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Notes from the SHREW Rehearsal

April 17, 2014

I’m giving Poetry a rest today in order to share an insightful, humor-related blog post by Dan McCleary, Founder and Producing Artistic Director of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company. (This article was originally published on Broadwayworld.com.)

***

Dan McCleary

Dan McCleary

I was once speaking over the phone with a man I had never met in person, yet he had given every indication to me that he bordered on lunacy. He rambled and ranted, but as he approached the end of his one-way conversation he offered to me that, in the end between two people in a relationship, what truly mattered was that they were able to laugh at the same things.

Foolishly, as things unfolded later in life, I did not consider this deeply enough at the time it was shared with me. Shakespeare‘s madmen and fools usually carry the belly of the play with them — the chaotic, ugly truth. I knew this but didn’t apply it.

Sharing the same sense of humor can be blissful unusualness between two people. It can save two people, personally and professionally, I have observed, and it can provide a touchstone of faith. Humor bespeaks intelligence, and wit. It frequently tells us about ourselves, tells others about us, and can be inexplicable. It can be psychic medicine, and it can be the first unconscious progress toward weeping. An uncontrolled laugh can wear you out.

We might sometimes laugh quietly at knowing our partner will laugh. Then it is sometimes the substitute for words. I suggest it is perhaps the quickest way to come to know another person.

My sense currently in rehearsals with TN Shakespeare Company‘s Petruchio and Kate is that what too many of us define as a “battle of the sexes” (an all-too-frequent marketing slogan which I find misguided about the relationship in The Taming of the Shrew) is potentially a perfect match waiting to happen. And that perhaps what provides the match is the singular sense of humor of these two people heretofore destined, each, for a single life.

The famous wooing scene between the two actors is finding its romance and even sexiness in each person discovering what makes the other laugh, despite him/herself. (Below is an excerpt from that scene. For the complete text of Act 2, Scene 1, click here. )

KATE: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

PETRUCHIO: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.

KATE: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies,

PETRUCHIO: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.

KATE: In his tongue.

PETRUCHIO: Whose tongue?

KATE: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.

PETRUCHIO: What, with my tongue in your tail? nay, come again, Good Kate; I am a gentleman.

KATE:  That I’ll try. (She strikes him)

PETRUCHIO: I swear I’ll cuff you, if you strike again.

KATE: So may you lose your arms: If you strike me, you are no gentleman; And if no gentleman, why then no arms.

PETRUCHIO: A herald, Kate? O, put me in thy books!

KATE: What is your crest? a coxcomb?

PETRUCHIO: A combless cock, so Kate will be my hen.

KATE: No cock of mine; you crow too like a craven.

PETRUCHIO: Nay, come, Kate, come; you must not look so sour.

KATE:  It is my fashion, when I see a crab.

PETRUCHIO: Why, here’s no crab; and therefore look not sour.

KATE: There is, there is.

PETRUCHIO: Then show it me.

KATE: Had I a glass, I would.

PETRUCHIO: What, you mean my face?

KATE: Well aim’d of such a young one.

PETRUCHIO: Now, by Saint George, I am too young for you.

KATE: Yet you are wither’d.

PETRUCHIO: ‘Tis with cares.

KATE: I care not.

PETRUCHIO: Nay, hear you, Kate: in sooth you scape not so.

KATHARINE: I chafe you, if I tarry: let me go.

Making someone laugh is a palpable victory. Allowing oneself to submit to being the butt of the joke is a special gift to the other.

Humor is a way in. And right now, we are discovering that the way in then cannot always be the way through. That’s a cover. But the hearts of Kate and Petruchio have longing in them, and poetry, and capacity. They just haven’t been exercised.

Yet.

 

How Tom Sawyer Grew Up to be Hank Morgan

April 15, 2014

Jan McIntire-Strasburg

 

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are probably the most well known of Mark Twain’s characters. Bronze statues of the boys grace Schoolyard Hill in Hannibal.  Their images have been used for everything from selling paint to Norman Rockwell pictures that evoke the nostalgia of childhood. Each boy is the subject of his own novel, and although Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has stood the test of time better than Tom’s adventures, the character of Tom remains that of a charming if mischievous boy. While Huck is practical, and can improvise a workable solution to any problem, Tom’s forte is the grand effect—the spectacle. He has read all of the romance novels, and his dreams as a boy are populated by robbers, pirates, and steamboat captains who perform feats of derring-do, rescue, capture and ransom ladies and gentlemen, and ambuscade Arabs, carrying of piles off booty.

