Monthly Archives: November, 2015

Happy Birthday, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Not you, Mark Twain.

 

Tracy Wuster

November 30, 2015 will be celebrated as the 180th birthday of one Mark Twain—novelist, humorist, and all around American celebrity. I, for one, will not be celebrating.

You see, I recently finished up a book about Mark Twain, and I know, for a
fact, that Mark Twain was born on February 3, Wuster Mark Twain American Humorist1863. Or thereabouts. No one knows for certain, but that is as certain as we can be, so that is enough.  And not so much born, but created, or launched…inaugurated…catapulted…

That means that this February 3, 1863 will be Mark Twain’s 153rd birthday, which is not that fancy of a number, but it is getting up there for someone still so famous as to have people writing books about him—and more importantly, people reading books by him.

Sure, everyone knows that “Mark Twain” was really the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Even early in his career, almost everyone knew that, often using the names interchangeably, as most Americans still do. Not as many people know the names Samuel Clemens used an abandoned before creating Mark Twain: “Grumbler,” “Rambler,” “Saverton,” “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab,” “Sergeant Fathom,” “Quintus Curtis Snodgrass,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh.” Selecting “Mark Twain” was clearly a wise choice, although the name would have had a second, nautical meaning for many nineteenth century folk.

Samuel Clemens mixed up the use of his given name and his chosen name—making the whole distinction a mush of confusion that is either a bonanza of psychological material or, alternately, meaningless. For most people, I would guess the distinction is meaningless trivia, which is fine. I’m just happy people still know and read books by Mark Twain. But, I for one, will still grumble when people wish Mark Twain a “Happy Birthday” each November 30th, and I will still try to correct them by pointing out that the “Mark Twain” they refer to really was born—or created—on February 3rd, 1863.

But what does it matter?

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I Wish I Was Wise

Scott Stantis reflected on the recent violence in Paris, France with an uncharacteristically long political cartoon on November 20, 2015.  What is normally a single tableau, Stantis made the effort to write a more detailed account of his feelings toward terrorism in thirteen panels.  This is not a rant about how awful the Muslim jihadists are or a cheerleader cartoon about how the United States will crush ISIS, it is an introspective look into the futility of using words and pictures to demonstrate that words and pictures are inadequate to describe the helplessness that many of us feel about the violent world situation.

Stantis I Wish I Was Wise

This medium that normally works like a rebus puzzle to amuse news junkies takes on a more somber tone and is no longer enigmatic, in order to cut to the heart of civilized thought.  People are taught by the founders of all major religions that it is better to talk through differences than to fight over them, but both words and pictures have failed.  In his cartoon, Stantis says, “We’re angry.  We want to bomb them.  Bomb them all.”  When we do, we are disgusted with ourselves for taking out innocent children and civilian bystanders.  The military calls those deaths “collateral damage,” a term that appalls us even more for its thoughtlessness.

There are candidates for President who are trying to encapsulate the answer to Stantis’s concerns in a fifteen-second sound bite.  They will deprive peace-seeking refugees of relative safety in order to prevent an attacker from harming an American.  How many Muslim lives is equal to one American life?

It is fairly shocking to open one’s newspaper to the editorial page and expect a chuckle at the expense of bloviating politicians but receive a philosophical eye-opener.  However, the eye-opener puts all of the bloviating in perspective.  The politicians don’t have the answer and the cartoonists don’t have the answer.  But the difference is that this cartoonist admits that he does not have the answer.  We appreciate political analysts who don’t have all the answers; maybe we ought to elect politicians who know they don’t have all the answers instead of those who think they do.

For Those Hosting Thanksgiving . . .

groceryIn seven days the big feast will be upon us. Whether you’re hosting or traveling the time crunch has likely begun. With due respect I’ll keep opening remarks brief. Here are three smile inducing poems dedicated to those facing an eipic grocery trip in their very near future. Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Yam

By Bruce Guernsey

The potato that ate all its carrots,
can see in the dark like a mole,
its eyes the scars
from centuries of shovels, tines.
May spelled backwards
because it hates the light,
pawing its way, padding along,
there in the catacombs.

