Monthly Archives: September, 2015

Stephen Colbert and Poetry

This week two of my friends went to see a taping of The Late Show with Colbert and came back impressed. My friend Steven Smith has interviewed Colbert and said he’s a nice guy. I like Stephen Colbert, too––for lots of reasons. Among them, he likes poetry.

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Billy Collins explains what it means to be U.S. Poet Laureate.

Click here to watch.

 

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Elizabeth Alexander
explains the difference between a metaphor and a lie.

 

 

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MoMA’s Poet Laureate Kenneth Goldsmith discusses his book.

Click here to watch.

 

 

thSaul Williams describes slam poetry.

Click here to watch.

 

 

 

 

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And finally, though she’s a patron of poetry, not a poet, Caroline Kennedy talks about her book, “Poems to Learn by Heart.”

Click here to watch.

 

 

 

Tricky Treats and Goofy Ghosts: A Halloween Harvest of Hilarious All Ages Graphic Novels

Welcome to the last night of summer and the first early smidgens of impending Autumnal Awesome!
Though I previously promised a very different type of post for my next HA! installment, I just can’t help celebrating the comedy of the season with a short list of little known works that brim with big laughs for all ages.

Fall remains a grand season of bountiful mirth, bemused reflection, crisp comedy, and pumpkin-sized parody, but the past few years have provided us with an impressive harvest of wit, wonder, humor, and hilarity all keyed to the themes of darkening nights, kiddie creatures, and whimsical witchery.
So pull up a comfy cucurbit and let’s dive into our cornucopia of comedy!

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1. The Itty Bitty Hellboy series : Mike Mignola, Art Baltazar, & Franco
Mike Mignola’s signature creation, the fearsome Hellboy hybrid, has brought slick new wit to the Superhero, World War II, and Ghost Story genres. Horror maestro, Guillermo Del Toro, has developed an intriguing big budget franchise out of Mignola’s B.P.R.D. milieu. (That’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense for those folks who thought that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s acronym wasn’t ridiculous enough.) The best elements of Mignola’s action-packed adventures revolve around the self-conscious humor he meticulously weaves into nearly every stitch of his narrative tapestry. From Hellboy’s irreverent asides to Mignola’s own sly satires on overblown pulp tropes like the NAZI-abetted apocalypse, each page of the grown-up Hellboy glows with freaky fun.
Sadly though, the little ones can’t share in most of these adventures.
Even better than the originals, and much more enjoyable for all ages, are the Itty Bitty Hellboy lampoons that remix Mignola’s grim, shadowy realms to the rhythms of Little Archie and the Muppet Babies. The results are, quite simply, hysterical. The B.P.R.D.’s chilling creepitude crashes into the endearing cuteness of Baltazar and Franco’s winning make-overs for each character. The adventures are, of course, equally playful and parodic, with enough running gags and adult allusions to amuse every level of literacy.
Baltazar and Franco have enjoyed success with a variety of cutesified comics properties especially their Tiny Titans tales, but these diminutive heroes lack the added hellish ironies that Itty Bitty Hellboy piles onto its bonfire of crackling comedy. Two kooky collections are currently available, with more stories set to appear in the not-too-distant future. Hell and damnation have never been quite so delightful!

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2. Jess Smart Smiley’s Upside Down Series
As adorable as an infantilized hellspawn might seem, l’il Hellboy has nothing on Jess Smart Smiley’s Harold, the little vampire with an unquenchable sweet tooth. Designed with clean, free-lined freshness, Harold’s slapstick adventures explore the more mundane elements of vampire life alongside a supporting cast of mad disco doctors, friendly familiars, and whimsical witches. The aptly named Smiley brings rich new warmth and much needed ingenuity to a genre long overloaded with literally half-dead riffs on the worn-out Addams Family tradition. More honest, joyful, and stylish than the swath of Wimpy Kids and Dork Diaries that inundate early readers catalogs, the Upside Down stories are deftly designed, gleeful parables of screwball spontaneity.
Smiley is at his best articulating moment by moment physical comedy, and the quirky blocking only gets better when his creatures converse casually from obtuse angles, or upside down (of course), sharing the everyday concerns of young monsters and eager little undead. Like Itty Bitty Hellboy, two splendid collections currently prowl across the internet’s e-stalls, but we are hopeful that more of Harold’s hi-jinks will chase bleaker clichés away from of our Halloween hootenanny.

