Milquetoast

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.

Introspecting with John Ashbery

John Ashbery

Yesterday (April 20, 2016) marked the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month. This annual event, created by The Academy of American Poets, has become the largest literary celebration in the world. Click here to discover what poetic events are happening near you.

In that spirit of celebration, today’s piece is by a most celebrated poet. John Ashbery has published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won The Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and just about everything else I can think of.

Ashbery approaches the blank page the way a modern artist might approach a blank canvas. The words from his broad palette are applied with a bold hand. He’s incisive about human nature, sometimes poking fun at himself in a way that shows us our own funny human frailties as well.

This meandering stream-of-consciousness piece from the sixties is one of my favorites. Enjoy!

My Philosophy of Life

Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
 for another thought in my head, I had this great idea--
 call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
 it involved living the way philosophers live,
 according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
 kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
 Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
 or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
 for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
 would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
 by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy,
 or worry about children and old people, except
 in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
 Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are
 while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
 I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger
 accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
 revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
 somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
 and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
 At once a fragrance overwhelms him--not saffron, not lavender,
 but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one
 his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
 quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
 is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough
 to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something
 William James
 wrote in some book of his you never read--it was fine, it had the
 fineness,
 the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet
 still looking
 for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
 even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and
 his alone.

It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
 There are lots of little trips to be made.
 A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby
 are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
 their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
 messages to the world, as they sat
 and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet
 and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
 into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles,
 and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
 I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought--
 something’s blocking it. Something I’m
 not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared.
 What was the matter with how I acted before?
 But maybe I can come up with a compromise--I’ll let
 things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies
 and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
 and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
 I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks,
 or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part,
 as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
 riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea
 of two people near him talking together. Well he’s
 got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him--
 this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always
 be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
 at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun
 as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know.
 Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
 That’s what they’re made for! Now I want you to go out there
 and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
 They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one...

   -- John Ashbery

 

Hand-Held Harlequins! : The Super-Humor of DC’s New Girl Powered Action Franchise

“Get your cape on, and let’s take flight! We can be who we like!” – DC Super Hero Girls theme song.

dcs1

My daughter is a Caped Crusader.

Even in her toddler phase, she always preferred colorful costumes and cataclysmic combat over Barbification or Dora-mania. Yet, as far as we can tell from her second grade peers and pals, she is not a “geek” or a “mean girl.” She’s not a tomboy either, since prim princesses and personified ponies and adamantly American Girls and absolutely anything related to Alex Morgan all fill a good quotient of her 8-year old day. She does quite well in school, just completed her First Communion, plays two sports with aplomb, and has recently survived her first ear piercings, not to mention a fairly brutal soccer-smashed fibula.

Yet, when she really wants to cut loose and get her missy mojo working, she always turns to cosplay.  Over the years, she has done turns as Super-girl, Maleficent, Frozen‘s Queen Elsa (Elsa is, ironically, her actual name!) and Leia Organa, but her more recent repertoire includes Batgirl, the Scarlet Witch, the Wasp, and most especially of late,  Cat Woman and Agent Carter.

She is hardly alone among her age group in her inclinations toward super-couture, and believe it or not, neither Mom nor I have had much influence on her passionate attraction to wonder-duds. In fact, there isn’t much superhero merch about the house beyond my basement hobbit hole of a Media Studies library. Nor are we a particularly super-duper family, aside from fond memories of the original Super Friends and the occasional spontaneous viewings of The Incredibles or Big Hero 6.  For further proof, just ask my 10 year-old son, who completely skipped over all of the superhero genres and contexts that fascinated many of his friends. From his earlest safaris around our home, he has always favored scouts, birding, tennis, and baseball. So super-stuff abides in our lives, but it does not beckon, inundate, or restrict our offspring’s access to other forms of generally pleasant and genuinely good-hearted American middle class fun. Still, on her own time and in her own mind, my daughter is definitely a Super Hero Girl.

