Monthly Archives: July, 2012

Making Light of The Dark Knight Tragedy: Dane Cook, Tastelessness, and Why We Bother Being Funny

Discussing Dane Cook on a humor website is kind of like saying that Twinkies have a recipe; sure, he is technically a comedian by virtue of his standing on a stage and saying things into a microphone, but only in the same way that Twinkies are technically food because we can put them in our mouths and chew. (I’m aware that this is not the best Twinkie metaphor ever, but I really dislike Twinkies. And Dane Cook.)

And yet, disregarding what is apparently a pretty severe personal disinclination toward the comedian on my own part, we find ourselves forced to have to think about him as a result of a recent and gloriously insensitive joke about the July 20th shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, on the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises. A shooting which left twelve dead and over 50 injured. About which, Cook joked:

“I know that if none of that would have happened, pretty sure that somebody in that theater, about 25 minutes in, realizing it [The Dark Knight Rises] was a piece of crap, was probably like ‘ugh fucking shoot me.’”

Playing at the Laugh Factory less than one week after the event, Cook’s joke suggests that the real victims in this tragedy are the people whose theaters were not gassed and gunned down – which is to say, anyone who has actually seen the film itself.

As I would also argue about the recent controversy surrounding Daniel Tosh and a similarly sketchy (and equally unfunny) “joke” about the rape of an audience member – which has been previously addressed by Humor in America – I believe that Cook has every right to say what he did, and I would never seek to put parameters around what is available to be addressed in and through humor. But as contributing editor Joe Faina asks of the appeals to artistic integrity and free expression among the license afforded our comedians and writers:

“Are these really the kinds of jokes that we want to defend in the name of those ideals? I’d just like us all to ponder for a moment what it means that those strange rhetorical bedfellows were made. If Tosh were to be immune from criticism on the grounds that he is an artist then wouldn’t that force us to reconsider the value of such art? If not, shouldn’t it?”

The same should be asked of Cook’s joke, which – unlike Tosh’s trademark, over-the-top compulsion to unsettle his audience – betrays something closer to boredom, as though senseless death and injury occurs frequently enough to be almost unremarkable, and as such – and here is one of the central tenets of comedy, plus a paradox in its own right – this banality of evil is therefore at the same time eminently remarkable as well: the comedian’s personal disaffectedness and distance authorizes the kind of casual observation that remains at the center of modern stand-up (i.e. “Have you ever noticed….?” and so on). What Cook seizes on – and what the audience laughs at, after an initial and probably more honest hesitancy – is the fact that, somewhat sadly, the film The Dark Knight Rises will likely have a more immediate, immanent relation to the majority of our lives, if only because only those three fictional hours are the only element of this tragedy to which we will have had access. Not real death, just that of actors who will be seen somewhere else soon enough. Not real blood on the steeped floor of a theater, just that which for most of us will only ever be soda, sticky on our soles.

The problem is that Dane Cook doesn’t seem to care.

This is not meant to excuse Cook for his cynical, privileged remarks, which are offensive at best and subhuman at worst. Cook has since apologized – via Twitter, of course, so you know it’s as sincere as 140 characters can be after suggesting that at least 12 murder victims are better off for not having to have sat through what he found to be a mediocre film. According to Cook’s Twitter feed, he “did not mean to make light of what happened,” which I’m going to go ahead and say simply cannot be the case, because what else is a joke? Or: why tell a joke at all, if not for the laughter that he, to a degree, would have to have predicted in order to warrant the inclusion of this joke, or any joke for that matter? In other words, he either had to know that it would be funny or he wanted it to be funny. He had to have been the first one to laugh at this joke, to be sure that that’s what it was. Cook’s admission that he “made a bad judgment call with my material last night,” as his tweet continues, is at least more accurate and honest. But it also invalidates the earlier point about meaning to “make light,” because he did judge, did choose this joke, which with any luck – for him, that is – would have transmuted darkness into levity, light. The saddest thing about Cook’s joke is how self-serving it ultimately seems; whatever laughter there is here is his, not ours, and certainly not that of the victims or their families.

The impulse to reverse and redress the worst of what we find in life is in many ways what humor is, or is at least what I think of when considering “the value of such art.” Humor is at its best and most valuable when it breaks down and brings close the distance by which we are removed from anything outside ourselves. In every good joke, there is a willingness to let light be made: yes, light as though a lantern that illuminates and exposes, but also light as in the lifting with someone else of what would have been too heavy otherwise. Instead of apologizing for this imperative – to “make light” – Cook would do better to think about why anyone bothers to be funny in the first place. His joke is indefensible because there is no suture there, no pulling together and repairing some part of ourselves. This is not to prescribe a compulsory program for what humor has to achieve or should always do, but merely to consider the condition of laughter as something that we have to share. It doesn’t always have to feel good to laugh. There is nothing unequivocally wrong with offense. Not all jokes are going to be funny. But lack of taste and tact notwithstanding, the thing that is ultimately really wrong with Dane Cook’s joke is that he doesn’t ask us to laugh with, only at.

