Monthly Archives: November, 2012

Into the Mystic

Raegan and I were standing atop the rocks at Whipple Hill, a hundred acres of woodsy conservation land back in Lexington, MA, my hometown. Raegan was giddy, skipping along, insistent something wonderful would happen. I decided to take her word for it. Just a week before, her mom had forbidden her from seeing me, after an incident involving a party and a drug deal gone bad. But it wasn’t my idea. I was having an asthma attack, thanks to their dog, and the guy that saw me pop one assumed they were something else, apparently, and offered me five bucks, and things kind of progressed from there. Next thing I know, everybody wants one. First off, the guy was a dick and totally deserved it, and second off, I needed the money. But even though her mom had forbade her from seeing me, Raegan said, She never said anything about not seeing me with her third eye. At the time, this didn’t make much sense to me. I thought maybe she was talking about her vagina. In any case, I wasn’t about to turn back.

I still don’t get why we need the orange juice? I asked.
The vitamin C, she said, It increases the absorption.
Excuse me?
It makes them better. Stronger. Something like that.
It makes what better?
You know, psilocybin. Magic mushrooms. It’ll be great. We’re going to shroom in the woods.
I don’t do drugs.
These aren’t drugs, they’re mushrooms. They’re totally natural.
Everything’s natural. Hemlock’s natural. Technically speaking, nuclear waste is natural.
Relax.
And then, like that great Claymation dog Goliath, I said, Are you sure this is a good idea?

Then, suddenly, she was on me, plunging her tongue deep into my mouth. Which wasn’t something I was used to necessarily but was on the whole pretty hot regardless. Until I realized her tongue tasted like a bag of shit.

Ach!

I pulled away and she left me chewing on a mouthful of what I could only assume were actual pellets of dung, just like Houdini and the key. I know you don’t know what that means, so I’ll explain. See, before Houdini would get locked in that tiny milk can, he would open his hands and run them all along his body, demonstrating he didn’t have anything on him. But before finally squeezing himself in there, he would give his assistant (who also happened to be his wife) a passionate farewell kiss. And then she would lock him in the can, close the curtain, then — ABACADABRA! — the curtain spreads and there he stands, dripping, unchained, and alive.

The secret was this: when they kissed, she passed him the key. From her mouth to his. Simple as that. Only Houdini didn’t have any problem holding onto the key. As for me, I was gagging.

Don’t spit them out! Raegan said. They’re supposed to be disgusting. They grow in cow shit.
Maybe you could have told me that before you regurgitated them into my mouth!

She handed me a VeryFine OJ, the bottle with the Styrofoam-wrap. Then she took out a small Ziploc filled with something that looked to be mulch, pinched half of it into her hand, and tossed it into her own mouth like they were Oreos.

Nature’s candy, she said.

I chewed as quickly as I could. And yet it wasn’t quick enough. It was like eating wood chips dipped in a shit salsa. It sent out a pretty strong signal this was not meant to be eaten—much like the orange caterpillar or the colostomy bag. Again, I started to gag. It was not at all reminiscent of food.
Come on, pussy! Raegan said. Swallow! Use the juice!

I summoned up all the power within me to open my throat and push the substance down. It was Herculean.

Delicious, I said, wiping my mouth on my sleeve, leaving a stain. What’s for desert?

We sat awhile and talked about Pittsburgh and then she recommenced with the kissing.

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Sunday Stand-Up: Temporary Retirement (+ Louis C.K.)

Tracy Wuster, Editor

 

For the time being, or maybe permanently (who knows?), we are retiring the “Stand-up Sunday” (or “Sunday Stand-Up”) feature.  All Sunday posts, actually.  We will be moving to a twice per week schedule, with posts on Monday and Thursday (with an occasional post at other times, if we feel like it, or have a lot of posts).  We will still have discussions of stand-up, I am sure, and we welcome you to contribute (yes, you, you-who-are-reading-this).

As we approach 100k views,  we are thankful for your visiting us, especially those of you who are regular readers (we hope you are out there).  But we don’t know much about our readers, so please take a minute to fill out these polls:

Thank you for answering.  We are very curious about you, our readers, and hope that we are presenting you with writing that you find worth reading and a site that is worth coming back to.  We appreciate feedback on the design, content, and direction of the site.

