Monthly Archives: August, 2011

The Time I Kissed Grace Paley on the Mouth

            I’m sitting in a workshop at Juniper, UMass, Amherst’s summer writing program, a program I enrolled in solely because Grace Paley was teaching. It’s 2005. For years, I’d been obsessed with two fantasies: one, to hear Ms. Paley say a kind word about my writing and two, to kiss her on the lips. The first part I could understand, as I was hoping for a quotation I could stick on a book jacket. The second, I’m not so sure about. I think I thought maybe I could glean some secret wisdom that way. I’d made a pact with myself: I would slip her the tongue if need be, if our passions were so aroused, and from that point I would play it by ear.

Two years later, she passed away.

Alternet describes a recent NY screening of Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, a new documentary: “The lights were hardly back on when [the audience] started talking, telling stories…about this arrest and that action…the talk continued in the lobby and on the street, and, I imagined, on the subway rides home, and on the phone later, and at some meeting or rally, before too long.”

On the eve of the anniversary of her passing (Aug 22nd, 2007), I’d like to keep the discussion going.

So I’m in her class, like I said, and we’re workshopping my short story. It’s a story I assume she’s going to like, since, after all, I stole pretty much everything from her. I mean it was all in there: the witty spousal banter, the pith, the holocaust ending. It was downright manipulative.

My classmates are saying the usual this and that—the dialogue is confusing; it’s hard to know who’s saying what, etc.—when Grace puts her copy down and looks up and asks me to read a section aloud. And as I do so, her face goes sour. She is clearly disappointed. Moments later, everybody’s making the same face, their features all squished-up and whatnot. What’s going on? I’m wondering, Was my joke about the Hasidim so offensive that they have all joined forces and conspired against me?

Then I pause for a moment and realize there’s a strange noise in the room, the buzz of bad circuitry. What the hell is that? A smoke detector? A HAM radio? A spaceship landing at South College?

Ach, not again, Grace says.

She shakes her head, then whacks the side of it a few times, harder than you’d think appropriate for an old broad like her. Finally, she tilts her head to one side, reaches into it by way of an ear, and pulls out something that at first glance looks to be a giant ball of wax.

It’s her hearing aid. And it’s humming like a Hendrix amp. She tries shaking it some more, but to no avail. Here, she says, handing it to me, You’re a man. Take a look at this, would you? For the last six months it’s been making me sound all crazy in my own head. Like I’m talking through a megaphone. Like it’s Greenwich Village in the ‘60`s. I can’t tell you how unsettling it is.

Even with my Y chromosome, I said, handing it back to her, There’s not much I can do with this. You should probably just get a new one.

Ha! She said, turning it down and sitting it back in her ear, You know how much they want for a new one?

Continue reading →

“Happy Birthday” and “Productination,” together at last

Happy Birthday and Good Morning to Pee Wee Herman, fifty-eight years young.

(I don’t make monkeys, I only train them…)

“Work” to help you avoid “work”:

The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Michael Kiskis

Editor’s Note:

The post below was published in February 2011 by Michael Kiskis on his blog, Kiskis Log.  Dr. Kiskis passed away suddenly in May, a shock of great sadness to the community of Mark Twain and Humor Studies scholars who knew well both the insight of his scholarship and his passion for his work.

What I didn’t know about was his blog, which I discovered when John Bird posted a link on the Mark Twain Forum.  After reading the posts, I was struck not only by their insight, honesty, and humor, but also by a feeling that such writing—informal, yet academic—should be shared with other scholars.  Dr. Kiskis’s blog rekindled an idea I had been considering for several years, an online publication for humor scholars to post occasional pieces and to share their own blogs.

This essay, “The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is published in honor of Dr. Kiskis’s life and work, and for the part his work played in the genesis of the Humor in America blog.  I am reposting it with the kind permission of Michael’s wife, Ann.  I encourage you to read further in Michael’s blog and to see his website for more information on his career.  See also Michael’s other blog, Canonical Babbling.

