In earlier posts, I have mentioned that when we think about Southwestern humor, three or four authors come to mind out of the thirty or forty who were actively writing at the time. Johnson J. Hooper is one of these three or four, classified as “The Big Bear School” of sketch writers from the 1830s-40s. In classifying Hooper this way, scholars such as M. Thomas Inge, Walter Blair, and Franklin J. Meine defined the school as authors who used the regional vernacular speech, letting the characters speak for themselves. In addition, the authors used a content set of tales that included the fact that they were con men of sorts, and the stories often described horse races and swaps, camp meetings, swindles, and generally bilking both the common people and the politicians alike. Often the tales deflate the egos of those who believe themselves smarter or more moral than the less educated back country population. They receive their comeuppance in the tales by being outsmarted by the main character. Hooper’s recurring character is Captain Simon Suggs, late of Tallapoosa County.
Although Hooper fits this definition in the content of most of his sketches, in other important stylistic ways his differ from the “standard” Southwestern sketch—specifically, he uses much more exposition and much less dialog than other authors from this “school” like George Washington Harris (the Sut Lovingood tales) and Thomas Bangs Thorpe (“The Big Bear of Arkansas”). I would like to suggest that Hooper does so based upon his own personal understanding of what good writing ought to be for a Southern gentleman.
That Hooper was such a gentleman is evidenced by his upbringing in pre-Civil War Georgia. He is one of the earliest of this type of yarnspinning along with Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (Georgia Scenes) and William Tappan Thompson (the Major Jones stories). His great grand uncle was a Boston minister and one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. His family were early emigrants to Georgia territory; His father brought the family to Georgia, where Johnson was born and raised. His father was a literary man, but not, unfortunately, a businessman; thus Hooper, as the third in a line of sons, grew up in more straightened circumstances than his older brothers. He inherited his father’s love of literature and writing, but not much else. In his lifetime, Hooper was an author, an editor for several newspapers, and a historian of the politics of the Southern cause before and during the Civil War. His Simon Suggs stories were early writings in his career, used as fillers for his newspaper editions, but became very popular, and were later published in both the Spirit of the times and as a collection of short tales.
Like many of the Southwestern humorists, Hooper first published his work in William T. Porter’s Spirit of the Times. Porter was instrumental in helping Southwestern humorists like Thorpe, Harris, and Hooper gain national attention both through the magazine and through his two collections of work from the Spirit in The Big Bear of Arkansas and Other Stories and A Quarter Race in Kentucky. In this capacity, Porter was instrumental in negotiating the collected works, Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers: Together with “Taking the Census” and Other Alabama Sketches, for Hooper, which was published in 1845.
Generally, those authors most closely associated with the Big Bear School follow Wayne C. Booth’s (much later) description in The Rhetoric of Fiction. They “show” rather than “tell”—that is, they contain much more dialog than description. The characters do the talking, and the reader is left to interpret what the characters say. For example, in the tales of Sut Lovingood penned by George Washington Harris, a reader will find one or two short paragraphs at the beginning of the sketches by a narrator (Sut’s friend, George), setting up for the oral story then told by Sut himself in dialect. The sketches may also contain a final sentence or two by that narrator, thus framing the tale on both ends.
By contrast, Hooper’s stories and sketches contain much more description of place, time and situation, with correspondingly less dialect, primarily in the form of quotations of Simon’s speech. Harris’s choice to let Sut tell his story creates the effect of a raconteur, a good storyteller, presenting an oral tale. Hooper’s choice to tell most of the story as an unnamed narrator creates a very different effect—that of a well-educated gentleman telling a story he has heard, occasionally letting Simon speak so that the reader gets the “flavor” of Suggs’s speech. This separates the author from the speech of the sketch, demonstrating for the reader the difference between author and character. This would be important to an educated Southern author from a “good” family, who would have been expected to write erudite prose.
A sample taken from “Simon Fights ‘the Tiger’ and Gets Whipped—But Comes Out Not Much the ‘Worse for Wear’” should demonstrate this stylistic difference and its effect. The reader will notice that “the tiger” (in this case, referring to games of chance) and “the worse for wear” are both offset by quotation marks, by which the author indicates that they are slang. Simon himself uses slang terms more often than not, but does not bother indicating that the words are such, as that is his natural form of speech and he does not distinguish them from “proper” English.
In setting the stage for the story, the author begins with two long paragraphs showing where Simon is and what he is doing:
“As a matter of course, the first thing that engaged the attention of Captain Suggs upon his arrival in Tuskaloosa, was his proposed attack upon his enemy. Indeed, he scarcely allowed himself time to bolt, without mastication, the excellent supper served to him at Duffie’s, ere he outsallied to engage the adversary.”