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3. Melvin Monster by John Stanley
Sometimes old school monsters are the most amusing of all, and John Stanley’s joyfully hideous creation, Melvin Monster, remains as tightly structured, sharply satiric, and outrageously funny as he when he first appeared in 1965. Thankfully, the lauded publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, cut no corners in its loving three volume treasury of resurrected reprints that bring Melvin back from beyond with more grandeur and gusto than he ever received in his own era.
Please don’t confuse Stanley’s mini-monster masterpiece with the earlier Atlas Comics creation, Melvin THE Monster, a juvenile delinquent developed by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely to cash in on the popularity of Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace. On the contrary, Stanley’s Melvin never wreaks havoc directly, but rather as a side effect of his tender regard for the world he so loves to explore and entertain. He struggles at the Little Black Schoolhouse with the demanding Ms. McGargoyle, strives to gain the approval of his doting Mummy and Baddy, and tends tirelessly to his pet crocodile whose poor track record as a reptilian predator is equaled only by Steven Pastis’ hapless “Brudderhood of Zeeba Zeeba Eata.”

Stanley himself was an unsung master of withering mid-century domestic satire and his contributions to Marge’s Little Lulu, Kookie, Thirteen (Going on Eighteen), the latter day re-launch of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and (Around the Block with) Dunc and Loo remain classics of the Dell “All Ages” brand. Yet, Stanley was also a serious student of the chiller, and his few excursions into Gothic mystery included some of the most surprising spine-tinglers of the post-code era. His two ghoulish Dell anthologies, Ghost Stories and Tales from the Tomb, are now considered landmarks of originality, and remain even more fascinating for their shrewd use of gripping but bloodless tension and shock. For Melvin Monster though, Stanley brought the perverse charms of grotesque innocence to an otherwise prescribed and tiresome adult world of rules, obligations, and harassments. Melvin’s misadventures, now handsomely revamped for millennial readers, reveal how his simple fascination with all of the world’s great thrills make him the most magnanimous monster in the history of kiddie comics.

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4. Scary Godmother by Jill Thompson
Like Stanley’s monstrous Melvin, Jill Thompson’s incredibly clever Scary Godmother concept has never garnered the mainstream success it so sorely deserves. Hokey Halloween mash-ups are now legion and while some become the stuff of pop legend, destined to ride alongside mainstays like the Headless Hessian and The Great Pumpkins, most get tossed back into the Mad, Mad Monster Party with the rest of the vapid vampires and franken-flops. From Scooby-Doo to Monster High, the family friendly fascination with villainy, monstrosity, and sorcery seems timeless, but there really has never been anything quite like Thompson’s Scary Godmother before.
Equal parts Mary Poppins, The Cat in the Hat, and Harry Potter, Scary Godmother and her “broommates” from The Fright Side are deliciously original extrapolations of a thousand Halloweeny myths and rituals. Even better, every single one of them bristles with fun allusions to their antecedents. There’s Harry the chatterbox werewolf, Maxwell and Ruby the glamorous vampire couple, and their Emo/Goth offspring, Orson, an enfant terrible named, of course, after the original Halloween mass media prankster.
Then there are the intrepid kid heroes whose good natured collaborations are just as enjoyable as the classic gang comedy of the Mystery Machine crew. Scary Godmother is probably the most commercially successful of the works profiled here. It has enjoyed multiple comics series, graphic novels, collections, and children’s books, as well as reasonable success with animated adaptations, but these never really capture Thompson’s richly rendered watercolors. As a mass media franchise, Scary Godmother is a fun and rewarding curiosity, but its original sequential habitat explodes with abundant Halloween humor. Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman (a friend and frequent collaborator with Thompson) should both grind their fangs with a bit of jealousy. They may rule the darker realms of sinister sorcery, but what Thompson brings to light is bright, brilliant magic.

