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50 Nifty Ways to Play!: The Beginning of a Bawdy Bouquet of Sex Positive, Humorous Alternatives to the Agony and Ignomy of “Torture Porn” Romance

March 29, 2015

Part 1:Flirting with Music: A Happy Hornbook of Humpy Harmonies!

Somewhere amidst all of the Superbowl spectacle, Valentine’s coitus, 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.


Though the film opened to sold-out shows on that randiest of all holiday weekends, The Guardian has more or less summed up its sustainable 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 set of ailments and arguments that plague America’s reactions to the uses of sexuality in entertainments of all sorts.

The fact that 50 Shades – a sadomasochistic fantasy rooted in the “Therapeutic” role-playing power fantasies 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 managed to infiltrate 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 massaged the Great American Libido. 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 general commentary, critique, and curmudgeonly conflict revolving around both James’ pseudo-Sado-fiction or Taylor-Johnson’s darkly lit film, and 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 inevitable Sisyphean runs on late night cable.

I have no qualm or quarrel with the book that launched countless coital clashes, or the movie that looks like it does its best to somehow make punishing joyless, sexual violence into compelling romance. No, my gripe has nothing to do with 50 Shades‘ explicitness, triteness, or violence, Though that is not my general preference in most of my pleasure reading or 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 an 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? Wpuldn’t some part of James’ great Trilogy of Tightly Knotted Tease celebrate the transgressive, inscrutable, unstoppable, incredible FUN elements 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 and ridiculous ways?  We don’t really seem to mind what’s missing, either. Instead of great sex between good people, we seem 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?

Again, I don’t condemn or belittle the general attention that 50 Shades of Grey has brought to broad themes of sexually intimate fiction, erotically charged media, and even “pervy” non-normative forms of sexual activity and exploration. On the contrary, 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 play 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 wags our winsome willy and why do we seem to adore it best when it’s been locked away in Castle Greyskull or sheathed grimly 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?

There are undoubtedly rich veins of humor to be mined in both 50 Shades novels and the film, though most seem accidental or unexpected. As A.O. Scott’s perceptive New York Times review observes, “a lot of the audience burst out laughing. The source of that laughter continues to puzzle and intrigue me, perhaps more than the actual movie did. Was it delight? Derision? Embarrassment? Surprise? All of the above?” Such strict, straight, armor-plated sex leaves us begging and pleading, but not moaning or humming for a more harmonious, hilarious, human, and HAPPY set of erotically compelling, creatively coupling, and sensually silly amusements, instructions, and provocations. In this case, the “sadder but wiser” girl and her monochromatic Prince Charm-bracelet seem like they could both use a little more Disney joie de vivre and far few attempts at giving Fountainhead.

What follows then, is a bare buffonish buffet of self-selected alternatives to the distant,  dysfunctional, and dour couple who have somehow managed to captivate our national libido with their strange, agonizing dance of pornographic pain. In response to the rising trend in bad sex, painful or punishing relationships (MAD MEN, anyone?), and demonstratively un-funny romances, I have compiled a jam-packed, over-sexed, and hyper-silly homage to all that is festive, freaky, and FUN about the confluence of sex and art. It’s hardly a comprehensive list, and I admit that, somewhat appropriately, there are holes everywhere in the continuity.

I have tried to organize my choices loosely by format and I hope that at least of few of these sultry selections amuse and massage some readers’ funny-bones in new and thrilling ways!

1-5 : Sexy Symphonies This premiere portion comprises the bulk of this first post and deals primarily with a fiver of my favorite comedic salacious songs and dirty ditties,  famous, infamous, and obscure.

6-25 :Carnal Comix and Extremely Graphic Novels  The follow-up will hopefully explore a few of the most rewarding erotically funny comics, cartoons, and graphic novels.

26-46 : Merry Midnight Movies Our third course will safari through my favorite film comedies devoted to themes of erotic humor.

46-50 : One-handed Reads The final installment concludes with a brief summary of priapistic poems, plays, and prose designed to provoke our “private parts.”