(Copyright ©2008 by Bruce Guernsey. Reprinted from New England Primer by Bruce Guernsey, Cherry Grove Collections.)

I am a Grocery Bagger, and I Have Feelings

By Amber Herrick

The beets pass through my hands
waiting to be juiced by the vegan
they will scream as he juices them
and stain the floor a terrible red

Georgia peaches
three-thirty-nine
white peaches
only a dollar
must we then conclude
to be white
is to be cheap?

the pieces of lettuce strewn on the floor
are the discarded cloaks of fairies
the snowy mold on the strawberries
their frost-touched pillows
and they have stolen the price signs
to make the palace of their king
shall we blame mere mortals
for the actions of fairies?

for where others see Incompetence, I see only Beauty

(Originally sent as a joke to poetry.com)

A Supermarket in California

By Allen Ginsberg

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon. In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?

I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.

We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?

(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)

Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?

Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

(Penned in Berkeley, 1955)

 

 

Magic Mindy: Kids Place Live, and the New Age of Children’s Radio Humor

“If something is really important, keep it in your underpants.” -Mindy Thomas, aka Absolutely Mindy, on Kids Place Live, Sirius XM

With all of the hyper-political parody and cunning satire currently churning through every jaded channel of irate idiot boxes and addled adult podcasts, perhaps its time to take a moment to appreciate a very different kind of humor that has been quietly, but quickly reshaping the way that many American kids and their families laugh, learn, and listen to the world around them.

Mindy Thomas, aka Absolutely Mindy, starring in the Recess Monkey video, “Flap Jacks”

Meet Mindy Thomas, the magnetic maestro behind Sirius XM’s Kids Place Live programming and the utterly enchanting spirit of early morning mayhem. As Absolutely Mindy, she helms the largely under-recognized Backseat Breakfast Club morning show on Sirius Channel 78.

The satellite radio industry has raised its fair share of eyebrows in recent years, with subscription fees, corporate mergers, and complex debates about markets and musical rights all tied to a medium that once represented the technological equivalent of free public speech. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, a number of exciting new outlets for all sorts of humor have arisen on a variety of satellite channels.

Among the most innovative and enjoyable of these forums is Kids Place Live, a channel devoted to family-friendly, G-rated kids programming that continues to surprise and delight with its frequently clever and often hilarious cast of affable characters and personalities.

 

More importantly, Kids Place Live has almost single-handedly inspired an explosion of diverse, dynamic children’s entertainment that rips through established genres and conventions with astonishing force.  In fact, Kids Place Live has brought safe, fun, and rewarding radio back to children in ways that other interests, from Disney to NPR, could never quite muster. Not since the fabled days of The Lone Ranger, Little Orphan Annie, and Let’s Pretend has kids’ radio been so fun, loud, and different.

Justin Roberts and the Not Ready for Naptime Players perform one of the many musical curtains used in the Absolutely Mindy Show

Mindy Thomas, Sirius’ perky princess of screwiness, is a revelation of light-hearted, pixie-dusted glee and her affable address to both kids and adults is laced with a beaming, witty joy that captures both the thrilling wonder and the insistent anarchy of childhood.

Billed on the Sirius website as  “a carousel of non-stop nuttiness,” Mindy’s Backseat Breakfast Club has inspired a newly imagined community of young listeners and bemused parents nationwide. Beginning at 7 am, carloads of freshly caffeinated drivers and briskly brushed offspring tune in to Mindy, sharing those last precious minutes of freedom and frolic before harsh institutional realities come crashing down with the dreaded school drop-off or deadlocked morning commute.

