The Onion and How Comedy Deals with Tragedy (Or Not)

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Summer vacation from new posts continues. Two weeks or so until new content, but enjoy this one, which seems somehow fitting for the tragic year it seems to have been.

Originally posted on Humor in America:

The most famous edition of the satirical newspaper The Onion has to be its 9/11 edition. That issue was also the first that they published after relocating from Madison, Wisconsin, to New York City. The headlines were shocking to a nation that had not yet returned to its usual fare of late night shtick or our then-new love of “reality” television. (Survivor premiered the year before and American Idol began the year after.)

The Onion writers, however, did not leap into addressing the attack with abandon. According to Onion John Krewson, the humorists were stymied until one of them suggested the headline “America Turns into a Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Film,” after which the dam burst and they felt capable of turning a comic eye on a national tragedy.

The Onion 9_11 cover

Knowing this, should we be surprised that The Onion has already covered the horror of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre? Here is…

View original 444 more words

Packaging the Presidency, with Laughter

Even though it is still some 16 months to the 2016 presidential elections the campaign is already well under way with most candidates officially declared as candidates. With any presidential campaign comes great humor, something Jon Stewart has brilliantly reminded us of for the last 16 years. One aspect of the campaigns which often provide a few chuckles are election adverts. Most of these laughs seem to be inadvertent, like that of Senator Ted Cruz who claimed to almost have fallen out of his chair laughing when he saw a pro-Hillary ad made by a Super PACs in which an unidentified cowboy sang a country song about standing with Hillary. Or when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released video material online in 2014, apparently for the use of Super PACs, and Jon Stewart pounced on the opportunity to create the trending hashtag “mcconnelling” where the video is set to a humorous choice of music. In her authoritative book on presidential campaign advertising Kathleen Hall Jamieson points out an earlier example where Eisenhower proclaimed that his wife, Mamie, “gets after me about the high cost of living. It’s another reason why I say, it’s time for a change.”

Yet, as long as there has been political television ads, there has also been attempts at deliberatively funny election ads. Among the first is an ad by Adlai Stevenson’s campaign in 1952 where he suggests a bromance between the moderate Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower and defeated conservative candidate Robert A. Taft. The ad is meant to link the former to the latter’s policies by having two syrupy voices infatuated call out the names Ike and Bob to each other.

The most common use of humor in campaign ads are attempts at ridicule. The most notable example, and probably the most effective example as well, is the 1988 ad that showed the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis driving around in a tank while a voice-over details his weak record on defense. The ad, which The Washington Post recently described as “the stuff of legend in campaign circles”, made perfect use of the juxtaposition of the visual material and the message. Dukakis is driving around in circles in a tank in what appears to be an empty field. Most damning, Dukakis, smiling broadly, looks inescapably silly with a funny-looking helmet and an army-green jumpsuit over his, still visible, suit and tie. Attempts to replicate the successful ad include one from 2004 featuring Democratic candidate John Kerry windsurfing while the narration portrays him as a flip-flopper. Since at least the days of Abraham Lincoln the issue of changing positions and thus poor credibility has been politically dangerous and with the advent of television the issue has been the source of many humorous ads. One of the best known is visually simple, putting the face of Republican candidate Richard Nixon on a weathervane while a narrator lists his changing positions. Four years later, Nixon returned the favor by putting a poster of Democratic candidate George McGovern on both sides of a pole and turning it around after every changing position the voice-over details. The same idea was driven home in an ad by the George H. W. Bush team in 1992 that explains the contradictory positions of two undisclosed candidates before revealing that both are Bill Clinton. Making the ad extra funny is a zinger at the end of the ad, Clinton commenting that “there is a simple explanation for why this happened.”