And since this is the final Sunday Stand-Up post for awhile, at least, I will end with some stand-up.

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Thanksgiving, Puritans and Rap?

Thanksgiving is my favorite annual celebration. I love preparing the traditional meal, filling the house with guests, saying grace and sharing reflections of gratitude.

However, writing about humorous Thanksgiving poetry presents a conundrum. In a world where an estimated 925 Million people are starving, doggerel about the gluttony surrounding the day strike me as shameful and haughty. While I enjoy cooking and eating the turkey, poems poking fun at the bird’s terror of its own impending slaughter strike mas as callous and arrogant. Stories of the Pilgrims’ first feast at Plymouth offer some poetic potential, but that slice of history has been distorted and sanitized to a degree that gives me pause. Let’s not even go there . . . . on second thought, let’s do because it relates to the bigger picture of American poetry and humor.

The “Plymouth Rock” Pilgrims we commemorate on Thanksgiving were seeking to reform their church. The Massachusetts Bay settlers were Pilgrims who’d crossed the Atlantic in search of religious freedom. There were differences between these groups, but both were Puritans and their lasting impact on American culture was profound.

French political writer Alexis de Tocqueville visited the U.S. in the 1830’s and wrote: “I THINK I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.” This bears out, even today, as residual influences still resonate in our everyday lives.

The Puritans were idealists who dreamed of living under a perfect order. Though we’ve characterized them as stoics, their outlook was positive and full of hope. Progress and optimism have always been core American values, profoundly affecting our sensibilities.

The Puritans sought divine messages in everyday life. Their world was one in which ordinary things held multiple meanings. This metaphorical thinking distinguishes some of our greatest fiction, poetry and humor. Stephen Colbert’s top ten metaphors are legendary and Billy Collins‘ poem Litany has great fun with this literary device as well.

Puritans valued simplicity and straightforwardness in language, just as most Americans do today.

And then, of course are the residual influences of puritanical morality. In 2011, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published the results of a series of experiments conducted by researchers led by Yale psychologist Eric Luis Uhlmann. His findings? The attitudes of American college students are more puritanical than those of their Canadian, British and Asian counterparts. This longstanding cultural outlook helped shape the development of classic American “wholesome” humor while at the same time ushering in another brand that poked fun at priggishness. (Think Mae West.)

By the 1730’s, the First Great Awakening and its Revival culture began to spread, unifying  the thirteen and once-very-separate colonies while encouraging individuals to challenge established authority and dogma.

Philosophical theologist Jonathan Edwards was instrumental to this movement. Just when you think you’ve heard everything, here are thoughts and words, along with those of conservative Puritan minister Edward Taylor, set to rap:

While we’re on the subject of Puritans and rap, Christian Rapper, Propaganda recently released this musical/poetic protest to mainstream textbook American history.

Many Native Americans have similar feelings when it comes to this holiday.

On that note, and without the slightest trace of irony, Happy Thanksgiving! Make yours a day for sharing, reflection and gratitude. If you are on the internet reading this post, odds are you live in a country where you can believe, speak, write and live as you wish. By that alone, we are abundantly blessed!

Stand-up Sunday: Tony Clifton Won’t Die

Stand-up comedy derives much of its power from the use of the performer’s personal life. Sure, comedians stretch, embellish and outright invent some of the stories they tell on the stage, but most audience members conflate the act they see on stage with the person they imagine the comedian to be off-stage. I believe that this is actually part of the continuing fascination of Andy Kaufman, who derived much of his power from shielding his personal interior life from view of the audience.

Such was the case with Kaufman’s “Foreign Man/Latka” persona, his Elvis impersonation, and definitely his portrayal of the rude and offensive lounge act Tony Clifton.

The Wikipedia entry on Clifton claims that the inspiration sprang from a real Tony Clifton, “a real lounge singer whom Kaufman encountered in the International Hotel in Las Vegas.”The article cites Bill Zehme’s biography of Kaufman, Lost in the Funhouse. Lost in the citation is that Zehme himself notes how Kaufman told so many versions of this trip to Vegas “that no one, not anyone, would ever know exactly for sure what happened” (108).

