Poet T.S. Eliot was born in Saint Louis 125 years ago today. He professed that “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” His genius for making that immediate connection with readers earned him great success.
Here is a recording of Eliot (aka “Old Possum”) reciting an excerpt from that work:
While Eliot was fond of cats, four years ago it came to light––through the unpublished poem below––that he had a certain good-natured contempt for cows.
Of all the beasts that God allows
In England’s green and pleasant land,
I most of all dislike the Cows:
Their ways I do not understand.
It puzzles me why they should stare
At me, who am so innocent;
Their stupid gaze is hard to bear —
It’s positively truculent.
I’m very inconspicuous
And scarlet ties I never wear;
I’m not a London Transport Bus,
And yet at me they always stare.
You may reply, to fear a Cow
Is Cowardice the rustic scorns;
But still your reason must allow
That I am weak, and she has horns.
But most I am afraid when walking
With country dames in brogues and tweeds,
Who will persist in hearty talking
And stopping to discuss the breeds.
To country people Cows are mild,
And flee from any stick they throw;
But I’m a timid town bred child,
And all the cattle seem to know.
But when in fields alone I stroll,
Oh then in vain their horns are tossed,
In vain their bloodshot eyes they roll —
Of me they shall not make their boast.
Beyond the hedge or five-barred gate,
My sober wishes never stray;
In vain their prongs may lie in wait,
For I can always run away!
Or I can take sanctuary
In friendly oak or apple tree.
©The Estate of T. S. Eliot
Jan McIntire-Strasburg, Executive Director–American Humor Studies Asociation
Humorist employ many different stylistic techniques in order to incite thought-provoking laughter in their readers. Once such is Mikhail Bahktin’s concept of heteroglossia. As Bahktin used it, this term refers to a linguistic play of different forms of a language from different races, classes or genders that highlights difference. While such use does not always result in humor, it is an excellent way to do so. Juxtaposing the dialects representing upper and lower classes, for example, can result in humorous misunderstandings that highlight the differences between the two classes in education or experience, and demonstrate the difficulties of effective communication between the two. The elements of contradiction and surprise that result from such conversations often invoke laughter.
Mark Twain makes excellent use of this linguistic play in “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” a short sketch in his travel book, Roughing It. Miner Scotty Briggs’ Washoe slang and poker analogies are incomprehensible to the Eastern minister he is trying to convince to officiate at Buck’s funeral. The minister, in his attempts to understand Briggs’ request are equally confusing to the miner. The minister’s “clarifications” are long-winded and employ theological vocabulary well outside of Scotty’s experience. Thus for the space of several pages, the reader is treated to the experience of watching (hearing) two men groping toward an understanding of each other. Since the reader already knows what is required, she is free to enjoy laughter at the expense of both the formal, highly educated minister and the slangy Western miner.
Such laughter can, and often does, result in humor for entertainment purposes only. But in Twain’s case, the laughter engendered by Scotty and the minister also highlights major differences in Eastern and Western life in nineteenth century and the clash of two cultures within American borders. He demonstrates through the dialog a wide gulf in value systems and invites the reader to take a side—should we favor the minister who, though well educated, comes off as stuffy and superior, or should we instead value Scotty’s more homey and practical view of life on the frontier?
These insights are all available to us as we read Twain’s sketch, and because regional dialects comprised a large part of nineteenth century writing, Twain’s contemporaneous readers would have had no trouble discerning the meaning or recognizing the humor. However, contemporary readers, unused to the idiosyncratic spellings and pronunciations often find this kind of reading slow going, and the “translation” that must take place can affect how readers interpret the humor of the sketch. The sound recording below, because it offers the opportunity to hear rather than see the dialect, allows for a 21st century “reader” to avoid the difficulties of reading through the dialect, and lets the humor come through. Thus it frees the reader to think about what is said instead of spending time deciphering the text itself. For students who are inexperienced readers of dialect, this freedom is necessary to understanding. For experienced readers of Twain and dialect, hearing the text enhances the fun of it.
Sound recordings can make excellent teaching tools to demonstrate the concept of heteroglossia by showing them how it works in practice instead of telling them how it works. This recording of “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral” is one example of how we can use sound to enhance teaching humor to undergraduates. It is also a great way for Twainiacs and humor scholars to entertain themselves.
The American Humor Studies Association welcomes teaching resources for their website. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tracy Wuster, Vice President–American Humor Studies Association
The American Humor Studies Association has been active this past year working to promote humor studies as an academic field, and we are excited to share our work with you. Last year, we sponsored excellent panels at MLA and ALA. Many of our members presented on humor and Mark Twain at the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, which featured an excellent keynote speech by Peter Kaminsky on the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. We also published two issues of Studies in American Humor in the last year, as well as our newsletter, “To Wit.” This year sees the transition from Ed Piacentino to Judith Yaross Lee as editor of the journal, with myself as book review editor. Look for an interview with Judith on “Humor in America” soon and an excerpt from her wonderful new book, Twain’s Brand.