Here’s hoping I can “go all the way” to fifiy, but for right now, we’ll begin with a solid, steamy five. Take that, Mr. Tall, Grey, and Tone Deaf!

Slinky songs of seduction have always been a somewhat understated and  undervalued selection of the Great American Songbook. From the languorous throaty moans of Julie London’s “Cry Me a River,” Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me,” Sarah Vaughn’s “Make Yourself Comfortable” and Doris Day’s faux-innocent “Sentimental Journey” to the goofy backwoods bumpycake of Dinah Shore’s “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” to the sophisticated seductions of showtunes like Rita Hayworth’s brainy stripper number “Zip!” in Rodgers, Hart, and O’Hara’s Pal Joey or Gelbart and Coleman’s “Tennis Song” from the Noiry naughty City of Angels, sex and song have intertwined across musical standards in every genre from bluegrass and ragtime to techno and hip hop.

Humor and harmony have also provided many wonderful moments of sexual synchrony. Of course, there are familiar zingers and provocateurs in every era covering nearly every form of sexual longing, antic, opportunity, invitation, and entanglement. Among the most entertaining are Conrad and Wood’s “Let’s All Go to Mary’s House,” W.C. Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues,” Gus Cannon’s “Walk Right In, Walk Right Out,” Ida Cox’s “One Hour Mama,” Memphis Minnie’s “ What’s the Matter with the Mill! Can’t Get No Grindin’! The Mill Done Broke Down, ” Glenn Miller’s “Yes, My Darling Daughter,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On,” Melanie’s “I’ve got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates, You’ve Got a Brand New Key”, the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself”, Digital Underground’s “Humpty Dance,”  the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” Salt’n’Pepa’s “Push It,” Liz Phair’s “Flower,” and just about everything even conceived by Prince, Madonna, Britney Spears, and their hordes of drones and copycats. Graphic and glorious collections of steam-heated sonic suggestion abound including hot buttered cornucopias like Raunchy Business: Hot Nuts and Lollipops, Vintage Sex Songs, and numerous editions of the Naughty Vintage Music, Those Dirty Blues and Copulatin’ Blues series.

Here, though, in no particular order and with absolutely NO interest in continuity or comprehensiveness, are a few of my favorite sexy screwball songs. Each one puts the fun right where it belongs, squarely below the belt.

1. Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson’s 1928 “Makin’ Whoopee”: More pop songs are devoted to the euphemistic adoration of sexual pleasure and love-making than perhaps any other topic. Obviously, and perhaps necessarily, those that express the agony of heartbreak are probably a close second. This little novelty number, however, adds extra insouciant sass to the “same old story” of hot young lovers who evolve from joyous newlyweds to disenchanted divorcees. More importantly, the bawdy little ballad insistently celebrates the curious carnal sparks of sexual attraction before, after, and eventually outside of marriage with its hilariously euphemistic refrain of “Makin’ Whoopee!” It might be the sexiest homage to divorce court ever penned, and the judge’s emphasis on the economic benefits of sexual compromise is just as amusing in 2015 as it was when it premiered some 87 years ago.

Every crooner, comedian, siren, and pop icon has done their necessary turn with “Makin’ Whopee,” but two performances take the song to new heights of sexual and comedic tension. The first is Eddie Cantor’s original rendition from the 1928 musical, Whoopee!. The song soon became one of Cantor’s signature tunes and it is easy to see why. His tongue-in-cheek delivery, performed while reluctantly en route to a wedding, is an absolutely wicked piece of Vaudevillian crowd-milking innuendo. With all of the knowing assumptions of a Borscht Belt jester, every eager eye-roll and nuanced wink is loaded with comedic charge and sexual assumption. The taunting strings and snarky horns add coy, clever musical color to Cantor’s little tribute to love’s legendary progress from infatuation to infidelity. It remains one of American media’s most deliciously sarcastic celebrations of the coercive powers of courting, marriage, philandering, and resolution. There is, of course, extra irony in recognizing that Cantor was perhaps one of Hollywood’ s most emphatic husbands and fathers, whose family of 5 daughters helped establish the template exploited by later celebrity households like the Nelsons, Partridges, and Osmunds.