Word and phrase choices such as “engaged the attention”, “mastication”, and “outsallied” are choices that would be foreign to Simon himself, but demonstrate that the author’s vocabulary is an elevated and educated one. The description takes up two paragraphs. Anywhere within it necessitating slang always sees it appear in quotation marks:
“As he hurried along, however, hardly turning his head, and to all appearance, oblivious altogether of things external, he held occasional “confabs” with himself in regard to the unusual objects which surrounded him…”
When Simon does speak, the contrast between himself and the narrator is striking:
“Well, thar’s the most deffrunt sperrets in that grocery ever I seed! Thar’s koniac, and old peach, and rectified, and lots I can’t tell thar names! That light yaller bottle tho’, in the corner thar, that’s Tennessee! I’d know that any whar!” (italics Hooper’s)
The sketch goes on to detail Simon’s encounter at a tavern in which he is soundly beaten at cards, loses all of his money, and manages to get one of the spectators to bankroll him—in the process gaining back more cash than he started out the evening with.
Is some ways, the contrast itself between Hooper’s narrator and Simon Suggs creates its own brand of humor. Readers, more educated than Simon, find his manner of speech alone funny. However, the more interesting question for scholars is why Hooper was not content to allow Suggs to speak entirely for himself as did many other authors from this School, in this time and place. I argue that this inability to leave Simon to his own devices, which would be much more realistic, derives from Hooper’s desire to be known as an educated author. For a Southern gentleman, writing was a major part of demonstrating one’s erudition to the public. Joseph Glover Baldwin, another Southwestern humorist less well known today, sums this philosophy up in a letter to his son, Sandy in 1855 :
“Write in a clear, vigorous, pointed style, natural and easy; always say common things in a common way: study to be clear—have a definite meaning in your mind and represent it in your words….Avoid all exaggeration. Rise to the subject—but don’t go beyond it. Overstatement very generally is worse than understatement. Don’t strain after wit. Quiet is best. Uproarious bizarre humor is not quite the style of a gentleman or a scholar. The best speaking and writing is strung sense with the point of wit on it: Like an axe made of iron with the edge steeled. “
While it might be fine for Hooper’s country bumpkin storyteller to use slang, over-exaggeration, and belaboring of a point, the author himself, as a gentleman, should never do so. The fact that Hooper was mindful of his reputation is made clear later in his life. His fame, much like Baldwin’s own fame for Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi, was based upon his Simon Suggs sketches, while his essays, political opinions, and journalistic writing were less popular then, and relatively unheard of today. So much so, in fact, that when Hooper made appearances anywhere, he was often referred to as “alias Simon Suggs.” At the 1860 June Democratic Convention, which Hooper attended both as journalist and as a Southern Rights Democrat, word went around on the floor that the author of Simon Suggs was present, and the call went out for “Suggs” to come forward. Hooper refused to acknowledge this call. Much like Mark Twain, who in later years was embarrassed by his early story, “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calavaras County,” Hooper preferred to be known for his non-humorous writing.
The moral of the story, for Southern gentlemen of the nineteenth century, at least, appears to be that it is all well and good for a man to write humorous sketches and stories for the entertainment of other refined Southern gentlemen; however, the “proper” texts for a gentleman are history, essays, and hard-nosed journalism—not humor.*Quotations from the sketch, “Simon Fights ‘The Tiger’” are taken from Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, M.E. Bradford, ed. Nashville, TN: J.S. Sanders and Co., 1993. The original edition was published in 1845 by Carey and Hart.
Saint Louis University
*Quotations from the sketch, “Simon Fights ‘The Tiger’” are taken from Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, M.E. Bradford, ed. Nashville, TN: J.S. Sanders and Co., 1993. The original edition was published in 1845 by Carey and Hart.
*Baldwin’s advice on good writing to his son, Sandy, is taken from a letter Baldwin wrote to him on 22 February, 1855
*The biographical information given here is summarized from Alias Simon Suggs: A Biography of Johnson Jones Hooper, Hoole, Stanley, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1970.
Last April, Tracy Wuster posted the announcement of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, which went to Eddie Murphy for 2015. He stated that Murphy’s “brilliance as a comic is unquestionable, and his influence on American comedy is clear.” He also asserted that some of Murphy’s work has not “held up.” Both comments are true. The focus for this post is not, however, on some of the films that might have been ill-chosen, but on his early stand up work, particularly the HBO Special Raw (1987). Murphy was (and is) representative of a 1980s cultural group of African American comedians heavily influenced by earlier comics like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, who pushed the envelope of “acceptable” language, theme, and content in humor. Their popularity demonstrated that they found an audience appreciative of the choices they made in their stand up acts. I’d like to use this essay to look at humor’s (particularly stand-up’s) dependence upon the current cultural moment for audience acceptance and appreciation.
