Influence often subsists in the shadows. Behind every mainstream success there is likely a relative, teacher, local celebrity musician, obscure genre artist, or forgotten one-time star that helped shape their sensibilities. In 1956 a gifted but relatively obscure R&B singer and songwriter from San Diego by way of Oklahoma with a colorful sense of humor named Kent Harris recorded and released one of the more influential 45s of the mid-50’s R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll era. He did so under his equally unsung stage name: Boogaloo and His Gallant Crew. The single’s A-side was only a minor local R&B hit in Los Angeles but the 45 was a hugely influential two-sided record that would inspire Bo Diddley, The Rolling Stones, and, indirectly, The Coasters to record their own versions of the songs.
Harris issued a string of singles as Boogaloo in the 1950’s and developed a decent career as a producer and songwriter for other West Coast R&B, soul and jazz acts. But he was self-admittedly first and foremost a songwriter, a gift that seemed to come to him naturally.
I started doing that when I was just a kid…around the neighborhood where I lived. There were a lot of kids around there, playing around and stuff. And I used to make up songs about ‘em, make up different songs about different ones and the stuff they do. Everybody kind of liked it. It was a fun thing, and I just kept on doing it until I got a break.
The B-side to his fabled 45 is a comical proto-rap called “Cops and Robbers” in which Harris recounts his misadventure in picking up a hitchhiker who in turn pulls a gun on him and forces him to wait in the car while the hitchhiker robs a liquor store. The joke, ultimately, is on the carjacker who in his confusion mistakenly gets into a police car after having robbed the liquor store.
I was driving down the boulevard late one night on my way back home
When I spied this guy on the corner thumbin’ all alone
As I passed on by I heard him holler out, “Hey!”
He said, “By any chance, are you goin’ my way?”
I said, ” Well sure, hop on in buddy and give me a cigarette”
He reached into his pocket and that was the moment that I regret
He hollered, “Reach for the skies!”
And I said but I don’t seem to understand
And then he told me, he said, “Just don’t try no monkey business, ’cause I got this stopper in my hand!”
The song has been covered numerous times; most notably by Continue reading →
When people talk about the Southwestern humorists today, they most often mean authors like George Washington Harris, author of the Sut Lovingood stories, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, who wrote “The Big Bear of Arkansas, “ or Johnson J. Hooper’s Simon Suggs stories. These authors were all Southern gentlemen for the most part—doctors, lawyers, or other professional men. Yet the humor they wrote was broad, often vulgar, and were delivered in a backwoods dialect with idiosyncratic spellings. They often began the tales with the “gentleman” narrator speaking directly to the reader—explaining that they had heard these stories while traveling through the back country from colorful, though uneducated characters.
Since these are the nineteenth century humorists most often anthologized, the casual reader might draw the conclusion that their brand of humor represents the whole of humor in the Old Southwest of the 1830s-1850s. Such an assumption, however, would be misleading. As with other periods in American literature, humorists wrote their tales and sketches on both sides of the spectrum. For every author whose characters depicted backwoods con men and uneducated rubes, there existed a corresponding author who represented the Southern gentleman who eschewed dialects and instead styled their sketches and tales in the more refined and educated writing reminiscent of their British counterparts. While they often also showed the rough side of the Southwestern frontier during its early times, the con men and (often) immoral characters were themselves educated. They used little dialect, wanting to demonstrate clearly for readers their own erudition.
Augustus Baldwin Longstreet appears to be the “missing link” between authors such as Hooper and Harris, who pioneered dialect humor, and authors such as Joseph Glover Baldwin, whose sketches represent a more “refined” Southern humor. His sketches alternate between two narrators (Hall and Baldwin). One is a typical Georgia “cracker”—a poor, edging toward middle-class white, the other more educated and less tolerant of vulgarity. In his tales, the gentlemanly narrator never lapses into dialect. His “Georgia Theatrics”, shows readers the sounds of an eye-gouging, fist pumping frontier fight, only to undercut the idea—the young man is only practicing what he would do if he were called upon to fight in the backwoods manner.
It’s six days past Valentine’s Day. Whether you’re basking in the afterglow complete with wilted roses and an empty chocolate box, or hoping for better luck next year, Dorothy Parker‘s poetic take on love should bring a smile to your face. She threw more barbs at men than cupid shot arrows. Yet despite her razor sharp cynicism, I suspect she may have been a romantic at heart. Below are seven of my favorites along these lines.
The Lady’s Reward
Lady, lady, never start
Conversation toward your heart;
Keep your pretty words serene;
Never murmur what you mean.
Show yourself, by word and look,
Swift and shallow as a brook.
