What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is “art.” – Orson Welles
Art is a lie. – Pablo Picasso
The 1973 Orson Welles film F For Fake strings together several stories, including controversial author Clifford Irving’s biography of noted art forger Elmyr de Hory (whose works were a hoax) as well as his “authorized” biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes (itself a hoax). Welles reminds us that he himself burst into the public consciousness via a hoax – his 1938 radio adaptation of War of the Worlds. The broadcast was presented as a live news report detailing an alien invasion in New Jersey. It was so convincing people reportedly committed suicide in the face of the news that little green men from Mars were overtaking the planet.
F For Fake is not really a documentary or a narrative; nor is it really fact or fiction. The film is one big magic trick. Its genius lies in its relentless deception and refusal to be categorized.
By his own admission, Andy Kaufman was not a comedian. He was a performer. (Or performance artist, if you will, although Kaufman preferred the term “song and dance man.”)
From the very beginning, music played a key role in Andy Kaufman’s act and work. Whether he was accompanying himself with his guitar or bongos, or playing a record on stage from a portable turntable, music permeated almost every bit. Music and comedy are both utterly dependent on timing and setup, and Kaufman understood both devices instinctively. His entire oeuvre was based on trying the audiences’ collective patience. A few boos or walk-outs were almost necessary for the bits to work. But there comes a tipping point any time a performer intentionally manipulates an audience. Kaufman’s years toiling in the comedy clubs honed his instincts to perfection, allowing him to gauge just when an audience had had enough and required a payoff for their patience. Sometimes he let that moment pass altogether, allowing the palpable awkwardness to become the joke itself.
Kaufman first gained notoriety with his “Foreign Man” character, which later served as the basis for the Latka Gravas character on the sitcom Taxi. Foreign Man was a naïve, soft-spoken immigrant from the fictional island of Caspiar. Kaufman first developed the character, or so he claims, to ward off toughs on the streets of New York City. Incidentally, this was the very same reason Chico Marx developed his Italian immigrant persona; the difference being one went tough to blend in while the other went soft, to be seen as different and therefore pitiable.
One of his earliest and simplest bits utilizing Foreign Man remains perhaps his most endearing. The premise Continue reading →
Many people assess humor and the funny using the same litmus test employed by Justice Potter Stewart in the 1964 obscenity case “Jacobellis v. Ohio.” In regards to hard-core pornography, Stewart famously stated “I know it when I see it.” While I have no knowledge of Justice Stewart’s expertise in this particular subject, I do tend to think that the ability to make snap judgments stems from experience. That is one reason why so many of us feel capable of instantly ascertaining what is funny and what is not. We’ve spent our whole lives laughing, so we believe that we know it when we see it.
Technically speaking, of course, comedy is also a performance structure. (And if you don’t know an academic when you see one, it’s possible to spot a scholar through the use of such phrases as “technically speaking” and “performance structure.”)
I’ve been intimately involved with one particular Absurdist comedy of late, and it’s reminded me of how some of the best comedies question what and how comedy works, and whether we should know comedy when we see it. Last year I joined with some former colleagues from the Stanford and Berkeley doctoral programs in performance to found The Collected Works and our inaugural project is Princess Ivona, a 1935 play by Polish literary legend Witold Gombrowicz. (While the text is European, I trust that staging this in San Francisco qualifies it as “Humor in America.”)
I’ve noticed throughout the production process that Princess Ivona brings to the fore our uneasiness surrounding comedy and our desire to be on the winning side when it comes to mockery and the mocked. On the lower end of the social hierarchy, there are aunts in the first act, concerned that they are being teased…
2nd AUNT: Your Highness is laughing at us of course. You are welcome to, I am sure.
…and courtiers in the second act, determined to tease the court newcomer, only to find that the tables have been turned on them.
2nd LADY: I understand now. You have arranged it all to show us up. What a joke!
Every four years, the Center for Mark Twain Studies in Elmira, New York sponsors a conference on Mark Twain–this year is the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. Don’t let the formal name fool you. This is fun. I prefer to call it “Mark Twain Summer Camp.” There are sing-a-longs, fancy dinners (with fancy wines), and a good number of “camp buddies” to make. There are also great papers and presentations on Mark Twain, of course.
Most of us who attended the last conference would agree that it was among the best–if not the best–conference we have ever attended, and we are all eagerly looking forward to August in Elmira, especially if the humidity stays mostly away like last time.
The highlight of the last conference was the presence of Hal Holbrook, especially his storytelling on the site of Mark Twain’s study lit by the moon and cigars. I wrote about this event and posted the audio of his storytelling in a previous post.
Anyway, proposals for the conference are due in just about a week. If you have anything on Twain, do yourself a favor and work it up for this conference. The full call can be found here: Elmira2013CallforPapers
Hello dear readers. We at “Humor in America” hope you had jolly holidays and festive new year’s and such. Last year, we said goodbye to a great group of editors–Bonnie Applebeet, Joe Faina, Beza Merid, and David Olsen. We also added Jeffrey Melton, Matt Powell, ABE, Matthew Daube, Phil Scepanski, and saw the return of Sharon McCoy and Steve Brykman. And don’t forget the wonderful contributions of Caroline Sposto. A big thank you to all the editors and contributors from the past year. If you would like to contribute a post, please let me know.