While scholars and fans of humor will agree that some settings and/or jokes are universally accepted—the fart joke from Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” comes to mind here—other humorous productions rely heavily on the contemporary news, current politics or social situations as the nub of the joke, and thus have a much shorter shelf life. Times change, social foci shift, and what one generation finds hilarious falls flat in the next. Nowhere is this more obvious than in stand up comedy. Stand up, with its live audience and face-to-face interaction between comedian and audience foreground the contemporary social and political situation for the meat of its humor. In order to be a successful stand up comic, one needs to be able to “read” the cultural moment and gauge the audience’s engagement with issues: Who are they? What do they know about current events? How do these events affect them and their lives? What is their class, race, gender, political affiliation? And, most importantly, how far can a comedian go in depicting what he or she sees as necessitating change? For the length of the show—whether that be four minutes or two hours, the successful stand up comic must connect with the audience on a personal level; otherwise, the jokes don’t work.
Anyone who teaches humor can tell you that this “principle” of contemporaneity becomes obvious early on in the classroom. Since I teach at a Jesuit university, my students tend to be on the conservative side, grade driven middle- to upper-middle class students, and perhaps their reaction is a bit more vehement than at other schools, but in teaching Raw, which I consider to be a landmark in stand up comedy of the eighties, I need to spend a great deal of time setting up a cultural context for this early HBO special. The draw for comedians particularly in HBO’s early specials was the fact that because they were a subscription television offering, they were less tied to the standards for language and gesture than material shown on “free” TV. Comedians like Murphy tested the boundaries of the allowable, and his target audience accepted his choices without question, finding them funny. In other words, they saw humor in not just the material, but also the testing. Contemporary audiences, without the context, often only find it offensive.
This is the major concern for any stand up comedian and may explain why so few have long, successful careers in live audience humor venues. Those of us who remember when Raw was new and the Saturday Night Live skits Eddie Murphy did as “Buckwheat”, Eddie Murphy’s more recent work in film seem to be a departure from the earlier work. This is to be expected. Pushing the envelope in humor gave way in the wake of the political correctness movement, and audiences were less willing to accept any humor that denigrated or offended anyone. As a successful humorist, Murphy constantly reassessed his audience, the cultural situation, and his own strengths, and in doing so, shifted his work to reflect these changes. He does little stand up work these days, and has focused his attention on comedic film, allowing him to use another of his talents—creation of comedic characters.
What becomes clear as we look at his career is just how savvy Murphy has been at reading the social trends and adjusting his comedy to reflect them. Even as Raw was playing on HBO—and selling well as video—in 1987, Eddie Murphy was shifting his milieu of choice to film. Early comic roles in Trading Places (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984, 1987) and Coming to America (1988) brought him access to a wider, more general audience, and he tailored the comedy to reflect the change. While he still made use of four-letter words, we see less emphasis on them and more on his comedic use of vocal, dialect and language cues. The audience shifts again in the 1990s to films like The Nutty Professor (1996 and 2000) a remake of Jerry Lewis’s film from 1963 with a primarily African American cast; Dr. Dolittle (1998, 2001), another remake of Rex Harrison’s film (1967)., and Daddy Daycare (2003). This allowed for PG ratings and a yet wider audience.
Success in these genre and media shifts came from his talent for vocal imitation (impressionism) and ability to play multiple characters in the same film. While he sometimes still does these impressions and plays multiple characters, the 21st century sees Murphy much more active in voice-over only children’s animated films such as the Shrek series of films, (2001, 2004, 2007, 2010) and Norbit (2007).
Stand up comedy tends to be a young man’s game (and I do mean “man”, women’s stand up has an even shorter shelf life). Very few comedians can sustain a career in this medium. This is partly because of the physical strain of traveling to venues around the country, and partly because once a comedian finds an audience and theme, making the shift to other media or other thematic content becomes too difficult. The only stand up comic I can think of to sustain a forty year career is George Carlin, another Mark Twain Prize winner.
So, why did Eddie Murphy receive the Mark Twain Prize for Humor last year, and why didn’t humor scholars complain this past year? He won the prize for his talent as a comedian, but even more so because of his talent, his ability to read the cultural weather, and the ability to adapt his comedic style to the immediate cultural moment. Eddie is still making films (Beverly Hills Cop 4, Triplets, and Mr. Church are announced for this coming year). It will be interesting to see where he goes from here. I may try the “Buckwheat” skits from SNL next time I teach the course…but of course that will necessitate explaining about the Little Rascals from the 1940s and how that differs from the 2014 film.
This essay begins with a story about the American frontier—one that most of you may already know—and I’d like to use it to try to explain why it is that we remember a few particular 19th Century humorists and NOT the 30 or 40 others who were also writing and publishing popular work during the pre-Civil War years and later.
Post-Revolutionary War America was a place of constantly shifting frontiers both to the west and to the south. In a given year, the western frontier might be Upstate New York and gradually moving westward, with the southern frontier in Virginia gradually moving further and further south; in later years, it became anything west of the Mississippi River as the influx of population pushed the borders westward and southward. In order to understand the humor that comes out of these liminal (border) spaces, one needs to think just a bit about what the frontier(s) were, how things operated there, and who migrated to those spaces. As the “new” settlements became more populated and the opportunities for jobs and wealth became less plentiful, pioneers moved further south and west in search of prosperity. Typically, we think of these folks as the rugged individualists who brought their skills and strength to bear on carving civilization out of the wilderness. In many cases, this was true.
