Monthly Archives: December, 2014

“Can I get to that heart? Can I get to that mind?”A tribute to the frank, contested humor of intense teachers—and to Henry Higgins

Nine years ago in my first class in graduate school, a course on approaches to teaching writing, we read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as a break from composition theory. I was thrilled, but I reigned in my enthusiasm when I noted that others in the class, including my professor who I respected immensely, felt apologetic about the book. Words like abusive and misogynistic were thrown casually around the seminar table, as they sometimes are in graduate seminars. Why was there this worry about the teacher in the story—about Henry Higgins? I was surprised that so many disliked his method because I had always thought of him as an effective teacher. My only real support for this inkling was that I found him . . . funny.

Did I have this wrong and, if so, what was the source of my misunderstanding? Or, if I was right that Henry Higgins was a funny and therefore benevolent man (I had collapsed the two conditions in my mind), what caused the confusion among others in my graduate school class? Why had everyone else failed to note his humor? And what did I see in his humor anyway? Could it be that I thought his humor lightened—or even completely neutralized—his seemingly harsh dealings with Eliza Doolittle? Or did we all have it wrong? Did a “correct” reading of the play really fall somewhere in the middle—was it really that Higgins was both funny and harsh? I began to doubt my first intuition about professor Higgins, as I seemed to be faced with a more complicated story.

The irony was that my own professor in this class, a good man with a fiery heart, who was, that very semester, dying of cancer (this would be his last seminar on teaching writing), was a gruff man himself. He and Henry Higgins shared a vocational intensity. In fact, like Henry Higgins, this professor had made it his life’s work to teach writing (or “speech”) to the underserved, hugely advancing the trend in what is now called “access” education at top universities. He was passionately focused on this until his last breaths—and he was passionately focused on us, his students; he read our final papers days before he died. Although we, his students, didn’t have a personal rapport with him—we would never have imagined going out for a beer with this man—our engagement with theories of speech and writing, particularly where low-income populations were concerned, kept him alert, stubborn, and justifiably cranky until the end.

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Dysfunctional Family Holiday Warmup

Whether you’ll be riding over the river and through the woods, running the TSA gauntlet before boarding your homebound flight, or having the full catastrophe in for the holidays, raising your tolerance and lowering your expectations is a sound strategy.

Andy Borowitz‘s “Emily Dickinson, Jerk of Amherst,” is guaranteed to make even your most taxing interactions seem delightful by comparison.

May your season be merry!

The Interview, Sony, North Korean Hackers, and American Film Comedy

Seth Rogan and James Franco love each other

Seth Rogan and James Franco love each other

The Interview will not be playing at your local Cineplex. It will not be available on DVD, or on your favorite streaming service. It may not even be available for viewing at any future party at James Franco’s house. The Interview has been canceled. Have you heard?

Poor Sony Corporation; it has been embarrassed and cowered by North Korean hackers. Who knew North Korea had the wherewithal to function at such a high level of cyber crime? Certainly not Sony or Seth Rogan. The leadership of North Korea has been fodder for much amusement in American humor over the years. It seems a fair target, if rather low-hanging fruit.

This is a big story. It brings up questions tied to global political pressures, corporate power and autonomy, censorship, cyber security, governmental and corporate secrets, Hollywood power structures, and so on. For a smattering of immediate reactions to the issues surrounding the now-failed film release, see the following:

Brett Lang in Variety: Sony Cancels Release — Variety

FoxNews online: Sony Cancels Release — FoxNews

Kyle Smith in the New York Post: Sony Cowardice — New York Post

Of course, my interest in this forum is American Humor. How should lovers of American humor respond to the shut-down/take down of a film featuring Seth Rogan, one of the most successful comedic minds of the last ten years?

