Editor’s Note: One of the best parts of running this blog has been finding new blogs. One of my favorite is Ben Railton’s “American Studier: A central online resource for students of American culture.” Ben has agreed to have us repost one of his posts, which was part of a series in honor of April Fool’s Day. Check out his posts on Seward’s Folly, Albion Tourgee, Nobody’s Fool, and satire.
On one of American literature’s most unique and interesting, and, yes, foolish, works.
I don’t think too many 21st century Americans read or even know about the mid-19th century movement known as Southwestern Humor, and that’s too bad. Besides representing some genuinely American folktales and mythologies—I vaguely remember reading stories about Mike Fink in childhood anthologies featuring Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Pecos Bill and the like, but I wonder if any of those characters remain on our cultural radar in any meaningful way—the Southwestern humor stories are just plain funny, both in their outlandish events and in their ability to capture story-tellers’ voices and effects. T.B. Thorpe’s “The Big Bear of Arkansas” (1854) is not only a clear predecessor to Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1867); it’s also nearly as great an act of literary and local color story-telling and humor. You could do a lot worse, in this April Fool’s week, than spending some time reading Thorpe and his peers.
At first glance, Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857) seems likewise inspired by, or at least parallel to, Thorpe’s story: both works are set on Mississippi River steamboats, and both feature multiple acts of story-telling, comprising communal conversations that are constituted out of such competing stories. Melville even ups the humor ante on two interconnected levels: he published his novel on April 1, and set it on the same day, which had for at least a few years been known as April Fool’s Day. Yet as anyone who has read Melville knows, the author’s sense of humor tended more to the dark and cynical than to the light and folktale-like; he expressed this perspective on humor very clearly in an 1851 letter to his friend Samuel Savage, writing that “It is—or seems to be—a wise sort of thing, to realize that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of joke, especially his misfortunes, if he have them. And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed round pretty liberally and impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it.” And in The Confidence Man, the joke that gets passed round is both dark and, like much of Melville’s work, extremely prescient of ongoing American and philosophical concerns.
Editor’s Note: This piece is the first piece in a planned series on teaching humor and television sitcoms. Jeffrey Melton will be spearheading this feature, but he invites you to contribute to the series, as do I. Do you have a sitcom that you teach that you would like to write about? Please contact the editor. Thanks.
I made my ten-year-old daughter watch the first episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. It was going to be a bonding experience for us. At the end as the credits rolled and the Clampetts waved, she said, “That was dumb.” A rift came between us at that moment, a deep realization of disappointment for both of us. We had expected more from one another. But I couldn’t argue against her basic assertion. So I simply said, “Well, you’re dumb, too,” and sent her to her room. No, I didn’t really say that, but I wanted to. I actually said, “Yes, it is dumb, but not as dumb as it seems.” And that’s the moment when “Dad” shifted to “Academic.” She left the room on her own.
There goes the neighborhood: the Clampetts enter Beverly Hills
Why was The Beverly Hillbillies so popular, as corny as it is?
Janet Staiger, in her Blockbuster TV (New York: New York UP, 2000), notes that the early reviews were brutal. Staiger goes on to point out, however, that over a third of all TV households were tuning in by the close of the first season. It was the top show for the 1962/63 and 63/64 seasons by a substantive margin and remained in the top twenty for six more years after its highpoint. According to Staiger, it was THE blockbuster sitcom of the decade.
The finale of the 37th season of Saturday Night Live was also an occasion to say goodbye to one of its finest and funniest performers, Kristen Wiig, whom Lorne Michaels himself has ranked among the “top three or four” of all time on SNL. With an ever skeletal Mick Jagger crooning his own “She’s a Rainbow” and “Ruby Tuesday,” the lengthy send-off allowed the cast members to share a short dance with Wiig as she became increasingly almost tearful, offering rare glimpse into the uncontrollable humanity of an actor who almost never breaks onscreen.
Of the many characters that Wiig has played over the last seven years at SNL, she excels at creating the kind of persona who is confident to the point of being absolutely unselfconscious — marginalized eccentrics who are either oblivious or immune to the idea of being judged. Her “Target Lady,” for example, simply cannot contain a sense of surprise and excitement for each product that comes through the register (“Dog collar… hope you have a dog! Wink.”), to which she then offers a slice of her own inexplicable life. Or Shanna the “sexy coworker,” whose airy and absentminded eroticism at a Halloween party quickly devolves into a detailed story involving peanuts and digestion. Similarly, Wiig’s impression of Bjork is that of a unattenuated pixie who giggles at her own preciousness not out of irony or embarrassment, but because she is pleased with herself for being herself.