More than 50 years later, after hundreds of able but conventional renditions of Cantor’s standard had reduced the song’s sultry satire to a cryogenic carcass, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges would revamp the old chestnut with nearly nuclear intensity for the crowning scene of Steve Kloves’ 1989 The Fabulous Baker Boys. Where Cantor had implied and suggested in a straw hat and tie, Pfeiffer purrs, writhes, and implores in blood red heels and a dress that clings like very lucky lichen to its host body. Bridges’ piano accompaniment pairs with Pfeiffer’s vocal performance with a practiced intensity that mirrors their growing attraction throughout the film. Slipping and sliding through the song whilst engaged in some of the most memorable piano yoga in film history, Bridges and Pfeiffer ignite one of Hollywood’s rare understated moments of slow, subtle burn. The scene remains as scalding in its dramatic tensions as any torch number ever has, but behind their very adult treatment of a nearly antiquated novelty song, the impish eyes of Eddie Cantor’s original still gleam bright, beamish, and bawdy.

2. Cole Porter’s 1927 “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” and “Let’s Misbehave”: Oh, the many comedic thrills of sensuously encyclopedic syncopation, especially when the whole shebang celebrates nature’s favorite loins-grinding pastime. The intertwined history of Porter’s lyrically similar twin “Let’s” sex tunes has been often told, but his sly rhymes and jazzy, copulatin’ rhythm energizes both lusty numbers with a joyous, celebratory flare for fun and fornication that Mr. Grey could never understand or appreciate. Here are the greatest musical homages to the endless thrills of dating and mating on a global scale.

As with “Makin’ Whoopee,” there are multitudes of variations on both songs but my favorites remain those rendered by Porter himself, whose own sexual appetites were as broad, ebullient, and brilliantly complicated as his syncopated lyrics. Both songs invoke plentiful animal imagery, especially the requisite birds and bees, but bears, beans, codfish, clams and even goldfish also waft through Porter’s bestiary of bofing critters and entangled insects.

When all of the available interconnecting species have exhausted themselves, “Let’s Do it” begins its world tour of international sexual exploration. The dated slang and racial epithets are shocking to tender 21st-century politically correct ears, yet they slide along merrily in this r-rated precursor to Walt Disney’s grand anthem of intercultural Cold War conventionalism, “It’s a Small World After All.” Any songs that can coax couples to coo along with rhymes invoking the dirty dalliances of “dragonflies in the reeds” and “sentimental centipedes” are unequivocally effective and pleasurably piquant homages to the universal powers of desire.

In later years, both Porter pieces would find their way into some amusing iterations,  especially Christopher Walken’s hilariously horny homage to pre-code Hollywood mischief in Herbert Ross’ 1981 Pennies From Heaven and the Porter-punctuated soundtrack to Woody Allen’s late triumph, 2011’s Midnight in Paris.  

3. The Police “Be My Girl/Sally” 1978 : Before we risk too much chronological conformity, let’s zip across the decades to one of the least recognized and most outrageous orchestrations of outlandish sexual experience in music history. Sure, there are boxcars full of songs to celebrate the wild passions of “the first time,” the desperate one night stand, the idealized wedding night, the curious same sex encounter, and even the revenge of the jilted lover, but how about the romance of monogamy with a sex doll?

There’s one relationship that never seems to get its true moment in the salacious limelight, right? That is until The Police brought the gleeful mischief of a naughty novelty number into their 1978 post-punk assemblage, Outlandos D’Amour. Unlike so many Punk, New Wave, and early Alternative acts, Sting, Stewart, and Andy had always focused on massively revamped standards wrapped in icy cool contemporary beats. “Roxanne” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” are as much Soul standards or torch songs as they are mad Punkish and/or Reggae-infused anthems of earnest longing. “When the Word is Running Down,” “Canary in a Coal Mine,” and “Rehumanize Yourself” could just as easily have come from Pete Seger or Phil Ochs and the psychological gamesmanship of Sting’s odes to erotic suspense like “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” fairly drip with dense, troubling desire and compulsive desperation. So why not then, a simple Boy Meets Girl story so drenched in nostalgic 1950s rock and roll riffs and pining girl group choruses that it just begs to be defiled and deconstructed into the freakish delights of “Be My Girl/ Sally”?