There are stories — many of them told by Kaufman’s creative partner Bob Zmuda — of other people playing Clifton in performances. When negotiating his contract to play Latka on Taxi, Kaufman reportedly insisted that they hire Tony Clifton as a guest star. When Kaufman-as-Clifton arrived on set, he came with a pair of hookers from the Moonlite BunnyRanch and behaved so badly that Kaufman-as-Clifton was thrown off set. (See Zmuda’s Andy Kaufman Revealed! for a lengthy account.)

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In the Archives: Agnes Repplier, “Wit and Humor” (1893)

Tracy Wuster

Last time I posted “In the Archives,” I posted William Hazlitt’s “On Wit and Humour” (1818).  In her 1893 book, Essays in Idlesness, the critic Agnes Repplier takes up many of the threads of Hazlitt’s easy in her own essay entitled, “Wit and Humor.”  Repplier was a prominent essayist who published many books over almost 50 years, often writing on the subject of humor (a primer on Repplier’s works).  Repplier is better known in humor studies for her essay, “A Plea for Humor,” (1891) which will undoubtedly show up here in a future post.

Repplier at Mark Twain’s 70th Birthday Party

Published in the same year as James Russell Lowell’s “Humor, Wit, Fun, and Satire,” Repplier’s essay shows less of Lowell’s didactic style and classical leanings, offering a much more direct discussion of humor and one that reflects her concerns with the place of humor in her society.

In this essay, reprinted in full below, Repplier takes up Hazlitt’s subject, examining it from new perspectives and extending or revising some of his main points.  She starts with this point:

while he gathers and analyzes every species of wit and
humor, it plainly does not occur to him for a
moment that either calls for any protection at
his hands. Hazlitt is so sure that laughter is
our inalienable right, that he takes no pains
to soften its cadences or to justify its mirth. 

In the age of George Vasey and his philosophy that viewed humor as dangerous, Repplier found it necessary to defend humor.  The bulk of the essay, in fact, seeks to redeem the rougher edges of humor in favor of an essence of “geniality” as the keynote of humor.

for sympathy is the legitimate attribute of
humor, and even where the humorist seems
most pitiless, and even brutal, in his apprehen-
sion of the absurd, he has a living tenderness
for our poor humanity which is so rich in its
absurdities. 

After discussing Hazlitt’s definition of humor, Repplier then discusses the difference between wit and humor (see pages 169-170 below).  As is common in the nineteenth century, Repplier discusses the national characteristics of humor:

Nevertheless, an understanding of the differ-
ences in nations and in epochs helps us to the
enjoyment of many humorous situations. 

But:

It is in its simplest forms, however, that
humor enjoys a world-wide actuality, and is
the connecting link of all times and places and
people.

And though some humor may be cruel–witness the scene of the wealthy man falling on his backside while a chimney sweep laughs uproariously–the humorist’s view of life is, she argues, at heart “genial.”  True, many of the great English humorist (even Dickens) were often cruel, but humor had changed:

But we have now reached that
point of humane seriousness when even puppet-
shows cannot escape their educational respon-
sibilities, and when Punch and Judy are
gravely censured for teaching a lesson in bru-
tality. (175)
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Humor Studies at the American Studies Association Conference 2012

Tracy Wuster

 

The Humor Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association organizes a number of panels each year for the annual American Studies Conference.  This year, we sponsored two panels and a business meeting.  The conference takes place this week in San Juan Puerto Rico, and the humor caucus panels are scheduled for Thursday.  In addition, other great humor based panels are scheduled for Friday and Sunday.  Please check them out if you are at ASA.

