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Humor, Irony and Modern Native American Poetry

February 28, 2015
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Some poetry for your Saturday evening.

Originally posted on Humor in America:

By: Caroline Zarlengo Sposto

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

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

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

H.I.A.:

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Editor’s Chair: Looking for New Contributing Editor and a Short-Term Poetry Editor(plus News & Conference CFPs from the AHSA!)

February 24, 2015
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Tracy Wuster

 

We here at Humor in America are looking to fill two posts: a Contributing Editor to write for us on a regular basis and a short-term Poetry Editor to write for 2-3 months.  The Contributing Editor would write once every eight weeks on a topic of their choosing–some editors like having a topic (i.e. “music,” “poetry,” “comics,” etc.) and some prefer winging it on whatever subject seems topical to them (i.e. Brian Williams, Hal Holbrooktelevision shows, risky humor, or Charlie Hebdo…and here and here).  In the short term, we are looking for someone to write two or three posts on poetry for the next few months while our poetry editor is on leave.  Any humorous poetry is fine–from any period.  The first post could go as early as Friday or Saturday, then once per month after that.

If you are interested in either of these, please let me know at wustert@gmail.com

*In other humor studies news, the American Humor Studies Association has a new website design, as does their journal Studies in American Humor.  I designed them both. Kudos will be accepted; critiques pondered.


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*On those sites you will find exciting opportunities, such as the ability to purchase the newest special issue of Studies:“MAD MAGAZINE AND ITS LEGACIES” (click for Table of Contents).  The cost is $20 for the issue, or a discount of $18 when you join the AHSA for this year.

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*Speaking of special issues, on the journal page you will find a list of all past and upcoming special issues, including the call for papers for an upcoming issue:

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.  See link for more.

*Also upcoming are a number of conferences, including the ISHS 25th anniversary in Oakland, CA; MLA in Austin, TX; and SAMLA in Durham, NC.  You should check out the announcement here.

*Another piece of exciting news is that the whole back run of Studies in American Humor is on Jstor.  See all the Table of Contents and first pages here.

*If you have announcements from other societies or for CFPs or any other news, send them to Tracy Wuster at wustert@gmail.com

*And since the Emmys and Oscars snubbed Joan Rivers in their In Memoriam segments, here is a small tribute:

Joan Rivers picture in memoriam

The King of Cool and the King of the Road

February 19, 2015

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Dean Martin and Roger Miller may seem an unlikely pair at first, but the two entertainers were quite similar in many ways. They both possessed an inviting, conversational vocal style, a sharp, playful wit, a natural ability at improvisation and an endless supply of humor and charm.

Roger Miller was a country music superstar who achieved cross-over commercial success with infectious masterpieces like “King of the Road” and “Dang Me.” Martin was a pop and film icon who had a sincere affection for country music and recorded several country albums, beginning with 1963’s Country Style. Dino even covered a few Roger Miller songs.

Here’s a clip of these two flip sides of the same coin in a sketch from The Dean Martin Show about fishing, drinking and a “Dang Me” duet. And just as Dean Martin could wrap himself around a heartfelt ballad with the best of the crooners, so too did Roger Miller have a gift for poignant ballads. The clip closes with Miller singing his masterful “Husbands and Wives” at Dino’s request.

Roger Miller made four appearances on The Dean Martin Show between 1966-68. Here they meet up in Season 1 for some humorous wordplay. Miller calls out for a number, Martin answers with 21, and the two begin to seemingly write a song on the spot. (Of course the song, “Got 2 Again,” had already been written and recorded by Miller – the record begins by Miller calling out for “a number between 20 and 22” – released as the B-side to “Dang Me.” But why spoil the fun?)

 

Happy 90th Birthday Hal Holbrook!

February 17, 2015
by

Tracy Wuster

Today marks the 90th birthday of Hal Holbrook–the man who has been Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain.  In his honor, I am rerunning a post from several years ago.  For more on Holbrook’s career, see Mark Dawidziak’s columns on Holbrook adding new material here and by the numbers here.  And information on a documentary well worth seeing here.

I did not mention in the original post my experience seeing Holbrook perform as Mark Twain.  As a scholar who studied Mark Twain’s performance, I was skeptical about seeing Holbrook–not because he is anything less than respected but because his version of Mark Twain is a different version than the one I studied.  Holbrook’s Mark Twain is the older, wiser, white-suited-er version.  The 1860s and 1870s version who lectured on platforms and lyceums across the country and in England was a different figure.  So I wanted to get a mental image of that man in my grasp before seeing Holbrook.

