This is the second installment in a three-part series. Read part one here.
“The law? Law is a human institution.”
The Invocation of the Muse, swinging picks building into rhythm, human voices chanting in song – the sound of the men working on the chain gang. Black men in black and white stripes, washed out color film.
And so the Coen Brothers begin the new millennium with a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, set in Depression-era Mississippi – as a musical comedy.
Smooth talking Ulysses Everett McGill escapes from the chain gang (for practicing law without a license), shackled to two dimwitted fellow convicts. He is set on a journey home to see his estranged wife, Penny, and their daughters.
Along the way they encounter a blind prophet on the railroad, real-life delta bluesman Tommy Johnson (who, like his better-known namefellow Robert, allegedly sold his soul to the devil), Lotus-eaters in the form of a mass baptism in the river (the Coens continuously mash up Homer’s Greek traditions with the Christian themes of the film’s Southern setting) washerwomen Sirens, a Cyclops Bible salesman and the Ku Klux Klan (robed as white sheep) all while being pursued by the empty-eyed Poseidon devil, in the form of a relentless Sherriff in shades.
They even manage to record an unlikely hit record.
Like all the music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” is a traditional folk song of the American South. The song dates back to the turn of the last century, but was popularized in the 1950s by the Stanley Brothers. In the early 1960s it became a folk staple. Bob Dylan included a version on his debut album.
If I were asked to name an unofficial Patron Saint of Hard Living, Charles Bukowski would come to mind.
This prolific writer was unabashed about his drinking, turbulent love affairs with woman, and unconventional lifestyle. To his mind, those who met the status quo were the depraved ones. Read him for a while and you may decide he was right.
Out of his thousands of poems, most weren’t humorous. Here are three that are:
Van Gogh cut off his ear
gave it to a
who flung it away in
Van, whores don’t want
I guess that’s why you were
such a great
when you’re young
a pair of
in the closet
can fire your
when you’re old
a pair of shoes
the other day we were in a
bookstore in the mall
and my woman said, “look, there’s
“I don’t know him,” I said.
“we had dinner with him
not too long ago,” she said.
“all right,” I said, “let’s get
out of here.”
Bob was a clerk in the store
and his back was to us.
my woman yelled, “hello, Bob!”
Bob turned and smiled, waved.
my woman waved back.
I nodded at Bob, a very
delicate blushing fellow.
(Bob, that is.)
outside my woman asked, “don’t you remember him?”
“he came over with Ella. re- member Ella?”
my woman remembers everything.
I don’t understand it, although
I suppose it’s polite
to remember names and faces
I just can’t do it
I don’t want to carry all those
Bobs and Ellas and Jacks and Marions
and Darlenes around in my mind. eating and
drinking with them is difficult en- ough.
to attempt to recall them at will
is an affront to my well-
that they remember me is
Their films reveal a host of influences, especially an inimitable fusing of the absurdist screwball comedy of Preston Sturges with the dark moral lessons of film noir. The films of the Coen Brothers – whether dark and violent or roariously silly – share many themes and aesthetic traits. The comedies have a philosophical moral undertone and the serious films are peppered with comedy.
The Jewish brothers from Minnesota are essentially co-auteurs (if such a word is allowed). They write, direct, produce and edit their films together. (Early credits assigning direction to Joel and production to Ethan were required by rigid guild rules. They edit their films under the alias Roderick Jaynes.)
Their films share a unique visual tapestry and a careful attention to sound and music, often working in tandem. The atmosphere of their stories is accentuated by a combination of original score and perfectly cultivated source music.
“Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else… that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an’ down here… you’re on your own.”
The brothers’ first film announced the arrival of a new cinematic voice. 1984’s Blood Simple, a low budget neo-noir, somehow contains the multitudes of their entire body of work to come. Continue reading →
Donald Trump is a gift to political cartoonists and satirists in general. His policy positions are extreme, though some are extreme left while others are extreme right. His public statements are the definition of “gaffe.” It would seem Trump is a godsend for political cartoonists. While that may have been true during the beginning of the election cycle, that may no longer be the case.
How many times can a satirist lampoon, once again, Trump’s misogynistic rantings? How many different ways can a satirist expand on Trump’s xenophobia? How many times of pointing out Trump’s misuse of statistics to the point of outright lies finally becomes tiresome? Because of these limitations, cartoonists ignore his missteps and look for other issues on which to direct their invective, and other ways to caricature Trump.
