Monthly Archives: October, 2013

Seven Graveyard Smashes

Happy Halloween!

Humor in America

As Halloween approaches once again, it’s time to revisit a near-extinct art – the holiday novelty song.  Second only to Christmas, Halloween was made for accompanying musical madness. So why do fright and folly go so well together? Sociologists have analyzed and over-analyzed our instinctive attraction to fear – why we watch scary movies or ride roller coasters – but it essentially boils down to this: we love to be scared, but we prefer to be in on the joke. So here are a few favorite Halloween novelty songs to get you in the trick-or-treating mood.

1. Buck Owens – (It’s A) Monsters’ Holiday

Not to be confused with Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Christmas-themed song of the same name, this 1974 country rocker is pure Buck Owens. The infectious, bouncy groove and playful lyrics are made complete with the requisite spooky sound effects and voice-over. And no monster is left out…

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The Dagwood Sandwich and Humor Theory

In an article that I wrote for the Mensa Bulletin back in 2006, I described a class of words and terms that have entered the English lexicon from cartoons that I call “cartoonyms.”  Among those elite terms are “gerrymander,” “McCarthyism,” and “security blanket.”  There are about thirty more cartoonyms that can be found in any number of dictionaries, and all of them have interesting etymologies.  About that, H. L. Mencken once said, “Comic strip artists have been unsurpassed as diligent coiners of neologisms.”  That may be an exaggeration, or maybe it was truer during the 1920s when Mencken was writing, but cartoonists have contributed their share of new words to English—some have stayed.  Other terms like “23 skidoo” have effectively passed into oblivion.  “Dagwood,” an adjective that has stayed in the English language and is used to describe a rather tall sandwich, laden with ingredients comes from Chic Young’s cartoon Blondie.

A Dagwood sandwich is one that is stacked high with various ingredients and is so tall that a normal person would not be able to take a whole vertical bite of it.  Typically, Dagwood, the character, is depicted leaving the refrigerator with ingredients in his hands and balanced on both arms as he goes to the dining room table to begin constructing the sandwich.  He is often shown with the tall sandwich in his hands and a big smile on his face as he gets ready to eat the thing, but he is never shown actually eating it. That construction, drawing the impossible, is an aspect of cartooning that is acceptable in sequential drawings like cartoon strips, but is less acceptable in other media like television and movies.  Consumers expect information to be missing between panels of a strip, but there is an expectation that nothing is missing from motion pictures.

First of all, the method Dagwood uses to transfer the ingredients from the refrigerator to the table is pretty incredible.  The cartoon reader is not privy to how Dagwood balances all of the ingredients on his arms and shoulders.  The reader only sees him strut confidently to the table in preparation for the construction project.  In the following cartoon, Cookie, Dagwood’s daughter asks her father about his tradition of making sandwiches.  She stands with her hands behind her back as her father walks the ingredients to the table, unconcerned about a mishap or mess.  She has obviously witnessed this process many times before.

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Following the construction of the massive comestible, the reader is treated to a smiling Dagwood reveling in the prospect of consuming his creation.  Again, the reader sees that the sandwich is taller than anything that a normal human, Dagwood included, can possibly bite from top to bottom–as sandwiches are normally eaten.  He is relishing (pun intended) the prospect of eating that sandwich so much that he is leaning in so far that his chair is tipped forward.   And, while this strip ends with him preparing to take his first bite, other Blondie strips depict Dagwood wiping his mouth after he has presumably finished eating the sandwich (the sandwich is no longer in the tableau, and there are crumbs on the plate).  Again, the reader is not privy to the knowledge of how the character consumes the sandwich; the reader only knows that it is gone.

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Ed Hall, a syndicated political cartoonist from Jacksonville, Florida who draws for the Baker County Press, theorizes that the best cartoons show what happens just before an action or just after an action but do not show the action itself.  Therefore, Dagwood will always be depicted carrying the ingredients to the table, but will not be depicted putting the ingredients on his arms and shoulders.  As well, he will be shown just before he eats the sandwich and when the sandwich is gone and he is wiping around his mouth, but he will never be shown actually eating it.  How Dagwood eats the sandwich and disarms the ingredients are among the many mysteries of the cartoon strip world, mysteries that are best kept secret in order to maintain that child-like faith that everything will turn out—if not always well, always humorously.

