Monthly Archives: January, 2012

10,000 Views!

Sometime in the past few days, we passed 10,000 views for Humor in America.  Many thanks to all of the contributors and the readers.

Please see the new Contributors page for a guide to what has been published and by whom.

 

Happy Birthday, Harry Ruby!

On this day in 1895, songwriter Harry Ruby was born. In 1920, he teamed up with lyricist Bert Kalmar and they collaborated until Kalmar’s death in 1947; writing some of the cleverest and most enduring standards in the history of Vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood.

If you were here, I’d channel “The Drowsy Chaperone” and play Harry Ruby songs until the wee hours of the morning. Today, we’ll share just one– a personal favorite from the many they wrote for the Marx Brothers.

In this clip from the 1934 comedy “Horse Feathers,” eccentric Professor Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) serenades beautiful Connie (Thelma Todd) at a graceful pace now lost to the ravages of time. The song, “Everyone Says I Love You” is reprised in the film as each Marx Brother performs his own rendition. In 1996 it was the title song of a cinematic musical written and directed by Woody Allen.

Thank you, Harry and Bert. . . wherever you are. . .

The complete list of Harry Ruby song titles is available for perusal at your leisure and many more audio and video recordings can be found online.

Being Nerdy Loudly: “Little League” by Cap’n Jazz

One assignment that has become a staple of my first-year writing course is a reflective essay about why your favorite song is your favorite song. This is the first major essay that we write, in fact, followed by more research-driven essays about music and its social, historical, and aesthetic role in our culture. My own personal favorite song is “Little League” by Cap’n Jazz, a young batch of super-smart goofballs from Chicago in the early 1990s. They may have done a reunion tour or something since then, but that’s not the kind of thing I tend to feel comfortable encouraging. Either way, and nostalgia or no, this song is one that I really still love.

But where’s the humor in all of this, you ask? For some reason – and this happens every time – most of my students straight up erupt into laughter when I play “Little League” for them in class. Something about this song is funny to them, but it is not a funny song. It might be the howling. Or maybe the fact that this song doesn’t sound at all like the way that I look. So over the last few years, I have developed the following short essay as a way of writing with them and sharing my own work and seeking out the reasons why my favorite song is, well, my favorite song. I have my reasons.

Being Nerdy Loudly

I didn’t learn shit in science class, but I remember that centripetal force draws things into the center – like the “petals” of a flower or some other pneumonic device – and centrifugal force goes the other way. I guess, therefore, that in my own life, I tend to move centrifugally: outward from the center, haunting the fringes of wherever I end up, and stopping only when there is finally a wall.

This is also how I played sports. As a once-aspiring hall-of-fame baseball player, I began little league on the first day at first base, and slowly made my way around the infield – seeking out less important positions – until the only place I could be trusted to stand was in deep right field, where no one was yet strong enough to hit the ball.

This is also how I listened to music. I went to my first punk show a few years after my retirement from future professional athletics, and I hit the mosh pit immediately – only to learn that the pit hit back. Within minutes, I was standing with a cool, cerebral distance in the back of the club, where I’ve remained a gargoyle for the last seventeen years. I’m the same at parties, too, and I can describe most of the artwork on my friends’ walls with a depressing attention to detail.

Which is why, when it comes to music, I’ve always preferred the awkward to the anthem. I mean, I’m not the fist-pumping-est guy in the world. Basically I am the “you” who gets rocked in “We will, we will rock you.” It also goes without saying that I’m not much of a dancer. I dance the way that babies eat: it’s messy, it’s kind of gross if you actually watch it, and something usually gets knocked over.

And so when I first heard the song “Little League” by Cap’n Jazz through the tinny, tiny speakers of a thrift-store record player in a stranger’s basement, I heard myself dance, play baseball, and grow up all at the same time. It’s a really messy song – almost embarrassingly messy – as though the band had never played it before. The verses sound like someone is mugging a group of maladjusted choir-boys in a room where different stereos are tuned to different songs – none of them hits. The chorus… well, I’m not totally sure that there is a chorus. The lyrics are really kind of brilliant, but you’ll never hear them. The vocal delivery is as earnest and clumsy as finally telling a girl that you “like” her in junior high, but at maximum volume. There is also a lot of yelling.

