Category Archives: Academic Society

Regarding Rudolph

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

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

While it’s a common complaint that holiday traditions and stories have become too commercialized, this beloved tale actually began as a commercial gimmick.

Robert May created the concept of a misfit reindeer in 1939 at the behest of his employer, the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago. Ward’s had traditionally given a free coloring book to children at holiday time. That year, store executives decided it would be more cost-effective to create an original children’s book in-house. They didn’t know exactly what they wanted, but had the notion it should be an animal story with a main character like Ferdinand the Bull. They gave Robert May, a 35 year-old Jewish copywriter, the project because he was known for his witty impromptu party limericks. As creative and well-suited to penning this poem as May was, the timing couldn’t have been worse. His young wife was dying of cancer, most of his meager salary was going to her medical treatments, and he had a four year-old daughter, Barbara to raise. Several months into the manuscript, May’s wife died, and his boss offered to take the project off his hands. By then attached to the work-in-progress, May refused to let it go. He continued to work on the story by night, using Barbara as a sounding board.

Robert May 1905-1976

Robert May 1905-1976

When he first presented his concept, it fell flat with the corporate executives who pointed out that bulbous red noses were associated with alcoholism. Not willing to relent, May convinced his friend and coworker, illustrator Denver Gillen, to create an adorable, child-friendly character. After a number of research trips to the Lincoln Park Zoo, the story came to life in pictures, and Montgomery Ward gave the project the green light. (Click here to view that original, handwritten, illustrated manuscript.) The first year, more than two million copies Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were handed out and the public fell in love with the story. The verses best come to life when read aloud, as in the video below.

Although the story of Rudolph was “work for hire,” and therefore belonged to Montgomery Ward, the corporation allowed the rights to the intellectual property to revert to Robert May after he fell upon hard financial times. His brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks then wrote new verses for the story, set it to music, persuaded Gene Autry to record it, and it became a hit. The song’s success paved the way for many more commercially successful ventures including the 1964 animated TV special starring Burl Ives.

Robert May eventually remarried a coworker, converted to Catholicism, and had five more children. He left Montgomery Ward because managing Rudolph became a lucrative full-time job. May died in 1976, but his Christmas story lives on. True to the song, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer has, indeed, gone down in history!

 

Happy Birthday, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Not you, Mark Twain.

 

Tracy Wuster

November 30, 2015 will be celebrated as the 180th birthday of one Mark Twain—novelist, humorist, and all around American celebrity. I, for one, will not be celebrating.

You see, I recently finished up a book about Mark Twain, and I know, for a
fact, that Mark Twain was born on February 3, Wuster Mark Twain American Humorist1863. Or thereabouts. No one knows for certain, but that is as certain as we can be, so that is enough.  And not so much born, but created, or launched…inaugurated…catapulted…

That means that this February 3, 1863 will be Mark Twain’s 153rd birthday, which is not that fancy of a number, but it is getting up there for someone still so famous as to have people writing books about him—and more importantly, people reading books by him.

Sure, everyone knows that “Mark Twain” was really the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Even early in his career, almost everyone knew that, often using the names interchangeably, as most Americans still do. Not as many people know the names Samuel Clemens used an abandoned before creating Mark Twain: “Grumbler,” “Rambler,” “Saverton,” “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab,” “Sergeant Fathom,” “Quintus Curtis Snodgrass,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh.” Selecting “Mark Twain” was clearly a wise choice, although the name would have had a second, nautical meaning for many nineteenth century folk.

Samuel Clemens mixed up the use of his given name and his chosen name—making the whole distinction a mush of confusion that is either a bonanza of psychological material or, alternately, meaningless. For most people, I would guess the distinction is meaningless trivia, which is fine. I’m just happy people still know and read books by Mark Twain. But, I for one, will still grumble when people wish Mark Twain a “Happy Birthday” each November 30th, and I will still try to correct them by pointing out that the “Mark Twain” they refer to really was born—or created—on February 3rd, 1863.

But what does it matter?

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Call for Papers: “Is American Satire Still in a Postmodern Condition?” 