Continue reading →

Laughing with Laugh Tracks

people_laughing

Teaching American Humor: Laughing with Laugh Tracks

My life would be better with a laugh track. My writing would be better, too. So would your reading experience–well, with a laugh track and a few drinks…

I am with the majority opinion on this issue, at least according to most producers of American situation comedies for the last sixty years. The reasoning behind the laugh track, as I see it, goes like this: A laugh track makes people laugh; people who laugh enjoy situation comedies; people who enjoy situation comedies see plenty of commercials; people who see commercials while in a good mood tend to buy things; a laugh track makes people laugh, and so on… Those who buy and sell commercials fund sitcoms, and they have never been inclined to trust writers or audiences. Neither do I.

I have skillfully written two first-rate jokes thus far. But, of course, you can’t really know that because this post does not have a laugh track. I spent several hours trying to insert laugh track audio here and failed. That’s funny–I think–but how can any of us be sure?

Audience-clapping

Teaching the American sitcom requires some discussion of laugh tracks. I admit that I have only glossed over laugh tracks in courses on American humor thus far. This has been a mistake. I have awakened to an obvious point: laugh tracks provide a compelling way for students to consider a more challenging array of characteristics of the art form–from the aesthetic to the mundane, from the heart of performance to the mechanics of production, from the implicit honesty of comedy to the manipulative potential of technology. From now on, I will begin all coursework focused on the sitcom with the laugh track.

Here is how I came to this astounding awakening; it’s all about The Big Bang Theory. I like the show (though I can’t decide whether I should consider it a “guilty pleasure” or an appreciation of solid, if broad, writing). The laugh track, however, drives me crazy. It is loud and intrusive. I don’t believe it at all. I am not alone. Any quick Google search of “laugh tracks” will provide over 31,000,000 hits. Type in “Big Bang Theory,” and you will find 127,000,000 hits, virtually all of which refer to the show (I didn’t check out all of them, by the way. I simply reached that conclusion using the scientific method based on my observations of the first two pages). Here is a fact: lots of people care about the television show; almost nobody cares about the scientific theory. A search of the show title combined with “laugh tracks” gets 181,000 hits. Lots of people hate the laugh track (lots of people hate the show, too). YouTube has plenty of clips of the show with the laugh track removed. Here are two examples:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmLQaTcViOA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASZ8Hks4gko

These clips draw out two basic responses from interested parties: one, that the show is hurt by the laugh track (so the complaint concerns its use rather than the inherent quality of the show itself); two, that the laugh track lamely attempts to cover up a lousy show. There is no reconciling of these opposing positions, but the removal of the laugh track is disingenuous in that it creates a show wherein the comedic timing has been wholly distorted. The Big Bang Theory is filmed in front of a live audience, and the performance reflects the interaction between audience and cast. The producers of the show claim that the audience responses are genuine and have not been “sweetened,” a term to imply that the laughter has been engineered in production to enhance audience responses. This claim is disingenuous as well. Any production process will inevitably “sweeten” the final product–from placement of microphones to volume applied. All steps in the process of preparing a show for airing are a form of “sweetening.” Simply because the producers do not use canned laughter (laughter recordings NOT from an live audience) does not mean that no laughter manipulation occurs. Of course it does. As always, The Onion provides the best satirical take on laugh tracks with the show by simply raising the volume of the laugh track so that it wholly overpowers the show itself: Big Bang Theory with laugh track enhanced by The Onion

Continue reading →

Stringbean: Me and My Old Crow and a Letter from Home

hqdefaultLast month, I wrote about David “Stringbean” Akeman’s life and murder. Here’s a clip of Stringbean in action picking a song and a doing one of his trademark “letter from home” bits with host Del Reeves, who seems to be feeling no pain.  Stringbean and his wife were murdered a few years later when they ambushed burglars after playing the Grand Ole Opry.

Hagiography

RIP Merle.

Humor in America

Merle-HaggardThey say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Most great musicians develop their style by first imitating their musical heroes. This is especially true in country music. Ray Price was little more than a Hank Williams sound-alike until he eventually developed his own unique and influential sound. Ernest Tubb tried to sing like Jimmie Rodgers but a tonsillectomy caused him to end up sounding like, well, Ernest Tubb. Lefty Frizzel also tried to sound like Jimmie Rodgers, but his sweet, sliding way of singing resulted in yet another distinctive voice. Merle Haggard, who idolized Lefty’s singing, tried to emulate his style and ended up creating what is arguably the single most influential voice in country music.