By the end, there’s nothing to sing along to, nothing identifiably rhythmic to dance to, and if you really wanted to pump your fist in the air, you’d have to do it randomly.

It’s like my national anthem.

This song is my answer to age, really, because it always sounds young to me – again, like it is being played for the first time each time. And you can hear the band grow up as well; the song somehow already embodies their own short career. It starts small, gets loud, and then basically kind of falls apart. And so you can literally hear the band emerge from their modest, awkward beginnings (in 1993) to their glorious, awkward brilliance (in 1994) to their tragic, awkward demise (in 1995).

Whenever I play the song, as loudly as I can in my small car or apartment, I feel as though I am hitting back at the same world that I am also hiding from, and that it’s okay if I’m not totally cool. No one will probably notice anyway.

Internet on Strike!

Today, websites like Wikipedia, wordpress, Craigslist, and hundreds of others are striking in order to bring attention to two bills–the Protect IP Act and the Stop Online Privacy Act–currently under consideration in Congress.

These bills would have a negative impact on the internet and could impact the ability of academics to post material on websites (such as this) for educational purposes.  Please take a look at the information provided and contact your representatives.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop_Online_Piracy_Act

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PROTECT_IP_Act

Scott Stantis / January 13, 2012

Tornoe, Media Matters

And to help you get through the day without Wikipedia, here are some facts

Louis C.K.: Live (Or Not)

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.

On November 11th, I saw Louis C.K. live in concert at the St. George Theatre in Staten Island.

C.K. is on a short list of comics I feel I need to see live. Seinfeld: check. Gervais: check. Chappelle: check. Rock: check. (Well, I saw him in this, so we were in the same room. That has to count for something, right?)* The point is, I’ve got a list, and I was happy to finally get tickets to one of his shows. (The last time I tried to buy tickets to see C.K., the venue’s site opened, crashed and sold out within minutes) The concert, the penultimate stop on C.K.’s tour, was part of the New York Comedy Festival and it furnished the material for his latest special, Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theater. (Outtakes 1 and 2)

Going to see a very famous comic is a weird thing. Even when you don’t already know the material being performed (C.K. scraps his material and starts fresh with each new tour), there is a distinct familiarity that’s part of the atmosphere of the room. Everyone in the room had certain expectations of this performance. I assume we all expected C.K. to come out in blue jeans and a black t-shirt (he did). I bet we all expected a certain rhythm, a particular style that is unique to C.K. If you listen/watch long enough, you can identify any comic’s timing, cadence, tone and mannerisms. The thing is, I’m not sure this is a good thing.

This happens with all comics who reach a particular level of celebrity, and particularly with comics who perform material already broadcast across various media. Patton Oswalt talked about the phenomenon of the transcendent comedian in a conversation with Bill Simmons on The B.S. Report that aired in 2009. Comics are transformed into jukeboxes, and audiences want to hear the hits. I believe this to be true, and while C.K. didn’t recycle jokes the audience was primed and ready to laugh.

Well, everyone but me, it seemed. I realized something about my experience of live stand-up during this show. I like a small venue. I’m used to the intimacy of, say, The Comedy Cellar, where even the farthest seat from the stage is not that far. Small venues—it seems to me—can makes things a bit easier on a performer, allowing the bodies in the room to really fill the space. Taking in a show at the Cellar, you’re likely to see a handful of comics with a few different kinds of sets. Some will kill, others will not. Laughter feels complicated in a small room. If a joke bombs, the silence of a packed room seems crushing—particularly when you’re close enough to the performer to see them register the crowd’s reaction. It’s at once an intimate and high stakes situation. You don’t get this kind of experience in a large room, particularly in a headlining feature with such a seasoned and well-known performer.