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The complete Scary Godmother Halloween Spooktacular is available here.

5. Frankenstein by Dick Briefer
Let’s conclude with a classic Halloween creature, the infamous Frankenstein monster – though not quite as fearsomely familiar as he may seem. James Whale’s campy Frankenstein franchise at Universal kicked off something of a fad for Modernist monsters and Franken-themed commodities. There were, of course, midnight double features with Browning’s Dracula, and numerous pulp reprintings of Mary W. Shelley’s perennially popular thriller, as well as Marvel and Classics Illustrated adaptations in the “Golden Age” of comics.

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At the same time, the intrepid Dick Briefer, a seasoned cartoonist of various genres, introduced a new feature in the 1940 Prize Comics anthology title adapting the tale with elements culled from both Shelley and Whale. These early “monster” stories – developed by Briefer but credited to “Frank N. Stein” – are Expressionistic and raw, with a Karloff-esque creature rampaging through contemporary cityscapes to brutalize authorities, gangsters, and circus animals alike. He is, in effect, a kind of anti-Superman or proto-Hulk, impossibly strong and ferociously driven by rage and fury. Before long, however, a monstrous miracle would occur.
Over time, Briefer’s sense of the Absurd would fashion Shelley’s creature into the neo-gothic equivalent of Jack Benny and his hearty cohort of peculiar pals. In these stories, Franky’s monstrous bulk would become the fodder for endless slapstick. sight gags, and clowny costume changes ranging from superhero suits to Viking gear and elephant trunks. Throughout the late 1940s, Briefer’s gleeful deconstructions of American horror’s most recognizable monster spoke to changing times and subversive tastes. His screwy sketches are overloaded with puns, pratfalls, and parodies of multiple genres as well as, at times, self-conscious satire of the very art of cartooning itself. Akin to the most irascible work of Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Rube Goldberg, the heyday of Briefer’s humorous Franken-jester was cut short by market changes. To cash in on the crass horror craze of the mid-1950s, Briefer once more remodeled his monster  into an even more terrible scourge, but the wacky middle phase of madcap pastiche would presage the coming of other Gothic comedies like the Addams Family, the Munsters, and to some extent, even glam-camp spectacles like Rocky Horror.
The majority of Briefer’s Frankenstein oeuvre is now more available than ever before in multiple collections and archival editions. Our national humor and our Halloween holidays are all the better for it!

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Until next time, humorous hauntings everyone!

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The John Oliver Effect, Humor, and Thesis Statements

Last Week Tonight

I wish I had coined the phrase: “The John Oliver Effect.” I wish I had jumped onto the John Oliver bandwagon before this past June when I first wrote about it for Humor in America. I wish more people had read my post in June. Here is the link to it for those who want a second chance: John Oliver, FIFA, American Humor, and Topic Sentences. The title is a bit long. I see that now. This follow-up post is better since is shamelessly rides the crest of the “John Oliver Effect” wave. About 60 words into the post, and I have used it three times, including the title. I am seeking traction. John Oliver Effect.

The phrase was coined by Victor Luckerson for Time online (20 January 2015): How the ‘John Oliver Effect’ is Having a Real-Life Impact. At least I think he coined it. In any case, although he introduces it as “so-called John Oliver Effect,” implying that someone had already “called” it, the internet has decided that he coined it based on the multitude of sources that use it and cite him as the originator. I’m in, too.