There is clearly something unsettling about these characters, but the humor here is not a result of their being outrageous and brazen so much as our awareness of their perceived lack; our laughter emerges nervously, diffusing a certain desire to teach them about self-consciousness. In other words, we become painfully aware of the gaze of the Other in us, as though to compensate for the seeming absence of inhibition and self-restraint in them. For many of us — post-meta subjects who can’t really have a thought without then thinking about that thought (and so on, en abyme) — the pure presence that these characters seem to embrace is like spinach in the teeth of the mind; inside, I am practically screaming to quietly take them aside and set them straight about being seen.
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By Don and Alleen Nilsen, Co-Founders of the International Society for Humor Studies
Now that we have retired from our teaching positions at Arizona State University, we have more time to eat out and what we have discovered is that restaurants are using humor and wit to spice up their patrons’ eating and drinking experiences. We were recently invited to speak about humor and aging at a big retirement community built in the desert east of Mesa, Arizona. When we got close, we stopped to eat at a restaurant and were amused to see that the bar area was totally covered with humorous license plates apparently donated by the retirees (“the Snowbirds”), who come from colder climates to spend warm winters in Arizona.
The license plates were amusing to first-timers, like us, and comforting to repeat customers who were proud to see us taking pictures of a license plate that they identified with, either because they had donated it or because it came from their home state.
Fresh off his win at the 2012 Comedy Awards for Best Club Comic, Hannibal Buress is a name not immediately recognizable to those who don’t follow comedy for a living. Yet he is far from a fresh new face. In addition to becoming one of the biggest stand-up draws in the country, he has also worked as a staff writer for both Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Not a bad resume for someone who is only 29.
One of the major challenges for stand-up comedians is to strike an appropriate balance between the timely and timeless. Material should be fresh and create highlight a new perspective, yet must still relate to the audience. There can be a risk in losing the audience if a comic tries to offer premises that only appeal to a few people. At the same time, it can be difficult to talk about the same topics that have occupied the world of stand-up for decades.
Buress’s strength as a comic relies on his ability to negotiate both. He provides a great example of how so much of comedy is in the delivery. This is not to say that his writing skills take a back seat. His recent one hour special Animal Furnace, premiering tonight on Comedy Central, and his debut album My Name is Hannibal demonstrates Buress’s skill in offering uniquely fresh takes on such familiar stand up topics as the airport, bars, and girlfriends. I’d invite readers to check out as much of his material as possible.
Our youngest daughter will graduate from high school this weekend. I’m curious to find out what words of wisdom the commencement speaker will impart to the class of 2012. In that spirit of good advice, I bring you this splendid poem by Taylor Mali.
Yesterday, we posted on Ellen Degeneres winning the Mark Twain Award for American Humor. Today comes news that Hal Holbrook has been awarded the first ever “Mark Twain Lifetime Achievement Award” by the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. The press release reads, in part:
Hannibal, Mo. – The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum celebrated its centennial May 15 in part by announcing the establishment of the Mark Twain Lifetime Achievement Award to recognize someone whose life’s work has furthered the legacy of Mark Twain in a significant way.
Hal Holbrook was selected as the first recipient of the award.
The Museum will present the award to Holbrook this fall when he returns to Hannibal. Holbrook will appear in “Mark Twain Tonight!” at 8 p.m. Nov. 17 at Hannibal High School.
“After 100 years of preserving Twain’s legacy by caring for his boyhood home and related properties, we felt it was an appropriate time to establish this award and recognize others who also preserve Twain’s legacy, but in different ways,” museum executive director Cindy Lovell said.
The performance is sponsored by the museum. Tickets will go on sale June 1 to museum associate members and June 15 to the general public.
Many kudos to Hal Holbrook. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Holbrook at the 6th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (i.e. Mark Twain Summer Camp) in Elmira, NY. I told the story of our meeting and posted clips of Mr. Holbrook telling stories awhile back.
Click below for a discussion of our own award…
Back in November, we ran a post on Will Ferrell’s winning The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. We held a vote on who should win the prize next, based on nominations culled from discussion on the Mark Twain Forum, which ended in a three-way tie between Jon Stewart, Woody Allen, and Garrison Keillor. Click below to vote in a run-off, just for fun.
In the real world of The Mark Twain prize, Ellen DeGeneres was just announced as this year’s winner. Here is the announcement:
The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
The event is created by the Kennedy Center, and executive producers Mark Krantz, Bob Kaminsky, Peter Kaminsky, and Cappy McGarr. The Kennedy Center established The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in October 1998, and it has been televised annually. Recipients of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize have been Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002), Lily Tomlin (2003), Lorne Michaels (2004), Steve Martin (2005), Neil Simon (2006), Billy Crystal (2007), George Carlin (2008), Bill Cosby (2009), Tina Fey (2010), and Will Ferrell (2011).
What do you think?
Tracy Wuster, Managing Editor
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