Monthly Archives: February, 2012

Happy Birthday, Johnny Cash!

Tracy Wuster

Today would have been Johnny Cash’s 80th birthday.  While the Man in Black often sang serious songs, fans know that his sense of humor often made an appearance in his on-stage banter and in his choice of songs.  None more so than his version of Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue.”  Readers who know me might well imagine why this song resonates with me personally, as well as my love for Johnny Cash.  But it is a great story…read about it here.

From the “Mental Floss” article:  “Shel Silverstein, the creator of classic children’s books Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree and a cartoonist for Playboy, was also a songwriter who penned hits for Dr. Hook and Bobby Bare. Silverstein said the inspiration for “A Boy Named Sue” came from his friend, radio announcer and humorist Jean Shepherd, who’d been teased as a kid because of his feminine first name. “I fist-fought my way through every grade in school,” Shepherd later said.

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Happy Birthday, Weldon Kees!

Weldon Kees was born on this day in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1914. His artistic endeavors included painting and music, but he is best known for bringing a rich, new voice to American poetry––a voice full of wonderfully quirky, dark humor.

On July, 19, 1954, police found Kees’ Plymouth Savoy abandoned near the Golden Gate Bridge. The question of his whereabouts may never be answered. Some say he committed suicide, others say that he had spoken to them of plans to begin a new life in Mexico after his divorce. A search of his apartment revealed his watch, sleeping bag and wallet missing, though his eight-hundred dollar bank balance remained untouched. There was no suicide note.

Without further ado, two poems by this elusive man of mystery. I hope you enjoy them.

Obituary

Boris is dead. The fatalist parrot
No longer screams warnings to Avenue A.
He died last week on a rainy day.
He is sadly missed. His spirit was rare.

The cage is empty. The unhooked chain,
His pitiful drippings, the sunflower seeds,
The brass sign, “Boris” are all that remain.
His irritable body is under the weeds.

Like Eliot’s world, he went out with a whimper;
Silent for days, with his appetite gone,
He watched the traffic flow by, unheeding,
His universe crumbling, his heart a stone.

No longer will Boris cry, ‘Out brief candle!”
Or “Down with tyranny, hate, and war!”
To astonished churchgoers and businessmen.
Boris is dead. The porch is a tomb.
And a black wreath decorates the door.

from Five Villanelles

The crack is moving down the wall.
Defective plaster isn’t all the cause.
We must remain until the roof falls in.

It’s mildly cheering to recall
That every building has its little flaws.
The crack is moving down the wall.

Here in the kitchen, drinking gin,
We can accept the damnest laws.
We must remain until the roof falls in.

And though there’s no one here at all,
One searches every room because
The crack is moving down the wall.

Repairs? But how can one begin?
The lease has warnings buried in each clause.
We must remain until the roof falls in.

These nights one hears a creaking in the hall,
The sort of thing that gives one pause.
The crack is moving down the wall.
We must remain until the roof falls in.

In the Archives: Fart Proudly by Benjamin Franklin (1781)

Benjamin Franklin

Editor’s Note:  Written around 1781, this piece is one of the classics of flatulence humor.  Also called “A Letter to the Royal Academy” and “To the Royal Academy of Farting,” the piece was written in response to a call for scientific papers by the Royal Academy of Brussels.  Never submitted, Franklin printed the piece and distributed it to friends.  It was long suppressed on collections of Franklin’s writings, although it is discussed in a popular biography and included in the Library of America collection of Franklin’s writings.

And if you like humor on farting from eminent Americans, check out Mark Twain’s “1601,” which is the dirtiest piece of Mark Twain’s writing to see the light of day.

To the Royal Academy of Farting

 c. 1781
GENTLEMEN,

I have perused your late mathematical Prize Question, proposed in lieu of one in Natural Philosophy, for the ensuing year, viz. “Une figure quelconque donnee, on demande d’y inscrire le plus grand nombre de fois possible une autre figure plus-petite quelconque, qui est aussi donnee”. I was glad to find by these following Words, “l’Acadeemie a jugee que cette deecouverte, en eetendant les bornes de nos connoissances, ne seroit pas sans UTILITE”, that you esteem Utility an essential Point in your Enquiries, which has n

ot always been the case with all Academies; and I conclude therefore that you have given this Question instead of a philosophical, or as the Learned express it, a physical one, because you could not at the time think of a physical one that promis’d greater_Utility.

Benjamin Franklin fart proudly full text

Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious

Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age. It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.

That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.

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Happy Birthday Hal Holbrook!

Tracy Wuster

Today marks the 87th birthday of Hal Holbrook.  Hal has performed the character of Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens.  Much has been written and said about the importance of Mark Twain Tonight! and Hal’s performance as Mark Twain (not to mention his other wonderful acting work).

