Donald Trump is in the air.
Donald Trump is in our hair.
Donald Trump is everywhere.
From the August 24th sacred sighting in Wildwood, Missouri when his face appeared in vegan butter, to his campaign rally in Iowa where he mocked Asians by speaking broken English, this Republican front runner is inspiring the nation. Twitter is alive with made up Trump quotes about his favorite book — the Bible. On the other end of the spectrum, there has been at least one eerie porn parody of The Donald. Understandably, the bards are waxing poetic.
by Donald Trump
They make fun of my hair.
They make fun of my hair.
On the street. On dates.
At dinners – a thousand dollars a plate,
And still they do it.
I know you think I’m a total winner, but it hurts!
The way they always make fun of my hair.
They call it a fox, a beaver,
They call it a panda – not the one you’re thinking of,
But the weird kind.
When I go to bed,
I imagine it’s a beautiful creature
From the myths of the Greeks – not the Greeks today,
But a long time ago, when they had their act together…
In the dark, in the night,
My hair gently rises from the 24-karat wig stand,
Flies through the window,
Gallops across fields,
Leaps over streams.
It’s free. It’s magnificent.
I say to my hair, I like you. You take charge, like me.
I still have to shoot you,
But you won’t sit on my wall, big guy.
No. You’re going right here, up top on Mt. Donald,
So you can go where I go, see what I see, and date the broads I date.
My hair paws at the earth and snorts. It agrees.
I take its life, its spirit,
And I waste nothing – just like the Native Americans, I use every bit of it.
We go together. We will not be ashamed.
Those who find free verse poems too arsty and pretentious can enjoy Perez Hilton‘s populist poetry slam:
Yes, Donald, you’re right. “Our country is in seeeerious trouble.”
A friend and I have been puzzling about whether sonnets are, by nature of their form and conventions, essentially funny poems. Popular views of the sonnet are that this fourteen-line poem deals with unrequited love, lovesickness, heartbreak, relationship problems, or themes of political love—none of which seem like particularly funny topics on the surface. Yet so many poets have had a good time making fun of these very tropes, creating their own sonnet parody genre in the process. But in reviewing a handful of these mocking sonnets, I wonder if they reveal opportunities for humor in the sonnet form itself and, if we go back to the original poems they mock, perhaps subtler instances of humor in those ostensibly “serious” sonnets.
The sonnet parody is very simple: it makes fun of the sonnet’s rules and themes. About ten years ago, I had a short conversation at a poetry performance with the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith. When he learned that I was interested in sonnets, he took out a piece of paper and with deadpan irony wrote out the following:
“That’s my sonnet,” he said (or something like that). His “joke” is based on the mathematical conventions of the sonnet, a poem which frequently contains eight lines that build in a certain direction (the octave) followed by six lines that resolve or release that theme (the sestet). Many poets poke fun at the technical strictures of the form, which John Keats went so far as to call “chains,” yet they were chains that he, along with William Wordsworth, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Edna Saint Vincent Millay, found paradoxically freeing.
Goldsmith’s joke was not a put-down; I got the impression that deadpan irony simply underlies his poetic philosophy. A trailblazer in the intentionally humorous, newer art of conceptual and collage poetry, Goldsmith seems to find depth in the light play—and delight in the silliness—of the poetic arts. His tone is lighthearted, though, as I recall, and even affectionate towards the silliness.
Similarly, Billy Collins’s two sonnet parodies are at the same time love songs to sonnets. His poem “Sonnet” is itself a lesson in sonnet form:
All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
And after this next one just a dozen
To launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
Then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.
-Billy Collins, The Making of a Sonnet, edited by Eavan Boland and Edward Hirsch (New York: Norton Anthology, 2008), 73.
“Come at last to bed” is a deceptively simple ending for the poem, one that exposes a problem in most sonnets—as well as an opportunity for humor. The problem: a sonnet is a piece of paper, an out-of-time meditation that stands in the way of two lovers meeting. Collins suggests that the poet’s writing keeps him from real contact with the beloved. Frequently, the sonnet’s speaker writes from a place of loneliness; real connection with the beloved, either physical or emotional, depending on the poem, is somehow blocked.
About half of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets deal with thwarted or frustrated love, precisely because final coupling is kept in suspense in the sonnet form, or deemed impossible. Yet the torment that comes with experiences of heartache, however agonizing in the moment, are so hackneyed in our literature that there emerges a kind of joke in their repetition. Consider this seldom-studied sonnet by Shakespeare:
That you were once unkind befriends me now,
And for that sorrow, which I then did feel,
Needs must I under my transgression bow,
Unless my nerves were brass or hammered steel.