ASA 2012

Here are the details:

Thursday

12:00 PM – 1:45 PM
042. Caucus: Humor Studies:

Race, Resistance, and the Imperial U.S.: Nineteenth-Century Humor in the Classroom (A Roundtable)
Puerto Rico Convention Center 208B

CHAIR:
Jennifer Hughes, Young Harris College (GA)

PANELISTS:
John Lowe, University of Georgia (GA)

Judith Yaross Lee, Ohio University (OH)

Gillian Johns, Oberlin College (OH)

Jennifer Hughes, Young Harris College (GA)

 

2:00 PM – 3:45 PM
064. Caucus: Humor Studies:

The “Post-Racial” Panopticon? Reflexivity, Race, and Resistance in Comedy
Puerto Rico Convention Center 208B

CHAIR:
Lanita Jacobs, University of Southern California (CA)

PAPERS:
Mary Beltrán, University of Texas, Austin (TX)
Blacking Up for Laughs: Televisual Blackface and “Post-Racial” Cultural Memory

Kimberly Springer, Ohio State University, Columbus (OH)
“Be Your Own Hater”: Katt Williams, Neoliberal Politics, and Black Comedy

COMMENT:
Lanita Jacobs, University of Southern California (CA)

4:00 PM – 5:45 PM
087. Business Meeting of the Humor Studies Caucus

Puerto Rico Convention Center 208B

Friday:

2:00 PM – 3:45 PM
185. Awkward Black Comedy 2.0: A Roundtable Discussion

Puerto Rico Convention Center 204

CHAIR:
Danielle Heard, University of California, Davis (CA)

Awkward Black Comedy 2.0 brings together Issa Rae, Elon James White, and Baratunde Thurston, three popular web-based comedians who explore issues of black identity in a distinctly twenty-first-century landscape, into a roundtable discussion with Bambi Haggins, Danielle Heard, and Ralina Joseph, three scholars whose recent scholarship theorizes current modes of African American humor and examines questions of representation, “post” identities, and resistance.

Sunday

12:00 PM – 1:45 PM
397. Comic Reversals: Tripping on the Domestic Rug and Bringing Down the Imperial House

Puerto Rico Convention Center 102B

CHAIR:
Alison Suen, Vanderbilt University (TN)

PAPERS:
Julie Willett, Texas Tech University (TX)
Fathering an Ironic Mix: Imperial Spit and the Decline of Neoliberal Testosterone

Cynthia Willett, Emory University (GA)
Occupy Anarchy: Comic Animals, Playful Reversals, and the End of Empire as We Know It?

Kelly Oliver, Vanderbilt University (TN)
From Rosemary’s Baby to Twilight: There is Something Funny about Pregnant Horror

COMMENT:
Alison Suen, Vanderbilt University (TN)

Stand-Up Sunday: Robin Williams

“It’s the idea of trying the other things that people wouldn’t do.”

This is Robin Williams eventual answer to the initial question posed by James Lipton on an episode of his famous Inside the Actors Studio.  Eventual because it is given 7 minutes and 30 seconds after the “start” of the interview.  What transpires before is one of Williams’s most memorable performances, posted here.

The question posed to Williams by Lipton seemed almost superfluous.  “There is a phrase that you have used on various occasions to help us understand you and that phrase is legalized insanity…what is legalized insanity?”  He already had his answer.

The clip is not technically stand-up comedy but Robin Williams is not technically a stand-up comedian.  At least not in how stand-up comedians tend to be characterized.  What fascinates me most about his appearance on Inside the Actors Studio is that he had effectively demonstrated his brilliance and skill as a comedic performer before the interview even began; with an improvised solo performance that would have been legendary in any stand-up comedy club, let alone an introduction to a basic cable interview show.

By now everyone should be familiar with the career of Robin Williams.  One need not spend much time on IMDB to know he has provided some of the best performances, comedic and otherwise, in some of the greatest films and television shows of all time.  Yet with all the Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe awards his work as a stand-up often takes a back seat.  Many remain shocked to find out that he has turned in some of the most iconic stand-up comedy specials as well.  It is no small feat to have created six highly regarded comedy specials over the span of 30 years, and yet be more well known for movie roles.

This clip encapsulates much of Williams’s trademark manic, improvisational style.  Complete with material that strikes as relevant more than 25 years later.