The song is rarely celebrated by Police fandom, but it might just be their freshest, most enduring joke on the past pantheon of popular music. It is certainly one of most amusing sex gags of the 1970s, and THAT is saying something! Focusing on the affable, contented monologue of a charmingly polite recluse, “Be My Girl” introduces us to the ludicrous notion of onanistic romance, where our lonely, alcoholic hero finds his heart’s delight in the delusion of living with Sally, a mail order sex doll. As creepy as the scenario could get, its slanderous assault on the notion of conventional 50s pop romance is ferociously well calculated. Our modest narrator confesses to exercising his conjugal bliss by bouncing sweet Sally across every possible domestic space in his well-kept English working class home. Introduced with sweetly nostalgic repetitions of, “Will you be my girl? Will you be my girl?,” the story of rubber lovin’ unfolds as we begin to recognize the rising arcs of lunging guitar riffs.They build to overwhelming volume just before our hero can conclude his quaint confession. The vocals also return in force, sharper and snottier than before, now twinged with the ruder truth behind this “perfect couple,” their “permanent grin,” and the sexual intensity that is sure to ‘wear thin” with time.A tinkling offbeat piano adds the final touches of Music Hall travesty and the whole thing crashes to an end in a strange, uncomfortably fun climax of sex, plugs, and rock’ n’ roll!

4. Tim Rice’s “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me!” from The Rocky Horror Show 1973:

If there is a single musical note in Tim Rice’s phantasmagoric homage to the transcendental gender madness of trashy space operas that is NOT about sexuality, I don’t want to know about it. I have never been a Rocky fanatic, though I have enjoyed my small share of midnight screenings and live revivals. Still, there is almost too much to love about both the 1973 stage play and its 1975 cult cinema sibling.

Of course, Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter remains its central erotic loadstone of transsexual burlesque, but there are so many moments of ingenious erogenous intensity, it gets pretty tough to pick a favorite. Curry’s performance is a singular homage to the parodic power of performed gender and duller, drier sexual “outlaws” in later, less cosmic films would do well to pay tribute and take notes. Rocky himself explodes all of the tightly restrained sexual tensions embedded in the ads of Charles Atlas and the tighty whities of several generations of ready, randy, ripping American studmuffins. But if we are to compare the jolly, motley Rocky Horror aesthetic to 50 Shades of Humdrum, we need to focus our prurient gaze upon the nubile newlyweds, Brad and Janet, and their goth-o-gasmic sexual odyssey.

Every number in Rocky Horror scintillates with sexual suggestion, scrumptious innuendo, and time-warping lust, but “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a Me!” has always seemed like the show’s sweetest homage to naughty knowledge. One part lover’s lament, three parts uninhibited, fifth-gear come on, it’s a hilarious turning point in a text with more narrative switchbacks, detours, and secret passages than a Scooby-Doo set. As the newly deflowered Janet begins to chase her lusty dragon, she pleads with Rocky-  and eventually nearly everyone else  – to come get it on and get it off with all of the sweetness of an edelweiss-crushing Maria.

Of course, the show complicates the affair, with the feisty femizons, Magenta and Columbia, both gluttonously spying on her happy humping ground via closed-circuit cathode-ray tube. Thus, the number erupts from every angle with tensions of lost virginity, sexual thirst, voyeuristic arousal, and hot, horny, happy, hilarious humanity. How strange for a spectacle so clearly designed to celebrate the outré power of monsters, aliens, freaks, mutants, and other such creatures of the night?

