Dick Van Dyke celebrated his 90th birthday this past December 13, the way most nonagenarians do – by participating in a flash mob. Fitting for a man whose career is peppered with characters of youthful, childlike vision. In his impressive, 70-plus-year career he’s amassed five Emmys, a Tony and a Grammy.
Van Dyke got his start on radio and quickly moved to the stage. In 1959 he snagged the lead in Bye Bye Birdie, a role he reprised for the 1963 film. Other films followed including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Divorce American Style, but it was the 1964 Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins that gave birth to his most remembered film roll, as Bert the chimney sweep. Continue reading →
Colonel Blimp is a pompous character created by British cartoonist David Low. Entering the English language in 1937, by definition, a “Colonel Blimp” or just “Blimp” is an ultra-conservative, pompous individual. It can also be used as an adjective to describe what someone has said as in, “I can’t believe he made that Colonel Blimp statement.”
Colonel Blimp is a bald, red-faced, mustachioed, man with considerable girth. In fact, his surname is derived from the shape of his body. And, like the dirigible, both the blimp and Colonel Blimp are full of hot air.
The word “blimp” first came into existence when dirigible airships were first produced. The word is onomatopoetic in that it is the sound that is made when the gasbag is thumped with the thumb; no word on whether the same can be said for thumping the colonel. In literature, if “blimp” is spelled in the lower case, it refers to the airship; if it is capitalized, it refers to the colonel.
Typically, Colonel Blimp is depicted in a spa or gym as the character is a part of the leisure class in Britain. Thus, it is assumed that when he makes pronouncements about how aggressive the British military should be, readers know that neither he nor his offspring will have to fight those battles. He is also depicted as nearly naked which coincides with the uninhibited nature of his wisdom. And, like his physique, his viewpoints can be ugly.
Colonel Blimps have existed as long as humanity. That may be why the term has at least 44 synonyms. In the United States we are dealing with our own 21st century Colonel Blimp as we watch our electoral catastrophe spiral out of control. And while our Colonel Blimp makes for great sound bites and outstanding political cartoons, it would probably be better for our country if the politicians were more responsible, and the cartoonists had to look elsewhere for fodder.
This cartoon by Bill Bramhall suggests that after 80 years, nothing really changes.
While I am currently working on political ideology on entertainment television in the 1970s, I do enjoy watching more contemporary television as well. Often, however, I am struck by how apolitical network television entertainment today is compared to the 1970s. In fact, the 1970s constitute a very peculiar period in network television. Especially comedies reveled in a new politically relevant humor, and the ratings ensured them leeway. But by the 1980s, the proliferation and weight of a wide array of interest groups had hampered the comedic freedom. Modern Family recently spent a story arch on Claire (Julie Bowen), one of the main characters, running for city council. Yet, her partisan alignment was never identified. This tactic is quite common in an industry that strives for as wide an audience as possible. There are few, if any, upsides in offending parts of your audience with partisan identification.
This is why I was so surprised to come across an episode of the ABC sitcom Black-ish revolving entirely around the idea of the Black Republican. The episode starts with Dre (Anthony Anderson) stipulating facts of life, including:
“Black people aren’t Republicans, we just aren’t. We vote for Democrats. And it’s not just an Obama thing […] black people also overwhelmingly backed this guy [photo of Dukakis in a tank], this guy [photo of Al Gore kissing Hillary Clinton], hell 91% of black people voted for this guy [photo of Walter Mondale holding boxing gloves]. Fact: 91% of Walter Mondale’s family didn’t vote for Walter Mondale. Sure, the other side may trot out a token black face every now and again, but the fact of the matter is being a black Republican is something we just don’t do.”
The show often deals with perceived cultural differences between black Americans and white Americans, Continue reading →
To “celebrate” the Iowa Caucuses, we present Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate.” In light of the sometimes depressing spectacle of the primary season, it is nice to see Twain’s refreshing candor. Here it is, from June 1879:
I have pretty much rkde up my mind to run for president. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.
In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me, I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the Battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer, because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded, my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.
My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.
The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?
I admit also that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be, “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.”
These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.
Engraving based on an 1879 photograph.
This Saturday (January 29th) would be his 89th birthday if he were still with us. Sadly, he took his own life with a handgun in 1984. He was 49 years old.
