Monthly Archives: April, 2012

Sunday Stand-Up: Jerry Seinfeld

Happy 57th Birthday to Jerry Seinfeld.  Enjoy this clip from his debut on HBO in 1981, introduced by the Smothers Brothers.

Do you have a favorite Seinfeld clip?  Please post a link in the comments below.

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Visual Humor–Glenn Ligon: America

Tracy Wuster

In December of last year, I happened upon an exhibit of Glenn Ligon’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (a show that originated at the Whitney Museum).  I was struck by Ligon’s direct takes on race, politics, and sex in American history through striking visual juxtapositions of text and image.  As a humor scholar, I was especially struck by a series of five works in which material from Richard Pryor was screen printed in bright ink onto bright backgrounds, making the words hard, if not impossible to read.

Glenn Ligon, Just Us #1, 2004 (photo by T. Wuster)

As the text accompanying the piece states, the uncomfortable optical effect “delivers an optical punch commensurate with Pryor’s ‘colorful’ language.”  (See below for full text)  Indeed, some of the paintings are so difficult to process, due to the clash between colors, so as to be unreadable.  Only after photographing the above picture was I able to decipher the text.  I was greatly struck by the re-presentation of Pryor’s works into a visual medium that both reflects and comments upon the discomfort that can be caused by the social critique of his comedy.

While not all of Ligon’s pieces deal as directly with subjects that can fall under the cover of “humor,” his work contains connections between language, image, and society that mirror the impact of humor that shocks us into seeing the world and speaking the word in new ways.

Glenn Ligon’s “America” is showing at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth until June 3.

See below for one further piece.

From the Whitney Museum webpage:

Glenn Ligon: AMERICA is the first comprehensive mid-career retrospective devoted to this pioneering New York–based artist. Throughout his career, Ligon (b. 1960) has pursued an incisive exploration of American history, literature, and society across a body of work that builds critically on the legacies of modern painting and more recent conceptual art. He is best known for his landmark series of text-based paintings, made since the late 1980s, which draw on the writings and speech of diverse figures including Jean Genet, Zora Neale Hurston, Jesse Jackson, and Richard Pryor. Ligon’s subject matter ranges widely from the Million Man March and the aftermath of slavery to 1970s coloring books and the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe—all treated within artworks that are both politically provocative and beautiful to behold.

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Looking for Contributing Editors

Tracy Wuster

Hello dear reader.  The editorial staff at “Humor in America” is looking to add one or two new contributing editors.  The role of the contributing editors is to provide content to the blog on a regular basis.  More precisely, the goal is for each contributing editor to provide one post per month–either a longer, feature post or a shorter post (i.e. Sunday Stand-up, a Happy Birthday post, or a shorter piece along those lines).  We also hope that editors will solicit posts from friends, colleagues, and others to add to the site.  Since this is a non-paid endeavor, the only deadlines are those imposed by you on yourself, and we promote a flexible and understanding environment.

The goal of Humor in America is to provide its authors an outlet for work that is informed by and informs the academic study of humor.  Our posts generally receive a good readership, ranging from one hundred views to over one thousand.  We have had good success building an audience for the site, generally, and for most posts, specifically.  We welcome editors interested in a large range of American humor, and we encourage new ideas and new voices.

Currently, the site is non-commercial, which means that contributors do not get paid, but you do retain all rights to your material.  There is the possibility of a small amount of commercialization on the site to pay for maintenance, expansion, and–possibly–contributions.   If you are interested, have any questions, etc. etc., please contact Tracy Wuster at wustert@gmail.com

Sunday Stand-Up: Paul F. Tompkins

From Comedy Central:

Paul F. Tompkins is from Philadelphia, PA, where he started performing stand-up comedy in 1986. In 1994, he moved to Hollywood, CA, where he met comic actor Jay Johnston, with whom he crafted the live sketch show “The Skates.” This led Paul to a stint as a writer and performer on HBO’s “Mr. Show with Bob and David” where he was nominated for an Emmy award for writing. Paul also wrote and starred in his own one-man show, “Driven to Drink,” for HBO.