The month of January brings a whole slew of humor studies opportunities to think about.
**American Humor Studies Association at ALA:
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 (email@example.com) with the subject line: “AHSA session, 2013 ALA.” Notifications will go out no later than January 20, 2013.
**Humor Studies Caucus at the American Studies Association.
Abstracts due January 15
American Studies Association Annual Meeting:
“Beyond the Logic of Debt, Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent,”
November 21-24, 2013: Hilton Washington, DC
Proposals on any aspect of American Humor will be welcome. 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: firstname.lastname@example.org & email@example.com
**Looking for book reviewers for Studies in American Humor.
We have a number of books for which we need reviewers for our Fall 2013 issue.
Here are the books looking for reviewers:
1. Avashi, Bernard. Promiscuous: “Portnoy’s Complaint” and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.
2. Ferrari, Chiara Francesca. Since When is Fran Drescher Jewish?: Dubbing Stereotypes in The Nanny, The Simpsons, and The Sopranos. Foreword by Joseph Straubhaar. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.
3. Holtz, Allan. American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2012.
4. Kohen, Yael. We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2012
5. Nel, Phil, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature. University Press of Mississippi, 2012. 368 pages, 88 illustrations.
6. Morris, Roy Jr. Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.
We especially encourage graduate students and junior scholars to review books. If you are interested in reviewing one of the above books, please contact Tracy Wuster (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the information below, as well as the specific book you are interested in reviewing:
Tracy Wuster, In the Archives
While Ambrose Bierce was considered, during his lifetime (and since), as an American humorists, he has been hard to fit into a general schema of American humor. Bierce doesn’t make it into Constance Rourke’s American Humor: A Study of National Character, maybe because he was opposed to the common man and the writer of dialect that figures so prominently in Rourke’s view of American humor. As Blair and Hill point out in America’s Humor, Bierce was a wit whose pen functioned as a scalpel often aimed at the common man and colloquial speech, presaging a movement toward wit and urbanity, toward alienation and fantasy, away from the native soil of 19th century humor. Interestingly, Bierce’s views on humor do not seem to have gotten much attention from humor studies scholars.
In The Devil’s Dictionary (1906), his attitude toward the humorist becomes clear:
HUMORIST, n. A plague that would have softened down the hoar austerity of Pharaoh’s heart and persuaded him to dismiss Israel with his best wishes, cat-quick.
Lo! the poor humorist, whose tortured mind
See jokes in crowds, though still to gloom inclined—
Whose simple appetite, untaught to stray,
His brains, renewed by night, consumes by day.
He thinks, admitted to an equal sty,
A graceful hog would bear his company.
SATIRE, n. An obsolete kind of literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author’s enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness. In this country satire never had more than a sickly and uncertain existence, for the soul of it is wit, wherein we are dolefully deficient, the humor that we mistake for it, like all humor, being tolerant and sympathetic. Moreover, although Americans are “endowed by their Creator” with abundant vice and folly, it is not generally known that these are reprehensible qualities, wherefore the satirist is popularly regarded as a soul-spirited knave, and his ever victim’s outcry for codefendants evokes a national assent.
Hail Satire! be thy praises ever sung
In the dead language of a mummy’s tongue,
For thou thyself art dead, and damned as well—
Thy spirit (usefully employed) in Hell.
Had it been such as consecrates the Bible
Thou hadst not perished by the law of libel.
WIT, n. The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.
Bierce seems to have written sparsely about humor and wit directly in his voluminous writings. One piece, though, is of special note in the discussion of wit and humor. Published in The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol. X: The Opinionator (1911), the essay “Wit and Humor” may have been a revision of “Concerning Wit and Humor” from the San Francisco Examiner (from either or both June 26, 1892 and March 23, 1903; 12).
His essay on “Wit and Humor,” obviously sides with the wit–not that there are any in America. Like many essays on humor in the nineteenth century (see Hazlitt or Lowell or Repplier, for examples) the distinction between wit and humor is central for Beirce, but unlike those others, Bierce is willing to more clearly distinguish between the two, and his essay is shorter and more readable than many. Interesting that the piece is not regularly, or so far as I can tell, ever reprinted in collections on humor. Enjoy
Wit and Humor
If without the faculty of observation one could acquire a thorough knowledge of literature, the art of literature, one would be astonished to learn “by report divine” how few professional writers can distinguish between one kind of writing and another. The difference between description and narration, that between a thought and a feeling, between poetry and verse, and so forth–all this is commonly imperfectly understood, even by most of those who work fairly well by intuition.
The ignorance of this sort that is most general is that of the distinction between wit and humor, albeit a thousand times expounded by impartial observers having neither. Now, it will be found that, as a rule, a shoemaker knows calfskin from sole-leather and a blacksmith can tell you wherein forging a clevis differs from shoeing a horse. He will tell you that it is his business to know such things, so he knows them. Equally and manifestly (99) it is a writer’s business to know the difference between one kind of writing and another kind, but to writers generally that advantage seems to be denied: they deny it to themselves.
