Monthly Archives: November, 2011

The Mark Twain Circle of America

Linda Morris

President-Elect, Mark Twain Circle of America

The Mark Twain Circle of America, founded in 1986, is dedicated to the study of Mark Twain, his work, and his life and times.  It is the largest single-author society in the country.  Almost all of the prominent Mark Twain scholars in the U. S. and abroad are members of the organization, but so are many non-academics, humor scholars, Mark Twain impersonators, and lay fans of his writings.    Membership costs only $30 a year for U. S. members, and $32 for those from abroad, and for that they receive many benefits.  The Web site for the Mark Twain Circle is to be found on the University of Illinois Honor’s Program home site.Mark Twain cigar rocking chair Samuel Langhorne Clemens

The most prominent benefit is receipt of the Mark Twain Annual, a journal dedicated to publishing critical and pedagogical articles, as well as substantive book reviews.  The Annual is edited by Ann M. Ryan.  The most recent issue for 2010 contained eleven articles by prominent Twain scholars reflecting often in a personal way on earlier scholarship that influenced their own work; three critical essays; two “notes;” and six book reviews.  The Annual is published by Wiley-Blackwell in their American Literature Collection, and all articles are peer-reviewed.  The 2011 issue is due out in February and will be delivered promptly to all Circle members.

The Mark Twain Circle also publishes a newsletter, called the Mark Twain Circular, which is edited by Chad Rohman.  The Circular, published twice a year, typically includes a “President’s Letter,” information about upcoming Circle and other Mark Twain events, and short reviews of recent books on Mark Twain, his life and work.  All current members of the Circle receive the Circular, in April and in November.

Mark Twain Puck lecture Samuel Langhorne Clemens illustration  In addition to its publications, the Circle sponsors panels each year at the  MLA (the Modern Language Association) and the ALA (American  Literature Association).  Anyone may apply to present a paper, but we ask all those chosen to participate to join the society before the conference takes place.  At the upcoming MLA conference in Seattle in January of 2012, the Circle is sponsoring two panels, one entitled “Mark Twain:  Editing and Editions,” and the second entitled “Mark Twain and ‘The Other.’”  The call for papers for Circle-sponsored MLA panels and papers goes out as early as February of the previous year, so watch for the call for next year if you are interested in presenting a paper.

We are also affiliated with the ALA, and that conference takes place each May, alternating between San Francisco and Boston.  We always sponsor at least two panels there, as well as a lively reception for all Circle members and friends.  Please see the conference program for the 2012 papers.  Please check the Circle’s webpage for future CFPs for MLA and ALA.

The Circle is affiliated with all of the key Mark Twain sites in America.  These include the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the University of California at Berkeley, The Elmira College Center for Mark Twain StudiesThe Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, and The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri.

We’re a wide-ranging, inclusive organization, and all are welcome to join us.  We hope you will consider it.  It is hard to imagine an author more central to the study of American humor than Mark Twain.

Editor’s Note: We hope to have a number of academic societies describe their work.  If you run a society, or know someone who does, please get in touch with us.

For other posts on Mark Twain, use the category cloud in the side bar, or:

Mark Twain Prize

Mark Twain and Black Face

Huck Finn and the Critics

Huck Finn and Teaching

Mark Twain Links

Mark Twain and Medicine

Mark Twain’s Tale within a Tail within a Tale

Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically)

Mark Twain and The Jumping Frog

Happy Birthday Hal Holbrook!


Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens white suit

The third best gift of all: The Muppets and Laughter

Tracy Wuster

Over the past few weeks, I had several discussions with friends and acquaintances about the upcoming Muppet movie.  People were excited.  I discovered that people my age grew up with the Muppets–first with Sesame Street and then the Muppet Show, with some Fraggles thrown in.  My earliest movie-going memory is seeing a Muppet movie, probably “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984), with my dad and brother.  I may remember it because my dad snored through the previews, movie, and credits–despite my brother nudging him constantly.*

But the Muppets are lodged in my memory for more than my dad’s critical response to the film, of which Statler and Waldorf would no doubt have approved.  My sense of humor was shaped by the show and movies in ways that are hard to define–a mixture of bizarre (Gonzo and his chickens), cornball (Fozzie), counterculture (Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem), anarchic (Animal; Crazy Harry), musical (Rowlf;  musical numbers in general), absurd (The Swedish Chef; Beaker), brash (Miss Piggy), and sentimental (Kermit).