Another prevalent theme in humorous campaign ads, especially during the last two decades, is to present statements by the opponent and then question them in a style reminiscent of the popular SNL sketch “Really with Seth and Amy”. The best example is an ad from the 2000 election that features a snippet of Al Gore stating “I took the initiative, in creating the internet.” The female voice-over comments “Yeah, and I invented the remote control, too.” The line “Oh, really?” returns in a curious 2004 ad produced in the visual style of the spy comedy Austin Powers, with the film’s star Mike Myers providing a narration questioning John Kerry’s comments. A Kerry ad from the same election features the “Oh Really?” in bold letters in response to George W. Bush’s claims about the turning the corner.

As with editorial cartoons the humorous ads work best in cases where they only need to remind voters of worries they already have about a certain candidate, instead of actually planting new ideas. I will try to illustrate this last point with two ads. In 1956 the democrats aired an ad with a picture of Vice-president Nixon and a narrator asking “nervous about Nixon? President Nixon?”. The ad is short and to the point but neither humorous nor very persuasive. Making the same point, an ad from 1968 features a man laughing while a pan-out of a television screen reveals the question “Agnew for Vice-President?”. In the end the man’s laughter turns into violent coughing and the text “this would be funny if it weren’t so serious” appears. By adopting laughter the ad illustrates the silliness of the idea of the inexperienced Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew a heartbeat away from the presidency in a way far more convincing than the Nixon ad from 12 years earlier. This shows how and why humor, while hard to wield, can indeed be a useful political tool.

Remembering John Crowe Ransom

John Crowe Ransom  April 30, 1888 – July 3, 1974

John Crowe Ransom
April 30, 1888 – July 3, 1974

This distinguished thinker from Pulaski, Tennessee  was a poet, essayist, editor, and professor known for both depth and levity.

He is considered to be a founder of the New Criticism school of literary criticism. As a faculty member at Kenyon College, he was the first editor of the widely regarded Kenyon Review.

Ransom‘s lighthearted writing has been compared to that of Voltaire, Swift and Twain––ironic wit, sense of incongruity, mock-pedantic language used to wonderful effect.

Below are a three of his humorous poems.

                    Blue Girls

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.

                                       — John Crowe Ransom
                 Worship

I know a quite religious man
Who utters praises when he can.

Now I find God in bard and book,
In school and temple, bird and brook.

But he says God is sweetest of all
Discovered in a drinking-hall.

For God requires no costly wine
But comes on the foam of a crockery stein.

And when that foam is on the lips,
Begin then God’s good fellowships.

Cathedrals, synagogues, and kirks
May go to the devil, and all their works.

And as for Christian charity,
It’s made out of hilarity.

He gives the beggar all his dimes,
Forgives his brother seven times.

‘I love the rain,’ says thirsty clod;
So this religious man of God.

For God has come, and is it odd
He praises all the works of God?

‘For God has come, and there’s no sorrow,’
He sings all night–will he sing to-morrow?

— John Crowe Ransom

 

                   The Lover
I sat in a friendly company
And wagged my wicked tongue so well,
My friends were listening close to hear
The wickedest tales that I could tell.
For many a fond youth waits, I said,
On many a worthless damozel;
But every trusting fool shall learn
To wish them heartily in hell.And when your name was spoken too,
I did not change, I did not start,
And when they only praised and loved,
I still could play my secret part,
Cursing and lies upon my tongue,
And songs and shouting in my heart.

But when you came and looked at me,
You tried my poor pretence too much.
O love, do you know the secret now
Of one who would not tell nor touch?
Must I confess before the pack
Of babblers, idiots, and such?

Do they not hear the burst of bells,
Pealing at every step you make?
Are not their eyelids winking too,
Feeling your sudden brightness break?
O too much glory shut with us!
O walls too narrow and opaque!
O come into the night with me
And let me speak, for Jesus’ sake.

                                      — John Crowe Ransom

Rainbows and Hippies: Humorous Responses to the Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Decision

Tracy Wuster

 

Several years ago, we posted a collection of humorous responses to President Obama’s change to support gay marriage.  For a follow up, here are some of the humorous responses to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize marriage across the country.

