Monthly Archives: June, 2013

Yo’ Mama Don’t Wear No Drawers: Singing the Dozens

Speckled-Red-601The art of the “yo’ mama” joke is a sociological phenomenon dating back centuries. According to The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama by Elijah Wald, the tradition has its roots in ancient Africa and pre-Islamic Arab societies, with traces found in those parts of Europe such as Spain and France once conquered by the Moors. Even Shakespeare was fond of the word “whoreson.”

In America, this oral tradition developed among African American culture as the “Dozens,” and was fueled in popularity by the blues. The blues itself is rife with paradox and the Dozens is no exception. It is at once an insult and an exhibit of deep affection and respect. While there is seemingly no more offensive gesture than to insult one’s mother, one would never allow such an insult unless there was already a shared respect for one’s opponent. If this were not so, every round of the Dozens would end in a fistfight. But the Dozens is not only about respect for your opponent, it is also about self-respect and personal ability. If you can go a full round of the Dozens with a worthy adversary, then you have accomplished something of worth. It keeps you razor sharp, quick witted, on your toes the way sparring does for a boxer.

The great jazz clarinet player, author, and drug dealer Mezz Mezzrow related the act of swapping insults back and forth in front of an audience to the great jazz tradition of “cutting heads,” where players jam with each other trying to outdo their opponent with intricate riffs and runs. But cutting heads isn’t about simply playing faster and louder; you don’t play over your opponent, you feed off each other, and the audience reaction.  It is a joint performance as much as a demonstration of individual dexterity. Same with the Dozens.

The idea right smack in the middle of every cat’s mind all the time was this: he had to sharpen his wits every way he could, make himself smarter and keener, better able to handle himself, more hip. The hip language was one kind of verbal horseplay invented to do that…On The Corner the idea of a kind of mutual needling held sway, each guy spurring the other guy on to think faster and be more nimble-witted…cutting contests are just a musical version of the verbal duels.

The natural rhythm of the process, much like the boxer’s jump rope (or the schoolgirl’s jump roping rhythmic rhymes, which can be equally obscene), lends itself inherently to song. Songs utilizing the Dozens date back at least to the pre-recorded vaudeville and minstrel show era; however, the first record to hurl the Dozens into the public consciousness was Speckled Red’s boogie piano recording of “The Dirty Dozen” in 1929. Continue reading →

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Staging Shakespeare in Santa Monica: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

Humor doesn’t always travel well, in part because humor tends to be topical and rely on local language. What was humorous to a previous century or to a foreign population is not necessarily an easy sell for contemporary Americans. When it comes to William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, you have both hurdles to leap, although at least the play is written in the same language that we currently speak. Kind of.

Joss Whedon Much Ado About Nothing Benedick Beatrice

Few people were surprised when Joss Whedon decided to film a version of Much Ado at his Santa Monica estate, back in 2011, due to his penchant for romantic banter, from the television show Buffy to the megafilm The Avengers. He chose to make the low-budget film in twelve days as a way to relax creatively while producing The Avengers. If that decision isn’t a clear sign that Mr. Whedon is capable of different lifestyle choices than most other Bardolators, then the use of his house as the set hammers home the point. The place is a mansion, of course, but it’s also a sprawling estate capable of staging incredible intimacy, full of nooks and crannies, not to mention an infinite amount of bookcases and wine glasses.

Joss Whedon Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice eavesdropping

For the most part, the quick pace of the production leads to a light and fast-paced film, although there are a few scenes that would have benefited from a couple extra takes. For example, Benedick eavesdrops on some men who know he is there and are painting falsehoods in the hope to have Benedick (Alexis Denisof) fall in love with Beatrice (Amy Acker). Denisof’s physical humor induces chuckles, but the audience is left wondering how he can hear through the glass doors, which was a missed opportunity to have the conspirators purposefully open each door and window, one at a time, making sure that they capture Benedick and his imagination. Similarly, Benedick’s monologues could have been more light-hearted and heartfelt if delivered to the camera, as with Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

The cast itself is very white, which would be less remarkable if not for the African American woman in the background, who only comes to the fore to serve as the foil for Claudio’s assertion that he will marry as he’s told, even if the bride is an Ethiope (that is, black). And yet Whedon had no trouble in cutting a different bigoted line — Benedick’s oath about Beatrice that “If I do not love her, I am a Jew.” Shakespeare’s particular racism was not of the same degree as Nazi Germany or antebellum America but it was a progenitor, and worth either contextualizing or excising, rather than selectively excusing it through laughter.

