Monthly Archives: September, 2012

Stand-up Sunday: Michael Richards, Six Years On

For the contemporary stand-up comedian, the digital age presents both benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, comedians receive great publicity and access to new fans via platforms such as Twitter (which is a custom-made forum for joke tellers) or on podcasts such as Marc Maron’s WTF.

On the minus side, the ease with which audience members can record the audio or visual of an act means that material can be taken out of the comedian’s control and circulated in the digital realm before the wait staff even drop the checks. If there’s an altercation or a line that is crossed in an inexpert manner, the mater can spiral into something viral — and that’s not always good for a comic’s reputation. Just ask Michael Richards, who just this week found himself on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” web series, apologizing again for his racist tirade at the Laugh Factory six years ago. Well, he doesn’t apologize so much as he shows how it still weighs heavy on his soul.

“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” constitutes Seinfeld’s foray into new media, taking the breezy style he developed in stand-up and sitcom, and playing it out on the web with decent production values. Seinfeld gets to indulge his passion for cars — he picks up Richards in a “1962 VW split-window double-cab bus in dove blue, primer grey, and rust.”

“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” also allows Seinfeld to chat with comedian friends, including Larry David, Alec Baldwin, and the comedy duo of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. (I think Reiner and Brooks just might have a future in the industry!)

The episode with Richards involves several doses of nostalgia.

Michael Richards: Those were good days.

Jerry Seinfeld: Those were good days.

Michael Richards: You gave me the role of a lifetime.

Jerry Seinfeld: You gave me the experience of my lifetime, getting to play with you.

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Happy Birthday, dear Google . . .

Today, September 27th, 2012 marks the fourteenth birthday of Google. (I googled it.) Wikipedia (according to itself) celebrated its eleventh birthday last January 15th. The iPhone (according to a news item in the LA Times I used mine to pull up) had its fifth birthday last June 29th. Each of these innovations have changed our world in their own right, but the three of them together have had a kick that reminds me of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon becoming nitroglycerin.*

*Upon reading, this my husband, who is a walking encyclopedia, (see below) said I forgot to mention hydrogen in the nitroglycerin compound. Rather than throw out the analogy, let’s pretend hydrogen atoms are the people using the technology.

While we’ve been learning to reach for our iPhones to Google Wikipedia,  our humor has become increasingly referential as well. Seth MacFarlane for example, leads us down ever-more-elaborate halls of mirrors in his hit show Family Guy.

Of course neuroscientists, psychologists and sociologists are studying the myriad ways this ubiquitous digital technology affects us. Some of their findings are surprising, others . . . not so much to those of us old enough to have been firmly entrenched in adult life in the slower, more deliberate, analogue days.

It stands to reason that there’s less social currency in being a walking encyclopedia in a world where everyone walks around with access to an encyclopedia. But I’ve noticed something else as well: The more these tools are available, the less I trust my own memory. (“No wonder,” you say after the nitroglycerin debacle.) Regardless, the less I trust my own memory, the more I double check. The more I double check, the less I commit to memory. . .  and so on.

When it comes to facts at our fingertips, there is a thin line between usefulness and compulsion. Once we cross that line, we become like the guidebook-happy tourist whose every experience either confirms what he read, or will be confirmed by what he is about to read.

We are the last generation to remember digging through our pockets for change to buy a hamburger instead of swiping a card. And we are the last generation to remember searching our minds for facts instead of searching the internet. With that thought, I bring you Billy Collins’ 1999 poem Forgetfulness.

(c) 2012, Caroline Sposto

Happy Birthday Jim Henson! In honor of what would have been his 76th birthday, we present two posts on the subject of Muppets…

Humor in America

Michael Giles Purgason

Editor’s Note:  Michael Purgason was a student in one of my courses this past year.  Even though Michael was a graduating senior who was applying for medical schools, he took a keen interest in the subject of my English class and in the “Humor in America” blog.  Tragically, Michael was killed in a car accident in July.  With the permission of his family, I am publishing the piece below, which he was in the process of making final revisions for “Humor in America.”  –Tracy

Muppets Treasure IslandAs a child growing up two of my favorite films that I watched frequently on VHS were Muppet Treasure Island and A Muppet Christmas Carol. One thing I always noticed about these two films in particular was that they were the only two Disney movies my parents and older siblings would be happy to watch with me consistently, and they would laugh hysterically…

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Happy Birthday Jim Henson! In honor of what would have been his 76th birthday, we present two posts on the subject of Muppets…

