Monthly Archives: March, 2014

In the Archives: Mark Twain’s Infectious Jingle– “A Literary Nightmare” (1876)

Tracy Wuster

Mark Twain’s “Literary Nightmare” (1876), published in the Atlantic Monthly, represents an early example of a “viral” piece of popular culture.    The “Viral Text” project at Northeastern University is tracing 19th-century newspaper stories as they circulated, and “A Literary Nightmare” might be a unique example–being a story about a viral text–in this case, a poem–and its infectious effects, which in turn helped spread the original poem, Mark Twain’s story about it, and the very genre of poetry across the nation and, possibly, around the world.  The story even inspired a song.  And was being discussed as late as 1915.

The poem presented the key example of “horse-car poetry” that enjoyed a brief vogue as popular doggerel.  A discussion of the phenomenon of “horse-car poetry”  was printed in Record of the Year, A Reference Scrap Book: Being the Monthly Record of Important Events Worth Preserving, published by G. W. Carleton and Company in 1876.  The story, beginning on page 324, details how a New York rail line posted a placard on fares that became a poetic sensation, leading to Mark Twain’s use of the lines in his story.  The phenomenon of “horse-car poetry” then, according to the Record of the Year, spread to other cities and countries, causing an “epidemic” that aroused passions and even violence.  The Record of the Year contains one story of a woman literally possessed by the sketch, reading in part:

The danger of Mark Twain's viral text...

The danger of Mark Twain’s viral text…

The entire scene is worth reading at the link above.

Mark Twain’s  extended comic sketch details  the hypnotic, yet meaningless, power of humorous writing to infect one’s mind like a virus.  Entitled “A Literary Nightmare” (February 1876), Twain’s piece starts with a verse of poetry:

“Conductor, when you receive a fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,

A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,

A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare

CHORUS

Punch, brothers punch with care!

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”

These lines, the narrator “Mark” writes, “took instant and entire possession of me.”  For days, the only thing in his mind are the lines of verse—they keep him from his work, wreck his sleep, and turn him into a raving lunatic singing “punch brothers punch…” After several days of torture, he sets out on a walk with his friend, a Rev. Mr. ——- (presumably his good friend Rev. Joe Twichell).  After hours of silence, the Reverend asks the narrator what the trouble is, and Mark tells him the story, teaching him the lines of the jingle.  Instantly, the narrator puts the verse out of his mind. The Reverend, on the other hand, has “got it” now.

You can read the sketch in its entirety below.

 

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Ask Me No Questions, I Will Tell No Lies

March brings with it St. Patrick’s Day and an affinity for all things Irish. Before we bring March to a close, let us take a moment to reflect upon one of the great Irish cultural contributions: the grand oral tradition of story and song.  Shakespeare (somewhat ironically) wrote that brevity is the soul of wit but the Irish never waste an opportunity to say in a few paragraphs what could be said in a few words. This verbosity has been responsible for a great many works of art. (Of course the Irish were equally gifted at preserving the written word, as is well documented in Thomas Cahill’s New York Times Best Seller How The Irish Saved Civilization, but I digress.)

What better way to illustrate this than with a clever little nursery rhyme many good Irish children learn (usually, as with this writer, by a parent or other mature, serious and adult relative) about a dog’s genitals, alcoholic beverages and a bucket full of excrement of undisclosed origin.

In a phenomenon increasingly rare in 2014, there is little to be found about this song online. It seems there is a place after all for the grand oral storytelling tradition even in the digital age. There are a handful of discussion threads and two or three YouTube clips offering remembrances or performances of the song. Most of the lyrics found online vary slightly from the version this writer first heard sung by his Irish father and Italian mother while in the back seat of the family car on some unremembered road in some unremembered state somewhere out there in the great big USA.

The exquisite structure of the lyric was immortalized instantaneously.

Two Irishmen, two Irishmen digging in a ditch

One called the other a dirty son of a –

Peter Murphy had a dog, a mighty fine dog was he

Along came a bumble bee and stung him in his –

Cocktail, ginger ale, ten cents a glass

If you don’t like it you can shove it up your –

Ask me no questions, I will tell no lies

If you get hit by a bucket of shit, be sure to close your eyes

It is a simple yet effective structure: setting up the rhyme to lead the listener’s ear toward an obvious obscenity only to duck and weave into an innocuous quasi-homophone. When the resolving line involving the imminent bucket of shit finally arrives, emphasized by a nifty internal rhyme, the use of the obscenity is heightened and therefore permissible as a literary device with a purpose and function. Any decent songwriter, poet or raconteur would be well served in studying the structure of these lines. And sing it to your kids, they will be grateful.