The Muppets helped to define humor for me and many people my age, along with Saturday Night Live, Looney Toons, the movies of Mel Brooks and John Hughes, The Simpsons and other sitcomes, and the stand-up of the 1970s and 80s.  And then the Muppets faded.  The Muppets movies of the 1990s, following the death of Jim Henson in 1990–Christmas Carol (1992), Treasure Island (1996), and Muppets from Space (1999)–were largely forgettable.

The new Muppet movie is planned as a reboot of the franchise, with a self-referential plot about the fade and rediscovery of the Muppets through what the Muppets do best: putting on a show.  A main reason for hope for the new Muppet movie was the presence of Jason Segel at the helm. Segel wrote and stars, and his love for the Muppets as a comedic touchstone from his childhood shows through the film.  When Segel stated in an interview that he cried the first time he heard Kermit read lines he had written, I understood.  The new Muppet movie was thus overlaid with a heavy layer of generational nostalgia and the desire for a beloved childhood icon to return to past glory.

Thus, my expectations for the film itself were quite high: I wanted to be entertained.  And entertainment is what the Muppets are all about.  And the film is entertaining–from the opening montage of Segel and his brother (a muppet named Walter) through the big show in which the Muppets attempt to save their theater.  A few dud moments–the “rap” of the evil villain Tex Richman, the unnecessary “Moopets”–are quickly glossed over in favor of highlights, including a few great musical numbers–the chickens clucking Cee Lo Green’s “F*ck You”; a Queen-inspired “Man or Muppet?” [listen below]; and a moving version of “Rainbow Connection.”

If I had gone into this movie simply wanting to be entertained, then the movie would have been a solid success.  I laughed, I got sentimental, I enjoyed the celebrity cameos.  I rooted for the good guys to overcome the villain, knowing full well that the Muppets always win in the end.  But once the movie was over, my academic mind began to think over the movie, assessing its position as a humorous work.  It’s difficult to approach a subject critically that has such a nostalgic connection to childhood.  But I had promised to write a review for this website–something possibly insightful.  I have never written a movie review–academic or otherwise–but here goes:

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What’s funny about America

A clip from David Sedaris (contains adult language)

Happy Thanksgiving!

During our first few months of existence, we here at “Humor in America” have used holidays as a means of exploring humor (and filling space).  From Fourth of July to Labor Day to Halloween, we have marked certain ritual days by linking them to their related humor.  Thanksgiving, on the other hand, has very little humor to it–aside from the ceremonial Turkey, which is surely a funny animal.

But Thanksgiving is a holiday with little humor to it.  Few movies focus on Thanksgiving family foibles–it is too close to Christmas, and few of the traditions associated with the holidays evoke laughter.

Instead, the holiday is a time for giving thanks.  So, thank you for looking at this site.  Yesterday we passed 4,000 page views, with over 50 posts from  contributors.

[Update: three years later, we have passed 300k views with over 200 posts.  Thanks to all our contributors–old and new–for helping us expand.  Check out the “Contributors” section for more information.  The top posts below are also new, but fitting for this post.]

Thanks to our contributing editors for their excellent work:

Matt Powell:

Thanksgiving Dinner: A Musical Menu

Bonnie Applebeet:

Roseanne, Roseanne, and Where We Stand

Humor in America is on Twitter!

Beza Merid:

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

Humor and the Digital Archive

Sharon McCoy

American Deadline Politics, Supercommittees, and Channeling Teddy

Politics, Mark Twain, and Blackface

“Drink Some Lemonade, and Forget About It”

Poetry Corner–Paul Laurence Dunbar: Changing the Joke to Slip the Yoke

‘Cause Life Ain’t Funny

Caroline Zarlengo Sposto (our poetry editor)

Happy Birthday W.C. Handy!

“Memo to the Candidate: The Town Hall Meeting”

Humor, Irony and Modern Native American Poetry

Introducing our Poetry Editor

Tracy Wuster (managing editor)

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

Occupy Wall Street in Political Cartoons

Occupy Wall Street Cartoons, Post 2

The Mark Twain Prize

Humor Studies: An Interview with Don Nilsen

Class Projects Welcome

Happy Birthday…E.B. White!

