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Adult Humor in Unexpected Places: Happy Birthday, LBJ and Pee Wee Herman!

August 27, 2014

Tracy Wuster

“When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always found them.” 
― Rodney Dangerfield

A summer dominated by moving–with a baby–has ended.  There is nothing funny about moving when you have a young child, except for the unintentional.  Like this morning, when I banged my knee on the doorframe when stepping over the baby gate.  My valiant efforts to squelch the swear words that are the only tonic at such times had my little girl laughing, her face covered with carrots, her diaper filled with the same, and my knee slightly bleeding and my eyes watering–first from pain and then laughter.

Which is all to say that I have been largely absent from “Humor in America” this summer because I haven’t had time to think about humor, much less write about it, much less write anything intelligent.  And I don’t have much to say now, but I feel like it would be a good thing to get something up and out there.

And then I noticed that today was the birthday of two illustrious humorists who somehow fit together in my mind (and, to be clear, my mind may be affected by the fact that the little one decided that sleep was not for her, except for 45 minute to the occasional, blessed three-hour stretch).  Here they are:

LBJ lyndon baines johnson humor pee wee herman



Read more…

Cole Porter and the Gods of Gossamer

August 21, 2014

There’s no love song finer

But how strange

The change

From major to minor

Ev’ry time we say goodbye.


The strange change from major to minor runs throughout Cole Porter’s life and work. Harmonically, it was the signature of his sound. Personally, he was the toast of town; even in a wheelchair, having suffered a crippling riding accident that would eventually cost him his right leg; or in shadow, his homosexuality not proper upper-set cocktail conversation.

Cole Porter was born into the privilege and constraints of middle-western wealth in Peru, Indiana in 1891. His overbearing grandfather, J.O. Cole’s, reach dominated most aspects of Porter’s early life, even giving the boy the maternal family surname as his first, lest he be somehow denied the privilege of being a Cole.

He showed early promise as a violinist and pianist and began composing songs as young as ten, although he was a mischievous child. At the age of eight, Cole was kicked out of the local movie theater for playing comical music on the house piano during a sad part in a film. During summers on Lake Maxinkuckee, he and his friends would climb aboard the passing steamship in their bathing suits and dive off the back before it moved on. While on board, Cole headed straight toward the piano, wet suit and all, and pounded away on the keys, keeping time with the rhythm of the engine, until the ship captain chased him away and Cole made his escape somersaulting into the clear lake waters beyond the captain’s reach.

There’s something wild about you child

That’s so contagious

Let’s be outrageous

Let’s misbehave



His mischievousness would remain most of his life. His lyrics were littered with suggestive imagery and double entendre, which often put the songwriter at odds with censors of the day who took objection to lines such as “I’d love to make a tour of you,” especially “the south of you,” from the Silk Stockings number “All of You” (Ironically, the censors missed the most obscene thing about “All of You” – the song, about gaining “complete control” of a woman, is sung by a theatrical agent!) as well as entire compositions such as “Love For Sale.”

Anything didn’t always go.

Times have changed

And we’ve often rewound the clock

Since the Puritans got a shock

When they landed on Plymouth Rock.

If today

Any shock they should try to stem,

‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,

Plymouth Rock would land on them

Good authors too who once knew better words

Now only use four-letter words

Writing prose,

Anything goes.

At Yale he studied English and music and composed several football fight songs. His natural charm and musicality made him a social success among the children of the eastern elite, even as he defied the conventional conservatism of the Ivy League (“[He] wore salmon-colored ties and had his nails done,” one classmate observed). His grandfather never considered music a worthwhile pursuit and insisted Cole attend Harvard Law School where he earned the equivalent of straight D’s his first year. The dean of the law school encouraged Cole to transfer to the Harvard School of Music, against his grandfather’s wishes.

Defying his grandfather by pursuing his passion for music would (almost) cost him his fortune before it would gain him another. His grandfather cut Cole completely from his will; however, Cole’s mother split her inheritance with her son, each of them ending up with two million dollars.

People always say that so much money spoils one’s life. But it didn’t spoil mine; it simply made it wonderful.

Porter lived a life of luxury, but he was a disciplined writer. He never waited for inspiration; he wrote constantly, and surrounded himself with staff paper and pencils, rhyming dictionaries, thesauruses, and other tools of the trade. Being left handed, he found it difficult to pencil in the notes of his compositions, so he would turn the staff paper on its side and write out the notes upward from the bottom of the page to the top, rather than left to right. No wonder then his best songs seem to take flight as they unfold, like bubbles in a glass of champagne. But there was another element that would permeate beyond the surface sheen of his milieu: hopeless longing.

It was just one of those nights,

Just one of those fabulous flights,

A trip to the moon on gossamer wings,

Just one of those things.