Responses seem to fall into a few general categories:

1) Celebration of the ruling

2) Comments on the Supreme Court, pro and con, but with no real connection to the recent Obamacare decision (see bottom for examples of responses to that)

3) Connections to the questions of race and the Confederate flag

4) Satire on the institution of marriage

4) Reactions of opponents

Here are a few cartoons and memes that show examples of these trends.

 

And here are some web-based humorous responses:

Watch Stephen Colbert Celebrate Gay Marriage

The Best Memes About The Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

The ‘Broad City’ stars have the PERFECT response to the gay marriage ruling

The Antonin Scalia “Sick Burn” Generator

court5

We Asked the Nearest Hippie About Scalia: It Was David Crosby

THE SCOTUS MARRIAGE DECISION, IN HAIKU.

Scalia is getting roasted on social media with hilarious memes after his dissent on the gay marriage ruling

Internet memes on the historic marriage ruling

Disasters You Can Expect Now That Marriage Equality Is Here

People Who Are Going To Be Very Disappointed When They Get To Canada

Anything else?

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Jack Kerouac’s American Haiku

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Rue Gît le Coeur: street where lies the heart. On a tiny street in Paris, about a quarter of the length of a New York City block and just a little wider than a Venice passageway, lies a minuscule hotel. Its rooms, replete with medieval-era wooden beams and matching pastoral designs on the wallpaper and curtains, are just as tiny; only one person can move around in the room at a time. The elevator, too, can manage only one person per trip. Charming and minute, there is no space in this hotel for oversized couches and exercise rooms; there is barely space enough to stretch out your arms and yawn, let alone sing.

When I visited this sequestered street last year—almost hidden in the midst of a crowded tourist district—I was amused and surprised to see the plaques, figured prominently on the hotel’s front façade, and the photographs displayed proudly in the lobby, honoring several Beat-era poets who had stayed there more than half a century ago. According to one of the plaques, William S. Burroughs supposedly wrote Naked Lunch there.

This hotel is to architecture what haiku is to literature: charming, ancient, and airtight—“no room for petty furniture,” as Emily Dickinson writes of compressed poetry. If there is a general view of Beat-era poetry, it is that it rides the force of Whitman’s barbaric yawp and delights in expansiveness, open vistas, and freedom. So it is a little unexpected and amusing to imagine multiple Beat poets writing productively in this very cozy, well-appointed hotel, just as there is something unexpected about the Beat poet who ventures into the space of haiku.

Jack Kerouac did not join his colleagues at this hotel, but he did spend considerable time within the small chamber of the haiku, testing its edges, poking fun at its purpose, and stumbling into very sweet encounters with its essence. Yet what stands out in his playful attempts with the form (which he renamed “Pop”) is their humor.

In his Book of Haikus, edited in 2003 by Regina Weinreich, Kerouac toys with nature. In the Japanese tradition of seventeenth-century poet Matsuo Basho, haiku juxtaposes something man-made with something from the natural world. Generally in Basho’s poetry, nature complements if not soothes loneliness.

Basho:

494.

drinking saké

without flowers or moon

one is alone.

(Matsuo Basho, The Complete Haiku, translated by Jane Reichhold (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008)

However, in Kerouac’s haiku, man and nature collide, confront one another, or fumble towards connection.

 

Kerouac:

A raindrop from

the roof

Fell in my beer

(New York: Penguin Poets, 2003), 30

Where Basho’s natural elements blend with or serve to illuminate the human situations in his haiku, Kerouac’s speakers sometimes come off as annoyed with nature.

Basho:

669.

don’t be like me

even though we’re like the melon

split in two.

Nature is a not a metaphor in Kerouac’s haiku, but an encounter—even a clash:

Kerouac:

Bee, why are you

staring at me?

I’m not a flower!

(15)

 

The earth winked

at me—right

In the john

(10)

In his imitations of the Japanese model, Kerouac produces humor by reversing the direction of the metaphor: human experience is no longer compared to something beautiful in nature; rather, nature interferes with or is pitted against man-made entities.