The St. George, a gorgeous 2,800 seat vaudeville theatre in the North Shore community, opened its doors in 1929. Solomon Brill’s vision for the theatre was to bring top shelf vaudeville to the borough that would withstand the shadow cast by grand cinema spaces in Manhattan. Notable for its unobstructed views, a gilded, cantilevered balcony (one of the largest ever built, it seems) and grand staircases, the St. George gives the distinct impression of a luxurious and storied performance hall. And this is exactly what made it hard for me to enjoy the performance.

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Friday the 13th

In the book “Ringworld,” Larry Niven defined laughter as an “interrupted defense mechanism.” In that respect, humor and superstition are similar means of coping. Both provide an accessible place one step removed from reality where chaos is corralled to follow esoteric rules.

American society rests on girders of amalgamated cultural material. In addition to hopes, dreams and DNA, our great-grandfathers brought  jokes, taboos and folklore that quickly found their way into the zeitgeist.

On that note, today’s featured piece wasn’t written by an American. It’s the work of Romanian poet Marin Sorescu (1936 – 1996) and it speaks to the universal tendency to project meaning onto innocuous things in order to feel a sense of . . . order.

There are three Fridays that fall on the 13th in 2012. May you find this first one reassuringly uneventful

Superstition

My cat washes
with her left paw,
there will be another war.

For I have observed
that whenever she washes
with her left paw
international tension grows
considerably.

How can she possibly keep her eye
on all the five continents?
Could it be
that in her pupils
that Pythia now resides
who has the power
to predict
the whole of history
without a full-stop or comma?

It’s enough to make me howl
when I think that I
and the Heaven with its souls I have
shouldered
in the last resort
depend
on the whims of a cat.

Go and catch mice,
don’t unleash
more world wars,
damned
lazybones!

“Superstition” from Selected Poems by Marin Sorescu, translated by Michael Hamburger. Published in 1983 by Bloodaxe Books. Published online by the Poetry Foundation.

THE TRAGEDY OF COMEDY

Sam Sackett

 

At least since the days of Aristotle, and probably long before, lovers of literature have identified tragedy as the pinnacle of literary art.  What is Shakespeare’s greatest work?  Hamlet, of course.  The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant of Venice?  Very good of their type, but the type itself is not the highest.  In this, as in many other things, I stand in the minority; I find it odd that the judgement should favor tragedy.

In my long and not terribly successful career as a writer, I’ve found that tragedy is much easier to write than comedy.  Certain situations are a cinch to jerk a tear.  Poe mentioned the death of a beautiful maiden as one.  Another is the situation in Hamlet itself, or Oedipus Tyrannos for that matter: a man sets out to accomplish a purpose, but just at the moment of achieving victory by accomplishing it, he receives defeat – in Hamlet’s case, the ultimate defeat of death.  Nobody I know of, not even Aristotle, has ticked off the number of sure-fire tragic situations, but I suspect that if you have two fully functional hands your fingers are adequate to enumerate them.

On the other hand, I confess that I have not tried very often to write tragedy.  It never appealed to me.  My most significant venture was the science-fiction story “Hail to the Chief,” which has appeared in four anthologies.  “There Are Smiles,” a story in my collection Snapshots of Thailand, is sad, but it’s not really a tragedy.  The writers in English who have appealed to me most are Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry Fielding, and Mark Twain; I see life pretty much as they did.  Of writers in other languages, my favorite is Miguel de Cervantes.  So I am predisposed to the comic.

What makes comic writing so difficult?  The answer was given by the late Eddie Cantor, who said, “One man’s gag, gags another man.”  I can testify that that is true, for when I have read from my books to audiences, sometimes they have laughed at what I thought were the funny parts, and sometimes they have not.  Chacun à son goût, as the old lady said when she kissed the cow.  Or as Prince Orlofsky said in Die Fledermaus.