However, in addition to the skilled laborers and farmers, the frontiers also attracted a seedier element–the con man and the pettifogger, the liar and the cheat, the gambler and the speculator–into these newly settled territories. Often they were one step ahead of criminal charges, lynching, or tar-and-feathering, and searching for a fresh start somewhere where they were an unknown quantity, and where new victims for their fraud were readily available. Given the nature of boom-towns on the frontier, it stands to reason that these would serve as topics for humor writers who inhabited that space.
These borderlands—primarily Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama for the purposes of this study—are the regions from which those authors we call the Southwestern humorists sprang and flourished. When we speak of these humorists today, three or four of them remain and stand in for the whole of southwestern humor from 1830-1865 or so. Thomas Bangs Thorpe, for example, is still often anthologized and read in high schools and colleges occasionally. His “Big Bear of Arkansas” survives as a representative of the rough and ready braggart type of the American frontier. His language is a bit crude, his story quite exaggerated, and its conclusion a bit off-color. George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood tales are also occasionally anthologized. Students still respond to Sut with a mixture of horror and fascination, and most of the tales—“Parson John Bullen’s Lizards” comes to mind—demonstrate written slapstick humor at its best; and Sut’s character, while not exactly a con man, walks a fine line between “good fun” and that which is legal and/or moral. Similarly, Johnson J. Hooper’s Simon Suggs remains a memorable and sometimes anthologized character in American humor. If Sut often straddles the line between propriety and crudity, Simon Suggs broad-jumps that line, happily defrauding the country folk and slaves at every opportunity. His tag line is: “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” What these most often remembered and read authors have in common is the use of vernacular language, themes that involve fighting, fraudulent horse swaps, practical jokes that range from the mean spirited to the downright dangerous, and a frame featuring a narrator more refined and educated than the characters of their stories.
Some days you just have two choices. You can laugh, or you can cry. Both of these actions define us as human beings. While crying can be cathartic, laughing is what we do in order to assert some form of control over circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us. In the study of Native American humor, the term “survival humor” is quite common; but I have yet to find a working definition of this term. What I did find a definition of is a term I had never heard used as a literary term: snark.
This is how “snark” is literarily defined:
Snark can be used for different purposes. However, mostly it is utilized as a mask. Others might use it as a defensive device. When bitterness is not easy to express in an agreeable way, snark is used without hurting anyone directly.[i]
This seems as good a term as any for the purpose here. In general usage, it tends to have a more negative connotation, but it does describe what you will see if you read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Every story in the collection is guaranteed to have a reader laughing and crying at the same time. Many of the stories are sad; however, the ways that Alexie’s characters view and think about them reflect an essential humor that belies the gravity and pain.
The Spokane/Ceour d’Alene author shows his readers how to both laugh and cry at the same time, and in doing so:
- takes some of the sting out of reservation life for indigenous people
- shows whites what reservation life is and how it affects those who live there
- tries to make peace with what history has dealt Indians in general and his own tribe in particular
This first short story collection reached the “legal” age of 21 last year. When the collection was published in 1993, Alexie was a 27 year old resident of the Spokane Indian reservation. His first book, a collection of poems called The Business of Fancydancing, had received critical praise and awards. In the New York Times Book Review, James Kincaid (University of Southern California) “declared [him] one of the major lyric voices of our time” (xix). [ii] In his Prologue to the 20th Anniversary edition, Alexie reflects on his career since and his uneasy fit into the world of authors and book publishing. He remembers, for example, stepping out of a penthouse elevator at a New Yorker magazine party to see Stephen King and Salman Rushdie hugging each other. Pretty heady stuff for a rez boy, as he says. In the twenty-some years since its publication, Alexie has written more poetry, novels, and short stories, all of which contain this signature humor, and I have read most of them; but this one stays with me as one of the best.
In “Because My Father Always Said that He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” he describes his father as a young man who was photographed demonstrating against Vietnam. His father is wearing bell-bottoms and a flowered shirt, his hair is in braids, and his face painted with peace symbols in red like war paint. The image ran in several newspapers with varied captions. Alexie says, “The one I like best is from the Seattle Times: Demonstrator goes to war for peace. Capitalizing on his father’s native heritage, others read things like “One Warrior against War” and “Peaceful gathering Turns into Native Uprising.”
The photograph won a Pulitzer for the photographer. The character’s father goes to jail for attempted murder. He is released just in time to see that epic version of the national anthem, and twenty years later continues to play it as the backdrop to his drinking—Alexie says: “My father and Jimi became drinking buddies” (26). Like many of the stories in this collection, he relates both heartache and humor in the alcoholism he sees around him.