Let’s all laugh at: The Olympics!

Tracy Wuster

Like all red-blooded Americans, I loves me some Olympics.  I will have a hard time getting work done over the next couple weeks with six stations of Olympics (+ streaming).  And the fact that my TV information calls it the “XXX Summer Olympics” makes it even better (in a 14-year old funny sort of way).  Speaking of TV, NBC quickly admits it is horrible and offers a solution.

General Olympic Humor

Some Olympic stand-up

Jerry Seinfeld

Rob Cantrell

olympics london 2012 uniform cartoon funny humor jokes comedy

Anthony Salame

The Space Olympics–Totally Cancelled

Sochi 2014 (the Problem-Free Russian Winter Olympics):

*the Olympics have become the focal point of anti-Putin satire.

*the problems with venues and accommodations have spawned a twitter account (or two).

*Saturday Night Live on figure skating.

*Buddy Cole on Russia (from Colbert Report)

*political cartoons (do you see any themes?)

political cartoons on sochi russia olympics 2014 putin security terrorism gay rights homosexuality 6a00d8341c90b153ef019b04308b2a970d-500wi 85 copy 2 85 copy 85 PutinOlympics 142548_600 142606_600 142685_600 143321_600 143910_600 bilde Putin Downhill MB1Jq8JuTt29kuAd_E2_fQ sochi-olympics-cartoon600px sochi1 Putin's Russia Jeff Koterba cartoon for December 31, 2013 "Russia Olympics"

See below for London!

85 022214coletoon sochi_in_the_shadow_of_ukraine_2183845 pussy-riot-attacked-sochi-olympics

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Happy Birthday Norman Lear! Rest in Peace Sherman Hemsley.

Today is the 90th birthday of Norman Lear, the creator of some of the most important sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s. In his honor, and in memory of the actor Sherman Hemsley, who passed away this past week, enjoy this blog on the black sitcom from NBC news writer Chiderah Monde.

george jefferson, Sherman Hemsley, norman lear, the jeffersons, sitcoms

In the Archives: James Russell Lowell “Humor, Wit, Fun, and Satire” (1893)

Tracy Wuster

See our other posts in this series:

In the Archives: William Hazlitt, “On Wit and Humour” (1818)

I have been writing about James Russell Lowell as a humorist and critic recently.  So I thought I would share Lowell’s essay on “Humor, Wit, Fun, and Satire,” originally a lecture and first printed in the Century Magazine in November 1893 with a preface by Charles Eliot Norton. Reprinted from THE FUNCTION OF THE POET AND OTHER ESSAYS (1920) [Buy this book to support our site: The Function of the Poet and Other Essays]

james russell lowell humor

In the style of the time, the piece takes awhile to get to its subject.  But there is a lot of good material there–both on the general subject and on specific examples.  I have posted the essay below, but here are a few morsels.

Men of one idea,—that is, who have one idea at a time,—men who accomplish great results, men of action, reformers, saints, martyrs, are inevitably destitute of humor; and if the idea that inspires them be great and noble, they are impervious to it. But through the perversity of human affairs it not infrequently happens that men are possessed by a single idea, and that a small and rickety one—some seven months’ child of thought—that maintains a querulous struggle for life, sometimes to the disquieting of a whole neighborhood. These last commonly need no satirist, but, to use a common phrase, make themselves absurd, as if Nature intended them for parodies on some of her graver productions. ….

In human nature, the sense of the comic seems to be implanted to keep man sane, and preserve a healthy balance between body and soul. But for this, the sorcerer Imagination or the witch Enthusiasm would lead us an endless dance.

The advantage of the humorist is that he cannot be a man of one idea—for the essence of humor lies in the contrast of two. He is the universal disenchanter. He makes himself quite as much the subject of ironical study as his neighbor. Is he inclined to fancy himself a great poet, or an original thinker, he remembers the man who dared not sit down because a certain part of him was made of glass, and muses smilingly, “There are many forms of hypochondria.” This duality in his mind which constitutes his intellectual advantage is the defect of his character. He is futile in action because in every path he is confronted by the horns of an eternal dilemma, and is apt to come to the conclusion that nothing is very much worth the while. If he be independent of exertion, his life commonly runs to waste. If he turn author, it is commonly from necessity; Fielding wrote for money, and “Don Quixote” was the fruit of a debtors’ prison. …

Humor, in its highest level, is the sense of comic contradiction which arises from the perpetual comment which the understanding makes upon the impressions received through the imagination. …

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Studying Stephen Colbert: Nation, who is the most important humorist of the day?