Mark Twain Tom Sawyer

Tom Sawyer, 1876 Frontispiece

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ends with this “Conclusion”:

So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly the history of a boy, it must stop here; it could not go further without becoming the history of a man…Some day it may seem worth while to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present. (TS 215)

Twain takes up the story of the boys yet again in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom’s part in this later novel is, of course, much smaller, as this is Huck’s story. Twain uses Tom to tie this second novel to the first, where Tom makes good on his plan to instigate Tom Sawyer’s Gang, and initiates the members with blood oaths. His imagination turns a Sunday School picnic into a caravan of Arabs, whom the gang intend to rout and rob. Tom then disappears from the narrative except for moments of decision in Huck’s adventures when he invokes Tom as his “authority” on how to do things with “style.” After setting up the elaborate ruse that fakes his death, Huck says: “I wished Tom Sawyer was there. I knowed he’d take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches. Nobody could spread himself like Tom Sawyer in such a thing as that” (HF 657). Huck’s appreciation of Tom’s “fancy touches” occurs in other parts of the novel as well, but Tom’s return in the Evasion chapters demonstrates a shift in Twain’s indulgent, “boys will be boys” attitude concerning Tom.

Those chapters show a Tom who creates an elaborate and dangerous (to Jim) plan for freeing the runaway slave from his imprisonment at Phelps’ farm. Huck’s plan is simple, straightforward, and to the point: “Here’s the ticket. This hole’s [window] big enough for Jim to get through if we wrench off the board” (HF 854). Tom’s reply offers the reader a glimpse of his romantic notions of escape from captivity: “It’s as simple as tit-tat-toe, three–in-a-row, and as easy as playing hooky. I should hope we can find a way that’s more complicated than that, Huck Finn” (657). Huck just “knows” that Tom’s plan will be “worth fifteen of mine for style” and “would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides. So I was satisfied…” (HF 853). The difference between the two boys is clear—Tom is all style, and Huck substance. While Tom’s escape plan works out in the end, Tom is shot and Jim very nearly hung.

Read more…

How About Never–Is Never Good for You?

April 12, 2014

It stems from a conversation that Bob Mankoff had one time while trying to arrange to have lunch with a “friend.”  After several attempts to get together and several “not availables,” in frustration, Mankoff asked, “How about never—is never good for you?”  Luckily, Mankoff is a cartoonist for the New Yorker, and he was able to parlay that conversation into a cartoon that is an oft-repeated question as used by Nancy Pelosi on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show during the 2012 election, and it is listed in The Yale Book of Quotations somewhere between Herman J. Mankiewicz and Mao Tse-Tung.   It is also printed on coffee mugs and thong panties.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, this is the joke that made Bob’s fortune.

Image

 

Bob Mankoff has exploited his joke one more time by naming his memoir, How About Never—Is Never Good for You? My Life in CartoonsNever is a new release by Henry Holt and Co.  It is 285 pages of text and cartoons—lots of cartoons, most of which are from The New Yorker.  There are cartoons from other sources used to compare the cartoon style of the different publications.  But, most of all, it narrates the rise of Mankoff from an aspiring cartoonist to the cartoon editor of The New Yorker.

Along the way, Mankoff talks about the rhetoric of magazine cartoons.  Among the stories is how a cartoon by Peter Arno that was published in 1941 became the cliché “Well, back to the old drawing board.”  Some cartoons have a je ne sais quoi that resonates with the public and captures the imagination.  As depicted, it may be the casual quality of the statement in light of the circumstances, but for some reason we, as readers, find it to our taste to repeat the phrase, and everyone knows what we are talking about whether we own a drawing board or not.

Image

Caption:  Well, back to the old drawing board.

Other aspects of the world of cartoons that Mankoff explores is the use of the Cartoon Bank, a digital storehouse of cartoon images that have been rejected by The New Yorker, but are still fine drawings that can be accessed by the public for a small fee.  Mankoff began the bank in the early 1990s and managed it himself until it became unmanageable.  The cartoons in the bank are sorted by subject matter so they are easy to access.   He also discusses a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine cannot discern a New Yorker cartoon.  And he assesses the different types of humor that are represented in the cartoons (while reminding us that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog).

Perhaps, Mankoff’s most prized innovation is his “Caption Contest” in The New Yorker.  This is his crowd-sourcing initiative that asks readers to write a caption for a drawing that is printed in the magazine.  It is also available to non subscribers at http://www.newyorker.com/humor/caption.  On the page, readers can submit an entry and vote on selected entries for previous contests.  As a result of The New Yorker contest, there have been many political cartoonists that run caption contests.  This is a link to one that was run by Tom Toles in the Washington Post.

