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Humor in the Age of Trump

Tracy Wuster

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Having been distracted from the study of humor by the spectacle of politics for the past six months to a year, I have yet to put together a cogent response to the question of the role of humor in the age of Trump.  For many, it seems, there is little to laugh at in such a time–at least not the laughter of pleasure or enjoyment.  The humor that comes with satire, yes, but I have not seen much pro-Trump humor.  Maybe I am not looking in the right place.

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Here I want to gather and direct you to a few pieces that I have found interesting on humor and its role now.  Please feel free to direct us toward others in the comments.

LAUGHTER IN THE AGE OF TRUMP 

MAGGIE HENNEFELD / UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

…Comedy, however spiteful, has always possessed a special power to reveal that the emperor has no clothes. Satire defeats fear with laughter. As Jon Stewart put it in a 2010 MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow—about the destructive impact of news entertainment on journalistic standards—what “satire does best…is articulate an intangible feeling that people are having, bring it into focus, say you’re not alone. It’s a real feeling. It’s maybe even a positive feeling, a hopeful feeling.”3 Unlike the smug laughter of cynical disavowal, the stinging laughter of pointed satire can actively participate in transforming our perception of reality. Since reality is a construct—equal parts unknown trauma and Celebrity Apprentice—it is therefore ripe for the molding, and ours for the seizing….

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“Hold on—that’s a trash fire. Over there is Trump’s Inauguration speech.”

LETTER TO AMERICA
BY MICHAEL P. BRANCH

…First of all, America, never forget the immense power of humor to expose misguided values and destructive practices. Satire is as vital and as useful now as it was when Aristophanes ragged on Socrates in The Clouds back in 423 BC. You remember that gut buster, don’t you? Well, we still have plenty to learn from Swift and Johnson, Bierce and Twain, Orwell and Huxley. Satire is not only funny but also enormously forceful and effective—and, human nature being what it is, the comic exposure of vice and folly has the added benefit of offering great job security. America, I know you feel like you’re on the defensive, that even as you try to inspire, persuade, and reform, you secretly fear that you are now a voice crying in the wilderness. The satirist, by contrast, remains on the offensive, challenging established power structures, revealing their absurdity or violence, forcing villains to account for themselves. Orwell was right that “Every joke is a tiny revolution,” because satirical humor is the enemy of established power—especially power that lacks moral leadership. The satirist’s work is the serious business of striking into that troubling gap between what our ideology promises and the often disappointing outcomes our choices actually produce. We don’t call them “punch” lines for nothing….

politicalcorrectness

Political Correctness Isn’t Killing Comedy, It’s Making It Better

Diversity Among Comedians and Audiences Makes Room for More Laughs

BY REBECCA KREFTING

…What’s notable about these new, louder voices is that they aren’t stifling free speech (that bludgeon so often used by incorrectness defenders). They’re creating more. Comics such as Jim Norton may criticize the internet outrage gang for spending too much time railing about matters that are inconsequential, namely jokes told by comics. Upon closer examination, however, a lot of these “petty” conversations speak to issues of great significance in our society like how we portray and treat historically disenfranchised groups.

Does some of the outrage go too far? Yes. Will fear of backlash lead to some performers self-censoring their material? Perhaps. (Though you’ll note that most of these complainers aren’t exactly being silenced.) But it’s a false presumption that being more mindful when it comes to producing humor that punches down will somehow create comedy that’s less funny. If anything, it makes it smarter….

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Comedians in the Age of Trump: Forget Your Stupid Toupee Jokes

But these sorts of jokes about him fail to even begin countering the disastrous impact he’ll have upon the world. Because the problem isn’t that he’s unmockable; it’s that he’s too dangerous to simply mock. The saint of the so-called “alt-right,” the man who “tells it like it is,” supports free speech only so long as he isn’t the butt of it. His rhetoric is grounded in hate. But what’s most dangerous is that his entire identity is grounded in the paranoid idea that he, a millionaire who answers to no one — the very definition of a punch-up comedy target — is somehow the victim, and that making fun of him is in fact punching down. The best comedy imagines new, better worlds by laughing at the old, current one. But how do we laugh at this world when it’s run by a man who not only can’t take a joke but would be giddy at the prospect of taking away our right to make them at all?

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Opossum Carols, or Walt Kelly’s Xmas Postludicrosity

Humor in America

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.

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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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Regarding Rudolph

Humor in America

rudolph-the-montgomery-ward-reindeer‘Twas the day before Christmas and all through the hills
The reindeer were playing . . . enjoying the spills ”

Thus begins Robert May’s charming and lighthearted poem in anapestic tetrameter, (the same meter as “A Visit from St. Nicholas” ––also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”).

