“Ha! ha! ha! – he! he! – a very good joke indeed – an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo – he! he! he! – over our wine – he! he! he!”
These giggling words are among the last uttered by Fortunato, the rather unfortunate victim of a deadly practical joke in Edgar Allan Poe’s memorable tale, “The Cask of Amontillado.” In that short story, the narrator Montresor directly discloses neither the “thousand injuries” he’d received from Fortunato nor the final “insult” that led him to vow revenge, but he does present his plan as the solution to a puzzle: “I must punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” In other words, Montresor must take his revenge upon Fortunato in such a way that the victim knows all, while the perpetrator is in no danger of being caught. Montresor’s elaborate charade with the wine, the catacombs, the trowel, and the stones reveals his ingenious solution. As is well known, Poe himself took great pride in his analytical, puzzle-solving abilities, and Montresor’s plot reveals a certain gift for ratiocination that Poe valued. At the final moment, after Fortunato has been almost completely immured, Montresor calls his name. “There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells.” And thus is buried another “jingle man.”
In this series of posts, “Joker Poe,” I have argued that Poe is best viewed as a literary prankster, a practical joker who employed his prodigious intellect, his acute awareness of the marketplace, and his gifts for writing to satirize the culture and society of his era. In a sense, his own readers are suckered in by his tales, poems, and criticism, while Poe himself is likely having a chuckle at their expense. Poe was the great theorist of “Diddling,” which he considered as one of the exact sciences, and he insisted that no diddle—a swindle, confidence-game, or prank—is complete without a “grin,” but only one that the diddler himself wears, seen by no one else. Poe’s propensity for diddling extended to his literary career, which can be seen not only in those works which are clearly hoaxes, but also in his poetry, his tales, and his criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe made enemies, some of whom have not been so sanguine in accepting the thousand injuries and uncounted insults visited upon them by the grinning diddler.
After Rufus Griswold, whose calumnious portrait of Poe in an obituary caused outrage but likely led to Poe’s eventual enshrinement in a popular-cultural canon, perhaps the most famous of the fabled detractors of Poe during his lifetime was also America’s leading public intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The phrase “jingle man” is well known in American literary studies, not to mention infamous in Poe Studies, as Emerson’s dismissive appraisal of Poe. That the Sage of Concord might dislike Poe is not surprising, since Poe was probably as ardent an opponent of Emersonian transcendentalism as anyone other than Herman Melville, and Poe’s invectives were especially caustic when it came to the Boston literati, many of whom appeared to be well-nigh slavishly devoted to Emerson’s thought. Poe also criticized Emerson himself as belonging to “class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever—the mystics for mysticism’s sake.” In a follow-up to Poe’s eccentric little series on “Autography,” in which he proposed to analyze the handwriting of famous authors, Poe humorously suggested that “[t]he best answer to his twaddle is cui bono? […] to whom is it a benefit? If not to Mr. Emerson individually, then surely to no man living.”
Bill Murray may be the coolest living celebrity. This is due in large part to his very approach to celebrity. Murray is one of the few movie stars that is able to balance a consistent public presence, amassing both commercial and cult status, with a genuine private life.
You may see him at Cannes, but not on Facebook. He’s on Letterman, but not Twitter. He is evasive without being reclusive, reserved without being withdrawn. He famously has no agent or manager and can only be contacted through a 1-800 number, which his own lawyer uses to reach him. He reportedly has homes in South Carolina (he is co-owner and “Director of Fun” of the minor league baseball team the Charleston RiverDogs) and near the Pechanga Indian Casino in Temecula, California, as well as PO boxes in New York and Martha’s Vineyard (at least). The truth is, Bill Murray is never in one place for very long and is notorious for randomly interacting with fans at bars, fast food restaurants and, of course, karaoke booths. He’s crashed birthday parties and engagement photos. He once drove a cab from Oakland to Sausalito so that the driver, who worked 14-hour days, could practice his saxophone, stopping for barbeque at two in the morning along the way. He doesn’t retreat from the world, he simply chooses his own entrances.
This healthy, almost admirable, approach to celebrity is part of what has fueled one of show business’ great third acts. Having enjoyed blockbuster movie stardom in the 1980s and 1990s with iconic films such as Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, Murray is highly sought after in middle age by indie filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola, who have used his sardonic, almost post-hip persona to help elevate their quirky imaginings of the modern world.
But before the film success, Bill Murray began his comedy career with the legendary Chicago-based improve group The Second City, and eventually achieved national fame on Saturday Night Live.