“The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” showcases white authorities’ fear and fascination with Indians by creating a “trial” in which Thomas is accused of “making small noises, form[ing] syllables that contained more emotion and meaning than entire sentences constructed by the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs].” His previous infraction against authority, “holding the reservation postmaster hostage for eight hours with the idea of a gun and ha[ving] also threatened to make significant changes in the tribal vision. But that crisis was resolved years ago; Thomas surrendered voluntarily and agreed to remain silent. Thomas had not spoken in nearly twenty years”[iii]
In effect, Thomas is arrested for speaking—speaking stories that reflect an oral tradition and a belief that words hold power. Clearly words do—other members of the tribe hear the sounds and the words effect change on the reservation. In trying to decide upon what charges to bring against him, the BIA representatives state that “It has to be a felony charge. We don’t need his kind around here anymore.”[iv]
Alexie ranges across present day social issues associated with reservation life, as well as historical wrongs the tribe has endured, and emphasizes the importance of keeping those issues alive through speech and the language of stories.
This story ends with Thomas being sentenced to two life sentences in Wall Walla State Penitentiary, where he continues to tell his stories to the men of color with whom he shares the bus to prison.
These two short pieces are representative examples. Some tell of love, some of history, some of life (and death). But all demonstrate humor in the face of adversity, and a will to survive the stolen land, the broken treaties, the broken promises, and the aftermath of assimilation, allotment, and hunger. Snark may define the literary device Alexie uses here—but survival humor is the end result.
Other works by Sherman Alexie that you might also enjoy reading are two other short story collections: Toughest Indian in the World and Ten Little Indians, and novels: Reservation Blues, Indian Killer, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. More recent editions of the short stories contain discussion questions as an afterward as a guide for reading groups. These are primarily of interest to teachers, but also to reading groups. They offer some historical information and questions that help readers understand and discuss the texts from an indigenous viewpoint.
So if you like your humor laced with irony and, yes, a bit of snark, these all make great summer reads.
[ii] Alexie quotes here come from the 20th Anniversary edition of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, New York/ Grove Press, 2013.
[iii] Page 94.
In case you missed it—and you probably did unless you are an English nerd like me—National Grammar Day was March 4th. It came to my attention a few years ago, perhaps because I was teaching an Advanced Grammar class (as I am also doing this year). The “holiday” began in 2008, so it is relatively short on tradition. Martha Brockenborough started the tradition rolling because she felt deeply about proper grammar—this prompted her to start the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPROGG) and institute National Grammar Day as March 4 (March forth—an imperative). The society has its own website, though posts to it seem few and far between.
As an English nerd, I have tried to take this day and society seriously; however, a quick look at the established website and its posts make that extremely difficult. Most of the posts demonstrate the ways in which “poor” grammar can create unintended humor. See for yourself:
Instead of the proper respect and seriousness, what National Grammar Day did prompt was some semi-serious thought concerning the nature of insider humor and what work such humor actually performs. Grammar jokes belong to one of a great many “niche” jokes—that is, they require that a listener or reader know something about the subject matter in order to appreciate the humor. Mathematics jokes fall into this category of insider humor, as do jokes from other disciplines such as chemistry, engineering, and physics.
Some jokes are universal. Example: Passing gas in almost any situation outside a bathroom—and only private bathrooms at that—seems to provoke universal laughter. These and other slapstick jokes usually do not require insider knowledge in order to tickle the funny bone. Grammar jokes proliferate on the Internet and have always been present as texts even before the Information Superhighway. They are simply easier to access now. Not all of these require as much insider knowledge as some other disciplines because native speakers of English can recognize anomalous errors of Standard English that form the joke. Thus the insider group is relatively large: anyone who has English language proficiency. Yet for the student/scholar of English, the jokes have a richer meaning. For example:
The “reward” for humor is obvious—the payback for the humorist is when the audience laughs. The payback for the audience is also the laugh—it brightens an otherwise difficult day, relaxes as the laughter happens, and lets an audience leave the show, piece, or joke a bit happier than they were before. However, being the humorist is not without risk. What induces laughter in one person can offend another—this has been the legacy of humor since ancient times. Thus, those to whom humor is a profession must walk a fine line between taking a risk and reaping a reward.
Mark Twain found this out during his Whittier Birthday speech, delivered on 17 December 1877. In the speech, he told a story about four drunken miners whom he described such that without doubt, the characters referred to Whittier, the guest of honor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—often described as the “Boston Brahmins.” The joke fell through, and Twain was embarrassed by the reactions of the audience and the public when the speeches were published in the Boston Globe the following day. The Cincinnati Commercial asserted that Twain “lacked the instincts of a gentleman,” and even in the less conservative West the Rocky Mountain News called the speech “offensive to every intelligent reader.” Twain published an abject apology a week later, and even after 25 years the criticism still stung. Sometimes parodying a cultural icon is just too risky.