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In the Archives: Mark Twain, “[Date, 1601.] CONVERSATION, AS IT WAS BY THE SOCIAL FIRESIDE, IN THE TIME OF THE TUDORS.”

Tracy Wuster

“[Date, 1601.] ‘Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors” or “1601” is one of the most fascinating works in all of the writing of Mark Twain.  The piece is written as a conversation between Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare, Bacon, and others in the Queen’s closet, by the Queen’s cup-bearer.  As the company talks, the narrator relates:

In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore, and then—

Ye Queene.—Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male; yet ye belly it did lurk behinde shoulde now fall lean and flat against ye spine of him yt hath bene delivered of so stately and so waste a bulk, where as ye guts of them yt doe quiff-splitters bear, stand comely still and rounde. Prithee let ye author confess ye offspring.

Then follows each member of the company discussing the fart, followed by some ribald talk of sex, poetry, and religion.  Depending on your view of the matters at hand, the piece is either immensely hilarious or shocking… or maybe both.  And it is almost wholly without peer in Twain’s writings.

Written in 1876, the same summer he began Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the piece was originally meant for Samuel Clemens’s minister–the Reverend Joseph Twichell.  He later wrote:

“I took it to one of the greatest, best and most learned of Divines [Rev. Joseph H. Twichell] and read it to him. He came within an ace of killing himself with laughter (for between you and me the thing was dreadfully funny. I don’t often write anything that I laugh at myself, but I can hardly think of that thing without laughing). That old Divine said it was a piece of the finest kind of literary art—and David Gray of the Buffalo Courier said it ought to be printed privately and left behind me when I died, and then my fame as a literary artist would last.”

As you read the piece, think about Samuel Clemens writing the piece for his minister–the man who performed his wedding ceremony.

Mark Twain samuel clemens portrait painting 1877

Portrait by F.D. Millet (1877)

In 1880, John Hay–the humorist and statesman–had four copies printed, without a name attached (only one copy of this version is known to exist).  Amazingly, the first book edition was printed in 1882 at West Point, by a friend of Clemens and Twichell, in an edition of 50 copies on handmade paper soaked in coffee, with special punches for the Old English spelling required.  Truly, it may have have been the best use of military technology in the history of the Army. Further editions were printed during Twain’s lifetime, although Twain did not claim the piece until 1906 in a letter. (See Franklin J. Meine’s introduction for more information).

1601 represents the profane, vulgar side of Mark Twain that was seldom seen in his work, although it was well known that he had a passion for swearing.  Franklin Meine argues that:

Although 1601 was not matched by any similar sketch in his published works, it was representative of Mark Twain the man. He was no emaciated literary tea-tosser. Bronzed and weatherbeaten son of the West, Mark was a man’s man, and that significant fact is emphasized by the several phases of Mark’s rich life as steamboat pilot, printer, miner, and frontier journalist.

While I am not sure that it is so easy to say that this piece represents the manly man Mark Twain, it does point to a largely masculine culture of letters in which fugitive pieces, often of a rather profane or vulgar bent, were passed around amongst friends.  Benjamin Franklin’s “Fart Proudly,” (1871) was of a similar vein of American humor–one that blends folklore with the dirty joke while presenting the subject in a “respectable” form.  Twain and Franklin’s pieces are surely remembered because of their famous authors, and each is hilariously funny in its own way.  Are there other examples of this type of humor that might be put into the conversation?

In the meantime, enjoy 1601, although if you are at work, there are some truly dirty parts.  Be warned.

[Date, 1601.]

CONVERSATION, AS IT WAS BY THE SOCIAL FIRESIDE, IN THE TIME OF THE TUDORS.

     [Mem.—The following is supposed to be an extract from the
     diary of the Pepys of that day, the same being Queen
     Elizabeth's cup-bearer.  He is supposed to be of ancient and
     noble lineage; that he despises these literary canaille;
     that his soul consumes with wrath, to see the queen stooping
     to talk with such; and that the old man feels that his
     nobility is defiled by contact with Shakespeare, etc., and
     yet he has got to stay there till her Majesty chooses to
     dismiss him.]

