Monthly Archives: January, 2014

Smile — and Perhaps, a Tear: the Music of Charlie Chaplin

What is more eloquent than silence?

tumblr_m8ptmqI8Hp1qkdy8to1_500Charles Chaplin was one of cinema’s first — and perhaps still its greatest — auteur. He starred in, produced, directed, edited, wrote and scored the majority of his films, all while inventing the language of film. He did so as he defined the silent era, as well as transitioning into the modern times of talking pictures with inventiveness and artistic, if not mass commercial, achievement.

The side of Chaplin that is least appreciated or discussed is his role as music composer. Chaplin scored 18 of his feature films. He rescored several of his early “Little Tramp” silents in later decades, rereleasing the films with the newly recorded score, breathing into them new life which propelled them further into the modern era. At least four of the musical themes in his films were retailored into pop songs, at least one of which remains a timeless staple of the Great American Songbook.

As with many musicians, Chaplin remembered the exact moment music first made an impression on him. In My Autobiography, Chaplin recounts a time when, while wandering the streets of London as a boy, he first noticed music coming from a neighborhood pub.

Suddenly, there was music. Rapturous! It came from the vestibule of the White Hart corner pub, and resounded brilliantly in the empty square…I had never been conscious of melody before, but this one was beautiful and lyrical, so blithe and gay, so warm and reassuring. I forgot my despair and crossed the road to where the musicians were…It was here that I first discovered music, or where I first learned its rare beauty, a beauty that has gladdened and haunted me from that moment.

Music seemed to come to him naturally. While on tour with his traveling act as a young man, he made the acquaintance of Debussy, who was in the audience one night. The composer told Chaplin he was “instinctively a musician and a dancer.” He even formed a music publishing company in 1915 (which published only three songs). In fact, Chaplin’s only Oscar win was for his music, the score to Limelight.

Perhaps he is less appreciated as a composer because he was not a trained musician or orchestrator. Chaplin played the cello, violin, piano and organ, and he would pluck out or hum the melodic motifs he wanted to sync with the action on screen. He then worked with an orchestrator who would write out the score, filling in the harmonies and flourishes. These arrangers received deserved co-credit for the films’ music, although Chaplin remained hands-on throughout the process, working closely with these arrangers and personally conducting the orchestra. According to film historian Jeffrey Vance, “not a note in a Chaplin musical score was placed there without his assent.”

Chaplin’s scores are so perfect that they sometimes go unnoticed. Instead of using two-dimensional, obvious comedic cues, Chaplin’s scores are wistful and romantic, which help to underscore the comedy, and the humanity, on screen. Chaplin grew up in the British music hall tradition and he makes heavy use of the waltzes, tangos and two-steps that were so prevalent in music hall. His scores are almost ballet-like in their effect, lending a grace and narrative to supplement the dance-like action on screen. His use of leitmotifs — a recurring musical theme assigned to specific characters — gives his scores, and thus his films, their cohesiveness and familiarity.

When one hears the name Charlie Chaplin, one’s first thought is that of the Little Tramp. Continue reading →

Editor’s Chair: The State of the Union

Tracy Wuster, EditorState of the Union Obama

We here at “Humor in America” have seen some big changes to the state of the web page.  A number of our editors–Sharon McCoy, ABE, Matt Daube, and Phil Scepanski–have left or taken a hiatus.  To fill those giant shoes, former contributing editors Bonnie Applebeet and Steve Brykman have returned, and they will be joined by Jan McIntire-Strasburg, the executive director of the American Humor Studies Association, Robert Tally, of Texas State University, and Tara Friedman, of Widener University.  Welcome, and welcome back.

More humor studies news:

* Judith Yaross Lee, the editor of Studies in American Humor, has posted her editorial statement for the journal at the StAH homepage.  Check out:

Enter Laughing:

American Humor Studies in the Spirit of Our Times

* The essay is part of the most recent issue of the journal.  See the Table of Contents.  This is the first issue of which I am the Book Review Editor.  You can get the journal by joining the AHSA here.

*And see the call for a special issue of the journal: American Humor in the 1920s and 1930s: Cross-Media Perspectives

Studies in American Humor, the journal of the American Humor Studies Association, invites submission of scholarly papers on humor across media in the 1920s and 1930s for a special issue of the journal appearing in the fall of 2015, coedited by Rob King (Columbia University) and Judith Yaross Lee (Ohio University).  Specifically, we are interested in papers that explore the circulation of humor within and across media industries during this formative period in the consolidation of American mass culture.

More here.

