of jokes–their structure, form and content; their cultural and historical context; their artistic qualities of language and nonverbal communication–can be worthwhile. It also forces those who try to answer the question the opportunity to assess their own preferences and personality traits that may push them to like one type of joke over another. This process could get rather personal rather fast. And, of course, it is political. Let’s take a moment to look at a few examples of a popular and persistent joke: the Light Bulb joke. It is simple framework with seemingly limitless permutations. Here is a link to a website out of England that claims to be a repository for the best “Light Bulb” jokes. I know it is English because there are so many misspellings (too many u’s and not enough z’s). I also know it has English authors because the site chooses the following as its favorite light bulb joke:

     Q: How many Irishmen does it take to change a light bulb?

     A: Five, one to hold the light bulb and the other four to turn the ladder round and round!

That seems a rather odd choice if based solely on the humor implicit in it. That is rather political, eh? It certainly has a social and historical context that must be open to scrutiny, as in any classroom examining humor. This seems to be one of the most popular and oldest versions of this joke, wherein the premise of the punchline depends on stereotypical assumptions and underlying social tensions. Simple jokes have complex backstories. This joke as presented above will not play very well in most American settings, but that is not to say that there are not American versions filled with similar tension and bigotry. The number in the answer is somewhat off-point and generic (presumably, the more people involved in the process, the dumber they are); what matters is that it affirms an assumption from the audience that agrees–or is simply willing to laugh about–the supposed stupidity of the targeted group. Let’s back off a bit and choose a version of the same joke above but directed at a more universally disliked group. This version has a more benign historical context:

     Q: How many tourists does it take to change a light bulb?

     A: Six: One to hold the bulb and five to ask for directions.

Tourists are sooooo stupid. Right? Well, yes. Well, no. But the joke can implicate almost anyone who has been in a unfamiliar place, and the characteristic of a tourist being uniformed and dependent on others and maps for their mobility (unlike Irish above) is not definitive of any single person’s identity. Moreover, the condition of being a tourist is temporary so that the insult is much more benign. Yet the form of the joke is the same. The answer implies the same status: stupid. And it is funny. Here is another version with a slightly skewed punchline that offers a more complex context for consideration.

     Q: “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

     A: “You know that’s not very funny.”

This joke has a clear political target: humorless feminists who are so politically minded in response to centuries of oppression that they refuse to accept a joke that may mock them, This version of the joke seems to be stopped cold via the interrupting voice that challenges the joke’s set-up. That voice provides the joke, a slight twist on the more standard punchline for light bulb jokes more typically provided by the questioner. This is the version of the joke as I remember if when I first heard in in the early 1990s. To my surprise, I found that the “lightbulbjokes” site provides twenty-nine answers to this set-up, the last of which is most closely aligned with my version. The answers on the whole carry a not-too-subtle backlash anger, more along the reactionary “feminazi” attacks popularized among the listeners of the idiotic but sometimes funny Rush Limbaugh in the 1990s. They, it seems, remain popular, and many of them are funny, it seems to me.

I still like the version quoted above, a version I first heard from students majoring in Women’s Studies. That statement is intended to give me some street cred for defining this joke as allowable and even funny in the version above. Others may disagree, and students need to explore the variations of opinion.

Why do I think my version is funny and benign but see most of the others as harboring much more anger? Am I right? Am I wrong? Well, how did I get here? The same questions apply to all jokes in one way or another, and such questions are getting some big media attention and that is a good thing for humor and anyone who likes to laugh and think about why.

What is your favorite joke? What makes it funny? What does it say about our culture? What does it say about you? Why a frog?

In case you are interested, here is how to change a lightbulb:

How to change a light bulb








Nanu Nanu: Mork & Mindy & Robin Williams, 35 Years Later

July 21, 2014


Happy Birthday, Robin Williams.

Originally posted on Humor in America:

Alex Smith

He’s either one of your favorite actor-comedians or one of your least favorite. Polarizing funnyman Robin Williams turned 62 on July 21, which is almost hard to believe given his continued manic energy in person and on screen. Williams rose to fame as “Mork from Ork” on the ABC sitcom Mork & Mindy, which premiered 35 years ago this fall.

Mork and Mindy robin williams

It was the request by an ABC executive’s son that launched the new show and William’s career as we know it. In 1978, the Star Wars was the biggest hit in cinematic history. The network exec’s son asked him to “do a show about an alien,” and thus, Mork from Ork’s cameo on ABC’s Happy Days became a new show.

Williams first appeared as Mork on an episode of Happy Days, a not-uncommon tactic to raise awareness of a new spin-off from an established show. While…

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Laura Who? A Study of Lost Cats and Missing Persons

July 18, 2014


A classic.