Brautigan’s poems are terse, highly conceptual (some of his abstract metaphors border on synesthesia), and often marked by his famously quirky gallows humor.
His unconventional verses resonate with me, but not with everyone. Here are a few. Decide for yourself:
The Mortuary Bush
Mr. William Lewis is an undertaker
and he hasn’t been feeling very good
lately because not enough people are
Mr. Lewis is buying a new house
and a new car and many appliances
on the installment plan and he needs
all the money he can get.
Mr. Lewis has headaches and can’t
sleep at night and his wife says,
“Bill, what’s wrong?” and he says,
“Oh, nothing, honey,” but at night
he can’t sleep.
He lies awake in bed and wishes
that more people would die.
— Richard Brautigan
Romeo and Juliet
If you will die for me,
I will die for you
and our graves will
be like two lovers washing
their clothes together
in a Laundromat.
If you will bring the soap,
I will bring the bleach.
— Richard Brautigan
The Donner Party
Forsaken, fucking in the cold,
eating each other, lost, runny noses,
complaining all the time like so
many people that we know.
— Richard Brautigan
15 Stories in One Poem
I hate to bother you,
but I just dropped
a baby out the window
and it fell 15 stories
and splattered against
May I borrow a mop?
— Richard Brautigan
A Cigarette Butt
A cigarette butt is not a pretty
It is not like the towering trees,
the green meadows, or the for-
It is not like a gentle fawn, a
singing bird, or a hopping
But these are all gone now,
And in the forest’s place is a
Blackened world of charred trees
and rotting flesh—
The remnants of another forrest
A cigarette but is not a pretty
— Richard Brautigan
Critical Can Opener
There is something wrong
with this poem. Can you find it?
— Richard Brautigan
She tries to get things out of men
that she can’t get because she’s not
— Richard Brautigan
Potatoes await like edible shadows
under the ground. They wait in
their darkness for the light of
— Richard Brautigan
He wants to build you a house
out of your own bones, but
that’s where you’re living
The next time he calls
you answer the telephone with the
sound of your grandmother being
born. It was a twenty-three-hour
labor in 1894. He hangs
— Richard Brautigan
This poem was found written on a paper bag by Richard Brautigan in a laundromat in San Francisco. The author is unknown.
By accident, you put
Your money in my
By accident, I put
My money in another
On purpose, I put
Your clothes in the
Empty machine full
Of water and no
It was lonely.
Last April, Tracy Wuster posted the announcement of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, which went to Eddie Murphy for 2015. He stated that Murphy’s “brilliance as a comic is unquestionable, and his influence on American comedy is clear.” He also asserted that some of Murphy’s work has not “held up.” Both comments are true. The focus for this post is not, however, on some of the films that might have been ill-chosen, but on his early stand up work, particularly the HBO Special Raw (1987). Murphy was (and is) representative of a 1980s cultural group of African American comedians heavily influenced by earlier comics like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, who pushed the envelope of “acceptable” language, theme, and content in humor. Their popularity demonstrated that they found an audience appreciative of the choices they made in their stand up acts. I’d like to use this essay to look at humor’s (particularly stand-up’s) dependence upon the current cultural moment for audience acceptance and appreciation.
While scholars and fans of humor will agree that some settings and/or jokes are universally accepted—the fart joke from Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” comes to mind here—other humorous productions rely heavily on the contemporary news, current politics or social situations as the nub of the joke, and thus have a much shorter shelf life. Times change, social foci shift, and what one generation finds hilarious falls flat in the next. Nowhere is this more obvious than in stand up comedy. Stand up, with its live audience and face-to-face interaction between comedian and audience foreground the contemporary social and political situation for the meat of its humor. In order to be a successful stand up comic, one needs to be able to “read” the cultural moment and gauge the audience’s engagement with issues: Who are they? What do they know about current events? How do these events affect them and their lives? What is their class, race, gender, political affiliation? And, most importantly, how far can a comedian go in depicting what he or she sees as necessitating change? For the length of the show—whether that be four minutes or two hours, the successful stand up comic must connect with the audience on a personal level; otherwise, the jokes don’t work.