*The AHSA has a good number of upcoming conferences.  We will have three panels at ALA. We are looking for papers for our MLA and SAMLA panels, as well as for the upcoming Quadrennial Conference in New Orleans (with the Mark Twain Circle).  See the AHSA announcements page.

* The New Orleans conference will be an amazing conference.  Be sure to be there.

American Humor Studies Association

Mark Twain Circle of America

Quadrennial Conference 2014

December 4-7, 2014

Four Points Sheraton French Quarter 

The American Humor Studies Association, in conjunction with the Mark Twain Circle of America, sends out this general call for papers on American humor and Mark Twain.  The topics below are suggestions for topics that we think will be of interest; other topics are welcome, and we welcome especially submissions of sessions of three papers or roundtables.  The topics are broad in the hope that scholars will be able to find one that fits their current research.  Submissions should be sent to Jan McIntire-Strasburg via email (  Please send your submissions by May 15, 2014.

Those sending in submissions for the Mark Twain Circle of America can email their proposals to Ann Ryan at

* You might also be interested in the 27th Annual AATH Humor Conference in Vincennes, Indiana… April 3-6, 2014… at the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy located on the campus of Vincennes University.

*Or you might be interested in the International Society for Humor Studies Conference.  The 2014 ISHS Conference will be held from July 7 to July 11, 2014 on the campus of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

The Lightning that was Leroi Jones

Amiri-BarakaOn January 9th, 2014 Leroi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka, died at the age of 79. (Like Muhammad Ali, Jones changed his name when he embraced Islam.)

Upon his death,  The New York Times described him with the sort of words one might use to describe lightning: illuminating. . . incandescent. . . pulsating. . .  incendiary.

The FBI once dubbed him “the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the Pan-African movement in the United States.” Others dismissed him as a gadfly.

Articulate and prone to rage, this streetwise beat poet helped pave the way for the rap, hip hop and poetry slams that came to follow. His work makes a good starting point for discussion about “art for art’s sake” vs art as activism. (Dan McCleary, founder of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company recently published an excellent related essay addressing this issue.)

Jones/Baraka’s humor was spare, incisive and brutal––as in his best known poem,  Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.  While I usually feature just one or two selections in my HIA blog posts, this time around you’ll need to get at least elbow deep. The poems in text below are from a collection entitled, “Transbluesency” — (Marsilio Publishers, New York, 1995.) Beneath them is a selection from YouTube followed by links to two more of his works.

A Poem for Speculative Hipsters

He had got, finally,
to the forest
of motives. There were no
owls, or hunters. No Connie Chatterleys   
resting beautifully
on their backs, having casually
brought socialism
to England.   
                  Only ideas,
and their opposites.
                he was really

Wise I

     WHYS (Nobody Knows
The Trouble I Seen)

If you ever find
yourself, some where
lost and surrounded
by enemies
who won’t let you
speak in your own language
who destroy your statues
& instruments, who ban
your omm bomm ba boom
then you are in trouble
deep trouble
they ban your
own boom ba boom
you in deep deep


probably take you several hundred years
to get

Snake Eyes

That force is lost
Which shaped me, spent
in its image, battered, an old brown thing
swept off the streets
where it sucked its
gentle living.

And what is meat
to do, that is driven to its end
by words? The frailest gestures
grown like skirts around breathing.
We take
unholy risks to prove
we are what we cannot be. For instance,

I am not even crazy.

Audubon, Drafted

It does not happen. That love removesitself. (I am leaving, Goodbye!
itself, as rain, hard iron rain
comes down, then stops. All those
eyes opened for morning, close with
what few hours given them. With tears,
or a stone wall, shadows drag down.

I am what I think I am. You are what
I think you are. The world is the
one thing that will not move. It is
made of stone, round and very ugly.

The People Burning

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note

Using Political Cartoons in History Instruction

My experience using political cartoons when teaching political or cultural history has been that when I find a drawing that is apropos for college students, it garners little if any reaction from the students.  It makes me wonder, how many of the students actually understand the cartoon and what the artist is suggesting in its rendering?  An article in Journalism Quarterly from 1968 probably answers my question—and the answer is a resounding—NO.

According to author Leroy Carl, only 15% of Americans understand the artist’s intended message, and another 15% of Americans partially understand the artist’s message.  That leaves 70% of Americans in the dark.  What that means is in a classroom the teacher is enlightening 15% of his/her students, confusing 15%, and frustrating 70% unless there is a way of teaching students how to better understand political cartoons.