Tracy Wuster

According to the opinion piece–Truthinessology: The Stephen Colbert effect becomes an obsession in academia–in a recent Washington Post, academics love them some Stephen Colbert.  So much so, that we write about him.  Now, in the opinion of this author, writing in the voice of Colbert’s character, this is silly.  He writes:

Stephen Colbert report truthiness

…ever since Colbert’s show, “The Colbert Report,” began airing on Comedy Central in 2005, these ivory-tower eggheads have been devoting themselves to studying all things Colbertian. They’ve sliced and diced his comic stylings more ways than a Ginsu knife. Every academic discipline — well, among the liberal arts, at least — seems to want a piece of him.

And while the piece starts as a satire of the study of satire, it segues into a discussion of the reasons Colbert is a good person to study in our current political moment.  In a way, I wish the article had continued its conceit of being written in Colbert’s voice–exploring the liberal arts and questioning the serious study of the funny.  In other words, I would like to hear what Stephen Colbert thinks of the study of Stephen Colbert. [If you want to do an interview, Mr. Colbert, contact me.]Stephen Colbert report america

But the piece also got me thinking about which current comedians/humorists academics are interested in beyond their entertainment value for what they might say about our society and the role of humor in it.  Based on the relatively small sample of our posts on this page, the most significant–academically speaking–living humorists are listed in the poll below.  Please vote.  Your vote won’t mean anything.  Superpac money will allow you to vote multiple times.

If you chose “other” and wrote in a name, please consider writing a post for us on that person.

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Cerebral Standup Sunday: Emily Levine

Are you frustrated by the daily conundrum of a humor buff:  to laugh or to learn?  Tune into Emily Levine’s performances and flounder in indecision no more–you can indulge in both at the same time.   I found myself listening to genuinely humorous humor theory in Levine’s performance on Ted Talks: Smart Laughs (available on Netflix instant view, or, you know, right here). Her delivery is over-thought, rapid, and dry, much like if Woody Allen were presenting at the American Studies Association conference.

Some of her observations in the beginning reminded me a bit of Bahktin’s theory of the carnivalesque, but Levine directly  synthesizes two academic texts that mention humor, The Garden of Priapus and Trickster Makes this World   putting the various theories into action as she applies them to her life, standup comedy, and society.  For me, Levine has taken some of the sting out of E.B. White’s haunting adage: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”  Levine’s frog will live to croak another day. 

Auden on Apollo 11

Late in the evening on July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were poised to become the first humans to set foot on the moon. (Michael Collins remained alone in lunar orbit until they returned.)

I remember watching that moon walk from a Best Western Motel on the highway outside of pre-chic Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The set was a portable, black and white model with rabbit ears antenna.  Our mother was taking my sister and I on a summer road trip to Yellowstone. Barely seven years old and fifty pounds, I was a tousled mess of mosquito bites, scabby knees and peeling sunburn in beat up P.F. Flier sneakers, yet at that moment, I knew I was also a witness to history.

I stared at the grainy picture thinking the moon surely looked better in color. But the Life Magazine photos that came out later, showed the same flat, desolate grey.

Oddly, we three never said much about that broadcast, but British/American poet W.H. Auden captured some unarticulated thoughts about the event in his 1969 poem. Subtle, as opposed to laugh-outloud funny, this piece contains the same thread of fresh perspective and incisive, raw truth that lies at the core of every good joke.  Enjoy!

Moon Landing

It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worth while, made possible only

because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time: yes, our sex may in fairness
hurrah the deed, although the motives
that primed it were somewhat less than menschlich.

A grand gesture. But what does it period?
What does it osse? We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness: from the moment

the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam’s,
still don’t fit us exactly, modern
only in this—our lack of decorum.

Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.

Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed: give me a watered
lively garden, remote from blatherers

about the New, the von Brauns and their ilk, where
on August mornings I can count the morning
glories where to die has a meaning,
and no engine can shift my perspective.

Unsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens
as She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at,
Her Old Man, made of grit not protein,
still visits my Austrian several

with His old detachment, and the old warnings
still have power to scare me: Hubris comes to
an ugly finish, Irreverence
is a greater oaf than Superstition.

Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.