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Happy Birthday Sarah Josepha Buell Hale!

sj1Two-hundred and twenty-five years ago today, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was born in Newport, New Hampshire. Widowed at age thirty-four and with five children to support, she turned to writing and editing. In addition to helping make education fashionable for women and campaigning to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, she is credited with penning “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” a rhyme inspired by a neighbor child, Mary Sawyer.

In celebration, here’s a sampler of varied takes on this funny little verse.

Scroll down and enjoy!

Otis Redding’s Version


Tommy Dorsey’s Version


Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Version


Sesame Street’s Comedy Sketch Version


Damielou’s Version

Thomas Edison’s Version


UB Iwerks ComiColor’s Version


The Native American Church Version


Fletcher Henderson’s Version


Fantasia’s Version


The Paul McCartney and Wings’ Version


The Break Room Conversation Version


The Dolly’s Circus Version


The Evil Version


The Southern Gospel Version


The Hanna Barbera Singers 1966 Version


The American Sign Language Version


Happy Birthday, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale. Rest assured the beat goes on!

“A University Course” on the Value of Satire in a Crazy World

Life, fundamentally, is absurd.  Every day we encounter opinions, actions, experiences, or events that make us wonder whether we are crazy, whether the world is — or whether there is sanity to be found anywhere.

Satire provides a vehicle for holding such contradictory world views in simultaneous suspension — a way of shifting the ground to contain the uncontainable, to allow the simultaneous expression of unresolvable and sometimes ambiguous opposites.  While some argue that students struggle with recognizing satire or analyzing it successfully, I think that the struggle is more than worth it — and I find that once students move away from the idea that there is one right answer, they truly enjoy the power of satire to open their minds to new possibilities, uncertainties, or perspectives, without the overwhelming despair that sometimes comes from a “serious” or “straight” presentation of difficult material or moral conundrums.   As I have argued in a previous posting, the power of satire lies not in its unambiguous moral target, but in its propensity to force us to make a choice about what that target (or those targets) might be.  To both force critical thinking and allow us to laugh painfully, or laugh it off — if we so choose.  Because sometimes, laughing is the only way that we can keep moving, keep functioning in an upside-down world.

In the late spring of 1923, W. E. B. Du Bois found himself in such a place.  About six months earlier, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill “died” in the Senate, the victim of a filibuster and a deeply divided nation, after four years of Congressional debate and re-working of the bill in committee and on the floor of the House.  The bill had been introduced by Congressman Dyer of Missouri in 1918, and its defeat was marked that spring by a lynching in his home state, the communal and extra-legal murder of James T. Scott in Columbia, Missouri.  Scott was an African American employee of the University of Missouri, and the lynching was noted nationally for the presence of students — and particularly, 50 female students — though reports state that none of them actually “took part,” but were spectators.  While Du Bois had often responded to previous lynchings with a trademark sarcasm and satirical outlook, the defeat of the Dyer Bill and the lynching of Scott seem to bring a new level intensity to his satire — a satire marked by both despair and desperate hope.

The tenderness of this drawing by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, with its peaceful evocation of family and normalcy makes a stark contrast with Du Bois's opening salvo.

The tenderness of this drawing by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, with its peaceful evocation of family and normalcy makes a stark contrast with Du Bois’s opening salvo.

The cover of that June’s issue offers no clue as to the intensity of the subject matter on its opening page.  The drawing is peaceful, a mother and her daughter with flowers against an open and non-threatening backdrop of hills, trees, and sky.  It is an intimate moment, and the mother frankly and calmly returns the spectator’s gaze, while the little girl seems off in her own thoughts, undisturbed by the watcher.  The title of the magazine, The Crisis, jars a little, its meaning in opposition to the peaceful, domestic feeling of the artwork.

But that moment of dissonance becomes cacophony when the page is turned, revealing a scathing and brilliantly, horrifically, and shockingly funny satire entitled “A University Course in Lynching,” penned by W. E. B. Du Bois.