I was once asked by a rather famous author why we laugh at wit. I replied: “We don’t–at least those of us who understand it do not.” Wit may make us smile, or make us wince, but laughter–that is the cheaper price that we pay for an inferior entertainment, namely, humor. There are persons who will laugh at anything at which they think they are expected to laugh. Having been taught that anything funny is witty, these benighted persons naturally think that anything witty is funny.
College football has always been funny. From the inherent cartoonish comedy of young men dressed in animal costumes roaming the sidelines (to be clear, I mean the mascots) to the more nuanced ironies and absurdities surrounding conference realignments. How many schools can be in the Big 10? It’s all very funny stuff for a wide range of comedic interests. And all very American.
Many categories and characteristics and contexts of comedy could be offered up as the most definitive of American culture and its traditions, but surely one of the easiest arguments to make would be in support of placing college football at the top of the list. American college football is, well, exceptional. Of course, we would need a computer system in conjunction with votes from academics and comedic performers to be absolutely sure. And it wouldn’t hurt to have some prime locations for conferences to draw in folks for post-semester debates and parades. But I digress. Here is the fact: college football is an American cultural phenomenon as well as an economic and political, pop-cultural juggernaut that has few rivals as a forum and catalyst for American humor year after year. Disappointed in the overall quality and quantity of humor based on and derived from college football this year? Wait until next year! And don’t forget the off-season–just ask Bobby Petrino.
In celebration of the BCS championship game this evening (January 7), I thought I would simply cull together a few exceptional links to humor built around the cultural obsession that is college football. This, at the very least, should suggest many more possible choices, and I hope others will build on this modest beginning.
Let’s start with two examples of the earliest use of football as fodder for physical humor from masters of the art form: The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.
The Marx Brothers’ film Horse Feathers (1932) takes on higher education in general as its target of respectability in this film. The plot revolves around corruption of college football via the recruiting of illegal players to win games. Imagine that! Fortunately, such things do not occur anymore, but it was certainly common enough in the 1930s for the Marx Brothers to use it for a running joke (that’s a college football pun).
Few artists create something so wholly original that they themselves become their own genre. This is certainly true of the Marx Brothers. The family of Jewish immigrant entertainers came from the vaudeville stage tradition – which included sight gags, one-liners, and musical and dance numbers – yet the brothers remain utterly unique, even among the vast variety inherent in vaudeville. There is a certain serendipity in these geniuses developing their craft at a pivotal moment in emerging media. The Marx Brothers were able to perfectly bridge an old-fashioned stage routine with the relatively newer medium of talking film, bringing an otherwise antiquated form of entertainment into the modern age seamlessly.
Part of their genius lies in their audacity, and it is the manic chaos they created that keeps their work from becoming dated. The films were made mostly in the 1930’s and 1940’s although, other than the occasional plot device, the gags are almost sui generis, entirely detached from any current outside events or influences. By creating these exaggerated characters, and playing them consistently in each film, they create their own world, which can be picked up and dropped into any time and any place. This creates a timelessness to their work and is the reason the films still play just as well today as ever. Part of this success was the fortuitous timing of talking films, but only these four brothers possessed the right kind of mad genius and grounded talent to have seized upon it so well.
The brothers were essentially born into show business, and were each musical from the start. In fact, their original act (including brother Gummo, who soon quit to fight in World War I) was primarily a musical one. Billed, in various incarnations, as The Four Nightingales or The Six Mascots, they played theaters, concert halls and other venues throughout the country as a vocal group. In response to audience behavior and events outside one particular venue Groucho began to incorporate off the cuff one-liners into their act, which immediately became more popular with audiences than the act itself. Eventually, the brothers morphed from a musical act with occasional comedy into a comedy act with occasional music. The Marx Brothers formula as we now know it was born, as was the classic line-up of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo.
Musical numbers remained a constant element of the formula. Groucho was an accomplished guitarist, studying the instrument for most of his life. But Groucho’s contribution to the musical numbers in the films was mostly as a comedic vocalist. He did not demonstrate the flashy virtuosity of Chico’s piano or Harpo’s harp, but his numbers became centerpieces of the films and some of the most memorable moments.
Two of his best-known numbers appear as a medley in 1930’s Animal Crackers, where Groucho plays the famed Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding.
One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know.
“Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray For Captain Spaulding” create a mock grand musical number complete with company chorus that heralds the arrival and celebrates the exploits of the famed African explorer. As always, Groucho’s unique dance moves are as graceful as they are ridiculous.
This fact I emphasize with stress,
I never take a drink unless –
I hate a dirty joke I do
Unless it’s told by someone who –
Knows how to tell it.
The Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg penned “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” from 1939’s At the Circus became one of Groucho’s signature songs, and one which he continued to sing for the remainder of his life at appearances. (The occasional songwriting team of Arlen and Harburg wrote several songs together, most notably “Over the Rainbow.”) Continue reading →