With few exceptions, satirists do not want to get the reputation of repeating themselves to the extent that readers expect a “Trumpism du jour.” That gets as tiresome as the candidate himself. Cartoonists attempt to push beyond the cliché. In fact, after one of the most catastrophic events in American history, the attack on the World Trade Center, Ann Telnaes excoriated her peers for being overly and overtly patriotic, “We shouldn’t be flag-wavers. You can do that on your personal time. — I flew a flag — but not in your cartoons. We’re supposed to be a voice of other possibilities.”[i] That principle is not only applicable after tragedies, but it applies to overused punch lines in cartoons as well.
Therefore, even those satirists who are most adamantly opposed to the possible election of Donald Trump must reach beyond Trump’s daily inappropriateness to the reality of Trump’s attractiveness to a large portion of the electorate and examine why that is happening. That gives rise to a class of cartoons that portray Trump in a positive light. True to the vast majority of American cartoons, however, is that if Trump is depicted positively, something or someone else is the foil.
This analysis comes with a disclaimer that since the subject is pictorial humor, there may be some difference of opinion among readers as to whether the artist’s primary target was Trump or the alleged foil. These cartoons were chosen because the author’s first impression was that Trump was not the primary target of the humor. With that in mind and the distinct possibility that there will be differing opinions, here are cartoons that contain Trump, but make Bernie Sanders the foil.
Published on May 19, 2016, Robert Ariail depicts a boxing match between Trump and the Republican Party symbolized by the elephant. The fight is disrupted by a riot between various Democrats, symbolized by the donkeys at ringside. While there is one donkey with a Hillary sign, the most vicious of the asses are depicted as Sanders partisans. The reason why this is pro-Trump is that despite the “Stop Trump” movement and various powerful Republicans (including the entire Bush family) refusing to endorse Trump, the Democrats are depicted as more combative than the Republicans.
Robert Ariail, 19 May 2016.
Jack Ohman depicts Bernie Sanders handing the presidency to Donald Trump on a silver platter. This cartoon, published on May 20, 2016, also depicts Hillary Clinton at a nearby table with a goblet in front of her and shrouded in gossamer. Despite Trump’s beatific yet condescending expression, the cartoonist is decrying Sander’s poor judgment in harshly criticizing Clinton for her vote to invade Iraq and pandering to Wall Street types. The artist suggests that Sanders is handing the presidency to Trump, a person within the wealthy class that Sanders had been stridently campaigning against.
Jack Ohman, 20 May 2016.
The following cartoon is a direct comparison between the careless statements of Donald Trump toward various immigrants and the carelessness of Clinton in her handling of State Department emails. While Bernie Sanders may have been sick of hearing about those “damned emails,” Republicans can’t hear about them enough. On June 23, 2016, Lisa Benson filled that void by comparing Clinton’s criticisms of Donald Trump to her own mistakes of using a personal computer to email classified information. In the background, is that the silhouette of a foreign spy who is reading the contents of Clinton’s brief case? Maybe it is an FBI detective who will later regard her handling of the emails as “extremely careless” but not criminal.
Lisa Benson, 23 June 2016.
Finally, the most common foil for the positive Trump cartoons are the ones that depict the Republican Party in disarray following the successful campaign by Trump to win more primary delegates than any of the Republican candidates for President in the 2016 race. In those cases, the whole of the GOP is depicted as an elephant. And, true to the nature of political cartooning, the beast is put into the most precarious of situations.
International cartoonists also get into the act of satirizing American politics. After all, if the winner of the U.S. presidency is considered the “leader of the free world,” American politics is fair game overseas. Heng Kim Song of the Straits Times (Singapore) depicts Donald Trump dragging a reluctant bride to the marriage altar. The reluctant bride’s fingernails are gouging the carpet to the amazement of spectators. Contrary to physics and American satire, however, the dress is still maintaining the dignity of the bride. This illustrates the uncomfortable position that the Republicans find themselves after having allowed a radical to infiltrate their party and win. Clearly, in this depiction and in electoral politics, Trump has defeated the stalwarts of the GOP.
Heng Kim Song, 30 May 2016.
