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!”
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conversation proceeds, Morrow awkwardly and consistently returns to previous subjects with a punchline now hopelessly outdated, interrupting the flow of conversation to the increasing consternation of his friends.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.”*
After a particularly egregious comment, Morrow’s character retreats to the bathroom, where he spots two machines: a condom machine next to the sink and a time machine, conveniently located in a bathroom stall. Grabbing a condom (thus raising the issue of the sexual relationship of the trio of friends and, in my view, adding a subtle but funny layer to the meaning of their humorous conversation), Morrow enters the time machine.
Cut to the previous scene, one of the earlier jokes comes up, and Morrow is able to insert his punchline at the appropriate point. Laughter. Then Mike Myers mentions Boston and clam chowder, to which Morrow replies “Clam Chow-Dah!” Laughter, high fives, fade.
For some reason, this sketch has stuck with me more than probably any Saturday Night Live sketch that I can think of. When I am in a group of friends and my jokes are a bit behind, or if I think of a good punchline too late to put it to use, a voice in the back of my head, with a Boston accent, bellows out: “Clam Chow-Dah!” And I have found that I am not alone–other people remember this sketch, even if they don’t remember that it was Rob Morrow in it, or even who Rob Morrow was.
To me, this sketch speaks to several key aspects of humor: to the importance of timing, to the awkwardness of a failed joker, and to the comic importance of failed jokes as a comedic trope (a key use of “anti-humor”*).
More recently, the “Chow-Dah” phenomena has asserted itself in relation to teaching. When I realize I should have mentioned something or other to my students, my internalized reaction is as often as not framed in terms of this sketch. After a discussion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my “American Literature since 1865” course, for instance, I realized I should have discussed Huck’s reaction to the “drunken” rider at the circus in Chapter XXII. This would have been a great example of a point a student was straining to make about Huck’s interpretation of events in the book. Realizing this after the fact, I heard in my head: “Chow-Dah!”
Looking at the passage later, I realized it was an interesting example of something similar to being five subjects behind. In the scene, Huck is attending a circus when a drunk man forces his way out of the crowd and demands to ride a horse. The crowd roars as the drunk man clings to the horse as it flies around the ring “like the very nation.” Except for Huck, who trembles to see the man’s danger. Suddenly, the man stands on the horse and begins to shed his rough clothing–all seventeen suits! Huck reads the situation this way:
Then the ringmaster he see how he had been fooled, and he WAS the sickest ringmaster you ever see, I reckon. Why, it was one of his own men! He had got up that joke all out of his own head, and never let on to nobody. Well, I felt sheepish enough to be took in so, but I wouldn’t a been in that ringmaster’s place, not for a thousand dollars. I don’t know; there may be bullier circuses than what that one was, but I never struck them yet. Anyways, it was plenty good enough for ME; and wherever I run across it, it can have all of MY custom every time.
Huck is behind the punchline. Not quite the same situation, but similar. I sure wished I would have discussed this with my students before they went and wrote their papers on the book. And while not a fatal mistake by any means, I think it would have helped.
Thankfully, I am teaching the course next semester, and while not exactly a time machine, being able to teach a book or a subject again and again functions as something of a machine that allows those of us who teach American humor to try again, to get our timing right.
With this in mind, I would like to encourage you to submit your own pedagogical insights on the teaching of humor. The “Humor in America” site would like to publish insights into pedagogy of any aspect of American humor (broadly defined). Post of any length are encouraged. Please share assignments, insights, activities, stories, etc. etc. Please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
* “anti-humor”– not the absence of humor, as in times when things are serious or merely boring, but the active failure of humor, as when someone tells a joke that fails because it is stupid, out-dated, prejudiced, or otherwise just not funny. The result of “anti-humor” is most often awkwardness, but also possibly anger, chagrin, or head-shaking. Some anti-humor may cause laughter, but not laughter directed at the joke but directed at the joker.
Some comedians actively incorporate anti-humor into their acts. Most notably, Steve Martin’s comic persona in the 1970s was partially based on his failures as a comedian. For instance, on his album Comedy is Not Pretty (1979), Martin tells this joke:
You know, a lot of people come to me and they say “Steve, how can you be so fucking funny?” I’m not trying to brag, I’m not trying to be a big shot, but I have the gift that, uh, all the great comedians have, and I’m talking about the one element that is crucial to all delivery of comedy material. I’m talking about, of course, ti-ming, ti, timing, timing, timing.