This Saturday (January 29th) would be his 89th birthday if he were still with us. Sadly, he took his own life with a handgun in 1984. He was 49 years old.
Brautigan’s poems are terse, highly conceptual (some of his abstract metaphors border on synesthesia), and often marked by his famously quirky gallows humor.
His unconventional verses resonate with me, but not with everyone. Here are a few. Decide for yourself:
The Mortuary Bush
Mr. William Lewis is an undertaker
and he hasn’t been feeling very good
lately because not enough people are
Mr. Lewis is buying a new house
and a new car and many appliances
on the installment plan and he needs
all the money he can get.
Mr. Lewis has headaches and can’t
sleep at night and his wife says,
“Bill, what’s wrong?” and he says,
“Oh, nothing, honey,” but at night
he can’t sleep.
He lies awake in bed and wishes
that more people would die.
— Richard Brautigan
Romeo and Juliet
If you will die for me,
I will die for you
and our graves will
be like two lovers washing
their clothes together
in a Laundromat.
If you will bring the soap,
I will bring the bleach.
— Richard Brautigan
The Donner Party
Forsaken, fucking in the cold,
eating each other, lost, runny noses,
complaining all the time like so
many people that we know.
— Richard Brautigan
15 Stories in One Poem
I hate to bother you,
but I just dropped
a baby out the window
and it fell 15 stories
and splattered against
May I borrow a mop?
— Richard Brautigan
A Cigarette Butt
A cigarette butt is not a pretty
It is not like the towering trees,
the green meadows, or the for-
It is not like a gentle fawn, a
singing bird, or a hopping
But these are all gone now,
And in the forest’s place is a
Blackened world of charred trees
and rotting flesh—
The remnants of another forrest
A cigarette but is not a pretty
— Richard Brautigan
Critical Can Opener
There is something wrong
with this poem. Can you find it?
— Richard Brautigan
She tries to get things out of men
that she can’t get because she’s not
— Richard Brautigan
Potatoes await like edible shadows
under the ground. They wait in
their darkness for the light of
— Richard Brautigan
He wants to build you a house
out of your own bones, but
that’s where you’re living
The next time he calls
you answer the telephone with the
sound of your grandmother being
born. It was a twenty-three-hour
labor in 1894. He hangs
— Richard Brautigan
This poem was found written on a paper bag by Richard Brautigan in a laundromat in San Francisco. The author is unknown.
By accident, you put
Your money in my
By accident, I put
My money in another
On purpose, I put
Your clothes in the
Empty machine full
Of water and no
It was lonely.
Last April, Tracy Wuster posted the announcement of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, which went to Eddie Murphy for 2015. He stated that Murphy’s “brilliance as a comic is unquestionable, and his influence on American comedy is clear.” He also asserted that some of Murphy’s work has not “held up.” Both comments are true. The focus for this post is not, however, on some of the films that might have been ill-chosen, but on his early stand up work, particularly the HBO Special Raw (1987). Murphy was (and is) representative of a 1980s cultural group of African American comedians heavily influenced by earlier comics like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, who pushed the envelope of “acceptable” language, theme, and content in humor. Their popularity demonstrated that they found an audience appreciative of the choices they made in their stand up acts. I’d like to use this essay to look at humor’s (particularly stand-up’s) dependence upon the current cultural moment for audience acceptance and appreciation.
While scholars and fans of humor will agree that some settings and/or jokes are universally accepted—the fart joke from Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” comes to mind here—other humorous productions rely heavily on the contemporary news, current politics or social situations as the nub of the joke, and thus have a much shorter shelf life. Times change, social foci shift, and what one generation finds hilarious falls flat in the next. Nowhere is this more obvious than in stand up comedy. Stand up, with its live audience and face-to-face interaction between comedian and audience foreground the contemporary social and political situation for the meat of its humor. In order to be a successful stand up comic, one needs to be able to “read” the cultural moment and gauge the audience’s engagement with issues: Who are they? What do they know about current events? How do these events affect them and their lives? What is their class, race, gender, political affiliation? And, most importantly, how far can a comedian go in depicting what he or she sees as necessitating change? For the length of the show—whether that be four minutes or two hours, the successful stand up comic must connect with the audience on a personal level; otherwise, the jokes don’t work.
Anyone who teaches humor can tell you that this “principle” of contemporaneity becomes obvious early on in the classroom. Since I teach at a Jesuit university, my students tend to be on the conservative side, grade driven middle- to upper-middle class students, and perhaps their reaction is a bit more vehement than at other schools, but in teaching Raw, which I consider to be a landmark in stand up comedy of the eighties, I need to spend a great deal of time setting up a cultural context for this early HBO special. The draw for comedians particularly in HBO’s early specials was the fact that because they were a subscription television offering, they were less tied to the standards for language and gesture than material shown on “free” TV. Comedians like Murphy tested the boundaries of the allowable, and his target audience accepted his choices without question, finding them funny. In other words, they saw humor in not just the material, but also the testing. Contemporary audiences, without the context, often only find it offensive.
