Author Archive: Jeffrey Melton

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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The Funny Ritual of the American Family Vacation

national lampoon's family vacation chevy chase

To celebrate the summer and to coincide with an impending Father’s Day, I am reposting this piece on National Lampoon’s Vacation. I reassert that the film is a formidable contribution to American humor, a fact made even more evident by the lame updated version of the film released in 2015 (simply titled Vacation), written and directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. The return to the Griswold family featured an adult Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) repeating the desperate but loving efforts of his father all those years ago. The film is just plain awful but still managed to make substantive money at the box office. I see that success as testament to the legacy of the original film along with the enduring appeal of disastrous family vacations in the American psyche. The original film remains the seminal statement of this beautiful and dysfunctional family ritual.

In the summer of 1983, Americans were treated to one of the best comedy films to examine the American family vacation and its inescapable heart of darkness: National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis and written by John Hughes, who based the screenplay on his short story “Vacation ’58.” The film stands as the best cultural document to exploit the humor of the American family vacation, that mainstream celebration reasserting the right to own the landscape and be miserable in the process–and all at great expense. There is no cultural behavior that is so consistently marked with promise year after year and also, in equal proportions, disappointment–unless we talk about marriage itself, but I dare not suggest that.

National Lampoon's Vacation chevy chase family vacation

Few movies tapped into the zeitgeist more effectively than Vacation. This is not only evidenced by its success in the marketplace, immediately in that big first summer (most online sources assert a box office of $61,000,000 and a budget somewhere around $15 million) ; then also with the continuing payoff from the sequels it encouraged and the high-rotation syndication it has earned for the last thirty years. There are few film or television families with greater reach into American culture than the Griswolds.

The film is especially poignant to American fathers who, no matter what other factors come into play, enter upon this challenge as if they are performing a noble duty to God and Country. (I hasten to add that women–mothers–have their own nightmares of the family vacation, primarily built around having to recreate the domestic space in any and all spaces occupied by the family–talk about exhaustion!–but Vacation is driven in all ways by Clark, the failed provider.) When a father begins a family vacation, the task is taken on out of a feeling of obligation first and foremost, not a desire for relaxation. As Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) puts it; the family is on a “quest for fun,” a perpetual search just as elusive as any effort to find the Holy Grail.

It is the delving into the pathetic psyche of the mainstream American father who chooses year after year to endure the ritual that makes Vacation such a compelling example of American humor. Every father is Clark Griswold, a bumbling simpleton with a good heart but very little understanding of his limitations.

Chevy Chase vacation

Chevy Chase, in his dream role, deserves an Oscar in his creation of Clark Griswold simply for making him worthy of our sympathy. He is both ridiculous and believable. He is a first-rate idiot, bless his heart. But he keeps trying because he understands what all American family vacation providers understand: he cannot stop. Stopping is failure. Deep down he must always believe that the obeisance of such a powerful ritual will be repaid. Marty Moose owes us.

Chevy chase punches moose at wally world

As I write this, I am on vacation, and I am exhausted. I can’t wait to get home so that I can get some rest. I am going to float the idea of leaving a day early. But in the meantime, today is for sea kayaks. The four of us will explore like Lewis and Clark. The sea looks a bit angry today, but what could go wrong? Good family fun, with a hint of danger, or at least….hassle.

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Laughing with Laugh Tracks

people_laughing

Teaching American Humor: Laughing with Laugh Tracks

My life would be better with a laugh track. My writing would be better, too. So would your reading experience–well, with a laugh track and a few drinks…

I am with the majority opinion on this issue, at least according to most producers of American situation comedies for the last sixty years. The reasoning behind the laugh track, as I see it, goes like this: A laugh track makes people laugh; people who laugh enjoy situation comedies; people who enjoy situation comedies see plenty of commercials; people who see commercials while in a good mood tend to buy things; a laugh track makes people laugh, and so on… Those who buy and sell commercials fund sitcoms, and they have never been inclined to trust writers or audiences. Neither do I.

I have skillfully written two first-rate jokes thus far. But, of course, you can’t really know that because this post does not have a laugh track. I spent several hours trying to insert laugh track audio here and failed. That’s funny–I think–but how can any of us be sure?