Originally posted on Humor in America:

For reasons that are uninteresting and irrelevant, I recently had my photograph taken. I was kind of joking when I asked the photographer “Should I be causal or regular?” and only later realized that the question was much less funny than it was accurate: “casual” is not my default setting, but is something that I have learned to relentlessly effect in order to appear fit for human interaction. Which is to say that I worry a lot, and about everything. I am literally worrying now, because as the newest contributing editor to Humor in America – Visual Humor, check it – I would love to be writing a really stellar and memorable and job-keeping first post.

In lieu of a lengthy biography, then, let’s just say that the joke with which I most resonate is Woody Allen’s quip about his boyhood stint on a all-neurotic softball team: “I used to…

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Using Political Cartoons in History Instruction

July 13, 2014

If you are a college instructor as I am, the last thing you need is someone advising you of yet another strategy for enhancing your lessons. Nevertheless, I am going to do just that because I must write about something having to do with humor, and this is it.
I teach history at a community college. One of the requirements of history and other rhetoric-based classes is that we have to assign a term paper of 2,000 words per the Gordon Rule. I have found a way to make the assignment less of a burden on my students and less tedious for me.

Bloomerism 1851 vol 21 p 141  Bloomerism

Since I teach Early American History (descent of man to about 1870), I assign political cartoons that were drawn contemporaneously to the time that the students are studying. I bring in copies of various cartoons that were published in Punch, Harper’s Weekly, Vanity Fair, and Leslie’s Illustrated prior to 1870—and there were many. Not only that, the subject matter of the cartoons is quite varied. I lay out copies of the cartoons on a desk during the first week of class, and the students choose which cartoon they will write on. I am fascinated by the cartoons the students pick and why they pick them. Most of them have no idea what the cartoon is about, but something in the illustration gets their attention.
After all of the cartoons have been chosen by the students, I project each cartoon on the screen in front of the class and briefly tell each student what direction s/he should go in the way of researching the subject matter. I only give them a thumbnail idea of what I expect; the rest is up to them. Because I go over all the cartoons in front of the entire class, all students get ideas of how to look at their cartoons and better understand the

Early Train Cartoon c 1850 A little unclear on the concept of an iron horse.

In a fourteen-week course, I assign the topics during the first week (second day of class). Students are responsible for turning in a rough draft by the ninth week. I tell them that the rough draft should be the best research and writing they are capable of. I even encourage them to get help from a friend, relative, or the Writing Center. I correct the rough draft and direct them on how to write at a higher level. One thing that I stress is Robert Graves’s aphorism: There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.
Because each student has a unique cartoon, I do not have to read the same term paper with pretty much the same content from thirty different students. Not only that, because the students have to write about seven pages, they must go into detail on the subject matter that they have chosen fairly deeply and some of them find information that I was not aware of. I end up learning from the students. That is a treat for me, and it usually helps the student get a better grade if s/he can find obscure and interesting information.

Punch One Good Turn 1862 vol 43 p 55  What price emancipation?
Not only do I require the term paper, but students are also required to present their cartoon and what it is about to the class during the last week. The presentation must be between five and ten minutes long. Some students get up in front of the class and stammer for five minutes. Others prepare a Powerpoint or use Prezi Presentations to help tell about their cartoon. Yes, they are graded.
Most of the feedback I have received on the project has been positive. The main reason is that the students feel that they have accomplished something positive. Another reason is that some of the students have told me that they enjoy seeing political cartoons of issues in the present and understand them better than they had in the past. The way I see it is that it is a win for me as an instructor and a win for the students as well.

Punch Transatlantic Cable 1866 vol 51 p 67First Transatlantic cable




A Salute to Lois Beebe Hayna

July 10, 2014

This summer I’m in a writers residency at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico in Taos. When I arrived, my childhood friend, Amy Beebe, contacted me from Denver to tell me her Aunt Lois Beebe Hayna––an award winning poet, now 101 years old and with yet another book coming out––once lived and wrote in these very casitas, and later served on the jury to select new writers. By all accounts, Lois and her works are loved and admired.

I’m only beginning to delve into her many poems, but my favorite, so far, (Courtesy of The Regis University Library), is below. Not a “funny” poem per se, but ingenious, haunting, and visceral . . . with a bit of gallows humor.

A poem I believe everyone should read.  ENJOY!!


shutterstock_144162019Red Alert

My mother surely knew the world
lurked along that path.
She had to know the world’s
filled with wolves, that their special
habitat is a forest
where little girls walk alone.
She dressed me
in the color of raw meat, she filled
my basket with warm-scented goodies
and sent me specifically
into the woods. A long way
into the woods. For years I believed
it was wolves that I had to beware.


Red Alert was Originally published in:
Keeping Still, 2005 and
Casting Two Shadows, 2010

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