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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Announcement: Humor in America Book Series

Tracy Wuster

I am pleased to announce the Humor in America book series at Penn State University Press.  Although sharing a name and an editor, the series is not officially connected with this site, but it does share the same goals: the intelligent and illuminating scholarly discussion of humor.

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Humor in America Series

Penn State University Press

Series Editors: Judith Yaross Lee & Tracy Wuster

 

From Benjamin Franklin to Mark Twain, Mel Brooks to Richard Pryor, Our Gang to Inside Amy Schumer, American humor has time and again proven itself to be more than mere entertainment: it has brought cultural norms and practices in America into sharp relief and, sometimes, successfully changed them. The Humor in America series considers humor as an expression that reflects key concerns of people in specific times and places.

 

The series engages the full range of the field, from literature, theater, and stand-up comedy to comics, radio, and other media in which humor addresses American experiences. With interdisciplinary research, historical and transnational approaches, and comparative scholarship that carefully examines contexts such as race, gender, class, sexuality, and region, books in the Humor in America series show how the artistic and cultural expression of humor both responds to and shapes American culture. The series will publish mainly authored volumes, not edited collections, and will appeal to audiences that include scholars, students, and the intellectually curious general reader.

 

Questions or submissions should be directed to the series editors at: leej@ohio.edu and wustert@gmail.com

 

Judith Yaross Lee is Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies and Charles E. Zumkehr Professor of Rhetoric & Culture in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and the author, most recently, of Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture.

 

Tracy Wuster teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the director of the Humor in American Project at UT and the executive director of the American Humor Studies Association. He is the author of Mark Twain, American Humorist.

 

Initial inquiries should take the form of a three- to five-page proposal outlining the intent of the project, its scope and relation to other work on the topic, and the likely audience(s) for the book. Please also include a current CV. The editors note that although it is a logical fallacy to expect scholarship on humor to be funny, the best humor scholarship can be fun— and illuminate its exemplars’ comic spirit—while also being intellectually rigorous and a pleasure to read.

 

 

Series Editorial Board

Darryl Dickson-Carr

Southern Methodist University

 

Joanne Gilbert

Alma College

 

Rebecca Krefting

Skidmore College

 

Bruce Michelson

Emeritus, University of Illinois at

Urbana-Champaign

 

Nicholas Sammond

University of Toronto

 

Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically)

Humor in America

Any time I get the chance to teach American satire, I begin by asserting its power. I use Mark Twain (who else?) to frame the course, taking a line from the Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” I imagine many teachers do the same thing. It is a wonderfully useful statement that grants an aura of legitimacy for the course.  It is also a rather conspicuous effort, as I fight off a perpetual fear that my students (and my peers) hold fast to an underlying belief that “serious” and “humorous” are opposing forces. I confess also that I add Twain’s line to soften my lurking guilt for being able to do something so thoroughly interesting and fun for a living. Still, I believe Twain’s assertion.

But I am having doubts.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone (29 Sep. 2011), Jon Stewart shares his…

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Satire and Conspiracy: Partisanship, Trolling, and the Poisoning of the Public Sphere

by George Carstocea

PhD candidate in Cinema and Media Studies @USCCinema. Occasional/lapsed photographer, filmmaker, actor.

This week, a conspiracy theory emerged in the fever swamps of the Internet, linking Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta to a ring of pedophiles and child abusers. A satirical website titled RealTrueNews posted a story satirizing the ridiculousness of some of the arguments in this conspiracy theory. Within a day, this satirical take was picked up and reproduced in earnest, word for word, by several right-wing conspiracy theory websites. The satirical article is credited to a “Max Insider,” one of the four posters on the website. The others go by the names “Projekt Pyramid”, “#NeverEVERHillary”, and “Lex Icon”. If you are still unsure about the satirical intent from the names, you need only to take a look at their About page and recent articles for proof.

Mr. Insider’s article begins with a link to the emergent conspiracy theory on the CT forum Godlike Productions. One of the supposed pieces of evidence proving this theory is a “suspicious” email found in the Podesta cache, from a Georgetown Law student to the Georgetown Law listserv, to which Podesta is evidently connected. You can find the original email on Wikileaks, but I won’t post a link to it here, for a reason I’ll make clear in just one second. Here are its contents:

My parents are visiting this weekend, and I need to sell my enormous collection of beanie babies! I’ve approximately 480 little creatures of joy, and I’m selling each one for $20.00. You must buy all 480, though. It is a collection (not an auction)… They are very respectful and amicable with one another, and they are (for the most part) cat and dog friendly. Some are sassier than others, naturally. Please let me know! My parents can’t find out.

