Photo by Jean-Marie Périer, 1964
Chuck Berry was a walking contradiction. An inquisitive and highly intelligent student, born into a stable middle class family, who found himself incarcerated at 19 after an armed robbery spree with a broken pistol. A black man in his thirties in Jim Crow America who found a way to speak directly, successfully, to white teenagers. A cynic with an unyielding optimism. A sensitive, introspective man with a chip on his shoulder the size of a Coupe de Ville. A bitter man with a sly and relentless sense of humor. A loner and eternal outsider, who was at times the most beloved musician in America. A self-professed lover of performing live, who often seemed to consider his audience little more than a necessary annoyance. A consummate craftsman, who seldom bothered to rehearse or even tune. His only number one record, his worst song.
He saw the highest highs and the lowest lows of the American experience – from Bandstand to Lompoc, the colored window to the Kennedy Center – and he performed at times as brilliantly and as badly as an artist can. Through it all, he did everything on his terms.
Chuck Berry was the embodiment of America, and one of its greatest chroniclers and creators. Yes, he helped create rock ‘n’ roll and heavily influenced the Beatles and Rolling Stones and everyone after. But Chuck Berry’s genius is not tied to his chosen genre nor dependant on the successes of later British bands. His genius is independent, wholly American, self-contained, and has only solidified with time.
I can remember my first scholarly thought. Well, I should say that I can visualize the context of my first scholarly thought. Like a Polaroid of a younger me looking through a View-Master: I know that I saw something, and how, but can’t remember what.
I can almost replicate the place from memory, but will never replicate the time. Heraclitus, who was smarter than the average Greek, once wrote fragmentedly, “You cannot step into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on.” True, but the Greeks widely preached the maxim to “Know Thyself,” and I remember helping my grandfather once, and being rewarded with a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
To be precise it was The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, copyright 1981 by Clarkson N. Potter, republished by
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Had Thomas McGuane’s life ended before forty, lost behind the wheel or in some small-town motel misadventure, he’d be remembered today with the same cultish sense of loss held for such late literary contemporaries as Fred Exley, Tom McHale, and George Trow. The epitome of the bad-boy author, McGuane spent his thirties, which nearly coincided with the 1970s, in the sway of heroic, largely picturesque excess. Somehow, against type, he survived.
His first novel, The Sporting Club, appeared in 1969 and launched a career of great length and depth. Nine others have followed, along with three short story collections, four filmed screenplays, and dozens of personal essays, published in three collections that address his life as a horseman and angler of some accomplishment.
His fiction’s larger themes are alpha male behavior, individual autonomy, and dread, and range from tales of criminal misadventure to sketches of contemporary life out west. A lot happens in all of them. The typical McGuane hero is a self-reliant, fairly skilled guy who, either by overestimating himself or underestimating others, screws up badly.
In righting his own ship, McGuane repaired to his Montana home, the Raw Deal Ranch, to raise horses and recast himself as a regionalist—a sardonic, graceful observer of small town Montana life, a social landscape that closely models the classic American tropes of heroic optimism and failure; his broad subject being: How the West Was Lost. For that he is one of our greatest, and certainly least appreciated, living novelists.
But McGuane was at the start a satirist of broad national concerns. His first four novels exemplify a variety of comic work that was itself going out of style as he wrote. Absurdist in their aim, emblematic of higher disorders in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the great comic novels of Heller, Bellow, Elkin, Vonnegut, and, yes, McGuane, along with the concurrent movies of Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols and Woody Allen were consumed at the time by an avid public, homeopathic remedies against the madness of the era.
The impulse to laughter remains the animating spirit of McGuane’s work, even as he’s found varied and subtler means of expressing it. His enduring strengths as a writer, obvious at the start, remain: a flair for subtle observation, dramatic, sometimes violent, action, a cast of vivid, often desperate characters, and arch dialogue that’s at once plain and ornate. Even his bit players are alive on the page. Tying it all together all is one of the great narrative voices in American fiction, right up there with Bellow, Ring Lardner and Flannery O’Connor.