Murray created many memorable characters on SNL, the most beloved of which is Nick the Lounge Singer. Continue reading →
I was talking with a colleague recently about the hard transition from the easy, lazy, unscheduled days of summer to the overbooked, cramped, and face-paced fall routine. As a full-time graduate student and full-time senior lecturer, I’m finding it quite difficult to locate any semblance of a work/life balance. My friends from graduate school tell me I will find it (and my sanity) once I finish my dissertation, but I have never taken kindly to waiting, nor do I want to put my health and happiness on hold in my pursuit of the degree.
The researcher in me went to work. I read article after article on the relationship between stress and illness, unhappiness, and disease. I digitally paged through JAMA – the Journal of the American Medical Association – and found studies by neurosurgeons, psychologists, and general practitioners on the harmful emotional, mental, and physical effects continued stress could have on the body. I reread Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, a favorite analytical treatise, focusing on how the linguistic techniques of metaphors used to describe, categorize, and treat patients often discourage, stress, and alienate them all the more. I watched dozens of videos from motivational speakers on the work/life divide, some of them harsh, some humorous, others heartfelt and touching. I came across one video by BigSpeak with Juliet Funt, daughter of Allen Funt, acclaimed creator and host of the beloved show Candid Camera. In the clips, Funt speaks to 4,000 members of the emergency nurses association specifically about the work/life divide.
Through the vehicle of humor, Funt expresses sympathy and understanding about the impact of various life stressors on our daily lives. A favorite clip speaks to the acronym C.C.P.P., a list of attributes we as overworked Americans aspire to be: calm, confident, patient, and present. The conversation with my colleague, in conjunction with this clip, reminded me of the power of humor to bridge the mythical work/life divide. I feel the most fulfilled in my private and professional lives when the two are harmonious, when the personal and the pedagogical are one in the same.
This week in class, I emphasized the importance of stress reduction. I had students watch Funt in action. We discussed how our course readings were not just solitary, literary pieces, but small, applicable tales that, when used correctly, added some humorous sustenance to our daily lives and helped to close the illusory divide.
© 2014 Tara Friedman
Phyllis McGinley was a Pulitzer Prize winning author of children’s books and light verse. She was wildly popular during the forties, fifties and sixties, for her sardonic wit, light touch, and accessibility. Her material has been described as having a “suburban sensibility,” due to its mainstream, often female-centric subject matter. Her method fascinates me. For every humorous poem she published, she is said to have written a “serious” version of it first as a foundation.
Here are a couple of my favorites that happen to speak to my own pet peeves:
To a Talkative Hairdresser
Too garrulous minion, stop. Be dumb.
Attend my curls, however tarnished,
In silence, Sir, I did not come
For your opinion, plain or varnished.
I do not wish to hear your views.
The time is ripe for no discussion
Of hemlines current in the news,
Politics, weather, or the Russian.
Spare me the story (while you soap)
Of how your molars lately acted.
This little hour – or so I hope –
Is mine for languor undistracted.
Calm is this air-conditioned grot.
I drowse, and there might linger in me
An unaccustomed peace, but not
If you must babble as you pin me,
If you must feel impelled to break
My slumber with your conversation
Concerning modes, the price of steak,
Or where you went on your vacation.
Hush! Fetch me Voque and get me to
the dryer quickly as you can, sir,
Which drones no windier than you
Or duller, nor expects an answer.
— Phyllis McGinley (1940s)
The Angry Man
The other day I chanced to meet
An angry man upon the street —
A man of wrath, a man of war,
A man who truculently bore
Over his shoulder, like a lance,
A banner labeled “Tolerance.”
And when I asked him why he strode
Thus scowling down the human road,
Scowling, he answered, “I am he
Who champions total liberty —
Intolerance being, ma’am, a state
No tolerant man can tolerate.
“When I meet rogues,” he cried, “who choose
To cherish oppositional views,
Lady, like this, and in this manner,
I lay about me with my banner
Till they cry mercy, ma’am.” His blows
Rained proudly on prospective foes.
Fearful, I turned and left him there
Still muttering, as he thrashed the air,
“Let the Intolerant beware!”
— Phyllis McGinley (1950s)
I have been excited for Rebecca Krefting’s All Joking Aside (out now through Johns Hopkins University Press) to come out since hearing her present at the 2010 AHSA/MTC conference in San Diego (this year in New Orleans). Krefting’s approach to stand-up comedy is thoughtful, nuanced, and entertaining. In the book, Krefting uses the concept of “charged humor” to describe a particular type of stand-up performer, providing both a useful rubric for understanding certain types of stand-up and solid case studies of performers. You can read a section on the concept of charged humor here. From All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents, by Rebecca Krefting. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
I recently interviewed the Krefting about the book and her experiences as a humor scholar:
Tracy Wuster) Tell me about your start in humor studies. How and when did you begin pursuing it as a subject? who has influenced you as a scholar of humor?