So, this is a big story for American film comedy. What are the limitations of good taste or common sense or business sense when it comes to spending 44 million dollars on a film built around the premise of having shallow, dim-witted television personalities work for the CIA to assassinate Kim Jung-Un, the leader of North Korea? Does anyone say “no” to the Seth Rogan syndicate? What are the implications for the limits of comedy? Here is a link the most controversial–I would say ridiculous–part of the film, the death scene of the character Kim Jung-Un, as provided on YouTube via the New York Post:

Death Scene

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Trivializing Humor Revisited

For this, my final post on Humor in America this year, I would like to revisit the previous post, in which I made the case that by trivializing humor, we are overlooking one of the most persuasive elements in creating and/or maintaining social norms within our culture. In that post, I asserted that all humor is subversive. I would like to expand on that assertion, as I believe that when we think of subversive behaviors, actions, or texts, we almost always think of radical changes to our culture. In that case, we eliminate from our consideration humorists who, rather than attempting to shift a norm, are actually advocating the status quo.

In the “canon” of humor (a wide range to say the least) examples of authors who try to subvert the status quo abound. In my earlier post, I mentioned Benjamin Franklin’s “ Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One.”

In that piece, Franklin ‘s piece can be read on its face as advice to any country that believes administering its colonies is just too much trouble. All of the ways he suggests to reduce an empire’s size, however, require imposing hardship on the colonists. By the essay’s end, it seems clear that Franklin is speaking primarily about England and King George—all of his examples stem from the hardships the colonies are experiencing. A bit later (1868) Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby (David Ross Locke) takes to the Lyceum Circuit (an early version of the stand-up comedian) to advocate for suffrage for women primarily by portraying an ignorant back country man who is ostensibly arguing that women should not have the vote (page 660 in the referenced text).

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Enjoy Matt Powell’s excellent piece on this classic song.

Humor in America

frank-loesser-and-wife-lynn-garland-life-photo-1

It’s the holidays – that all-encompassing term we use to describe this time of year when we celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, Kwanzaa, the winter solstice or whatever else you wish to add to your holiday list. The more the merrier. But when it comes to popular music, Christmas is by far the most significant holiday of the season. Christmas music is more than a genre of popular music; it has become an entire industry unto itself. Christmas songs cover virtually all aspects associated with the holiday, from the specific to the seasonal at large. From sacred songs about the birth of Jesus to silly songs about snowmen and Santa, to songs about winter weather or winter romance. Virtually every culture that celebrates Christmas has their own offering to the genre, from finding humor in ethnic stereotypes such as “Donde Esta Santa Clause” or “Dominick the…

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Tis the Season – for LoR

I sat down to read Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher’s second novel, on the same day a former student emailed asking for a letter of recommendation to become a resident assistant on campus. As I scrolled through the email, I had to chuckle. Not only did I vaguely remember this student, but as I searched my memory (and previous online grade book), I realized this student did not do particularly well in my class nor did he demonstrate any of the qualities necessary for a resident assistantship.

So to is the woe of Jason Fitger, the epistolary novel’s witty anti-hero and beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, who chronicles a year’s time with the incessant requests for letters of recommendation from current and former students, many of whom do not possess the intelligence and/or the aptitude deemed essential for their sought after positions. Take the case of a Mr. Allen Trent for example. Professor Fitger writes, “Mr. Trent received a C- in my expository writing class last spring, which – given my newly streamlined and increasingly generous grading criteria – is quite the accomplishment. His final project consisted of a ten-page autobiographical essay on the topic of his own rageful impulses and his (often futile) attempts to control them. He cited his dentist and his roommate as primary sources” (22). Some were requested by little known students like Melanie deRueda, who, Fitger explains, “I’ve known . . . for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes” (12). These student stories remind me of the video “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?” that I was introduced to in graduate school (2:00-2:17), a humorous yet all-too realistic take on the state of affairs in our field.

Others showcase bright students as products of academia and a hopeless job market, as Fitger explains: “You or any other employer will be very fortunate to hire a person such as Ms. Cuddigan . . . I hope you will not consign her to a windowless environment populated entirely by unsocialized clones who long ago abandoned the reading and discussion of literature in favor of creating more restrictive and meaningless ways in which humans are intended to make themselves known to one another” (88).