Anyone who teaches humor can tell you that this “principle” of contemporaneity becomes obvious early on in the classroom. Since I teach at a Jesuit university, my students tend to be on the conservative side, grade driven middle- to upper-middle class students, and perhaps their reaction is a bit more vehement than at other schools, but in teaching Raw, which I consider to be a landmark in stand up comedy of the eighties, I need to spend a great deal of time setting up a cultural context for this early HBO special. The draw for comedians particularly in HBO’s early specials was the fact that because they were a subscription television offering, they were less tied to the standards for language and gesture than material shown on “free” TV. Comedians like Murphy tested the boundaries of the allowable, and his target audience accepted his choices without question, finding them funny. In other words, they saw humor in not just the material, but also the testing. Contemporary audiences, without the context, often only find it offensive.
This is the major concern for any stand up comedian and may explain why so few have long, successful careers in live audience humor venues. Those of us who remember when Raw was new and the Saturday Night Live skits Eddie Murphy did as “Buckwheat”, Eddie Murphy’s more recent work in film seem to be a departure from the earlier work. This is to be expected. Pushing the envelope in humor gave way in the wake of the political correctness movement, and audiences were less willing to accept any humor that denigrated or offended anyone. As a successful humorist, Murphy constantly reassessed his audience, the cultural situation, and his own strengths, and in doing so, shifted his work to reflect these changes. He does little stand up work these days, and has focused his attention on comedic film, allowing him to use another of his talents—creation of comedic characters.
What becomes clear as we look at his career is just how savvy Murphy has been at reading the social trends and adjusting his comedy to reflect them. Even as Raw was playing on HBO—and selling well as video—in 1987, Eddie Murphy was shifting his milieu of choice to film. Early comic roles in Trading Places (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984, 1987) and Coming to America (1988) brought him access to a wider, more general audience, and he tailored the comedy to reflect the change. While he still made use of four-letter words, we see less emphasis on them and more on his comedic use of vocal, dialect and language cues. The audience shifts again in the 1990s to films like The Nutty Professor (1996 and 2000) a remake of Jerry Lewis’s film from 1963 with a primarily African American cast; Dr. Dolittle (1998, 2001), another remake of Rex Harrison’s film (1967)., and Daddy Daycare (2003). This allowed for PG ratings and a yet wider audience.
Success in these genre and media shifts came from his talent for vocal imitation (impressionism) and ability to play multiple characters in the same film. While he sometimes still does these impressions and plays multiple characters, the 21st century sees Murphy much more active in voice-over only children’s animated films such as the Shrek series of films, (2001, 2004, 2007, 2010) and Norbit (2007).
Stand up comedy tends to be a young man’s game (and I do mean “man”, women’s stand up has an even shorter shelf life). Very few comedians can sustain a career in this medium. This is partly because of the physical strain of traveling to venues around the country, and partly because once a comedian finds an audience and theme, making the shift to other media or other thematic content becomes too difficult. The only stand up comic I can think of to sustain a forty year career is George Carlin, another Mark Twain Prize winner.
So, why did Eddie Murphy receive the Mark Twain Prize for Humor last year, and why didn’t humor scholars complain this past year? He won the prize for his talent as a comedian, but even more so because of his talent, his ability to read the cultural weather, and the ability to adapt his comedic style to the immediate cultural moment. Eddie is still making films (Beverly Hills Cop 4, Triplets, and Mr. Church are announced for this coming year). It will be interesting to see where he goes from here. I may try the “Buckwheat” skits from SNL next time I teach the course…but of course that will necessitate explaining about the Little Rascals from the 1940s and how that differs from the 2014 film.
Bowie released his final album, Blackstar, two days prior, on his 69th birthday. It is clear now the album was intended to be his swan song, a final statement in an unparalleled career. The fact he was able to conceal his terminal condition from the world in order to orchestrate such a graceful exit proves his consummate artistry and mastery of perception to the very, literal, end.
Blackstar is a deathbed testament along the lines of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” or Freddie Mercury’s thinly veiled Innuendo. There is little humor on Blackstar, but David Bowie, who was never satisfied to stay in one artistic place for long, threaded his unique sense of humor throughout his wildly diverse work.
This humor was in full display one May morning in 1999 when he delivered the commencement speech to the graduating class at Berklee College of Music, having received an honorary doctorate from the institution (along with jazz master Wayne Shorter).