Craft and Magic on the U.S. Comedy Club Stage

by Susan Seizer, Indiana University

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This post is about the interplay between Craft and Magic on the U.S. comedy club circuit. My interest in this topic grows out of a larger ethnographic study of the lives of Road Comics, those professional standup comedians who earn their living playing the comedy club circuit across the central states. These are not the comics you see on stages in New York or Los Angeles, or on cable shows broadcast from these two coastal media hubs. The comics I am interested in are working the road, generally playing to working class audiences and are themselves working class.

In 2012 I produced a documentary, Road Comics: Big Work on Small Stages, that follows the creativity and passion of road comics working clubs and bars in the “flyover zones” of middle America. Two of the comics featured in the film, Kristin Key and Stewart Huff, are also featured in this post. I encourage you to watch the film to see more of their performances, as well as those of another talented comedian, Tim Northern, and to experience their stories from the road as they tell them. After a lively year of festival screenings, including at the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival in New York City, the full film is now available free for streaming and downloading at www.roadcomicsmovie.com.

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Caption: Road Comics: Big Work on Small Stages is available for streaming at www.roadcomicsmovie.com

By Craft here I mean all that such comics do to keep themselves in work: a well-crafted show not only has audiences laughing but also demonstrates to club owners and bookers that a comic can regularly make this happen. Repeat bookings depend on a comic knowing how to work a room. Craft involves all the calculations that make Magic possible; the purpose of honing one’s Craft is to have the opportunity to continue making Magic.

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Happy Birthday (more or less) Frank O’Hara!

frank-ohara-portrait11

Frank O’Hara 1926 – 1966
Portrait by Alice Neel

Frank O’Hara‘s birthday isn’t really today. It falls on March 27th, but in his case, inaccuracy is the longstanding tradition. He grew up believing he was born in June because his parents took elaborate pains to disguise the fact that he’d been conceived out of wedlock.

I thought of this urbane, postmodern poet  because a Salvador Dali exhibit is currently taking the Memphis Brooks Museum by storm, and Frank O’Hara served as a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Both Dali and O’Hara loved to lampoon convention and human frailties and in doing so were wickedly, candidly funny.

Dali’s life was long. O’Hara’s was cut short. He was struck and killed by a dune buggy on fire island in the summer of 1966. Fortunately, for us, he was prolific.

Why I Am Not A Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.
— Frank O’Hara

Poem

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
— Frank O’Hara

No Pryor Knowledge: How I Got Moved by Mudbone then Ambushed by Art

By Jake Austen

Last month I received an e-mail announcing Dick’s Last Stand, a performance by the artist Donelle richard-pryorflyerWoolford that was touring the country as part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Woolford (whom I had not heard of, but a cursory Internet search showed her to be a striking young black woman, based in New York, with an impressive CV of conceptual performance art pieces) would be re-creating an infamous 1977 performance by Richard Pryor, a subversive 40-minute stand up set he did for his NBC television show that was so filthy he knew it would be impossible to broadcast. That the Chicago performance was in my neighborhood at the Dorchester Projects (installation artist Theaster Gates’ art-as-social activism complex), and that no one we knew had heard anything about this show, made I seem so simultaneously accessible and mysterious that attendance felt mandatory. As I entered the performance space, seeing about a third of the fifty chairs filled, I hoped to be challenged, entertained, and provoked. I was not expecting to descend into a conceptual art wormhole, booby trapped with racial-taboo time bombs. But when dealing with Richard Pryor, combustibility is always a factor.

The show opened with Chester McSwain, a blues/jazz singer who gigs at the nearby Chant lounge, doing a single Bobby “Blue” Bland tune. After the song Woolford was introduced by a white fellow who seemed to be a part of the production (his whiteness coming in handy later when he played a disgruntled stagehand mumbling curses under his breath after Pryor demanded a stool). Then Woolford, as Pryor, walked through the audience, and took the spotlight, smoking a cigarette before being informed (by the 1977 TV studio producer, also played by the white guy) that there was a fine for smoking, which he/she did not take well.

