Monthly Archives: October, 2011

Happy Halloween!

While watching scary movies this weekend, I noticed the similarities between horror and humor: suspense released through an emotional response, expectations build up and often end in surprise, and lots and lots of blood…

*Seven Graveyard Smashes…our own music editor, Matt Powell, on Halloween music.

*Michael Collier’s “All Souls”

*Will Rogers in “The Headless Horsemen

*Halloween on Parks & Rec

*Comic Pumpkins

*Vincent Price and Muppets!

*Halloween music, via Nine Kinds of Pie

*the origin of Halloween traditions

*Werewolf Bar Mitzvah, spooky scary….

*A great version of Poe’s “The Raven” mixing humor and horror.

*Congratulations to the St. Louis Cardinals San Francisco Giants …via funny baseball quotes.

*Finally, some political cartoons  from the past few years, as Halloween tropes are recycled to address new fears and old.

2014

Halloween political cartoons 6970cf983d30e7e4962f8a71a43ee176f869250e 155447_600 155543_600 155561_600 155582_600 B1NJ0NWIAAAsybq.jpg-large Ebola-Quarantine halloween-cartoon-09 halloween-linus-great-pumpkin-political-cartoon halloween-political-cartoon-isis-ebola-scares halloween-political-cartoon-obama-halloween-candy halloween-political-cartoon-scaring-children halloween razorblades3

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*
*
*
*
*

*
*
*
**
*
*
*
*

**
*
*
*
*
**
*
*
*
**
*
*
**
*
*
**
*
*
*
**
**
*
**
*
*
*
*
**
**
*

*
*
*
*
*
**
*
*
*
**
*
*

*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
**
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
**
*
*
**
*
**
*
**
**
**
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
**
*
*
**
*
*
*
**
*
*
*
**
*
**
2011

Continue reading →

Advertisements

Stand-up at the Knitting Factory (Brooklyn, NY)

The Knitting Factory

361 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn

Sundays at 9pm

As a graduate student, I’ve found that free time can be scarce. It can be difficult to justify the toll (both on your wallet and on your schedule) of a night seeing live comedy. But when you study stand-up comedy, you’ve got a built in excuse you make the time in the name of research. And if you’re doing your graduate work in New York, as I am, you have your pick of a number of scenes, venues, price ranges and styles of comedy from which to choose. With this in mind, I have decided to put together something of a living map of New York comedy. My plan is to make my way through the five boroughs to visit as many venues as possible, and to consider the relationship between New York and the ever-changing comic space.

I’m not starting with a landmark venue—or rather, a landmark venue for stand-up. I’ll certainly get around to profiling some (all?) of the great spots to see comedy around New York, but I decided to start with a local Brooklyn show, and I’ll tell you why: Hannibal Buress and, to be perfectly honest, the anticipation of a great surprise guest. Hannibal is a Chicago native who has made a name for himself as a stand-up and a writer (SNL from 2009-2010, 30 Rock beginning the following season). Fans will notice his jokes making their way into 30 Rock scenes with some regularity, as well as his recurring stint as a homeless man on the show. He never mentions his writing credits by name during his stand-up sets, but it’s safe to assume the growing audience (the Sunday shows are now frequently standing room only) is familiar with his work. In fact, the crowd is comprised of a significant number of repeat customers.

If I wanted an all-star lineup, I could go to a traditional venue to increase my odds of catching some great comedy (or, failing that, some big names), but there’s a charm to the smaller venues, and the anticipation of a lineup change. And while this can happen at any comic venue, large or small, I can rest assured that a precedent already exists.

These Sunday night shows have a unique neighborhood-comedy-show feel, mixing the hipster Williamsburg set with local and (inter)nationally touring comics. The Knitting Factory’s Brooklyn space has the bare design and pseudo-industrial feel common to some Williamsburg/Bushwick performance spaces. Immediately past the door is the bar and seating area—sparsely decorated without the kitschy wall hangings or adornments of a themed bar—and a small stage stashed to the side. (I took this picture just before a recent show) Between the stage and the bar is a swinging door, which leads to the bathrooms and the concert venue. As a result of this design, comics performing during the Sunday night show are forced to confront a flowing stream of customers making their way from the concert venue to the bar (and back) with the feigned spontaneity of a comic doing the same crowd work in one set after another.

