Monthly Archives: June, 2012

. . . which reminds me . . .

Dramatization of the blogger reading today’s paper.

Somebody once said you know you’re getting older when everybody you meet reminds you of somebody else. This not only bears out, but it also holds true for news items. At my age, they tend to read like reruns or crib notes.

Today––apropos for summer in Memphis––I was up at dawn to beat the heat when two unrelated articles caught my attention: #1.) Scientists are working on a “smoking vaccine” and have developed a shot that blocks nicotine in the brains of mice. #2.) On this day in history––June 29,  in 1613––William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre burned to the ground.

. . . Mice  .  .  . Fire .  .  . Which reminds me . . . .of this ingenious poem “The Country” by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins brought to life in animation by Brady Baltezor of Radium.

I was going to start theorizing about the allegorical meaning in the piece but (God bless the delete key) changed my mind.  As Cole Porter put it in “Kiss Me, Kate,” –– It’s too darn hot.

Sit back, take a cool sip and enjoy this delightful poem. If it whets your appetite for more animated Billy Collins poems, click here.


Humor in America

Editors’ note:  We are re-blogging this post from Sharon McCoy in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s birthday: June 27th.  

Last year we  posted the poem “An Ante-bellum Sermon” from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life. This week’s poetry entry discusses the historical, literary, and cultural context of that collection and its core humor.  The bold red titles below indicate live links to those songsheets, audio files, or websites.

Dunbar can be difficult in many ways.  His dialect can seem heavy or (to some ears) stereotypical, especially once you know that he wrote for performers who appeared in blackface.  We often resist humor in poetry, but blackface offers special challenges that make it difficult for many to want to take Dunbar seriously as a poet.  Songs such as Evah Darkey is a King and Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd can be hard to…

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Happy Birthday Ricky Gervais!

Tracy Wuster

Today (June 25th) is the 52nd birthday of Ricky Gervais.  Today is also the birthday of George Orwell (1903-1950).  In his 1945 essay, “Funny, but not Vulgar,” Orwell discussed the meaning of humor and the state of humor in England, and his insights might shed some light on Gervais.  He wrote:

We do not know with certainty how laughter originated or what biological purpose it serves, but we do know, in broad terms, what causes laughter.

A thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution. If you had to define humour in a single phrase, you might define it as dignity sitting on a tin-tack. Whatever destroys dignity, and brings down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny. And the bigger they fall, the bigger the joke. It would be better fun to throw a custard pie at a bishop than at a curate. With this general principle in mind, one can, I think, begin to see what has been wrong with English comic writing during the present century.

To Orwell’s mind, English humorists in the 20th century had grown too genteel, too “aimed at prosperous stockbrokers whiling away an odd half hour in the lounge of some suburban golf course.”  Gervais clearly avoids the charge of gentility, and I would think that Orwell would approve of the spirit of much of Gervais’s work.  Judge for yourself:

From: “Out of England” (2010)–while the bit about spiders seems a bit random, it transitions into a fun reading of “The Book of Noah” that certainly attempts to “upset the established order.”

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Humor as Ridicule: The Case of UVa

Tracy Wuster

Virginia Sullivan Dragas(Larger version below)

Like many people in academia, I have been intensely interested in the recent events at the University of Virginia.  For those who don’t know the story, this might be a place to start.  There has been a lot of good commentary on the Board of Visitors surprise and controversial decision to oust the popular president–serious commentary, deep thought, insightful introspection.

All very interesting and important.  But what has struck me, in my capacity as editor of this blog, is the humor.  Friends at UVa and at other schools have posted several pieces of satire aimed at the Board of Visitors and their decision.  This is not good-natured humor, or subtle humor; it is attack humor–humor aimed at immediate change.  Superiority humor: laughing at people and encouraging others to do so by making fun of them.

Kieran Healy’s “Declaration of Independence” (published June 20th) certainly fits this mold.  Read the whole thing, but here is a taste:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Universities are endowed by their Donors with certain unalienable Goals, that among these are Strategy, Dynamism, and the pursuit of some sort of Online Degree delivered via the Interwebs,—That to secure these goals, Presidents are appointed, deriving their just powers from the half-baked ideas of idle Billionaires,—That whenever any University President becomes destructive of these Goals, it is the Right of the BoV to institute a new President, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect Strategy, Dynamism, and Strategic Dynamism.

Healy, a sociology professor at Duke, certainly captured the phrase that will undoubtedly become a punchline in academic circles: “strategic dynamism.”

Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at UVa, joined in by providing a written evaluation of the work of the Rector and Vice-Rector (hint: it’s not a good grade).  Here is the introduction (read the whole thing here):

Dear Ms. Dragas & Mr. Kington:

I’m writing to let you know your grade for the Digital Learning Project, as part of your larger grade as Rector and Vice Rector. I wish I brought better news.

On the bright side, let me complement you on your font choice and the formatting of your emails. Further, they feature some unusual words, and a spirit of verve throughout.

But I’m afraid these bright spots pale in comparison to the problems: an immature analysis brought on by terribly shallow research.

