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Murder and Blueberry Pies: Shel Silverstein as Songwriter

April 20, 2015
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Matt Powell is on break this month. Please enjoy this selection of his fine writing.

Originally posted on Humor in America:

Gather ‘round fellows I’ll tell you some tales about murder and blueberry pies
And heroes and hells and bottomless wells and lullabies, legends and lies
And gather round ladies come sit at my feet I’ll sing about warm sunny skies
There’s mermaids and beans and lovin’ machines in my lullabies, legends and lies
I’ll sing you a song then I’ll shuffle along with my lullabies, legends and lies

shel-silversteinThere is a philosophy to Shel Silverstein. The uninhibited way in which he lived his life, as well as his insatiable thirst for it, permeates the tone of his work. There is an adultness to his acclaimed books of children’s poems and stories, which elevates them to the universally recognized status they enjoy to this day. Rather than pandering down to children, he spoke to them on their level, unashamedly employing occasional crude humor to bolster morals and learning lessons. As a…

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Eddie Murphy Awarded Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

April 16, 2015
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Tracy Wuster

 

Every year since 1998, the Kennedy Center has awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to some of the greats of American Humor–and also Lorne Michaels. The 18th Annual award will be presented to Eddie Murphy on Sunday, October 18th.  Tickets still available.  I would be happy to attend said gala with you should you have an extra ticket (and tuxedo).

Murphy’s importance for American humor is clear, despite some movies in the 1990s that weren’t so great.

“Eddie Murphy has kept us laughing for 30 years. He’s like Mark Twain. He gets to the heart of a provocative issue, and he’s damn funny while he’s doing it,” said Cappy McGarr, one of the show’s executive producers. “He has had incredible influence over so many comedians who have followed him.”

Growing up, for me Saturday Night Live was Eddie Murphy–Buckwheat, Gumby, Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, James Brown… only later did I see the original cast.  From that period, almost all the sketches I remember were Murphy.  And they were hilarious.Eddie Murphy Buckwheat

At school, we would quote lines from Murphy as part of our everyday patter.  But I also remember the satire of Murphy’s “White Like Me” video causing me to think about race and privilege in ways I hadn’t before.

I also watched Murphy’s stand-up specials when I was much too young for such language.  Here, I should thank my brother, who also let me watch Trading Places and 48 Hours.  

While some of Murphy’s work hasn’t held up, his brilliance as a comic is unquestionable, and his influence American comedy is clear.  Most years, the Mark Twain Forum has some grumbling when the Mark Twain Prize is announced–discussion of whether the recipient is worthy of Mark Twain’s legacy.  No such discussion this year.

In the Archives: Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate” (1879)

April 13, 2015
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With all the contenders throwing their hats in the presidential ring, it is refreshing to have a honest and serious candidate to consider…

Originally posted on Humor in America:

Tracy Wuster

In keeping with our recent political focus, we present Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate.”  In light of  revelations in the presidential campaign (both embarrassing and partial), it is nice to see Twain’s refreshing candor.  Here it is, rom June 1879:

Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens politics president Obama RomneyI have pretty much made up my mind to run for president. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any congressional committee is disposed to…

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Send in the Clowns: A Note on Fear, Humor, and Painted Faces

April 9, 2015
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It’s that time of year again when we all get busy in academia. Jeff Melton wrote me with some nonsense about having a “job” and “kids” and such and asking me nicely to post this piece on clowns in place of a new contribution. Here is another recent take on the question: http://splitsider.com/2015/03/what-the-hell-is-the-deal-with-clowns/

Originally posted on Humor in America:

Clown IT

Clowns are terrifying.

I am convinced that the very concept induces anxiety. While on the surface, the “clown” seems to be an innocuous effort to play on simple comedic principles of exaggeration–big facial expressions; big hair; big noses; big shoes, all capped by physical buffoonery–it really taps into our most perverse fears. This is not a new idea, of course. Having a character in a comedy who is deathly afraid of clowns is a staple of American humor. The best example that comes to mind is Kramer from Seinfeld. Using Kramer’s always over the top responses to otherwise normal social contexts is comedic gold (“Gold, Jerry, Gold.”), but his rather restrained response to coming face to face with a dangerous clown is instructive. We should keep in mind that Kramer’s fear was a point of rational thought within the context of the plot-line of the episode that featured Crazy…

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National Grammar Day Generates a Conversation on Insider Jokes

April 7, 2015

In case you missed it—and you probably did unless you are an English nerd like me—National Grammar Day was March 4th. It came to my attention a few years ago, perhaps because I was teaching an Advanced Grammar class (as I am also doing this year). The “holiday” began in 2008, so it is relatively short on tradition. Martha Brockenborough started the tradition rolling because she felt deeply about proper grammar—this prompted her to start the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPROGG) and institute National Grammar Day as March 4 (March forth—an imperative). The society has its own website, though posts to it seem few and far between.