This is the major concern for any stand up comedian and may explain why so few have long, successful careers in live audience humor venues. Those of us who remember when Raw was new and the Saturday Night Live skits Eddie Murphy did as “Buckwheat”, Eddie Murphy’s more recent work in film seem to be a departure from the earlier work. This is to be expected. Pushing the envelope in humor gave way in the wake of the political correctness movement, and audiences were less willing to accept any humor that denigrated or offended anyone. As a successful humorist, Murphy constantly reassessed his audience, the cultural situation, and his own strengths, and in doing so, shifted his work to reflect these changes. He does little stand up work these days, and has focused his attention on comedic film, allowing him to use another of his talents—creation of comedic characters.
What becomes clear as we look at his career is just how savvy Murphy has been at reading the social trends and adjusting his comedy to reflect them. Even as Raw was playing on HBO—and selling well as video—in 1987, Eddie Murphy was shifting his milieu of choice to film. Early comic roles in Trading Places (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984, 1987) and Coming to America (1988) brought him access to a wider, more general audience, and he tailored the comedy to reflect the change. While he still made use of four-letter words, we see less emphasis on them and more on his comedic use of vocal, dialect and language cues. The audience shifts again in the 1990s to films like The Nutty Professor (1996 and 2000) a remake of Jerry Lewis’s film from 1963 with a primarily African American cast; Dr. Dolittle (1998, 2001), another remake of Rex Harrison’s film (1967)., and Daddy Daycare (2003). This allowed for PG ratings and a yet wider audience.
Success in these genre and media shifts came from his talent for vocal imitation (impressionism) and ability to play multiple characters in the same film. While he sometimes still does these impressions and plays multiple characters, the 21st century sees Murphy much more active in voice-over only children’s animated films such as the Shrek series of films, (2001, 2004, 2007, 2010) and Norbit (2007).
Stand up comedy tends to be a young man’s game (and I do mean “man”, women’s stand up has an even shorter shelf life). Very few comedians can sustain a career in this medium. This is partly because of the physical strain of traveling to venues around the country, and partly because once a comedian finds an audience and theme, making the shift to other media or other thematic content becomes too difficult. The only stand up comic I can think of to sustain a forty year career is George Carlin, another Mark Twain Prize winner.
So, why did Eddie Murphy receive the Mark Twain Prize for Humor last year, and why didn’t humor scholars complain this past year? He won the prize for his talent as a comedian, but even more so because of his talent, his ability to read the cultural weather, and the ability to adapt his comedic style to the immediate cultural moment. Eddie is still making films (Beverly Hills Cop 4, Triplets, and Mr. Church are announced for this coming year). It will be interesting to see where he goes from here. I may try the “Buckwheat” skits from SNL next time I teach the course…but of course that will necessitate explaining about the Little Rascals from the 1940s and how that differs from the 2014 film.
Bowie released his final album, Blackstar, two days prior, on his 69th birthday. It is clear now the album was intended to be his swan song, a final statement in an unparalleled career. The fact he was able to conceal his terminal condition from the world in order to orchestrate such a graceful exit proves his consummate artistry and mastery of perception to the very, literal, end.
Blackstar is a deathbed testament along the lines of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” or Freddie Mercury’s thinly veiled Innuendo. There is little humor on Blackstar, but David Bowie, who was never satisfied to stay in one artistic place for long, threaded his unique sense of humor throughout his wildly diverse work.
This humor was in full display one May morning in 1999 when he delivered the commencement speech to the graduating class at Berklee College of Music, having received an honorary doctorate from the institution (along with jazz master Wayne Shorter).
I was fortunate enough to be in the audience that spring day, and I shook Mr. Bowie’s hand as he handed me my diploma. “Congratulations, man,” he said to me, pulling me into his fierce grip with a solid, sincere stare, locking our eyes for a tangible moment. He wasn’t just going through the motions with limp disinterest – he forged an intense connection with each of the 580 music students he greeted that morning. His energy was electric.
His speech that day was insightful, incongruous, inspirational and, above all, funny. He talked of the myriad of influences that helped shape his artistry.
What if you combined Brecht-Weill musical drama with rhythm and blues? What happens if you transplant the French chanson with the Philly sound? Will Schoenberg lie comfortably with Little Richard?…And then I went on a crusade, I suppose, to change the kind of information that rock music contained. I adored Coltrane, Harry Parch, Eric Dolphy, Velvet Underground, John Cage, Sonny Stitt. Unfortunately, I also loved Anthony Newley, Florence Foster Jenkins, Johnnie Ray, Julie London, the legendary Stardust Cowboy, Edith Piaf and Shirley Bassey.
It made perfect sense to me.
This was followed by an anecdote about a dive club, Dame Shirley Bassey and a sink.
As a musician, he knew his imagination would have to transcend his own limitations. He fully confessed – standing in front of Wayne Shorter, no less – that he simply lacked the authenticity required to play the music he loved most: American jazz and rhythm & blues.
So he made his music into art.
I didn’t feel comfortable as a folk singer or an R&B singer or a balladeer. I was drawn more and more to the idea of manipulation of signs, rather than individual expression…It wasn’t so much about how I felt about things, but rather, how things around me felt. To put it simply, I had discovered the Englishman’s true place in rock and roll.