Rebecca Krefting: I think I began studying comedy the moment I began writing my first set. I contemplated questions like: what words would create the greatest comedic effect and in what order? How do you take everyday occurrences or a terrible situation and make it funny? Why is something funnier coming out of his mouth than out of mine? I started performing stand-up comedy and improv in August of 2001, a mere six weeks before 9/11. I was fresh out of college and while considering graduate school, had not made any commitments either way. I worked several jobs: bartender/server, legal secretary, and domestic worker and had just enough time and chutzpah to try my hand at comic performance. I strove to be a comic and attacked it with the fervor of a beaver building a dam—like my life depended on it (if you know anything about beavers, you know that’s true). The improv acting I fell into by auditioning on a lark for a professional troupe called The Skeleton Crew performing out of Nashville, TN. Looking back, I know now just how lucky I was to train in this comedic cultural form, which informed my stand-up and later my teaching. In both stand-up and improv, I was acutely aware of my identity as a woman while performing (this more so than my being a lesbian because although I was out, I opted not to call attention to this during my stand-up) and so I became a critical observer of how identities played out on stage. Thus began my fascination with the practice, history, and analysis of comedy. When I started applying for grad schools, I knew that an MA in Women’s Studies would expose me to the scholarship that would help me make sense of the gender gap in comedy and other cultural phenomena I had been observing in the comedy world. Having been schooled in one identity-based discipline, it seemed a natural shift to obtain a doctorate in American Studies, the first identity-based discipline in academia. It didn’t hurt that the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park also housed (at that time) the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies, where I was offered employment.
My influences as comic and scholar are manifold. They are comics like Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Maria Bamford, Kate Clinton, and Patton Oswalt; they are comic performers like Sissieretta Jones, Trixie Friganza, Judy Gold, Meryn Cadell, Nellie McKay, Greg Walloch, and the Five Lesbian Brothers; they are scholar-mentors like Linda Mizejewski, Brenda Brueggemann, Mary Sies, Ronit Eisenbach, Sharon Harley, and Larry Mintz; they are scholars like Karl Marx, Patricia Hill Collins, Philip Auslander, Eddie Tafoya, bell hooks, Judith Butler, Coco Fusco, Rosemarie Garland Thompson, Jill Dolan, and Shane Phelan.
Last month I explored the anatomy of jokes by looking simple joke forms, “light-bulb jokes” in particular, in the ongoing context of applying the scientific method to understanding humor. See: Cracking the Codes of Comedy Part 1
Since I named that post “Part 1,” it would seem that I needed to follow up with a “Part 2.” I am a man of my word.
When I made the implied promise to provide a second installment built off of the popularity of the fine book The Humor Code, I expected to finish the book. I have not. That’s on me and in no way a criticism of the book. Things came up.
But I have continued to think about ways to analyze humor in the classroom using simple joke forms. The light bulb joke form still seems to me to be a rather useful joke. It is simple; it is well established in American culture; and it, in a remarkably short space–time and type–can open up a world of cultural relevance.
I discussed in the earlier post several problematic versions of the joke as they employed clear cultural biases that depended directly on choices of audience and targets. That is the approach that I have recently used in the classroom and to interesting results, to my mind.
I used the light bulb joke as a class activity forcing students to read several versions of the a joke, picking their favorite and justifying their choice base on their understanding of humor in general and their own preferences.
First, I should explain that I am fortunate enough to teach at the University of Alabama (“Roll Tide!”–I am contractually obligated to say that). This is important to the set-up for the three versions of the jokes because of my choice of the targets of the jokes: students from Auburn University. No offense intended. Of course, this context can be adapted to any context and help to illustrate the importance of having a target (or victim) of the light bulb joke format, a group at whom the audience is expected to laugh. In a college context, the obvious target group will simply be the peers at the main rival university. For Alabama students, that means Auburn, clear and simple.
The students responded to the jokes online in a group discussion, so their comments were written individually but in full view of classmates and often in response to earlier comments. There were three versions of the joke described in the following way: general; aggressive, and vulgar. I only required students to read and comment on two of the versions to allow those that wanted to avoid the vulgar version to do so with no penalty. I chose to handle to exercise online for the same reason. I simply did not want to tell the vulgar version to a captive audience. The level of vulgarity, I should add, is rather tame when placed in context with material most students encounter and enjoy. Still, that does not mean that the professor needs to tell it to the class directly. “Will this be on the exam?”
I will type the versions here, so those who wish to avoid the vulgar joke can do so as well. I “wrote” all three jokes, but to my mind, I simply drew from obvious choices and did so in an effort to pick three levels of jokes, from the generic to the profane. I wanted students to deal with audience and target issues, especially as to how “laughing at” and “laughing with” contexts form crucial parts of humor as reflective of cultural tensions. However, my jokes unwittingly revealed a more complex discussion regarding joke structure, which I will discuss below. Here they are:
Version One (general):
How many Auburn students does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Four: one to hold the light bulb and three to turn the ladder.