I was fortunate enough to be in the audience that spring day, and I shook Mr. Bowie’s hand as he handed me my diploma. “Congratulations, man,” he said to me, pulling me into his fierce grip with a solid, sincere stare, locking our eyes for a tangible moment. He wasn’t just going through the motions with limp disinterest – he forged an intense connection with each of the 580 music students he greeted that morning. His energy was electric.
His speech that day was insightful, incongruous, inspirational and, above all, funny. He talked of the myriad of influences that helped shape his artistry.
What if you combined Brecht-Weill musical drama with rhythm and blues? What happens if you transplant the French chanson with the Philly sound? Will Schoenberg lie comfortably with Little Richard?…And then I went on a crusade, I suppose, to change the kind of information that rock music contained. I adored Coltrane, Harry Parch, Eric Dolphy, Velvet Underground, John Cage, Sonny Stitt. Unfortunately, I also loved Anthony Newley, Florence Foster Jenkins, Johnnie Ray, Julie London, the legendary Stardust Cowboy, Edith Piaf and Shirley Bassey.
It made perfect sense to me.
This was followed by an anecdote about a dive club, Dame Shirley Bassey and a sink.
As a musician, he knew his imagination would have to transcend his own limitations. He fully confessed – standing in front of Wayne Shorter, no less – that he simply lacked the authenticity required to play the music he loved most: American jazz and rhythm & blues.
So he made his music into art.
I didn’t feel comfortable as a folk singer or an R&B singer or a balladeer. I was drawn more and more to the idea of manipulation of signs, rather than individual expression…It wasn’t so much about how I felt about things, but rather, how things around me felt. To put it simply, I had discovered the Englishman’s true place in rock and roll.
The rest of his speech that day was peppered with his enormous sense of humor: tips on venereal disease, inside music school jokes (“Rockers! Jazzers! Samplers!”), anecdotes involving Brian Eno, John Lennon and the aforementioned Shirley Bassey – and his even bigger generosity of spirit.
The world has lost a giant, and the stars look very different today indeed.
Music has given me over 40 years of extraordinary experiences. I can’t say that life’s pains or more tragic episodes have been diminished because of it. But it’s allowed me so many moments of companionship when I’ve been lonely and a sublime means of communication when I wanted to touch people. It’s been both my doorway of perception and the house that I live in.
I only hope that it embraces you with the same lusty life force that it graciously offered me. Thank you very much and remember, if it itches, play it.
Photographs of Gertrude Stein are typically humorless.
Take this almost stern-looking image of her at work or this one with her Baltimore friends, Etta and Claribel Cone, who later visited Stein in Paris and were inspired, through her, to bring the remarkably large and impressive Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art of Cubist and Impressionist art to Baltimore.
Or this famous Picasso portrait of the author, which seems to capture the pensiveness and glumness of her era.
Even Kathy Bates’s portrayal of Stein in Woody Allen’s well-timed comedy Midnight in Paris is one of the least funny impersonations in the film.
Yet her poetry is nowhere near this sober.
Below is a short appreciation of a few of her poems. Like conceptual art, they create meaning through grammatical disorientation, repetition, and odd angles. And like conceptual art, their strangeness can really make a reader mad unless that reader is prepared, as very few museum-goers are, to find this all amusing and then begin to dissect the puzzle.
Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art:
And as you read you may also wonder (my students often do) whether this writing is nothing more than pretentious word vomit––a clever if silly mind game––or does it contain pleasant, even human levity–even a touch of soul.
Does the humor, if it’s there, come from our own ability to laugh at ourselves, having discovered through her poetry that we are too precious about and at the same time not careful enough about language? Should we feel serious about overturned grammar, or should we feel playful about it, or both? Should we laugh at repetition or feel that it’s meaningful, or both?
Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art:
Nearly seventy years after her death, this kind of poetry is rich with the heaviness of her time: world wars; gender prejudice, even from those she mentored and guided; anti-semitism–even perhaps her own self-directed variety; stark inequalities between classes; and perhaps understandably bleak, bleak views of life among artists. Although her words carry this heritage and the mark of her time, she breaks open language and almost seems to free it from its literal certitudes. In this respect she is like Emily Dickinson; both were masters of language, yet in their baffling play, they almost seem to prefer giddiness and silence.
Image of Gertrude Stein’s deceptively dreary home while studying as a medical student in Baltimore:
Gertrude Stein, “Susie Asado” from Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. (New York: Peter Smith Publishing, 1992). Copyright © 1992 by Calman A. Levin, Executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein. Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.