In a compelling article, Luckerson examines how reactions to particular sketches on Last Week Tonight have encouraged specific responses in the public square. In an especially useful post following the same idea, Sara Boboltz, for the Huffington Post (HuffPost Comedy) discusses ten specific segments from the show: 10 Real-Life Wins for John Oliver. Although I certainly quibble with the tendency in both pieces to use the term “real-life,” I will avoid a tedious existential argument here and simply say that both writers successfully capture a crucial transition in television comedy history. The list of segments from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that deserve substantive attention in the pubic sphere is growing. The show, in no uncertain terms, encourages and even demands responses from politicians, policy-makers, public figures, and, well, from all of us.

This follow-up post on the show reiterates my belief that the most important characteristic of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is the essential quality of the writing. In particular, the thesis-driven approach to satirical humor that the show promotes is deepening the dialogue on any of a number of issues, and it does so with great skill and, so far, substantive success. It is television comedy in long-form, expository writing. What Last Week Tonight is proving that American audiences, indeed, can have an attention span greater than amphibians, current polling on the presidential race notwithstanding. Moreover, humor is effective in proving points. Who knew?

Comedian John Oliver poses for photographers backstage during the 41st International Emmy Awards in New York, November 25, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) - RTX15T8O

Comedian John Oliver poses for photographers backstage during the 41st International Emmy Awards in New York, November 25, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES – Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) – RTX15T8O

More and more viewers and critics are noticing. The show has earned four Emmy nominations for 2015: for “Outstanding Variety Talk Show Series”; “Outstanding Picture Editing for a Variety Series”; “Outstanding Interactive Program”; and “Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series.” It is the last one that has the most implications for the quality of the show and its long-term impact on American humor and satire. We will find out the results on the Emmys to air on Sep. 20th. Although the competition is formidable, the conclusion should be clear. Long form writing deserves its due.

In the much heralded–and very funny–Daily Show with Jon Stewart farewell episode, the brief banter between Stewart and Oliver was both funny and telling. The core joke, quite simply, was built around the definitive difference between the two shows and their approaches to humor and culture. Here is a link to the segment, wherein Oliver’s part starts five minutes into the seven-minute clip: John Oliver on Jon Stewart’s final Daily Show. The bit begins as Oliver goes on and on about his first day on set. Stewart tries to get Oliver to be more brief in his narrative, saying, “We’re gonna have to pick up the pace, just a smidgen.” To that Oliver responds, “No, no, no, no…we can’t. When something’s important, it’s worth taking the time to discuss it in depth. I’m talking fifteen, eighteen, even twenty minutes, if necessary. Otherwise, what are you really doing?”

This is a direct reference to the writing style of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, wherein the thesis-driven segments run, generally, 15-20 minutes. The comic but pointed rhetorical question is a good one for any politically conscious humor: “What are you really doing?”

Clearly, Last Week Tonight is accomplishing something substantive. Allie VanNest in Parse.ly (8 Sep 2015, Measuring the Impact of ‘The John Oliver Effect’) demonstrates a clear impact of Oliver’s segment examining chicken farming. Here is a link to the segment on YouTube: .

VanNest includes a graph revealing the impact this particular segment had on public awareness. The data is not ambiguous here. VanNest acknowledges that the more seemingly obscure the subject is, the more easily the John Oliver Effect can be  measured. Still, the graph below nonetheless offers a formidable indication of the potential of the approach that Last Week Tonight is taking.

John Oliver Effect Graph

I argued in the earlier piece that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, though equally funny to any late-night peers, aspires to alter public debate in a much more clearly articulated manner than any of its predecessors. It is all in the thesis and the sustained argument, all supported by carefully considered evidence, all made palatable with humor. Here is my advice to writing teachers: use John Oliver to teach argumentative writing. Everyone will win with this approach. Call it the John Oliver Effect. It may actually change things.

An Afternoon with Mairéad Byrne

An Afternoon with Mairéad Byrne

Poet Mairéad Byrne came to us on a cold, windy, April Fool’s Day. Her poem “Spring” perfectly illustrated her presence on campus:

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After a long winter, April and the promise of sunshine and warmth made us almost giddy as we filed into the auditorium. During her reading, students seemed a bit more . . . aware; faculty seemed a bit more . . . cheerful. We had endured 31 of the darkest days on record, and now Mairéad Byrne, our April, was reading from her collection You Have to Laugh: New + Selected Poems (2013), a compilation of witty and clever musings rife with a propensity toward sadness (“Crop”) and self-deprecation (“Things I’m Good At”; “I Went to the Doctor”). If you are new to her, Byrne is an Irish emigrant living in Providence, RI, and teaching at RISD (below: her faculty profile video).