Version Two (aggressive):
How many Auburn students does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Four: one to hold the light bulb and three to turn the cow.
Version Three (vulgar):
How many Auburn students does it take to screw in a light bulb?
None: they want it to be dark when they f**k the cow.
The results were interesting and more nuanced than I had expected. That is a good sign, by the way.
Version One was voted overwhelmingly as the favorite version, which was a complete surprise to me. I figured that students would reject it for its generic nature, too tame and too dull. Not so. It is generic, yes, but its structure is perfect. And that’s the point that they responded to, which surprised me. They enjoyed the simplicity of the joke and that it was universal (as opposed to trite). Furthermore, in a very typical niceness that is common among my students, they preferred a version that they could enjoy without being too mean to Auburn students. In short, they figured because the joke is so benign that they could laugh along with Auburn students without anyone getting their feelings hurt. I should add, however, that this collegiality would not occur during the Iron Bowl, the football game between the two schools that occurs every late November. Things get more complicated in that context. Just listen to sports-talk radio during football season in the South (any day between August and July).
Version Two was the least popular. In fact, it fell completely flat. This response actually ended up being the most instructive part of the exercise. Students rejected the joke for its faulty structure and faulty assumptions. I had written a bad joke. That is not easy for me to admit. But I blew it.
The problem is the cow (it’s always the cow).
As the joke writer, I assumed a clear context that tied cows to Auburn as a “Cow College” (short for a university with a rural location and that has an agriculture program). I also assumed that my University of Alabama students knew of that context and had always seen it for its potential as a point of derision toward Auburn. Auburn, indeed, does have a strong agricultural history, as a land-grant institution that from its inception served agricultural interests in the state. Bama students, however, were mostly bewildered by that context. “What’s up with the cow?” Only after one student made the connection to Auburn being a “cow college,” did the students follow the rationale for the four Auburn students supposedly using a cow to screw in a light bulb. Even so, they never thought it was funny. The reference to Auburn as a “cow college” is simply too dated for them.
Fail. But the failure is more complicated. Even when students became aware of the cow connection, the visual component of the joke remains unclear. So the joke not only misfired due to the weakness of the cow reference but also because the audience could not visualize what the hell was going on in any case. In my mind, the image is clear: one student sits astride the cow, and the others pull and tug at the cow to try to get it to walk in a circle as the rider holds the light bulb as it twists into the socket–“Comic gold, Jerry!” They thus provide the same physical movement as with the ladder version, but their efforts are harder and more ridiculous–dumber.
The presence of the cow in this version is intentionally more aggressive and insinuating than the generic ladder of the first version because of the “cow college” reference and the fact that it shows modern students still tied to a primitive solution (beast of burden) to provide electric light in a modern age. Get it? But none of that matters if the visual is not clearly set up. If the audience cannot “see” the absurdity of the cow in the scene or accept any rationale for it to be there, there is no humor.
Simple jokes are complicated.
Let’s pause for a moment to refer to yet another light bulb joke that implies a very sophisticated reference point for its successful punch line.
How many existentialists does it take to change a light bulb?
Two. One to change the light bulb and one to observe how the light bulb symbolizes
an incandescent beacon of subjectivity in a netherworld of Cosmic Nothingness.
I include this here to point out how important common reference points are to successful humor. Although this joke requires some audience awareness of “cosmic nothingness,” the joke itself is no different than the seemingly more simple “cow” reference in my version above. The same rules apply. You have to “see” the light bulb in reference to the cow; or, “see”the light bulb in reference to cosmic nothingness. For a cow to be floating in a netherworld of cosmic nothingness, well, that’s another joke altogether.
The third version had very little support. Some students pointed out something that I had hoped for–that provocative language and vulgarity do have some place in our cultural relationship to simple jokes. Unlike version two, the vulgar version is structurally sound. It is clear and concise, and the profanity as well as the reference to bestiality, carry the power of surprise and conviction. Yes, it is a very aggressive, mean-spirited, and even vicious attack upon the victims of the joke. Still, it is a good joke structurally. But it is not a very funny one the whole once the shock value fades. It is too mean, too clearly desirous of being smugly mean than being cleverly funny. The vulgarity is, as a result, more gratuitous than humorous. I think, also, that students worry about the cow. I worry about it, too.
Light bulb jokes are useful. Student responses to the ones I have employed in class should help us all get ready to move into material that is more delicate as the semester progresses. Being able to see the nuances of social and historical tensions even within the simplest jokes should allow us to examine the structure of a wider variety of jokes and help us assess the complex nature of the codes of comedy. And cows.