Porter found himself in Paris after World War I, when it seemed every young, modernist genius of the time – Picasso, Hemingway, Joyce – descended upon the City of Light like moths to a flame. And it was in Paris where he would meet his wife, Linda Lee Thomas, an American socialite eight years the songwriter’s senior. Read more…

What’s With College Sports Nicknames?

August 17, 2014

What’s With College Sports Nicknames?

The controversy over the Washington franchise of the National Football League using “Redskins” as its moniker has prompted me to think about college nicknames and how they are used. Of course, Florida State University uses “Seminoles” for its sports, but with the permission of the actual Seminole Indians in southern Florida. However, the Eastern Michigan University team changed its name from the Hurons to the Eagles in 1991 in order to comply with a suggestion that the name “Huron” contributed to Native American stereotyping. It is interesting that EMU chose “Eagles” over another bird. They could have easily been called the “Emus” and it would have been far more a propos than aligning with the plethora of schools that use various species of eagles for their mascots.
Some schools choose animal species that do not exist. My alma mater, Oakland University changed its moniker from the Pioneers to the Golden Grizzlies when it stepped up to Division I in 1998. The OU logo is a fearsome bear (of some sort). I wonder how many OU students are aware that their mascot is a non-existent mammal?
Two types of mascots have caused me to wonder what the founders were thinking. Both the Georgia Bulldogs and University of South Florida Bulls provide fodder for linguists. University of Georgia coined their athletic teams the Bulldogs in 1920, about the same time as women received the vote. Although women had been enrolled at the school since 1903, there was probably no thought that women would ever compete in athletics, so they did not have to worry about what they might call the women’s teams. Needless to say, the women prefer “Lady Bulldogs,” over “Bitches.” However, one cannot help to consider the latter as an inappropriate, but applicable substitute. To my knowledge, there has been no attempt to change UGA’s mascot due to stereotypes or considerations of courtesy.
The story behind the USF Bulls is probably more egregious. In 1962, the university adapted the nickname of the Golden Brahmans. Like golden grizzlies, golden Brahmans do not exist—at least not in nature. However, apparently golden Brahmans is a bit of an unwieldy nickname. By the late ‘80s they became the “Bulls.” Also, by the late ‘80s they had women’s sports. So what do the women’s teams call themselves. As “bull” specifically refers to the sex of certain animals, “Lady Bulls” is a bit of an oxymoron, but “Cows” is inappropriate. Like UGA, USF has not considered altering the names of its teams out of consideration for the women athletes.
I have always enjoyed the nicknames of various schools whose founders had both a sense of creativity and humor. Texas Christian University chose “Horned Frogs” as their moniker. The women’s teams call themselves the “Lady Frogs.” Now I don’t know about all horned frogs, but the African Horned Frog is hermaphroditic. So Horned Frogs is appropriate to the men, women, and transgendered athletes at the school. It and the following moniker may be the most appropriate mascots in the NCAA.
As well, Evergreen State College in Washington is known as the “Geoducks” (that’s pronounced Goo-y-Ducks). Oh, and it is not a waterfowl—it’s a mollusk. The original motto of the school was “Let it all hang out.” And since the geoduck cannot be contained within its shell, the mascot was deemed appropriate, but it is unclear to what it is appropriate. Since then, ESC teams have been happy as clams. Like the African Horned Frog, the geoduck is hermaphroditic, so it is appropriate to all athletes. An explanation of the naming of the Geoduck as the ESC mascot is at
Here’s a little game. Match the real college or university to an appropriate nickname. For instance: Casper College matches Ghosts. The answers follow the next paragraph:
Alma College All Stars
Aurora College Brides (and Grooms)
Bluffton College Gamblers
Calvin College Ghosts
Casper College Hobbeses
Converse College Jokers
Embry-Riddle University Lures
Fisher Junior College Northern Lights
High Point University Pinnacles
Rice University Road Kill
Tulane University Soul Sisters
Commerce entered the name game in about 1965 when Gatorade was invented at the University of Florida. Of course, the drink was named for the team nickname of the Gators. Its success as an electrolyte replacement product is well-documented. The need for such a product is especially important in southern states like Florida. But one wonders, if the drink had been invented at Florida State University, would it have been called “Seminole Fluids?”
If you are actually reading this far, the answers to the quiz are:
Alma Soul Sisters (let the men fend for themselves), Aurora Northern Lights, Bluffton Gamblers, Calvin Hobeses, Casper Ghosts, Converse All Stars, Embry-Riddle Jokers, Fisher Lures, High Point Pinnacles, Rice Brides, and Tulane Road Kill).

What will your verse be?

August 14, 2014

Today’s humorous poetry post is pre-empted to bring you a scene from the film, “Dead Poet’s Society.”

Robin Williams 1951 - 2014

Robin Williams   1951 – 2014


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









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