I want to offer my own story of meeting Mr. Holbrook in Elmira at the 6th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (which should be renamed, “Mark Twain Summer Camp,” in my humble opinion).  For a graduate student, Mark Twain Summer Camp already meant meeting top scholars in the field–rock stars, if you will (if you are a nerd, that is).  But Hal Holbrook is as big a star as you will find for Mark Twain fans, unless the man himself were to appear.

I was convinced that my panel would be empty, as it was scheduled opposite that panel at which Mark Dawidziak would be discussing “Mark Twain Tonight!” with Hal Holbrook in the audience.  I was thus shocked and delighted when Lou Budd walked into my panel just as I began to give my paper (causing me to lose my place for a moment).  For Twain scholars, you can’t get much more important than Lou Budd.

Hal Holbrook Speaking at Mark Twain Summer Camp

Photo Courtesy Patrick Ober

This video is the audio of Hal Holbrook’s brief remarks at the conference.  Recorded by Patrick Ober and combined with images from the beautiful campus of Elmira College.

I had witnessed first hand the star power of Hal Holbrook the night before.  After a full day of conferencing, I  meandered down toward the evening’s banquet a bit early.  In front of the building I found Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Hal Holbrook quietly talking.  Shelley introduced me to Hal and mentioned I lived in Austin.  As Hal began to say something, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of scholars who had been momentarily possessed by the spirit of teenagers at a concert when they spot the band backstage.  That is to say, I was elbowed out of the way by a gray-haired college professor who had been star struck.

Hal was now surrounded by a group of admirers jostling for his attention.  In my memory of the event, they are waving pictures for him to sign and taking photos with old-fashioned flash cameras.  My memory may not be exact.  As I stood there awkwardly outside of circle, a momentary gap opened and Hal said to me, as if our conversation had not interrupted:

“I was in Austin recently.”

I replied:  “I know.  I saw you perform.”

“When was that?”

I pondered a moment.  “Spring.”

“What is it now?”

“Summer.”

“Sounds about right.”

And then Hal was engulfed by the adoring crowd of academics-turned-teenager.

The following night, the conference ended with a party at Quarry Farm, the summer house of the Langdon and Clemens family.  I experienced another nerdy rockstar moment.  While talking with Tom Quirk–no slouch of a Twain scholar himself–Lou Budd walked up and mistook me for a waiter.  I will leave the story he told in explanation to his mistake out here, but it more than made up for any confusion.

After a wonderful dinner and a tour of the house, many people made the trek up the hill to the spot where Twain’s octagonal study sat.  There are moments in one’s life that you know you will tell stories about for years–maybe 5 or 10 or even 20–but there are few stories you know, at the time, that you will tell for the rest of your life.  For those of us who walked up the hill at Quarry Farm to the spot of Mark Twain’s study to smoke cigars, to sing songs, and to listen to Hal Holbrook tell stories, there is no doubt of the fact.

A heck of a time, then, to test out the video function of my new camera.  I wasn’t even sure it recorded in sound… but it did and in pretty good sound, too.  Since a number of people couldn’t hear Hal speak, or were on the porch playing music, I have posted the below clips of his story of meeting Clara (and Isabel Lyon).  I stopped recording as he described his heartbreaking meeting with Nina, which seems fitting in retrospect.  I hope you enjoy.
Click to see videos.

Mark Twain and The Jumping Frog

Tracy Wuster

One of the key moments in the career of Mark Twain was the tremendous success of his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” first published in the Saturday Post on August 12, 1865.  The reputation of this magazine as a key New York periodical, different in tone but of similar importance in its own literary culture as the Atlantic Monthly was in Boston, was certainly a boon to Twain’s East Coast reputation.  But as James Caron has argued in Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter, the importance of the jumping frog story in establishing Twain’s reputation may be overstated.[1]  Instead of a sudden burst into public consciousness, the piece represents the culmination of more than a year of success on both coasts, where newspapers had published Mark Twain’s writings for the Californian, a magazine aimed at national and international, rather than regional, audiences.[2]

Nevertheless, the story of the Jumping Frog quickly took a central, if possibly oversized, role in the public’s view of Mark Twain.  Writing in the New York Tribune in May 1867, the drama critic Edward “Ned” House wrote:
The chance offering of ‘The Jumping Frog,’ carelessly cast, eighteen months ago, upon the Atlantic waters, returned to him in the most agreeable form which a young aspirant for public fame could desire.  The wind that was sowed with probably very little calculation as to its effect upon its future prospects, now enables him to reap quite a respectable tempest of encouragement and cordiality.
For many years in the early career of Mark Twain, newspapers and magazines linked the fame of the Jumping Frog story to the fame of Mark Twain–sometimes very literally.
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I would like to share three major images of Mark Twain in conjunction with his jumping frog.  First, and undoubtedly most famous, is the illustration by Frederick Waddy from the English journal Once a Week from December 1872, shortly after Twain’s first visit to England.
Mark Twain Jumping Frog Calaveras County
**Keep reading for two more images of Twain and the Jumping Frog.**

Rarely Seen!