I can’t remember the exact circumstances of the evening–my wife suffers through enough Mark Twain in editing and reading and living with me, so she was not there.  And the tickets were more money than we had to spend easily, being end-stage Ph.D. candidates.  I sat in the beautiful Paramount Theater in Austin, notepad in hand, ready to be skeptical, thinking, “I know Mark Twain as a performer.  Let’s see what you got, Holbrook.”

He awed me.  In the end, my notes were mostly empty.  I laughed.  I was moved.  A passage of Huck Finn I had taught and read a dozen times unfurled in a whole new light.  He did pretty well.

If you have the chance, go see Hal Holbrook perform as Mark Twain–he is performing tonight, on his 90th birthday.

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Hal has performed the character of Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens.  Much has been written and said about the importance of Mark Twain Tonight! and Hal’s performance as Mark Twain (not to mention his other wonderful acting work).

I want to offer my own story of meeting Mr. Holbrook in Elmira at the 6th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (which should be renamed, “Mark Twain Summer Camp,” in my humble opinion).  For a graduate student, Mark Twain Summer Camp already meant meeting top scholars in the field–rock stars, if you will (if you are a nerd, that is).  But Hal Holbrook is as big a star as you will find for Mark Twain fans, unless the man himself were to appear.

I was convinced that my panel would be empty, as it was scheduled opposite that panel at which Mark Dawidziak would be discussing “Mark Twain Tonight!” with Hal Holbrook in the audience.  I was thus shocked and delighted when Lou Budd walked into my panel just as I began to give my paper (causing me to lose my place for a moment).  For Twain scholars, you can’t get much more important than Lou Budd.

Hal Holbrook Speaking at Mark Twain Summer Camp

Photo Courtesy Patrick Ober

This video is the audio of Hal Holbrook’s brief remarks at the conference.  Recorded by Patrick Ober and combined with images from the beautiful campus of Elmira College.

I had witnessed first hand the star power of Hal Holbrook the night before.  After a full day of conferencing, I  meandered down toward the evening’s banquet a bit early.  In front of the building I found Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Hal Holbrook quietly talking.  Shelley introduced me to Hal and mentioned I lived in Austin.  As Hal began to say something, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of scholars who had been momentarily possessed by the spirit of teenagers at a concert when they spot the band backstage.  That is to say, I was elbowed out of the way by a gray-haired college professor who had been star struck.

Hal was now surrounded by a group of admirers jostling for his attention.  In my memory of the event, they are waving pictures for him to sign and taking photos with old-fashioned flash cameras.  My memory may not be exact.  As I stood there awkwardly outside of circle, a momentary gap opened and Hal said to me, as if our conversation had not interrupted:

“I was in Austin recently.”

I replied:  “I know.  I saw you perform.”

“When was that?”

I pondered a moment.  “Spring.”

“What is it now?”

“Summer.”

“Sounds about right.”

And then Hal was engulfed by the adoring crowd of academics-turned-teenager.

The following night, the conference ended with a party at Quarry Farm, the summer house of the Langdon and Clemens family.  I experienced another nerdy rockstar moment.  While talking with Tom Quirk–no slouch of a Twain scholar himself–Lou Budd walked up and mistook me for a waiter.  I will leave the story he told in explanation to his mistake out here, but it more than made up for any confusion.

After a wonderful dinner and a tour of the house, many people made the trek up the hill to the spot where Twain’s octagonal study sat.  There are moments in one’s life that you know you will tell stories about for years–maybe 5 or 10 or even 20–but there are few stories you know, at the time, that you will tell for the rest of your life.  For those of us who walked up the hill at Quarry Farm to the spot of Mark Twain’s study to smoke cigars, to sing songs, and to listen to Hal Holbrook tell stories, there is no doubt of the fact.

A heck of a time, then, to test out the video function of my new camera.  I wasn’t even sure it recorded in sound… but it did and in pretty good sound, too.  Since a number of people couldn’t hear Hal speak, or were on the porch playing music, I have posted the below clips of his story of meeting Clara (and Isabel Lyon).  I stopped recording as he described his heartbreaking meeting with Nina, which seems fitting in retrospect.  I hope you enjoy.
Click to see videos.
Part 1–“So watch out!”
Part 2–“I don’t know if it would book very well…”
Part 3–“Clara was so dear to me, very sweet…”
Joe Csicsilla lighting Hal Holbrook’s Cigar
Photo by Tracy Wuster
(c) Tracy Wuster, 2012, 2015

Fake News Fallout: Brian Williams and American Humor

February 12, 2015
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This just in: Brian Williams created the Internet. No, wait. That was Al Gore. It is all so confusing. One thing I am sure of, however, is that Brian Williams’s job as the anchor for NBC News is over. I hate for that to have happened, but I also must confess that I NEVER watched him on NBC News. Never. I do not watch any other nightly news program either. What for? I have the Internet, which Brian Williams created.