The Sporting Club is a very able, conventionally told story of the increasingly lunatic goings-on at an upper-class hunting and fishing club in McGuane’s native northern Michigan. Its WASP membership, descendants of 19th century Robber Barons, run the gamut from conventionally uptight to barking mad.
Here, told in third-person narration, is James Quinn, a second-generation Detroit auto parts manufacturer in residence for the summer, and Quinn’s old partner in schoolboy crime, Vernor Stanton, whose immense inherited wealth allows him a perpetual juvenile revolt from the adult world of business and social standing. The novel’s tried-and-true satiric points include how easily social veneers are stripped away; the incompetence of a hereditary ruling class; and the loathing felt between it and its putatively respectful underlings. The latter are represented by Earl Olive, the club’s sinister groundskeeper whom Stanton gleefully goads into transformative violence.
The Sporting Club has a good first novel’s flaws: simple characterizations, reliance on set pieces, and over-determined gags (such as a club historian named Spengler). There is a gimmicky, multi-headed ending that includes a loony Lord of the Flies reboot, and the grand reveal of a very compromising antique photograph, found in a time capsule opened for the club’s centenary celebration.
Humor in America 2018
Call for Participants
American Humor Studies Association
Mark Twain Circle of America
“Humor in America” will be held on the campus Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago from July 12-15. The conference will feature paper panels and roundtables on all aspects of American humor and/or any subject related to Mark Twain.
Please send proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org by February 1, 2018. Notifications will be sent by March 1. Please feel free to contact the conference organizers, Tracy Wuster, Larry Howe, and Pete Kunze, with any questions at email@example.com.
Proposals for paper presentations of 15-18 minutes should consist of a 250-word proposal and A/V requests.
Proposals for organized panels of 15-18 minute papers moderated by a chair should include individual 250-word proposals, an overview of 100 words, a proposed Chair (not required), ad A/V requests.
Each roundtable participant will speak for 7-9 minutes on a topic related to the larger theme (see below). Participants may present both a paper and participate in a roundtable, should space allow. If you wish to participate only in a roundtable, please indicate with your submission. Please submit a title and 100-word abstract if interested by February 1, 2018.
–Theory, Methodology, and Practice of Humor Studies: New Directions
–MT and Graphic Humor: Icon and Caricature
–Gender and Humor: Can Men be Funny?
–Race, Ethnicity, and the Study of Humor
–Mark Twain and Today’s satirists: Colbert, Bee, and Oliver
–The Publics of Political Humor and Satire
–Violence in the humor of Mark Twain
–Humor, Comedy, and Historiography
We welcome proposals for paper presentations and panels on any topic related to American humor and/or Mark Twain, broadly conceived. Scholars across the humanities are invited to present research on any of the following topics (or others related to humor, comedy, laughter, etc., etc.):
- literary humor (including but not limited to Chesnutt, Fanny Fern, Parker, Faulkner, Melville, Vonnegut, Ellison, Morrison, Kingston, Beatty, Ephron, Sedaris, etc.)
- humor and gender, race, sexuality, class, religion
- stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, and other humorous performances
- radio comedy, television, and film comedy
- visual humor, comics, and graphic narratives
- podcasts, internet humor, memes, and other new media
- satire, ridicule, parody, and other forms of humor
- humor in “serious” contexts or works
- humor in regional, national, transnational, international, and other spatial contexts
- All topics related to Mark Twain (especially the following topics: Mark Twain language play, MT and Political humor, MT and stand-up, MT a and gendered humor, Laughter and the Color Line: Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson, The Fantastic and The Comic in MT, The Comic Rhetoric of MT’s Speeches and/or Interviews)
We especially welcome proposals from scholars of color, junior scholars, and independent scholars. Graduate students attending the conference will be eligible for “Constance Rourke Travel Grants” to assist with travel funds. We highly encourage scholars to contribute to this fund. See the conference website for more information.