The page is clearly marked “Opinion” in bold letters rivaling the title of magazine, Du Bois opens the editorial by proclaiming that “We are glad to note that the University of Missouri has opened a new course in Applied Lynching.  Many of our American Universities have long defended the institution, but they have not been frank or brave enough actually to arrange a mob murder so that students could see it.”  He notes that the lynching of James T. Scott took place in broad daylight and that at least 50 women were in attendance, most of them students.  Du Bois goes on to satirically praise the University’s efforts in a style that recalls Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”:  “We are very much in favor of this method of teaching 100 per cent Americanism; as long as mob murder is an approved institution in the United States, students at the universities should have a first-hand chance to judge exactly what a lynching is.”

He describes the case in brief detail, stating that “everything was as it should be” for a teachable moment.  Scott “protested his innocence” against that charge that he had “lured” and sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl “to his last breath.”  The father has “no doubt” of Scott’s guilt, but “deprecates” the violence of the mob.  What Du Bois does not say here was that the girl’s father, an immigrant professor at the University, actually tried to speak up and stop the lynching, but chose to be silent when the crowd threatened to lynch him as well.  Du Bois concludes:

Here was every element of the modern American lynching.  We are glad that the future fathers and mothers of the West saw it, and we are expecting great results from this course of study at one of the most eminent of our State Universities.

Suddenly, this little girl and her mother are in a different world.

A world upside-down.  A world in which communal murder is officially condoned, due process is suspended, and lynching is not a phenomenon of a wicked South, but of the West.

My students notice different things every time I teach this satire.  Partly because Du Bois’s piece also mentions a lynching at the southern University where I teach, my students often focus on that aspect, on the power of the satire to enlighten them about history they did not know, history that hits close to home.  This week, however, my students focused Continue reading →

Ethical Conundrums: Gerhard Reinke’s Wanderlust and Las Hurdes

Gerhard Patch 

You probably never saw it, but it was a funny show with something and nothing to say. Back in 2003, Jimmy Kimmel’s Jackhole Productions produced six episodes of a show for Comedy Central called Gerhard Reinke’s Wanderlust. Each week, its fictional German host (played by American Adam Gardner) toured some part of the world – usually some part of the third world. Gerhard Reinke was a hapless traveler. He succumbed to some sort of travel-related malady in nearly every show – from bugbites to embarrassing erections.

Gerhart Reinke Erection

Gerhard is plagued by, “constant, unexplained erections.”

When a situation demanded caution, he was gullible. Where compassion would have been appropriate, he was shrewd. After cheerily explaining that, “Bolivia’s economic crisis makes it one of the cheapest places in the world!,” he rather cruelly haggles over seemingly low-value currency with a presumably poor woman selling a llama fetus in La Paz’s “witch’s market.”

Though his travel skills were severely lacking, Reinke fared little better as a television host. On the easier side of the show’s humor, his thick German accent led to some cheap laughs when he visited “Wenice Beach” California. But his challenged hosting skills could demonstrate a sharper satirical edge as well. As evidenced in his celebration of Bolivia’s troubled economy, his narration rarely matched the tone demanded of a situation. While Gerhard cheerily described the miseries caused by international economic inequality, he was deadly serious when dealing with insubstantial maladies or undertaking any of his projects (like searching for Bigfoot or writing erotic fiction). Fundamentally, these moments of tonal contradiction evidenced a self-centeredness that appears to trouble the ethical positions of both the tourist and media consumer in a global economy. At the same time, it is a comedy and as such it is better at critiquing than offering solutions.

In this way, it is reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s 1933 film Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (English: Land Without Bread). This film, also a mockumentary travelogue, offers its audience a view of an economically disadvantaged peasants living in the Hurdes region of Spain. While not as obviously comic as Wanderlust, Buñuel’s humor relies on a similar tonal mismatch. The narrator of this film remains disinterested and at times even amused as he describes and comments on the terrible conditions of the film’s subjects. Gerhard’s relationship to his audience is a bit more complicated. Unlike the disembodied “voice-of-God” narrator of Las Hurdes, Gerhard is a transparently flawed host. Laughing at Buñuel’s narrator feels somewhat like laughing at myself. The laughter directed at Reinke is less reflexive – it is directed at the over-confident “German” doofus. Still, laughing at Gerhard is not entirely unproductive. Although he does not implicate the viewer as directly as does Las Hurdes‘ narrator, we still must accept Reinke’s position as viewer surrogate in our relationship to this media text. And unlike in Buñuel’s film, we here see the figure of the tourist in some of its worst excesses. This kind of misery-tourism might be subtly suggested in Las Hurdes, but it is a major and explicit theme in Gerhard Reinke’s Wanderlust.