The book is worth a read whether you invest the $32.50 (suggested retail price) for it now or wait until it sells for lower prices as a used book.  But if I have not convinced you that it is time and money well-spent, listen to the interview between Terri Gross and Mankoff on NPR’s Fresh Air.

 

American Humor Studies Association/Mark Twain Circle of America Quadrennial Conference 2014

April 7, 2014
by

American Humor Studies Association

Mark Twain Circle of America

Quadrennial Conference 2014

December 4-7, 2014

Four Points Sheraton French Quarter

 

The American Humor Studies Association, in conjunction with the Mark Twain Circle of America, sends out this general call for papers on American humor and Mark Twain. The topics below are suggestions for topics that we think will be of interest; other topics are welcome, and we welcome especially submissions of sessions of three papers or roundtables. The topics are broad in the hope that scholars will be able to find one that fits their current research. Submissions should be sent to Jan McIntire-Strasburg via email (mcintire@slu.edu). Please send your submissions by May 15, 2014.

Those sending in submissions for the Mark Twain Circle of America can email their proposals to Ann Ryan at ryanam@lemoyne.edu.

Topics include but are not limited to:

Early American Humor and its European Roots

Nineteenth Century Humor—from Southwest to Northeast to Far West

20th Century Humor and the American Novel

Regional and/or transnational humor

New Media Approaches to Humor

Humor in film, television, comics, and other visual media

Humor and Theatre

Stand-Up Comedy

Online humor

Humor and Ethnicity

Humor and Gender

Humor and Class

Humor and Sexuality

Humor and War

Contemporary Approaches to Irony, Satire, Wit, and other topics

Teaching Humor

New Directions in American Humor Studies

Mark Twain

chaplin

 

lmphoto_house1

Teaching American Humor: the Great Colbert-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014

April 3, 2014
colbert2f-1-web

Somebody should write something about the controversial tweet from @ColbertReport and how it spawned a backlash on Twitter defined by #CancelColbert. It is big news.

Well, to be fair, almost everybody already has. It even gave the 24-hour cable news outlets a chance to pause in the search for MAL 370. For those who need yet a few more links to stories related to the issues, here they are:

Overview of the issue from the New Yorker

One of the several posts from CNN, formally a news organization

First Post from Cleveland.com – solid with clips and twitter examples

Second Post from Cleveland.com – same useful format

WSJ.com post by Jeff Yang

OK. That is a small smattering that should get anyone started down an endless rabbit hole. Let me know if it ever works its way back to this post.

There are no lessons to be learned from what I am calling the Great Colbert-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014 (catchy?). Well, at least there are no lessons to be learned among those who are deeply invested in perpetuating their own righteous indignation on any and all possible sides to the #CancelColbert or #SaveColbert Twitter dynamo. The vast majority of those who jumped into the fray via Twitter have already moved on to the next outrage. For the passive voice phrase “lessons to be learned” to ever be true, to be consummated with actual learning and awareness, the learner would need to engage fully with the complexities of any issue. Who does that on Twitter?

Colbert Responds

But there may be things useful in the classroom for those desirous of  banging their heads on the complexities of American satire. What happens when satire misfires? (That is not what happened in the Great Colbert-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014.) What happens to satire in a digital age wherein the satirical work can be sliced and diced and repackaged and mashed ad nauseam into different mediums with vastly different audiences? What happens in a social media world when a satirist (and/or his corporate  media boss) uses something as potentially inane as Twitter as a constant, tireless promotional tool?

Most importantly, what happens when a sharp piece of satire–pairing offensive language concerning Asian Americans with obvious racist language regarding Native Americans in an effort to repudiate any and all such appropriation–gets lost in a media frenzy?

In reference to the Colbert/Twitter issue, we need to consider how a near-perfect bit of satire was transformed into a social-media outrage phenomenon. Normally, that would be a good thing for satirists; it means that their efforts were noticed, that their social criticism was making an impact. In the age of Twitter, however, the satire can easily be erased and forgotten with only the outrage remaining. I should add that “outrage,” in and of itself, is not a problem. A satirist begins by being outraged, but the satirist also begins by being informed. There’s the rub. Who on Twitter ever really cares to be informed? #Hashtag, #hashtag. Trend it.

The Great Colbert-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014–now known simply as #GC-TM2014–TREND IT!–is over. In hindsight, the event provides an opportunity to consider the challenges and limits of satire in the social media age. A satirist mocks human behavior with the goal–however remote–of changing that behavior, or at least demanding some thoughtful social engagement with contentious issues. The Colbert Report is arguably the most formidable venue for provocative satire in contemporary American culture that reaches a large audience. The Colbert Report, The Daily Show , and The Onion, in particular, all provide a consistent and relentless examination of the foibles of human behavior and the absurdities that threaten to undermine the remarkable social and political experiment called the United States of America. It is a golden age for American satire. That is not to say that it is a golden age for the power of satire to change the world.