We would also like to thank our many contributors:

M. Thomas Inge

The Essential Nature of American Laughter

Politics and the American Sense of Humor

Michael Kiskis

The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Jason Mellard

Sagebrush Comedian: The Passing of Cactus Pryor

Phil Nel

Syd Hoff’s Teeth: The Leftist Satire of A. Redfield

Don Nilsen

Humor Studies: An Interview with Don Nilsen

Sam Sackett




Richard Talbot:

Mark Twain and Medicine: A Review of Sorts

Please read and enjoy the posts.  And please contribute.  We would love to add you to this list.

Bonus cartoons:

Dana Summers-Tribune Media Services

Thanksgiving on Wall Street, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

The Time I Got Thrown Out of the 2000 Democratic National Convention

First off, they had it coming, let’s be honest. Seriously. Who gives press passes to the National Lampoon? Whose decision was that? I can just see our application hitting their desk: Deloris, another pass request! Oh for the love of God, Mildred, who is it this time? Who knows? Something called National Lampoon. Sounds kind of familiar…but I can’t quite place it…National Lampoon…National Lampoon. Dotcom. They have a dotcom after their name. And then Deloris brightens up, “Oh, dotcom! Al loves dotcoms. Very green, apparently. Piles and piles of cash, he says. Any dotcoms are a go!

We couldn’t believe it ourselves when the passes arrived in the mail. It was like Willy Wonka and the golden ticket. We literally jumped around the office holding hands and doing kicks and singing (to the tune of ‘I’ve Got a Golden Ticket’): “We’re gonna see Al Gore!!! We’re gonna see Al Gore!!!” There was only one problem. There were two passes. And there were five of us: an art director (Joe) and four editors (Mason, Cummin, Crespo and myself). My editor, our boss: Scott Rubin (ticket holder #1) snapped into action:

Brykman!! You’re the smallest guy here. Tiny, in fact. You’’re like a weasel.

Thank you, sir, I said.

I mean that in that you can work your way through a crowd.

Lithe would have sufficed.


I prefer to think of myself as lithe.

Whatever. I’m gonna need you on my team. Here’s the other press pass. I mean, nobody can even see you, you’re so little. Er, lithe. Sometimes I don’t even see you and you’re standing right in front of me.

Whisper words of wisdom, I said, hugging my press pass to my breast, Let it be.

Everything was finally coming together. Of course I should be the one chosen. After all, I was the smallest. It was unbelievable. Was I dreaming? Could this really be happening? It was the exact opposite of everything I’d ever experienced in my life up until that moment, particularly when it came to gym. And yet today, all that had changed, the slate wiped clean. For today, I had been picked first not in spite of being the smallest, but because I was the smallest. The most nimble. Dare I say, the most political-ninja-like.

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American Deadline Politics, Supercommittees, and Channeling Teddy


They’ve become an American way of life.  We live deadline to deadline, prioritizing and tackling our daily tasks by choosing which 2×4 we don’t want to hit us in the face at this particular moment.  We dash, not from project to project or goal to goal, but from deadline to deadline, clutching cups of our favorite sugar-infused caffeine fix.   With whipped cream on top.  And we always get the lids so we don’t spill when we have to duck because we missed a deadline that we decided wasn’t a “real” one.

Hold onto your coffee and get ready to duck, America.  As usual, Congress is taking American trends to new heights of parody.

Remember that Wednesday night deadline?  Remember November 23, when the bi-partisan Supercommittee for Deficit Reduction is supposed to agree on a way to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit or punitive automatic spending cuts would kick in?  Well, apparently, the committee has all gone out for coffee.

With lids.  And those little sleeve thingys that are supposed to keep your fingers from getting burned.

Last week, it seemed that the committee was aiming for a last-minute solution, in the grand tradition of American Deadline Politics.  Facing the looming Wednesday deadline, the co-chair of the Supercomittee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, made a momentous announcement last Friday to reassure the American people:  the special Congressional committee was actually going to — brace yourselves — work through the weekend.

But last night it became clear that at least 6 out of the 12 committee members didn’t meet anywhere but in the green rooms of various broadcast shows, already in damage-control mode, clutching their lidded coffees and trying desperately to put their particular spin on the committee’s absolute failure.   They were all talking about their efforts in the past tense, folks.  Three days before the deadline.

It’s un-American.

Truth is, they apparently wanted a full week’s vacation for the Thanksgiving holidays like every other Congressperson.  No, really.  I’m not kidding.  Could I make up stuff like this?  According to this morning’s Washington Post, our nation’s capitol is almost empty of politicians, and “legislative reaction to the committee’s failure will not come until early next month.”

