In this series thus far, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps best viewed as a literary prankster or practical joker. In Part 1, I argued that the great theorist of “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” was also, in his various works, a master “diddler,” frequently putting one over on his readers. In Part 2, I discussed the “poet as prankster,” suggesting that even Poe’s poetry is not always as serious as it seems, while examining one poem (“O Tempora! O Mores!”) that was itself composed and presented as part of an elaborate practical joke. In Part 3, I argued that many of Poe’s most well-known stories, which are usually read as Gothic horror or mystery, might be considered as humorous, frequently functioning as comical send-ups of popular fictions of the era. In this entry, I want to consider another genre of writing for which Poe was quite famous in his own time: literary criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe’s literary criticism bears the mark of the prankster’s spirit, as his book reviews and essays are often filled with sardonic humor.
As a literary critic and book reviewer for a number of magazines, Poe developed an infamous reputation as a “tomahawk-man,” a harsh critic who, in the words of his great contemporary James Russell Lowell, “seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his inkstand.” Lowell’s own humorous aside does not detract from his judgement, stated one line earlier, of Poe as “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America.” Perhaps because of this discriminating, philosophical fearlessness, Poe-the-critic was loathe to suffer fools gladly or even at all, and some of his best known zingers have come at the expense of his fellow poets and fiction writers.
For example, in an 1843 review of William Ellery Channing’s Our Amateur Poets, Poe writes: “His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all.” A paragraph later he calls for the author to be hanged, but—out of deference to his good name (Channing Sr. having been a “great essayist”)—Poe urges that the hangman “observe every species of decorum, and be especially careful of his feelings, and hang him gingerly and gracefully, with a silken cord.” Presumably, the remainder of the book review represents that figurative execution.
Happy Birthday, Robin Williams.
He’s either one of your favorite actor-comedians or one of your least favorite. Polarizing funnyman Robin Williams turned 62 on July 21, which is almost hard to believe given his continued manic energy in person and on screen. Williams rose to fame as “Mork from Ork” on the ABC sitcom Mork & Mindy, which premiered 35 years ago this fall.
It was the request by an ABC executive’s son that launched the new show and William’s career as we know it. In 1978, the Star Wars was the biggest hit in cinematic history. The network exec’s son asked him to “do a show about an alien,” and thus, Mork from Ork’s cameo on ABC’s Happy Days became a new show.
Williams first appeared as Mork on an episode of Happy Days, a not-uncommon tactic to raise awareness of a new spin-off from an established show. While…
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For reasons that are uninteresting and irrelevant, I recently had my photograph taken. I was kind of joking when I asked the photographer “Should I be causal or regular?” and only later realized that the question was much less funny than it was accurate: “casual” is not my default setting, but is something that I have learned to relentlessly effect in order to appear fit for human interaction. Which is to say that I worry a lot, and about everything. I am literally worrying now, because as the newest contributing editor to Humor in America – Visual Humor, check it – I would love to be writing a really stellar and memorable and job-keeping first post.
In lieu of a lengthy biography, then, let’s just say that the joke with which I most resonate is Woody Allen’s quip about his boyhood stint on a all-neurotic softball team: “I used to…
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If you are a college instructor as I am, the last thing you need is someone advising you of yet another strategy for enhancing your lessons. Nevertheless, I am going to do just that because I must write about something having to do with humor, and this is it.
I teach history at a community college. One of the requirements of history and other rhetoric-based classes is that we have to assign a term paper of 2,000 words per the Gordon Rule. I have found a way to make the assignment less of a burden on my students and less tedious for me.
Since I teach Early American History (descent of man to about 1870), I assign political cartoons that were drawn contemporaneously to the time that the students are studying. I bring in copies of various cartoons that were published in Punch, Harper’s Weekly, Vanity Fair, and Leslie’s Illustrated prior to 1870—and there were many. Not only that, the subject matter of the cartoons is quite varied. I lay out copies of the cartoons on a desk during the first week of class, and the students choose which cartoon they will write on. I am fascinated by the cartoons the students pick and why they pick them. Most of them have no idea what the cartoon is about, but something in the illustration gets their attention.