Donelle Woolford as Richard Pryor

Two things struck me immediately. The first was that Woolford did not look much like her publicity picture. Even taking the thick mustache and thespian transformation into account, the woman playing Pryor seemed to have a different build than the Woolford I’d seen online. The other thing that was apparent from the smoking exchange was that this interpretation of Pryor, though extremely faithful to the original text, seemed to bring subtext to the forefront, incorporating all the deep, dark information we now know about Pryor’s biography, relationships, and demons. In the original footage, Pryor’s response to the smoking ban highlights the sense of mischief and wicked joy that the comic brought to the stage; he doesn’t seem too irked, perhaps even tickled to get some laughs out of it. In Dick’s Last Stand he/she seems deeply hurt and angry at this indignity. Of course, the original performance was about Pryor raging against the television machine by ignoring the censors. That rage, however, was not expressed in his tone.

Not so in Woolford’s performance, which was an intense, powerful, spellbinding presentation of Pryor’s words spoken by a sullen, seething artist who has taken all the bullshit he/she is gonna take. Woolford told jokes, stories, and observations in a voice less musical and lively than Pryor’s, with eyes expressing more burden than Pryor ever let show. The vulnerability that Pryor consistently revealed (not to be confused with the nervous, jittery routine that he utilized in many of his lesser movies) was something the Dick’s Last Stand Pryor had no intention of exposing. On the Not-Ready-For-Primetime TV version of that performance (preserved on degraded, time code-tattooed video on the Richard Pryor Show DVD set) the antagonism between Pryor and the stagehands seems nonexistent, he’s just fucking with them and they don’t seem to care. In Dick’s Last Stand it’s a powder keg.

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In the Playground of Parody

We’ve all had that heart-stopping moment going through airport security, when our bag (or the bag of someone near us) is swept off the belt and meticulously torn apart by grim TSA personnel.   Everyone lucky enough to have already passed through watches out of the corner of their eye as they hurry to get their stuff and get away — just in case.  We all know that those orderly lines are just a stampede waiting to happen.

And we’ve also all felt the intrusiveness of a TSA agent who got a little personal and over-aggressive with the wand or with a manual search because the scanner picked up the quarter we forgot was in our breast or pants pocket.   We know that vulnerable moment of personal terror when we realize that our line leads to the scanner that requires us to raise our hands over our head rather than just walking through — in spite of the fact that our belt, now riding in the gray tub, was the only thing keeping our pants up.  We know that we’re just regular folks, but it feels like a violation when we’re singled out for further screening.  Terrifying, too, as we know that with the threat level at Orange or above, they aren’t messing around; protestations of innocence will be utterly ignored.  And forget it if you even look like you fit into one of the “terror profiles.”  You’re positive, right then, that you’re about to find out just how tenuous our freedom actually is.  Gitmo, here we come.

This spring, director Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford Coppola) teamed up with comedian and actress Debra Wilson to play on these collective fears and feelings of vulnerability in — of all things — an Old Navy commercial.  The ad has roused much comment, running the gamut from its dismissal as racist trash and egregious minstrelsy to its celebrations as hilarious, as brilliant parody or satire.

Wilson, an eight-year veteran of MADtv, plays a TSA agent who tries to spice up a job that is both high-stress and boring, injecting a little humor to keep herself awake and alert as she’s encouraging passengers to follow the rules and keep the lines moving along:

“Sir, keep your pants on.  Ma’am, water is a liquid all over the world, so that’s H – 2 – no!”

The characterization is pitch perfect, balancing just the right amount of bored stoicism and aggression with humor.  Then the comedian takes it over the top:

So, is it a brilliant spot or is it a particularly egregious bit of corporate racist fantasy, blackface minstrelsy haunting us still?

The answer, perhaps, is both.

In creating characters, Debra Wilson draws a firm distinction between doing “impersonations” and “impressions.”  In impersonation, her goal is to “be” the person she’s impersonating, to make someone feel that they’re seeing that person, actually meeting that person.  Impressions, on the other hand, are presentations of “social perception” — take-offs of what people see or want to see, of public persona and behaviors.

Impressions are parody, and Wilson says, “I am there to represent what most people are saying, most people are thinking, most people are reading about.”  Her intent is not to represent the real person, but rather to parody what is acted out in the social arena, to parody and caricature the public actions of a person, or the public’s perception of that person, rather than the person herself.   The object of the impression, then, is to hold the public image, actions, and social perceptions up to a mirror of parody.

