Monthly Archives: July, 2015

The Onion and How Comedy Deals with Tragedy (Or Not)

Summer vacation from new posts continues. Two weeks or so until new content, but enjoy this one, which seems somehow fitting for the tragic year it seems to have been.

Humor in America

The most famous edition of the satirical newspaper The Onion has to be its 9/11 edition. That issue was also the first that they published after relocating from Madison, Wisconsin, to New York City. The headlines were shocking to a nation that had not yet returned to its usual fare of late night shtick or our then-new love of “reality” television. (Survivor premiered the year before and American Idol began the year after.)

The Onion writers, however, did not leap into addressing the attack with abandon. According to Onion John Krewson, the humorists were stymied until one of them suggested the headline “America Turns into a Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Film,” after which the dam burst and they felt capable of turning a comic eye on a national tragedy.

The Onion 9_11 cover

Knowing this, should we be surprised that The Onion has already covered the horror of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre? Here is…

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Packaging the Presidency, with Laughter

Even though it is still some 16 months to the 2016 presidential elections the campaign is already well under way with most candidates officially declared as candidates. With any presidential campaign comes great humor, something Jon Stewart has brilliantly reminded us of for the last 16 years. One aspect of the campaigns which often provide a few chuckles are election adverts. Most of these laughs seem to be inadvertent, like that of Senator Ted Cruz who claimed to almost have fallen out of his chair laughing when he saw a pro-Hillary ad made by a Super PACs in which an unidentified cowboy sang a country song about standing with Hillary. Or when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released video material online in 2014, apparently for the use of Super PACs, and Jon Stewart pounced on the opportunity to create the trending hashtag “mcconnelling” where the video is set to a humorous choice of music. In her authoritative book on presidential campaign advertising Kathleen Hall Jamieson points out an earlier example where Eisenhower proclaimed that his wife, Mamie, “gets after me about the high cost of living. It’s another reason why I say, it’s time for a change.”

Yet, as long as there has been political television ads, there has also been attempts at deliberatively funny election ads. Among the first is an ad by Adlai Stevenson’s campaign in 1952 where he suggests a bromance between the moderate Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower and defeated conservative candidate Robert A. Taft. The ad is meant to link the former to the latter’s policies by having two syrupy voices infatuated call out the names Ike and Bob to each other.

The most common use of humor in campaign ads are attempts at ridicule. The most notable example, and probably the most effective example as well, is the 1988 ad that showed the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis driving around in a tank while a voice-over details his weak record on defense. The ad, which The Washington Post recently described as “the stuff of legend in campaign circles”, made perfect use of the juxtaposition of the visual material and the message. Dukakis is driving around in circles in a tank in what appears to be an empty field. Most damning, Dukakis, smiling broadly, looks inescapably silly with a funny-looking helmet and an army-green jumpsuit over his, still visible, suit and tie. Attempts to replicate the successful ad include one from 2004 featuring Democratic candidate John Kerry windsurfing while the narration portrays him as a flip-flopper. Since at least the days of Abraham Lincoln the issue of changing positions and thus poor credibility has been politically dangerous and with the advent of television the issue has been the source of many humorous ads. One of the best known is visually simple, putting the face of Republican candidate Richard Nixon on a weathervane while a narrator lists his changing positions. Four years later, Nixon returned the favor by putting a poster of Democratic candidate George McGovern on both sides of a pole and turning it around after every changing position the voice-over details. The same idea was driven home in an ad by the George H. W. Bush team in 1992 that explains the contradictory positions of two undisclosed candidates before revealing that both are Bill Clinton. Making the ad extra funny is a zinger at the end of the ad, Clinton commenting that “there is a simple explanation for why this happened.”

Another prevalent theme in humorous campaign ads, especially during the last two decades, is to present statements by the opponent and then question them in a style reminiscent of the popular SNL sketch “Really with Seth and Amy”. The best example is an ad from the 2000 election that features a snippet of Al Gore stating “I took the initiative, in creating the internet.” The female voice-over comments “Yeah, and I invented the remote control, too.” The line “Oh, really?” returns in a curious 2004 ad produced in the visual style of the spy comedy Austin Powers, with the film’s star Mike Myers providing a narration questioning John Kerry’s comments. A Kerry ad from the same election features the “Oh Really?” in bold letters in response to George W. Bush’s claims about the turning the corner.

As with editorial cartoons the humorous ads work best in cases where they only need to remind voters of worries they already have about a certain candidate, instead of actually planting new ideas. I will try to illustrate this last point with two ads. In 1956 the democrats aired an ad with a picture of Vice-president Nixon and a narrator asking “nervous about Nixon? President Nixon?”. The ad is short and to the point but neither humorous nor very persuasive. Making the same point, an ad from 1968 features a man laughing while a pan-out of a television screen reveals the question “Agnew for Vice-President?”. In the end the man’s laughter turns into violent coughing and the text “this would be funny if it weren’t so serious” appears. By adopting laughter the ad illustrates the silliness of the idea of the inexperienced Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew a heartbeat away from the presidency in a way far more convincing than the Nixon ad from 12 years earlier. This shows how and why humor, while hard to wield, can indeed be a useful political tool.

Remembering John Crowe Ransom

John Crowe Ransom  April 30, 1888 – July 3, 1974

John Crowe Ransom
April 30, 1888 – July 3, 1974

This distinguished thinker from Pulaski, Tennessee  was a poet, essayist, editor, and professor known for both depth and levity.

He is considered to be a founder of the New Criticism school of literary criticism. As a faculty member at Kenyon College, he was the first editor of the widely regarded Kenyon Review.

Ransom‘s lighthearted writing has been compared to that of Voltaire, Swift and Twain––ironic wit, sense of incongruity, mock-pedantic language used to wonderful effect.

Below are a three of his humorous poems.

                    Blue Girls

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.

                                       — John Crowe Ransom
                 Worship

I know a quite religious man
Who utters praises when he can.

Now I find God in bard and book,
In school and temple, bird and brook.

But he says God is sweetest of all
Discovered in a drinking-hall.

For God requires no costly wine
But comes on the foam of a crockery stein.

And when that foam is on the lips,
Begin then God’s good fellowships.

Cathedrals, synagogues, and kirks
May go to the devil, and all their works.

And as for Christian charity,
It’s made out of hilarity.

He gives the beggar all his dimes,
Forgives his brother seven times.

‘I love the rain,’ says thirsty clod;
So this religious man of God.

For God has come, and is it odd
He praises all the works of God?

‘For God has come, and there’s no sorrow,’
He sings all night–will he sing to-morrow?

— John Crowe Ransom

 

                   The Lover
I sat in a friendly company
And wagged my wicked tongue so well,
My friends were listening close to hear
The wickedest tales that I could tell.
For many a fond youth waits, I said,
On many a worthless damozel;
But every trusting fool shall learn
To wish them heartily in hell.And when your name was spoken too,
I did not change, I did not start,
And when they only praised and loved,
I still could play my secret part,
Cursing and lies upon my tongue,
And songs and shouting in my heart.

But when you came and looked at me,
You tried my poor pretence too much.
O love, do you know the secret now
Of one who would not tell nor touch?
Must I confess before the pack
Of babblers, idiots, and such?

Do they not hear the burst of bells,
Pealing at every step you make?
Are not their eyelids winking too,
Feeling your sudden brightness break?
O too much glory shut with us!
O walls too narrow and opaque!
O come into the night with me
And let me speak, for Jesus’ sake.

                                      — John Crowe Ransom