Press or Pass: The Unfunny Closing of the University of Missouri Press

Tracy Wuster

Update:  As of October, the decision to close the Press has been reversed and Clair Willcox has been rehired.  The concerted efforts of many people helped convince the bigwigs at Mizzou to reverse course, even if they won’t fully admit their mistakes.  I will be publishing my book with the press, if it is approved, of course.   To follow the situation, go here:  I have added a new cartoon below.

Another update: in November, 2015, Wolfe has resigned due to his handling of a number of incidents concerning racism.  In a twist, considering the satire on Wolfe below, the final straw seems to have been the announcement that many members of the football team would be on strike until Wolfe left.  In another, more personal, twist, I received my page proofs for Mark Twain: American Humorist from the University of Missouri Press on Saturday night.

This summer has had something of a dark cloud hanging over it.  In June I arrived in San Francisco for the American Literature Association conference, excited for the conference, for a short vacation, and for the chance to get back to Austin to get to work on my book.  Tentatively titled “The Great American Humorist: The Making and Meanings of Mark Twain,” the book was/is under advance contract with The University of Missouri Press for inclusion in the “Mark Twain and His Circle Series.”  I was scheduled to get the press a revised draft by July 1.

On the first day of ALA, I learned of the decision of the UM system’s new president, Tim Wolfe, to shut down the press, a decision he made without consulting any of the press’s employees or, it appears, any faculty at the four campuses of the UM system.

Many have noted that the subsidy for the press was pulled at the same time as the university announced a $200 million plan to upgrade athletic facilities.  As part of the justification for closing the press was that it did not fit into the core mission of the university, many have wondered if the core mission of many universities is football (often with tragic results).  And while sports can play a necessary and positive role in higher education, the prioritization of sports over academics can be seen as part of a larger view of colleges as businesses rather than as colleges.

For more information, see the “Save the University of Missouri Press” Facebook page.

Please sign the Petition to save the press.

Recent article on the closing of the press by William Least Heat-Moon.

The just announced “plan” to do something or other to replace the press. Unfortunately, not a joke.

This is all very sad and frustrating, and the only humor in the situation consists of the short, nasal chuckle in which a sigh is transformed into a rueful commentary on the silliness of the universe by a slight smile and a slow shake of the head.

Why should you care?  While the closing of the press affects me personally, if you are interested in the study of humor or the study of Mark Twain, then the closing of the press means the loss of a press that published significant books in both areas (see below for a sampling of the books).

Unlike the recent, and quite analogous tumult at the University of Virginia, the decisions of business people, with little academic experience, to so drastically attack key components of academic life has been met with little satiric ridicule.  The work of John Darkow at The Columbia Daily Tribune is the exception.

University of Missouri Press football athletics SEC

University of Missouri Press mizzou football athletics SEC

University of Missouri Press, Tim Wolfe, Mizzou

See below for three more cartoons from Darkow, as well as some other bits of humor and a sampling of the fine books the press has published on humor.

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On Daniel Tosh, Rape Humor, and Artistic Integrity

By now readers of this blog, and followers of humor in general, are no doubt aware of the recent controversy surrounding comedian Daniel Tosh and the curious case of the misquoted rape joke.  If not you can read about it here, or the original account here.

Long story short: Sometime last week, a woman attended a Daniel Tosh show at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. Tosh, known for humor that frequently toes the line on appropriateness, was making comments about the humor of rape jokes. The woman responded that she does not think such jokes are ever funny.  Tosh responds to this “heckler” by announcing to the audience “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?”

It is not my aim here to recount what did or did not happen, or whether such jokes are or are not appropriate.  Both of those have been hashed out extensively.  There was the Huffington Post‘s recap of the incident, complete with a collection of comedians defending Daniel Tosh. More importantly there was a slew of pleas to Please Stop Telling Rape Jokes, along with detailed instructions on How to Make a Rape Joke work and examples of 15 Rape Jokes That Work.  Even The Onion got in on the action, giving what is probably the most pointed illustration.

It is important to note that comedians are not all in agreement over this.  Here in my adopted comedy city of Austin there is a vibrant discussion of Tosh and more importantly over issues of who is “allowed” to say what to whom.  Much of this happened in house on a private Facebook page for Austin comedians.  With permission, I’ve included two of the more insightful takes from two comics whom I respect and admire.

From Kath Barbadoro:

I think it’s more about that a person probably shouldn’t be telling jokes where rape is the punchline, or that make rape seem like it’s less of a serious and horrible thing than it is, and expect people to not be pissed off or feel threatened.

Because “wouldn’t it be funny if this woman got gang raped right now” isn’t a funny joke, it isn’t even a joke. This doesn’t disprove the whole “anything can be funny in the right light” thing.