Audience-clapping

Teaching the American sitcom requires some discussion of laugh tracks. I admit that I have only glossed over laugh tracks in courses on American humor thus far. This has been a mistake. I have awakened to an obvious point: laugh tracks provide a compelling way for students to consider a more challenging array of characteristics of the art form–from the aesthetic to the mundane, from the heart of performance to the mechanics of production, from the implicit honesty of comedy to the manipulative potential of technology. From now on, I will begin all coursework focused on the sitcom with the laugh track.

Here is how I came to this astounding awakening; it’s all about The Big Bang Theory. I like the show (though I can’t decide whether I should consider it a “guilty pleasure” or an appreciation of solid, if broad, writing). The laugh track, however, drives me crazy. It is loud and intrusive. I don’t believe it at all. I am not alone. Any quick Google search of “laugh tracks” will provide over 31,000,000 hits. Type in “Big Bang Theory,” and you will find 127,000,000 hits, virtually all of which refer to the show (I didn’t check out all of them, by the way. I simply reached that conclusion using the scientific method based on my observations of the first two pages). Here is a fact: lots of people care about the television show; almost nobody cares about the scientific theory. A search of the show title combined with “laugh tracks” gets 181,000 hits. Lots of people hate the laugh track (lots of people hate the show, too). YouTube has plenty of clips of the show with the laugh track removed. Here are two examples:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmLQaTcViOA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASZ8Hks4gko

These clips draw out two basic responses from interested parties: one, that the show is hurt by the laugh track (so the complaint concerns its use rather than the inherent quality of the show itself); two, that the laugh track lamely attempts to cover up a lousy show. There is no reconciling of these opposing positions, but the removal of the laugh track is disingenuous in that it creates a show wherein the comedic timing has been wholly distorted. The Big Bang Theory is filmed in front of a live audience, and the performance reflects the interaction between audience and cast. The producers of the show claim that the audience responses are genuine and have not been “sweetened,” a term to imply that the laughter has been engineered in production to enhance audience responses. This claim is disingenuous as well. Any production process will inevitably “sweeten” the final product–from placement of microphones to volume applied. All steps in the process of preparing a show for airing are a form of “sweetening.” Simply because the producers do not use canned laughter (laughter recordings NOT from an live audience) does not mean that no laughter manipulation occurs. Of course it does. As always, The Onion provides the best satirical take on laugh tracks with the show by simply raising the volume of the laugh track so that it wholly overpowers the show itself: Big Bang Theory with laugh track enhanced by The Onion

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Americans and the Love of Romantic Comedy

Wedding Singer

I am a sucker for romantic comedies. I am not alone. Americans have loved romantic film comedies for just short of 100 years now with an unparalleled degree of passion and even zealotry. I am a zealot. What else could explain my love of The Wedding Singer? OK, that’s a cheap shot at the film just for a rhetorical joke. I regret it already, so I will confess a simple fact: I love The Wedding Singer and without hesitation will defend it as Adam Sandler’s best comic performance. OK, even as I type this I realize that such an assertion could be taken ironically or as a shot at Sandler. Once such jokes start, they are hard to stop. The truth is simple, though: I will watch The Wedding Singer and enjoy it any chance I get. The Steve Buscemi cameo alone makes it time well spent. Take a moment with it: Steve Buscemi in The Wedding Singer

Back to the popularity of romantic comedy. Go ahead and do a Google search for “popularity of romantic comedies”: 7,280,000 hits. That is a scientifically irrefutable testament to their cultural centrality. Just to seal the point with a point of comparison, a control group of sort for popularity: type in “popularity of Taylor Swift” and you will get 592,000 hits. That’s a large response but paltry compared to the rom-com, even though Swift’s music is in its own way a celebrant of romantic comedy. One more, in case you are not convinced: type in “popularity of Kanye West”: 545,000 (and trending downward), another win for Taylor Swift! But we are way off the point that I want to make here, which is this: romantic film comedies are crucial to the survival of the United States.

And they are in trouble.

The popularity, though many academics pretend not to understand it, is quite simple. The formula affirms basic human desires for–get this–happiness. Imagine that. This desire is especially central American culture since we inculcate the core aspiration (expectation) of happiness in our founding political and social ideology: the pursuit of happiness as an essential right. The romantic comedy simply affirms that happiness can be attained via love balanced with good-hearted laughter. The combination is perfect and whereas it leads to repetition and convention, so does life itself. Have you noticed?