The AHSA is excited for our upcoming work for the next year:
*First, the AHSA is very excited to announce the creation of the “Jack Rosenbalm Prize for American Humor.” Jack was the first managing editor, and then editor, of Studies in American Humor and a strong promoter of humor studies as a field. He was awarded the Charlie Award in 1993.
Awarded tor the best article on American humor by a pre-tenure scholar, graduate student, adjunct professor, or independent scholar published in (or accepted for publication in) a peer-reviewed academic journal. Articles published in 2013 are eligible for the inaugural award. Please submit by 12/15/2013 to: email@example.com
See link above for more information.
*The AHSA is working on Calls for Papers for three conferences next year–ALA, MLA, and our Quadrennial conference, which will be in New Orleans in December 2014. Look for the CFP for that and for MLA soon. The ALA call is looking for abstracts in the following topics:
1. “Political Humor from Franklin to Colbert”
2. “Teaching American Humor” (A Roundtable)
3. “Graphic Humor in American Periodicals” (Co-Sponsored with the Research Society for American Periodicals)
See our announcements page for more information.
*The AHSA is also co-sponsoring a Works in Progress symposium with the Mark Twain Circle of America in February. This working conference is intended to advance publication of work on American Humor, Mark Twain, and related work in progress. Individuals papers and group symposia will be offered relating to work in progress which will be presented by participants and discussed and developed with the help of attending scholars.
Where: The Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, Massachusetts (http://www.redlioninn.com/)
When: Thursday-Saturday February 20-22
Information at the announcements page above.
* Call for Papers: MAD Magazine and Its Legacies Special issue of Studies in American Humor, Fall 2014
Since 1952, MAD Magazine has regaled humor lovers and inspired humor producers in many media. Studies in American Humor, the journal of the American Humor Studies Association, invites submission of scholarly papers devoted to MAD Magazine and its legacies for a special issue of the journal appearing in the fall of 2014, coedited by John Bird (Winthrop University) and Judith Yaross Lee (Ohio University).
Topics might include, but are not limited to: *humor, verbal and/or visual *subversive humor *satire (as technique, analysis of individual examples or themes, etc.) *parody (as technique, analysis of individual examples or themes, etc.) *individual artists and writers *regular and occasional features *one or mode recurrent themes (politics, technology, parenthood, suburbia) *cultural impact and legacies *influence, general and specific (including direct influence on individuals and genres) *reception
Potential contributors should send queries and abstracts (500-750 words) by October 1, 2013 or complete manuscripts by June 1, 2014. Email queries and abstracts to firstname.lastname@example.org. General information on Studies in American Humor and submission guidelines are available athttp://studiesinamericanhumor.org/.
*You can join the American Humor Studies Association by mail or electronically. Information on joining can be found on our website. The AHSA website contains a section for syllabus, assignments, and information on teaching American humor. We welcome any additions to this resources. “Humor in America” will be running a piece on using podcasts to teach dialect humor, prepared by our Executive Director–Jan McIntire Strasburg–in the next few weeks. Please contact me–Tracy Wuster (email@example.com)–if you have humor pedagogy resources you would like to share.
*Finally, the AHSA is excited to announce that Studies in American Humor will soon be included in JStor in its full run from 1976 through our recent issues. JSTor is kindly scanning past issues and hopes to include the journal in its next update. Keep an eye out.
Tourists say the dumbest things. They travel the globe ostensibly to learn and to gain experiences so that when they return home they can do so as more well-rounded and informed human beings. Well, that’s the dream anyway. Tourists are always out of place, they are often pretending to be (much) smarter than they are, and they carry with them a sense of entitlement–all of these factors set them up to be perennially funny as objects of ridicule. Few things are funnier than ignorance, but when it combines with arrogance, then a wonderfully silly comic star is born: the American tourist, a figure of derision for about hundred and fifty years now.
It was Mark Twain who first popularized and perfected the American tourist, in his best-selling The Innocents Abroad in 1869, a narrative of a bumbling five-month tour–America’s first pleasure cruise–across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean Sea to see the “Old World.” He later built on that persona in other travel books like A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1897). Twain captured the perils of tourism in many ways, but one of his most effective and hilarious shticks was to mock the inherent ignorance and arrogance of tourists simply by reporting what they said.
Tourists say the dumbest things. Just ask Azie Dungey, an actor who, while looking for stage work in the Washington D.C. area, found roles, as she puts it, playing “every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Carline Branham–Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid.” Readers here may be too timid to ask this: Is that THE Martha Washington, President George Washington’s wife? Yup. History is fun. Ms. Dungey, during the energy and optimism infused into the presidential election of 2008 and throughout President Obama’s first term, Azie Dungey supported herself by playing a slave who served the first, first family. American irony at its best.