                                                                                   Can’t be missed!
                                                                                         ****

Standup Sunday with Lea DeLaria

This entry is the first in a new series entitled, as you may have guessed, “Standup Sunday,” where HA! contributors feature noteworthy comedians.

It gives me great pleasure to share with you a woman who makes me feel weak in the knees: Lea DeLaria.  What charisma!  What confidence!  What carefully crafted hair!

And she can sing!

Also…uh, I think she can cook?

Much of my work studying queer comedians has focused on the prime time glass ceiling shattered by Ellen DeGeneres in 1997, but as I cobble together a larger picture of the status of lesbian comedians in the 1990s, performers like DeLaria helped me acknowledge that  there were other, more abrasive queers performing out of the closet before DeGeneres’ outing on Ellen.

As her Wikipedia page will tell you, DeLaria appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1993–the first instance of an openly gay comic on late night.  This appearance came in a time in the early 1990s when the number of openly gay comics started to surge.  This phenomenon was further evidenced by Comedy Central’s Out There, one of the first in a long line of exhausting “Out” cliches.  This, less importantly, was also the first all-gay comedy performance on television.

Here is a brief introduction to her delivery style.  And no, it’s not about that kind of Bush,  and yes, this is NSFW.

What better way to win the queer hearts of the Out Laugh Festival in LA than to Bush bash?

If you’re interested in learning more about DeLaria and enjoying some more of her fast talking, salty style, she is the subject of the documentary, The Butch, and has a website linking to her musical albums.

Happy Birthday, Jimmy Durante!

Poetry exposes truths by expanding our vision and getting us to the crux of the matter. Since humor is often the shortest distance between two points, poetry with humor packs a serious punch.

The field of Humor Studies gives us data, analysis, theories and empirical findings about what humor is, where it comes from and why it works. Yet, from my limited perspective––an armchair outside academia––an important question is hiding in plain sight . . . right  under a  legendary nose: What produces a heart like that of comedian Jimmy Durante? Unlock the secret formula, bottle it, sell it . . . and you just might save the world.

Jimmy Durante didn’t write poetry. He was poetry. 

Born on this day in 1893, to Italian immigrants on New York’s lower east side, Durante left school at thirteen to play ragtime piano in saloons. His inimitable style took him to vaudeville; from there to Broadway, radio, motion pictures, television and the record industry. By all accounts, he was one of the kindest, most generous and most highly respected men in show business.

He retired from entertainment after a series of strokes in the 1970s, but continued his charitable work until his death in 1980. Thirty-two years later,  The Jimmy Durante Childrens’ Fund continues to provide significant grant money for child welfare. Although Durante was born in the 19th century, his memory is so much a part of our American tapestry that his voice is down-loadable as a cell phone ring-tone.

Whether you’re unfamiliar with Jimmy Durante, a dyed-in-the-wool fan, or somewhere in between, I think you’ll enjoy this short clip from the film “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

His off-kilter, masculine-yet-sensitive-vocal performances have become the definitive renditions of several songs. This 1963 recording was featured in the soundtrack of the 1993 romantic comedy, “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically)

Any time I get the chance to teach American satire, I begin by asserting its power. I use Mark Twain (who else?) to frame the course, taking a line from the Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” I imagine many teachers do the same thing. It is a wonderfully useful statement that grants an aura of legitimacy for the course.  It is also a rather conspicuous effort, as I fight off a perpetual fear that my students (and my peers) hold fast to an underlying belief that “serious” and “humorous” are opposing forces. I confess also that I add Twain’s line to soften my lurking guilt for being able to do something so thoroughly interesting and fun for a living. Still, I believe Twain’s assertion.

But I am having doubts.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone (29 Sep. 2011), Jon Stewart shares his own misgivings about his role as a court jester and, more specifically, as a satirist. In commenting on the work of The Daily Show, he acknowledges the intent of the writers to engage in social criticism with comedy as their tool. Stewart observes, however, that satire as a weapon for demanding cultural change has significant limitations. In reference to the unique position shared by satirists on the whole as they mock social mores, he claims, “It’s the privilege of satire, and it’s also the albatross around its neck. It can be sharp and it can be pointed and shaming, but at heart it’s impotent and sort of feckless” (47). In his role as writer and host of The Daily Show, Stewart is arguably the most powerful satirical voice in the United States, but he is nonetheless cynical about the prospects of applying whatever power that entails, if any. He continues, “everyone overestimates the power of satire. There’s a great thing Peter Cook once said. Somebody said to him that the most powerful satirists in history were the cabaret artists in Berlin during the 1930s. And Peter Cook said, ‘Yeah, they really showed Hitler, didn’t they?’ In a lot of ways that’s how I feel about it” (47).

