Mark Twain scholars from all over the world are packing their scholarly papers, writing their names in their underwear (in marker, please), and getting ready to head to “Mark Twain Summer Camp”–better known as the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies.
Held every four years in Elmira, New York–the location of the summer home of Clemens’s in-laws, and where he wrote many of his best known works–the conference is undoubtedly the best conference in existence. Ask anyone.
Four years ago, as a weak-kneed, but semi-well-funded graduate student–the conference was a paradise of Twain studies and conviviality. The conference was where I first met Sharon McCoy, Jeffrey Melton, and ABE (who went by a different name, back then). Now, as an unfunded Ph.D., the conference still portends to be a paradise, but a costly one.
In addition to high-quality papers on Mark Twain and related subjects, the conference features themed dinners, fancy speakers, Twain scholars singing songs, and storytelling. Hal Holbrook telling stories on the original sight of Mark Twain’s study was an event we will all remember for the remainder of our lives (you can read more about the last conference and listen to Holbrook speaking here).
Part One of Holbrook’s story
This year promises to be equally exciting, if the program is to be believed. The conference theme celebrates the 150th anniversary of the use of “Mark Twain”–a fact that will be marked by an exhibition of material from his western years:
“He used it for the first time in the Territorial Enterprise in Nevada,” said Barbara Snedecor, director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. “This exhibition kind of highlights those years in the West and that moment when he first chose that pen name.
“People are coming from very far away — China, Japan, Germany, Europe and all over the United States,” Snedecor said. “About 175 people will be there. It’s open to the public too. Some of the papers are of great interest.” (source)
I would hope that some of those papers of interest would be Sharon McCoy providing keen insights on “Tricks and Tools: Practical Jokes, the “Evasion,” and the Limits of Love.” Jeffrey Melton discoursing on “Mark Twain and the Legacy of the Pastoral Dream”, ABE holding forth on ““Dear Sir”: A Post-Structuralist Impression of Charles F. Browne’s Influence on Mark Twain,” or me stumbling through ” “Mark Twain”: The Humorist.”
We’re smack dab in the middle of those lazy-hazy-crazy days of summer, and with it an incurable affliction – the Summertime Blues.
The title to Eddie Cochran’s 1958 masterpiece is intriguing, almost incongruous. Rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950’s was teenage music and, for teenagers, summertime is that magic time of year when school is out, the weather is nice, the livin’ is easy, and your mama’s good looking. What’s there to be blue about? Ah, of course: those pesky summer jobs. Can’t get the night off to go on a date. Even appeals to the United Nations or congressional representatives prove fruitless – “I’d like to help you son but you’re too young to vote.”
Eddie Cochran was a musical genius and guitar prodigy whose infectious anthems of teenage frustration made him a star before his tragic death made him immortal. Dead at the age of 21, he left a monumental legacy that influenced countless musicians from The Beatles to Brian Setzer, Sid Vicious to Jack White.
His first musical success came as one half of a duo with Hank Cochran (no relation), billed as The Cochran Brothers, as well as extensive session work as a guitar player, mostly among the thriving country music recording scene in 1950’s Southern California. (Hank Cochran would go on to write countless country standards such as “A Little Bitty Tear” for Burl Ives, “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” for Merle Haggard, and “She’s Got You” and “I Fall To Pieces” – co-written with the legendary Harlan Howard – for Patsy Cline.)
Despite an astonishing amount of classic recordings from such a brief career, “Summertime Blues” is Continue reading →
He’s either one of your favorite actor-comedians or one of your least favorite. Polarizing funnyman Robin Williams turned 62 on July 21, which is almost hard to believe given his continued manic energy in person and on screen. Williams rose to fame as “Mork from Ork” on the ABC sitcom Mork & Mindy, which premiered 35 years ago this fall.
It was the request by an ABC executive’s son that launched the new show and William’s career as we know it. In 1978, the Star Wars was the biggest hit in cinematic history. The network exec’s son asked him to “do a show about an alien,” and thus, Mork from Ork’s cameo on ABC’s Happy Days became a new show.
Williams first appeared as Mork on an episode of Happy Days, a not-uncommon tactic to raise awareness of a new spin-off from an established show. While many fans feel that this is where Happy Days “jumped the shark,” it did get Mork & Mindy started with huge ratings.