As with a few previous entries, the song has found new Millennial meaning in the recent Glee Halloween special, where Frank-N-Furter’s domestics are replaced by Sue Sylvester’s Santana and Brittnay as they peer into what might be Emma, the shrinking violet counselor’s most impassioned play for Will Schuester’s hunky dorky heart!

5. Cyndi Lauper “Shebop”1984: Petrarchan crushes, teenage romance, and adolescent desires have launched billions of Billboard ballads, but some songs are even more special in their zesty salute to self-loving.Familiar classics of the auto-erotic genre include The Vapors’ massively un-PC “Turning Japanese,” The J. Geils Band’s jaunty “Centerfold,”  Fountains of Wayne’s hilarious testament to under-age infatuation “Stacy’s Mom,” Garfunkel and Oates’ patented brand of lewdball musical comedy as it manifests in “Go Kart Racing,” and perhaps the most recent Riot Girl’s guide to dealing with a disappointing partner, Charlie XCX’s “Body of My Own.”

yet, none of these one-handed wonders are as epically empowering or emphatically sardonic as Cyndi Lauper’s vehemently catchy “Shebop.” Lauper’s largely overlooked homage to the “good vibrations” of masturbation explodes many teenage tropes and tribulations. Songs about masculine pleasure, both consensual and self-actuating, are plentiful and the phallic imagery of popsicles, bullet trains, and related macho-machines has never faded from the charts. Even songs about female sexual pleasure are not as rare as we might think, but actual attention to women’s self-love – not to mention fun and frantic explorations of that taboo – are as infrequent and inconvenient as the fabled G-spot. Thus, Lauper’s early 80s anthem, and its chaotic, cyberpunked, over-sexed techo-farce of a music video, give us more to gawk at than most romantic ballads ever even try to conceal.

Lauper has always been a proto-riot grrrl with a penchant for broad comedy and transgendered pastiche. Her influential “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” video is as much a satire on American gender types as it is a homage to the liberating myths of rock and roll. Like Cantor and Porter before her, the joy of Lauper’s song arises from the up temp urgency of its horny, hectic beat. If Porter’s sexual kaleidoscope dances briskly across niches and nations, Lauper’s boomboxy bassline musically mimics the act itself. Her nasal snarl snuggles around suggestive, languorous orgasmic phrases like “liiiiionnn’s rooooooar” to suggest an absolute devotion to the moment, to the fun, to the unabashed satisfaction of her own hungers and urges.

Her shout out to Blue Boy magazine, and the heterosexual use of heady homosexual erotica also provides an interesting glimpse of the burgeoning gender wars of the 1980s and 1990s involving AIDS awareness, Gay Rights, and Freedom of Speech. As co-related forms of hetero and homo-sexual desire blend and seep into each other, the tight pants of Blue Boy provide an outlet for a wide variety of needs, tastes, and interests. There have been a few worthwhile imitators of what “Shebop” does and any number of erotically aware divas in the Madonna/Diana Ross tradition contribute their fair share. Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and whatever other new diva du jour might strut by just can’t quite claim the furious, funny fumbling ecstasy of the relentlessly shebopping Lauper!

Hope your ears are burning for the better!

Next, time we’ll see you in the funky pages.

Christopher Guest…and Guests

March 26, 2015

Chris_Michael_Harry_pressIn 1984, a young filmmaker and a group of musically gifted comedians set out to make a low budget comedy and ended up inventing a genre. This is Spinal Tap was the directorial debut from Rob Reiner, who was then primarily known from his role as Michael “Meathead” Stivic from All In the Family. Reiner would go on to direct Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and Misery, among many other classic films.

This is Spinal Tap was filmed in a mere 25 days and was almost entirely improvised. The film, about the declining years of fictitious hard rock band Spinal Tap, spoofed not only the pretentiousness that had enveloped rock ‘n’ roll by the 1970’s, but the even greater pretentiousness surrounding rock journalism and documentaries, or “rockumentaries.” The deliciousness in This is Spinal Tap is that it was a double-edged sword, lampooning two separate phenomena and subcultures simultaneously and to perfection.

