Monthly Archives: December, 2012

Editor’s Chair: The end of the year…

Tracy Wuster

While the “end of the world” (again) proved to be a time of revelry and mockery, the end of the year tends to be a time of reflection–from public year end lists to private catalogues of our year (regrets and retorts–otherwise known as resolutions).  Well, I don’t want to.

One, I am a private person, generally, or at least private when it comes to the public.  And, second, this year has been tough, in many ways–personally and professionally, so my reflections might have little place in a humor blog.  When asked at recent holiday parties and happy hours the academic version of “How’s life?”–“How was your semester?”–I could respond, “I can talk about death and I can talk about teaching writing to engineers.”  Both topics are not ones most people want to talk about.

During such a semester, I kept thinking the explanation that Mark Twain gave when he gave up writing a monthly humor column in the Galaxy Monthly in 1871–his time’s version of a humor blog.  He wrote:

I have written for THE GALAXY a year. For the last eight months, with hardly an interval, I have had for my fellows and comrades, night and day, doctors and watchers of the sick! During these eight months death has taken two members of my home circle and malignantly threatened two others. All this I have experienced, yet all the time been under contract to furnish “humorous” matter once a month for this magazine. I am speaking the exact truth in the above details. Please to put yourself in my place and contemplate the grisly grotesqueness of the situation. I think that some of the “humor” I have written during this period could have been injected into a funeral sermon without disturbing the solemnity of the occasion.

The MEMORANDA will cease permanently with this issue of the magazine. To be a pirate, on a low salary, and with no share in the profits of the business, used to be my idea of an uncomfortable occupation, but I have other views now. To be a monthly humorist in a cheerless time is drearier (April 1870).

Not that we are ceasing the blog, but in a cheerless time, both personally and publicly, with illness, death, and politics of such a dreary variety, it is sometimes unpleasant to be cheerful.  Although as Sharon McCoy reminded us, painful humor is often the best kind (Matt Daube discussed another response in relation to recent, horrific events).

And while I would love to provide a Top Ten list of Humor Works of Whatever Variety here, I only have one.  In 1997, Kurt Vonnegut did a series of short radio broadcasts for WNYC in which he interviewed a variety of dead figures in the blue tunnel leading to heaven–via controlled near-death experiences assisted by Dr. Kevorkian.

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Another post from last year, with added Christmas-themed political cartoons from this year.

Humor in America

Managing Editor

Originally from 2011, but Christmas comes every year, so welcome.  You might want to check out these holiday-themed pieces:

Bo Diddley, Santa Claus

by Matt Powell

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

by Caroline Sposto

In the Archives: Thomas Nast and Santa Claus (1862-1890)

by ABE

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

by Matt Powell

Santa is coming to town, so watch yourself.

by David Olsen

XMas Envy or The Plight of the Jews

by Steve Brykman

The Muppets: An Exercise in Humorous Metacinematic Irony

by Michael Giles Purgason

One of my favorite Christmas tales, from David Sedaris, on traditions of other places, including Santa in the Netherlands:

Also, hear him read from his Santaland Diaries.

And see below for some Christmas themed political cartoons (updated for 2013!):

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Merry Holidays!

Humor in America

This year, I finally did it. I caved. I welcomed Christmas into my home. Despite that I am Jewish and my wife claims to be “opposed to all forms of organized religion,” our house is now also home to a 1/4-sized Xmas tree — illuminated, ornamented, and tinseled to the hilt. Two enormous stockings, appropriately stuffed and festooned, hang from our gas-fireplace mantle, atop which sit boughs of holly and fake hemlock, intertwined with more twinkling lights. Lastly, an elf-on-the-shelf sits (where else?) on the bookshelf beside the TV, just below the Buddha, a gift from my adorable sister-in-law.