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John Oliver, FIFA, American Humor, and Topic Sentences

Oliver Show TitleJohn Oliver got rid of Sepp Blatter. That would be a bold statement if I cared at all about Sepp Blatter or FIFA. I do not. I do care, however, about John Oliver, my favorite funny person from Great Britain (currently; it is a long list). More importantly, for this venue, is the contribution that John Oliver with his work on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) is making to American humor. As one who has been distraught over the loss of The Colbert Report and the impending departure of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, I have been worried that we were facing the end of a golden age in American television political and social satire. I think it will last a bit longer, and I am sure that John Oliver is key to its future.

The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore is solid, and Trevor Noah may prove to reinvigorate the Daily Show, so my worries may be overblown. It is Last Week Tonight, however, that holds the most promise. Quite simply, it transforms the basic formula codified by The Daily Show under Jon Stewart (and applied to a specific parodic context by Colbert) and makes it decidedly more argumentative. Last Week Tonight is thesis-driven humor, which marks a dramatic shift in ambition, or, perhaps, confidence. In either case, Oliver will not admit it.

Oliver is nonetheless catching fire. On a recent appearance on CBS This Morning , Charlie Rose asked one question that seemed clear and concise (if you can believe it): “What is the intent of this ‘dumb’ show?” (Oliver had already called it “dumb” based on the introductory clips).

“Just to make people laugh.” OK, John, you get a pass since this is the standard answer for any such discussion of humor. Why a duck? Because ducks are funny, that’s why. But you are lying.

Oliver’s self-deprecation notwithstanding, the fact is that no one in American television has ever put together satirically charged arguments in segments ranging from 12 to 20 minutes (easily 2 to 4 times as long as standard Daily Show bits) that are focused on one issue with such depth and humor. Never. There are easier ways to make people laugh.

In the interview, Oliver would not assert a more elaborate purpose and underplayed any major role for satire itself. As to whether satire served a deeper purpose in his work, he simply said, “I have no idea. Ideally, satire would do no better than anyone.” He went on to explain the show’s long form, weekly approach: “It’s some slow cooking, what we do.”

Yes, slow cooking. It took a year to get Sepp Blatter. That is the pace of satire. C’mon, John, admit it.

Oliver

To begin a closer look at the Last Week Tonight formula, let’s stick with Blatter and the two episodes that most directly skewer FIFA, the first of which aired on 8 June 2014 and the second on 1 June 2015. A brief look at these two episodes should provide a good indication of the power of Oliver’s thesis-driven comedy and the potential of long-form television satire. Both episodes feature FIFA as the main topic, and each segment runs just over 13 minutes. Here are links to each:

The key to Oliver’s approach could be understood best, perhaps, by considering it as a model for clear, argumentative writing. In fact, I urge all freshman composition instructors in the nation to drop all textbooks and simply use Last Week Tonight to teach the modes of argumentative writing. Let’s consider the most basic element of building effective arguments: Write clear and concise topic sentences. Note the few examples below:

–“FIFA is a comically grotesque organization.” (8 June 2014).

–“There is a certain irony in FIFA setting up any kind of justice system given the scandals that have dogged it over the years.” (8 June 2014).

–“The problem is: all the arrests in the world are going to change nothing as long as Blatter is still there.” (1 June 2015)

–“When your rainy day fund is so big that you’ve got to check it for swimming cartoon ducks, you might not be a non-profit anymore.” (8 June 2014)

–“Peanut butter and jelly are supposed to go together; FIFA and bribery should go together like peanut butter and a child with a deadly nut allergy.” (8 June 2014)

–“That is perfect because hotel sheets are very much like FIFA officials; they really should be clean, but they are actually unspeakably filthy, and deep down everybody knows that.” (1 June 2015)

Note the clarity of the argumentative position in each statement above. They assert positions, all followed by multiple levels of support within the show (follow the links). That, dear readers, is how you build good essays! It is also how to build fresh, ambitious humor.