Not all parents are fans, and that’s just fine, but there is no denying Mindy’s intimate understanding of what makes children smile. More often than not, she takes her kooky cues from kids’ own tastes and preferences. Potty humor and “Grosser than Gross” routines are common, but so are lengthy interviews with musicians, poets, and artists. Among her audience favorites are the outrageous “Birthday Missions” announced each morning in tandem with the Mission:Impossible theme and the “Breakfast Blasts Newscasts” featuring hilarious but relevant commentary from NPR’s Guy Raz. Frequent guest appearances by her own kids, tall tales about her mobile home loving parents, and outrageous tales of the misadventures of devoted hubby, Absolutely Mister, are all loaded with mirth and mayhem. To balance out the bedlam, the Absolutely Mindy Show also features its fair share of routine “healthy lifestyle” advice done up in wacky wrapping. These include Kira Willey’s “Seatbelt Yoga Breaks” and the always astute book reviews by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, author of the early readers’ Lunchlady graphic novel series.

Most importantly, though, Mindy and her media celebrate one primary theme: the  limitless fun of Play. Calling on all listeners to mess around with everyday life as imaginatively and enthusiastically as possible, Absolutely Mindy constantly celebrates the multitude of benefits, inventions, and discoveries that arise from enjoying the world around us. She urges callers of all ages and listeners of every region to try new things, share wild adventures, and, even more frequently, admit to embarrassing fears, failures, and mistakes that may somehow limit their fun. Many of the most amusing stories from excited callers are accompanied by a background of adult groans, chuckles, and gasps.  Of course, similar themes of fun and frantic comedy run through the shows hosted by Mindy’s collaborators, including Jack Forman’s Monkey House and Kenny Curtis’ neurotic menagerie, the Animal Farm. In fact, Lorenzo the haphephobic llama has become something of a super-star equal to Bugs Bunny, Sponge Bob, or Rainbow Dash in the eyes of my own children and their friends.

llama1

Music itself has changed thanks to Mindy and her maniacal crew. Screwball songs like Mike Phirman’s hilarious “Who Makes the Breakfast?”,  Joe McDermott’s “Kitty Fight,” and Andrew & Polly’s ridiculously catchy “Grapes” are now as familiar and famous among the playgroup set as Katy Perry hits or Disney tunes.

Mike Phirman’s “Who Makes the Breakfast?”

Joe McDermott’s frantic “Kitty Fight” anthem

Andrew & Polly’s infectious “Grapes”

Sure, Frozen‘s “Let it Go!” and Vanilla Ice’s tepid Teenage Turtle anthem are constantly reiterated to the delight of gazillions of kid listeners, but so are charming tracks like Kristin Andreassen’s little known marvel, “Crayola Doesn’t Make a Color for Your Eyes” and Chris Rice’s “Billy Joe MacGuffrey.” Longtime star of the children’s charts, Laurie Berkner has hosted her own Kids Place Live feature as have the Aussie imports, the Wiggles. Dozens of wonderful new bands, acts, and comedians have found broad and eager new audiences through Kids Place Live’s lollapalooza of songs, games, and skits including the popular Story Pirates, who ‘steal” the concepts for their zany plays from submissions by child listeners. Among the most engaging musical offerings are bands like Lunch Money, The Pop Ups, Mista Cookie Jar, Jazzy Ash, and Joanie Leeds. Most importantly for my own family, though, Absolutely Mindy’s marvelous mixture of the eclectic and the iconic brought us all in touch with the remarkably fresh and environmentally empowering, Grammy-winning songs of the Okee Dokee Brothers, a goofy Bluegrass comedy duo whose rich folksy anthems have forever sealed our family’s commitment to getting outside and explore the natural wonders of the nation.

Kristin Andreassen’s “Crayola Doesn’t Make a Color For Your Eyes”

Chris Rice’s full length epic, “Billy Joe McGuffrey”

The Okee Dokee Brothers’ river anthem, “Can You Canoe?”

The Okee Dokee Brothers’ revisit an American classic, “Haul Away Joe”

The Okee Dokee Brothers’ “Walking with Spring”

Mindy’s circus of sound, speech, and song on Kids Place Live might not delight every parent with its raucous address. The Backseat Breakfast Club will not speak to those adults who are too entwined within the sour spin machine of Bill Maher/Jamie Oliver/Stephen Colbert/Jon Stewart, or whatever splendorous smarm Andy Cohen and Jimmy Fallon hover over at the moment.  What it does do, however, is keep us interested in the endless potential of childhood fun, wonder, and happiness. When so much contemporary comedy is as factional, contentious, and combative as can be, the Absolutely Mindy Show is alive with mischievous innocence and family-focused frenzy. Now, that’s magic well worth keeping in your underpants!