Although student shortcomings and our product-driven world are the focal points of many letters, taken as a whole, the novel acts as a beacon of social criticism. It highlights the travesty of minimalizing students, professors, and the profession into a stock, three-paragraph letter. There are quite a few instances in Schumacher’s book where Professor Fitger must complete a confidential, online letter, only to be cut off mid-sentence due to an imposed word limit. In one such application, the question reads, “Are there any other comments you would like to add,” to which Fitger angrily retorts, “Yes: I would like to finish my fucking sentences. I suppose your organization is to be commended for not resorting to the absurd array of little black boxes  . . . but given that your damnable form has cut me off every time I initiate a” (55). It seems as though these letters also undermine the very subjects and lessons I teach, such as the larger social significance of ideas, the power of face-to-face interaction, and critical thinking.

I emailed my student back requesting a visit and a chat prior to the commencement of my letter writing. We met over coffee on campus, and I learned so much about my student’s hopes and dreams for his future. After our talk, I sat down and crafted a letter, adding in my own sincere request for a phone conference to discuss matters further at the end of the letter. So, during the crazed end of the fall semester, I’m reminded, thanks in part to Schumacher’s hilarious, social critique, not to lose sight of why I even got into this profession in the first place.

c 2014 Tara Friedman

The Humor of the Grim Reaper

The Grim Reaper got its start in English lore during the 14th century.  The symbol for death is a necessary reminder that death is always lurking in the shadows and that we may be its next suctim.  Perhaps this would have been a better post for October, but I have been collecting cartoons that feature the Grim Reaper, and I think it’s time that I opened the closet and pulled them out for closer examination.

While earlier, more superstitious societies may have taken this symbol of death  more seriously, in our age of science, the image is outdated and quaint.  That makes it a perfect vehicle for satire.

The following cartoon points the reaper’s scythe at the Republican Party and its opposition to the Affordable Care Act.  On December 1, 2013, Jim Morin used the reaper to question the motivations of those opposed to the ACA.  The 44,000 deaths per year due to lack of health insurance may or may not be because of the lack of affordable care.  It may be because of people’s choices of how they spend their money, but the cartoonist suggests that the GOP will take the heat over this as it did for the Hurricane Katrina debacle.

Grim Reaper 12-1-13

 

The Boston Marathon bombing elicited many political cartoons using the Grim Reaper.  It is the ideal symbol, because the reaper greets people after a long grueling ordeal—presumably equating a 26.2-mile-run with life itself.  The following cartoon by Steve Benson ran on April 16, 2013, the day after the attack.

Grim Reaper 4-17-13

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Opossum Carols, or Walt Kelly’s Xmas Postludicrosity

As the first snows of December drift across my South St Louis windows, and the last shards of Thanksgiving turkey find their way into the requisite casseroles, cold cuts, and cauldrons of stock, I find myself harkening back to early Advent Sundays of yore.

 

My childhood, like so many others, was loaded with the humor of the holidays, but one of my family’s favorite traditions always tended in a more marsupial direction. So if you’ie got some time between mixing tubs of “Tom and Jerry” and trimming the tree, I’d like to share one of many meaningful excursions through the absurd quadrants of kiddie Christmas culture.

Charlie3
As I boy growing up in Detroit in the 1970s, I loved watching my mother collapse the last of her gargantuan Thanksgiving feast into a few impossibly crammed Tupperware containers and stuff the serving platters, gravy boats, and silver-plate cutlery away for their long sleep through the seasons until the following November.

While my father wrestled with the Christmas tree and cursed our cat as it grinned Cheshire-style from the upper branches, my mother would softly sing carols to herself or hum along to the holiday classics on the kitchen radio. My family loved Christmas for many reasons – togetherness, food, faith, and even frantic shopping – but mostly we adored the way it gave rise to an unusual number of opportunities for great stories and copious laughter. Those post-Thanksgiving radio carols were our first inklings that more manic Christmas cheer would soon come rolling in on an eggnog tsunami of tinsel, gingerbread, Grinches, and Good Old Charlie Brown holiday specials.

Every year, though, one particular tune ran a bit askew of the more traditional standards. My mother was hardly a musical person. She could never carry a tune and she famously celebrated the destruction of our family piano, relishing the thought that she had saved her son from the miserable lessons she detested as a child. Yet, she loved Christmas music of all stripes, and one particularly eclectic ditty above all else.

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