–Tracy Wuster

The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Michael Kiskis

Part one

I first read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a 1981 seminar on Mark Twain during my opening semester of graduate school (I was 27 years old).  While I was a graduate student (and for some time later), I never worried or even knew that I might have a need to be worried about how to interpret or teach this novel.  I knew that Twain’s story contained problematic questions of identity and freedom, and I knew that there were long unresolved concerns related to race. But I never thought about whether Twain’s story was dangerous.  I was, after all, safely embedded in a hermetically sealed academic environment (not ivory tower, exactly; more like the Mad Hatter’s tea party).  I had no real experience with the clash of personal and political interests that dent the book or its readers as it passes into the non-academic world.  I looked atHuck as unquestionably canonical.  It was sacred; the question of banning the book was to me just outrageous (I was easily outraged at 27; come to think of it I am pretty easily outraged at 56).  Students — of all ages, of all races, of all ages — needed to read this book to understand better American individualism.  Why?  Because my professor told me so.  And he was one of the founding fathers of Twain studies.  I was taught that Huck was the great tale of an America coming of age, finding its moral compass, and seeking independence and joy while heading out to a territory.  Little did I know then that such a territory simply never existed.  Twain himself was ambivalent as he crafted the sequel — Huck and Tom Among the Indians — a tale that he never did complete once he was brought face to face with his own inability to posit an edenic west.  How the times they do change.
          As time passed, I read and I thought and I wrote and I taught.  My experiences with students (traditionally aged 18-22 year olds, distance learning students, adult returning students, corporate executives, graduate students, teachers during NEH summer programs) have driven me out of the shadow of post-world war two critical attempts to craft an American culture worthy of the pre-eminent military and economic power of the 20th Century.  I have been pushed to consider troubling questions regarding the processes of critical interpretation and interpolation that haunt the history of our reading of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Is it the revolutionary book that critics, teachers, and cultural commentators insist that it is?   Does the story of Huck and Jim and Tom point to a new sophistication in race relations?  Has the book’s hyper-canonization (using Jonathan Arac’s description), based on the dreams of scholars and commentators, defined our reading and teaching?  Do the critics bear a responsibility for the myth that Huck sits at the heart of the American experience of race?  Should we be more circumspect in our efforts to sacralize the text?  The answers to these questions are no, no, yes, yes, and yes.  In the conventional world of Twain studies, those answers might prompt (at the very least) a letter to my mother to tell her that I do not play well with others.  I run with scissors.  I worry icons.
          This commentary grows out of a concern for the way Americanists have and continue to presentAdventures of Huckleberry Finn as a beacon of high-minded justice in our sometimes Polyanish, sometimes forbidding conversation about the relationship between literature and social understanding.  As I have become more uneasy about seeing literary study as an avenue toward moral training (it seems to me that methodology does not incite morality), it has become clear to me that for some reason Huckleberry Finn has become synonymous moral/character education. Originally banned in 1885 by the directors of The Concord MA Library for its lack of moral center, the book is now hailed as a manifesto of the moral conscience.  More problematic, I think, it has become a central text in discussions of American race relations.  When critics were told to avoid the Intentional Fallacy, they were never told not to practice it to construct a purely literary answer to social injustice.
