Monthly Archives: April, 2015

Nerd Prom and Presidential Humor

Last Saturday the Washington glitterati gathered at the Washington Hilton for what has become a major political event; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The draw has over the years become the president doing a stand-up bit followed by a professional comedian roasting more or less everybody in the room. This year’s invited host was Cecily Strong, a Saturday Night Live cast member known for playing The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With. Strong, only the second female to host in the last 20 years, did not go soft on those attending, pun intended. In twenty minutes she made sure to joke both left and right. My personal favorite was when she went after Obama: commenting on criticism that Senator Elizabeth Warren is “too idealistic and her proposed policies are too liberal,” she told people to look at President Obama “people thought the same about US-POLITICS-OBAMAhim and he didn’t end up doing any of that stuff.” Obama’s jokes also hit home, especially his jab at Hillary Clinton: “I have one friend, just a few weeks ago she was making millions of dollars a year and she’s now living out of a van in Iowa”. Indeed, the White House Correspondent’s Dinner has become something of a comedic highlight of the year for those interested in politics, giving it the nickname “Nerd Prom”.

The modern classic of the annual dinners is from 2006 when Stephen Colbert appeared as his signature parody of a conservative media pundit and brutally criticized George W. Bush and the media’s failure to confront his administration. Among the zingers was when he tried to reassure Bush not to pay attention to approval ratings; “we know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias”. Reports after the dinner claimed that Bush was furious over Colbert’s jokes and especially conservative media pundits agreed that Colbert had gone too far. However, seeing the comedian take on the president as close to mano a mano as you can get is something the audience longs for. In medieval times it was said that the only one who could speak the truth without fear of repercussions was the court jester. Today the court jester is often invisible, even if Jon Stewart is still on the air a couple of months, Larry Wilmore has done an excellent job with the former Colbert Report, and cartoonists like Ann Telnaes of the Washington Post is fighting the good fight. At the White House Correspondent’s Dinner the court jester speaking truth to power should be the main attraction.

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Columbia College degree in Comedy Writing and Performance Announces National Search for Two Positions

Anne Libera

 

Columbia College Chicago is hiring two full time lecturer positions to serve its rapidly growing B.A. in Comedy Writing and Performing.

The degree is the only one of its kind in the United ecoetates and had its beginnings in 2007 in a partnership between Columbia College Chicago and The Second City. The Comedy Studies semester provides a semester abroad style program in which students come to Chicago and study comic acting, improvisation, sketch and solo writing, comedy history, and physical and vocal prep for comedy. All courses in the semester are held at The Second City’s historic location on Wells Street in Chicago.

Alumni of the Comedy Studies semester include SNL’s Aidy Bryant, performers for Second City’s resident and touring companies, writers for The Onion as well as network, cable, and Netflix television shows as well as numerous regularly performing stand-up, improv, and sketch comedians, as well as at least one ordained minister.

The B.A. in Comedy Writing and Performing enters its third year in  2015-2016 with an estimated 200 majors. This interdisciplinary degree is housed within the Columbia College Theatre department and builds on the philosophy of the Comedy Studies semester; successful comedians require training and experience as writers, performers, directors, and producers across media. In addition to the semester at The Second City, major requirements include foundation work in theatrical principles and acting, comedy specific training in theory and practice, as well as coursework in television and self-management and freelancing.

Job descriptions for the two positions are listed below. If you have questions about the positions or about the program in general please feel free to contact Program Coordinator and Director of Comedy Studies, Anne Libera at ALibera@colum.edu.


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Murder and Blueberry Pies: Shel Silverstein as Songwriter

Matt Powell is on break this month. Please enjoy this selection of his fine writing.

Humor in America

Gather ‘round fellows I’ll tell you some tales about murder and blueberry pies
And heroes and hells and bottomless wells and lullabies, legends and lies
And gather round ladies come sit at my feet I’ll sing about warm sunny skies
There’s mermaids and beans and lovin’ machines in my lullabies, legends and lies
I’ll sing you a song then I’ll shuffle along with my lullabies, legends and lies

shel-silversteinThere is a philosophy to Shel Silverstein. The uninhibited way in which he lived his life, as well as his insatiable thirst for it, permeates the tone of his work. There is an adultness to his acclaimed books of children’s poems and stories, which elevates them to the universally recognized status they enjoy to this day. Rather than pandering down to children, he spoke to them on their level, unashamedly employing occasional crude humor to bolster morals and learning lessons. As a…

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Eddie Murphy Awarded Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Tracy Wuster

 

Every year since 1998, the Kennedy Center has awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to some of the greats of American Humor–and also Lorne Michaels. The 18th Annual award will be presented to Eddie Murphy on Sunday, October 18th.  Tickets still available.  I would be happy to attend said gala with you should you have an extra ticket (and tuxedo).