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The Sound and the Furry: An Interview with Alfra Martini, Creator of The Kitten Covers

Alfra Martini is a musician, runs a record label, sells vintage posters, freelances as a designer, and – like Walter Benjamin’s famous Angel, but of Parody instead of History – may very well be there at the end of the internet. In other words, Alfra is also responsible for The Kitten Covers: a website which, if you have not seen it, is both exactly what it sounds like and exactly as cool as you think it is. Her “kittenized” album covers have since gone viral with good reason, about which she was kind enough to speak with Humor in America.

David B. Olsen: A common observation that seems to frame discussions of your work is that these images were kind of inevitable. Like it’s almost weird that it has taken us so long as a culture to add kittens to famous album covers. My favorite assessment of your work comes from a short piece in New York Magazine online: “It’s a new blog in which the subjects of iconic album covers are replaced with kittens. So, basically, that’s a wrap, Internet!” What combination of cosmic forces did it take, therefore, for The Kitten Covers to come about through you?

Alfra Martini: It’s funny that for some, The Kitten Covers seem to signify the end to the internet.  As if to say, all our advances in information sharing have culminated into this final point. Like the punchline to a long drawn out narrative, our ambitions for advanced global communication have produced this ultimate monstrous phenomenon: Rock n Roll Kittens!!  It’s like a kittenized Planet of the Apes moment where Charlton Heston freaks out realizing human technological progress has led to it’s destruction: “We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” Hahaha. Kittens Rule!

But the truth is anthropomorphism is as old as humanity itself and animal parodies have been used forever.  Also, parodying classic album art is nothing new to the internet. Sleeveface, Lego Albums, and Album Tacos had all been around before The Kitten Covers. And though I don’t spend a massive amount of time on the internet, I do run a record label (All Hands Electric) and am a musician myself. Pair that with my love of vinyl records, cover art, and music iconography in general, and throw in a dash of my graphic design interests… I had, of course, been exposed to these viral images in the past so had an idea of this type of humor.

But how The Kitten Covers came to being more specifically: I was staying home from my day job as a vintage poster dealer, recuperating from a cold and feeling a little restless in bed.  Lucky for me, I always have something to do for the record label, regardless of whether I can get out of bed or not, and as we are a very independent DIY outfit, I started researching alternative methods for record distribution on my laptop, i.e. checking out stores who might be interested in carrying our stuff. It’s not the most effective thing, but you have to start somewhere, and I wasn’t about to waste my time sneezing all day. Sifting through online catalog after catalog, well, you revisit some iconic album covers and, if you are like me, you get distracted by the graphic decisions and the exaggerated style of rock iconography.

It was then that a vision popped into my head: David Bowie as a kitten. I don’t know how or why. Perhaps it’s because I’m a huge Bowie fan and have an Aladdin Sane tote bag I use and see everyday – or perhaps it was because my little calico cat was sleeping at my feet, as she usually does when I’m in bed – or maybe it was the Theraflu – but it was a very clear image and the thought made me laugh.  The die was cast. I had to see it in real life.

In hindsight, the image speaks loads to the current state of things, but at the time I wasn’t thinking meme, or blog, lol cats, or body of work. I was just thinking David Bowie as a kitten… I must see David Bowie as a kitten. Could I do it? Did I have the photoshopping skills? I abandoned my “work task”, crawled out of bed, and started up the desktop. The rest is mainly just technical.

After it was done… I giggled. It looked pretty close to my initial vision. And I was thinking, maybe I should do another, so started on the New Order cover, which is such a serious looking image to start with and the idea of using a kitten… just seemed so absurd. And then came Nevermind, because how iconic and bizarre is that cover already? And what’s more ludicrous than a kitten swimming underwater? Theoretically they all seemed so ridiculous and yet endearing.  It was then that my boyfriend came home and saw what I was doing and was like: “WTF?? Are you okay? Do you have a fever or something?”  Haha. But he couldn’t deny the eeriness of the David Meowie and suggested that I do a few more and start a Tumblr page, as he heard it had been good for photo blogs. Honestly, I was just going to show a few friends to get a laugh… who knew that I was planning the demise of the internet? Heh.

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