After all of the cartoons have been chosen by the students, I project each cartoon on the screen in front of the class and briefly tell each student what direction s/he should go in the way of researching the subject matter. I only give them a thumbnail idea of what I expect; the rest is up to them. Because I go over all the cartoons in front of the entire class, all students get ideas of how to look at their cartoons and better understand the
In a fourteen-week course, I assign the topics during the first week (second day of class). Students are responsible for turning in a rough draft by the ninth week. I tell them that the rough draft should be the best research and writing they are capable of. I even encourage them to get help from a friend, relative, or the Writing Center. I correct the rough draft and direct them on how to write at a higher level. One thing that I stress is Robert Graves’s aphorism: There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.
Because each student has a unique cartoon, I do not have to read the same term paper with pretty much the same content from thirty different students. Not only that, because the students have to write about seven pages, they must go into detail on the subject matter that they have chosen fairly deeply and some of them find information that I was not aware of. I end up learning from the students. That is a treat for me, and it usually helps the student get a better grade if s/he can find obscure and interesting information.
What price emancipation?
Not only do I require the term paper, but students are also required to present their cartoon and what it is about to the class during the last week. The presentation must be between five and ten minutes long. Some students get up in front of the class and stammer for five minutes. Others prepare a Powerpoint or use Prezi Presentations to help tell about their cartoon. Yes, they are graded.
Most of the feedback I have received on the project has been positive. The main reason is that the students feel that they have accomplished something positive. Another reason is that some of the students have told me that they enjoy seeing political cartoons of issues in the present and understand them better than they had in the past. The way I see it is that it is a win for me as an instructor and a win for the students as well.
This summer I’m in a writers residency at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico in Taos. When I arrived, my childhood friend, Amy Beebe, contacted me from Denver to tell me her Aunt Lois Beebe Hayna––an award winning poet, now 101 years old and with yet another book coming out––once lived and wrote in these very casitas, and later served on the jury to select new writers. By all accounts, Lois and her works are loved and admired.
I’m only beginning to delve into her many poems, but my favorite, so far, (Courtesy of The Regis University Library), is below. Not a “funny” poem per se, but ingenious, haunting, and visceral . . . with a bit of gallows humor.
A poem I believe everyone should read. ENJOY!!
My mother surely knew the world
lurked along that path.
She had to know the world’s
filled with wolves, that their special
habitat is a forest
where little girls walk alone.
She dressed me
in the color of raw meat, she filled
my basket with warm-scented goodies
and sent me specifically
into the woods. A long way
into the woods. For years I believed
it was wolves that I had to beware.
Red Alert was Originally published in:
Keeping Still, 2005 and
Casting Two Shadows, 2010
The humor of the Old Southwest was regional in nature, although which parts of the country were considered the Southwest has changed radically in contemporary times. In the 1820s and 30s, the Southwest could have been anywhere from Ohio to Louisiana. The geographical area depended largely on where the moving target of the “frontier” was at any given time. Often the most well known humorists classified by critics as “southwestern” were neither born nor raised in the regional areas they wrote about. Johnson J. Hooper, who wrote the Simon Suggs stories, was born and raised in Ohio; however, he wrote about characters living in the relatively new areas of Alabama and Mississippi. George Washington Harris of Sut Lovingood fame was born in Pennsylvania and was later raised in Tennessee. Yet all of the humorists we think of as part of the Old Southwest school share the same characteristics in their writing. They feature backwoods, uneducated characters (like Sut Lovingood or Simon Suggs) whose vernacular dialect place them in the region of the frontier. They are all what we would call “street-savvy” today. Simon Suggs’ signature line is “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” They live on the outskirts of the law—law that is fluid at best in these areas. They are all primarily looking out for their own personal interests in their exploits. And in addition, the tales themselves most often involve slapstick humor; examples of slapstick include “Simon Suggs’ Daddy Acting Horse” or “Parson John Bullen’s Lizards.” Finally, tales from the Southwest generally have similar, predictable plot lines: the fight, the horse swap or race, camp meeting cons, and courting games.