While this design may be distracting, The Knitting Factory was founded as a multi-purpose performance venue. Michael Dorf opened the first Knitting Factory in 1987 as an art gallery and performance space meant to join together different performance media. The initial space in Manhattan programmed various styles of performance on different nights—poetry and spoken word on Wednesdays, jazz on Thursdays, etc. [This kind of audience fragmentation is fairly common in comedy clubs, too—e.g feature nights dedicated to different races and ethnicities] As a result, you get a fairly mixed crowd of local patrons watching whichever Sunday night game is on the two televisions (which are turned off as soon as the show begins), anyone sitting at the bar, those wandering concert-goers, and those actually there to see Hannibal and his guests.

Continue reading →

Politics, Mark Twain, and Blackface

Mark Twain caused all kinds of trouble.  In fact, he reveled in it.

He famously advertised his lectures with the tag line, “The Trouble Begins at 8,” and was apparently delighted to share that line with his favorite blackface minstrel troupe, the San Francisco Minstrels.  Both Twain and the minstrel troupe played around with variations—”The Insurrection Begins . . . ,” “The Orgies Commence . . .,” “The Inspiration will begin to gush . . . ,” “The Trouble Commences . . .”—but both used the more famous version for years without interruption.  One thing is sure.  The phrase was indelibly associated with both:  “trouble” was their trademark.

The San Francisco Minstrels were not what we expect when we think of blackface performance—at least, they weren’t what I expected when I first began researching them—for their popularity was based in part on their political satire.  They were satirists who believed that the only possible fodder for a sacred cow was a stick of dynamite, and while they did indeed parody black people, they parodied everyone; they were what John Strasbaugh calls “poly-ethnic offenders” or what Chris Rock terms “equal-opportunity offenders.”  And while some of their routines are ugly with racist underpinnings, other routines question these stereotypes as essential categories, challenging ridiculousness, corruption, and pretension wherever they see it.  A surprising amount of their material has little direct connection to race at all. Known for end-men Charley Backus’s and Billy Birch’s free-wheeling improvisation on current events, the San Francisco Minstrels attracted nineteenth-century audiences in much the same way that Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert do today:  their satiric spin on current events, politics, and entertainment.

M. D. Landon once quipped that Charley Backus had been “censured by the Speaker of the California Legislature for making fun of his brother members.  This broke poor Charley’s heart and he joined a minstrel company so’s to be where no one would grumble when he indulged in a little pleasantry”[1]   Emma Benedict Shephard remembers that they “always managed to hit the public men or local politics in their questions and answers”[2] and Francis Smith,  that “the San Francisco Minstrels [Hall was] packed on Saturday afternoons with Wall Street brokers, roaring over the personal jokes, those never-to-be-forgotten end-men, Billy Birch and Charley Backus, had prepared for them overnight.”[3]

Twain famously wrote in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s calendar that “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”  Charley Backus held a similar view.  When asked if he would like to run for Congress, the blackface actor quipped,  “No, indeed . . . I only have to play the fool a few hours on the stage, at night; but in Congress, I’d have to play that rôle all the time.”[4]  It’s pretty easy to see why Twain enjoyed their performance style.

So when in 1875, Thomas Nast published a political cartoon in Harper’s Weekly that bears the caption, “The Trouble Has Commenced – A Tale of Anxiety,” there is little doubt that his audiences would have gotten the reference.  The cartoon offers a caricature of Congressional debates over proposed Civil Rights legislation.  Congressman John Young Brown of Kentucky was vigorously attacking the Republican efforts to pass the bill during a lame-duck session.  Brown’s remarks got personal, and when Speaker of the House Blaine questioned his intent, Brown replied, “If I was to desire to express all that was pusillanimous in war, inhuman in peace, forbidding in morals, and infamous in politics, I should call it ‘Butlerizing.'”[5]

harpers the trouble has commenced nast

His insult was directed at Benjamin Butler, Congressman from Massachusetts and a former Union general notorious for his harsh occupation of New Orleans and his use of international law to argue that escaped slaves were “contraband” of war that he was not obliged to return to their owners, earning him the title of “Beast Butler.”  When censured by Speaker Blaine, Brown apologized, saying that he intended “no disrespect,” and with comic timing born of the political theatre, he added  “. . . Continue reading →

Humor, Irony and Modern Native American Poetry

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.: I’m a little bit surprised to hear you using the term “Indian.”