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The Summer of Trump: Clown, Gasbag, Monster, Anti-PC Hero, and Other Images of THE DONALD

Tracy Wuster

An update on a new image that emerged: The Fall of Trump: A New Image of the Donald

Like many observers this summer (and heading into fall), I have been fascinated by the rise (and continued buoyancy) of Donald Trump.  And like many, I considered him a joke at first.

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Early in the Trump Era ™, political cartoonists, like late night hosts, were excited to have Trump for fodder.  And what is not to love (for a comedian): the hair, the brashness, the class, the near-constant stream of material… it’s the Donald.  He was a walking punchline before he entered the race.

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Especially for cartoonists: the hair. Earlier this summer, I was riding in a van in Oakland with Yakov Smirnoff, and he mentioned getting his start at a Trump casino.  Someone said, “you mean our next president.”  To which he replied, “no, he shoots his foot… into in his mouth…shoots himself in the…”  Yakov, as you may know, has built his comedy career out of his encounters with America as a foreigner, including struggles with idiom.  So I helped him out, “you mean, he puts his foot in his mouth, then he shoots it.”  And that is the story of how I mad Yakov Smirnoff laugh

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In looking at political cartoons of Trump, it is clear that his image has shifted from that of sideshow clown.  As the summer progressed, the humor of cartoons shifted from a making fun of Trump or mocking his effect on the Republican Party to ridiculing him for his bombastic rhetoric.  To many observers–both left and right–Trump has become less humorous as his supporters have shown more serious support.

Reflecting more general reactions people have had to Trump, political cartoons can be grouped into a few different areas: criticisms of a variety of types, immigration-related images, Spanish-language reactions, Republican party reactions, pro-Trump, and comparisons to Democrats, especially Sanders, but also Clinton and others.  Finally, there are a few, but not many, pro-Trump cartoons, although some of the cartoons focus on the question of “political correctness,” and are only borderline positive.

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“There you go again”: Humor in Presidential Debates

In early August, Fox News and Facebook organized the most watched primary debate ever, in Cleveland, Ohio, where 17 Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in two debates in hope of emerging as the star of the field. The pundits are still out on who exactly ”won” the debate, curiously there seems to be something of a correlation between the ideology of the pundit and whom they declare the winner. Among much post-debate think-pieces, media bickering, and inappropriate comments by Donald Trump, the perhaps best, and certainly funniest, piece was a bit by Funny or Die featuring kids reenacting the debate.

Jimmy Margulies cartoon on the Republican Debate

Jimmy Margulies cartoon on the Republican Debate

Since presidential debates became a staple of the election season following the 1976 debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, they have been the source of much comedy fodder. Saturday Night Live has over the years, since 1976, provided such gems as this Bush-Clinton-Perot debate, focused on Arkansas as backwater, this Gore-Bush sketch, Will Ferrell as Bush became a long-time favorite, and the instant classics of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, like this. The Funny and Die bit, however, highlights the inherent humor in the actual debates. For while it might be more fun to just catch Dave Letterman’s recap of the debates than actually watching hours of political posturing, even the politicians drop some funny lines.