In 1999, Paul landed a small role in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically acclaimed film “Magnolia.” That same year, Paul F. Tompkins and Jay Johnston reunited to create and perform the science fiction anthology parody “Playground of the Id” at the HBO Workspace. His other acting credits include “Frasier,” “The Sketch Show” on Fox, DreamWorks’ “Anchorman” and New Line’s “Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny” movie….

His new special, “Laboring Under Delusions,” premiered on Comedy Central just recently.  If you would like to write a review of the special, or of any comedy special, album, or performance, please let us know.  And if you are Paul F. Tompkins, email me, we can do an interview: wustert@gmail.com

“Crazy Dog Memo”

See below for more clips…

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Oh no. Swimsuit season again . . . .

Straightforward as I am, I have always had a love/hate relationship with my swimsuits. Here’s the yearly drill: Go shopping. Look in three-way-mirror. Feel abashed. Initiate race against time. 

I’m smiling as I write this, knowing the whole business is pure folly––besides, I’m not alone.

Should crunches and kale salads threaten my morale, I think of this poem by the late comedian, Victor Buono.  (“Fat Man’s Prayer” is often mistakenly credited to Dom DeLuise.) The text is below the recording, but this poem is far better heard than read. Buono’s delivery is what makes it an American comedy classic.

The Fat Man’s Prayer

          by Victor Buono

Lord, my soul is ripped with riot,
Incited by my wicked diet.
We are what we eat, said a wise old man,
And Lord, if that’s true, I’m a garbage can!
I want to rise on Judgment Day, that’s plain,
But at my present weight, I’ll need a crane!

So grant me strength that I may not fall
Into the clutches of cholesterol.
May my flesh with carrot curls be sated
That my soul may be polyunsaturated.
And show me the light that I may bear witness
To the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.

At ol’ margarine I’ll never mutter,
For the road to hell is spread with butter.
And cake is cursed, and cream is awful,
And Satan is hiding in every waffle.
Mephistopheles lurks in provolone,
The devil is in each slice of bologna,
Beelzebub is a chocolate drop,
And Lucifer is a lollipop!

Give me this day my daily slice –
But cut it thin and toast it twice.
I beg upon my dimpled knees,
Deliver me from Jujubees.
And my when days of trial are done
And my war with malted milks is won,
Let me stand with the saints in heaven
In a shining robe – Size 37!

I can do it, Lord, if you’ll show to me
The virtues of lettuce and celery.
If you’ll teach me the evils of mayonnaise,
The sinfulness of Hollandaise
And pasta a la Milanese
And potatoes a la Lyonaise
And crisp fried chicken from the south…
Lord, if you love me, SHUT MY MOUTH!

THE SMALL HOUSE HALFWAY UP IN THE NEXT BLOCK

Sam Sackett

Years before television found The Little House on the Prairie radio had “the small house halfway up in the next block.”  That was the home of Vic and Sade, “radio’s homefolks,” the Gooks.

The purpose of any soap opera, besides selling soap, was to give the American housewife something to focus her attention on while she was ironing the clothes, washing the dishes, and running the pre-vacuum carpet sweeper.  The additional purpose of Vic and Sade was to vindicate the housewife’s belief that she had married an idiot. So successful was it at this that it endured from 1932 to 1944, 15-minute episodes five days a week.  According to Time magazine, it had an audience of seven million listeners in 1943.  Think of it!  Seven million American housewives reassured that they were correct in their conviction that, like Vic, their husbands were idiots!

Because of its popularity, after its original twelve-year run Vic and Sade was revived for about three and a half months in the fall of 1945, then again in a 30-minute weekly format for four months in the summer of 1946, next as three half-hour television broadcasts in July 1949, and finally as seven weekly 15-minute episodes on radio station WNBQ, Chicago.

Sandwiched in among Stella Dallas and “Oxydol’s own Ma Perkins” on NBC’s Blue Network, and sponsored by Crisco,.Vic and Sade was unique among soap operas.  It was devoted to ridiculing the absurdities and follies of typical American masculine activities.  In the days of my youth I found its satire delicious, and when a few years ago I discovered that Radio Reruns had issued four episodes on a cassette tape – remember cassette tapes? – I immediately bought it.  It is among my precious treasures, and, knowing the tragedies that can befall cassette tapes, I play it infrequently in order to preserve it.