Wilson further argues that there’s “no point in doing it if it’s not a playground.”  She loves complex situations, with multiple levels of actions, opinions, perceptions clashing, which offer her “the opportunity to have a larger playground.”  (See interview below, of Wilson’s 2010 appearance on the Gregory Mantell Show.)

So what is the “playground” of parody offered in this commercial featuring Connie, the TSA agent?  Continue reading →

Teaching American Humor: The Essential Harold Ramis.

Ramis as Egon in Ghostbusters

Long live Harold Ramis.

Although he has never fully received his full due in the popular imagination on the par with one of his most devoted collaborators, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis is nonetheless a vital figure of American film     comedy. A major creative voice behind popular comedies from the late 1970s throughout the 1990s. Ramis deserves an enduring place in the canon of American humor. Consider his productive six-year run as writer, in particular: Animal House (1978); Meatballs (1979); Caddyshack (1980); Stripes (1981); National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983); and Ghostbusters (1984). He would later put together him most ambitious comedic film narrative with Groundhog Day (1993), a beautiful romantic comedy. For the long 1980s (I just coined that phrase–the long 1980s, which runs from 1977 -1992, from “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols to the election of Bill Clinton, but I digress), no other director/writer/actor was so integral to establishing the comedy best of the era while also effectively drawing on mainstream American comedic traditions.

His timing, his content, his comic framing were all on point. May his memory and that Egon hair stick with us.

For my take, the four films that should remain firmly within our popular and critical imaginations are Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, and National Lampoon’s Vacation. They exploit the most persistent and beloved of American comedic tropes–the tension between mainstream forces of respectability and the marginal forces of subversion, or, to be more concise: the snobs versus the slobs.

Ramis in 2014

From the barbarians at the gates who emerged Animal House to the subversive caddy-underworld of an elite country club, to the ne’er-do-well losers who join the army out of desperation, to the bumbling, ever-failing American suburban father–the beloved marginal characters in these Ramis films exploit our communal desires to root for the underdogs, the Cinderella stories out of nowhere. Out of everywhere.

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Joker Poe, Part 1: Just Diddling

Edgar Allan Poe remains one of the most popular writers in the history of American literature. In the twenty-first century, Poe finds himself at the center of movies, television shows, and internet memes; the very name or image of Poe can be considered “click-bait” on the web. Yet the pop-cultural version of Poe is not a very accurate picture of the man, as a number of Poe scholars (a.k.a. pedantic killjoys) like to point out. Although biographers reveal the man to have been a savvy, business-like, professional magazinist, someone who knew what sold in the literary marketplace and who gave the people what they wanted, most fans prefer to confuse Poe with some of his more memorable protagonists. Many readers envision Poe as a dark, brooding, Gothic madman, a visionary poet obsessed with waking nightmares, horror, and the mysteries beyond the grave. The author of “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Raven” is assumed to be obsessed with premature burials, murder, and death. But what if this is all a ruse? What if, to employ a term that Poe uses with approval, Poe is “diddling” his audience. In Poe and the Subversion of American Literature: Satire, Fantasy, Critique, I argue that Poe is perhaps best viewed as a practical joker, a highly skilled literary prankster whose fundamental talent lay in putting one over on people. More frequently than we care to admit, the victims of these confidence games, these diddles, are us, the readers. While we are thrilled by otherworldly wonders, aghast at inhuman terrors, and in awe of supernal beauty, Poe is grinning.

Mr PoetatoHead

Although Poe is best known and best loved as a figure of dark romanticism, he was also a humorist. In fact, Poe wrote far more pieces that could be considered humor or satire than those that would be called horror. If his first published tale (“Metzengerstein,” which actually could be viewed as a burlesque) was not intended to be comical, then his second (“The Duc De L’Omelette”) certainly was, and one of the last tales published during Poe’s lifetime, “X-ing a Paragrab,” was a silly little piece lampooning the newspaper or magazine industry itself. As David Galloway has pointed out, “comedies, satires, and hoaxes account for over half of his output of short stories.” (Significantly, Galloway’s observation appears in his introduction to a collection of short stories titled The Other Poe, whose title serves to emphasize the degree to which Poe is not widely known for his comedies and satires.) By numbers alone, one could argue that Poe was primarily a humorist, if sometimes a black humorist, and that his tales of terror or mystery were secondary to the main body of his collected works.

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