Source: The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry Third Edition (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2003)
A Substance in a Cushion
The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.
Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men. Does this change. It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.
A cushion has that cover. Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clean that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange. Come to season that is there any extreme use in feather and cotton. Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them.
A circle of fine card board and a chance to see a tassel.
What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it. The question does not come before there is a quotation. In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense. It shows what use there is in a whole piece if one uses it and it is extreme and very likely the little things could be dearer but in any case there is a bargain and if there is the best thing to do is to take it away and wear it and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning gratitude.
Light blue and the same red with purple makes a change. It shows that there is no mistake. Any pink shows that and very likely it is reasonable. Very likely there should not be a finer fancy present. Some increase means a calamity and this is the best preparation for three and more being together. A little calm is so ordinary and in any case there is sweetness and some of that.
A seal and matches and a swan and ivy and a suit.
A closet, a closet does not connect under the bed. The band if it is white and black, the band has a green string. A sight a whole sight and a little groan grinding makes a trimming such a sweet singing trimming and a red thing not a round thing but a white thing, a red thing and a white thing.
The disgrace is not in carelessness nor even in sewing it comes out out of the way.
What is the sash like. The sash is not like anything mustard it is not like a same thing that has stripes, it is not even more hurt than that, it has a little top.
A Little Called Pauline
A little called anything shows shudders.
Come and say what prints all day. A whole few watermelon. There is no pope.
No cut in pennies and little dressing and choose wide soles and little spats really little spices.
A little lace makes boils. This is not true.
Gracious of gracious and a stamp a blue green white bow a blue green lean, lean on the top.
If it is absurd then it is leadish and nearly set in where there is a tight head.
A peaceful life to arise her, noon and moon and moon. A letter a cold sleeve a blanket a shaving house and nearly the best and regular window.
Nearer in fairy sea, nearer and farther, show white has lime in sight, show a stitch of ten. Count, count more so that thicker and thicker is leaning.
I hope she has her cow. Bidding a wedding, widening received treading, little leading mention nothing.
Cough out cough out in the leather and really feather it is not for.
Please could, please could, jam it not plus more sit in when.
While it’s a common complaint that holiday traditions and stories have become too commercialized, this beloved tale actually began as a commercial gimmick.
Robert May created the concept of a misfit reindeer in 1939 at the behest of his employer, the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago. Ward’s had traditionally given a free coloring book to children at holiday time. That year, store executives decided it would be more cost-effective to create an original children’s book in-house. They didn’t know exactly what they wanted, but had the notion it should be an animal story with a main character like Ferdinand the Bull. They gave Robert May, a 35 year-old Jewish copywriter, the project because he was known for his witty impromptu party limericks. As creative and well-suited to penning this poem as May was, the timing couldn’t have been worse. His young wife was dying of cancer, most of his meager salary was going to her medical treatments, and he had a four year-old daughter, Barbara to raise. Several months into the manuscript, May’s wife died, and his boss offered to take the project off his hands. By then attached to the work-in-progress, May refused to let it go. He continued to work on the story by night, using Barbara as a sounding board.
When he first presented his concept, it fell flat with the corporate executives who pointed out that bulbous red noses were associated with alcoholism. Not willing to relent, May convinced his friend and coworker, illustrator Denver Gillen, to create an adorable, child-friendly character. After a number of research trips to the Lincoln Park Zoo, the story came to life in pictures, and Montgomery Ward gave the project the green light. (Click here to view that original, handwritten, illustrated manuscript.) The first year, more than two million copies Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were handed out and the public fell in love with the story. The verses best come to life when read aloud, as in the video below.
Although the story of Rudolph was “work for hire,” and therefore belonged to Montgomery Ward, the corporation allowed the rights to the intellectual property to revert to Robert May after he fell upon hard financial times. His brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks then wrote new verses for the story, set it to music, persuaded Gene Autry to record it, and it became a hit. The song’s success paved the way for many more commercially successful ventures including the 1964 animated TV special starring Burl Ives.
Robert May eventually remarried a coworker, converted to Catholicism, and had five more children. He left Montgomery Ward because managing Rudolph became a lucrative full-time job. May died in 1976, but his Christmas story lives on. True to the song, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer has, indeed, gone down in history!