YESTERNIGHT toke her maiste ye queene a fantasie such as she sometimes hath, and had to her closet certain that doe write playes, bokes, and such like, these being my lord Bacon, his worship Sir Walter Ralegh, Mr. Ben Jonson, and ye child Francis Beaumonte, which being but sixteen, hath yet turned his hand to ye doing of ye Lattin masters into our Englishe tong, with grete discretion and much applaus. Also came with these ye famous Shaxpur. A righte straunge mixing truly of mighty blode with mean, ye more in especial since ye queenes grace was present, as likewise these following, to wit: Ye Duchess of Bilgewater, twenty-six yeres of age; ye Countesse of Granby, thirty; her doter, ye Lady Helen, fifteen; as also these two maides of honor, to-wit, ye Lady Margery Boothy, sixty-five, and ye Lady Alice Dilberry, turned seventy, she being two yeres ye queenes graces elder.

I being her maites cup-bearer, had no choice but to remaine and beholde rank forgot, and ye high holde converse wh ye low as uppon equal termes, a grete scandal did ye world heare thereof.

In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore, and then—

Ye Queene.—Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male; yet ye belly it did lurk behinde shoulde now fall lean and flat against ye spine of him yt hath bene delivered of so stately and so waste a bulk, where as ye guts of them yt doe quiff-splitters bear, stand comely still and rounde. Prithee let ye author confess ye offspring. Will my Lady Alice testify?

Lady Alice.—Good your grace, an’ I had room for such a thunderbust within mine ancient bowels, ’tis not in reason I coulde discharge ye same and live to thank God for yt He did choose handmaid so humble whereby to shew his power. Nay, ’tis not I yt have broughte forth this rich o’ermastering fog, this fragrant gloom, so pray you seeke ye further.

Ye Queene.—Mayhap ye Lady Margery hath done ye companie this favor?

Lady Margery.—So please you madam, my limbs are feeble wh ye weighte and drouth of five and sixty winters, and it behoveth yt I be tender unto them. In ye good providence of God, an’ I had contained this wonder, forsoothe wolde I have gi’en ‘ye whole evening of my sinking life to ye dribbling of it forth, with trembling and uneasy soul, not launched it sudden in its matchless might, taking mine own life with violence, rending my weak frame like rotten rags. It was not I, your maisty.

Ye Queene.—O’ God’s name, who hath favored us? Hath it come to pass yt a fart shall fart itself? Not such a one as this, I trow. Young Master Beaumont—but no; ‘twould have wafted him to heaven like down of goose’s boddy. ‘Twas not ye little Lady Helen—nay, ne’er blush, my child; thoul’t tickle thy tender maidenhedde with many a mousie-squeak before thou learnest to blow a harricane like this. Wasn’t you, my learned and ingenious Jonson?

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All Things with Humor

Richard Talbot

 

Fathers can show sons lots of things: how to buy your first house, how to replace a broken pane of glass, how to cut your meat when you are out in public, but how many fathers show their sons how to die?

In the summer of 1977, he told us that he had cancer. I remember the day when he arrived home with the news. Mom and I were sitting out on the front steps on a warm, sunny July afternoon. Mother sat next to me as I made tape recordings capturing the sounds of meadowlarks in the field across the street. Dad pulled into the driveway and got out of the car. He came up the walk  smiling bravely as he approached. When he got four feet from her, he stopped. Shrugging his shoulders like a man who had just won second prize, he said, “It’s malignant.”

Thirty-five years of marriage afforded them such shorthand communication. Mom rose and fell into Dad’s arms. They said nothing more. She buried her face in the crook of his neck and cried softly. Meadowlarks warbled in the distance.

By this time, my father had been in AA for four years. It was his plan to take this way of living into whatever time he had left.

Earlier that day, when Doctor Duthoy had told Dad that he had cancer, my father asked, “Okay, how long have I got to live?”

“Paul,” the doctor replied, “we take these things one day at a time.”

That’s what Dad knew how to do. That’s the AA way and that’s exactly what he did.

Usually there are five stages that we go through when we learn that we have cancer: first, there’s denial, then bargaining, and then anger. This is followed by depression and finally, acceptance. Dad skipped the first four stages and went immediately to the acceptance.

For this, he was judged to be extraordinary by all who knew him.

There is a certain look, a demeanor that is carried by those who don’t have the cancer. Dad’s visitors fell into this approach when they spoke with him. Like undertakers they’d come, with saddened faces, with folded hands, and they would always say pretty much the same thing:

“Oh, Paul, we’ve just learned that you’re sick. We are so sorry.”

“Well, I’m not dead yet,” was his constant reply. “I think you’re the ones that look ill.”