For if you were by my unkindness shaken,
As I by yours, you’ve passed a hell of time;
And I, a tyrant, have no leisure taken
To weigh how once I suffered in your crime.
O! That our night of woe might have remembered
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits,
And soon to you, as you to me, then tendered
The humble salve, which wounded bosoms fits!
But that your trespass now becomes a fee;
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.
Love blows are used for bartering and ransoming in this poem, and are compared to an economic exchange or a wartime practice. The poet builds the tit-for-tat banter until it falls apart in a reductio ad absurdum: if both lovers owe one another for wrong doing, shouldn’t they just throw out their accounting books and open a new leaf? The middle of the poem, around the placement of what Collins reminds us is the Italian turn, or volta, is perhaps the one genuinely tender moment in the poem: “O! That our night of woe might have remembered my deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits.” The rest of the poem, including the mutually negating ending, is a kind of game with its own implicit sense of the ridiculous. And the blame-and-shame game reveals itself to be, within the argument of this poem, absurd.
Uncharacteristic of Shakespeare, this particular sonnet has no obvious sexual imagery. Yet, back to Collins’s last line, the word “bed,” the very last word of the Collins poem, reminds us of another world of opportunity for humor in sonnets: their frequent and often awkward use of sexual innuendo. John Updike’s conceptual sonnet parodies this truth:
Love Sonnet (1963)
In Love’s rubber armor I come to you,
-John Updike, The Making of a Sonnet, 328.
In his book on poetic form, Paul Fussell likens the movement from octave to sestet in the Petrarchan model to sexual arousal and release. The topic is treated with seriousness and a sense of the erotic in many examples (consider Robert Frost’s sonnet “A Silken Tent,” which can be read as a metaphor for arousal and at the same time a commentary on the pressure and release contained within sonnet form), yet this is the very trope that poets later parody. As Updike’s minimalist commentary seems to suggest, the sonnet, when stripped of its elegant imagery and rhymes (Updike retains just the rhyme coda), is no more than an adolescent reverie about sex. With its flowery language shed, a kind of funny silliness is uncovered in the sonnet form, a form which dates backs nearly a millennium. (The Tumblr site “Pop Sonnets”, which comically turns Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Snoop Dog songs into Shakespearean sonnets, speaks to the pop-song romance of the sonnet.)
Yet most great sonnets are about more than adolescent ideas of sex, and their humor is also at times more complex. William Carlos Williams, who resisted writing sonnets for a long time, finally came up with his own somewhat comic offering:
Nude bodies like peeled logs
sometimes give off a sweetest
odor, man and woman
under the trees in full excess
matching the cushion of
aromatic pine-drift fallen
threaded with trailing woodbine
a sonnet might be made of it
Might be made of it! odor of excess
odor of pine needles, odor of
peeled logs, odor of no odor
other than trailing woodbine that
has no odor, odor of a nude woman
sometimes, odor of a man.
Whether this is a sonnet, formally speaking, is debatable. Like Updike, Williams seems to strip the poem down to sensory and sensual details, so bare in fact that they lose their erotic context and become, just a little, funny.
But humor seems to be a key element of the tender––and ubiquitous––humiliation that underlies all love stories, happy or sad. The lover must become ridiculous and submit to a ridiculous pattern of longing, as unsexy as it is concerned with sex. Consider Gertrude Stein’s approach to the sonnet. Her “Sonnets That Please” distill the form to the essence of the lovers’ banter, and we see, as we do looking closely at all of these examples, the inherent humor in what it means to be in love—the age-old pattern of heartbreak and heart yearning to which we give ourselves, in spite of humiliation. The humanity of it, the regularity of it is as tender as it is recognizable and therefore, somehow, funny.
Sonnets That Please (1921)
How pleased are the sonnets that please.
How very pleased to please.
Another Sonnet That Pleases
Please be pleased with me.
Please be all to me please please be.
Please be pleased with me. Please please me. Please please please with me please please be.
-Gertrude Stein, Bee Time Vine (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1953 and 1969), 220.
Goodbye Jon Stewart… or goodbye Daily Show… or goodbye Jon Stewart’s Daily Show… would have liked to hear him talk about the first Republican debate…
Originally posted on Johns Hopkins University Press Blog:
Guest post by Rebecca Krefting
I’m a worrier. I worry that I will sleep walk and chug turpentine (it happens). I worry that I will throw myself off a cliff given the right opportunity (that’s a thing). I worry that my neighbor’s cat will give me poison ivy (that’s for real). And I worry about the state of late-night television in the coming years. Without Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s conservative alter ego, where are we headed, what can we expect, and where exactly will I find my nightly dose of satire?