Teaching how to better understand editorial cartoons presumes that the understanding of cartoons is not inherent (kind of like learning perfect pitch—you either have it or you don’t).  If it is not inherent, how does one go about teaching it?  On-line resources on how to teach political cartoons are pitching someone’s teaching resources more than explaining a process– except for an article by Jonathan Burack, a former history instructor and editor of Newscurrents.  The problem with Burack’s system, found at, is that it assumes students know too much.

The first things that students must identify is from the journalistic dictum of who, what, where, and when.  After all, cartoons are journalistic opinions.  After that, one can either use Burack’s system of analyzing “symbol and metaphor,” visual distortion, “irony in words and images,” “and stereotype and caricature,” but how many college frosh can pick out an irony—in anything?  I suggest that there are two more steps:  Many cartoons either make comparisons or exaggerate (or understate) a concept, or both.  Ask students to identify the humorous effect that the artist is using—even if the cartoon is not humorous.  Eventually, students should get to the “why” in the cartoon. Why is this important?  What is the artist’s intended message?   Finally, discuss whether the cartoon is fair to the subject.

Consider the following cartoon by Jeff Danziger and dated on January 19, 2014:





Who:  Wall Street Bankers and investors

What:  New York Stock Exchange and the movie Wolves of Wall Street.  Note the sign:  “Warning:  Members New York Stock Exchange.”  The pig denies that any of the brokers in the office are wolves.

Where:  A broker’s office (note that it is the home turf of the brokers).

When:  2014 (when using historical cartoons that may be more difficult to ascertain, and some contemporary cartoons are actually set at some time in the past for reasons of comparison).

Comparisons:  The movie title compares stock brokers to wolves, a carnivorous predator.  The cartoonist compares stock brokers to vultures, those who prey on carrion; tigers, another carnivorous predator; snakes, known for their “cold-blooded killing,” and their trickery as depicted in Genesis in the Bible; and pigs, stereotyped as sloppy-eaters that consume whatever they can get their mouths on.

Intended message:  The artist suggests that labeling Wall Street brokers and bankers as wolves is an understatement.  They also have the characteristics of vultures, tigers, snakes, and pigs.

At this point, much of Burack’s discussion can be incorporated:  The man is trapped by the body of the snake.  What the pig says is ironic in that he denies his and his partners’ “wolfishness.”  Discuss “anthropomorphism.”  Would this cartoon be as effective if a human were talking and the animals were described as his/her partners?  Do most signs identifying an entity as a member of the New York Stock Exchange carry a warning?

Finally, from Burack’s lesson, is this a fair statement about bankers and brokers?  Why or why not?

The question is whether understanding political cartoons and the depictions therein is actually teachable?  If it is, is it a necessary skill?  If not, what do teachers do with the wealth of political cartoons that are in history books?  I am going to try teaching American History using political cartoons, and I would like my lessons to be effective.  Therefore, I welcome helpful comments from readers of this blog.

(c) 2014

Eskimo and Ordnance

by Richard Talbot

The Eskimo languages, it is said, have dozens of different words for snow and this is very useful to the Eskimo. Reveal this fact to grownups and they will seem surprised, but tell this same thing to a boy of ten and he will only signal satisfaction at learning that someone has had the good sense to name the different kinds of snow that he is already familiar with. Every boy growing up in Minnesota knows that all snow is not the same. While boys may not know all the different names for these snows, they do know them by sight and all of their different uses.

There is the kind that crunches beneath your boots when the temperature is right; it’s good for snowballs, but is so light that it has only a medium capacity for joy and destruction when aimed at your brother. There is the heavy, wet kind that soaks your mittens through and is a lot better for the same thing. And then there is the dry hard-packed kind that is especially good for cutting into blocks when you need to make a snow fort. This is the kind that has a light layer to the top that gets picked up by the wind and is wistfully swirled about all around in snow devils. It sparkles in the light and gives off the prettiest rainbow luminescence when the angle of the sun is just right.

Young boys know a lot of other things as well, things that military men call tactics and ordnance. Boys know about these things, too, but they don’t know what their proper names are. But know them they do, and they can tell you exactly how far a snowball of a given kind will go when it is launched. How it will behave when it hits its target. How its target will behave when he gets hit. They can anticipate their enemy’s firepower as well, and plan the best escape route once they have launched their joyful weapons of destruction. Boys know a lot about snow, tactics and ordnance.

When I was a boy I loved the winter, but there was one time in particular that was the best of all. That was Christmas vacation. Everything about it was perfect; no school, snowy days and nothing to do.