We remain keenly interested in artistic expressions that celebrate love and laughter. The wonderful minds at Cracked have given us a fine discussion on the romantic comedy as form and cultural statement. The formula is indeed vulnerable to parody and mockery. Here is one of the most astute skewering of romantic comedy formula that also, in its own way, affirms the human desire it offers audiences: from Cracked, After Hours, on rom-com formula

The romantic comedy as an art form is yet again under attack. Plenty of people dismiss the predictable formula and the sheer repetitiveness, and, supposed schmaltz of romantic comedy films. That has always been the case, even as multitudes of moviegoers have supported that formula generation after generations.

No other form of popular artistic expression comes close to capturing the absurd vagaries of life on this planet while also maintaining a desire among its audience to continue living and laughing. Cynical ironists, however remarkably clever, always ignore the second but crucial component of the preceding point: humans generally want to be happy on some level. A human willingness to observe the “absurd vagaries of life,” as I put it, rarely comes with any desire to stop believing in the potential to be happy. Thus a paradox, of sorts. On the one hand, there is the human recognition of the Void (the stuff of nihilism, postmodernism, and The Family Guy); on the other hand, there is the human belief in two related expressions that reject the implications of that recognition: love and laughter. Romantic comedies, as the name impliles, bring those two wonderful human aspirations together. In the United States, that combination resonates like no other, and we cannot lose that advantage.

Only one definitive component of American cultural identity really matters: the push to pursue happiness. All else comes from that cultural imperative, all of our comedy and all of our romantic dreams. It is farce and inspiration all wrapped together. And the energy built from that vortex of tension makes for a vibrant comedic landscape. But American humor must always depend on the expectation of romantic celebration that we will live happily ever after. If that bothers you, go look in a mirror and say, “I am a tedious bore,” and leave romantic comedies alone.

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The John Oliver Effect, Humor, and Thesis Statements

Last Week Tonight

I wish I had coined the phrase: “The John Oliver Effect.” I wish I had jumped onto the John Oliver bandwagon before this past June when I first wrote about it for Humor in America. I wish more people had read my post in June. Here is the link to it for those who want a second chance: John Oliver, FIFA, American Humor, and Topic Sentences. The title is a bit long. I see that now. This follow-up post is better since is shamelessly rides the crest of the “John Oliver Effect” wave. About 60 words into the post, and I have used it three times, including the title. I am seeking traction. John Oliver Effect.

The phrase was coined by Victor Luckerson for Time online (20 January 2015): How the ‘John Oliver Effect’ is Having a Real-Life Impact. At least I think he coined it. In any case, although he introduces it as “so-called John Oliver Effect,” implying that someone had already “called” it, the internet has decided that he coined it based on the multitude of sources that use it and cite him as the originator. I’m in, too.

In a compelling article, Luckerson examines how reactions to particular sketches on Last Week Tonight have encouraged specific responses in the public square. In an especially useful post following the same idea, Sara Boboltz, for the Huffington Post (HuffPost Comedy) discusses ten specific segments from the show: 10 Real-Life Wins for John Oliver. Although I certainly quibble with the tendency in both pieces to use the term “real-life,” I will avoid a tedious existential argument here and simply say that both writers successfully capture a crucial transition in television comedy history. The list of segments from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that deserve substantive attention in the pubic sphere is growing. The show, in no uncertain terms, encourages and even demands responses from politicians, policy-makers, public figures, and, well, from all of us.

This follow-up post on the show reiterates my belief that the most important characteristic of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is the essential quality of the writing. In particular, the thesis-driven approach to satirical humor that the show promotes is deepening the dialogue on any of a number of issues, and it does so with great skill and, so far, substantive success. It is television comedy in long-form, expository writing. What Last Week Tonight is proving that American audiences, indeed, can have an attention span greater than amphibians, current polling on the presidential race notwithstanding. Moreover, humor is effective in proving points. Who knew?