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Sherman Alexie’s Survival Humor Turns “Legal”

Some days you just have two choices. You can laugh, or you can cry. Both of these actions define us as human beings. While crying can be cathartic, laughing is what we do in order to assert some form of control over circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us. In the study of Native American humor, the term “survival humor” is quite common; but I have yet to find a working definition of this term. What I did find a definition of is a term I had never heard used as a literary term: snark.
This is how “snark” is literarily defined:

Snark can be used for different purposes. However, mostly it is utilized as a mask. Others might use it as a defensive device. When bitterness is not easy to express in an agreeable way, snark is used without hurting anyone directly.[i]

This seems as good a term as any for the purpose here. In general usage, it tends to have a more negative connotation, but it does describe what you will see if you read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Every story in the collection is guaranteed to have a reader laughing and crying at the same time. Many of the stories are sad; however, the ways that Alexie’s characters view and think about them reflect an essential humor that belies the gravity and pain.

The Spokane/Ceour d’Alene author shows his readers how to both laugh and cry at the same time, and in doing so:

  • takes some of the sting out of reservation life for indigenous people
  • shows whites what reservation life is and how it affects those who live there
  • tries to make peace with what history has dealt Indians in general and his own tribe in particular

This first short story collection reached the “legal” age of 21 last year. When the collection was published in 1993, Alexie was a 27 year old resident of the Spokane Indian reservation. His first book, a collection of poems called The Business of Fancydancing, had received critical praise and awards. In the New York Times Book Review, James Kincaid (University of Southern California) “declared [him] one of the major lyric voices of our time” (xix). [ii]  In his Prologue to the 20th Anniversary edition, Alexie reflects on his career since and his uneasy fit into the world of authors and book publishing. He remembers, for example, stepping out of a penthouse elevator at a New Yorker magazine party to see Stephen King and Salman Rushdie hugging each other. Pretty heady stuff for a rez boy, as he says. In the twenty-some years since its publication, Alexie has written more poetry, novels, and short stories, all of which contain this signature humor, and I have read most of them; but this one stays with me as one of the best.

In “Because My Father Always Said that He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” he describes his father as a young man who was photographed demonstrating against Vietnam. His father is wearing bell-bottoms and a flowered shirt, his hair is in braids, and his face painted with peace symbols in red like war paint. The image ran in several newspapers with varied captions. Alexie says, “The one I like best is from the Seattle Times: Demonstrator goes to war for peace. Capitalizing on his father’s native heritage, others read things like “One Warrior against War” and “Peaceful gathering Turns into Native Uprising.”

The photograph won a Pulitzer for the photographer. The character’s father goes to jail for attempted murder. He is released just in time to see that epic version of the national anthem, and twenty years later continues to play it as the backdrop to his drinking—Alexie says: “My father and Jimi became drinking buddies” (26). Like many of the stories in this collection, he relates both heartache and humor in the alcoholism he sees around him.

“The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” showcases white authorities’ fear and fascination with Indians by creating a “trial” in which Thomas is accused of “making small noises, form[ing] syllables that contained more emotion and meaning than entire sentences constructed by the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs].” His previous infraction against authority, “holding the reservation postmaster hostage for eight hours with the idea of a gun and ha[ving] also threatened to make significant changes in the tribal vision. But that crisis was resolved years ago; Thomas surrendered voluntarily and agreed to remain silent. Thomas had not spoken in nearly twenty years”[iii]

In effect, Thomas is arrested for speaking—speaking stories that reflect an oral tradition and a belief that words hold power. Clearly words do—other members of the tribe hear the sounds and the words effect change on the reservation. In trying to decide upon what charges to bring against him, the BIA representatives state that “It has to be a felony charge. We don’t need his kind around here anymore.”[iv]

Alexie ranges across present day social issues associated with reservation life, as well as historical wrongs the tribe has endured, and emphasizes the importance of keeping those issues alive through speech and the language of stories.

This story ends with Thomas being sentenced to two life sentences in Wall Walla State Penitentiary, where he continues to tell his stories to the men of color with whom he shares the bus to prison.