Vic and Sade was also unique because each episode was self-contained.  Other soap operas had stories that continued from day to day and ended with a cliff-hanger summarized by the announcer with a series of questions: “Will Mary marry the Prince of Ruritania?  Will the shadowy figure Mary saw turn out to be an assassin, threatening the prince’s life?  Tune in tomorrow for the next thrilling installment.”  But when an episode of Vic and Sade was over, it was over.  The initial problem may have dissipated into a quagmire of bumbleheadedness rather than being resolved, but the episode was over.  The fecundity of imagination demonstrated by the show’s creator and sole author, Paul Rhymer, was phenomenal and may perhaps be unequaled in any field of writing.

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Happy Birthday Henry James!

Tracy Wuster

Born in 1843, died in 1916.  Henry James remains one of the most studied figures in American literature, possibly the most studied, according to a recent story on the amount of scholarship on American authors.  But relatively little scholarship seems to discuss James’s relationship to humor.  I am not a Henry James scholar, so I will not hazard to say much about the subject, except to state that I believe it is an important subject that I would like to hear more on.  Are there books, articles, or other resources that people can recommend on the subject?

Of course, there is the famous passage from James’s Hawthorne, from the “English Men of Letters” series by MacMillan from 1879, in which James discusses Hawthorne’s American diaries.  America, James wrote, held no romance for the author.  As Hawthorne had stated, “No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land.”  James wrote:

The negative side of the spectacle on which Hawthorne looked out, in his contemplative saunterings and reveries, might, indeed, with a little ingenuity, be made almost ludicrous; one might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot! Some such list as that might be drawn up of the absent things in American life—especially in the American life of forty years ago, the effect of which, upon an English or a French imagination, would probably as a general thing be appalling. The natural remark, in the almost lurid light of such an indictment, would be that if these things are left out, everything is left out. The American knows that a good deal remains; what it is that remains—that is his secret, his joke, as one may say. It would be cruel, in this terrible denudation, to deny him the consolation of his national gift, that “American humour” of which of late years we have heard so much. (44)

Continue below for Constance Rourke’s view of James…

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Annie Hall on the Wall: Remaking a Classic as Contemporary Art

Fine art tends not to be funny. Of course there are many, many exceptions (basically, all of the examples that everyone immediately thought of upon reading that first sentence), but it’s no stretch to say that galleries and museums only infrequently resonate with giggles and guffaws. Or at least we become suspicious of our own aesthetic pedigree when something in a putatively fine art setting seems funny, because maybe the piece is actually supposed to be, like, serious art and the artist is making a statement about apartheid or something.

And there is nothing less enjoyable than trying to figure out whether or not you should laugh at something.

The Clifton Benevento gallery in New York is currently holding an exhibition of five artists entitled “Hello? I Forgot My Mantra,” of which the title is a reference to Jeff Goldblum’s memorably random line of dialogue in Annie Hall. The show features painting, sculpture, and an unusual post-perfomance piece that involves the having-thrown of dice. To me, though, the most interesting work in the show is Anhedonia, a work of video art by Aleksandra Domanović that isolates the entire audio track from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall  and replaces the film’s original scenes — you know, all the stuff that happens — with an elaborate montage of short clips of stock footage from the Getty Archive. As though the reverse premise of Woody Allen’s  re-dubbed What’s Up Tiger Lily?, Domanović’s piece uses all of the dialogue, diegetic sound, and music (of which there is surprisingly little, it turns out) of Annie Hall and supplants the familiar action of Alvy and Annie with generic bursts of video that are specifically cued to what is being said. For example, the phrase “how I feel…” is juxtaposed with a woman rubbing (i.e. feeling) her neck, and “…about life” becomes black-and-white video of spermatozoa wriggling toward an unfertilized egg. 

Anhedonia is therefore akin to a 90-minute motion-rebus, a kinetically hieroglyphic account of everyday existence. It’s worth recalling that Anhedonia was Woody Allen’s original working title for Annie Hall during most of its production, and Domanović adopts it in this instance to evoke not only the generic and sterile quality of the stock footage and photography  that constitutes way more of  what we see every day than we probably realize, but also the base boringness of how we tend to picture what life looks like.