One of our greatest feats as sophisticated beings is our ability to laugh at ourselves, in spite of ourselves. Merle Haggard’s life is the stuff of great fiction: born in a boxcar in Oildale, California to…

View original post 261 more words

Comedy Above All Else: On Directing The Last Cyclist

By Rachel E. Blackburn

 

One of my all-time favorite Seinfeld episodes featured the dentist character Tim Watley, played by Bryan Cranston. Watley begins making Jewish jokes after a recent conversion to Judaism. Seinfeld discovers this, is clearly bothered by it, and in response, visits one of Watley’s fellow patients, Father Curtis (sitting in a confessional booth to do so). After Seinfeld shares with Father Curtis the humorous antics of Watley, Father Curtis asks Seinfeld, “And this offends you as a Jew?” And Seinfeld responds, “No, it offends me as a comedian.” As one who was raised Jewish myself, complete with Bat Mitzvah, years of Hebrew school and the requisite trip to Israel, I always secretly revered that statement, however silly it may be. I might go so far as to say I found it admirable and noble; all hail in the name of laughter! I readily identified with the notion that Seinfeld ultimately held his identity as a comedian closer to his heart than that of his ethnic and cultural heritage.

The opportunity came to test my commitment to comedy above all, however, when I recently co-directed (with Ms. Gina Sandi-Diaz) a play titled The Last Cyclist. The Last Cyclist, written by Karel Svenk, is a comedy borne out of the Holocaust; specifically, written and rehearsed inside Theresienstadt, one of many concentration camps in operation roughly from 1940 – 1945 during WWII. What sort of authorial voice do we have in Karel Svenk, who in the midst of starvation, degradation, torture and dehumanization, found the energy and inspiration to write a comedy? What might he have to laugh about in his given circumstances? And, beyond all this – how did I approach directing such a piece nearly seventy years later after its initial conception?

Last_Cyclist2833

Karel Svenk, the man who found the motivation and enthusiasm for laughter despite everything, was a Czech prisoner. What little we know of Svenk – a comedian, actor, and playwright – was that he was charismatic, funny, goofy in the best of ways, and inspiring to his fellow prisoners. Naomi Patz, who has reconstructed and reimagined his work (the script adaptation of The Last Cyclist which I directed in the theatre), has often stated in her discussions of Svenk that he was something akin to a European Charlie Chaplin, in terms of his physical comedy. Were he to be alive today, she says, we might read him as analogous to a Robin Williams: someone whose manic energy was infectious, and could somehow shine light in even the darkest of corners. Svenk was someone who could readily demonstrate for us the value of comedy as a tool for overcoming the worst cruelties of life, in the skillful manner of a true artist and comedian.[1]

Continue reading →

Baseball is a Funny Game . . .

baseball. . . At least that’s what baseball legend Joe Garagiola said in his book of the same title. Garagiola passed away yesterday at the age of 90. It’s only fitting that today’s poetry post be in his honor.

“Casey at the Bat” is not only the most famous baseball poem ever written, but it may also be our nation’s best known piece of comic verse. Certainly it is pure Americana. Originally attributed to “Phin” when it was published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, it was actually penned by writer Earnest Thayer.

The beloved ballad has since seen a geat many reprisals and homages, not only in print, but also on stage and screen. There is so much conjecture about the real life inspirations for Casey and Mudville that I’m leaving that can of worms alone. Nine days ’til baseball season. Let’s revisit that poem. Rest in Peace, Joe.

Casey at the Bat

A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888

The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
We’d put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And its likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two.”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

                                                                       — Ernest Lawrence Thayer

When Archie Met Sammy

I recently stumbled across a very entertaining and thought provoking list of 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy. The article is a fun read, and if you take the time to watch the video clips it is a good way to spend your entire weekend. As a scholar working on the intellectual history of the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, I was happy to see the show represented on the list. The joke representing the sitcom was from the classic episode Sammy’s Visit (originally aired February 19, 1972 on CBS), in which Sammy Davis Jr. forgets his briefcase in Archie Bunker’s (Carroll O’Connor) cab and comes to pick it up from his home on 704 Hauser St.

allinthefamily-20

Archie: Now, no prejudice intended, but, you know, I always check with the Bible on these here things. I think that, I mean if God had meant for us to be together, he’d-a put us together. But look what he done. He put you over in Africa, and put the rest of us in all the white countries.