These two short pieces are representative examples. Some tell of love, some of history, some of life (and death). But all demonstrate humor in the face of adversity, and a will to survive the stolen land, the broken treaties, the broken promises, and the aftermath of assimilation, allotment, and hunger. Snark may define the literary device Alexie uses here—but survival humor is the end result.

Other works by Sherman Alexie that you might also enjoy reading are two other short story collections: Toughest Indian in the World and Ten Little Indians, and novels: Reservation Blues, Indian Killer, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. More recent editions of the short stories contain discussion questions as an afterward as a guide for reading groups. These are primarily of interest to teachers, but also to reading groups. They offer some historical information and questions that help readers understand and discuss the texts from an indigenous viewpoint.

So if you like your humor laced with irony and, yes, a bit of snark, these all make great summer reads.

 

[i] “Literary Devices: Definition and Examples of Literary Terms,” http://literarydevices.net/snark/

[ii] Alexie quotes here come from the 20th Anniversary edition of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, New York/ Grove Press, 2013.

[iii] Page 94.

[iv] Ibid.

Who Invented the Rube Goldberg Invention?

Who Invented The Rube Goldberg Invention?

The Rube Goldberg invention is a complex device that achieves a simple objective. Entering the American lexicon in 1931, it defines the adjective “Rube Goldberg,” a staple of most American English dictionaries. “Rube Goldberg,” of course, is only the adjective, but it is followed by “invention,” “contraption,” “device,” or a plethora of other synonyms of those words that “Rube Goldberg” modifies. But who is Rube Goldberg and where does the convention of the Rube Goldberg invention come from?

Ruben Lucius Goldberg was born in San Francisco, California on July 4, 1883. He received a degree in engineering from UC Berkeley in 1904, but in 1907 he moved to New York City and became a cartoonist for the New York Evening Mail. He was very popular, and by the time America entered World War I, Goldberg was nationally syndicated and, true to the journalistic standards of the time, William Randolph Hearst had already begun a bidding war to lure Goldberg from the Evening Mail to the New York Journal. The Evening Mail was able to keep Goldberg until 1934, at which time he continued syndicating cartoons until his death in 1970.

According to Charles Keller in his book, The Best of Rube Goldberg, Goldberg began drawing the iconic inventions in 1915 and they became a weekly institution in American journalism. In fact, there are innumerable imitations of the motif in various aspects of popular culture including television (especially animated features), movies, and games. His name is also given to the cartoonist of the year award (Ruben Award), by the National Cartoonists Society. There are even Rube Goldberg Machine Contests for high school and college students around the United States. The idea of creating fanciful machines to complete simple tasks taps into human imagination and foolish inefficiency at the same time.

Rube Goldberg Putter

Above: Rube Goldberg improves the game of golf.

William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) also drew complex machines that completed tasks in Britain at about the same time as Goldberg. Robinson began his art career by illustrating books. He did several of them from 1897 to 1916. In the 19-teens, Robinson began drawing cartoons satirizing World War I for British media specializing in drawing impossible secret weapons that the enemy might use. This morphed into drawing the complex machines, and by 1917, the Oxford English Dictionary listed “Heath Robinson contraption” as a noun.

Robinson began drawing the absurd devices in children’s book illustrations and continued in several media until he died in 1944. During his lifetime he, as did Goldberg, published several books of cartoons including the machines. Both of their legacies have continued. For Robinson, it is an improvised device that was engineered by the British Air Force for its chaff dispensing mechanism called a Heath Robinson Chaff Modification.

So, who invented the Rube Goldberg Invention? As Robinson, being 11 years older than Goldberg got started drawing his machines first, there is a good chance that he was the first of the two to do it, but because those contraptions got their start in children’s books, it is unlikely that Goldberg saw them and was inspired. Goldberg’s methodology for drawing his inventions includes a step-by-step instruction of how the thing works. Those steps often utilize an item in the news at the time, a difference between him and Robinson.