The method of filming, a series of interviews and footage told in a faux-documentary style became known as “mockumentary” and its influence can be seen in comedy today, from The Office to Modern Family, and especially in the Christopher Guest-helmed ensemble mockumentaries that have followed: Waiting For Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration.

Read more…

Cross-Cultural Humor in Central America

March 19, 2015

I recently escaped the bitter chill of Philadelphia in early March and traveled to Zamorano University (affectionately referred to here as ‘Zamo’), an oasis of warmth situated approximately 45 minutes outside of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras (or ‘Tegus’ as the locals call it). I was fortunate to be a part of a course studying the language and culture of various groups, ranging in age from children to college students, while traveling. We had the unique opportunity to work with Zamo students on their conversational English through the sharing of ‘dichos’ or proverbs. While translation from Spanish to English often proved difficult, the proverbs presented a way to bridge the language gap. Students had the chance to act out their proverbs, all the while subjecting themselves to the laughter of their fellow Zamo classmates as well as a few giggles from the American students. We also worked with children at REMAR, an orphanage on the outskirts of Zamo. While this trip was momentous in many ways, it was here that I had a humor epiphany.

While there is much research on the understanding of humor through cross-cultural communication in the fields of psychology, sociology, linguistics, and others (Bell, 2002, 2007; Coulson et al., 2006; Hay, 2001; Carrell, 1997), my epiphany came through physical humor, the kind of slapstick we’re accustom to from the likes of Charlie Chaplin or The Three Stooges.

You see, in Honduras, soccer is ingrained into the fabric of everyday life. Boys and girls alike know how to ‘bend it like Beckham’ – seriously. One mention of Mario Martinez’s goal in the 2012 Olympic quarterfinals against Brazil brings nods and smiles to many of the young faces. In case you missed it, take a look:

At REMAR, the young children place soccer balls at their friends’ feet and emulate the master, volleying the ball between the posts with flawless precision. They then place a ball by my feet, and I cross it through the air and onto the foot of an anxiously awaiting 13-year-old who dreams of playing for FC Barcelona. When they direct me to stand by the goal line and await a pass, I play along. Not only do I miss, but the ball also pops up and hits my face, knocking me to the ground. It is while I am on the ground that I come to a realization: I hear the children laughing. Similarly to the Zamo students’ feelings while acting out their proverbs, I, too, felt a pang of gelotophobia. There existed a major similarity to the classroom activity and the game: slapstick humor, above all else, seems to be universal in cross-cultural communication. We encountered language barriers and a few laughs through the translations, but it was not until the Zamo students acted out the proverbs that a real bond formed between the two groups of students, the native Spanish and English speakers, through laughter. The children at REMAR picked me up and helped to dust me off, all the while laughing and ‘high-fiving’ me for my mishap. They referred to me as ‘Martinez’ for the rest of my time there – a joke – easily translated and understood by all.

Was it our ability to let down our guard, to fumble and be picked up, that made the communication between these diverse groups possible? Is there something in the mishaps of the body that translates better than language? What other types of humor easily translate across cultures? My epiphany, much like my soccer skills, is still under construction, but for now, I’m headed outside to practice.

c 2015 Tara Friedman

Poetry Corner: James Tate

March 12, 2015

Tracy Wuster


As a poor-quality young poet,  my verses were overwrought, melodramatic, and a bit odd.  Then I discovered James Tate, and I decided that if I was to be a poet, then an odd humor would be my game.  Years of teenaged notebooks were filled with poems cribbed from Tate–aping his tone, style, and playful surrealism.  Then I discovered that I didn’t want to be a poet.  I’d leave that to my older brother.

After a few short films that might have been influenced by Tate, I ended up in grad school studying humor.  No poetry, per se, in my research, but I like to go back to Tate once in awhile to rediscover some of that absurd magic that shaped–and might continue to shape–my experience of language.

With our poetry editor away for a few months, I decided to step in with a couple of my favorite poems by Tate.  I also found this article–James Tate: “The Cowboy” How to be funny and sad. BY STUART KRIMKO–which discusses one of Tate’s poems in terms of humor.  Here is Tate reading some of his poems, with a biography.  And two of Tate’s poems.