Here is an Idiot

According to the narrator, “Here is another type of idiot.”

In perhaps its most obviously comic moment, Las Hurdes shows a goat scaling a rocky cliff. “One eats goat meat only when one of the animals is killed accidentally,” explains the narrator. “This happens sometimes when the hills are steep and there are loose stones on the footpath.” A puff of smoke billows in from offscreen and the goat falls. The narrator has lied to us. The goat did not trip – it was shot. While the whole film seems to ask what the viewer’s responsibility might be towards disadvantaged Others, this moment suspends those questions to ask more fundamentally what and how we actually know about the people and things we witness from the other side of the screen.

Similarly, though with more broadly comic strokes, Wanderlust mixes a heaping dose of falsity into its documentary explorations. Every episode devolves into some kind of fictional narrative as Gerhard joins a Marxist revolutionary group or struggles with an affliction known as “pee shyness.” So although a good part of both texts ask us to think about our relationship to other human beings, these moments undercut their moral imperative by asking how we can even know the experiences of others in these distant places. There seems to be on the one hand an imperative to act based on the documentary evidence of human suffering. But there is also a more radical proposition that we can’t trust texts like the ones we are watching, which undercuts the moral certainty of the first proposition.

So which is the more powerful argument? Neither Las Hurdes‘s narrator nor Gerhard Reinke (or Luis Buñuel or Josh Gardner) will tell us. Despite the apparent intended message of Las Hurdes, it offers a message of resignation in the face of suffering. While the concern with other humans seems the more ethically defensible position, the proposition that these media themselves are untrustworthy denies such neat moralism. Disturbingly, the warnings against being overly trusting of such appeals seems to be the more powerful message here. So don’t worry too much about the Hurdes or the poor woman selling the llama fetus: they might as well be fictional.

Teaching American Sitcoms: Ode to The Beverly Hillbillies

Jeffrey Melton wrote this great piece on teaching “The Beverly Hillbillies” as the first piece in his “Teaching American Humor” series. You can click on his name under “Authors” on the sidebar to the right to see more of his excellent posts.

Humor in America

Editor’s Note:  This piece is the first piece in a planned series on teaching humor and television sitcoms.  Jeffrey Melton will be spearheading this feature, but he invites you to contribute to the series, as do I.  Do you have a sitcom that you teach that you would like to write about?  Please contact the editor.  Thanks.

I made my ten-year-old daughter watch the first episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. It was going to be a bonding experience for us. At the end as the credits rolled and the Clampetts waved, she said, “That was dumb.” A rift came between us at that moment, a deep realization of disappointment for both of us. We had expected more from one another. But I couldn’t argue against her basic assertion. So I simply said, “Well, you’re dumb, too,” and sent her to her room. No, I didn’t really say that, but…

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In the Archives: Edgar Allan Faux (1877 then 1845)

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They say humor is based on timing. Yes, as is everything else. Ask Elisha Gray about telephone patents. I was plugging along, working on a piece about the comedian Dana Gould, and still figuring out when I would finish writing about Mark Twain and the German language, when an article in my local newspaper caught my attention:

“Dead Poets Society founder visits 300th grave”

The fact that there’s an actual Dead Poets Society prompts visions of Ethan Hawkes’s teeth and an involuntary desire to kill Robert Sean Leonard. Swallowing my bile I learned that the current founder, Walter Skold of Freeport (Maine), has visited the gravesites of 300 poets “ahead of this weekend’s fourth annual Dead Poets Remembrance Day.”

What is “Dead Poets Remembrance Day”? Apparently, “with the help of 13 current and past state poets laureate,” Skold was able to dedicate October 7—“the day that Edgar Allan Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born—to heightening public awareness of the art of poetry.

The article posted October 5. That was Saturday. Making the actual memorial day a Monday. Today. My day to submit. So in honor of dead poets everywhere (and as one who writes the occasional verse and considers the artform dead, and therefore all practitioners the undead) let us examine the two poets tied to this day. What the article does not share is an appreciation for not just the day, but the year. On October 7, 1849, as Edgar Allan Poe lay dying of possibly drunken Rabies in a Baltimore medical college, James Whitcomb Riley was borning in Greenfield, Indiana.

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