Be as cool and quick to go
As a drop of April snow;
Be as delicate and gay
As a cherry flower in May.
Lady, lady, never speak
Of the tears that burn your cheek-
She will never win him, whose
Words had shown she feared to lose.
Be you wise and never sad,
You will get your lovely lad.
Never serious be, nor true,
And your wish will come to you-
And if that makes you happy, kid,
You’ll be the first it ever did.
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying –
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
A Very Short Song
Once, when I was young and true,
Someone left me sad-
Broke my brittle heart in two;
And that is very bad.
Love is for unlucky folk,
Love is but a curse.
Once there was a heart I broke;
And that, I think, is worse.
I Know I Have Been Happiest
I know I have been happiest at your side;
But what is done, is done, and all’s to be.
And small the good, to linger dolefully-
Gayly it lived, and gallantly it died.
I will not make you songs of hearts denied,
And you, being man, would have no tears of me,
And should I offer you fidelity,
You’d be, I think, a little terrified.
Yet this the need of woman, this her curse:
To range her little gifts, and give, and give,
Because the throb of giving’s sweet to bear.
To you, who never begged me vows or verse,
My gift shall be my absence, while I live;
But after that, my dear, I cannot swear.
One Perfect Rose
A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet –
One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret;
‘My fragile leaves,’ it said, ‘his heart enclose.’
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.
Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.
Lady, lady, should you meet
One whose ways are all discreet,
One who murmurs that his wife
Is the lodestar of his life,
One who keeps assuring you
That he never was untrue,
Never loved another one . . .
Lady, lady, better run!
I do not like my state of mind;
I’m bitter, querulous, unkind.
I hate my legs, I hate my hands,
I do not yearn for lovelier lands.
I dread the dawn’s recurrent light;
I hate to go to bed at night.
I snoot at simple, earnest folk.
I cannot take the gentlest joke.
I find no peace in paint or type.
My world is but a lot of tripe.
I’m disillusioned, empty-breasted.
For what I think, I’d be arrested.
I am not sick, I am not well.
My quondam dreams are shot to hell.
My soul is crushed, my spirit sore;
I do not like me any more.
I cavil, quarrel, grumble, grouse.
I ponder on the narrow house.
I shudder at the thought of men….
I’m due to fall in love again.
When I am asked to teach a new course, I often revert back to my coaching days. I approach its purpose and structure with all the seriousness and lofty intentions of an English Premier League (EPL) manager. As in soccer, I feel the pressure and necessity of a solid performance. Prior to kickoff, I spent many a late night watching films, meeting with those who held superior knowledge of the game, reviewing formation and dependable goal scorers. All in all, I thought I created a well-researched, slam-dunk course. (Please pardon my mixed sports metaphor – this is my first post – and I am currently suffering from a case of the recently diagnosed DB – dissertation brain.) This semester, as head of an introduction to literary genres team, with humor as my reliable captain, I wanted my students and my course not only to be good, but great. Ryan Giggs great. Or, for those of you less-than-enthusiastic fans, Cristiano Ronaldo great.
Pedagogically, I wanted to build an historical context and contemporary appreciation for my freshman students through an introduction to various types of humor, including farce, satire, dark comedy, parody, slapstick and screwball humor. In our first few meetings, I lectured a bit, and we watched various YouTube videos, SNL skits, and The Daily Show segments, which afforded them comical examples and repartees.
Classic Three Stooges video
We read articles on humor, its theories, and laughter’s physiological benefits (see Wilkins and Eisenbraum’s abstract). I was trying to convince my students of humor’s merit, of its historical purpose and value in our modern daily lives. For many reasons, I felt protective of humor, and I wanted them to take the study of it seriously.
In order to accomplish this goal, as well as my course objectives, I stacked my team. My strikers right out of the gate were Swift and Twain. Behind them were O’Henry, O’Connor, Thurber, and Stewart. Two newcomers, Gionfriddo and Alexie, provided necessary depth to my defense. I believed that with the right combination of gentle guidance and direct instruction, my students would grasp the dichotomous nature of my course: play and purpose. While I wanted to set a mutually understood context for laughter, (necessary, I believe, for them to ‘get’ the jokes), I deeply desired for them to see the author’s purpose behind the chuckle: to question and critique social structures and ideology imbedded into America’s framework, as well as their own lives. For the first two weeks of the course, my game plan failed. I had spent so much time trying to force them to understand the legitimacy of humor that I had overlooked the aspect of playing with the language, the situations posed to us by various readings.
by Bonnie Applebeet and Orquidea Morales
I am so excited to be back on HA! to share a conversation I had with a good friend of mine who studies horror, media, zombies, and Borderlands at the University of Michigan. I always found it fascinating that we, as people with such opposite inclinations, could get along so well, so I sat down one day with Orquidea Morales to ask her about what we thought the overlaps were between humor and horror. The results are wacky and provocative. We talk about Divine and Hitchcock, sex and stabbing, discomfort and vulnerability, all while theorizing the connections and territories between humor and horror. We hope you enjoy our sarcasm-laden conversation and treasure the insight into what two nerdy doctoral students might talk about over some burritos and Coke in a noisy restaurant.