Dr. Hobson: “I think getting hung up on the terms–Native American, American Indian, Indian–is being a little over-sensitive and calling too much attention to something that is very minor.

H.I.A.: What does bother you?

Dr. Hobson: That Indians are so often spoken of in the past tense instead of as a part of today’s society.”

H.I.A.: On that note, let’s look at your poem.

A Discussion about Indian Affairs

by: Geary Hobson

She was a white woman
from some little town
in one of the Dakotas.
“I’ve heard about Cherokees
–everybody’s heard about Cherokees–
but I always thought Chickasaws
were some made-up tribe—
one that never existed—
invented by someone like Al Capp,
a word like ‘Kickapoo,’ you know?”

“There’s a Kickapoo tribe, too.”
I said.      “Oh,” she said,
and having nothing more to say
on the subject, said nothing.
I wondered if we’d ever have
Anything to say to one another.

H.I.A.: The surface irony of this poem is about tribal names. Can you tell us what we may not be seeing beneath the surface?

Dr. Hobson: “One of the deeper ironies in this poem is that these tribal names aren’t the names that we call ourselves. The name ‘Cherokee’ comes from our neighbors the Choctaw who told the Spanish that we were ‘the people in the hills.’ ‘Navajo’ and ‘Sioux’ are imposed names, and so on. Some of the names imposed from the outside almost sound like words developed for comedy. ‘Kickapoo’ was an imposed name and then in Al Capp they would talk about ‘Kickapoo Joy Juice.’ Beyond that, ‘tribe’ is a word that was put on us. We think of ourselves as nations, each with its own language and culture.”

H.I.A.: Did the story in this poem actually happen?

Dr. Hobson: “Yes. The woman and I were teaching assistants together in the English Department in New Mexico in the 1970s. I wrote the poem to make a broader point; certainly not to make fun of her. The biggest irony perhaps was that despite the last sentence in the poem, ‘I wondered if we’d ever have anything to say to one another.’ we ended up becoming very good friends.”

H.I.A.: Is there anything else you would like to say?

Dr. Hobson: “Indian Literature is a true literary entity–not a side note or an appendage to American Literature. It deserves that level of recognition. Speaking of recognition–and it doesn’t matter if they are in North American or South America–I would love to see an Indian author win the Nobel Prize.”

* “A Discussion about Indian Affairs” was published in Geary Hobson’s Deer Hunting and Other Poems, 1990 and American Indian Literature An Anthology edited by Alan R. Velie, 1991.

Humor in America is on Twitter!

Follow us at @HumorinAmerica!   Every blog post will automatically be added to the Twitter feed.   Click the handy dandy “Follow” button on the right side of the screen to subscribe with your Twitter account.  For those wary of a full fledged commitment to Twitter, you can come here see our latest tweets in the sidebar without signing up.

Occupy Wall Street in Political Cartoons

Tracy Wuster

See also a newer post with some newer cartoons here.

While not following Occupy Wall Street as closely as I would like due to a hectic schedule, I have noticed the role of humor in the protests, especially in the signs.

As M. Thomas Inge’s earlier post pointed out, political cartoons have long been a major form of humor in American political discourse.  With this in mind, here are  few cartoons that I have found worth considering:  (please also see Halloween specific Occupy cartoons here)

from: DailyKos cartoons (more here)

Mike Luckovich from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


See slideshow of cartoons here.

Please comment on cartoons and post links to others in the comments.

(c) 2011, all cartoons are copyrighted and used under fair use

Five Subjects Behind: Some thoughts on grunge, time machines, and “Clam Chow-Dah!”

by Tracy Wuster

On January 11th, 1992, I gathered with a group of friends to watch Saturday Night Live, our usual Saturday night activity as high school sophomores.  This was a special night.  Nirvana was playing, and we were living just north of Seattle.  Grunge was our thing: flannel, mosh pits, and, most of all, music.