Twain’s 1877 faux pas illustrates just how difficult it is to gauge an audience’s reaction to material that the artist considers humorous. At this year’s Modern Language Association in Vancouver, three fine presenters delivered papers on the topic of “Comic Dimensions and Variety of Risk.” Jennifer Santos read her paper on Holocaust jokes in Epstein’s King of the Jews, Roberta Wolfson presented on the Canadian television show, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and John Lowe read his essay on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Each presenter focused the talk on reception of the humor and the acceptable amount of risk a comedian or humorist can take and still reap the “reward” of laughter. Aside from hearing three wonderful examinations on a variety of humorous subjects, this panel generated discussion of the broader issue of risk versus reward every purveyor of humor must determine for any written or spoken performance. Who is allowed to joke about possibly sensitive events? From whom are we willing to accept a joke that takes a risk of offending?
For this, my final post on Humor in America this year, I would like to revisit the previous post, in which I made the case that by trivializing humor, we are overlooking one of the most persuasive elements in creating and/or maintaining social norms within our culture. In that post, I asserted that all humor is subversive. I would like to expand on that assertion, as I believe that when we think of subversive behaviors, actions, or texts, we almost always think of radical changes to our culture. In that case, we eliminate from our consideration humorists who, rather than attempting to shift a norm, are actually advocating the status quo.
In the “canon” of humor (a wide range to say the least) examples of authors who try to subvert the status quo abound. In my earlier post, I mentioned Benjamin Franklin’s “ Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One.”
In that piece, Franklin ‘s piece can be read on its face as advice to any country that believes administering its colonies is just too much trouble. All of the ways he suggests to reduce an empire’s size, however, require imposing hardship on the colonists. By the essay’s end, it seems clear that Franklin is speaking primarily about England and King George—all of his examples stem from the hardships the colonies are experiencing. A bit later (1868) Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby (David Ross Locke) takes to the Lyceum Circuit (an early version of the stand-up comedian) to advocate for suffrage for women primarily by portraying an ignorant back country man who is ostensibly arguing that women should not have the vote (page 660 in the referenced text).
In a letter to Mary Fairbanks in 1869, Mark Twain referred to his “calling” to literature as a low one—humor. Authors Van Wyck Brooks, Bernard Devoto, and many others who came after have expended ink on Twain’s feelings of inferiority and desire to be taken seriously in the literary world. Twain is neither the first nor the last author/humorist to be labeled in this way—as if, somehow, humor can have no serious purpose. The “mere humorist” label has haunted many an author whose career has since exerted a lasting influence on American culture.
So, can we take the “mere” out of the “mere humorist” label, please?
Humorists have been combatting the labeling of their chosen vocation (a serious term, yes?) for generations. It seems that the world believes that humor has no place in a “serious” discussion. The two terms–serious and humor—come to most of the world as oppositions. And yet, humor can be deadly serious even as we are laughing fit to split. When we academically spend time and scholarly energy in an attempt to separate out the “serious” humorists from the “merely funny,” we trivialize and denigrate the very serious sociocultural work that humor has been doing for centuries to advocate and sometimes realize change. I would argue that the dichotomy itself is false, and ultimately neither useful nor germane. I would begin with a simple statement: All humor is subversive. Period. That being the case, such a dichotomy is a fraud that wastes valuable time that could be spent analyzing humor itself, how it works, and why it is such a necessary part of human lives.
For example, each year the Kennedy Center offers a Mark Twain Prize for Humor. The prize generates a great deal of controversy in Twain circles—those of us academics who study Twain’s life and work—as to whether or not that year’s winner is worthy of or as great a humorist as Mark Twain. In these arguments, we are perpetuating the dichotomy. Does being more or less like Twain make one more than a “mere” humorist? Or any less than a great one?
In 1773, Benjamin Franklin wrote “Rules by which a great Empire may be Reduced to a Small One.” The piece is a humorous essay designed to mirror the Declaration of Independence in style and format as an ironic open letter to Americans. It comically reverses the actions of England against the colonies, supposing that these actions take place because England is weary of administering its grand empire, and thus takes all of the actions later to be published in the Declaration in order to reduce the empire into something more manageable. It predates the Declaration’s publication and paves the way for agreement among the colonies that Revolution is inevitable. In hindsight, Ben Franklin is considered one of America’s first great humorists (and most likely, one of the “serious” ones). I would agree; however, I would also contend that during his own time, he was revered and remembered more for his inventions, diplomacy, and clever almanacs, and may well have been considered a “mere” humorist who did serious work as his actual calling. And although his humorous writing may not have been his “serious” work, it paved the way for acceptance and support for the Declaration of Independence later, and eventually support locally for the Revolutionary War. Humorous poetry flew back and forth during the Revolutionary War supporting both sides of the conflict. The authors of these works certainly considered their writing as “serious” in that they hoped to influence the War in one way or another.
The Civil War had its own humorists, also covering both sides of the conflict. One such was David Ross Locke, an Ohio newspaperman who wrote under the pseudonym Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby. In addition to his comic articles on the War, he wrote and lectured on suffrage, secession, and slavery.