It was a golden idea. Take as many major stars as a film budget would allow and set them on a madcap search of buried treasure. It was a perfect American comic premise built around two essential tropes: the American open road as symbol for the pursuit of happiness and the unassailable and American belief that we are all destined to strike it rich. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (196), directed by Stanley Kramer and starring every single major star of film and television in the 1950s–everyone of them–is an American classic and an essential film for anyone interested in saying such things.
The title uses “mad” four times, for those who are uncertain just how mad the film is. Kramer, it seems, had wanted to use it five times but was convinced to hold the number to four because five would be redundant. To clarify: five is redundant; four is OK. There are lots of people in Hollywood who are paid to make such decisions, so we should trust them. Kramer later regretted giving in to the pressure to choose four. This fact may help explain why an early draft of his later film starring Spencer Tracy and Sydney Poitier had the title, “Guess Which Five People Are Coming to Dinner.” But I am getting off topic. I am happy with four, so let’s just leave it at that.
The film was an immediate hit and earned critical accolades as well, a difficult task for film comedies historically. It became one of the highest grossing films of 1963. It was nominated for Golden Globe awards for best musical/comedy film and for Jonathan Winters for best actor in a musical/comedy. It won an academy award for sound editing. AFI lists it at #40 for its list of the best American film comedies.
The film’s strength is its combination of our cultural confidence in the road as symbol for self-development and discovery and the contradictory mainstream belief that we are, in the end, a community of freedom loving individuals on a shared pursuit of happiness. We are a democracy. In this context, the film takes on a more satirical potential with the simple plot structure that takes this open-road ideal from its most romantic notion and reduce it to its most cut-throat race to find buried treasure; Americans of the mainstream as crazed road-pirates. Lennie Pike, the common-man character played brilliantly by Jonathan Winters, provides the best piece of dialogue revealing this core satirical voice within the film: “Then they all decide that I’m supposed to get a smaller share! That I’m somebody extra special stupid, or something! That they don’t even care if it’s a democracy! And in a democracy, it don’t matter how stupid you are, you still get an equal share!”
Sounds like class warfare to Bill O’Reilly. Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad.
The Criterion Collection released the film on 21 January 2014, and, as with all Criterion productions, the breadth and depth of material provided in support of the film may encourage further analysis of the film and renewed interest. That is a good thing. The Criterion It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World offers the complete film as Kramer had hoped to release before accepting cuts required by United Artists. This director’s cut runs 197 minutes (the theatrical version was cut to a more modest, though still long, 154 minutes). That seems worthy of a fifth “mad” in the title.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World was released in November 7, 1963, a few weeks before the mainstream ethos of the 1950s would end abruptly with the assassination of President Kennedy. The jarring slingshot of the national sensibility into the impending trauma of the 1960s has stifled the film for subsequent generations, despite its initial success in the box office and the high quality of the comedic performances. Its silliness and playfulness, for many viewers, has trapped it in the amber of the mainstream open-road ideal of normalcy. The characters, in the end, seem simply perverse caricatures of middle America. The defining sensibility is then simply silliness. The road as mainstream outlet for affirming adventures of the post-war dream withstood subversion of Kerouac and the Merry Pranksters but could not survive in tact the murder of the President of the United States as he traveled the open road in Dallas, in an open car. Madcap road adventures had come face-to-face with sheer madness.
But it is time to take another look at Kramer’s Mad-x4 World. It has a place in American humor classrooms and overall American film comedy canon beyond its whimsy, though its playfulness is enough for my tastes to keep in in moderate rotation. It is a zany road-trip adventure filled with slapstick humor and broad physical comedy and playful dialogue. It is also, with its long list of comedic performers in main roles and in cameos, a survey of American film comedy. As such, it can be viewed as a primer on mainstream American comedy of the first half of the twentieth century. It is a madcap film (fourth use of “madcap”), but it may also have more in common with other subversive satires of the 1960s than has been readily assumed. Perhaps the Criterion edition will encourage a more comprehensive look at a masterwork of American humor. Mad, mad, mad, mad, mad. Five.