Bill Burr: A Safe Space for Standup?

Maybe I’ve been watching too many political debates or reading too many articles that pop up as newsworthy on my social media newsfeed (i.e. Starbucks’ Cupgate) – either way, I’ve been craving some authenticity lately and jumped at the chance to see comedian Bill Burr and his borderline-obnoxious-yet-refreshingly-honest standup last week.

My affinity for Bill Burr started years ago when I stumbled upon Bill Burr’s Monday Morning Podcast. Since 2007, Burr has relied heavily on material about sports, food, stereotypes, and even consumer complaints to air out his grievances in his weekly podcast, a part of the All Things Comedy network. During a recent episode on a Thursday night, Burr discussed his upcoming trip to Philadelphia, home of the world’s best cheesesteaks, where I saw him at the Wells Fargo Center, his largest live crowd ever, the following evening. If you’re not familiar with Bill Burr, his role during the second season of Chappelle’s Show might be worth a watch. Or you can catch the Massachusetts native on one of his specials – 2014’s I’m Sorry You Feel That Way being the most recent. Burr’s newest project, F is For Family, airs on Netflix next month.

As I was leaving the show, a group of 3 or 4 women in front of me lamented about giving up a Friday night to attend a show highlighting “another sexist comedian.” They cited his shtick about women’s takeover of the NFL as proof of their supposition. Below, a sample:

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Press or Pass: The Unfunny Closing of the University of Missouri Press

An old post, but with a fresh relevance today with the resignation of Tim Wolfe.

Humor in America

Tracy Wuster

Update:  As of October, the decision to close the Press has been reversed and Clair Willcox has been rehired.  The concerted efforts of many people helped convince the bigwigs at Mizzou to reverse course, even if they won’t fully admit their mistakes.  I will be publishing my book with the press, if it is approved, of course.   To follow the situation, go here:  https://www.facebook.com/SaveTheUniversityOfMissouriPress.  I have added a new cartoon below.

Another update: in November, 2015, Wolfe has resigned due to his handling of a number of incidents concerning racism.  In a twist, considering the satire on Wolfe below, the final straw seems to have been the announcement that many members of the football team would be on strike until Wolfe left.  In another, more personal, twist, I received my page proofs for Mark Twain: American Humorist from the University of Missouri Press on Saturday night.

This…

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The Lost Art of the Sitcom Theme Song

edith-archie-bunker-110

In the old days of television, before on demand and remote controls, the theme song announced the next show. It was designed to catch or keep your attention. Between the birth of television and the end of the 20th Century, 42 television theme songs charted on the Billboard top 60, four of which made it to No. 1. In the 21st Century not one television theme song has hit the pop charts.

Reasons for this include changing public taste and the fragmentation of popular culture but also the simple fact that many modern shows have no theme, and most that do use a short instrumental motif in lieu of a full fledged song.

The 1950s

Like all television programming, the sitcom has its origins in radio shows that were adapted for the new medium. Two pioneering shows – The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy – set the template that would remain virtually intact for the rest of the millennium.

The Honeymooners theme keeps with the radio tradition of an orchestral bed beneath the announcer.

I Love Lucy was a pioneering show in many ways, including its theme song. The I Love Lucy theme, written by Eliot Daniel, is the first sitcom theme that works almost as a commercial jingle. It is an infectious, easily identifiable tune that serves to brand the show.

Interestingly, these two iconic 1950’s sitcoms featured childless couples living in apartments – one blue collar realism, the other showbiz glamour – in an era that would be defined by the quintessential suburban nuclear family: a large house with a yard and a dog, a father who works, a mother who keeps the home and the 2.5 kids who learn and grow from their problems each week: Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

The 1960s

As the 50s morphed into the 60s, sitcoms began to focus on less traditional families, from the broken to the fantastic.

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