Continue reading →

Sleep, Oh Glorious Sleep…

Everyone should have kids. They are the greatest joy in the world. But they are also terrorists. You’ll realize this as soon as they are born and they start using sleep deprivation to break you.

–Ray Romano

As a parent, I have come to value the importance of sleep.  Even when the baby sleeps, relative though that term is to my normal eight to nine hours of dead-limbed slumber, I realize how much I loved to sleep and how much my baby does not care.

The previous paragraph took me more time than I care to admit to compose.  Not that anything I said is especially interesting or well-wrought.  No.  I just can’t seem to get my fingers to type words in any sort of normal way.  I do not hesitate to admit that it took me a long time to figure out how to spell “glorious” in that title.


So, in lieu of my typing anything of note, which sounds nothing but tiring, I will note that I am not alone.  As often happens when one obsesses over something, we notice others obsessing as well.  Several friends have posted on the phenomenon of babies sleeping, and in my sleep deprived state, I find these funny.  I hope you will, too.

*Louis CK on sleep (NSFW):

* A funny summary of baby sleep books.

* A parody of Lorde’s song “Royals” called “Rested

* Baby sleep positions

* A bedtime story from Samuel Jackson:


Dreaming of Walter Mitty Dreaming

Ben Stiller in a still from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

If you want to learn about Walter Mitty, first, check the dictionary:

Walter Mitty: an ordinary, timid person who is given to adventurous and self-aggrandizing daydreams [from the title character of James Thurbers’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: (1939).”

James Thurber: The guy who dreamed up Walter Mitty

James Thurber: The guy who dreamed up Walter Mitty

Now, we generally use the term “blogger.”

Walter Mitty is one of the few fictional characters to enter our zeitgeist (a pretentious way to say…well, he is in the dictionary). Simply put, James Thurber gave us a character with a resonance that cuts directly into the lives of so many people–ordinary and timid but dreaming of bigger things. That is who we are; that is what we do. Here is a link to the story itself.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” text from The New Yorker

James Thurber created a character so intrinsically tied into twentieth-century American urban life that “Walter Mitty” made its way into the dictionary. I used my old solid, book version put out by Random House/Webster’s in 1992.  By the way, for those who would rather go online for definitions, you can get the same one from Random House/Kernerman/Webster’s College Dictionary, more current at 2010. If you wait awhile, you may be able to get the same definition again published by Random House/Kernerman/Chick-fil-A/Webster’s College Dictionary. I am only guessing about that, though.

The American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin FedEx, 2009) defines Walter Mitty thusly: “an ordinary, often ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumph.”

Merriam-Webster online writes the definition this way: “a commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming”

And has it like this: “an ordinary, timid person who is given to adventurous and self-aggrandizing daydreams or secret plans as a way of glamorizing a humdrum life.”

And, one more, the Macmillan dictionary online: “someone who imagines that unusual or exciting things happen to them, but whose life is in fact very ordinary.”

Continue reading →

Is America’s most realistic sit-com a cartoon?

By Ben Anderson

King of the HIll image hank hillI had two weeks off work recently and much to my wife’s chagrin I spent it watching whole seasons of my favourite sitcoms in a single sitting. Among the miasma of single New Yorkers and ugly guys with hot wives one show stayed in my memory, Mike Judge’s animated sitcom King of the Hill. It’s an underrated programme which won two Emmys and ran for 13 seasons, longer than even Friends or Seinfeld. What made the show standout was its low key, realistic approach to comedy. This wasn’t 22 minutes of redneck stereotypes but a show with a defined sense of place and character. Judge and co-creator Greg Daniels kept the show grounded for more than a decade, striving to find humour in the conventional and ultimately creating what Time TV critic James Poniewozik called “The most acutely observed, realistic sitcom about regional American life bar none”.

What most differentiated King of the Hill from its cartoon contemporaries was its setting. Arlen always remained a mid-sized Texan town. It didn’t suddenly gain plot relevant casinos like Spingfield or be destroyed Mecha-Streisands like South Park. Unlike time travelling Stewie Griffin or globe-trotting Eric Cartman, the furthest Bobby Hill ever strayed from Texas was New Orleans.

The show’s writer’s maintained this authenticity taking a biannual excursion to Austin to talk to residents and visit locations such as propane dealerships and mega churches. The details gleaned on these trips allowed King of the Hill to nurture what Los Angeles Times writer Paul Brownfield called “a sense of an actual world”. Rather than constricting the creativity of the writers, this well-defined “world” allowed for plots that may not have been considered by the Californian-based writing staff.

To further illustrate the show’s uniqueness, compare this season 5 joke about George W. Bush

Continue reading →