Humor in America

Tracy Wuster

Over the past few weeks, I had several discussions with friends and acquaintances about the upcoming Muppet movie.  People were excited.  I discovered that people my age grew up with the Muppets–first with Sesame Street and then the Muppet Show, with some Fraggles thrown in.  My earliest movie-going memory is seeing a Muppet movie, probably “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984), with my dad and brother.  I may remember it because my dad snored through the previews, movie, and credits–despite my brother nudging him constantly.*

But the Muppets are lodged in my memory for more than my dad’s critical response to the film, of which Statler and Waldorf would no doubt have approved.  My sense of humor was shaped by the show and movies in ways that are hard to define–a mixture of bizarre (Gonzo and his chickens), cornball (Fozzie), counterculture (Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem), anarchic (Animal…

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In the Archives: Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate” (1879)

Tracy Wuster

In keeping with our recent political focus, we present Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate.”  In light of  revelations in the presidential campaign (both embarrassing and partial), it is nice to see Twain’s refreshing candor.  Here it is, rom June 1879:

Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens politics president Obama RomneyI have pretty much made up my mind to run for president. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.

In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me, I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the Battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer, because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded, my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit also that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be, “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.”

These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.

Engraving based on an 1879 photograph.

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

Tracy Wuster

William Hazlitt wit and HumourFor this month’s installment of “In the Archives,” we are featuring “On Wit and Humour,” the printed version of a lecture by William Hazlitt, the influential essayist and critic of the nineteenth century.  Hazlitt’s essay was often cited in discussions of humor throughout the century by English and American scholars and humorists.


I have excerpted a few selections below.  For the whole essay, please see the version at the site of Maarten Maartensz, a Dutch philosopher and psychologist, who prepared a corrected version of the text.  His critiques of GoogleBooks and their preparations of texts raises relevant questions about the preparation and use of digital archives.

The first two paragraphs of the essay seem especially important:

On Wit and Humour.

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the
only animal that is struck with the difference between what
things are, and what they ought to be. We weep at what
thwarts or exceeds our desires in serious matters: we laugh at
what only disappoints our expectations in trifles. We shed tears
from sympathy with real and necessary distress; as we burst
into laughter from want of sympathy with that which is unrea-
sonable and unnecessary, the absurdity of which provokes our
spleen or mirth, rather than any serious reflections on it.

To explain the nature of laughter and tears, is to account for
the condition of human life; for it is in a manner compounded
of these two! It is a tragedy or a comedy — sad or merry, as it
happens. The crimes and misfortunes that are inseparable from
it, shock and wound the mind when they once seize upon it,
and when the pressure can no longer be borne, seek relief in
tears : the follies and absurdities that men commit, or the odd
accidents that befal them, afford us amusement from the very
rejection of these false claims upon our sympathy, and end in
laughter. If everything that went wrong, if every vanity or

– 2 –

weakness in another gave us a sensible pang, it would be hard
indeed : but as long as the disagreeableness of the consequences
of a sudden disaster is kept out of sight by the immediate oddity
of the circumstances, and the absurdity or unaccountableness
of a foolish action is the most striking thing in it, the ludicrous
prevails over the pathetic, and we receive pleasure instead of
pain from the farce of life which is played before us, and which
discomposes our gravity as often as it fails to move our anger or
our pity !

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Voter ID Laws and the Question of Political Satire

Tracy Wuster

Most of the time, politics is a serious business.  People tend to take the government fairly seriously–our laws, our government, our rights.  True, traditionally Congress has been an object of fun, and politicians–from Abraham Lincoln to Sarah Palin–have been the butt of jokes.  But the importance of political humor–from parody to cartoons to satire–might best be seen as a reflection of how seriously people take politics.

In this highly political year, I have been very interested in questions of how political humor functions in American society.  Recently, I discussed the satire of the RNC and DNC conventions on the Daily Show.  Similarly, Self Deprecate’s contributions to our site and his site have tackled the current state of political humor.

One political issue that I have been increasingly concerned with this year is distinctly not funny: voter suppression.  While proponents of voter ID and other voting laws argue that voter fraud is a real issue (apart from their clownish attempts to prove voter fraud by committing voter fraud), critics of these laws have argued that they are better explained as politically motivated efforts to suppress the votes of people of color, the poor, and the elderly.  As John Dean argued in a blog post entitled, “The Republican’s Shameless War on Voting“:

There is absolutely no question that Republicans are trying to suppress non-whites from voting, throughout the Southern states, in an effort that has been accelerating since 2010.  It is not difficult to catalogue this abusive Republican mission, which unfortunately has spread, in a few instances, to states above the Mason-Dixon Line as well.

Other stories back up this argument:

Juan Williams on Fox News

Harold Meyerson on the Washington Post

Charles Blow in the New York Times

Recent developments in voter laws in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states also testify to the seriousness of this issue.  Those with any historical sense hear echoes of past efforts to restrict suffrage for political gain and based on cultural prejudice.  Serious stuff.

Where does the humor come in?

Let’s start with Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” strip from July 23 of this year:

doonesbury jim crow voter id suppression gary trudeau

And from the next day:

doonesbury voter id supression jim crow

And check out the rest of the series: here, here, here , and ending with this one:

But that wasn’t all…

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Stand-Up Sunday: Dave Chappelle

Dave Chappelle has been an enigma the last few years.  After famously walking away from his wildly popular show on Comedy Central Chappelle has largely remained out of the public eye.  More recently the comedian began playing a series of unannounced shows throughout the country that while sparking significant hype have been terribly disappointing.

That is a shame because I still find Chappelle to be one of the finest stand up comics.  Ever.  Recent public flops aside his two specials, Killing Them Softly and For What It’s Worth, remain two of my favorite specials of all time.

Though not necessarily a political comedian Chappelle does occasionally touch upon politicians, especially those who might be linked to the Black experience.  Long before Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president comedians like Cedric the Entertainer opined about Bill Clinton being the de facto first one.

The clip here is from 2000 right near the end of the Clinton Administration.  There are some timely references to then President Clinton’s candor and coolness that those who saw his recent rave review at this year’s Democratic National Convention will find timeless as well.  And since Chappelle initially cut his comedy chops as a teenager at the Washington D.C. improv in the late 80’s there is always room for a well placed mayor joke as well.

See any similarities with the persona here with what we saw during the Democratic Convention?

I recommend watching the rest of this special, found here, or his second special following the release of Chappelle’s Show, found here.

Song and Dance Man: Revisiting Bob Dylan’s Legendary 1965 Press Conference

Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album – Tempest
– was released on Tuesday, smack dab in the middle of a stormy political season. But it isn’t a political album, of course. Bob Dylan is not a political artist. He is a bluesman, borrowing what he needs from an array of elements and spinning them into songs that transcend the original source, resulting in some of the more poignant, introspective songs of the modern age. In the late 1960’s, for example, during the height of the Woodstock-era, rock ‘n’ roll, anti-war counter-culture, Bob Dylan was making quiet country records in Nashville. In fact, Bob Dylan has written precisely zero songs protesting, or even referencing, the Vietnam War. His brush with “protest” music at the beginning of his career was simply a vehicle – one more riff to borrow as he found his voice. Dave Van Ronk, the legendary folk singer who worked the same Greenwich Village clubs in those early days, remembers Dylan as being “politically naïve.”

He can also be a very funny songwriter and entertainer – a self described “song and dance man.”

Don’t misunderstand me, I am well aware of the impact of landmark songs such as Continue reading →

The Mount Rushmore of Mount Rushmores

It is a threadbare premise, for a medium still in its pull-ups. When we think of greatness, whose face goes on the largest of sculptures—formed by God but finished by men—vandalizing the Dakotan landscape?

For the field of American humor I’ve had one year to think it over. Last September my friend Steve (whose real name is Mark, but in these kinds of online articles an alias is typical) said to me:

“Twain is sort of the great white whale of American literature. Dickens assumes the same type of stature for 19th century England. And Tolstoy (sorry Mr. Dostoyevsky and my beloved Mr. Chekhov) occupies the place for Russian literature. Who for France? Hugo? What a Mount Rushmore for 19th century literature.”

I agreed with Steve, but turned the direction of our conversation to something even more trivial: American humor. Putting very little thought into it I said:

Of course, the problem is limit. I immediately regretted the absence of George Carlin, but I didn’t know if he trumped Pryor. I couldn’t remove Groucho to include both influential standups when Marx represented the long stretch of Vaudeville and Jewish humor that shaped early Hollywood. And Franklin? You don’t see a lot of comedians today reference Ben Franklin as a significant influence on their craft, but then again what politicians model themselves after Washington? At the time it didn’t matter. Steve agreed with my list.

“I think you’ve nailed the Mount Rushmore for humor…Franklin is the headwaters. Essential. But you’ve got a nice spread of eras there, too. If we were confining this to movies and television, we could throw out Franklin and Twain and make room for Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball (hate to leave Fields out). But they don’t make the cut if we’re looking to represent all of American humor. Groucho is one of the few humor masters, by the way, who mastered almost every medium available to him: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, books. And he could get laughs in a stunning variety of ways: monologues, acting, singing, dancing, ad-libbing, sophisticated word play, low slapstick. Pretty remarkable career.”

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