This was the episode on which the band played “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” thrashed their instruments during “Territorial Pissings,” and kissed each other during the closing credits. The band’s anarchic spirit expressed not only our (possibly exaggerated) teen angst but also the humor of destruction, noise, and pissing off parents and other authorities that went hand in hand with the angst.

But, oddly enough, what I remember most from that episode of Saturday Night Live is not Nirvana’s performance but a sketch featuring the host Rob Morrow.  The sketch is entitled, “Five Subjects Behind,” but I have always referred to it as “Clam Chow-Dah!”

Watch:

In the sketch, Morrow is at a diner with two friends–a man and a woman.  As the conversation proceeds, Morrow awkwardly and consistently returns to previous subjects with a punchline now hopelessly outdated, interrupting the flow of conversation to the increasing consternation of his friends.  At one point, the character played by Mike Myers mentions Boston and clam chowder.  After several subjects go by, Morrow bellows out: “Clam Chow-dah!” in a Boston-esque accent, and then awkwardly recreates the context, defeating the humor of the comment and, in fact, forcing an awkwardness that might be described as “anti-humorous.”*

Continue reading →

Introducing our Poetry Editor

We are pleased to introduce Caroline Sposto as our poetry editor.  She will be posting humorous poetry on a regular basis.  Welcome.

Caroline Zarlengo Sposto has a B.A. in English from The University of Colorado and an M.S. in Electronic Media from Kutztown University. She spent the majority of her professional career as co-founder and managing partner of Sposto Interactive digital agency. She sold her interest in the company in 2009, returned to creative writing and has since published several poems, short stories and essays.

John Updike (1932 – 2009) crafted meaningful works about the complexities of mainstream American culture for more than five decades. Though best known for his protagonist, Harry Rabbit Angstrom, this longstanding critic, chronicler, and champion of our middle class first published light verse in the New Yorker. While his witty, poetic take on post-war society is incisive and satirical, it glows with amiable affection for its subject instead of haughty contempt or caustic cynicism.

His 1955 poem, “To an Usherette” ran in the New Yorker during the cold war. Its quirky characters, clever diminutives, unusual rhymes and musical meter provide dazzling, accessible fun at face value. Yet between the lines, this poem is filled with rich commentary about a pent-up and often-hypocritical era.

Levittown-inspired developments were changing the American landscape. A decade had passed since Rosie the Riveter had traded factory work for suburban domesticity or a marginalized “pink collar” job. Television was fueling an unprecedented level of consumerism, while fine-tuning our standards of social conformity. This was a period of acute class-consciousness, mass upward mobility, stifling corporate culture and commercially driven cookie-cutter sophistication. Moreover, behind closed doors, millions of American couples were quietly coping with the fallout from over-urgent, wartime marriages.

What underlying messages speak to you through this charming poem? Share your insight. Tell me what you think. Enjoy!

To an Usherette

Ah, come with me,
Petite chérie,
And we shall rather happy be.
I know a modest luncheonette
Where, for a little, one can get
A choplet, baby lima beans,
And, segmented, two tangerines.

Le coup de grâce
My pretty lass,
Will be a demi-demitasse
Within a serviette conveyed
By weazened waiters, underpaid,
Who mincingly might grant us spoons
While a combo tinkles trivial tunes.

Ah, with me come,
My mini-femme
And I shall say I love you some.

All material except for poem, (c) 2011, Caroline Sposto

Roseanne, Roseanne, and Where We Stand

Photo of Roseanne Barr by Monterey Media

What did I do the summer after I earned my master’s degree?  I spent the better part of my free time on the couch watching Roseanne reruns.  An F4 tornado unceremoniously concluded my last semester at the University of Alabama, and the frightful costs associated with cleaning up my life and property kept me solidly out of vacation mode. Things had been rough even before that.  Those closest to me were experiencing layoffs, long-term unemployment, and bankruptcy.  My own medical bills were piling up, and to top it all off I was growing out my bangs.

Continue reading →

“Drink Some Lemonade, and Forget About It”

I know who I want to be when I grow up.

“I’m having a good time / Please don’t blame me,” she sings to me, her voice full of laughter.

“I’m knocking myself out.  Don’t try to tame me.
Let me have my fun, I’ve got to have my fling . . . .