As an English nerd, I have tried to take this day and society seriously; however, a quick look at the established website and its posts make that extremely difficult. Most of the posts demonstrate the ways in which “poor” grammar can create unintended humor. See for yourself:

 knowingshit

 Instead of the proper respect and seriousness, what National Grammar Day did prompt was some semi-serious thought concerning the nature of insider humor and what work such humor actually performs. Grammar jokes belong to one of a great many “niche” jokes—that is, they require that a listener or reader know something about the subject matter in order to appreciate the humor. Mathematics jokes fall into this category of insider humor, as do jokes from other disciplines such as chemistry, engineering, and physics.

Some jokes are universal.  Example: Passing gas in almost any situation outside a bathroom—and only private bathrooms at that—seems to provoke universal laughter. These and other slapstick jokes usually do not require insider knowledge in order to tickle the funny bone.   Grammar jokes proliferate on the Internet and have always been present as texts even before the Information Superhighway. They are simply easier to access now.   Not all of these require as much insider knowledge as some other disciplines because native speakers of English can recognize anomalous errors of Standard English that form the joke. Thus the insider group is relatively large: anyone who has English language proficiency. Yet for the student/scholar of English, the jokes have a richer meaning. For example:

 lobster

 

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The Phenomenon of Fictional Place Names

March 31, 2015

Lower Slobbovia is a fictional manifestation of Al Capp in his” Li’l Abner” cartoon strip.  According to a description in one of his strips, it is in the arctic regions so the average temperatures are well below zero.  Also, according to the illustration below, it is below sea level; however, the humans have no problem breathing.  It is telling that the woman in the third panel is up to her knees in snow, but she is not dressed for sub-zero weather.  Apparently, all of the residents of Lower Slobbovia are acclimated to the weather, and/or since Al Capp prided himself on his ability to draw attractive women, he was bound and determined to under-dress his hotties as often as possible.

Somehow or another, after years of periodically leaving Dogpatch, USA and the trials and tribulations of Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae, Al Capp’s cartoon strip ventured to the icy realm of Slobbovia—either Upper or Lower, or both (as with this episode), the term “Lower Slobbovia” made its way into some dictionaries.  As cartoon readers know, anything can happen in the comics, so the need for gaseous oxygen is suspended, and gravity transitions from being a law to a suggestion.  Dictionary.com defines “Lower Slobbovia” as “Any place considered to be remote, poor, or unenlightened.”  The definition makes no comment on how enlightened the creator of the cartoon was.

Lower Slobbovia

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50 Ways to Play!: Selected Sex Positive Responses to the Agony and Ignomy of “Torture Porn” Romance

March 29, 2015

Somewhere amidst all of the Superbowl spectacle, Valentine’s spooning, St Patrick’s Day carousing, Passover reflection, V-Day agitation, and Lenten abstention, a strange and somewhat sleazy new trend reached its zenith, crested, and then settled down to a steady, new buzz within our national pysche. This slightly awkward, insistently uncomfortable climax was, of course, the highly engorged premiere, ritual critical circumcision, and premature box office depletion of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Hollywood adaptation of the opening rounds of E.L James’ titillating trilogy of triage, 50 Shades of Grey.

fifty2fiftychicken1greyskull1

Though the film opened to sold-out shows on that raciest of all holiday weekends, The Guardian has more or less summed up its econo-sexual stamina down the stretch: “Dramatic plunges from its opening weekend – -73% in the US (one of the largest falls on record) and -57% overseas – suggest that it has already exhausted its core audience, the EL James faithful, let alone any casuals pulled in by the furor… Prospects-wise, Fifty Shades is no Avatar, which did a game-changing six consecutive $100+ overseas weekends – this is strict box-office wham-bam-thank-you-sir.” In short, Fifty Shades will probably come to signify the most high profile case in a very familiar syndrome that plagues America’s reactions to the uses of explicit sexuality and erotica in entertainments of all sorts.

The fact that 50 Shades – a sadomasochistic fantasy rooted in the “therapeutic” cruelty of an enigmatic, aloof tycoon and his sweet, little ingenue-cum-whipping post – has commanded such attention in all of its forms is fascinating, sensational, and like most such phenomena, a little bit sad.