Although I simply want to look closely at the tweet itself, readers should see the two sketches from the Colbert Report that provide the opening and the closing of this social media firestorm (The Great Colber-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014, as I may have said above):

Colbert on Dan Snyder and the Washington Redskins

Colbert Who’s Attacking Me Now – the Follow Up

In the original piece, we witness a wonderfully tight satirical attack on the efforts of Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, and his effort to resist any and all efforts to make him and his supporters see the obvious. It is a satirical effort to affect public opinion, first, in its short-term target–the Redskins offensive name–and, second, the overall, longterm target–racism. The satire seeks to destroy both by persistent small cuts.

But, for now, that will have to wait. Twitter takes on a different topic.

For this space, let’s simply focus on the tweet that sets things rolling. We start there because the original sketch from the Colbert Show encouraged no firestorm whatsoever. The tweet, written and released by someone in the Comedy Central office, caused the issue  in the Twitterverse, which, now, apparently, and to the consternation of long-winded people like me everywhere, is the new normal of democratic media–just what the Founding Fathers and Mothers were hoping for.

Here is the text of the offending tweet:

“I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

This is a joke. It is a quote taken from the Colbert Report show that aired on 26 March 2014 and tweeted by the corporate twitter-version of the character “Stephen Colbert,” (Colbert’s personal twitter account is @StephenAtHome.) A play within a play within a corporate twitter feed, wrapped in bacon. The problem of this joke is obvious; it uses stereotypical mockery of spoken East Asian languages as perceived by Euro-Americans who are ignorant and dismissive of any and all foreign languages on the whole. In that case, the language of the tweet perpetuates the stereotypes.

OK, it is easy to see that this tweet/joke contains racially insensitive language, at the very least. However, it is not simply a joke but parody. It is a statement from a character “Stephen Colbert” who is an aggressive and tireless parody of Bill O’Reilly, a bombastic conservative pundit who is clueless of his own racist, simplistic, reductive, self-absorbed commentary day after day after day. As parody, this tweet works. The line works.

Consider the first part of the tweet, the set-up: “I am willing to show #Asian community  I care…” This is boilerplate Bill O’Reilly in that it mimics  his typical moment of minor (very minor) concession to opposing points of an  argument or to show his awareness of nuances on some issues. He does this often, and it is often quite unintentionally funny. Colbert thinks so, too. Here Colbert (both in the original sketch and in the edited Tweet) sets up a self-absorbed moment of magnanimous condescension to anyone who may misunderstand his unquestionable good will and fairness. Note the clever wordplay: “I am willing to show...I care...” not more concisely “I am creating a…” The issue for the pundit is his willingness to perform (“show”) his deep compassion (“I care”), like God deciding to give humans a second chance after, say, a flood. Thank you, God. Thank you, Bill.

With that set-up, the hypocrisy and cluelessness of the narrative “I” is revealed by the absurd and racist name of the foundation in the punchline. The “I” is full of himself and empty of understanding. All ego, no awareness. This is parody that targets Colbert’s perennial and ever-vulnerable target: Bill O’Reilly. This is boilerplate Stephen Colbert. And funny. Thank you, Stephen.

To better understand the context that Colbert uses, watch, for example, this bit from the show:

Colbert on O-Reilly’s Insensitivity to Asian Americans

Colbert on O'Reilly

The Tweet did not destroy the joke; it removed the satirical context but kept the parody in place. Its mockery, then, is simply a brief shot at racial arrogance. The full satire is much stronger and deserves more that Twitter could provide. The @ColbertReport tweet put a joke in the world of Twitter divorced from the persona that originally spoke the words. A person reading the quote who has little familiarity with the Colbert Show and little interest in finding out more before reacting and retweeting draws an easy conclusion: #CancelColbert. The many who are tired of seeing such mockery of Asians, along with so many others, in American popular culture, are right to be concerned. And those who dismiss such concerns without trying to seek an understanding of a long and complicated history that informs the angry reaction against @ColbertReport are simply lazy, and they make me tired.

Colbert performs racial parody and satire daily. Suey Park, who created the @CancelColbert idea, has gained some fame. I am not sure if she has made any progress toward her political and social goals. Perhaps. My hunch, though, is that Stephen Colbert is more likely to alter the mainstream popular culture landscape regarding racism than she will. But, really, I hope they both succeed. But I am not going to follow either one on Twitter.