He seemed awfully brave to those people. He was, in fact, not being brave at all. He had simply accepted his situation, and was going on, doing whatever he could do with the day that had been given to him. With humor, indefatigable humor, he would reply to his sympathizers, “Yeah, the doctor said he’d have to remove my testicles to stop the spread of the cancer. I told him that I wanted them replaced with pickled onions.”

Stunned confusion would wash across the faces of his listeners. He’d go on, “This way, whenever I go past a McDonald’s, I’ll get aroused.” (He didn’t use the word “aroused.)

His silly punch line would shatter the moment and into each other’s arms they would fall, laughing, seeing that all was not lost. Then they would talk. He made his listeners feel comfortable. They each thought he was magnificent.

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Into the (Personal) Archives: How to Manage a Husband (1919)

My mom once told me that the secret to a happy marriage is to do all of your construction projects while your husband is at work.  She knew well what she was talking about — over the years, she cut into walls to create built-in cabinets; she put up new shelves in rich and vibrant woods and hung hinged doors on other shelves that she wanted covered.   All construction debris was cleared neatly away, though, each day before my father got home — and this year marked their 65th year together.

What my mom never had to tell me, though, is that the real key to a long and happy relationship is a sense of humor.  Life is far too important to take seriously.

When my father passed away last month, among his things we found a treasure that his mother had saved from her wedding shower on June 5, 1919.   The gifts to her included a collection of spices in tins to start her kitchen in her new household — and a book of personal and spicy advice, written in acrostics, called How to Manage a Husband.  By the Experienced and the Inexperienced.   When I started reading, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I got to the “T” in “Edith,” I knew that the women of that long-ago post-war generation were no different.  I’ll never think of my seemingly serious and elegant grandmother in quite the same way again.

Edith's advice apparently still had appeal in the 1940s.

Edith’s advice apparently still had appeal in the 1940s.

Eat everything prepared and
Digest it
Invite no quarrels
Tie him to a tree if unmanageable
Help in everything

Make the ice cream
Overcome mishaps
Receive his friends
Thank him
Overlook much
Never give up

***

Never leave him
Entertain him
Love him
Love him a little more
Independent thinking
Eliminate waste

Serve him plenty of food
Hang him if necessary
Attract no one else
Get up early in the mornings
Educate him to help with the work
Never nag

***

Okay, so I did a double-take on this one.  “Hang him if necessary”?  One hopes that Nellie was one of the “inexperienced” . . . .  Continue reading →

In the Archives: Mr. Dooley in Peace and War, “On the Indian War”


Luke Dietrich

Finley Peter Dunne was a second-generation Irish American, born in 1867 and schooled in Chicago journalism alongside such late-nineteenth century writers as George Ade and Theodore Dreiser.

Finley_Peter_Dunne

Throughout his life, Dunne took his non-fiction journalism seriously, maintaining hopes to publish his own newspaper.  But he became most famous for writing his “Mr. Dooley” columns, a series of fictional pieces narrated from the perspective of the title bartender, Martin Dooley.  In 600-800 word sketches – in comedic, Irish vernacular – Mr. Dooley offered everyday advice and political opinions to his South Side Chicago clientele.

These weekly articles, initially popular with Chicago’s Irish communities, became widely syndicated when Dunne turned to national politics, satirizing the Spanish-American War.  As Dunne’s chief biographer, Elmer Ellis notes, the first Mr. Dooley book collection sold over 100,000 copies from 1899 to 1900.  Booksellers ordered more than 25,000 copies of Dunne’s second collection, Mr. Dooley in the Hearts of his Countrymen, before it was even published. Dunne’s writing was admired by Henry James and Edith Wharton, as she describes it in her autobiography A Backward Glance. Dunne was even influential for Langston Hughes’s invention of Jesse B. Semple.

The piece below is taken from Dunne’s first book collection, Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War.

Dunne Mr. Dooley The book itself is divided into two sections: “Mr. Dooley in War” and “Mr. Dooley in Peace.”  This column, “On The Indian War,” is paradoxically included in the second section. It gives a good sense, not only of Mr. Dooley’s humor and Irish brogue, but of his complex response to American politics and race relations.