Historically, the presidential debates debuted with the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, but as both Lyndon Johnson and Nixon then avoided debates in their 1964, 1968 and 1972 runs respectively it wasn’t until the 1976 campaign they returned. Since then they have been a crucial part of any election cycle, including the primary cycles. The humor in presidential debates consists mainly of inadvertent gaffes or advertent zingers. The perhaps foremost example of the first category dates back to the 1976 debate where incumbent president Gerald Ford claimed there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Max Frankel of the New York Times, serving on the panel of moderators, can barely conceal his grin as he in disbelief asks if the president is actually saying Eastern Europe is not within the Soviet sphere of influence. The blunder by Ford enhanced the impression of him as somewhat dim, and was used to great extent by the Carter campaign. A more recent example of a humorous debate mistake would be Rick Perry’s inability, in a Republican primary debate in 2012, to remember the third government agency he would do away with if elected to the White House. Falling back on his Texan charm Perry tried to brush it aside with a nonchalant “oops”, which only made the whole exchange sillier. Speaking of silly, Mitt Romney’s attempt at humor when proposing to cut funding to PBS, saying that he likes Big Bird (of Sesame Street fame) but would still axe it, also misfired as it gave more than ample ammunition to editorial cartoonists, meme-ers, and comedians all over the country.

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Jeff Danziger cartoon of Mitt Romney proposing to cut funding to PBS.

When the candidates in the debates are consciously humorous it is more often by a joke on the opponents account, a zinger. These certainly seem to have decreased in recent years, and the defining debate zinger remains one from 1988. Irritated of continuing criticism of his inexperience, vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate explained that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy had when he sought the presidency in 1960. His opponent, long-serving Texan Senator Lloyd Bentsen, saw his chance for a put down and clearly took pleasure in delivering the zinger of the century. “I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”, Bentsen replied with a smile hardly hidden. Increasing the comedy, Quayle’s face dropped to the floor and clearly hurt he said the comment was uncalled for. Bentsen’s comment was immediately viewed as bold; if he wasn’t crossing a line he was at least approaching that line. The risk with crossing the line is that you come off as mean, which is a reason most of the best zingers hail from vice presidential debates – the designated hatchet men. Back in 1976 Republican vice presidential candidate Bob Dole showed off a sharp wit, repeatedly making cracks about his opponent Walter Mondale and presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. Viewers found Dole lacking in seriousness and coming off as a wisecracker, making him unappealing.

Ross Perot, debating with Bush and Clinton in 1992, similarly highlighted his comedic chops with repeated jokes and zingers. As a candidate from outside the political establishment the strategy was risky, it was crucial for him to appear presidential, and ultimately a failure. “It’s nice that someone has some humor and lightens things up, but now it seems like every opportunity he had to speak he had a quick one-liner”, was the verdict of one focus group. The risk of not appearing responsible and mature enough for the White House actually led the naturally witty John F. Kennedy to tone down his humor in the 1960 debates. As Kennedy was struggling with the perception of him as too young and his reputation as witty aldready widely appreciated the strategy seemed good. Still, sense of humor remains a key factor for voters in determining the character of a candidate, not to mention likability. Moreover, a well delivered zinger or joke is almost certain to reach a larger audience by making it to post-debate coverage – especially on television and today YouTube. To find a balance is vital, yet difficult.

The only president who ever truly mastered humor in presidential debates was Ronald Reagan. “The Great Communicator” had a good sense of humor and a background in delivering lines and presenting himself appealingly. In 1980, as Jimmy Carter laid out his case against Reagan, he smiled confidently and good-naturedly said “there you go again” before defending himself. The almost laughing Reagan uttering the “there you go again” is as close to iconic as presidential debate moments get. It was a part of Reagan’s debate strategy to throw Carter off with humor and smiles. When facing Mondale four years later, Reagan delivered another classic when he ironically answered a question by promising not to make his opponents age an issue of the campaign – his own age was of course what had been questioned in recent weeks. The joke not only drew large laughs from the crowd but from the moderator and Mondale, again highlighting Reagan’s affable personality. By mixing self-deprecation with irony and a message, Reagan showed off presidential debate humor at its best; if even the opponent is getting a good laugh you know you’re doing something right. Apropos irony, we still have some twenty debates in the 2016 cycle to look forward to!

For more commentary on the 2016 elections, check out the interdisciplinary election podcast Campaign Context at www.campaigncontext.wordpress.com.