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Tintin, In America (A Review Eventually)

I have never really cared about Tintin – the comics or the character – and I always assumed that there were probably reasons for this. And since not caring about something also means not caring about why you don’t care, well, I pretty much stopped there. I figured that it was probably generational, or due to lack of exposure. Many of Tintin’s most ardent adult fans seem to have grown up reading the books, which I did not. But I also didn’t read any comics growing up, and there are now plenty of characters and series that I do actually care about. Nostalgia and wistfulness and whatever can therefore be a factor in why someone would still really enjoy Tintin, but it doesn’t have to be. I even find the art itself very appealing, and many of my favorite comics artists favor the kind of strong, clear line that Hergé pioneered over the course of several decades. (Shout-outs to Cliff Chiang, Amanda Conner, Jason.) I still just can’t get into the stories.

It might be telling that I read a book about Tintin before I ever actually read any of the Tintin books, and even then I did so more out of a sense of scholarly obligation than the hope of being entertained. It turns out that I like the story of Tintin, if not the actual stories. Many readers are likely familiar with his origins (and which readers are also probably seething at my indifference right now), but here anyway is an impossibly abbreviated version that will likely leave out something crucial. Created by Hergé (the nom de plume of Georges Remi) in 1929 for a Catholic newspaper in Belgium, Tintin is an intrepid boy reporter whose intrepidness propels him on many adventures in exotic locales. Joined by his dog Snowy (who can sometimes talk), Tintin is also accompanied and/or waylaid by a revolving cast of peculiar characters for whom he usually plays the straight man. Under German occupation in 1940, Hergé would publish Tintin’s adventures in Le Soir for a brief period, where they fit uncomfortably alongside Nazi propaganda and the anti-Semitic essays of a young Paul de Man. The Adventures of Tintin would eventually be collected into 24 albums, much of which revised over time and the last of which unfinished upon Hergé’s death in 1983. The stories themselves are replete with adventures, kidnapping, mysteries, gunplay, racialist caricature, getting hit on the head with stuff, exclamations, and a kind of youthful tenacity that can really only be defined as intrepid. (There’s no other word.) You’d think that I would like this more. Actually, you’d think that America would like this more. Continue reading →

Mark Twain’s Tale Within a Tail Within a Tale

In some ways, I tell and explain jokes for a living.   Part of what I love about teaching American literature is sharing its humor with students, some of whom have been schooled to see “LitTRAture” as a serious thing with a capital “L”.   They sometimes feel distant from it, and defensive.

But “getting” humor, as I said in my previous blog entry, involves a shared ground, a common experience.  Trying to directly explain what’s funny about a joke often makes the listener feel even more an outsider, a butt of the joke rather than one who shares in it.  On the other hand, describing the context that makes a joke funny puts you both on common ground.   Further, American humor is often self-deprecating, or based in a feeling of being an outsider or in a perception of being lesser than someone else, somehow less worthy.   Not getting the joke at first can even increase our identification with and enjoyment of it once we have possession of the context that makes it funny.  We share the pain, as it were.

Literary humor works on many levels, depending on the context you consider; the more contexts you consider, the funnier it gets.  Mark Twain, in Chapter XXV of A Tramp Abroad, relates an anecdote in which a young woman seems to get the better of the narrator, taking advantage of his obtuseness; she finally explains the joke, ostensibly to let him in on it, but really to punish him for not remembering her.  The scene is funny enough on its surface level, playing on pretense and the embarrassment most of us have felt when someone we cannot place seems to remember us.  But it is the context that makes the scene hilarious, as Mark Twain claims the last laugh.  And not coincidentally, it is also this humorous context that gives the scene its depth and significance.  We laugh about the things that really matter, often about things that hurt.

The narrator and his companion Harris get into an argument about some folks at another table–whether they’re American and if so, from which state, and then about the age of the—not coincidentally—pretty girl.  As the “dispute . . . waxed warm,” the narrator declares to Harris “with a pretense of being in earnest” (247) that he’ll simply go ask.  Harris dares him to, saying that he’d never have the balls to do such a thing.  Caught, the narrator approaches the table, planning an innocuous opening that will get him out of the awkward situation quickly.

To his surprise, the girl speaks up first, as though she knows him.  When he fails to recognize her but pretends that he does, the girl takes him along a garden path of fabricated reminiscences, one of which refers to someone called “Darley”: Continue reading →