Now, before you go congratulating me on a successful assimilation, consider this. I had to do it. I had no choice in the matter. The reason? You guessed it. The kids, of course. Because let’s face it, when it comes to winter-solstice holidays, us pathetic meddling Jews got nothing on you…

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A piece from last year. Enjoy.

Humor in America

The holiday season is, of course, upon us. A time when brothers and sisters come together to divvy up the sober driver duties for their many mandatory family parties. (You and your loved ones may have other traditions.) A time when the unlikeliest of music becomes unavoidable. No, I am not talking about Susan Boyle’s inspirational (?) versions of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on her Christmas album The Gift. (Although she should have called it The Re-Gift, because let’s be honest…)

I am thinking instead of the perennial “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” As I’m sure that you, too, have felt with a kind of shiver completely unrelated to winter weather, the lyrics to this holiday favorite make Santa seem almost tyrannical in his tireless vigilance. “You better watch out,” it begins. But for what?! At least the next lines – “You better…

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It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

fortunecookie

It’s a poignant time of year. At odd moments our own mixed bag of memories, inklings and emotions may take us by surprise. We tell ourselves it’s not the time to get bogged down, let alone burden others with our surplus of esoteric feelings. ––We have parties to attend, homes to decorate, presents to buy, cards to send, food to prepare, guests to welcome, songs to sing and good cheer to spread! –– We make resolutions, cross our fingers and brace ourselves for whatever the coming year might hold. We are hopeful, resilient, valiant.

No poem I know of captures the quirky, bittersweet humor of this human phenomenon more aptly than this piece by Susan Elizabeth Howe.

Have a blessed season . . .  and take heart––we’re all in this together!

“Your Luck is About to Change”

(A fortune cookie)

Ominous inscrutable Chinese news
to get just before Christmas,
considering my reasonable health,
marriage spicy as moo-goo-gai-pan,
career running like a not-too-old Chevrolet.
Not bad, considering what can go wrong:
the bony finger of Uncle Sam
might point out my husband,
my own national guard,
and set him in Afghanistan;
my boss could take a personal interest;
the pain in my left knee could spread to my right.
Still, as the old year tips into the new,
I insist on the infant hope, gooing and kicking
his legs in the air. I won’t give in
to the dark, the sub-zero weather, the fog,
or even the neighbors’ Nativity.
Their four-year-old has arranged
his whole legion of dinosaurs
so they, too, worship the child,
joining the cow and sheep. Or else,
ultimate mortals, they’ve come to eat
ox and camel, Mary and Joseph,
then savor the newborn babe.

Susan Elizabeth Howe

Source: The Poetry Foundation

The Onion and How Comedy Deals with Tragedy (Or Not)

The most famous edition of the satirical newspaper The Onion has to be its 9/11 edition. That issue was also the first that they published after relocating from Madison, Wisconsin, to New York City. The headlines were shocking to a nation that had not yet returned to its usual fare of late night shtick or our then-new love of “reality” television. (Survivor premiered the year before and American Idol began the year after.)

The Onion writers, however, did not leap into addressing the attack with abandon. According to Onion John Krewson, the humorists were stymied until one of them suggested the headline “America Turns into a Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Film,” after which the dam burst and they felt capable of turning a comic eye on a national tragedy.

The Onion 9_11 cover

Knowing this, should we be surprised that The Onion has already covered the horror of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre? Here is a snippet from an article they published on Friday, the very day of the shootings.

The Onion on Newtown

As with 9/11, The Onion attempts to signal their understanding of the seriousness of the situation by employing epithets. Still, there are multiple ways in which The Onion’s response to Newtown differs from their earlier response to 9/11. For one, the fact that the Newtown victims were predominantly children makes for a greater risk of looking like one is taking a light-hearted perspective on the heavy-hearted matter. In addition, The Onion’s response to 9/11 came from New York City itself. And finally, there is the fact of timing. Remember, The Onion actually cancelled the print edition originally scheduled for 9/11, and they issued the above headlines in late September. In today’s online news world, The Onion could respond within hours.