Attendees must be (or become) a member of the American Humor Studies Association or the Mark Twain Circle of America. Presenters will be highly encouraged to submit article-length versions of their work for possible publication in Studies in American Humor, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Humor Studies Association since 1974 and in conjunction with the Penn State University Press since 2015. Presenters on Mark Twain will be encouraged to submit article-length versions to the Mark Twain Annual, published by Penn State University Press.
The conference registration fee will be $40 for graduate students, adjunct faculty, and independent scholars, and $75 for tenure-track faculty members.
“Humor in America” is looking for contributions for an August issue. Started in 2011, this website publishes pieces about American humor and humor studies. We have published over 500 pieces, had over 350k visitors and over 600k page views, and have been attacked by Roseanne Barr (although Ricky Gervais tweeted a nice response).
In January 2017, we decided to go from a weekly (or thereabouts) publication schedule to a twice per year format, in which we hope to publish a number of high quality pieces each year in August and February. Thus, we are looking for contributors who can submit pieces by July 15th for publication in early August. If you are interested in writing a post, please write Tracy Wuster for more information.
Please review the types of pieces we tend to publish, which are largely focused on humor and its multiple roles in American culture. We generally to not publish humorous writing. We do not publish posts meant primarily to drive traffic or advertise something else. We are an academic community dedicated to smart writing about humor. We do not make money and we do not pay money for contributions.
A little different this year…
Last Saturday the Washington glitterati gathered at the Washington Hilton for what has become a major political event; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The draw has over the years become the president doing a stand-up bit followed by a professional comedian roasting more or less everybody in the room. This year’s invited host was Cecily Strong, a Saturday Night Live cast member known for playing The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With. Strong, only the second female to host in the last 20 years, did not go soft on those attending, pun intended. In twenty minutes she made sure to joke both left and right. My personal favorite was when she went after Obama: commenting on criticism that Senator Elizabeth Warren is “too idealistic and her proposed policies are too liberal,” she told people to look at President Obama “people thought the same about
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His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one — it is too offensive to be offensive. – Gay Talese
Don Rickles is bigger than stand-up comedy. The same way Frank Sinatra is bigger than singing. They each developed a style which would, in essence, become its own genre. They were both actors and, more accurately, entertainers. And they both forged their respective careers by refusing to compromise or vainly chase ephemeral trends. Such stuff as icons are made.
Don Rickles studied acting formally at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy and Kirk Douglas studied. Rickles admits he wasn’t the best student at the Academy, but he received advice and direction there which he applied throughout his career. Rickles landed some film and television roles and appeared in a few stage productions, but the loudmouthed Jewish kid from Jackson…
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As the first snows of December drift across my South St Louis windows, and the last shards of Thanksgiving turkey find their way into the requisite casseroles, cold cuts, and cauldrons of stock, I find myself harkening back to early Advent Sundays of yore.
My childhood, like so many others, was loaded with the humor of the holidays, but one of my family’s favorite traditions always tended in a more marsupial direction. So if you’ie got some time between mixing tubs of “Tom and Jerry” and trimming the tree, I’d like to share one of many meaningful excursions through the absurd quadrants of kiddie Christmas culture.
As I boy growing up in Detroit in the 1970s, I loved watching my mother collapse the last of her gargantuan Thanksgiving feast into a few impossibly crammed Tupperware containers and stuff the serving platters, gravy boats, and silver-plate cutlery away for their long…
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While it’s a common complaint that holiday traditions and stories have become too commercialized, this beloved tale actually began as a commercial gimmick.
Robert May created the concept of a misfit reindeer in 1939 at the behest of his employer, the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago. Ward’s had traditionally given a free coloring book to children at holiday time. That year, store executives decided it would be more cost-effective to create an original children’s book in-house. They didn’t know exactly what they wanted, but had the notion it should be an animal story with a main character…
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