More below:

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The Case for Kinky Friedman

It has been said if Kinky Friedman didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him. I’m just not sure who – other than The Kinkster himself – is capable. Richard “Kinky”
Friedman, who is currently engaged in his June “Bi-Polar Tour,” is a man who has worn a lot of ten-gallon hats in his varied career: humorist, songwriter, country music outsider, bestselling mystery writer, columnist, failed gubernatorial candidate, animal rights activist and, most recently, tequila mogul. Just behind the surface of his irreverent outward persona – a sort of hillbilly-Groucho hybrid – lies the heart and soul of a true poet, thinker and humanitarian. As The Kinkster himself has said, “I like to be as misunderstood as the next guy.”

In the great tradition of American humorists like Will Rogers or Mark Twain, Kinky’s trademark one-liners can be equally funny, abrasive and genuinely thoughtful. Continue reading →

The Subtle (and a little-less-than-subtle) Humor of Charles Chesnutt

Tracy Wuster

June 20 is the birthday of Charles Waddell Chesnutt, one of the most important authors and humorists of the Gilded Age. Chesnutt (1858-19320) is often discussed in terms of the humor of his works, especially the short stories of his two collections The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth, both published in 1899.  In a journal entry from 1879, Chesnutt wrote of the purposes of his fiction, which he viewed as elevating not the black race but the white.  He wrote:

But the subtle almost indefinable feeling of repulsion toward the negro, which is common to most Americans—and easily enough accounted for—, cannot be stormed and taken by assault; the garrison will not capitulate: so their position must be mined, and we will find ourselves in their midst before they think it.

So instead of the “assault of laughter,” Chesnutt saw his goal as using humor to subtly influence feeling, or as he put it: “while amusing them to lead them on imperceptibly, unconsciously step by step to the desired state of feeling.”  The entire journal entry is printed below.  But, first, I will discuss the ways in which I have taught Chesnutt as a figure in the plantation school of American literature.

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Editorial Cartoons of Penn State and Jerry Sandusky Scandal

Check out Self Deprecate Political Humor for more political cartoons!

As the Jerry Sandusky trial unfolds, more and more disturbing details emerge on the scandal that rocked Penn State Football’s reputation and saw the dismissal of the revered Joe Paterno.

Catholic Church vs Jerry Sandusky

Check out below for more

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Sunday Stand-Up: Louis C.K. on Fatherhood.

Well it’s Father’s Day and if you’re anything like me your plans involve something to the effect of a phone call and new profile pic on Facebook. It probably also involves humorous takes on fatherhood and if so you’ve come to the right place.

Today we have Louis C.K.  I recently wrote about his approach to comedy but today is for highlighting how much of his comedy is about being a parent.  Which is to say a lot.  In addition to being wildly successful with his stand up special and TV show, C. K. is also now considered one of the best TV dads with the ways in which he discusses his struggles in being a good single parent.

In this first clip C.K. talks explicitly about why he doesn’t judge other parents, especially in public.  Because those people clearly have never had to deal with an endless stream of annoying questions from a child they are required by law to take care of.

This second clip is an animation about an encounter that C.K. himself had with a stranger judging his parenting skills.  What follows is one of the more insightful and funny takes on what it means to be a father offered in quite a while.

Live “Wire”

Although the likelihood of the following event is very, well, unlikely, if I were in some kind of hostage situation and forced at gunpoint to name from memory at least two mind-blowingly bad musicals that were never made, I could do it. One would be from Woody Allen’s standup routine from the 1960s, during which he joked that he was once “at a party with a very big Hollywood producer, and at that time he wanted to make an elaborate cinemascope musical comedy out of the Dewey Decimal System.” The other would be from the David Sedaris story “Smart Guy” in Me Talk Pretty One Day, in which he pits his own intelligence against that of his boyfriend Hugh, who once “with no trace of irony… suggested that the history of the chocolate chip might make for an exciting musical. ‘If, of course, you found the right choreographer.'” To my knowledge, both projects are neither in development nor should be (although with Kickstarter these days, anything’s possible). And so, meeting the eccentric demands of my imaginary abductors, I am freed. You might want to mentally file these away as a precaution; the world is a dangerous place.

The list of unlikely candidates for unnecessary musicals might have once have included The Wire, David Simon’s gritty, gorgeous drama about the complex social ecologies of life in Baltimore. (This month marks the tenth anniversary of its debut on HBO.) And while a full-fledged stage show is quite thankfully still a fiction, Funny or Die recently produced a commercial for The Wire: The Musical that reunites some of the original cast in a performance that is exactly what The Wire: The Musical would be if it were real — which is everything you remember about The Wire, but with more jazz hands and the occasional high kick.

Need another hit? Click through for a Victorian rendering of The Wire, and the inexplicably actual version for children.

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That’s Not Funny: Margaret Cho’s Ableist Faux Pas

Margaret Cho said something on Watch What Happens with Andy Cohen a few weeks ago that offended a lot of people.

I can almost hear you thinking it:  “And?”  Such an assertion would ordinarily be unnewsworthy.   Margaret Cho comedyI might as well have said “Everybody poops.”  You’d look at me funny, and then go about your day, perhaps wondering why I felt the need to share such an obvious and uncomfortable truth.  Cho says and does things that would offend a lot of people. This time, however, there was widespread, very public backlash.   I have been wondering why this time, of all times, the response to her offensiveness has been so spirited.   Through this faux pas, my eyes have opened to the reality of the profound distance between the stage performer and the person performing on the stage.   I think this misstep is a pivotal event for humor studies because it provides a teachable moment in which this distance shockingly reveals itself.

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