I’m playing it cool while I’m living, because tomorrow, I may die.
That’s why I’m having a convention today, and I ain’t passing nothing by.
So if I make my bed hard, that’s my problem, let me lay.
I’m having a good time, living my life today.

Her name was Alberta Hunter.  Born on April Fools’ Day, she felt that age was a “condition of the mind” (Taylor and Cook 253), and she lived her life to prove it.  I can’t change my birthdate, but I can lie, can’t I?  I’ve got the fool part down, anyway.

Trouble is, that’s the part I have to grow out of, because Miss Hunter was no fool.  I’m working on it.

It’s a step in the right direction, though, because she believed that with hard work, passion, and laughter, you could achieve anything you set out to do.  And that you should take responsibility for whatever was yours:  “So if I make my road rough–that’s the price I have to pay [not you],” she’d sing.  She never worried much about nay-sayers.  If anything, they just made her more stubborn and the sparkle in her eye brighter. She always did what she loved and drew strength from it.  She had no patience for those “who thought God made them and threw the pattern away,” and she knew that giving of yourself, bringing smiles to others, was the most important thing in life.  She only got better as she got older.

She was a “singer of songs,” who refused to be pigeon-holed.  Hunter was one of the only successful female blues composers, though she could never read or write a note of music or tell a band what key a song was going to be in.  But she knew a false note when she heard it, and in 1923, with Lovie Austin, she wrote a little tune called “The Downhearted Blues,” which she recorded for Paramount.  It sold well, she was encouraged to write more, and given a good contract.  But then came the woman Hunter called “the world’s greatest Blues singer, that awful Bessie Smith,” who made “Downhearted Blues” forever her song, selling 800,000 records.  Hunter loved Bessie, loved her version of the song, but she still sang it her way . . . and loved collecting the royalties.

Hunter gave every song her own spin.  As she sang, she improvised words that came to her, often bringing surprised laughter from her audience with witty double-entendres or unexpected twists to old songs.  And her twists, like her twists in life itself, are always about verve, about life-affirming, don’t-let-anything-get-you-down-or-keep-you-down verve.  “A lot of people take a beautiful ballad, they sing it slowly, tell you they’re singing the blues,” she once said.  “Don’t believe them.  I’m gonna sing you some blues, so help me.”  She knew that when you’re singing the blues, “You’re telling a story.  Blues are a song from your soul. When you’re singing the blues, you’re singing” (Taylor and Cook 37).  And then she’d let you know that when life threw you a curve, you had “take a chance and gamble / Lord, everywhere [you] go.”

She was no stranger to taking the gamble.   She was on her own from the time she was 12 — or 16, depending on who’s telling the story.  Alberta Hunter never let a little thing like chronology pin her down.  She ran from Memphis to Chicago, escaping her stepfather’s fists and her school principal’s lecherous advances.  And she wouldn’t stop singing, even when people told her that she was terrible.  During a time when many people said that “you sing blues and jazz, and you’re on your way to the devil with a hat on” (Taylor and Cook 38), Hunter just “grabbed the lyrics, shook them, stomped on them and then picked them up and caressed them” (Washington Post, 8 January 1979, B9), all the while carrying herself like a lady.  Touched by her passion, dignity, and sheer bull-headedness, the prostitutes and gamblers of Chicago took her under their wing, made sure she stayed safe, and cultivated her talents.  Others may have had stronger voices, but Hunter knew how to work an audience like no one else, and she had stories to tell.  Before long, she was a headliner at Chicago’s famous Dreamland, and then a recording star.  When World War II came, she devoted herself to singing for the troops with the USO.

She quit performing in 1955 because she decided she was too old for the hard life on the road, and began volunteering in a New York City hospital, soon becoming an LPN.  In 1977, Hunter was forcibly retired, after 20 years of service to the NYC hospital, because they thought she was 70.

Hunter had them fooled, though.  She was 82.

And just about to launch her second career as a performer, her voice stronger than it ever was, seasoned now and full of laughter.  She recorded numerous albums and was “rocking” her “castle” at sell-out performances until her death in 1984 at the age of 89.  A little thing like chronology never got her down.  Continue reading →