Special issue on contemporary satire for Studies in American Humor (Fall 2016), James E. Caron(University of Hawaii—Manoa), Guest Editor; Judith Yaross Lee (Ohio University, Editor).
In response to the torrent of satiric materials that has been and continues to be produced in recent years, Studies in American Humor invites proposals for 20-page essays using the rubric of “the postmodern condition” as an analytical gambit for demarcating a poetics of American comic art forms that use ridicule to enable critique and promote the possibility of social change. Proposals might focus on aspects of the following issues.

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What problems are associated with defining satire as a comic mode, and how do recent examples fit into such debates? How useful is the term postmodern to characterize satire—i.e. does it refer to a period or an operation? How useful for understanding recent and contemporary satire are terms designed to indicate we have moved into something other than postmodernism: e.g. trans- or post-humanism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, post-theory? In accounts of satire as a mode of comic presentation of social issues, what differences arise from varied technologies andplatforms, not just print but also TV sitcoms (live-action or animated), movies, comic strips, stand-up formats, or the sit-down presentation of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Do significant differences emerge from satires on YouTube (or the video-sharing service, Vines) and various Internet sites (e.g., Funny or Die) and social media? If ridicule, broadly speaking, is the engine of satiric critique, what ethical concerns are entailed in its use?

Humor_web cover

Various disciplinary perspectives and methods are welcome. StAH values new transnational and interdisciplinary approaches as well as traditional critical and historical humanities scholarship. Submit proposals of 500-750 words to StAH’s editorial portal <http://www.editorialmanager.com/sah/> by June 15, 2015, for full consideration. Authors will be notified of the editors’ decisions in early July.  Completed essays will be due by January 15, 2016.   For complete information on Studies in American Humor and full submission guidelines see <http://studiesinamericanhumor.org/ >.  At the time of publication all authors are expected to be members of the American Humor Studies Association, which began publishing StAH (now produced in association with the Penn State University Press) in 1974. Queries may be addressed to the editors at <studiesinamericanhumor@ohio.edu>.

Columbia College degree in Comedy Writing and Performance Announces National Search for Two Positions

Anne Libera

 

Columbia College Chicago is hiring two full time lecturer positions to serve its rapidly growing B.A. in Comedy Writing and Performing.

The degree is the only one of its kind in the United ecoetates and had its beginnings in 2007 in a partnership between Columbia College Chicago and The Second City. The Comedy Studies semester provides a semester abroad style program in which students come to Chicago and study comic acting, improvisation, sketch and solo writing, comedy history, and physical and vocal prep for comedy. All courses in the semester are held at The Second City’s historic location on Wells Street in Chicago.

Alumni of the Comedy Studies semester include SNL’s Aidy Bryant, performers for Second City’s resident and touring companies, writers for The Onion as well as network, cable, and Netflix television shows as well as numerous regularly performing stand-up, improv, and sketch comedians, as well as at least one ordained minister.

The B.A. in Comedy Writing and Performing enters its third year in  2015-2016 with an estimated 200 majors. This interdisciplinary degree is housed within the Columbia College Theatre department and builds on the philosophy of the Comedy Studies semester; successful comedians require training and experience as writers, performers, directors, and producers across media. In addition to the semester at The Second City, major requirements include foundation work in theatrical principles and acting, comedy specific training in theory and practice, as well as coursework in television and self-management and freelancing.

Job descriptions for the two positions are listed below. If you have questions about the positions or about the program in general please feel free to contact Program Coordinator and Director of Comedy Studies, Anne Libera at ALibera@colum.edu.


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Eddie Murphy Awarded Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Tracy Wuster

 

Every year since 1998, the Kennedy Center has awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to some of the greats of American Humor–and also Lorne Michaels. The 18th Annual award will be presented to Eddie Murphy on Sunday, October 18th.  Tickets still available.  I would be happy to attend said gala with you should you have an extra ticket (and tuxedo).

Murphy’s importance for American humor is clear, despite some movies in the 1990s that weren’t so great.

“Eddie Murphy has kept us laughing for 30 years. He’s like Mark Twain. He gets to the heart of a provocative issue, and he’s damn funny while he’s doing it,” said Cappy McGarr, one of the show’s executive producers. “He has had incredible influence over so many comedians who have followed him.”

Growing up, for me Saturday Night Live was Eddie Murphy–Buckwheat, Gumby, Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, James Brown… only later did I see the original cast.  From that period, almost all the sketches I remember were Murphy.  And they were hilarious.Eddie Murphy Buckwheat

At school, we would quote lines from Murphy as part of our everyday patter.  But I also remember the satire of Murphy’s “White Like Me” video causing me to think about race and privilege in ways I hadn’t before.

