Monthly Archives: September, 2016

The Garden of Curses: Down on the Farm with S.J. Perelman and Nathanael West

Joe Gioia


Let me propose that American literary humor, in becoming modern, branched in two during the Great Depression. On one side are absurd, language-driven vignettes, short magazine pieces ranging from whimsical to surreal where the narrator tries to make sense of, or at least describe, a crackpot world. This strand was largely created and mainly defined by S.J. Perelman, whose comic genius engendered two of the Marx Brothers’ best movies, Monkey Business (1931) and Horsefeathers (1932), and a steady stream of brilliant short pieces for (mainly) The New Yorker.

The other branch trades in black comic predicaments of grotesque dysfunction: a ridiculous overabundance of misery, of mental and physical illness and often absurd violence. Laughter here is defensive: relief at seeing something so horrible happen to someone else. This strain was best, and arguably first, articulated by Nathanael West, author of the superb short novels Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), who was, funny enough, Perelman’s brother-in-law.

In Perelman’s camp we find his older contemporaries, James Thurber and Robert Benchley, neither of whom had the idiomatic snap, that aggrieved brilliance and fine timing, that Perelman gave the form. Woody Allen and David Sedaris are his natural heirs, along with—in the sillier episodes with his oddly-named characters—Thomas Pynchon.

West’s example, heaping outlandish misery upon uncomprehending and helpless characters, has gained more followers: among the most notable being Joseph Heller (whose Catch-22 only gained wide recognition after Perelman praised it), Stanley Elkin, and David Foster Wallace.

And though West’s own work has never quite overcome the cult status given it following his untimely 1940 death, his artistry is now acknowledged, his works collected in a Library of America edition in 1997. The Day of the Locust may still be our best novel about Hollywood, made into a major 1975 film directed by John Schlesinger, starring Donald Sutherland and Karen Black, and creating, in one of its characters, a hopeless dope named Homer Simpson.

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Clinton vs. Trump Debate #1: A Humorous Primer

It’s here.  The event of the century.  The one we’ve all been waiting for with dread.

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

A selection of humor to help you prepare:

Trump Planning To Throw Lie About Immigrant Crime Rate Out There Early In Debate To Gauge How Much He Can Get Away With

HEMPSTEAD, NY—Saying he would probably introduce the falsehood in his opening statement or perhaps during his response to the night’s first question, Republican nominee Donald Trump reported Monday he was planning to throw out a blatant lie about the level of crime committed by immigrants early in the first presidential debate to gauge how much he’d be allowed to get away with.  More…

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016


With over a hundred million people projected to watch the debate, roughly sixty million of them will be barely sentient after ingesting what they deem to be the necessary dose of intoxicants.  More…

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

Blindfolded Clinton Invites Debate Coaches To Attack Her With Talking Points From All Sides

Standing slightly crouched with her fists raised up in front of her in the middle of her campaign office’s mock stage, a blindfolded Hillary Clinton reportedly implored her high-level staffers to attack her with talking points from all sides Wednesday in preparation for next week’s first presidential debate.  More…

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016


“You just watch, folks,” Trump told supporters in Toledo, Ohio. “Crooked Hillary is going to slip in little facts all night long, and that’s how she’s going to try to rig the thing.”  More…

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

Stay safe out there.

Poll: 89% Of Debate Viewers Tuning In Solely To See Whether Roof Collapses

“Of the 2,000 individuals surveyed, we found that nearly nine in 10 said they would be watching tonight’s debate on the off-chance that they might get to witness the roof of Hofstra University’s Hagedorn Hall suddenly cave in and crush the nominees for president,” said Quinnipiac spokesman Michael Jovan.

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Lester Holt Begins Debate By Reminding Audience These The Candidates They Chose

“So, just as a recap: You had numerous options and a full year to decide on the candidates you wanted to be your next president, and these were the two you picked. These two. Right here. All right, now let’s begin.”

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The Music of the Coen Brothers – Part III

This is the third installment in a three-part series. Read part one and part two.


“You should change into a suit.”

Joel and Ethan Coen’s previous film won four of its eight Oscar nominations. They followed the most acclaimed – and bleakest – film of their career with a return to what they do better than anyone – a screwball black comedy based on an original story.

In fact, Burn After Reading (2008) was the first film based on an original story by Joel and Ethan Coen since 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Part of Burn After Reading’s genius is in casting the A-list ensemble as total idiots. George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins all excel as earnest people with small, insignificant lives.

The film is a playful homage to the genre of Cold War spy movies.

Civilians Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand accidently find a copy of what they believe to be top-secret information belonging to a high level CIA agent. In fact, their find is merely the inconsequential memoirs of a disgruntled analyst with a drinking problem and an abusive, philandering, wife.

