The 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 →
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.
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.
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.
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.
Eat everything prepared and
Invite no quarrels
Tie him to a tree if unmanageable
Help in everything
Make the ice cream
Receive his friends
Never give up
Never leave him
Love him a little more
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
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 →
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.
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.
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.
“Which is more 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 —
(Wish me luck.)