Her role is as “Lizzie May,” a fictional character drawn from Ms. Dungey’s experiences performing as a slave woman at George and Martha Washington’s home named Mount Vernon, now a popular tourist site. And her forum is Ask a Slave: The Web Series. The short sketches recreate many of the questions that tourists posed to Ms. Dungey over the years. Ask a Slave is promoted as “Real Questions, Real Comedy.” It will make you cringe.
When tourists reveal their ignorance and arrogance, we have what is called in the profession “a teachable moment.” A traditional method of trying to encourage a learning process is called the Socratic Method, named after Socrates that famous smart guy from ancient Greece. He is dead now. The method involves getting people to ask questions and from the answers to encourage more questions and thereby lead to the gathering of knowledge–and, from that process, achieve the gaining of wisdom. Or something like that. Tourists all over the United States (and the world, for that matter) are often encouraged to ask questions of their guides. At many historical sites, guides are often complemented by historical re-enactors to create “living history.” It is an appealing bit of stage craft. “All of history is but a stage, and we are merely reenactors and tourists.” Shakespeare wrote something along those lines. I just updated it.
But when the questions are so clueless, what’s a slave to do?
Well, the actor Azie Dungey performed her role to the best of her ability (and with much patience), but all the while she collected information, and now, as Lizzie May, she has some different answers to give. She, with the help of other members of the crew, are re-enacting those tourist re-enactments and providing the rest of us with our own funny teachable moments. The first episode immediately reveals why the online comedy series has caught fire.
Lizzie May is a significant expansion of the role that Ms. Dungey played at Mount Vernon. She is able to provide answers that would have gotten her fired at Mount Vernon, all the while maintaining a demeanor that is seemingly polite and deferential and that the original role demanded. Yet the answers are assertive and thus subversive. She thereby provides a compelling satirical voice. The resulting humor is well worth viewers’ time and offers us our own teachable moments.
Ignorance is funny. It has always been funny because it provides us the wonderful opportunity to laugh at someone else’s stupidity. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of it, so humorists can always find some facet of human behavior to exploit for laughs. When the subject matter is tied to the legacies of slavery, the humor has an unavoidable edge. One thing that the tourist questions reveal beyond their stupidity is a desperation for self-affirmation, or an almost pathological need to lessen the horror of slavery, to give many modern tourists more distance from the slaveowners and supremacists in their racial family tree. The need is understandable; the ongoing moral cowardice, however, is tiresome to say the least.
So last month, when I recounted the recent Mark Twain Quadrennial, in Elmira, New York, I did not lie to you when I said my last name was a rarity outside of Brazil. But I might’ve misled. I’m not Hispanic. The name, phonetically confusing no matter the accent, originates from a very localized area in the Catholic part of Germany. Before social media made rabble of us all, my immediate network of genetic cognates stretched the length and width of America, but number well under forty (out of 313.9 million Americans without my last name). Once humans began twittering, a search for my surname generates hundreds of Andrés, Rafaels, Guilhermes, Edleides, and Gabriels. All of them write in Portuguese, and the best I can figure populated the Southern Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. Their ancestors did anyway. My ancestors begin with my great-grandfather, his wife, and my grandfather, barely a toddler in 1920, leaving Köln after fighting Americans for the Kaiser in the Great War. He set up his own machine shop outside of Boston, and began a tradition of not passing on family history to the next generation, and so in turn we know very little but apocrypha.
But apocrypha is a start. While we seek a connection with our distant Vaterland, all of us—North and South American—still sit under the shadow of a later holocaust with greater ethical concerns than the mobilized imperial reaction to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. Thankfully, none of us bear any of the guilt, even if there’s always the cinematic suspicion. For those of you too young to remember, Zie Germans were fun adversaries in popular media long after World War II and despite the atrocities committed on their own citizens. Hollywood couldn’t quit them as antagonists until 9/11 made clandestine sleeper cell guerrilla terrorism all the rage. Islamic extremists make for good long-form television, but not epic two-hour cinema. Meanwhile the pomp and circumstance of Nazi regalia still seems a popular attraction. And if the uniform gets a little thread-bare, Hollywood’s costume designers can go back a score and break out the Kaiser’s pointy helmets and Red Baron pilot goggles.
Stand-up comedy can be a tricky product for television, in part because it depends upon the relationship between the comedian and a live audience. It’s no coincidence that the most successful stand-up on television have been the HBO comedy specials that take a live performance and film it as a concert. A prime example from 1996 is Bring the Pain, which launched Chris Rock into stand-up stardom.
Stand-up comedy was part of the reality genre from 2003-2010, on NBC’s competition show Last Comic Standing, but since that got cancelled, unknown stand-ups who want to increase their exposure have to turn to America’s Got Talent, which pits comedians against singers, dancers, acrobats, magicians and more. AGT is selecting its semi-finalists at the moment, and one of last week’s winners has thus far managed to adapt his stand-up comedy to the requirements of a different genre.
Taylor Williamson is comfortable in his awkwardness, delivering his material in a relaxed manner, showing from his first audition in Los Angeles that he can draw on stand-up’s strength and adapt to the audience in the moment.