The characters are all idiots, on an idiotic mission. But they believe they are in real danger, involved in high-level espionage. Continue reading →

Send in the Clowns: A Note on Fear, Humor, and Painted Faces

First thing this morning, I received the following security alert sent by campus police:

“the UA campus is NOT on lockdown. Reports of clowns or any immediate credible threats on the UA campus are not true. These are unsubstantiated rumors. UAPD is patrolling campus.” Clowns roaming a college campus–who knew?

The fact is that numerous stories in varied media outlets have appeared concerning sittings of clowns in a variety of settings. These stories have tapped into a cultural phenomenon concerning our bizarre relationship with clowns. So, it seems logical to repost an earlier piece on the fear of clowns and comedy. Perhaps, it may help calm our fears, but in the meantime, please follow this basic bit of advice: do not follow a clown into the woods. OK?

Humor in America

Clown IT

Clowns are terrifying.

I am convinced that the very concept induces anxiety. While on the surface, the “clown” seems to be an innocuous effort to play on simple comedic principles of exaggeration–big facial expressions; big hair; big noses; big shoes, all capped by physical buffoonery–it really taps into our most perverse fears. This is not a new idea, of course. Having a character in a comedy who is deathly afraid of clowns is a staple of American humor. The best example that comes to mind is Kramer from Seinfeld. Using Kramer’s always over the top responses to otherwise normal social contexts is comedic gold (“Gold, Jerry, Gold.”), but his rather restrained response to coming face to face with a dangerous clown is instructive. We should keep in mind that Kramer’s fear was a point of rational thought within the context of the plot-line of the episode that featured Crazy…

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An Exceptional War Cartoon

An Exceptional War Cartoon

Over the last fourteen years I have seen hundreds of war cartoons depicting the various situations that reflect America’s involvement in international conflict.  After a while, it seems like I am seeing the same satire reflected in nearly the same way but with a different picture.  However, now and then I get a pleasant surprise.  Someone publishes a cartoon that suggests a different angle of a conflict.  The following cartoon does just that.

Tom Toles Editorial Cartoon

Tom Toles, “You’re Here to Help, Right?” Washington Post, 4 September 2016.

Vultures circling or, as they are doing in this drawing, assembled in a tree is as common a theme in cartoons about death as the Grim Reaper.  However, the way the vultures are used, representing more than the idea that something is dead or dying, but representing the victim’s potential rescuers, is a trope that is not often used.

Toles suggests that Syria’s neighbors are merely waiting for Syria, under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad, to kill itself so that neighboring countries can take over what is left.  The vultures are the nations surrounding Syria.  The Islamic State, Bashar al-Assad, and The Syrian National Coalition are not among the vultures, they could be best described as the cancers within that are slowly causing Syria’s demise.  However, the estate of the cancer victim is up for grabs when Syria becomes a corpse.  That is what the vultures are after.

Syria’s neighboring countries have done nearly nothing to help end the war in Syria (and it is no coincidence that there are five vultures in the tree).  Iraq has its own problems.  Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon have had a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil policy toward al-Assad and his nation (if he, indeed, has a nation).  Taking sides will rankle someone and those three nations do not want any more enemies than they have now.  Turkey has had to defend itself from the confrontations between the three cancers in Syria in order to prevent itself from getting infected.  Turkey is doing nothing to help the victim, but is doing its best not to harm the victim either.  Those are the vultures in the neighborhood tree.

Russia and the United States are also principals in the Syrian conflict.  Their interests are merely implied in this cartoon.  The United States would like al-Assad to abdicate.  Russia would like for him to remain in power.  What’s the reward, for any of this?  Even though Syria is the 68th largest oil producing nation in the world, they both want the oil.  Now that the price of oil is under $50.00 per barrel, why should anyone care about Syria’s oil.  The conflict began when the price of oil was much higher and, historically, once a country is in a conflict, it is difficult to get out without paying a high price.  And while energy is always an issue with Russia and the U. S, there is also a matter of reputation at stake.  As it was during the cold war, neither Russia nor America will back down.

Tom Toles uses an embedded panel to make a secondary comment in his own cartoon.  In the lower right corner, Toles depicts himself at his drawing board watching the scene in front of him.  The practice is similar to Pat Oliphant’s Punk the Penguin who gets the final say in his drawings.  Toles says of the vultures, “They know how to pick their friends.”  He is suggesting that when Syria finally dies, and the cancers (combatants) die with it, the surrounding nations will get their slice of Syria.  Let’s hope that when the time comes there is something worth taking because few people believe that there is anything of Syrian leadership that is worth saving.

This cartoon is among the few that cannot be copied in a few decades, change the labels, and have a cartoon that reflects the times.  This cartoon stands out as one that depicts the uniqueness of the Syrian conflict and only the Syrian conflict.