 

“On The Indian War”

“Gin’ral Sherman was wan iv th’ smartest we iver had,” said Mr. Dooley. “He said so manny bright things. ‘Twas him said, ‘War is hell’; an’ that’s wan iv th’ finest sayin’s I know annything about. ‘War is hell’: ‘tis a thrue wurrud an’ a fine sentiment. An’ Gin’ral Sherman says, ‘Th’ on’y good Indyun is a dead Indyun. An’ that’s a good sayin’, too. So, be th’ powers we’ve started in again to improve th’ race; an’, if we can get in Gatlin’ guns enough before th’ winter’s snows, we’ll tur-rn thim Chippeways into a cimitry branch iv th’ Young Men’s Christyan Association. We will so.

“Ye see, Hinnissy, th’ Indyun is bound f’r to give way to th’ onward march iv white civilization. You an’ me, Hinnissy, is th’ white civilization. I come along, an’ I find ol’ Snakes-in-his-Gaiters livin’ quite an’ dacint in a new frame house. Thinks I, ‘‘Tis a shame f’r to lave this savage man in possession iv this fine abode, an’ him not able f’r to vote an’ without a frind on th’ polis force.’ So says I: ‘Snakes,’ I says, ‘get along,’ says I. ‘I want ye’er house, an’ ye best move out west iv th’ thracks, an’ dig a hole f’r ye’erseilf,’ I says. ‘Divvle th’ fut I will step out iv this house,’ says Snakes. ‘I built it, an’ I have th’ law on me side,’ he says. ‘F’r why should I take Mary Ann, an’ Terence, an’ Honoria, an’ Robert Immit Snakes, an’ all me little Snakeses, an’ rustle out west iv th’ thracks,’ he says, ‘far fr’m th’ bones iv me ancestors,’ he says, ‘an beyond th’ water-pipe extinsion,’ he says. ‘Because,’ says I.  ‘I am th’ walkin’ dilygate iv white civilization,’ I says. ‘I’m jus’ as civilized as you,’ says Snakes. ‘I wear pants,’ he says, ‘an’ a plug hat,’ he says. ‘Ye might wear tin pair,’ says I, ‘an’ all at wanst,’ I says, ‘an’ ye’d still be a savage,’ says I; ‘an’ I’d be civilized,’ I says, ‘if I hadn’t on so much as a bangle bracelet,’ I says. ‘So get out,’ says I. ‘So get out,’ says I, ‘f’r th’ pianny movers is outside, r-ready to go to wurruk,’ I says.

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Soul searching on demand

“Which is mshutterstock_101939362ore ethical:  sticking to one’s principles or being willing to compromise?” Saturday, June 8th at 7:00 p.m., I’ll be onstage at the Regional Cultural Center in New York Mills, alongside three other “Great American Think-off” finalists, to publicly debate this philosophical question. John Forde, host of the PBS show, “Mental Engineering,” will serve as the moderator. Whether I’ll get pummeled or walk away with the gold medal and tongue-in-cheek title  of “America’s Greatest Thinker” doesn’t matter. It’s an honor to participate, and it’s all in good fun!

Naturally, this deadline-driven reflection and contemplation brings to mind, a poem . . . .

The Whole Mess … Almost

I ran up six flights of stairs
to my small furnished room
opened the window
and began throwing out
those things most important in life

First to go, Truth, squealing like a fink:
“Don’t! I’ll tell awful things about you!”
“Oh yeah? Well, I’ve nothing to hide … OUT!”
Then went God, glowering & whimpering in amazement:
“It’s not my fault! I’m not the cause of it all!” “OUT!”
Then Love, cooing bribes: “You’ll never know impotency!
All the girls on Vogue covers, all yours!”
I pushed her fat ass out and screamed:
“You always end up a bummer!”
I picked up Faith Hope Charity
all three clinging together:
“Without us you’ll surely die!”
“With you I’m going nuts! Goodbye!”
Then Beauty … ah, Beauty—
As I led her to the window
I told her: “You I loved best in life
… but you’re a killer; Beauty kills!”
Not really meaning to drop her
I immediately ran downstairs
getting there just in time to catch her
“You saved me!” she cried
I put her down and told her: “Move on.”

Went back up those six flights
went to the money
there was no money to throw out.
The only thing left in the room was Death
hiding beneath the kitchen sink:
“I’m not real!” It cried
“I’m just a rumor spread by life … ”
Laughing I threw it out, kitchen sink and all
and suddenly realized Humor
was all that was left—
All I could do with Humor was to say:
“Out the window with the window!”

                  

                                         — Gregory Corso, 1973 —
Here’s to the grassroots philosopher and beat poet in all of us!

(Wish me luck.)