Sammy Davis Jr.: Well, he must’ve told ’em where we were, because somebody came and got us.

The joke managed to not only dress down Archie, but make a direct link between slavery and the continuing bigotry in America. The issue of Archie as a “lovable bigot”, a term used by Laura Z. Hobson to criticize him six months earlier in the New York Times, was also addressed head-on in the episode. The Bunker’s black neighbor Lionel Jefferson (Mike Evans) tries to explain Archie to their guest.

Lionel: But he’s not a bad guy, Mr. Davis, I mean, like, he’d never burn a cross on your lawn.

Sammy: No, but if he saw one burning, he’s liable to toast a marshmallow on it.

The episode is widely considered one of the most memorable sitcom episodes, and was ranked 13th on TV Guide’s 1997 list of the “100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time”. Yet, the episode almost did not come to be. When Davis guested the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the spring of 1971, some months after the premiere of All in the Family, he lauded the new, controversial show and introduced the idea of himself guest starring on it. Norman Lear, the creator of the show, and John Rich, the director for the first four seasons, both agreed that wasn’t going to happen but appreciated the kind words and welcomed the promotion. Davis, however, kept pushing the idea. His manager tried to convince Lear and Rich, while Davis himself told the press a guest spot was in the works. Finally, Lear and Rich bowed to the inevitable and set about to find a way to incorporate the star into the show.

It was the writer Bill Dana who came up with the idea of Archie encountering Davis while moonlighting as a cab driver. Carroll O’Connor described the episode as a fun adventure but at the same time noted that it was atypical, being mostly “gags and jokes” and not “applicable” to anything broader the way All in the Family shows usually were. John Rich and Norman Lear, both pleased with the episode, also vowed never to do another celebrity guest episode. The show is great fun and ends with Davis kissing Archie on the cheek, as they are posing for a photograph. It is unclear whether Dana or Rich, who both claim credit, came up with that iconic television moment, which received what Rob Reiner called one of the longest laughs in history.

sammy-davis-archie-bunker-kiss-2

A final note to the story of when Archie met Sammy: Bill Dana, who wrote the show, was highly praised and perceived to be the favorite for an Emmy. As it happened, however, his agent’s secretary mistakenly sent the necessary paperwork to the Writer’s Guild instead of the Television Academy. Without even receiving a nomination, Dana watched as the show took home ten awards, including Outstanding Directing for Sammy’s Visit. There is a humorous side to such a silly mistake costing Dana, a comedy legend in his own right, an Emmy, though I doubt he saw it that way.

Scarecrow: The Music and Murder of Stringbean Akeman

1398259629000-Stringbean-01

Wake up, wake up little Betty

What makes you sleep so sound

When the highway robbers are a-comin’

They’ll tear your playhouse down

The little cabin in Ridgetop, Tennessee hadn’t held a soul in over twenty years. The crime scene chalk and blood were wiped away and the cabin shuttered for some time.

The man renting the place went to light a fire in the large fireplace. Small bits of paper escaped from its mouth, softly falling from the brick façade like volcanic ash in the still cabin air. It was money. Tens of thousands of dollars floating in worthless portions, gathered gently on the cabin floor.

Stringbean’s fortune.

 

How Sweet It Is

David “Stringbean” Akeman fashioned his first banjo from a shoebox and a piece of thread. He was born in 1916 in Annville, Kentucky. They were so poor his mother would give him rocks to throw at birds, and, if his arm was good, they’d have boiled fowl for supper. When he was 12, he traded two bantam chickens for his first real banjo.

He would make his name – and his fortune – playing novelty songs in the tradition of the banjo-playing comedians of the Grand Ole Opry.

But String could pick.

Continue reading →

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,899 other followers