Comedian John Oliver poses for photographers backstage during the 41st International Emmy Awards in New York, November 25, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) - RTX15T8O

Comedian John Oliver poses for photographers backstage during the 41st International Emmy Awards in New York, November 25, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES – Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) – RTX15T8O

More and more viewers and critics are noticing. The show has earned four Emmy nominations for 2015: for “Outstanding Variety Talk Show Series”; “Outstanding Picture Editing for a Variety Series”; “Outstanding Interactive Program”; and “Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series.” It is the last one that has the most implications for the quality of the show and its long-term impact on American humor and satire. We will find out the results on the Emmys to air on Sep. 20th. Although the competition is formidable, the conclusion should be clear. Long form writing deserves its due.

In the much heralded–and very funny–Daily Show with Jon Stewart farewell episode, the brief banter between Stewart and Oliver was both funny and telling. The core joke, quite simply, was built around the definitive difference between the two shows and their approaches to humor and culture. Here is a link to the segment, wherein Oliver’s part starts five minutes into the seven-minute clip: John Oliver on Jon Stewart’s final Daily Show. The bit begins as Oliver goes on and on about his first day on set. Stewart tries to get Oliver to be more brief in his narrative, saying, “We’re gonna have to pick up the pace, just a smidgen.” To that Oliver responds, “No, no, no, no…we can’t. When something’s important, it’s worth taking the time to discuss it in depth. I’m talking fifteen, eighteen, even twenty minutes, if necessary. Otherwise, what are you really doing?”

This is a direct reference to the writing style of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, wherein the thesis-driven segments run, generally, 15-20 minutes. The comic but pointed rhetorical question is a good one for any politically conscious humor: “What are you really doing?”

Clearly, Last Week Tonight is accomplishing something substantive. Allie VanNest in Parse.ly (8 Sep 2015, Measuring the Impact of ‘The John Oliver Effect’) demonstrates a clear impact of Oliver’s segment examining chicken farming. Here is a link to the segment on YouTube: .

VanNest includes a graph revealing the impact this particular segment had on public awareness. The data is not ambiguous here. VanNest acknowledges that the more seemingly obscure the subject is, the more easily the John Oliver Effect can be  measured. Still, the graph below nonetheless offers a formidable indication of the potential of the approach that Last Week Tonight is taking.

John Oliver Effect Graph

I argued in the earlier piece that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, though equally funny to any late-night peers, aspires to alter public debate in a much more clearly articulated manner than any of its predecessors. It is all in the thesis and the sustained argument, all supported by carefully considered evidence, all made palatable with humor. Here is my advice to writing teachers: use John Oliver to teach argumentative writing. Everyone will win with this approach. Call it the John Oliver Effect. It may actually change things.

John Oliver, FIFA, American Humor, and Topic Sentences

Oliver Show TitleJohn Oliver got rid of Sepp Blatter. That would be a bold statement if I cared at all about Sepp Blatter or FIFA. I do not. I do care, however, about John Oliver, my favorite funny person from Great Britain (currently; it is a long list). More importantly, for this venue, is the contribution that John Oliver with his work on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) is making to American humor. As one who has been distraught over the loss of The Colbert Report and the impending departure of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, I have been worried that we were facing the end of a golden age in American television political and social satire. I think it will last a bit longer, and I am sure that John Oliver is key to its future.

The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore is solid, and Trevor Noah may prove to reinvigorate the Daily Show, so my worries may be overblown. It is Last Week Tonight, however, that holds the most promise. Quite simply, it transforms the basic formula codified by The Daily Show under Jon Stewart (and applied to a specific parodic context by Colbert) and makes it decidedly more argumentative. Last Week Tonight is thesis-driven humor, which marks a dramatic shift in ambition, or, perhaps, confidence. In either case, Oliver will not admit it.

Oliver is nonetheless catching fire. On a recent appearance on CBS This Morning , Charlie Rose asked one question that seemed clear and concise (if you can believe it): “What is the intent of this ‘dumb’ show?” (Oliver had already called it “dumb” based on the introductory clips).

“Just to make people laugh.” OK, John, you get a pass since this is the standard answer for any such discussion of humor. Why a duck? Because ducks are funny, that’s why. But you are lying.

Oliver’s self-deprecation notwithstanding, the fact is that no one in American television has ever put together satirically charged arguments in segments ranging from 12 to 20 minutes (easily 2 to 4 times as long as standard Daily Show bits) that are focused on one issue with such depth and humor. Never. There are easier ways to make people laugh.