          In Twain studies, one major voice in that debate belongs to Shelley Fisher Fishkin.  In Was Huck Black and Lighting Out for the Territory, Shelley has taken a lead role in drawing attention to Twain and race.  In her introduction to Was Huck Black, Shelley raises the literary and cultural stakes:
                        Mark Twain helped open American literature to the multi-
                        cultural polyphony that is its birthright and special strength.
                        He appreciated the creative vitality of African-American
                        voices and exploited their potential in his art.  In the process
                        he helped teach his countrymen new lessons about the lyrical
                        and exuberant energy of vernacular speech, as well as about the
                        potential of satire and irony in the service of truth….
                                    …But there is something about Huckleberry Finn
                        that sets it off from Twain’s earlier work and makes it seem
                        less a continuation of the art he had been developing and more
                        of a quantum leap forward; its unrivalled place in both the
                        Twain canon and in the American literary canon relfects this
                        special status.  (5)
In the “epilogue” to Lighting Out, she offers a related observation on the value of Huck:
                        Twain’s book is a wake-up call, an entreaty to rethink,
                        reevaluate, and reformulate the terms by which one defines
                        both personal  and national identity, the terms by which one
                        understands a person or a culture as “good” or “evil,” a plea
                        to reexamine the hypocrisies we tolerate and the heinous
                        betrayals of hope we perpetuate — in his time and our own —
                        in the name of “business as usual.” (203)
I read this last comment as more relevant to Pudd’nhead Wilson, which, aesthetic flaws and all, carries a more genuine and unambiguous curse against hypocrisy.
          Shelley’s descriptors of Huck (“quantum leap,” “unrivalled,” “wake-up call,” “entreaty”) take us far beyond Henry Nash Smith’s and Bernard DeVoto’s (even Walter Blair’s) praise of the vernacular.  Smith and DeVoto praised the rustic voice, though it was a praise that perhaps led to condescension or worse a deliberate attempt to extoll the vernacular in literature to distract from the overt and practical politics of social change (a pat on the proletariat’s back keeps them quiet and feeling important).  Now we have turned to prize Twain’s treatment of race.  And we very quickly step over a line to move closer to an interpretation of Twain as guiding light — not only for a literary tradition but also for a transcendent realization of the potential to ease racial stress. One example:  in The Jim Dilemma:  Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, Jocelyn Chadwick Joshua sees the movement toward that realization in these terms:
                        Adventures of Huckleberry Finn panoramically chronicles
                        the plight of the runaway male slave, the slave community,
                        the slave family, and the vision and indefatigable hope of this
                        American.  Against him is a South that is both proslavery,
                        the progenitor of Jim Crow, and hypocritical in its values.
                        More complexly, however, this chronicle is one whose
                        conclusion questions the readers and their notions of what
                        freedom means.  What does it cost?  Through Twain’s portrayal
                        of Jim and the other slaves, the African American slave emerges
                        without what Langston Hughes disparaged as the romantization of
                        the South and southern slavery. (xv)
Mid-twentieth century approaches to the novel focused on freedom — the freedom of the individual to separate and eventually to run away from a corrupt and “self” defeating society (James Cox’s emphasis on Twain’s satiric attack on a starched morality works very well here).  But a manumitted black adult male is at best an ambiguous symbol of morality’s triumph.  And “Lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest,” is no statement of moral courage.  Unless you somehow want these to be.  Or need these to be.