Basically I think it’s not about what is okay to be offended by and what is not okay to be offended by, because people can be mad about whatever they want just like people can say whatever they want. The point is that 1. all rape jokes are not created equal, some perpetuate a culture that is cool with rape and some don’t, and 2. what tosh did to that audience member is fucked up.

Sorry, but as a woman who is in comedy spaces a lot, I really need “jokes” about the audience gang raping a specific individual to not be okay. Is that seriously unreasonable? This isn’t a philosophical or semantic argument to me, this is a matter of self-advocacy.

From Brendan K. O’Grady:

I’m actually still less troubled by Daniel Tosh’s joking about a heckler getting raped than I am by segments from his TV show like “Lightly Touching Women’s Stomachs While They’re Sitting Down.”…As a performer and speech advocate, I’ll staunchly defend Tosh’s right to do what he did on stage at the Laugh Factory (and I’ll applaud the woman, who reportedly will still go see live comedy, if maybe after doing a little research into who’s on the bill beforehand next time), but I’ll condemn him as irresponsible at best and despicable at worst for the way he appears to look at women and other people in general, as evidenced by his other works.

It is a special time to do comedy in the age of the Internet.  But it is also a double edged sword. The benefit of increased access to audiences carries with it the increased responsibility to be accountable for things said to those audiences.  The last few years have given us numerous examples: Michael Richards, Carlos Mencia, Tracy Morgan, and now Daniel Tosh.

The “sides” that have emerged in this controversy are as intriguing as they are predictable.  Supporters of Tosh often appeal to ideals of free speech as integral to an artist’s integrity.  If Tosh, or any comedian for that matter, has to watch what they say for fear of offending then we are in effect silencing their right to free expression of ideas.  Either everything is fair game or none of it is.

The other “side” appeals to notions of empathy on behalf of those to whom these jokes are “aimed” at.  As Kath noted, “not all rape jokes are equal”–we should be mindful of the underlying premise of a joke to examine whether or not it hinges upon attacking those who are already in marginalized positions.  Perpetuating harmful stereotypes or world views should not be the purpose of comedy, and comedians should adjust their material accordingly.

If these positions seem roughly sketched or resting upon a false dichotomy, that is because they are.  What makes Kath and Brendan’s comment illustrative to me is in how they incorporate elements of both positions.  Despite the reactions to several comedians in the aforementioned link, no one is actually saying Tosh isn’t allowed to say what he wants.  His free speech rights have not been hampered.  He did not go to jail, nor should he.  Kath’s comments spoke to the idea that someone “probably shouldn’t be telling a joke where rape is the punchline” and that such requests are not “seriously unreasonable.”  Brendan also makes a point to defend Tosh’s free speech rights, but that in doing so creates a space where he can “condemn him for being irresponsible at best and despicable at worst” for suggesting that comments about rape targeted at a specific person are part of his artistic merit as a comedian.

This last point is what sticks with me the most.  I also do not find this to be an either/or scenario or that those who initially defended Tosh were doing so because they didn’t think rape is a serious topic.  Correlation is not causality.  However it does raise some points for reflection that jokes about the heinous act of rape were technically defended using the language of art, integrity, and free expression.  Are these really the kinds of jokes that we want to defend in the name of those ideals?  I’d just like us all to ponder for a moment what it means that those strange rhetorical bedfellows were made.  If Tosh were to be immune from criticism on the grounds that he is an artist then wouldn’t that force us to reconsider the value of such art?  If not, shouldn’t it?

Andy Griffith: The Music of Mayberry and Beyond

Had Andy Griffith lived one day longer, he would have died on the 4th of July. This seems fitting for a man as American as apple pie, yet his simple modesty would never have allowed it. Thus, Andy Griffith passed away last week on July 3, one month into his 86th year, leaving a monumental contribution to American culture behind him.

He was best known as an actor, playing the straight-man, small-town Sheriff Andy Taylor in the eponymous television show he helped create – and with it an entire world. His childhood was rich with storytelling and, especially, music. The eccentric residents of the fictional Mayberry were inspired by the colorful characters that peppered his childhood in Mount Airy, North Carolina. While it is true he grew up dirt poor in the small southern town, even reduced to sleeping in dresser drawers as an infant, Andy Griffith was no bumpkin. In 1949, the ambitious and multifaceted Griffith graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Music, where he served as the Men’s Glee Club President.

Music played a key role in the original “Andy Griffith Show,” which ran from 1960-1968. The Sheriff could often be found pickin’ a guitar on the front porch of a summer evening, but things really started to cook when the Darlings came to town. Continue reading →