In the interview, Oliver would not assert a more elaborate purpose and underplayed any major role for satire itself. As to whether satire served a deeper purpose in his work, he simply said, “I have no idea. Ideally, satire would do no better than anyone.” He went on to explain the show’s long form, weekly approach: “It’s some slow cooking, what we do.”

Yes, slow cooking. It took a year to get Sepp Blatter. That is the pace of satire. C’mon, John, admit it.

Oliver

To begin a closer look at the Last Week Tonight formula, let’s stick with Blatter and the two episodes that most directly skewer FIFA, the first of which aired on 8 June 2014 and the second on 1 June 2015. A brief look at these two episodes should provide a good indication of the power of Oliver’s thesis-driven comedy and the potential of long-form television satire. Both episodes feature FIFA as the main topic, and each segment runs just over 13 minutes. Here are links to each:

The key to Oliver’s approach could be understood best, perhaps, by considering it as a model for clear, argumentative writing. In fact, I urge all freshman composition instructors in the nation to drop all textbooks and simply use Last Week Tonight to teach the modes of argumentative writing. Let’s consider the most basic element of building effective arguments: Write clear and concise topic sentences. Note the few examples below:

–“FIFA is a comically grotesque organization.” (8 June 2014).

–“There is a certain irony in FIFA setting up any kind of justice system given the scandals that have dogged it over the years.” (8 June 2014).

–“The problem is: all the arrests in the world are going to change nothing as long as Blatter is still there.” (1 June 2015)

–“When your rainy day fund is so big that you’ve got to check it for swimming cartoon ducks, you might not be a non-profit anymore.” (8 June 2014)

–“Peanut butter and jelly are supposed to go together; FIFA and bribery should go together like peanut butter and a child with a deadly nut allergy.” (8 June 2014)

–“That is perfect because hotel sheets are very much like FIFA officials; they really should be clean, but they are actually unspeakably filthy, and deep down everybody knows that.” (1 June 2015)

Note the clarity of the argumentative position in each statement above. They assert positions, all followed by multiple levels of support within the show (follow the links). That, dear readers, is how you build good essays! It is also how to build fresh, ambitious humor.

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Fake News Fallout: Brian Williams and American Humor

brianwilliams4

This just in: Brian Williams created the Internet. No, wait. That was Al Gore. It is all so confusing. One thing I am sure of, however, is that Brian Williams’s job as the anchor for NBC News is over. I hate for that to have happened, but I also must confess that I NEVER watched him on NBC News. Never. I do not watch any other nightly news program either. What for? I have the Internet, which Brian Williams created.

Brian Williams has been caught for being loose with the facts regarding his direct involvement with any number of stories. “Being loose with the facts” means that he has lied. He lied, though our culture prefers not to say such things when it comes to media figures and politicians. They misremember or somehow lose the details in the fog of war, fog of work, fog of aging, fog of hyper-saturated media consumption. Or, really, fog of ego.

Here is a fact: once a news correspondent, especially the anchor for a network news program, has opened him or herself up to ridicule for lying, it is over. Far more people than cared one way or another beforehand are ready to shout to the top of their lungs that television news must be preserved as a beacon of truth and dignity! The News must be preserved! Off with his head! We cannot tolerate such a challenge to the integrity of the television news media! One needs only to scan the memes created to mock his integrity to see how much damage has been done. Note this screenshot for a simple Google image search for “Brian Williams memes”:

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 9.29.38 AM

Here is where I should elaborate and write about how the integrity of television news media has never been pristine, but I will avoid that for two reasons: I don’t want to spend the time, and neither do you. So, let’s just settle that point by nodding to the best satire of the so-called integrity of network news and consider it “enough said” on this question: Network, the wonderful film released in 1976, which, I think, was directed by Brian Williams, who was, ironically, shot in the leg during production. That’s how I remember it, anyway. Who can be sure?

Here is the real problem regarding Brian Williams: he likes talking about himself. That is his fatal flaw. But he is also a major figure in television news who now provides a valuable symbol for how journalists–post Gonzo, post Watergate, post Cable, post Internet, and, alas, post Cronkite–can only “report” the news if they see themselves as a crucial “part “of the news. “Here I am doing something active and immersive, as I tell you what’s happening…” Journalists are tourists forever showing us not the story behind the story but the story behind them, seemingly all forced by competition and bottom-line economics to perform and be seen rather than to provide NEWS. The narrative I instead of the reporting eye. Ah, but that ship sailed long ago. Again, Network tells us all we need to know about that.