Robin Williams landed the role when, at the audition for producers, he was asked to sit down and did so backwards, “sitting” on his head with his rear end high in the air. This is a move fans will recognize as a classic example of “Mork” behavior, and it charmed the show bosses. Happy Days and Mork & Mindy creator Garry Marshall says that they cast Williams because he “was the only alien to audition.”
I have just returned to the South, after two months in the West helping my mom in the wake of my dad’s death. Getting home is bittersweet and exciting, but also something of shock. Though the South and the West have much in common, in terms of how much both regions are shaped by their land and climate, by how much that land gets under your skin — in the South, it’s a bit more literal.
Like chiggers, for instance. Or the unforgettable burn of re-encountering a fire ant — two things I never knew existed until I moved here. Or 90% humidity, which means that if anything sits still for more than half an hour, something green grows on it. And something four-legged or six-legged walks across it, chased by something four-legged or eight-legged.
Dodging through the toads and frogs playing happily in the garage, my son dove for a bathroom that hadn’t been used in over 8 weeks, his urgency spurred by the last 6 hours without a break in the car in our hurry to get home.
“Mom! Come here!” Desperation tinged the voice.
“There’s a spider in here!”
“That’s okay. Spiders are our friends. They eat the truly icky bugs. No worries!”
“Mom! Stop driveling — this is a spider!!”
And not just a spider.
Vacations are meant to be relaxing. Swim, sun, cook, drink, rinse, repeat. Due to personal and professional deadlines my vacation went more like: clean, trash, write, apply, review, request an extension. Between submitting for publication, looking for new employment, refinancing the house, and running an amateur wrestling clinic for small children out of my living room, I found enough time to scribble a few thoughts on humor, drink unwatered whiskey, and beg for a quick death between the hours of 11pm and midnight before it all began again the following day.
Few and far between do I ever find the emancipated evening, like my pass to the local class on voice acting I mentioned last time. If you’re the type to follow links in an online article like E. T. tracking Reese’s Pieces (timely I know), then your detective work discovered my town of residence. Salem, MASS. There are a lot of Salems in the United States, but only ours burned witches so their descendants could sell cheap gimcracks that turn tragedy into novelty. History is ripe for humor, and when that humor becomes routine, the resulting tradition can be called horrible.
Or rather, Horribles. The Ancient and Horribles Parade is a fading New England tradition that sounds a lot like a lottery in Shirley Jackson literature. “We’ve always had a parade!” some old codger mutters before throwing a rock at the chosen sacrifice. Similarly, the parade stretches back into forgotten memory, where many claim its origin but no one really knows when exactly. But they do know what and how. Usually on or around July 4, a community informally gathers to lampoon people in the public eye as a supplement to the formal celebrations sponsored by the government on our day of independence. Like Gerrymandering, the North Shore above Boston also made the event a political device, “whereby the speaker argues against taking a certain course of action by listing a number of extremely undesirable events which will ostensibly result from the action.” But why speak of politics when it can be satirized?
Clowns are terrifying.
I am convinced that the very concept induces anxiety. While on the surface, the “clown” seems to be an innocuous effort to play on simple comedic principles of exaggeration–big facial expressions; big hair; big noses; big shoes, all capped by physical buffoonery–it really taps into our most perverse fears. This is not a new idea, of course. Having a character in a comedy who is deathly afraid of clowns is a staple of American humor. The best example that comes to mind is Kramer from Seinfeld. Using Kramer’s always over the top responses to otherwise normal social contexts is comedic gold (“Gold, Jerry, Gold.”), but his rather restrained response to coming face to face with a dangerous clown is instructive. We should keep in mind that Kramer’s fear was a point of rational thought within the context of the plot-line of the episode that featured Crazy Joe Devola–off his medication–dressed up as a clown while on the hunt for the whole gang. He was dangerous.
In most cases, the character who fears clowns is simply part of the humor and seems ridiculous him or herself. But we recognize the underlying fear and share Kramer’s apprehension. We recoil from the hidden or altered face–even if that face is all smiles. Can you really trust anyone with a grotesque painted face? Do you trust Joan Rivers? I saw her in an antique shop in Florida years ago–horrifying. But I digress.