Brian Williams has been caught for being loose with the facts regarding his direct involvement with any number of stories. “Being loose with the facts” means that he has lied. He lied, though our culture prefers not to say such things when it comes to media figures and politicians. They misremember or somehow lose the details in the fog of war, fog of work, fog of aging, fog of hyper-saturated media consumption. Or, really, fog of ego.

Here is a fact: once a news correspondent, especially the anchor for a network news program, has opened him or herself up to ridicule for lying, it is over. Far more people than cared one way or another beforehand are ready to shout to the top of their lungs that television news must be preserved as a beacon of truth and dignity! The News must be preserved! Off with his head! We cannot tolerate such a challenge to the integrity of the television news media! One needs only to scan the memes created to mock his integrity to see how much damage has been done. Note this screenshot for a simple Google image search for “Brian Williams memes”:

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Here is where I should elaborate and write about how the integrity of television news media has never been pristine, but I will avoid that for two reasons: I don’t want to spend the time, and neither do you. So, let’s just settle that point by nodding to the best satire of the so-called integrity of network news and consider it “enough said” on this question: Network, the wonderful film released in 1976, which, I think, was directed by Brian Williams, who was, ironically, shot in the leg during production. That’s how I remember it, anyway. Who can be sure?

Here is the real problem regarding Brian Williams: he likes talking about himself. That is his fatal flaw. But he is also a major figure in television news who now provides a valuable symbol for how journalists–post Gonzo, post Watergate, post Cable, post Internet, and, alas, post Cronkite–can only “report” the news if they see themselves as a crucial “part “of the news. “Here I am doing something active and immersive, as I tell you what’s happening…” Journalists are tourists forever showing us not the story behind the story but the story behind them, seemingly all forced by competition and bottom-line economics to perform and be seen rather than to provide NEWS. The narrative I instead of the reporting eye. Ah, but that ship sailed long ago. Again, Network tells us all we need to know about that.

Read more…

Risk vs. Reward: When are Jokes too Risky?

February 10, 2015

The “reward” for humor is obvious—the payback for the humorist is when the audience laughs. The payback for the audience is also the laugh—it brightens an otherwise difficult day, relaxes as the laughter happens, and lets an audience leave the show, piece, or joke a bit happier than they were before. However, being the humorist is not without risk. What induces laughter in one person can offend another—this has been the legacy of humor since ancient times. Thus, those to whom humor is a profession must walk a fine line between taking a risk and reaping a reward.

Mark Twain found this out during his Whittier Birthday speech, delivered on 17 December 1877. In the speech, he told a story about four drunken miners whom he described such that without doubt, the characters referred to Whittier, the guest of honor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—often described as the “Boston Brahmins.” The joke fell through, and Twain was embarrassed by the reactions of the audience and the public when the speeches were published in the Boston Globe the following day. The Cincinnati Commercial asserted that Twain “lacked the instincts of a gentleman,” and even in the less conservative West the Rocky Mountain News called the speech “offensive to every intelligent reader.” Twain published an abject apology a week later, and even after 25 years the criticism still stung. Sometimes parodying a cultural icon is just too risky.

Twain’s 1877 faux pas illustrates just how difficult it is to gauge an audience’s reaction to material that the artist considers humorous. At this year’s Modern Language Association in Vancouver, three fine presenters delivered papers on the topic of “Comic Dimensions and Variety of Risk.” Jennifer Santos read her paper on Holocaust jokes in Epstein’s King of the Jews, Roberta Wolfson presented on the Canadian television show, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and John Lowe read his essay on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Each presenter focused the talk on reception of the humor and the acceptable amount of risk a comedian or humorist can take and still reap the “reward” of laughter. Aside from hearing three wonderful examinations on a variety of humorous subjects, this panel generated discussion of the broader issue of risk versus reward every purveyor of humor must determine for any written or spoken performance. Who is allowed to joke about possibly sensitive events? From whom are we willing to accept a joke that takes a risk of offending?