I also watched Murphy’s stand-up specials when I was much too young for such language.  Here, I should thank my brother, who also let me watch Trading Places and 48 Hours.  

While some of Murphy’s work hasn’t held up, his brilliance as a comic is unquestionable, and his influence American comedy is clear.  Most years, the Mark Twain Forum has some grumbling when the Mark Twain Prize is announced–discussion of whether the recipient is worthy of Mark Twain’s legacy.  No such discussion this year.

Editor’s Chair: Looking for New Contributing Editor and a Short-Term Poetry Editor(plus News & Conference CFPs from the AHSA!)

Tracy Wuster

 

We here at Humor in America are looking to fill two posts: a Contributing Editor to write for us on a regular basis and a short-term Poetry Editor to write for 2-3 months.  The Contributing Editor would write once every eight weeks on a topic of their choosing–some editors like having a topic (i.e. “music,” “poetry,” “comics,” etc.) and some prefer winging it on whatever subject seems topical to them (i.e. Brian Williams, Hal Holbrooktelevision shows, risky humor, or Charlie Hebdo…and here and here).  In the short term, we are looking for someone to write two or three posts on poetry for the next few months while our poetry editor is on leave.  Any humorous poetry is fine–from any period.  The first post could go as early as Friday or Saturday, then once per month after that.

If you are interested in either of these, please let me know at wustert@gmail.com

*In other humor studies news, the American Humor Studies Association has a new website design, as does their journal Studies in American Humor.  I designed them both. Kudos will be accepted; critiques pondered.


ahsa_letterscoverart

*On those sites you will find exciting opportunities, such as the ability to purchase the newest special issue of Studies:“MAD MAGAZINE AND ITS LEGACIES” (click for Table of Contents).  The cost is $20 for the issue, or a discount of $18 when you join the AHSA for this year.

mad

*Speaking of special issues, on the journal page you will find a list of all past and upcoming special issues, including the call for papers for an upcoming issue:

Call for Papers: “Is American Satire Still in a Postmodern Condition?”

Special issue on contemporary satire for Studies in American Humor (Fall 2016), James E. Caron (University of Hawaii—Manoa), Guest Editor; Judith Yaross Lee (Ohio University, Editor).

In response to the torrent of satiric materials that has been and continues to be produced in recent years, Studies in American Humor invites proposals for 20-page essays using the rubric of “the postmodern condition” as an analytical gambit for demarcating a poetics of American comic art forms that use ridicule to enable critique and promote the possibility of social change.  See link for more.

*Also upcoming are a number of conferences, including the ISHS 25th anniversary in Oakland, CA; MLA in Austin, TX; and SAMLA in Durham, NC.  You should check out the announcement here.

*Another piece of exciting news is that the whole back run of Studies in American Humor is on Jstor.  See all the Table of Contents and first pages here.

*If you have announcements from other societies or for CFPs or any other news, send them to Tracy Wuster at wustert@gmail.com

*And since the Emmys and Oscars snubbed Joan Rivers in their In Memoriam segments, here is a small tribute:

Joan Rivers picture in memoriam

Happy 90th Birthday Hal Holbrook!

Tracy Wuster

Today marks the 90th birthday of Hal Holbrook–the man who has been Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain.  In his honor, I am rerunning a post from several years ago.  For more on Holbrook’s career, see Mark Dawidziak’s columns on Holbrook adding new material here and by the numbers here.  And information on a documentary well worth seeing here.

I did not mention in the original post my experience seeing Holbrook perform as Mark Twain.  As a scholar who studied Mark Twain’s performance, I was skeptical about seeing Holbrook–not because he is anything less than respected but because his version of Mark Twain is a different version than the one I studied.  Holbrook’s Mark Twain is the older, wiser, white-suited-er version.  The 1860s and 1870s version who lectured on platforms and lyceums across the country and in England was a different figure.  So I wanted to get a mental image of that man in my grasp before seeing Holbrook.

I can’t remember the exact circumstances of the evening–my wife suffers through enough Mark Twain in editing and reading and living with me, so she was not there.  And the tickets were more money than we had to spend easily, being end-stage Ph.D. candidates.  I sat in the beautiful Paramount Theater in Austin, notepad in hand, ready to be skeptical, thinking, “I know Mark Twain as a performer.  Let’s see what you got, Holbrook.”

