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. 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.
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.
Rarely Seen!Can’t be missed! ****
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.
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).