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The Interview, Sony, North Korean Hackers, and American Film Comedy

Seth Rogan and James Franco love each other

Seth Rogan and James Franco love each other

The Interview will not be playing at your local Cineplex. It will not be available on DVD, or on your favorite streaming service. It may not even be available for viewing at any future party at James Franco’s house. The Interview has been canceled. Have you heard?

Poor Sony Corporation; it has been embarrassed and cowered by North Korean hackers. Who knew North Korea had the wherewithal to function at such a high level of cyber crime? Certainly not Sony or Seth Rogan. The leadership of North Korea has been fodder for much amusement in American humor over the years. It seems a fair target, if rather low-hanging fruit.

This is a big story. It brings up questions tied to global political pressures, corporate power and autonomy, censorship, cyber security, governmental and corporate secrets, Hollywood power structures, and so on. For a smattering of immediate reactions to the issues surrounding the now-failed film release, see the following:

Brett Lang in Variety: Sony Cancels Release — Variety

FoxNews online: Sony Cancels Release — FoxNews

Kyle Smith in the New York Post: Sony Cowardice — New York Post

Of course, my interest in this forum is American Humor. How should lovers of American humor respond to the shut-down/take down of a film featuring Seth Rogan, one of the most successful comedic minds of the last ten years?

So, this is a big story for American film comedy. What are the limitations of good taste or common sense or business sense when it comes to spending 44 million dollars on a film built around the premise of having shallow, dim-witted television personalities work for the CIA to assassinate Kim Jung-Un, the leader of North Korea? Does anyone say “no” to the Seth Rogan syndicate? What are the implications for the limits of comedy? Here is a link the most controversial–I would say ridiculous–part of the film, the death scene of the character Kim Jung-Un, as provided on YouTube via the New York Post:

Death Scene

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American Film Humor in 25 Screenshots, Part 1

It seems to me that the timing is right for an unapologetically mercenary post that plays with both my innate passion for making lists and my desire for starting arguments. This means that this post will be more self-indulgent than usual. –how can that be?

Here is what I propose: a three-part series that argues not for the twenty-five most important American film comedies but, more specifically, the twenty-five most important  American film comedy scenes as represented by screenshots. By “important,” I mean “iconic,” “seminal,” “best,” “most hilarious,” “provocative,” or, in other words, “my favorites.” They should be yours, too.

I intend to start with 7 screenshots that indicate essential comedic moments in American film history in this the first of three posts on the topic. I hope to encourage others to chime in with their favorites by commenting on this post and, ideally, including links or files with the screenshots they suggests. I will follow in subsequent posts with the growing list.

For now, the images are not ranked or presented in any order other than my impulses as I think of them or run through my library of screenshots. In the end, I may try to rank them just for the hell of it.

Here are the first seven:

From Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In perhaps one of the most iconic moments in film comedy history, the Tramp is consumed by the industrial machine but continues to perform his job. It is a concise but cogent statement of class tensions and the perils of the “factory worker” caught in the cogs of industrialism. It is so iconic that one cannot talk about it without puns and symbolic flourishes. See above.

Chaplin in machine

The Tramp gets consumed by the machine

From Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. This first appearance of Clark Gable’s torso provides more than the titillation that such a statement implies. The scene is a remarkable and intricate power struggle between two formidable performers in a comedic gem. The scene, the film as a whole for that matter,  would go one to influence the romantic comedy formula to this day. If he had only tried a similar approach to Scarlett.

Shirtless Clark Cable

Shirtless Clark Cable

From the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers. This is a shot from the big finale scene wherein everybody gets on stage like the closing of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards show–lots of folks on the stage but with only a few who do anything worthwhile. In this case, that is fine because it is the Marx brothers who demand the attention in every scene. This scene demonstrates the wonderful comic interplay between the brothers but also mocks the pretensions of respectable society and the smug coziness of the officer’s advice to the subversive Harpo.

I Confess!

I Confess!

From Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. This panoramic shot of the big board and the big table captures a more elaborate scene that the other screenshots selected. It is meant to imply the entire sequence of the power brokers at work to save the world–or at least themselves. In short this shot cuts to the core of all American satire by implicating the inherent horror of a star chamber, no matter how comic.

The Big Board

The Big Board

From Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. This is the money shot–well, that sounds wrong. What I mean is that this shot has its own iconic status and provides the core symbol for both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the film. The triangulating power of Mrs. Robinson’s leg, and little big man Benjamin trying to keep up.

Are you trying to seduce me

From Harold Ramis’s Caddyshack. No apologies for this one. This shot is from arguably the most concise illustration of the American dream at work in the mind of an inherent loser. Yes, Cinderella is the most American of the European fairy tales. He is the working man dreaming of a Masters championship when all he will end up with is more work replacing the flowers he is destroying.

Cinderalla Out of Nowhere

From The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. This shot is a shot within a shot. The McDonnoughs try to record for posterity their new family portrait, complete with their freshly stolen child. “It’s about to pop, honey.” As we say in the business, this is funny.

Family Portrait

OK, then.

Please send suggestions for other essential screenshots via comments to this post.

Cracking the Codes of Comedy: On the Anatomy of Jokes, Part 2


Funny Cow

Last month I explored the anatomy of jokes by looking simple joke forms, “light-bulb jokes” in particular, in the ongoing context of applying the scientific method to understanding humor. See: Cracking the Codes of Comedy Part 1

Since I named that post “Part 1,” it would seem that I needed to follow up with a “Part 2.” I am a man of my word.

When I made the implied promise to provide a second installment built off of the popularity of the fine book The Humor Code, I expected to finish the book. I have not. That’s on me and in no way a criticism of the book. Things came up.

But I have continued to think about ways to analyze humor in the classroom using simple joke forms. The light bulb joke form still seems to me to be a rather useful joke. It is simple; it is well established in American culture; and it, in a remarkably short space–time and type–can open up a world of cultural relevance.

I discussed in the earlier post several problematic versions of the joke as they employed clear cultural biases that depended directly on choices of audience and targets. That is the approach that I have recently used in the classroom and to interesting results, to my mind.

I used the light bulb joke as a class activity forcing students to read several versions of the a joke, picking their favorite and justifying their choice base on their understanding of humor in general and their own preferences.

light bulb

This is a light bulb. It is not inherently funny.

First, I should explain that I am fortunate enough to teach at the University of Alabama (“Roll Tide!”–I am contractually obligated to say that). This is important to the set-up for the three versions of the jokes because of my choice of the targets of the jokes: students from Auburn University. No offense intended. Of course, this context can be adapted to any context and help to illustrate the importance of having a target (or victim) of the light bulb joke format, a group at whom the audience is expected to laugh. In a college context, the obvious target group will simply be the peers at the main rival university. For Alabama students, that means Auburn, clear and simple.

The students responded to the jokes online in a group discussion, so their comments were written individually but in full view of classmates and often in response to earlier comments. There were three versions of the joke described in the following way: general; aggressive, and vulgar. I only required students to read and comment on two of the versions to allow those that wanted to avoid the vulgar version to do so with no penalty. I chose to handle to exercise online for the same reason. I simply did not want to tell the vulgar version to a captive audience. The level of vulgarity, I should add, is rather tame when placed in context with material most students encounter and enjoy. Still, that does not mean that the professor needs to tell it to the class directly. “Will this be on the exam?”

I will type the versions here, so those who wish to avoid the vulgar joke can do so as well. I “wrote” all three jokes, but to my mind, I simply drew from obvious choices and did so in an effort to pick three levels of jokes, from the generic to the profane. I wanted students to deal with audience and target issues, especially as to how “laughing at” and “laughing with” contexts form crucial parts of humor as reflective of cultural tensions. However, my jokes unwittingly revealed a more complex discussion regarding joke structure, which I will discuss below. Here they are:

 

Version One (general):

How many Auburn students does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Four: one to hold the light bulb and three to turn the ladder.

 

Version Two (aggressive):

How many Auburn students does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Four: one to hold the light bulb and three to turn the cow.

 

Version Three (vulgar):

How many Auburn students does it take to screw in a light bulb?

None: they want it to be dark when they f**k the cow.

 

The results were interesting and more nuanced than I had expected. That is a good sign, by the way.