Murphy’s importance for American humor is clear, despite some movies in the 1990s that weren’t so great.

“Eddie Murphy has kept us laughing for 30 years. He’s like Mark Twain. He gets to the heart of a provocative issue, and he’s damn funny while he’s doing it,” said Cappy McGarr, one of the show’s executive producers. “He has had incredible influence over so many comedians who have followed him.”

Growing up, for me Saturday Night Live was Eddie Murphy–Buckwheat, Gumby, Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, James Brown… only later did I see the original cast.  From that period, almost all the sketches I remember were Murphy.  And they were hilarious.Eddie Murphy Buckwheat

At school, we would quote lines from Murphy as part of our everyday patter.  But I also remember the satire of Murphy’s “White Like Me” video causing me to think about race and privilege in ways I hadn’t before.

I also watched Murphy’s stand-up specials when I was much too young for such language.  Here, I should thank my brother, who also let me watch Trading Places and 48 Hours.  

While some of Murphy’s work hasn’t held up, his brilliance as a comic is unquestionable, and his influence American comedy is clear.  Most years, the Mark Twain Forum has some grumbling when the Mark Twain Prize is announced–discussion of whether the recipient is worthy of Mark Twain’s legacy.  No such discussion this year.

In the Archives: Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate” (1879)

With all the contenders throwing their hats in the presidential ring, it is refreshing to have a honest and serious candidate to consider…

Humor in America

Tracy Wuster

In keeping with our recent political focus, we present Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate.”  In light of  revelations in the presidential campaign (both embarrassing and partial), it is nice to see Twain’s refreshing candor.  Here it is, rom June 1879:

Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens politics president Obama RomneyI have pretty much made up my mind to run for president. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any congressional committee is disposed to…

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Send in the Clowns: A Note on Fear, Humor, and Painted Faces

It’s that time of year again when we all get busy in academia. Jeff Melton wrote me with some nonsense about having a “job” and “kids” and such and asking me nicely to post this piece on clowns in place of a new contribution. Here is another recent take on the question: http://splitsider.com/2015/03/what-the-hell-is-the-deal-with-clowns/

Humor in America

Clown IT

Clowns are terrifying.

I am convinced that the very concept induces anxiety. While on the surface, the “clown” seems to be an innocuous effort to play on simple comedic principles of exaggeration–big facial expressions; big hair; big noses; big shoes, all capped by physical buffoonery–it really taps into our most perverse fears. This is not a new idea, of course. Having a character in a comedy who is deathly afraid of clowns is a staple of American humor. The best example that comes to mind is Kramer from Seinfeld. Using Kramer’s always over the top responses to otherwise normal social contexts is comedic gold (“Gold, Jerry, Gold.”), but his rather restrained response to coming face to face with a dangerous clown is instructive. We should keep in mind that Kramer’s fear was a point of rational thought within the context of the plot-line of the episode that featured Crazy…

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National Grammar Day Generates a Conversation on Insider Jokes

In case you missed it—and you probably did unless you are an English nerd like me—National Grammar Day was March 4th. It came to my attention a few years ago, perhaps because I was teaching an Advanced Grammar class (as I am also doing this year). The “holiday” began in 2008, so it is relatively short on tradition. Martha Brockenborough started the tradition rolling because she felt deeply about proper grammar—this prompted her to start the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPROGG) and institute National Grammar Day as March 4 (March forth—an imperative). The society has its own website, though posts to it seem few and far between.

As an English nerd, I have tried to take this day and society seriously; however, a quick look at the established website and its posts make that extremely difficult. Most of the posts demonstrate the ways in which “poor” grammar can create unintended humor. See for yourself:

 knowingshit

 Instead of the proper respect and seriousness, what National Grammar Day did prompt was some semi-serious thought concerning the nature of insider humor and what work such humor actually performs. Grammar jokes belong to one of a great many “niche” jokes—that is, they require that a listener or reader know something about the subject matter in order to appreciate the humor. Mathematics jokes fall into this category of insider humor, as do jokes from other disciplines such as chemistry, engineering, and physics.

Some jokes are universal.  Example: Passing gas in almost any situation outside a bathroom—and only private bathrooms at that—seems to provoke universal laughter. These and other slapstick jokes usually do not require insider knowledge in order to tickle the funny bone.   Grammar jokes proliferate on the Internet and have always been present as texts even before the Information Superhighway. They are simply easier to access now.   Not all of these require as much insider knowledge as some other disciplines because native speakers of English can recognize anomalous errors of Standard English that form the joke. Thus the insider group is relatively large: anyone who has English language proficiency. Yet for the student/scholar of English, the jokes have a richer meaning. For example:

 lobster

 

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