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Editor’s Chair: Humor Studies News

Tracy Wuster

 

More recently:

Editor’s Chair: Busy month for humor studies

Hello readers.  Two calls for papers out now for Humor Studies–one from the AHSA and one from the Humor Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association.  See the Announcements page for a few more CFPs, as well. Please remember to send me any announcements, CFPs, etc. to post here and on the AHSA site.

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Calvin and Hobbes, academia, writing

The Humor Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association is seeking papers for the 2012 ASA Conference:

American Studies Association Annual Meeting: 

“Beyond the Logic of Debt, Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent,” 

November 21-24, 2013: Hilton Washington, DC

http://www.theasa.net/annual_meeting/page/submit_a_proposal/

Proposals on any aspect of American Humor will be welcome, including, but not limited to:

Stand-Up Comedy      Jokes     Wit           Merriment

Literary Humor  (both high- and low-brow)       Richard Pryor

Film     Satire     Will Rogers

Comedy Jokes     Risibility     Sitcoms

Laughter

Mark Twain     Dirty Jokes    Lenny Bruce

Ventriloquism     the Circus     Marietta Holley

subtle humor     broad humor

Margaret Cho     regional humor

transnational humor     ethnic humor

and even puns…

Proposals due by: January 11th

Panels will be assembled for submission by the January 26 deadline.

Proposals should be no more than 500 words and should include a brief CV (1 page).  Please include current ASA membership status.

Proposals (and questions) should be sent to Tracy Wuster and Jennifer Hughes: wustert@gmail.com & jahughes@yhc.edu

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American Humor Studies Association

American Literature Association

2013 National Convention

Boston,  Westin Copley Hotel, May 26-29.

The AHSA plans to sponsor two sessions at the 2013 national meeting. We seek cogent, provocative, well-researched papers on the following subjects:

1. “Humor in Periodicals: From Punch to Mad”—Abstracts (300 words max.) are encouraged on the role of humorous literature in American periodicals from the early national period to the present.  Subject adaptable to both humorous periodicals and humor in serious periodicals across a wide time range; thus, title will change to reflect composition of panel.

2. “Reading Humorous Texts”–Abstracts (300 words max.) are encouraged on the interpretation, recovery, or pedagogy of humorous texts from novels and poems to plays and stand-up.  Some focus on the act of interpretation of humor in its historical, performative, formal, or other cultural context is encouraged.

Please e-mail abstracts no later than January 15, 2013 to Tracy Wuster (wustert@gmail.com) with the subject line: “AHSA session, 2013 ALA.” Notifications will go out no later than January 20, 2013.

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clown mime humor sense of humor cartoon academia

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Our friend and contributor sent along this announcement:

Persons interested in American humor may have a free and uncopyrighted copy of Scalawag, my biography of John N. Reynolds in Microsoft Word, e-mailed to them as an attachment by sending a request to samsackett1928@gmail.com.  It is not totally funny, but there are several chuckles here and there, and one or two outright laughs.  Included are an amusing folk limerick and two examples of the prose of Walt Mason, one of the great but forgotten American humorists.
I ran across Reynolds while working on my book on E.W. Howe.  After completing the Howe book, I gathered as much material as possible and wrote an account of his life, making it both as factual and as entertaining as I could.  Reynolds has no real importance, but I thought the general public would enjoy reading about him.  I tried to get book publishers to agree with me, but without success.  And I really didn’t have enough for a book anyway (76 pages).  So I am giving it away.
Who was John N. Reynolds?  He was a hard-working college student, a self-ordained minister, a pioneer schoolmaster of brilliant success, a Sunday school superintendent, a newspaper editor, a music storekeeper, a sewing machine agent, a baker, a rogue, an inventor, a penitentiary inmate, a public speaker, a land salesman, a farmer, a candidate for public office, a banker, an itinerant evangelist, an insurance executive, a student of shorthand, an author, a book salesman, and a maniac — in approximately that order, but some of them more than once and some of them simultaneously.  He was also — and in this he was quintessentially human — an enigma.
You can read Scalawag on your computer or print it out.  It’s free.  And if you don’t like it, I’ll gladly refund every penny you paid for it.
Sam Sackett

In the Archives: Thomas Nast and Santa Claus (1862-1890)

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Ho! Ho! Ho!