He awed me.  In the end, my notes were mostly empty.  I laughed.  I was moved.  A passage of Huck Finn I had taught and read a dozen times unfurled in a whole new light.  He did pretty well.

If you have the chance, go see Hal Holbrook perform as Mark Twain–he is performing tonight, on his 90th birthday.

***

Hal has performed the character of Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens.  Much has been written and said about the importance of Mark Twain Tonight! and Hal’s performance as Mark Twain (not to mention his other wonderful acting work).

I want to offer my own story of meeting Mr. Holbrook in Elmira at the 6th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (which should be renamed, “Mark Twain Summer Camp,” in my humble opinion).  For a graduate student, Mark Twain Summer Camp already meant meeting top scholars in the field–rock stars, if you will (if you are a nerd, that is).  But Hal Holbrook is as big a star as you will find for Mark Twain fans, unless the man himself were to appear.

I was convinced that my panel would be empty, as it was scheduled opposite that panel at which Mark Dawidziak would be discussing “Mark Twain Tonight!” with Hal Holbrook in the audience.  I was thus shocked and delighted when Lou Budd walked into my panel just as I began to give my paper (causing me to lose my place for a moment).  For Twain scholars, you can’t get much more important than Lou Budd.

Hal Holbrook Speaking at Mark Twain Summer Camp

Photo Courtesy Patrick Ober

This video is the audio of Hal Holbrook’s brief remarks at the conference.  Recorded by Patrick Ober and combined with images from the beautiful campus of Elmira College.

I had witnessed first hand the star power of Hal Holbrook the night before.  After a full day of conferencing, I  meandered down toward the evening’s banquet a bit early.  In front of the building I found Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Hal Holbrook quietly talking.  Shelley introduced me to Hal and mentioned I lived in Austin.  As Hal began to say something, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of scholars who had been momentarily possessed by the spirit of teenagers at a concert when they spot the band backstage.  That is to say, I was elbowed out of the way by a gray-haired college professor who had been star struck.

Hal was now surrounded by a group of admirers jostling for his attention.  In my memory of the event, they are waving pictures for him to sign and taking photos with old-fashioned flash cameras.  My memory may not be exact.  As I stood there awkwardly outside of circle, a momentary gap opened and Hal said to me, as if our conversation had not interrupted:

“I was in Austin recently.”

I replied:  “I know.  I saw you perform.”

“When was that?”

I pondered a moment.  “Spring.”

“What is it now?”

“Summer.”

“Sounds about right.”

And then Hal was engulfed by the adoring crowd of academics-turned-teenager.

The following night, the conference ended with a party at Quarry Farm, the summer house of the Langdon and Clemens family.  I experienced another nerdy rockstar moment.  While talking with Tom Quirk–no slouch of a Twain scholar himself–Lou Budd walked up and mistook me for a waiter.  I will leave the story he told in explanation to his mistake out here, but it more than made up for any confusion.

After a wonderful dinner and a tour of the house, many people made the trek up the hill to the spot where Twain’s octagonal study sat.  There are moments in one’s life that you know you will tell stories about for years–maybe 5 or 10 or even 20–but there are few stories you know, at the time, that you will tell for the rest of your life.  For those of us who walked up the hill at Quarry Farm to the spot of Mark Twain’s study to smoke cigars, to sing songs, and to listen to Hal Holbrook tell stories, there is no doubt of the fact.

A heck of a time, then, to test out the video function of my new camera.  I wasn’t even sure it recorded in sound… but it did and in pretty good sound, too.  Since a number of people couldn’t hear Hal speak, or were on the porch playing music, I have posted the below clips of his story of meeting Clara (and Isabel Lyon).  I stopped recording as he described his heartbreaking meeting with Nina, which seems fitting in retrospect.  I hope you enjoy.
Click to see videos.
Joe Csicsilla lighting Hal Holbrook’s Cigar
Photo by Tracy Wuster
(c) Tracy Wuster, 2012, 2015

Risk vs. Reward: When are Jokes too Risky?

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?