Over the past few weeks here in Austin, Texas, the issue of women’s health and abortion restrictions has been front and center, becoming a national story with the dramatic filibuster of SB5 by Wendy Davis (along with Kirk Watson, Judith Zaffrini, Leticia Van De Putte, Sylvester Turner, and others). Thousands of protesters filled the capital building, hundreds of thousands of people watched online (while CNN discussed blueberry muffins), and Wendy Davis became a national celebrity. Witnessing these events from both inside the capital and online, I was struck by the intense passion on both sides of the issue and by the ways in which humor might both express and relieve the tension that passionate political debate creates.
I understand that the issue of abortion is sensitive, so I will stick with the humorous responses to the issue. What struck me, as an observer, was the swift creation of humorous memes, the jokes on twitter, and the use of humor within the filibuster itself.
Independence Day posed a question:
Q.) What does a poetry blogger give an internet audience who has everything?
A.) Thirty stanzas of Yankee Doodle, of course!
Below, (courtesy of “The Oxford Book of American Light Verse” 1979) is a fairly complete version of this old satirical ditty. Other stanzas, along with the song’s history, have been lost to the ravages of time. Scholars continue to dispute Yankee Doodle’s origins. The catchy tune is thought to be derived from an old folk song. The stanzas below are traceable as far back as the Seven Year’s War.
Yankee Doodle was sung by the British to mock the Americans, who then appropriated it and rewrote the lyrics in the spirit of turnabout. The rest is history . . . .
Have a safe and happy Fourth of July!
Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it “macaroni.”
Chorus: (between stanzas)
Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.
Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.
And there we saw a thousand men
As rich as Squire David,
And what they wasted every day,
I wish it could be saved.
The ‘lasses they eat it every day,
Would keep a house a winter;
They have so much, that I’ll be bound,
They eat it when they’ve mind to.
And there I see a swamping gun
Large as a log of maple,
Upon a deuced little cart,
A load for father’s cattle.
And every time they shoot it off,
It takes a horn of powder,
and makes a noise like father’s gun,
Only a nation louder.
I went as nigh to one myself
As Siah’s underpinning;
And father went as nigh again,
I thought the deuce was in him.
Cousin Simon grew so bold,
I thought he would have cocked it;
It scared me so I shrinked it off
And hung by father’s pocket.
And Captain Davis had a gun,
He kind of clapt his hand on’t
And stuck a crooked stabbing iron
Upon the little end on’t
And there I see a pumpkin shell
As big as mother’s basin,
And every time they touched it off
They scampered like the nation.
I see a little barrel too,
The heads were made of leather;
They knocked on it with little clubs
And called the folks together.
And there was Captain Washington,
And gentle folks about him;
They say he’s grown so ‘tarnal proud
He will not ride without em’.
He got him on his meeting clothes,
Upon a slapping stallion;
He sat the world along in rows,
In hundreds and in millions.
The flaming ribbons in his hat,
They looked so tearing fine, ah!
I wanted dreadfully to get
To give to my Jemima.
I see another snarl of men
A digging graves they told me,
So ‘tarnal long, so ‘tarnal deep,
They ‘tended they should hold me.
It scared me so, I hooked it off,
Nor stopped, as I remember,
Nor turned about till I got home,
Locked up in mother’s chamber.
Brother Ephraim sold his cow
And bought him a commission,
And then he went to Canada
To fight for the nation.
But when Ephraim he came home
He proved and arrant coward,
He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devoured.
Sheep’s head and vinegar,
Buttermilk and tansy,
Boston is a Yankee town––
Sing Hey Doodle Dandy.
First we’ll take a pinch of snuff,
And then a drink of water,
And then we’ll say, “How do you do” ––
And that’s a Yankee’s supper.
Aminadab is just come home,
His eyes all greased with bacon,
And all the news that he could tell
Is Cape Breton is taken.
Stand up, Johnathan
Figure in they neighbor;
Vathen, stand a little off
And make the some some wider.
Christmas is a coming, boys,
We’ll go to Mother Chase’s.
And there we’ll get some sugar dram
sweetened with molasses.
