I’m giving Poetry a rest today in order to share an insightful, humor-related blog post by Dan McCleary, Founder and Producing Artistic Director of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company. (This article was originally published on Broadwayworld.com.)
I was once speaking over the phone with a man I had never met in person, yet he had given every indication to me that he bordered on lunacy. He rambled and ranted, but as he approached the end of his one-way conversation he offered to me that, in the end between two people in a relationship, what truly mattered was that they were able to laugh at the same things.
Foolishly, as things unfolded later in life, I did not consider this deeply enough at the time it was shared with me. Shakespeare‘s madmen and fools usually carry the belly of the play with them — the chaotic, ugly truth. I knew this but didn’t apply it.
Sharing the same sense of humor can be blissful unusualness between two people. It can save two people, personally and professionally, I have observed, and it can provide a touchstone of faith. Humor bespeaks intelligence, and wit. It frequently tells us about ourselves, tells others about us, and can be inexplicable. It can be psychic medicine, and it can be the first unconscious progress toward weeping. An uncontrolled laugh can wear you out.
We might sometimes laugh quietly at knowing our partner will laugh. Then it is sometimes the substitute for words. I suggest it is perhaps the quickest way to come to know another person.
My sense currently in rehearsals with TN Shakespeare Company‘s Petruchio and Kate is that what too many of us define as a “battle of the sexes” (an all-too-frequent marketing slogan which I find misguided about the relationship in The Taming of the Shrew) is potentially a perfect match waiting to happen. And that perhaps what provides the match is the singular sense of humor of these two people heretofore destined, each, for a single life.
The famous wooing scene between the two actors is finding its romance and even sexiness in each person discovering what makes the other laugh, despite him/herself. (Below is an excerpt from that scene. For the complete text of Act 2, Scene 1, click here. )
KATE: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
PETRUCHIO: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.
KATE: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies,
PETRUCHIO: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
KATE: In his tongue.
PETRUCHIO: Whose tongue?
KATE: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.
PETRUCHIO: What, with my tongue in your tail? nay, come again, Good Kate; I am a gentleman.
KATE: That I’ll try. (She strikes him)
PETRUCHIO: I swear I’ll cuff you, if you strike again.
KATE: So may you lose your arms: If you strike me, you are no gentleman; And if no gentleman, why then no arms.
PETRUCHIO: A herald, Kate? O, put me in thy books!
KATE: What is your crest? a coxcomb?
PETRUCHIO: A combless cock, so Kate will be my hen.
KATE: No cock of mine; you crow too like a craven.
PETRUCHIO: Nay, come, Kate, come; you must not look so sour.
KATE: It is my fashion, when I see a crab.
PETRUCHIO: Why, here’s no crab; and therefore look not sour.
KATE: There is, there is.
PETRUCHIO: Then show it me.
KATE: Had I a glass, I would.
PETRUCHIO: What, you mean my face?
KATE: Well aim’d of such a young one.
PETRUCHIO: Now, by Saint George, I am too young for you.
KATE: Yet you are wither’d.
PETRUCHIO: ‘Tis with cares.
KATE: I care not.
PETRUCHIO: Nay, hear you, Kate: in sooth you scape not so.
KATHARINE: I chafe you, if I tarry: let me go.
Making someone laugh is a palpable victory. Allowing oneself to submit to being the butt of the joke is a special gift to the other.
Humor is a way in. And right now, we are discovering that the way in then cannot always be the way through. That’s a cover. But the hearts of Kate and Petruchio have longing in them, and poetry, and capacity. They just haven’t been exercised.
Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are probably the most well known of Mark Twain’s characters. Bronze statues of the boys grace Schoolyard Hill in Hannibal. Their images have been used for everything from selling paint to Norman Rockwell pictures that evoke the nostalgia of childhood. Each boy is the subject of his own novel, and although Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has stood the test of time better than Tom’s adventures, the character of Tom remains that of a charming if mischievous boy. While Huck is practical, and can improvise a workable solution to any problem, Tom’s forte is the grand effect—the spectacle. He has read all of the romance novels, and his dreams as a boy are populated by robbers, pirates, and steamboat captains who perform feats of derring-do, rescue, capture and ransom ladies and gentlemen, and ambuscade Arabs, carrying of piles off booty.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ends with this “Conclusion”:
So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly the history of a boy, it must stop here; it could not go further without becoming the history of a man…Some day it may seem worth while to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present. (TS 215)
Twain takes up the story of the boys yet again in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom’s part in this later novel is, of course, much smaller, as this is Huck’s story. Twain uses Tom to tie this second novel to the first, where Tom makes good on his plan to instigate Tom Sawyer’s Gang, and initiates the members with blood oaths. His imagination turns a Sunday School picnic into a caravan of Arabs, whom the gang intend to rout and rob. Tom then disappears from the narrative except for moments of decision in Huck’s adventures when he invokes Tom as his “authority” on how to do things with “style.” After setting up the elaborate ruse that fakes his death, Huck says: “I wished Tom Sawyer was there. I knowed he’d take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches. Nobody could spread himself like Tom Sawyer in such a thing as that” (HF 657). Huck’s appreciation of Tom’s “fancy touches” occurs in other parts of the novel as well, but Tom’s return in the Evasion chapters demonstrates a shift in Twain’s indulgent, “boys will be boys” attitude concerning Tom.
Those chapters show a Tom who creates an elaborate and dangerous (to Jim) plan for freeing the runaway slave from his imprisonment at Phelps’ farm. Huck’s plan is simple, straightforward, and to the point: “Here’s the ticket. This hole’s [window] big enough for Jim to get through if we wrench off the board” (HF 854). Tom’s reply offers the reader a glimpse of his romantic notions of escape from captivity: “It’s as simple as tit-tat-toe, three–in-a-row, and as easy as playing hooky. I should hope we can find a way that’s more complicated than that, Huck Finn” (657). Huck just “knows” that Tom’s plan will be “worth fifteen of mine for style” and “would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides. So I was satisfied…” (HF 853). The difference between the two boys is clear—Tom is all style, and Huck substance. While Tom’s escape plan works out in the end, Tom is shot and Jim very nearly hung.
It stems from a conversation that Bob Mankoff had one time while trying to arrange to have lunch with a “friend.” After several attempts to get together and several “not availables,” in frustration, Mankoff asked, “How about never—is never good for you?” Luckily, Mankoff is a cartoonist for the New Yorker, and he was able to parlay that conversation into a cartoon that is an oft-repeated question as used by Nancy Pelosi on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show during the 2012 election, and it is listed in The Yale Book of Quotations somewhere between Herman J. Mankiewicz and Mao Tse-Tung. It is also printed on coffee mugs and thong panties. To paraphrase Mark Twain, this is the joke that made Bob’s fortune.
Bob Mankoff has exploited his joke one more time by naming his memoir, How About Never—Is Never Good for You? My Life in Cartoons. Never is a new release by Henry Holt and Co. It is 285 pages of text and cartoons—lots of cartoons, most of which are from The New Yorker. There are cartoons from other sources used to compare the cartoon style of the different publications. But, most of all, it narrates the rise of Mankoff from an aspiring cartoonist to the cartoon editor of The New Yorker.
Along the way, Mankoff talks about the rhetoric of magazine cartoons. Among the stories is how a cartoon by Peter Arno that was published in 1941 became the cliché “Well, back to the old drawing board.” Some cartoons have a je ne sais quoi that resonates with the public and captures the imagination. As depicted, it may be the casual quality of the statement in light of the circumstances, but for some reason we, as readers, find it to our taste to repeat the phrase, and everyone knows what we are talking about whether we own a drawing board or not.
Caption: Well, back to the old drawing board.
Other aspects of the world of cartoons that Mankoff explores is the use of the Cartoon Bank, a digital storehouse of cartoon images that have been rejected by The New Yorker, but are still fine drawings that can be accessed by the public for a small fee. Mankoff began the bank in the early 1990s and managed it himself until it became unmanageable. The cartoons in the bank are sorted by subject matter so they are easy to access. He also discusses a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine cannot discern a New Yorker cartoon. And he assesses the different types of humor that are represented in the cartoons (while reminding us that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog).