Teaching the Ape to Write Poems

They didn’t have much trouble

teaching the ape to write poems:

first they strapped him into the chair,

then tied the pencil around his hand

(the paper had already been nailed down).

Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder

and whispered into his ear:

“You look like a god sitting there.

Why don’t you try writing something?”


James Tate1943

from Absences. Copyright © 1970 by James Tate.


The List of Famous Hats

Napoleon’s hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous hat, but that’s not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all honesty wasn’t much different than the one any jerk might buy at a corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities. The first one isn’t even funny: Simply it was a white rubber bathing cap, but too small. Napoleon led such a hectic life ever since his childhood, even farther back than that, that he never had a chance to buy a new bathing cap and still as a grown-up–well, he didn’t really grow that much, but his head did: He was a pinhead at birth, and he used, until his death really, the same little tiny bathing cap that he was born in, and this meant that later it was very painful to him and gave him many headaches, as if he needed more. So, he had to vaseline his skull like crazy to even get the thing on. The second eccentricity was that it was a tricorn bathing cap. Scholars like to make a lot out of this, and it would be easy to do. My theory is simple-minded to be sure: that beneath his public head there was another head and it was a pyramid or something.


From Reckoner, published by Wesleyan University Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by James Tate

Lovers and Fools in the Modern Romantic Comedy

March 10, 2015

Can lovers ever really be fools? Can fools really lose themselves in romantic love? The lover and the fool are comic literary archetypes, but they are funny in very different ways. Lovers in romantic comedies typically exhibit buffoonish humor; these movies are funny at the expense of their protagonists. We think their counter-times and missed messages are humorous for the clumsiness and coincidence they reveal, but the characters do not “know” that their experiences seem funny. Hugh Grant’s romantic anxieties must be genuine anxieties for his character in order to be funny to his audience. Even Shakespeare’s Kate from The Taming of the Shrew must be sincere in her impetuousness for her audience, guided by a humorous theatrical interpretation, to find them outrageous and funny. But she is never laughing—her position is quite the opposite of amused, in fact.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in The Taming of the Shrew (1929)

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in The Taming of the Shrew (1929)

The fool seems different. Fools know they are speaking in wit and riddle, and they are disinterested players without a personal stake in the interpersonal dramas before them. Shakespearean fools are often androgynous; they do not meddle, at least with any personal agenda, in human passions. King Lear’s fool makes the crudest, even the most scathing jokes, yet he is “boy” to Lear, and sometimes he is even played by the same actress who portrays Lear’s daughter Cordelia.

Hamlet has a touch of the fool; in fact, the court jester Yoric is one of the only personalities he respects in the play. I have sometimes wondered if the impossibility of his relationship with Ophelia has to do with his changing role from lover to fool. It seems he cannot be both at the same time. If the courtiers think Hamlet’s out of his mind, then they cannot at the same time think he is fit to marry Cordelia. As a fool he is somehow ineligible for romantic courtship.

Can there ever be a fool-type presence in romantic comedies? For a moment I wondered if the protagonist’s best friend or neighbor might embody the fool. I had in mind Rhys Ifans’s in Notting Hill, but he too is a buffoon as opposed to a knowing riddler, and he too eventually finds love.

 Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill (1999)

Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill (1999)

Actually, the traditional fool bears a closer resemblance to the stand-up comedian, who is part court jester, part truth speaker, and in those respects the stand-up comedian is a derivative of the Shakespearean fool archetype. Although the stand-up comic’s jokes extend to areas of sexual life that no one else will touch, the comic often also mocks or cynically rejects his or her own romantic prospects. Louis C.K.’s brash jokes about his wife are in some sense a testament to this. When the wife became ex-wife, the jokes seemed more shocking in retrospect. But is it too much to say that the unattached comedian was then freed to become an even more disinterested player? Maybe.