Version One was voted overwhelmingly as the favorite version, which was a complete surprise to me. I figured that students would reject it for its generic nature, too tame and too dull. Not so. It is generic, yes, but its structure is perfect. And that’s the point that they responded to, which surprised me. They enjoyed the simplicity of the joke and that it was universal (as opposed to trite). Furthermore, in a very typical niceness that is common among my students, they preferred a version that they could enjoy without being too mean to Auburn students. In short, they figured because the joke is so benign that they could laugh along with Auburn students without anyone getting their feelings hurt. I should add, however, that this collegiality would not occur during the Iron Bowl, the football game between the two schools that occurs every late November. Things get more complicated in that context. Just listen to sports-talk radio during football season in the South (any day between August and July).

Version Two was the least popular. In fact, it fell completely flat. This response actually ended up being the most instructive part of the exercise. Students rejected the joke for its faulty structure and faulty assumptions. I had written a bad joke. That is not easy for me to admit. But I blew it.

The problem is the cow (it’s always the cow).

As the joke writer, I assumed a clear context that tied cows to Auburn as a “Cow College” (short for a university with a rural location and that has an agriculture program). I also assumed that my University of Alabama students knew of that context and had always seen it for its potential as a point of derision toward Auburn. Auburn, indeed, does have a strong agricultural history, as a land-grant institution that from its inception served agricultural interests in the state. Bama students, however, were mostly bewildered by that context. “What’s up with the cow?” Only after one student made the connection to Auburn being a “cow college,” did the students follow the rationale for the four Auburn students supposedly using a cow to screw in a light bulb. Even so, they never thought it was funny. The reference to Auburn as a “cow college” is simply too dated for them.

Fail. But the failure is more complicated. Even when students became aware of the cow connection, the visual component of the joke remains unclear. So the joke not only misfired due to the weakness of the cow reference but also because the audience could not visualize what the hell was going on in any case. In my mind, the image is clear: one student sits astride the cow, and the others pull and tug at the cow to try to get it to walk in a circle as the rider holds the light bulb as it twists into the socket–“Comic gold, Jerry!” They thus provide the same physical movement as with the ladder version, but their efforts are harder and more ridiculous–dumber.

The presence of the cow in this version is intentionally more aggressive and insinuating than the generic ladder of the first version because of the “cow college” reference and the fact that it shows modern students still tied to a primitive solution (beast of burden) to provide electric light in a modern age. Get it? But none of that matters if the visual is not clearly set up. If the audience cannot “see” the absurdity of the cow in the scene or accept any rationale for it to be there, there is no humor.

Simple jokes are complicated.

Let’s pause for a moment to refer to yet another light bulb joke that implies a very sophisticated reference point for its successful punch line.

 

How many existentialists does it take to change a light bulb?

Two. One to change the light bulb and one to observe how the light bulb symbolizes

an incandescent beacon of subjectivity in a netherworld of Cosmic Nothingness.

I include this here to point out how important common reference points are to successful humor. Although this joke requires some audience awareness of “cosmic nothingness,” the joke itself is no different than the seemingly more simple “cow” reference in my version above. The same rules apply. You have to “see” the light bulb in reference to the cow; or, “see”the light bulb in reference to cosmic nothingness. For a cow to be floating in a netherworld of cosmic nothingness, well, that’s another joke altogether.

The third version had very little support. Some students pointed out something that I had hoped for–that provocative language and vulgarity do have some place in our cultural relationship to simple jokes. Unlike version two, the vulgar version is structurally sound. It is clear and concise, and the profanity as well as the reference to bestiality, carry the power of surprise and conviction. Yes, it is a very aggressive, mean-spirited, and even vicious attack upon the victims of the joke. Still, it is a good joke structurally. But it is not a very funny one the whole once the shock value fades. It is too mean, too clearly desirous of being smugly mean than being cleverly funny. The vulgarity is, as a result, more gratuitous than humorous. I think, also, that students worry about the cow. I worry about it, too.

Light bulb jokes are useful. Student responses to the ones I have employed in class should help us all get ready to move into material that is more delicate as the semester progresses. Being able to see the nuances of social and historical tensions even within the simplest jokes should allow us to examine the structure of a wider variety of jokes and help us assess the complex nature of the codes of comedy. And cows.