by Bonnie Applebeet and Orquidea Morales
I am so excited to be back on HA! to share a conversation I had with a good friend of mine who studies horror, media, zombies, and Borderlands at the University of Michigan. I always found it fascinating that we, as people with such opposite inclinations, could get along so well, so I sat down one day with Orquidea Morales to ask her about what we thought the overlaps were between humor and horror. The results are wacky and provocative. We talk about Divine and Hitchcock, sex and stabbing, discomfort and vulnerability, all while theorizing the connections and territories between humor and horror. We hope you enjoy our sarcasm-laden conversation and treasure the insight into what two nerdy doctoral students might talk about over some burritos and Coke in a noisy restaurant.
I thought it would be nice to start with a video of Diller’s performance without any frames. She’s genuinely funny, and in spite of the garish dress, she seems very genuine. It’s difficult for me to find the rapid-fire one-liners of yore (and of Jeff Foxworthy) funny, but with Diller, somehow, it works.
Now for the frame.
I recently read a piece in The Atlantic commemorating Phyllis Diller, and I found myself panicking. Author Ashley Fetters put together many of the points I wanted to make in this post already. (Don’t you hate it when such an esteemed and often brilliant publication says exactly what you were going to say? It happens to me all the time.)
The piece was thoughtful and thorough, but the premise troubled me:
Diller’s trademark brand of hapless, self-deprecating, ugly-girl humor was based [on] an invented set of shortcomings she didn’t actually have. Which highlights a weird glitch in the system that still plagues women in comedy today: Why can’t funny women be hot? Or accomplished? Or smart? Why do so many women with these otherwise highly valued traits have to downplay them to get laughs?
Are you frustrated by the daily conundrum of a humor buff: to laugh or to learn? Tune into Emily Levine’s performances and flounder in indecision no more–you can indulge in both at the same time. I found myself listening to genuinely humorous humor theory in Levine’s performance on Ted Talks: Smart Laughs (available on Netflix instant view, or, you know, right here). Her delivery is over-thought, rapid, and dry, much like if Woody Allen were presenting at the American Studies Association conference.Some of her observations in the beginning reminded me a bit of Bahktin’s theory of the carnivalesque, but Levine directly synthesizes two academic texts that mention humor, The Garden of Priapus and Trickster Makes this World putting the various theories into action as she applies them to her life, standup comedy, and society. For me, Levine has taken some of the sting out of E.B. White’s haunting adage: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Levine’s frog will live to croak another day.
Margaret Cho said something on Watch What Happens with Andy Cohen a few weeks ago that offended a lot of people.
I can almost hear you thinking it: “And?” Such an assertion would ordinarily be unnewsworthy. I might as well have said “Everybody poops.” You’d look at me funny, and then go about your day, perhaps wondering why I felt the need to share such an obvious and uncomfortable truth. Cho says and does things that would offend a lot of people. This time, however, there was widespread, very public backlash. I have been wondering why this time, of all times, the response to her offensiveness has been so spirited. Through this faux pas, my eyes have opened to the reality of the profound distance between the stage performer and the person performing on the stage. I think this misstep is a pivotal event for humor studies because it provides a teachable moment in which this distance shockingly reveals itself.
I uh… I really like the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. I feel like I have to confess this rather than just drop it casually. I can mention that I like Aziz Ansari at a cool party with hip academics, fog machines, and black lights (which I attend practically all the time, by the way), but I have to “confess” that I like BCCT. I feel like this because I have ideological qualms with the premise of the troupe. I’ll write more on this later, but for now I want to highlight the man who I feel is the cream of the crop: Ron White. Unlike the other, perhaps more infamous of the four performers whose acts stick to your ribs like overcooked oatmeal, White’s act is as smooth as a good scotch–no gimmicks or catchphrases, just pure, acerbic, Texan style.
Although a pillar of the Blue Collar Comedy troupe, White’s persona seems to have no unexamined allegiances to neither class nor political party.
White often falls to the ultimate sin of standup: reusing material ad nauseum. Once you’ve watched They Call Me Tater Salad, you’ve pretty much seen his repertoire. The performance itself is anything but lazy, however, and I highly recommend it. It’s impeccably timed, tightly delivered, and leaves me doubled over every time.
It has seemed to me that those of us who study humor are an optimistic group on the whole. I am no exception. I have lain awake at night thinking about how standup comedy can pretty much save the world. This belief came from noticing a phenomenon in the fight for gay and lesbian equality; gay and lesbian identified standup comedians doubled as social movement leaders. I’d like to throw a stick in my proverbial bicycle wheel and examine the pitfalls that I’d rather not have observed in my research on lesbian comedian activists, using Margaret Cho and Wanda Sykes as case studies.
This entry is the first in a new series entitled, as you may have guessed, “Standup Sunday,” where HA! contributors feature noteworthy comedians.
It gives me great pleasure to share with you a woman who makes me feel weak in the knees: Lea DeLaria. What charisma! What confidence! What carefully crafted hair!
And she can sing!
Also…uh, I think she can cook?
Much of my work studying queer comedians has focused on the prime time glass ceiling shattered by Ellen DeGeneres in 1997, but as I cobble together a larger picture of the status of lesbian comedians in the 1990s, performers like DeLaria helped me acknowledge that there were other, more abrasive queers performing out of the closet before DeGeneres’ outing on Ellen.
As her Wikipedia page will tell you, DeLaria appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1993–the first instance of an openly gay comic on late night. This appearance came in a time in the early 1990s when the number of openly gay comics started to surge. This phenomenon was further evidenced by Comedy Central’s Out There, one of the first in a long line of exhausting “Out” cliches. This, less importantly, was also the first all-gay comedy performance on television.
Here is a brief introduction to her delivery style. And no, it’s not about that kind of Bush, and yes, this is NSFW.
What better way to win the queer hearts of the Out Laugh Festival in LA than to Bush bash?
If you’re interested in learning more about DeLaria and enjoying some more of her fast talking, salty style, she is the subject of the documentary, The Butch, and has a website linking to her musical albums.
I remember watching DVDs of Margaret Cho and Eddie Izzard perform stand up as a baby-gay in Birmingham, AL, surrounded by other baby-gays in a friend’s apartment. That experience, laughing with others who were “in” at someone else who was not only “in” but was a fully functional, successful, openly queer adult, led me to where I am today. (For those who don’t know, I’m an openly queer doctoral student who makes a living studying humor in American culture!) As a result I’m not only a firm believer in the unique role of humor in queer culture, but in the unique power that it yields for queers as a tool for the movement towards equality.
Just as I’m starting to doubt if my own bias is tainting my research, Rick Perry comes along with some fresh, hot air to inflate my confidence balloon. I could almost kiss him for that. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign ad entitled simply, “Strong,” is the most homophobic piece of… well, just watch it.
See what I mean?
Memes parodying or undermining Perry’s sentiments have exploded within the last few days. Many of them have addressed the flagrant use of religion to advance a political agenda, and many more have directly addressed his heterosexism. I’d like to share several of them not only in order to revel in the glories of queer humor, but also to highlight some of the specifically “queer” ways humor is used to subvert Perry’s hyper masculine performance. I shall informally deem these tropes, “camp,” “cooties,” and “acerbity” (if you can think of a synonym that begins with a “C,” please contact me).
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