Some stand-up comedians (Steve Martin, Michael Keaton, and Bill Murray come to mind) explore the lover’s role with success, but this only works if they change hats. It seems the lover cannot know that he is the one telling jokes; he must become the joke. He must surrender to the humiliating experience of being in love. One exception might be Groundhog Day (1993), where only the protagonist and the audience understand why this courtship through repetition is funny; and Murray’s lover-protagonist is not sure, until late in the film, that he wants to cultivate any lasting personal ties.

Traditionally, the court jester is in but not of society. It is his detached stance in the drama of life that gives the fool license to say things no one else can say. He must genuinely appear to have nothing to gain and nothing to lose.

When the stand-up comedian stays court jester and also tries to be the lover, the results are confusing—but interesting. Consider Chris Rock’s Top Five, which contains some of Rock’s most experimental and wild tangents into the sexually outrageous (I was reminded of a Laurence Sterne novel) as well as some of the rom-com genre’s more stilted courtship moments. The film represents vibrant new terrain for Rock, but it does not leave one feeling confidant that the stand-up comedian can seamlessly hop from comedy stage to lover’s lair.

Yet Rock’s new genre within the romantic comedy genre could represent a broadening shift for the fool. Unlike Hamlet, Rock’s protagonist is presented with a love interest, Rosario Dawson, who prizes the fool over the lover. In turn, Rock’s languishing stand-up comedian character finds new inspiration through love. It is a transition in progress to be sure, but perhaps these once distinct archetypes are merging into a single character. Perhaps the lover is becoming a little savvier and the fool just a little more tender.

Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson in Top Five (2014)

Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson in Top Five (2014)

Thanks to Obama You’re Paying for It: The Politics of Sitcoms

March 6, 2015

The scene is a hospital room where Luke Dunphy, at age 14 the youngest of the Dunphy children, is being treated for an allergic reaction. His young cousin looks at the IV drop hanging by his bed and asks what it does. Without missing a beat Luke replies: ”I don’t know but thanks to Obama you’re paying for it”. This scene from an episode of the popular sitcom Modern Family, which aired the day after Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term in the White House in 2012, was greeted with cheer among conservatives. Several conservative bloggers and news outlets commented on how Modern Family ”mocked” the president’s signature health care reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act from 2010. The conservative website RedAlertPolitics expanded, writing: “even liberal Hollywood writers can’t escape the reality that is the expensive repercussions from Obamacare”. Others took to social media, within days several clips of the scene had been uploaded to YouTube and comments written on Twitter.

Commentators connected the joke to earlier reports of advertising plans in connection with the roll out of the online marketplace for the medical coverage in California. The New York Times had reported that suggestions from the Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide agency included having prime-time television shows, explicitly naming Modern Family and Grey’s Anatomy, incorporate the health care law into their storylines. The news of the plan was initially met with skepticism among conservative news outlets, criticizing viewers being “force-fed pro-Obamacare propaganda”. Following the Modern Family episode with the comment on the health care law these same voices gleefully saw it as a backlash towards the attempted marketing campaign.

Nolan Gould, who plays Luke Dunphy on Modern Family

Nolan Gould, who plays Luke Dunphy on Modern Family

Read more…

Humor, Irony and Modern Native American Poetry

February 28, 2015


Some poetry for your Saturday evening.

Originally posted on Humor in America:

By: Caroline Zarlengo Sposto

Author, editor, lecturer, poet and scholar, Geary Hobson was born in 1941 in Chicot County, Arkansas. A Cherokee-Quapaw-Chickasaw, Hobson grew up immersed in the Cherokee language and culture. Last week, I was lucky enough to catch him by telephone in his office at The University of Oklahoma to talk about his poem, “A Discussion about Indian Affairs.”

H.I.A.: I find it interesting that so much Native American poetry is humorous. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Dr. Hobson: “I’m not sure how we got stuck with the stereotype of the stoic Indian. I have been in the habit of saying for many years that Indians have wonderful senses of humor. Humor varies from culture to culture. There is a Scottish sense of humor, a Jewish sense of humor and so forth. There is a great deal of irony in a lot of Indian humor.”


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