I can remember my first scholarly thought. Well, I should say that I can visualize the context of my first scholarly thought. Like a Polaroid of a younger me looking through a View-Master: I know that I saw something, and how, but can’t remember what.

I can almost replicate the place from memory, but will never replicate the time. Heraclitus, who was smarter than the average Greek, once wrote fragmentedly, “You cannot step into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on.” True, but the Greeks widely preached the maxim to “Know Thyself,” and I remember helping my grandfather once, and being rewarded with a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

To be precise it was The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, copyright 1981 by Clarkson N. Potter, republished by Norton & Company. When my grandfather gave me the book it was still new scholarship, and I was no scholar, but the text fascinated me. Densely illustrated, the Potter edition uses marginalia to communicate the context of both the novel and Hearn’s Introduction like an analogue prototype for the internet. I was a babe in the woods, looking through the first book I ever owned that did not involve talking animals or a young sleuth by the name of Encyclopedia Brown. I was proud that someone thought me ready for such an impressive text, but make no mistake, the pictures helped. As a child I was not a strong reader, but I was wildly artistic. And the first page I opened had a caricature of two men, in nightgowns, with nineteenth-century facial hair, collecting clocks.

I don’t think I can reproduce it here for legal purposes, but Roman numeral lvi (56) of the Norton edition will show you the two figures identified as the authors George W. Cable and Mark Twain, drawn by Thomas Nast, on Thanksgiving, 1884.

There was no other description behind the cause of their act, collecting clocks at five before midnight, besides: “The two spent Thanksgiving at Thomas Nast’s home in Morristown, New Jersey.” I cannot fault Hearn’s lack of insight, because it sparked the first real academic inquiry in my young mind: What the hell is going on?

I can tell you that later I learned:

On Thanksgiving Eve the readers were in Morristown, New Jersey, where they were entertained by Thomas Nast. The cartoonist prepared a quiet supper for them and they remained overnight in the Nast home. They were to leave next morning by an early train, and Mrs. Nast had agreed to see that they were up in due season. When she woke next morning there seemed a strange silence in the house and she grew suspicious. Going to the servants’ room, she found them sleeping soundly. The alarm-clock in the back hall had stopped at about the hour the guests retired. The studio clock was also found stopped; in fact, every timepiece on the premises had retired from business. Clemens had found that the clocks interfered with his getting to sleep, and he had quieted them regardless of early trains and reading engagements. On being accused of duplicity he said: “Well, those clocks were all overworked, anyway. They will feel much better for a night’s rest.” A few days later Nast sent him a caricature drawing—a picture which showed Mark Twain getting rid of the offending clocks. (Mark Twain, a Biography, vol. II, part 1, 188)

But all this postdates my first academic thought. Before I knew Huck, Jim, the Mississippi River, or the author who sent them down it. I saw a picture and knew the name of the man who drew it. Thomas Nast. I remember I wanted to know more, and now I can share some of it with you, in context.

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside

frank-loesser-and-wife-lynn-garland-life-photo-1

It’s the holidays – that all-encompassing term we use to describe this time of year when we celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, Kwanzaa, the winter solstice or whatever else you wish to add to your holiday list. The more the merrier. But when it comes to popular music, Christmas is by far the most significant holiday of the season. Christmas music is more than a genre of popular music; it has become an entire industry unto itself. Christmas songs cover virtually all aspects associated with the holiday, from the specific to the seasonal at large. From sacred songs about the birth of Jesus to silly songs about snowmen and Santa, to songs about winter weather or winter romance. Virtually every culture that celebrates Christmas has their own offering to the genre, from finding humor in ethnic stereotypes such as “Donde Esta Santa Clause” or “Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey,” to specific regional American subcultures like Alan Jackson’sHonky Tonk Christmas” or James Brown’sSanta Clause Go Straight to the Ghetto.”