They all left town.  Before the deadline.  I say, let’s give them all a real vacation.  A permanent one.  At least it would cut something out of the Federal budget.

What happened?  Back in August, politicians had a commitment to meeting deadlines, honoring American tradition.  Back in August, American Deadline Politics had begun to resemble my students’ gleeful management of online assignment submission:

“I turned mine in at 11:48!”
“Gotcha!  Mine is 11:52.30.”
“No way!  You l-o-s-e-r-s!  11:58 and 45 seconds!  Woot!  Woot!  Woot!

Remember how triumphant Congress and the President were back in the summer, when at the last possible moment, they gleefully and proudly came up with a compromise to keep the Federal government from shutting down?  And then they were surprised when everyone else was shaking their heads and lowering our credit rating?  That is American Deadline Politics.  I’m telling you.  At least my students usually turn in strong and provocative work, even when their coffee cups have lids.

Honestly, though, the political and economic fiascoes of the past year make me shockingly nostalgic for the vision of America as perpetrated by one of our current favorite honorary Americans, the irascible Dr. House, before he was Dr. House, back in 1992 when he was a Brit.

We don’t care whose ass we kick.  If we’re ever all alone,

We just stand in front of a mirror and try to kick our own.
You can move your ass, haul your ass, and bustin’ ass is fine
And there ain’t a better place to put your ass than on the line . . . .

The one colloquialism he missed, surprisingly, was “covering your ass.”  A real  American would never have missed that one.  Seriously, though, if I put a PayPal link right here, will you all chip in to help buy these folks on the Debt Supercommittee a good mirror?  The ones they own must be the fun-house type.

Truly, it all makes me long for one of our most famous ass-kicking Presidents, for all his flaws.  And he had many . . .

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Really?!?!!? with Seth and Kermit

Saturday Night Live – Weekend Update: Really with Seth and Kermit – Video –

The Muppet Movie opens this week.  For people who grew up watching the Muppet Show and the early Muppet movies, the return of the gang to cultural relevance is exciting.  Watch out for a review of the movie.  In the meantime, enjoy Kermit the Frog and Seth Meyers skewering Congress on Saturday Night Live.

Visual Humor Editor–Coming Soon

Tracy Wuster

Here at “Humor in America,” we have seen a significant number of people searching for political cartoons.  As a form of visual humor, cartoons are a key facet of American humor.  The study of visual humor was historically taken less seriously than the study of literary humor, although recent work has begun to rectify this disparity.

The editorial board of “Humor in America” has found a Visual Humor editor to post on a regular basis (one or two times per month) about visual humor in America.  We envision this subject broadly–from Columbus (and before) to today’s newspaper; from all regions of America to the “Americas” imagined hemispherically; visual humor by Americans and about Americans; and visual humor of a wide range of genre–cartoons, comic strips, high art, folk art, graffiti, sculpture, film, advertisements, graphic novels, comic books, photographs, etc. etc.

Occupy Wall Street Cartoons, Post 2

Tracy Wuster

There has been significant interest in the subject of political cartoons on Occupy Wall Street. Here are a few new cartoons and links of collections of cartoons.  The crackdowns on the OWS protesters this week have created new images connected to the subject–such as the anonymous or otherwise militarized police and the question of Constitutional rights.

Drew Sheneman-Tribune Media Services

Michael Ramirez-Creators Syndicate

While the comparison of the OWS movement to the Tea Party is undoubtedly important, the above cartoon seems shallow and not terribly humorous.  The below piece, on the other hand, is more evocative–and not entirely clear on its political stance.

Don Wright-Tribune Media Services

The above from: U.S. News  (See link for 22 more cartoons)

See below for:

Independent comic artists on the OWS movement

Liberal Website Daily Kos features regular comics as part of their activism

Michael Cavna’s Washington Post column on cartoons

Daryl Cagle’s Cartoon Blog

Continue reading →

Happy Birthday W.C. Handy!

Happy Birthday W.C. Handy!

Posted on November 16, 2011

Composer, musician and lyricist W.C. (William Christopher) Handy was born November 16, 1873 in Florence Alabama.  In 1909, he moved his band to Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee and became the “Father of the Blues.” Handy was an educated man who used folk influences in his music, meticulously studied his influences and carefully documented his work. In addition to the wonderful, distinctively American contemporary blues sound he created, he also developed wonderful lyrics that helped to shape and popularize this genre. Handy died in 1958.

Here is Louis Armstrong performing Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues.”