Monthly Archives: March, 2016

Comedy Above All Else: On Directing The Last Cyclist

By Rachel E. Blackburn

 

One of my all-time favorite Seinfeld episodes featured the dentist character Tim Watley, played by Bryan Cranston. Watley begins making Jewish jokes after a recent conversion to Judaism. Seinfeld discovers this, is clearly bothered by it, and in response, visits one of Watley’s fellow patients, Father Curtis (sitting in a confessional booth to do so). After Seinfeld shares with Father Curtis the humorous antics of Watley, Father Curtis asks Seinfeld, “And this offends you as a Jew?” And Seinfeld responds, “No, it offends me as a comedian.” As one who was raised Jewish myself, complete with Bat Mitzvah, years of Hebrew school and the requisite trip to Israel, I always secretly revered that statement, however silly it may be. I might go so far as to say I found it admirable and noble; all hail in the name of laughter! I readily identified with the notion that Seinfeld ultimately held his identity as a comedian closer to his heart than that of his ethnic and cultural heritage.

The opportunity came to test my commitment to comedy above all, however, when I recently co-directed (with Ms. Gina Sandi-Diaz) a play titled The Last Cyclist. The Last Cyclist, written by Karel Svenk, is a comedy borne out of the Holocaust; specifically, written and rehearsed inside Theresienstadt, one of many concentration camps in operation roughly from 1940 – 1945 during WWII. What sort of authorial voice do we have in Karel Svenk, who in the midst of starvation, degradation, torture and dehumanization, found the energy and inspiration to write a comedy? What might he have to laugh about in his given circumstances? And, beyond all this – how did I approach directing such a piece nearly seventy years later after its initial conception?

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Karel Svenk, the man who found the motivation and enthusiasm for laughter despite everything, was a Czech prisoner. What little we know of Svenk – a comedian, actor, and playwright – was that he was charismatic, funny, goofy in the best of ways, and inspiring to his fellow prisoners. Naomi Patz, who has reconstructed and reimagined his work (the script adaptation of The Last Cyclist which I directed in the theatre), has often stated in her discussions of Svenk that he was something akin to a European Charlie Chaplin, in terms of his physical comedy. Were he to be alive today, she says, we might read him as analogous to a Robin Williams: someone whose manic energy was infectious, and could somehow shine light in even the darkest of corners. Svenk was someone who could readily demonstrate for us the value of comedy as a tool for overcoming the worst cruelties of life, in the skillful manner of a true artist and comedian.[1]

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Baseball is a Funny Game . . .

baseball. . . At least that’s what baseball legend Joe Garagiola said in his book of the same title. Garagiola passed away yesterday at the age of 90. It’s only fitting that today’s poetry post be in his honor.

“Casey at the Bat” is not only the most famous baseball poem ever written, but it may also be our nation’s best known piece of comic verse. Certainly it is pure Americana. Originally attributed to “Phin” when it was published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, it was actually penned by writer Earnest Thayer.

The beloved ballad has since seen a geat many reprisals and homages, not only in print, but also on stage and screen. There is so much conjecture about the real life inspirations for Casey and Mudville that I’m leaving that can of worms alone. Nine days ’til baseball season. Let’s revisit that poem. Rest in Peace, Joe.

Casey at the Bat

A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888

The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
We’d put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And its likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two.”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

                                                                       — Ernest Lawrence Thayer

When Archie Met Sammy

I recently stumbled across a very entertaining and thought provoking list of 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy. The article is a fun read, and if you take the time to watch the video clips it is a good way to spend your entire weekend. As a scholar working on the intellectual history of the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, I was happy to see the show represented on the list. The joke representing the sitcom was from the classic episode Sammy’s Visit (originally aired February 19, 1972 on CBS), in which Sammy Davis Jr. forgets his briefcase in Archie Bunker’s (Carroll O’Connor) cab and comes to pick it up from his home on 704 Hauser St.

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Archie: Now, no prejudice intended, but, you know, I always check with the Bible on these here things. I think that, I mean if God had meant for us to be together, he’d-a put us together. But look what he done. He put you over in Africa, and put the rest of us in all the white countries.

Sammy Davis Jr.: Well, he must’ve told ’em where we were, because somebody came and got us.

The joke managed to not only dress down Archie, but make a direct link between slavery and the continuing bigotry in America. The issue of Archie as a “lovable bigot”, a term used by Laura Z. Hobson to criticize him six months earlier in the New York Times, was also addressed head-on in the episode. The Bunker’s black neighbor Lionel Jefferson (Mike Evans) tries to explain Archie to their guest.

Lionel: But he’s not a bad guy, Mr. Davis, I mean, like, he’d never burn a cross on your lawn.

Sammy: No, but if he saw one burning, he’s liable to toast a marshmallow on it.

The episode is widely considered one of the most memorable sitcom episodes, and was ranked 13th on TV Guide’s 1997 list of the “100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time”. Yet, the episode almost did not come to be. When Davis guested the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the spring of 1971, some months after the premiere of All in the Family, he lauded the new, controversial show and introduced the idea of himself guest starring on it. Norman Lear, the creator of the show, and John Rich, the director for the first four seasons, both agreed that wasn’t going to happen but appreciated the kind words and welcomed the promotion. Davis, however, kept pushing the idea. His manager tried to convince Lear and Rich, while Davis himself told the press a guest spot was in the works. Finally, Lear and Rich bowed to the inevitable and set about to find a way to incorporate the star into the show.