One of the oldest and clearest depictions of a political election is as a race. It is easy to depict and there is little confusion that when one candidate crosses the finish line and the others have not, a winner can be declared. The race as a metaphor can also obscure clarity of a contest. Take the following cartoon of May 31, 2016 by Clay Bennett as an example. Donald Trump is depicted crossing the finish line. The cartoonist depicts the tape not having been broken and the two GOP members who were holding the tape refuse to let go. Has Trump won the race or not? We will find out at the convention.
Clay Bennett, 31 May 2016.
In political cartoon culture, cartoonists are given one opportunity to state the obvious on an issue. After that, they are challenged to look beyond the obvious and examine underlying realities. Cartoonists are expected to push the boundaries of convention and cause the public to consider ideas that are neither readily apparent nor popular. Ranan Lurie called the editorial cartoon “the most extreme form of expression that a society will accept or tolerate.”[ii] In this case, readers are asked to consider that there are some entities worse than Donald Trump.
I will leave readers to mull that one over.
[i] Dave Astor, “Editorial Cartooning Post 9-11,” Editor and Publisher 4 February 2002. Internet: http://www.editorandpublisher.com/news/editorial-cartooning-post-9-11/.
[ii] Chris Lamb, Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons, New York, Columbia University Press, 2004. 22.
It wasn’t until 1972––58 years after President Woodrow Wilson made Mother’s Day official––that Father’s Day become a nationwide holiday. On Sunday, June 19, 2016, Americans will again honor and celebrate paternal bonds.
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY!
To celebrate the summer and to coincide with an impending Father’s Day, I am reposting this piece on National Lampoon’s Vacation. I reassert that the film is a formidable contribution to American humor, a fact made even more evident by the lame updated version of the film released in 2015 (simply titled Vacation), written and directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. The return to the Griswold family featured an adult Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) repeating the desperate but loving efforts of his father all those years ago. The film is just plain awful but still managed to make substantive money at the box office. I see that success as testament to the legacy of the original film along with the enduring appeal of disastrous family vacations in the American psyche. The original film remains the seminal statement of this beautiful and dysfunctional family ritual.
In the summer of 1983, Americans were treated to one of the best comedy films to examine the American family vacation and its inescapable heart of darkness: National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis and written by John Hughes, who based the screenplay on his short story “Vacation ’58.” The film stands as the best cultural document to exploit the humor of the American family vacation, that mainstream celebration reasserting the right to own the landscape and be miserable in the process–and all at great expense. There is no cultural behavior that is so consistently marked with promise year after year and also, in equal proportions, disappointment–unless we talk about marriage itself, but I dare not suggest that.
Few movies tapped into the zeitgeist more effectively than Vacation. This is not only evidenced by its success in the marketplace, immediately in that big first summer (most online sources assert a box office of $61,000,000 and a budget somewhere around $15 million) ; then also with the continuing payoff from the sequels it encouraged and the high-rotation syndication it has earned for the last thirty years. There are few film or television families with greater reach into American culture than the Griswolds.
The film is especially poignant to American fathers who, no matter what other factors come into play, enter upon this challenge as if they are performing a noble duty to God and Country. (I hasten to add that women–mothers–have their own nightmares of the family vacation, primarily built around having to recreate the domestic space in any and all spaces occupied by the family–talk about exhaustion!–but Vacation is driven in all ways by Clark, the failed provider.) When a father begins a family vacation, the task is taken on out of a feeling of obligation first and foremost, not a desire for relaxation. As Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) puts it; the family is on a “quest for fun,” a perpetual search just as elusive as any effort to find the Holy Grail.
It is the delving into the pathetic psyche of the mainstream American father who chooses year after year to endure the ritual that makes Vacation such a compelling example of American humor. Every father is Clark Griswold, a bumbling simpleton with a good heart but very little understanding of his limitations.
Chevy Chase, in his dream role, deserves an Oscar in his creation of Clark Griswold simply for making him worthy of our sympathy. He is both ridiculous and believable. He is a first-rate idiot, bless his heart. But he keeps trying because he understands what all American family vacation providers understand: he cannot stop. Stopping is failure. Deep down he must always believe that the obeisance of such a powerful ritual will be repaid. Marty Moose owes us.
As I write this, I am on vacation, and I am exhausted. I can’t wait to get home so that I can get some rest. I am going to float the idea of leaving a day early. But in the meantime, today is for sea kayaks. The four of us will explore like Lewis and Clark. The sea looks a bit angry today, but what could go wrong? Good family fun, with a hint of danger, or at least….hassle.
“Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips with Me” was not written as a comedy song necessarily, but it has been used for comedic effect through the decades. Al Dubin (“I Only Have Eyes For You,” “September in the Rain”) and Joe Burke (“Rambling Rose,” “Moon Over Miami”) composed “Tulips” for the 1929 musical comedy, Gold Diggers of Broadway, staring Nick Lucas, “The Crooning Troubadour.”
Gold Diggers of Broadway – only the third Warner Bros. release to be filmed in color – was a box office smash and made a star of Lucas, as well as the song. No complete print exists of the musical comedy, which synched polished, vivid Technicolor dance sequences with popular Jazz Age songs. Like the carefree era of the 1920s it captures, the film is lost forever. But “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips” remains.
Lucas’ falsetto crooning, while charming and old-fashioned, was not intended as parody. The Italian-American singer (born Dominic Nicholas Anthony Lucanese) was a serious musician and an influential early jazz guitar player.
In 1930, the year after its first publication, “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips” was featured in the cartoon short, Sinkin’ in the Bathtub, the first Warner Bros. Loony Tunes cartoon. The characters of Bosko and his sweetheart Honey have been criticized for employing black face humor as well as for being derivative of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. At the end of the cartoon Bosko utters for the first time the now immortal line, “That’s all folks.”
Since then, “Tulips” has been used for laughs in countless cartoons and film.
The song was sung in the bar of a ship in the 1945 film adaptation of Graham Green’s The Confidential Agent.
It appeared in another Looney Tunes short in 1961 – A Scent of the Matterhorn – featuring the not-so-veiled ethnically French skunk character Pepé Le Pew.
Beatle George sings a parody – “Tiptoe Thru the Meanies” – in the Yellow Submarine cartoon from 1968.
And, of course, “Tulips” is most famously remembered as performed by Tiny Tim, the falsetto-singing, ukulele strumming, frequent Carson guest and unlikely star of the late 1960s. There is an element of parody to Tiny Tim’s entire persona. Whether his rendition of “Tulips” is in earnest or is meant for a laugh remains unclear, although his admiration for old songs and singers, like Lucas, was certainly genuine. Tiny Tim died after performing “Tulips” on stage at a ukulele festival. He cut the song short before collapsing in his wife’s arms.
Tiny Tim requested that Nick Lucas sing his signature song on the Tonight Show for Tiny Tim’s televised wedding in 1969. 40 million viewers tuning in to Carson that night saw the original Crooning Troubadour effortlessly strumming his guitar, his voice a bit lower, performing a song many of them perhaps only knew from the eccentric groom’s odd homage.
At 70, Lucas was vibrant and charismatic. After transitioning from his first song, “Looking at the World Through Rose Colored Glasses,” into “Tulips,” he deadpanned: “What did you expect, Tiny Tim?”
“Tulips” comes from the “Moon and June” Tin Pan Alley school of simple, unserious fare. It is not a great song – at least not when compared with the many masterpieces of the Great American Songbook era in which it was written – Cole Porter’s “What is This Thing Called Love?,” The Gershwin brothers’ “I’ve Got a Crush On You” and “Embraceable You,” and Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” were all written within a year of “Tulips.”
But it certainly has made its mark – “Tulips’” simple charm has permeated the culture, appearing as ironic or whimsical atmosphere from Harry Potter to the Walking Dead, from Insidious to the Facts of Life, and even as performed by animatronic animals at Chuck E Cheese.
It may not be Gershwin or Porter or Berlin, but in its lasting appeal, “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips with Me” is a Great American Song.
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the passing of Ogden Nash. During his long career, he wrote over 500 pieces of comic verse. His subject matter, unconventional rhymes and accessibility made him a national favorite. His poetry is often tempered with gentle wisdom. Most readers can relate to his work in certain special ways. In my case, it is because Nash had two daughters. So do I. This particular poem, inspired by one of his daughters, also reminds me of myself over-reacting to own 30th birthday long ago. Rest in peace, Ogden Nash. We’ll always love you.
To enjoy a larger collection of his works, please click here.
A Lady Who Thinks She Is Thirty
Unwillingly, Miranda wakes,
Feels the sun with terror,
One unwilling step she takes,
Shuddering to the mirror.