This feminist walks into a bar: Using humor to change the world

An article by Brenda D. Frink.  Click on picture to read article.


the managing editor.

productive + procrastination = productination: a collection of links about humor to spend your time not working in a semi-productive manner.

Feel free to send me articles or to post them in the comments.

Politics and the American Sense of Humor



If incongruity is at the heart of humor and what makes people laugh, as some theorists have maintained, then nowhere is there a greater disparity between the ideal and the real, between the dream and our failure to achieve it, than in American politics.

The democratic system posits higher values than we can live up to—not only life and liberty, but the pursuit of happiness for heaven’s sake!  Not to mention equality, justice, and freedom of speech.  And then there are the politicians entrusted with achieving them.  We still laugh, unfortunately, at Mark Twain’s quip, “There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.”

A gauge of the success of our system is our willingness to make fun of ourselves and celebrate our failures with the horse laugh.  We hold nothing above ridicule—the law, government, religion, or the President—and we seek redress through satire.

Rather than be discouraged, the use of humor encourages us to try again and see if we can’t get it right the next time.  Laughter is a healthy corrective, and it serves to adjust our hopes and expectations to the reality of what’s actually possible in this increasingly precarious world.

Little wonder then that the editorial or political cartoon has been a mainstay in the media of this country from its very founding.  One of the earliest political cartoons to appear in a newspaper was attributed to Benjamin Franklin in the May 9, 1754 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  The crude drawing portrayed a snake cut into separate portions like the states, with the injunction “Unite, or Die,” a warning that political survival in the colonies depended on union and mutual respect.  Not much humor there really, except in the odd choice of the snake, given all its symbolic weight, as the image of the emerging nation.

We would not have truly belletristic writing in America until Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper several decades after the founding of the nation.  One reason for this may have been the fact that the minds of the leading intellectuals were mainly involved in working out the details of the social and political structure of the commonwealth.  Most of the writing, therefore, addressed practical economic and political problems, as well as theological questions.

There did seem to be room for humor however.  As early as 1647 Nathaniel Ward ridiculed what he saw as too much religious tolerance and freedom for women in the colonies in The Simple Cobler of Aggawam.  Almost a century later, Thomas Morton, of Maypole fame, turned the spyglass around in the other direction and made fun of Puritan bigotry in New English Canaan (1737).  Ebenezer Cooke in Maryland laid a comic Hudibrastic curse on the entire new world in The Sot-Weed Factor (1708).

As periodicals and newspapers developed, the columns were promptly filled with humorous essays and satires on the absurdities and pomposities of the emerging social and political classes.  Franklin, the Connecticut Wits, Hugh Henry Breckenridge, Seba Smith, Francis Whitcher, and Marietta Holley were among them, the last two women also having their say.

Soon major schools of humor would emerge in New England and the Old South, which would in turn produce Mark Twain, after whom neither American literature nor humor would ever be the same.  As for political humor, do we have a more profound and funnier statement on the conflict between the individual conscience and the laws of the state than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)?

The example of Twain’s comic accomplishments would inspire many other writers to follow, such as James Thurber,  Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, William Faulkner, Woody Allen, and Garrison Keillor, to name only a few.  A strong strain of humor has persisted in American literature.

But just as surely as these writers were observing and commenting on the national scene and the human condition, so too were the editorial cartoonists in the pages of the newspapers.  Although Franklin and Paul Revere are credited with early political cartoons, it wasn’t until Thomas Nast and Joseph Keppler in the nineteenth century that they became a major force.

Nast’s satiric vision was so penetrating and influential that his cartoons seemed to have an effect on national affairs.  One of his Civil War drawings is credited with assuring Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, and his unrelenting attacks on Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies contributed to his downfall and imprisonment.

Although few would have such direct influence, many notable comic artists would follow Tweed’s path into political cartooning as a profession, such as Rollin Kirby, Jay “Ding” Darling, Herbert L. Block (Herblock), Bill Mauldin, Patrick Oliphant, Paul Conrad, and Jeff MacNelly.

Do readers pay attention?  Sometimes with startling results.  While mostly readers respond with letters of complaint, in 1987 a reader was so incensed with a cartoon by Tony Auth in the Philadelphia Inquirer that he broke into his office, trashed it, and warned that if it wasn’t for his religion and humanity, he would have killed the cartoonist.

More recently, in the January 29, 2006 issue of the Washington Post, a cartoon by Tom Toles criticized statements about the war in Iraq by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld through use of a symbolic figure of an American soldier who has lost both arms and legs.

A dew days later, on February 7, the Post published a letter attacking the cartoon as “callous” and “reprehensible” signed by the Chairman and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the only time in memory that a single letter had been signed by all five members for any purpose, much less a cartoon.  The letter did not address the political point of the drawing but only the use of the amputee figure as “beyond tasteless.”

On the same day as the cartoon by Toles appeared in the Post, the pages of the newspaper carried the first story about what would prove to be the most profound and powerful response to a cartoon in history, what has become known as the Danish cartoon incident.

A daily Danish newspaper had published on September 30, 2005, twelve cartoons criticizing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad as a test of freedom of speech, the editor understanding that Islamic tradition forbade any pictorial portrayal of the prophet as a hedge against idolatry.  He may also have understood that any ridiculing of the prophet, as had been demonstrated by Salman Rushdie’s lampoon of him in Satanic Verses, would constitute blasphemy deserving of the death sentence.