It was the writer Bill Dana who came up with the idea of Archie encountering Davis while moonlighting as a cab driver. Carroll O’Connor described the episode as a fun adventure but at the same time noted that it was atypical, being mostly “gags and jokes” and not “applicable” to anything broader the way All in the Family shows usually were. John Rich and Norman Lear, both pleased with the episode, also vowed never to do another celebrity guest episode. The show is great fun and ends with Davis kissing Archie on the cheek, as they are posing for a photograph. It is unclear whether Dana or Rich, who both claim credit, came up with that iconic television moment, which received what Rob Reiner called one of the longest laughs in history.

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A final note to the story of when Archie met Sammy: Bill Dana, who wrote the show, was highly praised and perceived to be the favorite for an Emmy. As it happened, however, his agent’s secretary mistakenly sent the necessary paperwork to the Writer’s Guild instead of the Television Academy. Without even receiving a nomination, Dana watched as the show took home ten awards, including Outstanding Directing for Sammy’s Visit. There is a humorous side to such a silly mistake costing Dana, a comedy legend in his own right, an Emmy, though I doubt he saw it that way.

Scarecrow: The Music and Murder of Stringbean Akeman

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Wake up, wake up little Betty

What makes you sleep so sound

When the highway robbers are a-comin’

They’ll tear your playhouse down

The little cabin in Ridgetop, Tennessee hadn’t held a soul in over twenty years. The crime scene chalk and blood were wiped away and the cabin shuttered for some time.

The man renting the place went to light a fire in the large fireplace. Small bits of paper escaped from its mouth, softly falling from the brick façade like volcanic ash in the still cabin air. It was money. Tens of thousands of dollars floating in worthless portions, gathered gently on the cabin floor.

Stringbean’s fortune.

 

How Sweet It Is

David “Stringbean” Akeman fashioned his first banjo from a shoebox and a piece of thread. He was born in 1916 in Annville, Kentucky. They were so poor his mother would give him rocks to throw at birds, and, if his arm was good, they’d have boiled fowl for supper. When he was 12, he traded two bantam chickens for his first real banjo.

He would make his name – and his fortune – playing novelty songs in the tradition of the banjo-playing comedians of the Grand Ole Opry.

But String could pick.

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The Fall of Trump: A New Image of the Donald

Updated to include cartoons related to Donald Trump and the KKK/David Duke

Humor in America

Tracy Wuster

In September, I collected a range of images of Donald Trump in “The Summer of Trump: Clown, Gasbag, Monster, Anti-PC Hero, and Other Images of THE DONALD.”  Like many people watching the spectacle of the presidential primary season, I felt that surely the Trump spectacle wouldn’t last, something that Trump said would surely lead him to be a footnoted joke like Herman Cain, Michelle Bachman, or Rick Santorum.  I was wrong.

On that post, I promised to keep up with the images, but my fatigue at all things Donald kicked in after an update or two.  And, for the most part, the images were fairly consistent–clown, gasbag, misogynist, racist, etc., with the occasional pro-Donald cartoon coming in from the right-wing.  As this cartoon shows, Trump’s constant media presence and proclivity to shoot off his mouth surely keeps cartoonists busy.
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But over the course of the fall…

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Playing Drrrty Pool: A Few Reflections on Tim Miller’s Deadpool, Super-Humor, and its Discontents

 

     In his 19 February review of Tim Miller’s Deadpool, Entertainment Weekly critic, Chris Nashawaty likens Hollywood’s current love affair with comic-book franchises to a “superhero-industrial complex.” Though the first adaptations of comic-book dash and drama had great promise, the entire enterprise has become “so monolithic and profitable” and flatly predictable that even die-hard fans of caped crusaders and marvelous mutants now shudder when expanded cross-overs, bloated sequels, and generic spin-offs are announced at Comic Con, the newly anointed Official Corporate Sphincter of mainstream Pop-aganda.

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   Eight years earlier, in the prescient and personal “Why I Hate Superheroes,” Nashawaty himself warned of the coming deluge of masked miscreants in his fond homage to pre-blockbuster “Nerdvana,” an earlier, innocent age when “no one had heard of Comic-Con yet and there were movies for everyone” during the season of big, brash air-conditioned escapism. That cogent, cautionary tale warned of the cultural fallout from the phenomenal success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and its “endless 121 minutes” of “F/X eye candy” which “couldn’t have looked more bogus.” Nashawaty well knew, as did many others, that the prepackaged, high concept gloss of comic-book properties would soon admit ravenous Hollywood wolves into the fairly cultish, sheltered shires that were home to quaint communities of comics, cards, cosplay, and role playing fans: “It felt like every studio head in town, itching to wet his or her beak with Spider-Man’s box office backwash, was trotting out any half-baked comic-book flick that had been pitched across their desks: even the ones with C-list avengers like Daredevil, The Punisher, and Ghost Rider. No superhero was too minor or crappy to be pulled out of the mothballs, tarted up, slapped on the ass, and turned into a bloated summer movie.” In the annals of American culture, few harbingers have been as accurate in their dire predictions.


Now, in 2016, what the New York Times conceives as an “incessantly expanding comic book movie universe” shows absolutely no signs of slowing down its quantum mechanics. Some trends are truly exciting, especially in terms of comedy and humor. James Gunn’s goofy space oddity, Guardians of the Galaxy , ABC’s Agent Carter and  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. , and even the CW’s Arrow and The Flash, Fox’s Gotham, and CBS’ Supergirl all offer a variety of fairly rewarding courses in caped comedy. Even dour concepts like Daredevil and the Punisher have been resuscitated and paired into one of the most anticipated Netflix series yet. Both Ant-Man and Aqua-man, hilariously satirized as fairly ridiculous properties by Nasthawaty in 2008, are well on their way to crowd-pleasing marquee magnetism, and we are bracing for the arrival of hordes of new super-flicks and costume-centered franchises well beyond 2018.

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