The rest of his speech that day was peppered with his enormous sense of humor: tips on venereal disease, inside music school jokes (“Rockers! Jazzers! Samplers!”), anecdotes involving Brian Eno, John Lennon and the aforementioned Shirley Bassey – and his even bigger generosity of spirit.
The world has lost a giant, and the stars look very different today indeed.
Music has given me over 40 years of extraordinary experiences. I can’t say that life’s pains or more tragic episodes have been diminished because of it. But it’s allowed me so many moments of companionship when I’ve been lonely and a sublime means of communication when I wanted to touch people. It’s been both my doorway of perception and the house that I live in.
I only hope that it embraces you with the same lusty life force that it graciously offered me. Thank you very much and remember, if it itches, play it.
Photographs of Gertrude Stein are typically humorless.
Take this almost stern-looking image of her at work or this one with her Baltimore friends, Etta and Claribel Cone, who later visited Stein in Paris and were inspired, through her, to bring the remarkably large and impressive Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art of Cubist and Impressionist art to Baltimore.
Or this famous Picasso portrait of the author, which seems to capture the pensiveness and glumness of her era.
Even Kathy Bates’s portrayal of Stein in Woody Allen’s well-timed comedy Midnight in Paris is one of the least funny impersonations in the film.
Yet her poetry is nowhere near this sober.
Below is a short appreciation of a few of her poems. Like conceptual art, they create meaning through grammatical disorientation, repetition, and odd angles. And like conceptual art, their strangeness can really make a reader mad unless that reader is prepared, as very few museum-goers are, to find this all amusing and then begin to dissect the puzzle.
Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art:
And as you read you may also wonder (my students often do) whether this writing is nothing more than pretentious word vomit––a clever if silly mind game––or does it contain pleasant, even human levity–even a touch of soul.
Does the humor, if it’s there, come from our own ability to laugh at ourselves, having discovered through her poetry that we are too precious about and at the same time not careful enough about language? Should we feel serious about overturned grammar, or should we feel playful about it, or both? Should we laugh at repetition or feel that it’s meaningful, or both?
Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art:
Nearly seventy years after her death, this kind of poetry is rich with the heaviness of her time: world wars; gender prejudice, even from those she mentored and guided; anti-semitism–even perhaps her own self-directed variety; stark inequalities between classes; and perhaps understandably bleak, bleak views of life among artists. Although her words carry this heritage and the mark of her time, she breaks open language and almost seems to free it from its literal certitudes. In this respect she is like Emily Dickinson; both were masters of language, yet in their baffling play, they almost seem to prefer giddiness and silence.
Image of Gertrude Stein’s deceptively dreary home while studying as a medical student in Baltimore:
Gertrude Stein, “Susie Asado” from Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. (New York: Peter Smith Publishing, 1992). Copyright © 1992 by Calman A. Levin, Executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein. Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.
Source: The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry Third Edition (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2003)
A Substance in a Cushion
The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.
Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men. Does this change. It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.
A cushion has that cover. Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clean that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange. Come to season that is there any extreme use in feather and cotton. Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them.
A circle of fine card board and a chance to see a tassel.
What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it. The question does not come before there is a quotation. In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense. It shows what use there is in a whole piece if one uses it and it is extreme and very likely the little things could be dearer but in any case there is a bargain and if there is the best thing to do is to take it away and wear it and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning gratitude.
Light blue and the same red with purple makes a change. It shows that there is no mistake. Any pink shows that and very likely it is reasonable. Very likely there should not be a finer fancy present. Some increase means a calamity and this is the best preparation for three and more being together. A little calm is so ordinary and in any case there is sweetness and some of that.
A seal and matches and a swan and ivy and a suit.
A closet, a closet does not connect under the bed. The band if it is white and black, the band has a green string. A sight a whole sight and a little groan grinding makes a trimming such a sweet singing trimming and a red thing not a round thing but a white thing, a red thing and a white thing.
The disgrace is not in carelessness nor even in sewing it comes out out of the way.
What is the sash like. The sash is not like anything mustard it is not like a same thing that has stripes, it is not even more hurt than that, it has a little top.
A Little Called Pauline
A little called anything shows shudders.
Come and say what prints all day. A whole few watermelon. There is no pope.
No cut in pennies and little dressing and choose wide soles and little spats really little spices.
A little lace makes boils. This is not true.
Gracious of gracious and a stamp a blue green white bow a blue green lean, lean on the top.
If it is absurd then it is leadish and nearly set in where there is a tight head.
A peaceful life to arise her, noon and moon and moon. A letter a cold sleeve a blanket a shaving house and nearly the best and regular window.
Nearer in fairy sea, nearer and farther, show white has lime in sight, show a stitch of ten. Count, count more so that thicker and thicker is leaning.
I hope she has her cow. Bidding a wedding, widening received treading, little leading mention nothing.
Cough out cough out in the leather and really feather it is not for.
Please could, please could, jam it not plus more sit in when.