Thanksgiving Dinner: A Musical Menu

Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the quintessential American holiday. There is a purity in its simplicity. Perhaps this is due to the refreshing lack of supplemental commercialism (other than certain otherwise semi-obscure aspects of the food industry). No cards, gifts or decorations. Just good food and family. I never truly appreciated Thanksgiving until I spent several of them away from home, finding a warm and welcome home wherever I found myself. There is nothing that embodies the spirit of the holiday more than someone opening his or her home to the wayfaring or isolated. Thanksgiving is about the meal, but it is more about communion with the special people in our lives. In uncertain times such as these, it is all the more important we break bread together and take a moment to reflect on what we have. So here’s a little musical Thanksgiving menu, kicking off with Porter Wagoner’s exuberant 1957 single, Company’s Comin’ –

Digging right in with the main course, let’s talk turkey. Little Eva worked as a babysitter for the legendary songwriting (and husband and wife) team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King.  They wrote her debut smash “The Loco-Motion” and later penned this poultry-themed novelty dance song. Gooble Gooble Diddle-ip.

Little Eva – Let’s Turkey Trot

You can’t have turkey without mashed potatoes. The early 1960’s were rich with food-themed dance records, and this may be the greatest of them all.  Here’s a clip from Hollywood A Go-Go, complete with a visual dance lesson.

Dee Dee Sharp – Mashed Potato Time Continue reading →

Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?

Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?

Here is your challenge: come up with a syllabus of material for a course on American Humor. Good luck with that.

First, count yourself lucky. In a parallel universe you could be asked to teach a course on American poetry before 1800 (here’s a hint as to how unpleasant that could be: “Day of Doom”). Unlike the poor soul who is stuck with Michael Wigglesworth and a handful of other dour Puritans, you have choices. In this universe, at least, you have the good fortune to teach humor. But you still have the formidable task of choosing from myriad possibilities. To even begin narrowing them down to a manageable body of work to fit into a course seems rather maddening in and of itself—Doom.

Where to begin? What to include? Why a duck?

I would like to take this forum to put together a working list of humorists, etc., and works that could be deemed essential. What I propose is an American Humor ……(wait for it)… Canon. If you are opposed to the rigid, standard-bearing, pomposity of the word, I understand. If you couldn’t care less and figure any guidance at all that may help you put together a class (or many classes) would be useful, then I greet you as a kindred soul.

This may start a fight. That is not what I am seeking, but I figure a discussion on anything but presidential politics may be welcome. I hope to stir interest and ultimately move toward building a broad and annotated database of sorts that could serve teachers and students alike. And serve American Humor. But there is no getting around the fact that such an enterprise forces limitations. I always tell students (in all courses) that I could easily put together multiple sections of the course without duplicating anything. That is not to intimidate them with the frightful power of my brain (that comes later); it is merely to confess up front that I am playing a bit of a shell game. Generally, they don’t mind. They embrace my “less is more” philosophy and often suggest an even more streamlined syllabus. Great kids, all around.

So, what should be taught?

I will serve up my neck with a few suggestions and wait for others to respond. I currently teach a course called “American Popular Humor,” and I am quite fond of it. I added the “popular” to be able to focus on works that have enduring and widespread appeal because, first, that interested me; second, it gave me some cover for leaving out works that I had never heard of. That statement has all the marks of a sound decision. I do not offer this as an ideal or even finished course; rather, I include it here simply to provide a reference point.

I divide the course into thirds: 1) prose and performance; 2) film comedy; and 3) situation comedy. Now, you can start being appalled at how much I have already left out simply by stating three general categories. It gets worse.

Here is my list of required material for prose and performance:

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The Election! Zombies, dogs, and white people! Humor and politics in short video form…

Tracy Wuster

The election is upon us.  If you live in a swing state, I am sure you are sick to death of political commercials.  If you live in Texas, like me, I am sure you are sick of Geico commercials, Ford Truck Month , and that Tostitos commercial with the dancing bag…

It seems to me that humor has played an interesting role in this election.  Not that humor hasn’t long played a role in elections, going back centuries.  I have discussed the question of satire in relation to the Daily Show here.  We have also looked at political cartoons here and here . The question of voter fraud here. See also Mark Twain’s views on running for president here.  But increasingly that role seems to have been played out on YouTube videos and spread across social networks via Facebook and Twitter.  Short, funny videos have gone viral, as the term has it, and shaped the way some people perceive the terms of the election.

Via my Facebook feed, here are the most posted humorous videos of the campaign season.  Which is your favorite?  Are there others?

VIDEOS

Joss Whedon on Mitt Romney and the Zombies

Chris Rock’s Message to White Voters

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