Now, please don’t grab the ball-gag yet. It’s not that I disapprove of anything as exciting as a randy trilogy of explicit sexcapades that has somehow infiltrated the shelves of every major warehouse store, supermarket, airport stationer, and nightstand in the nation. Quite to the contrary, as Leslie Bennetts observes in her Entertainment Weekly feature on the 50 Shades phenomenon, “None of us will ever know how many orgasms Fifty Shades of Grey has inspired, or how much marital boredom it’s enlivened with vaginal balls and riding crops, but its impact is incalculable far beyond the bedroom.”  Far be it from me to poo-poo anything that has so vehemently and profitably fueled the free world’s sex drive. Again, Bennetts provides us with some startling numbers: “Since the first volume of E L James’ S&M trilogy was published in 2011, the books have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and been translated into 52 languages. From the Bible to the Harry Potter series, only a handful of books have ever racked up such numbers, and no previous work of pornography has captured the erotic imagination of so many women.”

There has been more than enough curmudgeonly commentary, critique, and conflict revolving around both James’ pseudo-Sado-fiction and Taylor-Johnson’s darkly lit film. Quite honestly, the segments I read from James’ work do their job as adequately as any other artifact of arousal probably should. If you push the right narrative buttons involving suggestion, anticipation, and seduction, in nearly any order, the usual explosive results are pretty much inevitable. Or as as EW’s Lisa Schwartzbaum observes, “James may not be much of a prose stylist, but she can write an effectively dirty, hot, easy-to-read, complicated-to-accessorize sex scene when she puts her mind to it. James throws in descriptions of bondage, submission, foreplay, cosmic orgasms, private helicopters, and fine white wine. And minus the boring bits about private helicopters and tedious wine -sipping, it’s all tatty, arousing fun.” I also admit that I have not yet seen the now largely panned film adaptation, though I will probably give it a go eons after its original shock have faded through Sisyphean runs on late night cable.

I have no qualm or quarrel with the book that launched a tsunami of coital clashes, or the movie that looks like it does its best to somehow make romance out of punishing, joyless, sexual violence. No, my gripe has nothing to do with 50 Shades‘ explicitness, triteness, or brutality, though I generally prefer more actual pleasure in my private reading and personal media consumption. I am more disappointed in the simple fact that every authorized rendition of the dirty dalliances of Mr. Grey and Ms. Steele seems to lack any iota of (intentional) humor, joy, or playfulness. With all of that role play, kinky couture, and so very many scandalous props and toys, shouldn’t there be at least one non-literal gag to enjoy? Wouldn’t some part of James’ great teasing Trilogy of Tight-Knottedness celebrate the incredibly transgressive, inscrutable, unstoppable FUN of sexual experiment and erotic excitement?

Where are the farcical phallic jokes? The sloppy puns? The slippery entendres and sassy pillow talks? Where, for heaven’s sake, is the great comedy of busy bodies falling across each other in exciting ridiculous ways?  We don’t really seem to mind what’s missing either. Instead of getting hot and bothered by great sex between good people, readers and audiences are more entranced by a stiff (groaning pun intended) and icy erotic aesthetic that might be best classified as “Brain Dead Sexy.” Where is the sex farce and satyr play? Where are the May Day mummers and hot-blooded courtesans? Couldn’t Anastasia find better, more vibrant, and more virile company at Ridgemont High and wouldn’t Sob Sister Christian find riskier business during a quick power lunch at Porky’s?  More importantly, wouldn’t we all?

For the time being, 50 Shades of Grey has brought sexually intimate fiction, erotically charged art, and “pervy” non-normative forms of sexual activity and exploration into the mainstream. If there is any greater “good” that could arise from Mr. Grey’s holsters, harnesses, and harangues, it is probably the widespread lessening of our national provincialism, righteous rigidity, and pervasive hypocrisy concerning the role that sexual pleasure, erotic performance, and perverse fetishes may have in our culture and our lives. But shouldn’t humor play a leading part in that voluptuous victory of good clean vice over venal virtue? Don’t we need the aggression and anarchy of comedy to satisfy our healthy sexual hungers? Whither wag our winsome willies and why do we seem to prefer them when they are locked away in Castle Greyskull or grimly sheathed in Steele? Wouldn’t it be more fun for everyone involved to just share the warmth of some good old fashioned American cherry, apple, or banana cream pie?

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