The primary advantage of slapstick is that it remains transferable to any time and place, making them more easily teachable. When I teach a humor course, students tend to think anything written earlier than their own lifetimes is “not laugh-out-loud funny;” however, the slapstick stories appeal universally. After all, who wouldn’t laugh about a lizard dropping down a fat lady’s dress or a middle-aged man pretending to be a horse (and hooked up to a plow)? But the fact remains that most of the stories included among the Old Southwest have little relationship to the present day. That being the case, one might question the relevance of teaching these pre-Civil War stories in the contemporary classroom. One of the best reasons is that while the situations might have changed for slapstick Southwestern humor’s relevancy, the humor itself is still alive and well, and demonstrated in much more contemporary humorists. James Cox in The Fate of Humor and Walter Blair in Mark Twain and Huck Finn, the two earliest and most well known, have designated Mark Twain’s work as the culmination of the Southwestern tradition in American Humor. In his most recent Collection (Southern Frontier Humor: New Approaches, 2014), Ed Piacentino sees the future of the Southwestern tradition in the authors from the South who come after them. William Faulkner’s Snopeses are nothing more than a clan of Sut Lovingoods or Simon Suggses. Other authors have cited their influence on the grotesques of Southern Gothic humor—the most well known being Flannery O’Connor. It seems clear that these authors have inherited the spirit of the Old Southwest, and even some of the situations and plots as well. However, as the audience for this type of humor shifted, as the frontier itself moved on past what we would recognize as the southwestern frontier, and as technology moved on past the horse and carriage (and even the book in this current moment), the mantle of Southwestern humor appears to belong to stand up comedy.
The fact is, that while we may believe ourselves much more sophisticated than our Civil War predecessors, we still enjoy a good laugh at the rubes from the country. Trucks and souped up cars have replaced horses as both transportation and as competition, spawning jokes about NASCAR’s fans. “People of Walmart” stand in for the country rubes at the camp meetings. But what remains the same is our propensity to laugh at Southern dialects and the cruder humor that was the Old Southwest’s hallmark. Often these stand up the artists who represent humor south of the Mason-Dixon line perform in small comedy clubs or night clubs around the country, but most recently, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour has taken advantage of the explosion of media venues to increase their visibility (and revenue). While these four comedians (Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Ron White, and Larry the Cable Guy) are certainly not the only comedians to use the Old Southwest as a jumping off point for humor, they are arguably the most well known.
The most obvious of the four as a contemporary Old Southwest humorist is Larry the Cable Guy (Daniel Laurence “Larry” Whitney). ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_the_Cable_Guy) His stand up comedy routines mirror the cruder humor and situations of earlier Southwesterers such as George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood. His act centers on body and bowel humor—the fart joke, the poop joke, and comedy that centers on the humorously dysfunctional family. While he has clearly updated these standards to meet the 20th and 21st century, the hallmarks are present. For a sample of his routine, see this Youtube video:
Jeff Foxworthy’s career signature features a series of one-liners following the “You might be a redneck if…”
tag line, to which he added material from existing stereotypes of people and things Southern. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Foxworthy#Comedy_albums). His routines highlighted the fact that the designation of redneck has less to do with the region of origin and more with a mindset. He began his “redneck” series of one-liners by focusing on Southern country folk, but has since expanded it to include Walmart people from all necks of the woods, demonstrating that your neck might be red no matter where you live; later versions of the bit begin with “Check your neck” rather than “You might be a redneck if..” to accommodate this shift in focus.
Bill Engvall’s early work featured “Here’s your sign..”