On the Godlike Productions forum, this email seems to have given birth to some pretty far-fetched madness, although it was (1) not written by Podesta, and (2) not even addressed to Podesta, but rather to a listserv with many subscribers who are in no way related to the Clinton campaign. A sample:

Amusingly enough, this email isn’t even new to the Internet. It was shared — presumably by one of the many other people on the Georgetown Law listserv — on Imgur, picked up by Reddit, and then featured by Internet humor site Uproxx at the end of July, 2015.

At this point, you might wonder: was the initial email earnest? Uproxx makes fun of it as if it were, because the Imgur post includes an image of the beanie babies in question. Here it is, in all its glory:

However, that image had itself been posted, in April 2014 (more than a year before the Georgetown email), by a blog titled Perfectly Ridiculous, under the headline #tbt — a nostalgic throwback to the Beanie Baby craze. I’m not sure whether this is the first version of the image, but it’s the earliest I could find through a quick search; at any rate, it shows that the Georgetown email didn’t originate it.

In that context, and given the odd description of the Beanie Babies as “cat and dog-friendly” and “sassy” in the original email, we’re pretty much forced to surmise that this was a weird joke shared a bit too widely between coworkers at Georgetown. The person posting the email on the Cringe Pics subreddit was essentially doing what the initial sender did — sharing a ridiculous photo of too many beanie babies with a community that will likely have a quick laugh at it and move on with their day. Uproxx picked up the story and showed it to their own viewers for the same reasons, making fun of the initial sender’s ridiculous language as if it were earnest, missing the high probability that the initial sender was joking about it as well. That distantiation increased the chance of laughter, but also decontextualized the image — does the pattern sound familiar?. Luckily, it at least didn’t expose the original sender, redacting the sender address in the email screenshot.

But Wikileaks, of course, does not redact, so now the identity of the sender is publicly available and being bandied about by conspiracists. I will not reproduce it here because I don’t want to add to the damage myself. But the plot thickens. Some of the conspiracists who picked up the satire from RealTrueNews wholesale and redistributed it as fact had no idea that the Beanie Baby email contained an attachment of the goods in question. The Conservative Daily Post, however, took the attachment, analyzed it, noticed that it had been posted earlier, and adapted the conspiracy to the new information: the fact that the image had been posted earlier is, to them, proof of the Georgetown sender’s malevolent intent. I am posting a screenshot of their speculation here, redacting the Georgetown sender’s name myself, because this is an absurd witch hunt and he doesn’t deserve to get his name dragged across the Internet because he once sent a joke to his co-workers. Regardless of whether you find the initial joke funny or not, this certainly goes beyond my bounds for reasonable retribution/speculation:

Reminder: this e-mail was not even sent to Podesta, but rather to a Georgetown Law listserv that presumably has hundreds of members

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The Summer of Trump: Clown, Gasbag, Monster, Anti-PC Hero, and Other Images of THE DONALD

Only a few more days left…

Humor in America

Tracy Wuster

An update on a new image that emerged: The Fall of Trump: A New Image of the Donald

Like many observers this summer (and heading into fall), I have been fascinated by the rise (and continued buoyancy) of Donald Trump.  And like many, I considered him a joke at first.

Donald as clown

Early in the Trump Era ™, political cartoonists, like latenighthosts, were excited to have Trump for fodder.  And what is not to love (for a comedian): the hair, the brashness, the class, the near-constant stream of material… it’s the Donald.  He was a walking punchline before he entered the race.

Trump politcal cartoon

Especially for cartoonists: the hair. Earlier this summer, I was riding in a van in Oakland with Yakov Smirnoff, and he mentioned getting his start at a Trump casino.  Someone said, “you mean our next president.”  To which he replied, “no, he…

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In the Archives: Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate” (1879)

Posting without political intent or comment. For your consideration as you prepare for the third and final debate.

Humor in America

Tracy Wuster

To “celebrate” the Iowa Caucuses, we present Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate.”  In light of the sometimes depressing spectacle of the primary season, it is nice to see Twain’s refreshing candor.  Here it is, from June 1879:

Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens politics president Obama RomneyI have pretty much rkde up my mind to run for president. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in…

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

Joe Gioia

west:perelman

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

MORE AMERICANS EXPECTED TO SELF-MEDICATE THAN FOR ANY OTHER DEBATE IN HISTORY

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

TRUMP WARNS THAT CLINTON WILL RIG DEBATE BY USING FACTS

“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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