 

(c) 2014, Jeffrey Melton

In the Archives: Mark Twain’s Infectious Jingle– “A Literary Nightmare” (1876)

March 31, 2014

Tracy Wuster

Mark Twain’s “Literary Nightmare” (1876), published in the Atlantic Monthly, represents an early example of a “viral” piece of popular culture.    The “Viral Text” project at Northeastern University is tracing 19th-century newspaper stories as they circulated, and “A Literary Nightmare” might be a unique example–being a story about a viral text–in this case, a poem–and its infectious effects, which in turn helped spread the original poem, Mark Twain’s story about it, and the very genre of poetry across the nation and, possibly, around the world.  The story even inspired a song.  And was being discussed as late as 1915.

The poem presented the key example of “horse-car poetry” that enjoyed a brief vogue as popular doggerel.  A discussion of the phenomenon of “horse-car poetry”  was printed in Record of the Year, A Reference Scrap Book: Being the Monthly Record of Important Events Worth Preserving, published by G. W. Carleton and Company in 1876.  The story, beginning on page 324, details how a New York rail line posted a placard on fares that became a poetic sensation, leading to Mark Twain’s use of the lines in his story.  The phenomenon of “horse-car poetry” then, according to the Record of the Year, spread to other cities and countries, causing an “epidemic” that aroused passions and even violence.  The Record of the Year contains one story of a woman literally possessed by the sketch, reading in part:

The danger of Mark Twain's viral text...

The danger of Mark Twain’s viral text…

The entire scene is worth reading at the link above.

Mark Twain’s  extended comic sketch details  the hypnotic, yet meaningless, power of humorous writing to infect one’s mind like a virus.  Entitled “A Literary Nightmare” (February 1876), Twain’s piece starts with a verse of poetry:

“Conductor, when you receive a fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,

A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,

A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare

CHORUS

Punch, brothers punch with care!

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”

These lines, the narrator “Mark” writes, “took instant and entire possession of me.”  For days, the only thing in his mind are the lines of verse—they keep him from his work, wreck his sleep, and turn him into a raving lunatic singing “punch brothers punch…” After several days of torture, he sets out on a walk with his friend, a Rev. Mr. ——- (presumably his good friend Rev. Joe Twichell).  After hours of silence, the Reverend asks the narrator what the trouble is, and Mark tells him the story, teaching him the lines of the jingle.  Instantly, the narrator puts the verse out of his mind. The Reverend, on the other hand, has “got it” now.

You can read the sketch in its entirety below.

 

Read more…

Ask Me No Questions, I Will Tell No Lies

March 27, 2014

March brings with it St. Patrick’s Day and an affinity for all things Irish. Before we bring March to a close, let us take a moment to reflect upon one of the great Irish cultural contributions: the grand oral tradition of story and song.  Shakespeare (somewhat ironically) wrote that brevity is the soul of wit but the Irish never waste an opportunity to say in a few paragraphs what could be said in a few words. This verbosity has been responsible for a great many works of art. (Of course the Irish were equally gifted at preserving the written word, as is well documented in Thomas Cahill’s New York Times Best Seller How The Irish Saved Civilization, but I digress.)

What better way to illustrate this than with a clever little nursery rhyme many good Irish children learn (usually, as with this writer, by a parent or other mature, serious and adult relative) about a dog’s genitals, alcoholic beverages and a bucket full of excrement of undisclosed origin.

In a phenomenon increasingly rare in 2014, there is little to be found about this song online. It seems there is a place after all for the grand oral storytelling tradition even in the digital age. There are a handful of discussion threads and two or three YouTube clips offering remembrances or performances of the song. Most of the lyrics found online vary slightly from the version this writer first heard sung by his Irish father and Italian mother while in the back seat of the family car on some unremembered road in some unremembered state somewhere out there in the great big USA.

The exquisite structure of the lyric was immortalized instantaneously.

Two Irishmen, two Irishmen digging in a ditch

One called the other a dirty son of a –

Peter Murphy had a dog, a mighty fine dog was he

Along came a bumble bee and stung him in his –

Cocktail, ginger ale, ten cents a glass

If you don’t like it you can shove it up your –

Ask me no questions, I will tell no lies

If you get hit by a bucket of shit, be sure to close your eyes

It is a simple yet effective structure: setting up the rhyme to lead the listener’s ear toward an obvious obscenity only to duck and weave into an innocuous quasi-homophone. When the resolving line involving the imminent bucket of shit finally arrives, emphasized by a nifty internal rhyme, the use of the obscenity is heightened and therefore permissible as a literary device with a purpose and function. Any decent songwriter, poet or raconteur would be well served in studying the structure of these lines. And sing it to your kids, they will be grateful.

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