Heigh ho for our Cape Cod,
Heigh ho Nantasket,
Do not let the Boston wags
Feed your oyster basket.
Pumpkin pie is very good.
And so is apple lantern,
Had you been whipped as oft as I
You’d not have been so wanton.
Uncle is a Yankee man,
In faith, he pays us all off,
And he as got a fiddle
As big as Daddy’s hog trough.
Seth’s mother went to Lynn
To by a pair of breeches,
The first time Vathen put them on
He tore out all the stitches.
Dolly Bushel let a fart.
Jenny Jones she found it,
Ambrose carried it to mill
Where Doctor Warren ground it.
Our Jemimah’s lost her mare
And can’t tell where to find her,
But she’ll come trotting by and by
And bring her tail behind her.
Two and two may go to bed,
Two and two together;
And if there is not room enough,
Lie one atop the other.
In 1960, Time magazine placed Mort Sahl on its cover, declaring him, “the patriarch of a new school of comedians” that included Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, and Jonathan Winters.
His brand of erudite political humor had made him the comic of the moment – and this was a fertile moment for American comedy. While careful to maintain his image as an iconoclast, Sahl nevertheless went to work writing jokes for the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign. However, his comedy remained critical of Kennedy both during and after the election, at least until late 1963.
There were signs that Sahl’s popularity began to wane due to broad trends resulting from decreased demand for political humor and sharp satire after Kennedy’s death. However, most narratives of Sahl’s career, including his own autobiography, point to a more important factor in his retreat from the spotlight: his becoming a Kennedy conspiracy theorist. As part of his work on a syndicated television program, Sahl traveled to meet Jim Garrison (the subject of Oliver Stone’s JFK) who by 1967 claimed to have solved the mystery of Kennedy’s shooting. The CIA, by Garrison’s account, killed the president because of his efforts at ending the Cold War and weakening the CIA. Garrison deputized Sahl who, funded from his own pocket, delved into the investigation. These years proved particularly difficult for Sahl. Not only was he spending time and money investigating instead of performing, his reputation and performances as a paranoiac prevented bookings and disappointed audiences. Of course, by Sahl’s probably not entirely false account, his career was torpedoed by those who disagreed with or wanted to silence his opinions on this matter, including the powerful in the entertainment and political world.
When Sahl performed, his routines increasingly focused on the assassination. Audiences grew tired of his repeated performances reading word-for-word from The Warren Commission Report and staging sketches using directly-quoted government testimony. Holding the comic up as a prototypical post-Kennedy conspiracy theorist while explaining his downfall, John Leonard in 1978 wrote in The New York Times,
He went strange after the assassination of John Kennedy. And in that sense, too, he was a stand-in for the children of the 1950’s. It suddenly seemed that we were no longer the pampered children of the Enlightenment, getting better every day. Until that particular assassination, there was a European way of thinking about conspiracies (there has to be a conspiracy, because it would absolve the rest of us of guilt) and an American way (there can’t be a conspiracy, because then there’s no one to take the rap). Mort Sahl went European all the way into the swamp wevers of the mind of New Orleans Attorney Jim Garrison.
And the talk shows stopped wanting to hear him go on about the grassy knoll, the two autopsies, the washed-out limousine, Lee Harvey Oswald’s marksmanship, Jack Ruby’s friends. He wasn’t funny. He was also, eventually, unemployed, and bitter, as he made clear in his memoir, “Heartland” [sic].
Although vindicated to some extent by the eventual public mistrust of The Warren Commission Report and more provable conspiracies like Watergate, Mort Sahl’s career never recovered.
Sahl is not the only humorist invested in conspiracy theories. Dick Gregory’s commitment to civil rights and other social justice movements led him down similar paths questioning historical orthodoxy. In more recent years, comics like Dave Chappelle have played around with similar notions while shows including The Boondocks, King of the Hill,and South Park have all taken a turn at conspiracy theory-themed narratives. While different comics and shows are differently invested in these themes, it suggests a commonality regarding the political humorists’ mindset. If comedy’s cultural value arises in part from questioning and straining conventional logic, it only makes sense that it would question and strain conventional history as well.
(c) 2013, Phil Scepanski