The humor of the Old Southwest was regional in nature, although which parts of the country were considered the Southwest has changed radically in contemporary times. In the 1820s and 30s, the Southwest could have been anywhere from Ohio to Louisiana. The geographical area depended largely on where the moving target of the “frontier” was at any given time. Often the most well known humorists classified by critics as “southwestern” were neither born nor raised in the regional areas they wrote about. Johnson J. Hooper, who wrote the Simon Suggs stories, was born and raised in Ohio; however, he wrote about characters living in the relatively new areas of Alabama and Mississippi. George Washington Harris of Sut Lovingood fame was born in Pennsylvania and was later raised in Tennessee. Yet all of the humorists we think of as part of the Old Southwest school share the same characteristics in their writing. They feature backwoods, uneducated characters (like Sut Lovingood or Simon Suggs) whose vernacular dialect place them in the region of the frontier. They are all what we would call “street-savvy” today. Simon Suggs’ signature line is “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” They live on the outskirts of the law—law that is fluid at best in these areas. They are all primarily looking out for their own personal interests in their exploits. And in addition, the tales themselves most often involve slapstick humor; examples of slapstick include “Simon Suggs’ Daddy Acting Horse” or “Parson John Bullen’s Lizards.” Finally, tales from the Southwest generally have similar, predictable plot lines: the fight, the horse swap or race, camp meeting cons, and courting games.
The primary advantage of slapstick is that it remains transferable to any time and place, making them more easily teachable. When I teach a humor course, students tend to think anything written earlier than their own lifetimes is “not laugh-out-loud funny;” however, the slapstick stories appeal universally. After all, who wouldn’t laugh about a lizard dropping down a fat lady’s dress or a middle-aged man pretending to be a horse (and hooked up to a plow)? But the fact remains that most of the stories included among the Old Southwest have little relationship to the present day. That being the case, one might question the relevance of teaching these pre-Civil War stories in the contemporary classroom. One of the best reasons is that while the situations might have changed for slapstick Southwestern humor’s relevancy, the humor itself is still alive and well, and demonstrated in much more contemporary humorists. James Cox in The Fate of Humor and Walter Blair in Mark Twain and Huck Finn, the two earliest and most well known, have designated Mark Twain’s work as the culmination of the Southwestern tradition in American Humor. In his most recent Collection (Southern Frontier Humor: New Approaches, 2014), Ed Piacentino sees the future of the Southwestern tradition in the authors from the South who come after them. William Faulkner’s Snopeses are nothing more than a clan of Sut Lovingoods or Simon Suggses. Other authors have cited their influence on the grotesques of Southern Gothic humor—the most well known being Flannery O’Connor. It seems clear that these authors have inherited the spirit of the Old Southwest, and even some of the situations and plots as well. However, as the audience for this type of humor shifted, as the frontier itself moved on past what we would recognize as the southwestern frontier, and as technology moved on past the horse and carriage (and even the book in this current moment), the mantle of Southwestern humor appears to belong to stand up comedy.
The fact is, that while we may believe ourselves much more sophisticated than our Civil War predecessors, we still enjoy a good laugh at the rubes from the country. Trucks and souped up cars have replaced horses as both transportation and as competition, spawning jokes about NASCAR’s fans. “People of Walmart” stand in for the country rubes at the camp meetings. But what remains the same is our propensity to laugh at Southern dialects and the cruder humor that was the Old Southwest’s hallmark. Often these stand up the artists who represent humor south of the Mason-Dixon line perform in small comedy clubs or night clubs around the country, but most recently, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour has taken advantage of the explosion of media venues to increase their visibility (and revenue). While these four comedians (Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Ron White, and Larry the Cable Guy) are certainly not the only comedians to use the Old Southwest as a jumping off point for humor, they are arguably the most well known.
The most obvious of the four as a contemporary Old Southwest humorist is Larry the Cable Guy (Daniel Laurence “Larry” Whitney). ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_the_Cable_Guy) His stand up comedy routines mirror the cruder humor and situations of earlier Southwesterers such as George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood. His act centers on body and bowel humor—the fart joke, the poop joke, and comedy that centers on the humorously dysfunctional family. While he has clearly updated these standards to meet the 20th and 21st century, the hallmarks are present. For a sample of his routine, see this Youtube video:
Jeff Foxworthy’s career signature features a series of one-liners following the “You might be a redneck if…”
tag line, to which he added material from existing stereotypes of people and things Southern. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Foxworthy#Comedy_albums). His routines highlighted the fact that the designation of redneck has less to do with the region of origin and more with a mindset. He began his “redneck” series of one-liners by focusing on Southern country folk, but has since expanded it to include Walmart people from all necks of the woods, demonstrating that your neck might be red no matter where you live; later versions of the bit begin with “Check your neck” rather than “You might be a redneck if..” to accommodate this shift in focus.
Bill Engvall’s early work featured “Here’s your sign..”
These bits are generally longer narratives than Foxworthy’s one-liners, and while rooted in the South, do not depend upon location for the humor. They are more linguistic in nature, and follow a format in which the person who is the butt of the joke asks a question that, though logical on its face, is negated by the statement that comes before, making him or her look foolish.