Protests, demands for an apology from the editor and the Danish government, and legal complaints were lodged for a year by Muslim groups before it erupted into an international furor.  Danish embassies were closed in Muslim countries, boycotts against Danish trade and products were instituted, and riots broke out in several countries leaving many injured and a considerable number dead.

Editors in the United States and abroad who chose to reprint the cartoons were accused of inciting further violence, while those who did not were condemned for giving in to repressive pressure to gag freedom of speech.  A few resigned or lost their jobs.

However, such radical responses as these are rare in the history of the political cartoon.  Mainly the drawings serve the same function as does all successful humor in providing a useful reality check.  Walt Kelly, former editorial cartoonist and creator of the popular political comic strip Pogo, once put it best: “Humor should not be regarded as the sweetening around a sour pill.  It is something that clears the air, makes life more real, and therefore less frightening.”



Copyright © M. Thomas Inge

Charlie Chaplin and the Table Ballet and Benny (Johnny Depp) & Joon and the diner scene

One of Charlie Chaplin’s more famous routines is the table ballet scene from the The Gold Rush from 1925 (linked above). However, my first exposure to the scene was from a small film with a young aspiring actor Johnny Depp. He had recently gotten a lot of good press for “Edward Scissorhands” (for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe) and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” I was a young impressionable 23 year old and I loved “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” However, I really loved the goofiness of 1993’s “Benny & Joon” (clip linked below), yes goofiness. I don’t know another word for it. I’ve always loved Depp’s eccentricity. It is a certain something that does remind me of Chaplin however being a cultural critic there are somethings that as an audience strike us very differently. These scenes deserve a closer look. Next week I will follow up with a comparison. I invite readers to do the same.

Humor and the Digital Archive

Two of the most exciting things to come out of the Internet this year were the personal archives of Jerry Seinfeld and the addition of the Comedy Genome Project to Pandora’s music collection. Seinfeld launched his archive to mark the 30th anniversary of his first national broadcast spot. Each day, the site features three different clips spanning the length of his career, ranging from desk pieces on various late night shows to short stand-up bits from various appearances and Seinfeld (watch as his accent disappears over time).

Right around the same time, Pandora responded to listener requests and created a station featuring 10,000 clips from over 700 comedians. The clips are organized into categories, allowing a listener to select one style and (presumably) avoid another. These categories, of course, are a little reductive and deserve to be complicated—titles like “Urban Comedy” are problematic, and the separation of, say,  “Comedy Icons” from “Working Class Comedy” gives pause.

I wonder how these classifications sit with the performers, and how many people who opt out of the “Raw Comedy” library will then miss out on a good Louis C.K. bit. Is it advantageous for performers to jockey for position within a more ‘mainstream’ category with wide appeal (surely, C.K. belongs in “Comedy Icons”) like films trying to avoid an NC-17 rating? Or is this small potatoes in terms of exposure? That all depends on who is listening, I suppose. Those who count themselves among the initiated might either press on despite warnings of foul language or walk away knowing what they are missing. But if people who listen to comedy somewhat less obsessively are getting a skewed perception of the field based on Pandora’s classificatory criteria, it seems a revision would eventually be in order.

Happy Birthday…Lucille Ball!

the managing editor.

Born August 6, 1911.  (d. 1989)

Museum of Broadcast Communications Website

The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnez Center for Comedy

Opening this week: a new exhibition at the Hollywood Museum, “Lucille Ball at 100 & ‘I Love Lucy’ at 60,” which will be on display from Aug. 3 to Nov. 30, showcasing memorabilia saluting the careers and romance of Hollywood’s most famous lovebirds.

For photos of the exhibits:

If anyone visits either the Hollywood Museum exhibit or the Center for Comedy and would like to write a review, please let me know: