Monthly Archives: October, 2012

Embracing the Ambiguity and Irony of Satire: A Response to Jeff Melton

Last year, Jeff Melton wrote a thoughtful meditation on teaching satire for Humor in America.   I had started drafting a response, but because of life’s ironies, I ended up in the oncology ward instead.

Context is everything.

Since my own sense of humor tends to be firmly grounded in what might be called the painfully funny, I do not share Jeff’s concerns about whether the serious and the humorous are diametrically opposed, or whether the study of humor needs some sense of legitimacy for my colleagues or students.  For me, the serious is funny, and being funny is serious business.  Without laughter, I am not sure how any of us would get through the day.

Satire is a particular form of humor that uses exaggeration, ridicule, derision, and exposure of contradictions to criticize or censure human folly or vice.  As such, its foundations are always serious.  But those foundations are often ambiguous, ambivalent, and complex, rather than possessing the single focus that satire is often assumed to have.  The power of satire lies not in its unambiguous moral target, but in its propensity to force us to make a choice about what that target (or those targets) might be.  To both force critical thinking and allow us to laugh it off — if we so choose.

It is for this reason that, unlike many other colleagues, I was not disturbed by the findings of LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam (2009), in their study, “The Irony of Satire.”  In this study, the researchers showed a clip from The Colbert Report to groups of students who were self-identified political conservatives or liberals.  The study found that while both groups found Colbert riotously funny, they disagreed about the nature of that humor and his genuine targets.  Conservatives tended to see that Colbert “only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.”  In other words, the participants interpreted the humor through the lens of their own ideological beliefs.

What a surprise.

No, seriously.  I mean it.  What do any of us do?  We interpret events through a lens composed of our experience and our belief systems, critically assessing how the new event fits in with our experience, and dismissing aspects that our own experience denies.  Satire, like all critical thinking, offers the possibility for change, but it does not guarantee that others will see it our way, whatever that way might be.

But this does not mean satire is impotent, or that any of us have to stop with looking through our own limited ideological lenses.  For me, the power of the “Irony of Satire” study was that it showed opposing interpretations without trying to reconcile them, or to privilege one over the other.  Yet numerous (unintentionally funny) popular news stories about the study tried to assert defensively that while the researchers pretended to draw no conclusions, clearly they knew what everyone knows, that Stephen Colbert really means  . . . whatever the writer’s particular political ideology wants him to mean.  The plethora of passionate and diametrically opposing responses both during the study and its aftermath should make us think.

To me, this stimulation of critical thought is the study’s real power as a teaching tool or a theoretical tool — for a close reading of the study shows that the researchers do carefully report their findings without judging their participants.  And equally clearly, the different popular news stories fall all over themselves trying to assert that their personal view is the “correct” one and that not only does Colbert agree with them but the researchers really do, too.  But they cannot all be right any more than the study’s participants can.

Or can they?  The study asks us to think it through.  And so does satire itself.

Good satire does not limit its targets to the service of a particular political ideology or reduce an issue with complex contributing factors to the responsibility of a single villain.  Neither does a good satirist.  As irresistible targets, neither conservatism nor liberalism has a monopoly.   Satire — to be effective satire — must skewer pretension, folly, vice, and contradiction wherever it lies, regardless of political affiliation or personal preference.

And so, when Jon Stewart of The Daily Show showed reluctance in June 2011 to publicly attack a longtime friend, Anthony Weiner, after the exposure of his sexting scandal, Stewart had an obligation to turn his satiric lens on himself.  In a hilarious “press conference,” Stewart takes full responsibility for his reluctance and his lack of action, even momentarily and parodically stepping down from his job and letting John Oliver take his place.  The satire is pointed, against himself as well as his friend, and it is personally painful — literally so, as Stewart accidentally cuts himself during the course of the skit, bad enough to require stitches.  And then there were the multiple follow-up episodes to make up for the lapse, like “The Dong Goodbye” about “the wedge between the Democratic party and their constituents” or  the “Wangover” episode.  Regardless of politics, regardless of friendship even, the satirist had to proceed.

But does satire alone have the power to change deeply held convictions or topple governments?

Of course not.  Or war would have become obsolete long ago.  And we all can see that there is little danger of this happening.

So why do we want to believe so passionately that “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand”?   The quotation is attributed to Mark Twain, and he certainly wrote it, but the context is far from unambiguous.  It appears in “The Chronicles of Young Satan” and is put in the mouth of the nephew of the big guy himself, sort of a Beelzebub, Jr.  Appearing as the quotation does in the midst of a scathing and complex satire, it cries out to be read — well — satirically. Continue reading →

Seeking: New Contributing Editors/Best Political Humor of the Season

Tracy Wuster

 

We here at Humor in America are seeking to add one or two contributing editors to replace several departing editors.  The task of an editor is fairly straightforward: contribute content once per month on an area of humor studies.  Our departing editors work in the fields of visual humor and stand-up, but we are open to adding solid work in almost any area of humor studies.

You will be scheduled to post a piece once per month, although I am extremely flexible about scheduling. The goal is to make your work for the site useful for your own academic interests and valuable to our readers.  If you are interested, please contact Tracy Wuster at wustert@gmail.com.  If you have expressed interest before, please do so again to remind us of who you are and let us know you still might be interest.

For more information, see our “Write for Us!” page, and feel free to ask questions.

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In other news, we have an open slot for a day shortly before the election, and I was hoping to post a sampling of the best political humor of the political season.  What I need from you is an email with nominations–what humor (cartoons, TV satire, internet meme, video, commentary, joke, tweet, etc.) was your favorite or was most interesting in how humor and politics interact.  Please email me at: wustert@gmail.com

In the meantime, here is one nomination, from Joss Whedon, on Romney and Zombies:

Thanks.

 

Happy Birthday, John Berryman

John Berryman
(1914 – 1972)

Someone once said that all poets have miserable lives. In John Berryman‘s case, this bore out. This brilliant, idiosyncratic man won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 and threw himself off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis in 1972. Although his story is tragic and his poems are haunting, he and his contemporaries had a significant influence on American humor.

Berryman was one of America’s original confessional poets. In addition to changing the landscape of American Poetry, this movement also helped open American minds to a new acceptance of controversial subject matter.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, these soul-baring poems offered intimate, first-person explorations of topics that had been heretofore off limits. While sometimes shocking, these works were far more than the verbal strip-teases of provocateurs. Berryman and his contemporaries, Lowell, Plath, Ginsberg, Sexton, among others, have earned their place in the literary canon because of their depth of insight and mastery of craft.

These mid-century confessional poems were often caustic, tearfully funny, or just starkly honest, but thanks, in part, to them, controversial, and highly personal subjects are no longer out-of-bounds. This social change has made us more receptive to cutting edge humor, more forthcoming and more willing to understand and laugh at ourselves.

On that note, I bring you one of John Berryman’s confessions . . . .

Dream Song 14

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

— John Berryman

Since we have been running pieces on pedagogy to kick off our new “Teaching American Humor” section (run by Jeffrey Melton), I thought I would re-run this piece on teaching and time machines. At this point in the semester, a time machine (to either go backward or forward) would be most welcome…

Humor in America

by Tracy Wuster

On January 11th, 1992, I gathered with a group of friends to watch Saturday Night Live, our usual Saturday night activity as high school sophomores.  This was a special night.  Nirvana was playing, and we were living just north of Seattle.  Grunge was our thing: flannel, mosh pits, and, most of all, music.

This was the episode on which the band played “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” thrashed their instruments during “Territorial Pissings,” and kissed each other during the closing credits. The band’s anarchic spirit expressed not only our (possibly exaggerated) teen angst but also the humor of destruction, noise, and pissing off parents and other authorities that went hand in hand with the angst.

But, oddly enough, what I remember most from that episode of Saturday Night Live is not Nirvana’s performance but a sketch featuring the host Rob Morrow.  The sketch is…

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Sunday Sermon: Activist Humor and Frederick Douglass’s “Servants, Obey Your Masters”

Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Frederick Douglass

Today, Frederick Douglass seems a formidable and imposing figure, his speech eloquent, inspiring, provocative and fiery.  He was certainly all of this and more.  But he also made people laugh.  During the antebellum years, lecturing alongside an uncompromising firebrand like Henry Highland Garnet could mean broken bones (and Douglass himself could attest to this), lecturing with Douglass usually meant getting out unscathed,  outwitting the enemy, and perhaps even changing some minds — even if his humor bothered some critics. 

But as Billy Kersands, a renowned African American blackface performer, once said without a trace of a smile, “Son, if  they hate me, I’m still whipping them, because I’m making them laugh.”  While Douglass wrote caustically about white blackface performers and earlier African American blackface performers such as Gavitt’s Serenaders, I think that he shared Kersands’ assessment of the power of humor. 

Douglass’s humor ranged from the self deprecating to the bitingly caustic.  He wielded humor to defuse tense situations, but, perhaps more importantly, he used it as an activist strategy to forward the abolitionist cause and as a powerful tool in the fight for equal rights.  Often these moments of humor were simply that — moments inserted to defuse tension or to skewer a point with precision.  Other times, Douglass used extended routines to drive home his points and pull his audience right along with him

One of his most powerful extended uses of humor is when he takes on the persona of a white preacher addressing a slave congregation (the actual audience being made up of largely white attendees and hecklers at abolitionist meetings).  This text is from a meeting in Scotland in 1846, but he used versions of this speech for years across America, too.  The speech presented below is excerpted from a newspaper account, and it includes parenthetical asides relating the audience’s responses.  The reporter sets up the speech, saying that Douglass was going to 

give them a sketch of a sermon which he had often heard preached. The text was ‘Servants obey your masters.” He would divide it into separate heads, and here he was going to imitate the preacher, for he wanted to show them how rantingly, how piously he might appear when in the service of the wicked one himself. Mr. Douglass then in tones of mimic solemnity gave the following epitome of the discourse:

Frederick Douglass humor

—”Servants obey your masters.”

–You should obey your masters, in the first place, because your happiness depends on your obedience. (Cheers and laughter.) Now, servants, such is the relation constituted by the Almighty between cause and effect, that there can be no happiness neither in this world nor the world to come save by obedience; and it is a fact, that whenever you see misery, wretchedness, and poverty, want and distress, all is the result of disobedience. (Laughter.) Peculiarly is this the case with yourselves. Under the providence of God, you sustain a very peculiar relation to your masters. The term “servant” in the text means slave, and you will of consequence perceive that this is a message to you by the mouth of the Apostle; so as a preacher of the Gospel I beg you to listen to the words of wisdom. (Great laughter.)

–I said it was peculiarly the case that your happiness depends upon your obedience. It is verily true, and suffer me to illustrate this position by the statement of a fact. A neighbour of mine sent his servant Sam into the fields to perform a certain amount of labour which ought to have taken him two hours and a half. Now, by the way, his master was a pious soul, and after having waited till the expiration of the time which he had allotted to Sam for the performance of the work, he went out into the field, as he was accustomed to do, for the purpose of ascertaining why Sam was detained. (Laughter.) When he went, lo and behold, there lay Sam, his hoe in one place, and Sam fast asleep in the corner of the fence. (Great laughter and cheers.) Think of the feelings of that pious master. Oh! it was a trying situation for a servant of the Lord to be placed in. (Laughter.) He went “to the law and to the testimony” to know his duty, and he there found it written, that “the servant who knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Accordingly, he took up Sam, and lashed him till he was not able to bear it. Now this is the point I want to come to. To what was Sam’s whipping traceable? (Cheers and laughter.) Solely to disobedience. (Much laughter.) If you would be happy, therefore, and not be whipped, you will avoid sleeping when you should be working, for if you would enjoy and live under the sunshine of your master’s good pleasure, let me implore you, as one who loves your souls, ”be obedient to your masters.” (Cheers and laughter.)

–You should obey your masters, in the second place, because of a sense of gratitude for your present situation compared with what it might have been. You should be inspired by a knowledge of the fact, that the Lord, in his mercy, brought you from Africa to this Christian country. (Shouts of laughter.) Oh! this is an important consideration, and one to which I will call your attention for a few moments. Your fathers—and I dread to enter upon the picture—were taken from Africa—degraded, lost, and ruined Africa—darkness may be said to cover that earth, and gross darkness that people—to be brought into the sunshine of this land of freedom. (Laughter.) Continue reading →

In the Archives: Artemus Ward’s Panorama (1869)

I hate word games. I suffer Scrabble, abhor Boggle, and you’ll never catch me cross words. I prefer etymology, and catch myself wondering about the subtleties of language the way you might answer, “I’ll take New York Times crossword for $200, __”. Consider an example: in English the first ordinal number might also serve as the numerical superlative. Given the ordinal role shows rank, or position, and the “-st” ending it shares with the hyperbolic “most” or “best,” I am comfortable maintaining that while “first” may be subject to the same controversies and debates the application of any superlative generates, it inspires the same level of awe upon discovery.

Artemus Ward

I felt this sense of awe when reading E. P. Hingston’s Prefatory Note, “Artemus Ward as Lecturer,” at the beginning of Ward’s posthumous publication Artemus Ward’s Panorama (1869). You may know the name Artemus Ward as the pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne (April 26, 1834–March 6, 1867), the printed humorist and lecturer whose career influenced that of a young Samuel Clemens when he first wrote under the name Mark Twain. Thirty years after Ward’s death, when describing the American art of telling a story, Mark Twain would commend Ward as one of the best representatives at telling it humorously:

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it…the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub…Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.

Later Twain summarized:

To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purpose-less way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause. Artemus Ward dealt in numbers three and four a good deal. He would begin to tell with great animation something which he seemed to think was wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently absent-minded pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way; and that was the remark intended to explode the mine—and it did (How to Tell a Story, 1897).

Young Mark Twain followed Ward’s professional footsteps when the Sacramento Union sent him to report on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1866, and he returned with enough anecdotes to fill lecture halls out West.

Mark Twain, “Lecture on the Sandwich Islands,” from Daily Alta California (by way of PBS)

Twain’s now famous use of language in the advertisement could be described in his own, later, language of dropping studied remarks with the printed effect of a pause by contrasting font size. Contemporary programs studying Mark Twain still rely upon advertising “The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock”, but where would Twain be without Ward?

Continue reading →

An Educated Sense of Humor

Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman, Assistant Professor, St. Edward’s UniversityAmy Nathan

Wright, Assistant Professor, St. Edward’s University

Tracy Wuster, Adjunct Professor, The University of Texas at Austin

 

Editor’s Note:  This piece was originally written for the newsletter of the Association of General and Liberal Studies, but the newsletter was discontinued.  Amy and Laura agreed that we could publish it here.

“…liberal learning—the development of knowledge, skills, values, and habits of mind characteristic of an    educated person.”  –AGLS Mission Statement

Whether humor is used as a strategy for teaching or as content in a general education course, one major goal of a liberal education should be the development of our students’ senses of humor—the skills and habits of mind to interpret and use humor well.

The cliché with humor is that if you have to explain a joke, then it ceases to be funny.  The implication is that we, as educators, don’t really need to teach humor, since students either get it or they don’t, and that by explaining humor, we take the fun out of it.

This is true, insofar as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Humor cannot be translated into a non-funny statement of fact or analysis, which is the meaning most people mean when warning against explaining humor.  But instances of humor can be contextualized, historicized, and interpreted in ways that can deepen students’ understanding of key subjects, of other people’s points of view, and of a society in which humor has long been a central means of communicating and contesting societal visions and values.

Humor is especially useful in general education classes to introduce, explore, and deepen the understanding of difficult subjects, such as race and gender, for a diverse population of students.  In these cases, teachers must help students come to a rich and nuanced understanding of humor, or its can end up accomplishing the opposite of one’s intentions—it can reinforce stereotypes and divide people.

How do we help students distinguish between racial humor and racist humor?  How do we help students distinguish between gender-based humor and sexist humor?  How do we get students to take race and gender seriously?  How do we use humor in the classroom, whether telling the jokes ourselves or providing comedic examples, while engaging students’ critical thinking skills so they get the joke?

Continue reading →

Stand-Up Sunday: Tig Notaro

To those who do not follow the contemporary world of stand-up comedy Tig Notaro is not exactly well known.  To those who do she is one of the best working today.  Tig’s style of comedy is that of a storyteller, a storyteller who’s low key style is punctuated by a series of understatements that combine both a keen sense of awareness and a subtle naiveté that the audience is invited to participate in.  Much of Tig’s humor relies on this juxtaposition, creating laughs by intentionally not pointing out the obvious, letting the audience do it instead.

This is what I find the most entertaining about the story in this first clip.

This second one is shorter but offers a similar feel.

While much of Notaro’s career has been played under the radar that is likely to change with her recent revelation that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  Like her stand up, what was noteworthy was in how Notaro chose to publicly announce her diagnosis; onstage during a set at Largo in Los Angeles in late August.  Word of this announcement spread shortly after an audience member posted this reflection on the special moment created during the performance.  America’s preeminent comic of the moment Louis C.K. was in attendance, noting on his Twitter account “In 27 years doing this I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful stand up sets.  One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.”  C.K. recently released the audio recording of the entire set through his website, a gesture noted for its similarity with his own process of realeasing material to fans.  While I cannot post the audio clip to this site I would suggest downloading it as it definitely captures a moment that defies the attempts to describe it cited here.  A set that truly captures the essence of what makes live performance different from any other.

Seven Graveyard Smashes

As Halloween approaches once again, it’s time to revisit a near-extinct art – the holiday novelty song.  Second only to Christmas, Halloween was made for accompanying musical madness. So why do fright and folly go so well together? Sociologists have analyzed and over-analyzed our instinctive attraction to fear – why we watch scary movies or ride roller coasters – but it essentially boils down to this: we love to be scared, but we prefer to be in on the joke. So here are a few favorite Halloween novelty songs to get you in the trick-or-treating mood.

1. Buck Owens – (It’s A) Monsters’ Holiday

Not to be confused with Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Christmas-themed song of the same name, this 1974 country rocker is pure Buck Owens. The infectious, bouncy groove and playful lyrics are made complete with the requisite spooky sound effects and voice-over. And no monster is left out of this party.  Fee-fee-fi-fi-fo-fo-fum…

2. Bo Diddley – Bo Meets the Monster

Long before The Beatles or The Ramones successfully created cartoon caricature alter egos of themselves, Bo Diddley was inventing a sort of third-person comic book superhero persona; placing himself in all sorts of absurd scenarios backed by a gritty, low-down, sweaty groove. From gun-slinging at the O.K. Corral to lumberjacking in the woods to facing down that ghastliest of monsters – the Purple People Eater. Almost a decade before Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page would popularize the pick slide, Bo Diddley brilliantly used this Foley device to mimic the sound of a creeping door opening slowly.

3. Bob McFadden and Rod McKuen – The Mummy

Mummies, vampires, werewolves and…beatniks? Perhaps the scariest of all monsters Continue reading →

Teaching American Sitcoms: Shall We Gather Round the Table?

Good families have a proper evening meal, all members gathered around the dinner table. No television.

Good parents reserve dinnertime for wholesome conversation about the day. It is a forum to work toward solving problems and to reaffirm the grace and power of the family unit. A celebration of middle America, the family mealtime is a profound expression of togetherness.

I know this from watching American sitcoms.

Few actual families perform this revered ritual with any level of success, confidence, or consistency. I know this from experience and a good dose of common sense. But most believe in the ritual nonetheless. I am no exception. My wife and I think that we are good parents, but deep down we fear being exposed as frauds because we rarely sit down as a family for dinner. Mostly, we feed the kids (two of them) as they sit at the table and watch a television, or we set up trays for them in the den so they can watch a bigger television. As they eat, we go about making dinner for ourselves—something defined by ingredients rather than shapes. At no time do we all four sit down together, almost never.

If you want an image of what’s wrong with America, my house at dinnertime may be useful. An anthropologist could easily conclude that there is nothing cohesive or unifying about this “family” time at all. I’m inclined to agree.

As a teacher, one of my standard bits is to ask students to think about the normalizing influence of the sitcom and its role in shaping American culture. I usually ask them to talk about their own family dinners and relate them to many scenes from popular situation comedies that reenact that iconic moment with regularity. It is a valuable way to get students to recognize formulas within the art form. This is not to say that the sitcom dinner table is always defined as a bastion of family accord. Quite the contrary, the dinner table is often raucous. Even if the family discussion is contentious, however, the location of the dinner table has a calming influence. It perpetually gives the impression that at any moment everyone at the table could spontaneously hold hands and say “grace.”

Of the many tropes of sitcoms, the use of the dinner table (or kitchen table, etc.) as a gathering place is both logical and convenient, on one hand, and symbolically resonant and thematically useful, on the other. A family-based sitcom could hardly avoid using the eating table as a major setting. The convenience, however, also allows for sitcom writers to create an enduring statement of normalcy for the American viewing families, one whose features steadily blur distinctions between real American families and our models on television.

Implicit in asking students to discuss their own family dinner memories is the prodding goal of getting them to assess how well their families stack up to television families, and, moreover, how they feel about the spaces in between their reality and the created normalcy of the sitcom. For those interested in the study of the American sitcom as a cultural production, paying some attention to the family dinner table can be valuable. In this space, I would like to suggest that focusing on such scenes and imagery across a range of programs over time could be a productive exercise for students (for everyone). We will take just a short glimpse in this post. Perhaps others will add to the images in subsequent posts.

Few sitcoms resonate in our culture as deeply as Ozzie and Harriet, which ran on ABC from 1952 to 1966. Although it was not a blockbuster hit, it earned a steady and large following and has since become the preferred shorthand reference—from supporters and detracters—for the mainstream family ideals. My favorite reference is in the Coen Brothers film, Raising Arizona, as the aspiring father, H.I., in acknowledging his failures as a proper head of household, states, “Well, it’s not Ozzie and Harriet.” The image below captures the ideals represented by the show as symbolized by the family around the table. We should note, of course, that Harriet is firmly frozen in her role as housewife and mother, standing and serving the family. Likewise, all eyes are on the father as the source of the pleasant family moment. Gee, how does he do it (while wearing a sweater vest and white socks, to boot)?

Ozzie and Harriet, Defining the American Dinner Table

The show establishes a useful pattern that many sitcoms would follow over the years. If the scene around the table is breakfast, a conflict is introduced as the family shares a meal and either some plan or action is initiated to drive the episode; if the scene is around dinner, just as often the conflict is resolved. There are many variations of this theme. Even Ozzie and Harriet would allow the family eating routine to be punctuated by conflict, usually squabbles between the two brothers—enough conflict to set up the modest humor without introducing anything with deeper social tensions. An especially useful episode, “Separate Rooms,” aired February 6, 1953. Here is a YouTube link to the first part of the episode: http://www.youtube.com/watchNR=1&feature=endscreen&v=OCy0TF_z7a8

Continue reading →