Eventually, of course, both cartoonists became aware of the other’s work, but there was a big world full of many new products that were ripe for satire during the industrial age. Between the two of them they had enough material to keep themselves and scores of other cartoonists busy on a daily basis. Not only that, there was a big ocean between them, and American media did not print the Robinson cartoons any more than the British media ran the Goldberg variations on the Robinson theme.

Heath Robinson Atom Splitting

Above: Heath Robinson simplifies atomic fission.

The King is Gone

aacdd_b-b-kingIn my inaugural post for this website I discussed the subtle humor of the blues, and how that humor helps to give the blues its healing power. Last week we lost an American icon, a musician who is perhaps the best-known blues musician of them all.

B.B. King was neither the most versatile nor the most emotionally impactful blues musician. The ever-amiable master displayed little of the hellhounds that cast tortured shadows over the early delta players, the sheer frightening force of Howlin’ Wolf or the commandeering magnetism of Muddy Waters. But the “Blues Boy” developed his own influential style of fluid, single note guitar leads – moving seamlessly through his very being and out through his fingertips – which became the defining sound that many think of when they think of the blues. He spoke through his fingers. Tone flowed through his veins. His immense popularity and consistency made him the unquestionable ambassador of the blues to the world, and for that he rightly earned the title of King.

B.B. King defined his long and impressive career with class, sophistication and an effortless grace. But he wasn’t above a little good-natured humor, and had no reservations about making music with any artist from any genre, human or otherwise.

Here is a clip of the “King of the Blues” sitting in with the gang from Sesame Street, singing a song about the importance of the letter B. It’s a fun, humorous clip, but it underscores a deeper truth. Without the letter B, so the song goes, there would be no birds, no Berts and, most importantly, no blues. And without the blues, there would be no spirituals, no jazz, no honky tonk country, no R&B, no Rock ‘n’ Roll, no soul music, no funk, no hip-hop, not even pop. Without the blues there would be no anecdote for life’s unbearable heft. There could be no healing. Without the blues there is no American music. There is no America.

Play on, Blues Boy.

 

Call for Papers: “Is American Satire Still in a Postmodern Condition?” 

Special issue on contemporary satire for Studies in American Humor (Fall 2016), James E. Caron(University of Hawaii—Manoa), Guest Editor; Judith Yaross Lee (Ohio University, Editor).
In response to the torrent of satiric materials that has been and continues to be produced in recent years, Studies in American Humor invites proposals for 20-page essays using the rubric of “the postmodern condition” as an analytical gambit for demarcating a poetics of American comic art forms that use ridicule to enable critique and promote the possibility of social change. Proposals might focus on aspects of the following issues.

coverart

What problems are associated with defining satire as a comic mode, and how do recent examples fit into such debates? How useful is the term postmodern to characterize satire—i.e. does it refer to a period or an operation? How useful for understanding recent and contemporary satire are terms designed to indicate we have moved into something other than postmodernism: e.g. trans- or post-humanism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, post-theory? In accounts of satire as a mode of comic presentation of social issues, what differences arise from varied technologies andplatforms, not just print but also TV sitcoms (live-action or animated), movies, comic strips, stand-up formats, or the sit-down presentation of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Do significant differences emerge from satires on YouTube (or the video-sharing service, Vines) and various Internet sites (e.g., Funny or Die) and social media? If ridicule, broadly speaking, is the engine of satiric critique, what ethical concerns are entailed in its use?

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Various disciplinary perspectives and methods are welcome. StAH values new transnational and interdisciplinary approaches as well as traditional critical and historical humanities scholarship. Submit proposals of 500-750 words to StAH’s editorial portal <http://www.editorialmanager.com/sah/> by June 15, 2015, for full consideration. Authors will be notified of the editors’ decisions in early July.  Completed essays will be due by January 15, 2016.   For complete information on Studies in American Humor and full submission guidelines see <http://studiesinamericanhumor.org/ >.  At the time of publication all authors are expected to be members of the American Humor Studies Association, which began publishing StAH (now produced in association with the Penn State University Press) in 1974. Queries may be addressed to the editors at <studiesinamericanhumor@ohio.edu>.

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