Miranda in Miranda’s sight
Is old and gray and dirty;
Twenty-nine she was last night;
This morning she is thirty.
Shining like the morning star,
Like the twilight shining,
Haunted by a calendar,
Miranda is a-pining.
Silly girl, silver girl,
Draw the mirror toward you;
Time who makes the years to whirl
Adorned as he adored you.
Time is timelessness for you;
Calendars for the human;
What a year, or thirty, to
Loveliness made woman?
Oh, Night he will not see thirty again,
Yet soft her wing, Miranda;
Pick up your glass and tell me, then–
How old is Spring, Miranda?
Since Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for President of the United States in early May , pundits and commentators have attempted to understand how this once unthinkable scenario came about. In fact, since his strong showing in the Iowa caucus this winter, people have tried finding the culprit for the rise of the reality television personality.
The old saying claims success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. In the case of Trump, however, it seems the failure of the political system has many fathers. During the past months President Obama has been blamed for the rise of Trump, so has the Republican Party, so has income inequality, and racism, and political science. The most usual suspect, however, remains the media. The case has been made that the media, and television especially, gave Trump unlimited airtime to peddle his particular brand of racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and conservatism. Leslie Moonves, executive chairman of CBS, articulated the relationship between media and Trump when he admitted that “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”.
The lavish media attention given Trump includes late-night comedy, the former Apprentice host has appeared on all three network’s late-night shows, and even hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live on NBC. Showbiz politics is nothing new in American politics; celebrity has been a part of presidential elections for decades as historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell has shown. I have previously written on this blog about late-night campaigning and how integral comedy has become to presidential communication. What makes the appearance of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live for example so controversial, however, is that his statements are far outside the political mainstream. Balancing the quest for ratings with the risk of normalizing the rhetoric of Trump, while keeping the comedic integrity, has made for very different late-night appearances.
As a blogger for American Humor Studies, I run an occasional series that explains the etymology of words that derive from humorous sources–particularly cartoons. It is fascinating how the words transition from neologisms that perform a particular task for the cartoonist, but are eventually adopted by the public, sometimes for a short period (as the following word was) and sometimes for hundreds of years (as “gerrymander” has been).
The last time I saw “milquetoast” or any form of the word was back in the 1970s. A coworker of mine mocked up a nameplate for one of our bosses that said “Casper Milktoast” and had put it on his desk. After asking him how he had come up with the name, he told me it was a term that his grandfather had used. It was later that I encountered it in a book of H. T. Webster cartoons.
“Milquetoast” is a derisive term for a timid, unassertive person. It comes from a Webster cartoon character named Caspar Milquetoast. Although the word is spelled “milque,” it undoubtedly refers to “milk” and the effect that milk and other liquids have on bread when it is dipped in them. The bread, or toast, becomes soggy and malleable, and Webster named his soggy, malleable character for that phenomenon.
“The Timid Soul” pen and ink cartoon by Harold Tucker Webster in The Best of H. T. Webster by Robert E. Sherwood and Philo Calhoun. New York: Simon and Schuster 1953.
Why milk? Why not water? Milk is white, and men who have a white complexion are considered less rugged than those who have darker, tanned complexions. Combine that whiteness with sogginess and the term is less than flattering for a man. The interwar period was a time of racism in the United States with many symbols that represented perceived characteristics of blacks and whites. The symbol of paleness as representative of non-assertiveness supports the concept that blacks were rugged laborers and whites were among the leisure classes, but too much leisure and time out of the sun was perceived as unmanly. It is no surprise that cartoonists often exploit stereotypes to reinforce the hidden suggestions within the text and images.
Caspar Milquetoast first appeared in Webster’s cartoons in 1924, but it was not until 1935 that it became a noun describing a timid soul. It may have derived from the term “milksop,” which originated in the 14th century and is also defined as a man who is unassertive. The name Casper was appropriated in 1939 by a new cartoon character called Casper (McFadden) the Friendly Ghost. With only the difference of the single vowel, both Casp(a)ers were blanched and timid. The word Casp(a)er derives from an Indo-European word for “treasurer” and is formerly related to gold. However, because of the friendly ghost and milquetoast, Casp(a)er is now associated with paleness and the eschewing of the rough and tumble world of the outdoors. As a possible result, neither form of the word “Casp(a)er” has been on the list of the top 1,000 baby names in many years.