“Christmas” is a feeling bigger than the specific day and, as a federal holiday, the atmosphere created by the general public discourse this time of year is inclusive for all Americans to enjoy. This is as true with music as with anything. One certainly does not need to be a Christian – or religious in any way whatsoever – to enjoy Dean Martin crooning “The Christmas Blues” or Charles Brown pleading his baby to “Please Come Home For Christmas” or The Ronettes inviting you to take a “Sleigh Ride,” or Judy Garland’s heart-wrenching “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me In St. Louis – one of American cinema’s greatest moments. Somehow, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Holiday” just lacks the same punch. Continue reading →

Painfully Funny

Even before I got cancer, my favorite kind of humor was the type you might call “painfully funny.”   One of my favorite short stories, to read and to teach, is “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” by Sherman Alexie.  Jimmy Many Horses has spent his life “laughing to keep from crying,” as the old song goes, telling jokes to gain some illusion of control in bad situations, to claim his humanity in the midst of chaos, death, or inhumanity.  Problem is, he can’t stop telling jokes, even when telling his wife about his visit to the doctor, giving him his diagnosis of terminal cancer:

“I told her the doctor showed me my X-rays and my favorite tumor was just about the size of a baseball, shaped like one, too.  Even had stitch marks.”

“You’re full of shit.”

“No, really.  I told her to call me Babe Ruth.  Or Roger Maris.  Maybe even Hank Aaron ’cause there must have been about 755 damn tumors inside me.  Then I told her I was going to Cooperstown and sit right down in the lobby of the Hall of Fame.  Make myself a new exhibit, you know?  Pin my X-rays to my chest and point out the tumors  What a dedicated baseball fan!  What a sacrifice for the national pastime!”

Sherman Alexie Lone Ranger Tonto Approximate Size of My TumorWhile Jimmy’s wife needs him to be serious for a moment, to give her a chance to process her shock and grief, and while she might even have been willing to join him in jokes to cope later — Jimmy cannot stop and give her that time, even when she tells him she’ll leave him if he says one more funny thing.  But even in the midst of his fury at this unwanted and useless “sacrifice” that has been pressed upon him, Jimmy’s joke is brilliant, both inside and outside the context of the story.

The historical allusions to baseball and Hank Aaron’s supplanting of Babe Ruth’s home-run record (with his 755 career home runs) raise issues about the racism that plays a low-key but omnipresent role in the rest of the story.   Even in 1973, when Aaron was getting close to breaking Ruth’s record, he received about 930,000 letters, the majority of them death threats or wishes that he would die:  “Dear Nigger, You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth.”   Another letter that has been widely quoted wishes on Aaron a disease primarily connected with Africa and her descendants:  “Dear Hank Aaron, How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?”

But cancer, as Jimmy reminds us, does not discriminate; it is not a respecter of race, class, or power.  Cancer, like humor, is an equal opportunity offender.  And cancer has become almost like a national pastime.  You can’t go anywhere without running into those damned pink ribbons and pricey pink items commodifying death and infantilizing the very personal, protracted, and agonizing fight to survive against breast cancer, a phenomenon some angry breast-cancer survivors have labeled “pinkwashing” — all purchased with the best of intentions and the hope to find a cure.   But that support ironically creates a sense of audience, of fandom and voyeurism, the pink ribbons becoming our admission tickets to the new national pastime.  Cancer itself is like a bad joke that just won’t quit.

To me, it is this kind of humor that reminds us of who we are, how little we actually control, and why it all matters anyway.  Continue reading →