Ron White (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_White) , the fourth member of the group, on the surface seems a less likely match to the 19th century Southwest Humorists. While some of the crudities and more off-color jokes are present in his routine, his language seems more intellectual. He routinely appears on stage with a cigar and a scotch, and offers a more “formal” stage presence. His act distills the Southwest into a perhaps more palatable and sophisticated type of humor—more in line with Mark Twain, whom James Cox, Walter Blair, and others have deemed the culmination of Southwestern humor. His resemblance to Twain’s own lecture work depends upon what Jeffrey Steinbrink has called the “snapper.” During his lectures for the Redpath circuit, Twain used two specific hallmarks of humor—the deadpan delivery, in which the humorist shows no emotion or humor himself, and seems to have no idea what he is saying is funny, and a build up of final one-liners, each one playing off of the previous one. Twain could stretch these to as many as three or four. In his stand up comedy acts for HBO, White has also delivered as many as four related “snappers” through several bits of his routine.
As inheritors of this tradition, we as audience run the risk of equating the level of sophistication of the humorist with that of the unsophisticated country types they depict in the personas they have chosen. This was also often true of the original 1820s and 30s humorists of the Old Southwest. In reality, all of the authors of the Old Southwest from this tradition were well educated—many were doctors or lawyers—yet they chose to represent as characters the uneducated but crafty, shrewd or sly con men of the frontier. In much the same way, Foxworthy, Whitney, White and Engvall’s lives and work bely their stand up images. While their personas might lead one to believe the images they put forward and their personal lives are one and the same, in actuality, all four are clever, well educated (White is the only one of the four who did not attend a university), and well-versed in employing media for purposes of promotion nationwide and even internationally. Foxworthy, in addition to his comedy club work and presence on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour(s), has written several books of humor: three versions of Jeff Foxworthy’s Redneck Dictionary (2005,6,7), How to stink at Golf (2008), How to Stink at Work (2009), and several children’s books. He has appeared on radio in various venues, hosted a game show Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader, a sitcom named after him, and a country music countdown. White has also hosted his own variety show (2005)and has taped appearances on other shows. Whitney has focused more closely on radio, making appearance or hosting shows on stations from WJRR in Orlando, FL. to WHEB in Portsmouth, NH among others. Bill Engvall also starred in his own television comedy did a stint as a game show host for Lingo on the Game Show Network, and made an appearance on Dancing with the Stars.
As the most obvious inheritors of this long-standing tradition, These four gentlemen represent the shift that “frontier” humor has undergone since those pre-Civil War days. For Harris, Hooper, Baldwin, and the others, the only venue for publication/promotion was the newspaper, the men’s magazines such as William T. Porter’s Spirit of the Times, or a book of collected sketches. The addition of media between the 1830s and the present, and these humorists’ ability to know and make use of it, has allowed for a greater saturation of their humor across the country and across the globe. Far from being an artifact, the humor of the Old Southwest is alive and well and living on the radio, television, and Internet.
© 2014 Janice McIntire-Strasburg
Saint Louis University
When people talk about the Southwestern humorists today, they most often mean authors like George Washington Harris, author of the Sut Lovingood stories, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, who wrote “The Big Bear of Arkansas, “ or Johnson J. Hooper’s Simon Suggs stories. These authors were all Southern gentlemen for the most part—doctors, lawyers, or other professional men. Yet the humor they wrote was broad, often vulgar, and were delivered in a backwoods dialect with idiosyncratic spellings. They often began the tales with the “gentleman” narrator speaking directly to the reader—explaining that they had heard these stories while traveling through the back country from colorful, though uneducated characters.
Since these are the nineteenth century humorists most often anthologized, the casual reader might draw the conclusion that their brand of humor represents the whole of humor in the Old Southwest of the 1830s-1850s. Such an assumption, however, would be misleading. As with other periods in American literature, humorists wrote their tales and sketches on both sides of the spectrum. For every author whose characters depicted backwoods con men and uneducated rubes, there existed a corresponding author who represented the Southern gentleman who eschewed dialects and instead styled their sketches and tales in the more refined and educated writing reminiscent of their British counterparts. While they often also showed the rough side of the Southwestern frontier during its early times, the con men and (often) immoral characters were themselves educated. They used little dialect, wanting to demonstrate clearly for readers their own erudition.
Augustus Baldwin Longstreet appears to be the “missing link” between authors such as Hooper and Harris, who pioneered dialect humor, and authors such as Joseph Glover Baldwin, whose sketches represent a more “refined” Southern humor. His sketches alternate between two narrators (Hall and Baldwin). One is a typical Georgia “cracker”—a poor, edging toward middle-class white, the other more educated and less tolerant of vulgarity. In his tales, the gentlemanly narrator never lapses into dialect. His “Georgia Theatrics”, shows readers the sounds of an eye-gouging, fist pumping frontier fight, only to undercut the idea—the young man is only practicing what he would do if he were called upon to fight in the backwoods manner.