With that being said, though, the piece — intended or otherwise — is really pretty hilarious. This is perhaps because what many of us have practically memorized in Annie Hall is subverted and supplanted by a Borges-level library of images that are wacky enough on their own, to say nothing of having been meticulously reconfigured to recreate Allen’s original study of the absurdity of everything that we do.

And so in Anhedonia‘s final seconds, Allen’s famous joke about “needing the eggs” is replaced with actually seeing the eggs, which — both in the end and as the end — literally depicts the original film’s conclusion about the delicate surface of the world we’ve constructed for ourselves.

The entirety of Domanović’s oddly mesmerizing piece is available for view online, and you can read more about the show itself at Contemporary Art Daily.

[Thanks to Amelia Colette Jones for the tip!]

Stand Up Sunday: Easter Eddie, The Easter Bunny, and Atheism

Fans of Eddie Izzard will find this bit an all-too-obvious feature for a stand-up Sunday that falls on Easter, but in my small household, viewing it has become somewhat of a tradition, and I’d like to share it.  Izzard performs this bit in his 1999 tour, Dress to Kill. 

Was it just me, or did some of the San Francisco audience seem a little uncomfortable with Izzard’s pithy summary of  the Easter tradition?

We use stand up comedians as a societal court jester; sometimes we listen to them just to hear things we don’t want to hear.  I may have been the smallest bit shocked when I heard this bit for the first time, but now I find that it provides a gentle grounding that I very much appreciate.  It’s a similar feeling to the one evoked by Dustin Hoffman performing Lenny Bruce’s “Happy Ending Culture” bit in Lenny (1974).  It’s sad.  It hurts.  But, because he can acknowledge it, I can acknowledge it, and I feel better.  Wait, do I?

Eddie Izzard is receiving as much attention for his out-and-proud atheism these days as for his out-and-proud transvestism. Very recently he appeared on the National Mall as a guest speaker for the Week of Reason’s Reason Rally, amongst other atheist activists as Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher.

The thing about Eddie Izzard’s forays into atheism that I most relate to, as opposed to Maher’s, for example, is that we can stare the terrifying prospect of a Godless existence in the face and respond with silliness.  Izzard’s whimsey coupled with the legacy of Bruce’s truth-telling is preferable to me on days like today, when I remember the feeling I got having discovered the truth about the Easter Bunny.  Even if deep down, we don’t really feel better, it serves as a much more pleasant transition from myth dissemblance back into our everyday lives filled with everyday tasks.  At least we get some chocolate bunnies out of it.

War for the Hearts and Minds

Today’s guest poet is humorist Sam Sackett. No further introduction needed.

WAR FOR THE HEARTS AND MINDS

By: Sam Sackett

Our black, brown, and yellow brothers,
Our affection for you smothers
All the prejudice we lately used to feel.
We assure your our emotion,
Our very fond devotion,
Though of recent date is nothing less than real.

We understand your yearning
For accelerated earning,
But to take by force we hope you’ll disavow.
And we do request your silence
On our history of violence;
We don’t need it, for we’ve got what we want now.

So we greet you as our brothers,
Asking you to spurn all others,
Because we so sincerely wish you well.
But if you should neglect us,
Oppose us or reject us,
We have power enough to blow you all to hell.

 

With a doctorate in English from UCLA, Sam Sackett taught at a midwestern university for 23 years before burning and dropping  out.  He worked for a newspaper, then an advertising agency, then a public relations firm; next, having become an expert on career change, he spent 15 years as a career management practitioner.  He retired in Thailand for six years and is now back in the U.S.  He has published two collections of short stories, Through Farang Eyes and Snapshots of Thailand, some of which are humorous; and three novels, Sweet Betsy from Pike, The Robin Hood Chronicles, and Adolf Hitler in Oz, all of which contain at least some humor.  A fourth novel, Huckleberry Finn Grows Up, will be out later this year.

(c) Sam Sackett, 2012

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