Read more…

Charlie and Louie: An Affair of Two Magazines, Two Cities, and Too Many Questions

January 31, 2015

Je suis Charlie Hebdo, et aussi Michel Brown, et aussi Darren Wilson et aussi… As Teresa Prados-Torreira recently observed in this space, the last month has seen an international slurry of reactions to the Charlie Hebdo Massacre from outraged officials, scampering journalists, erstwhile academics, dedicated peace-keepers, and, of course, the international community of artists, cartoonists, and satirists. Prados-Torreira astutely summarizes in her 20 January post, “at first glance, it seems obvious that the answer to this dilemma should be a wholehearted affirmation of the need to stand in solidarity with the French magazine, with the murdered cartoonists, and in support of free speech. But the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, their irreverent depiction of Mohammed and Muslims, have resulted in a cascade of critical essays online and elsewhere.”

Many have since noted that, for interpreters within and beyond French culture, the magazine’s scabrous treatment of all things sacred and sanctified could be labelled either courageous or irresponsible depending upon personal preference. One thing is certain, though, Charlie Hebdo was rarely, if ever, about discretion. Even more interestingly, a new angle on the extensive media coverage of the attacks has taken shape that inquires as to why the tragic murder of several talented artists has become, either incidentally or on purpose, a larger global issue and a much more public and popular rallying point than the rampant cruelties taking place in Nigeria involving Boko Haram?

Even more interestingly, we have to admit that slander, satire, and ridicule of Arabs, Muslims, and Islam are hardly rare in America mainstream culture. Consider the skirmishes that erupted over the years surrounding Johnny Hart’s abuse of Islamic and Judaic symbols in several episodes of his comic strip, B.C., especially the “potty humor” episode that fused the sacred icons of Islam with the half-moon of an outhouse door. Is this not Charlie Hebdo territory? With the rhetorical avalanche surrounding Charlie Hebdo just beginning to settle, we might wonder if any more discussion could possibly serve to alleviate the tension, fear, and uncertainty that has seemingly spread across an outraged global public.

It’s a very fair question, but instead, I would like use the terror attacks in France, and their subsequent influence, to explore a few more local and personal concerns about the deploying of satire, the power of cartoons, and the often unexpected inaccuracies of visual wit. Since the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices, there have been several inspiring statements of solidarity and strength in support of free speech and equal opportunity insult, most notably including the great public demonstrations in Paris, throughout France, and across the world.

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Can there ever be a more heartening and honest sign that humor – especially in its most relentless, hostile form – deserves our attention, respect, and scrutiny? There have also been a wide variety of high profile reactions and commentaries throughout the intellectual honeycomb of bloggers, critics, and scholars. Much has been made of Joe Sacco’s somewhat disappointing Guardian catechism “On Satire.” Important statements have also arisen from doyens of provocative comics including Art Spiegelman, Keith Knight (who produced two suitably irreverent texts from very different perspectives), and Steve Benson, among many, many others. Scholars also have contributed valuable and sometimes revelatory insight into the complex legacy of French cartooning and its contribution to both Charlie Hebdo’s editorial policies and the violent reactions that it frequently instigated. Bart Beaty and Mark McKinney have offered reasoned and informative assessments that went largely ignored in the media frenzy following the attacks. Even richer and more comprehensive studies of the violent potential of editorial cartooning have also arisen from astute historians like Paul Tumey and Jeffrey Trexler. Cartoonists, of course, have been at the vanguard of the fight for freedom of speech, recognition, and reaction. From the very moment that news of the attack broke in France, powerful responses like this one were quickly finding their way around the world’s webs.

The translation is simply ."The ducks will always fly higher than the bullets." This seems a fitting commentary on everyone's natural right to free speech, peaceful tolerance, and artistic expression but for the French reader, as I have come to understand it,  the cartoon also includes sly references to the enduring poignancy of journalism and the relative pointlessness of murder, terror, censorship, and repression.  As far as I know, this cartoon comes from the first wave of responses to the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

The translation is simply, “The ducks will always fly higher than the guns.” This seems a fitting commentary on everyone’s natural right to free speech, peaceful tolerance, and artistic expression but for the French reader, as I have come to understand it, the cartoon also includes sly references to the enduring poignancy of journalism and the relative pointlessness of murder, terror, censorship, and repression. As far as I know, this cartoon comes from the first wave of responses to the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

Read more…

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