These bits are generally longer narratives than Foxworthy’s one-liners, and while rooted in the South, do not depend upon location for the humor. They are more linguistic in nature, and follow a format in which the person who is the butt of the joke asks a question that, though logical on its face, is negated by the statement that comes before, making him or her look foolish.
Ron White (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_White) , the fourth member of the group, on the surface seems a less likely match to the 19th century Southwest Humorists. While some of the crudities and more off-color jokes are present in his routine, his language seems more intellectual. He routinely appears on stage with a cigar and a scotch, and offers a more “formal” stage presence. His act distills the Southwest into a perhaps more palatable and sophisticated type of humor—more in line with Mark Twain, whom James Cox, Walter Blair, and others have deemed the culmination of Southwestern humor. His resemblance to Twain’s own lecture work depends upon what Jeffrey Steinbrink has called the “snapper.” During his lectures for the Redpath circuit, Twain used two specific hallmarks of humor—the deadpan delivery, in which the humorist shows no emotion or humor himself, and seems to have no idea what he is saying is funny, and a build up of final one-liners, each one playing off of the previous one. Twain could stretch these to as many as three or four. In his stand up comedy acts for HBO, White has also delivered as many as four related “snappers” through several bits of his routine.
As inheritors of this tradition, we as audience run the risk of equating the level of sophistication of the humorist with that of the unsophisticated country types they depict in the personas they have chosen. This was also often true of the original 1820s and 30s humorists of the Old Southwest. In reality, all of the authors of the Old Southwest from this tradition were well educated—many were doctors or lawyers—yet they chose to represent as characters the uneducated but crafty, shrewd or sly con men of the frontier. In much the same way, Foxworthy, Whitney, White and Engvall’s lives and work bely their stand up images. While their personas might lead one to believe the images they put forward and their personal lives are one and the same, in actuality, all four are clever, well educated (White is the only one of the four who did not attend a university), and well-versed in employing media for purposes of promotion nationwide and even internationally. Foxworthy, in addition to his comedy club work and presence on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour(s), has written several books of humor: three versions of Jeff Foxworthy’s Redneck Dictionary (2005,6,7), How to stink at Golf (2008), How to Stink at Work (2009), and several children’s books. He has appeared on radio in various venues, hosted a game show Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader, a sitcom named after him, and a country music countdown. White has also hosted his own variety show (2005)and has taped appearances on other shows. Whitney has focused more closely on radio, making appearance or hosting shows on stations from WJRR in Orlando, FL. to WHEB in Portsmouth, NH among others. Bill Engvall also starred in his own television comedy did a stint as a game show host for Lingo on the Game Show Network, and made an appearance on Dancing with the Stars.
As the most obvious inheritors of this long-standing tradition, These four gentlemen represent the shift that “frontier” humor has undergone since those pre-Civil War days. For Harris, Hooper, Baldwin, and the others, the only venue for publication/promotion was the newspaper, the men’s magazines such as William T. Porter’s Spirit of the Times, or a book of collected sketches. The addition of media between the 1830s and the present, and these humorists’ ability to know and make use of it, has allowed for a greater saturation of their humor across the country and across the globe. Far from being an artifact, the humor of the Old Southwest is alive and well and living on the radio, television, and Internet.
© 2014 Janice McIntire-Strasburg
Saint Louis University
Hope you are all having good summer vacations (and not moving, like me). Enjoy.
A Celebration of thirty years of National Lampoon’s Vacation.
In the summer of 1983, Americans were treated to one of the best comedy films to examine the American family vacation and its inescapable heart of darkness: National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis and written by John Hughes, who based the screenplay on his short story “Vacation ’58.” The film stands as the best cultural document to exploit the humor of the American family vacation, that mainstream celebration reasserting the right to own the landscape and be miserable in the process–and all at great expense. There is no cultural behavior that is so consistently marked with promise year after year and also, in equal proportions, disappointment–unless we talk about marriage itself, but I dare not suggest that.
Few movies tapped into the zeitgeist more effectively than Vacation. This is not only evidenced by its success in the…
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