Perhaps, Mankoff’s most prized innovation is his “Caption Contest” in The New Yorker. This is his crowd-sourcing initiative that asks readers to write a caption for a drawing that is printed in the magazine. It is also available to non subscribers at http://www.newyorker.com/humor/caption. On the page, readers can submit an entry and vote on selected entries for previous contests. As a result of The New Yorker contest, there have been many political cartoonists that run caption contests. This is a link to one that was run by Tom Toles in the Washington Post.
The book is worth a read whether you invest the $32.50 (suggested retail price) for it now or wait until it sells for lower prices as a used book. But if I have not convinced you that it is time and money well-spent, listen to the interview between Terri Gross and Mankoff on NPR’s Fresh Air.
American Humor Studies Association
Mark Twain Circle of America
Quadrennial Conference 2014
December 4-7, 2014
Four Points Sheraton French Quarter
The American Humor Studies Association, in conjunction with the Mark Twain Circle of America, sends out this general call for papers on American humor and Mark Twain. The topics below are suggestions for topics that we think will be of interest; other topics are welcome, and we welcome especially submissions of sessions of three papers or roundtables. The topics are broad in the hope that scholars will be able to find one that fits their current research. Submissions should be sent to Jan McIntire-Strasburg via email (email@example.com). Please send your submissions by May 15, 2014.
Those sending in submissions for the Mark Twain Circle of America can email their proposals to Ann Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Topics include but are not limited to:
Early American Humor and its European Roots
Nineteenth Century Humor—from Southwest to Northeast to Far West
20th Century Humor and the American Novel
Regional and/or transnational humor
New Media Approaches to Humor
Humor in film, television, comics, and other visual media
Humor and Theatre
Humor and Ethnicity
Humor and Gender
Humor and Class
Humor and Sexuality
Humor and War
Contemporary Approaches to Irony, Satire, Wit, and other topics
New Directions in American Humor Studies
March brings with it St. Patrick’s Day and an affinity for all things Irish. Before we bring March to a close, let us take a moment to reflect upon one of the great Irish cultural contributions: the grand oral tradition of story and song. Shakespeare (somewhat ironically) wrote that brevity is the soul of wit but the Irish never waste an opportunity to say in a few paragraphs what could be said in a few words. This verbosity has been responsible for a great many works of art. (Of course the Irish were equally gifted at preserving the written word, as is well documented in Thomas Cahill’s New York Times Best Seller How The Irish Saved Civilization, but I digress.)
What better way to illustrate this than with a clever little nursery rhyme many good Irish children learn (usually, as with this writer, by a parent or other mature, serious and adult relative) about a dog’s genitals, alcoholic beverages and a bucket full of excrement of undisclosed origin.
In a phenomenon increasingly rare in 2014, there is little to be found about this song online. It seems there is a place after all for the grand oral storytelling tradition even in the digital age. There are a handful of discussion threads and two or three YouTube clips offering remembrances or performances of the song. Most of the lyrics found online vary slightly from the version this writer first heard sung by his Irish father and Italian mother while in the back seat of the family car on some unremembered road in some unremembered state somewhere out there in the great big USA.
The exquisite structure of the lyric was immortalized instantaneously.
Two Irishmen, two Irishmen digging in a ditch
One called the other a dirty son of a –
Peter Murphy had a dog, a mighty fine dog was he
Along came a bumble bee and stung him in his –
Cocktail, ginger ale, ten cents a glass
If you don’t like it you can shove it up your –
Ask me no questions, I will tell no lies
If you get hit by a bucket of shit, be sure to close your eyes
It is a simple yet effective structure: setting up the rhyme to lead the listener’s ear toward an obvious obscenity only to duck and weave into an innocuous quasi-homophone. When the resolving line involving the imminent bucket of shit finally arrives, emphasized by a nifty internal rhyme, the use of the obscenity is heightened and therefore permissible as a literary device with a purpose and function. Any decent songwriter, poet or raconteur would be well served in studying the structure of these lines. And sing it to your kids, they will be grateful.