Jon Stewart’s run on The Daily Show ends next week. The last taping will be on August 6th, and millions will be tuning in for Stewart’s farewell show. Though the numbers are not in yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if viewer ratings rivaled David Letterman’s final show last May. Relatedly, in December 2014, after…
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“Google” has an interesting etymology. By definition, “googol” is 1 followed by 100 zeroes. The name was chosen by a nine-year old boy by the name of Milton Sirotta. Milton’s uncle, Edward Kasner was a mathematician who had a need for a number of that magnitude, and when he asked his nephew what he should call the number, his nephew replied, “Google,” probably from one of his favorite cartoon strips, Barney Google. According to Sol Steinmetz, author of There’s a Word for It, the naming of the googol, was pretty simple:
“When [Kasner] asked his young nephew to think up a name for a very big number, a number with a hundred zeroes after it, Milton, after a moment’s thought, answered ‘a googol!’ Though probably influenced by the name of the then very popular comic-strip character Barney Google, Milton’s coinage became important in advanced mathematics” (italics in the original) (Steinmetz 86).
The history of the word is unclear as to whether the mathematician accidentally misspelled “Google” or spelled it differently in order to make it a unique term. However, Kasner took the googol, an already immense number, and raised it to the googolth power and called it a googolplex. It was, at the time the largest number with a name and clear definition.
Barney Google was a popular cartoon strip that began in 1919 and was drawn by Billy DeBeck. It was among the most popular strips of the 1920s prompting two hit songs, “Barney Google (with the Goo-goo Googly Eyes)” and “Come on, Spark Plug.” Spark Plug was the name of Barney Google’s horse, and it became the nickname of the then, future cartoonist Charles Schulz, who was given the moniker as a child and was known by friends and family throughout his life as “Sparky Schulz.” Many of the Barney Google serialized storylines were followed by so many readers that they became media sensations. Therefore, when Milton Sirotta named the googol in the late 1930s, he was drawing from an influential force in American culture.
Barney Google and his mighty thoroughbred.
In addition, the word “goggle-eyed,” describing someone with bulging or rolling eyes, has been around since 1711, but due to the comic strip and the song, the word googly-eyed temporarily supplanted “goggle-eyed” in the American lexicon in 1924. Now, either term is used to describe that facial characteristic.
So, in 1919, the word “google” was born as the name of a cartoon character. In 1940, the term was altered to “googol” to describe a number with 1 followed by 100 zeros. In 1997, the term took on a new meaning when Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Sean Anderson were brainstorming a name for their new search engine that had been called “BackRub” during the development process. According to New World, New Words: On Language Change and Word Formation in Internet English and Romanian, Otilia Pacea states:
“Sean verbally suggested the googolplex, and Larry responded verbally with a shortened form, googol. Sean executed a search of the internet domain name registry database to see if the newly suggested name was still available for registration and use. Sean was not an infallible speller, and he made the mistake of searching for the name spelled as google.com, which he found to be available. Larry liked the name, and within hours he took the step of registering the name google.com for himself and Sergey” (italics in the original) (Pacea 94).
Thus, the word “google” went from the original spelling to, perhaps by mistake, an alternate spelling, and then, by mistake, it reverted back to its original spelling. Google, Incorporated has its headquarters in Mountain View, California, and, in homage to Sirotta and Kasner, they call the campus on which the company is headquartered by the pun “Googleplex.”
Googleplexing in style.
Postscript: The Barney Google comic strip is still in existence but under a different name. In the comic story, Barney Google was a city-slicker who gambled on the horses and got himself into trouble with his wife and other gamblers. Eventually, he ventured to western North Carolina where he met and hid out with a family led by Snuffy and Louise (Loweezy) Smith. Google stayed there through the 1940s and into 1950 before he returned to the city and was written out of the strip except for infrequent cameos. That cartoon strip is now called “Snuffy Smith.”
Barney and Snuffy collaborate on a moonshine operation.
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.
Knowing this, should we be surprised that The Onion has already covered the horror of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre? Here is…
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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.
This distinguished thinker from Pulaski, Tennessee was a poet, essayist, editor, and professor known for both depth and levity.
Below are a three of his humorous poems.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
A raindrop from
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.
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:
Bee, why are you
staring at me?
I’m not a flower!
The earth winked
In the john
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.
John 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.
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.