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“Can I get to that heart? Can I get to that mind?”A tribute to the frank, contested humor of intense teachers—and to Henry Higgins

Nine years ago in my first class in graduate school, a course on approaches to teaching writing, we read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as a break from composition theory. I was thrilled, but I reigned in my enthusiasm when I noted that others in the class, including my professor who I respected immensely, felt apologetic about the book. Words like abusive and misogynistic were thrown casually around the seminar table, as they sometimes are in graduate seminars. Why was there this worry about the teacher in the story—about Henry Higgins? I was surprised that so many disliked his method because I had always thought of him as an effective teacher. My only real support for this inkling was that I found him . . . funny.

Did I have this wrong and, if so, what was the source of my misunderstanding? Or, if I was right that Henry Higgins was a funny and therefore benevolent man (I had collapsed the two conditions in my mind), what caused the confusion among others in my graduate school class? Why had everyone else failed to note his humor? And what did I see in his humor anyway? Could it be that I thought his humor lightened—or even completely neutralized—his seemingly harsh dealings with Eliza Doolittle? Or did we all have it wrong? Did a “correct” reading of the play really fall somewhere in the middle—was it really that Higgins was both funny and harsh? I began to doubt my first intuition about professor Higgins, as I seemed to be faced with a more complicated story.

The irony was that my own professor in this class, a good man with a fiery heart, who was, that very semester, dying of cancer (this would be his last seminar on teaching writing), was a gruff man himself. He and Henry Higgins shared a vocational intensity. In fact, like Henry Higgins, this professor had made it his life’s work to teach writing (or “speech”) to the underserved, hugely advancing the trend in what is now called “access” education at top universities. He was passionately focused on this until his last breaths—and he was passionately focused on us, his students; he read our final papers days before he died. Although we, his students, didn’t have a personal rapport with him—we would never have imagined going out for a beer with this man—our engagement with theories of speech and writing, particularly where low-income populations were concerned, kept him alert, stubborn, and justifiably cranky until the end.

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Tis the Season – for LoR

I sat down to read Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher’s second novel, on the same day a former student emailed asking for a letter of recommendation to become a resident assistant on campus. As I scrolled through the email, I had to chuckle. Not only did I vaguely remember this student, but as I searched my memory (and previous online grade book), I realized this student did not do particularly well in my class nor did he demonstrate any of the qualities necessary for a resident assistantship.

So to is the woe of Jason Fitger, the epistolary novel’s witty anti-hero and beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, who chronicles a year’s time with the incessant requests for letters of recommendation from current and former students, many of whom do not possess the intelligence and/or the aptitude deemed essential for their sought after positions. Take the case of a Mr. Allen Trent for example. Professor Fitger writes, “Mr. Trent received a C- in my expository writing class last spring, which – given my newly streamlined and increasingly generous grading criteria – is quite the accomplishment. His final project consisted of a ten-page autobiographical essay on the topic of his own rageful impulses and his (often futile) attempts to control them. He cited his dentist and his roommate as primary sources” (22). Some were requested by little known students like Melanie deRueda, who, Fitger explains, “I’ve known . . . for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes” (12). These student stories remind me of the video “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?” that I was introduced to in graduate school (2:00-2:17), a humorous yet all-too realistic take on the state of affairs in our field.

Others showcase bright students as products of academia and a hopeless job market, as Fitger explains: “You or any other employer will be very fortunate to hire a person such as Ms. Cuddigan . . . I hope you will not consign her to a windowless environment populated entirely by unsocialized clones who long ago abandoned the reading and discussion of literature in favor of creating more restrictive and meaningless ways in which humans are intended to make themselves known to one another” (88).

Although student shortcomings and our product-driven world are the focal points of many letters, taken as a whole, the novel acts as a beacon of social criticism. It highlights the travesty of minimalizing students, professors, and the profession into a stock, three-paragraph letter. There are quite a few instances in Schumacher’s book where Professor Fitger must complete a confidential, online letter, only to be cut off mid-sentence due to an imposed word limit. In one such application, the question reads, “Are there any other comments you would like to add,” to which Fitger angrily retorts, “Yes: I would like to finish my fucking sentences. I suppose your organization is to be commended for not resorting to the absurd array of little black boxes  . . . but given that your damnable form has cut me off every time I initiate a” (55). It seems as though these letters also undermine the very subjects and lessons I teach, such as the larger social significance of ideas, the power of face-to-face interaction, and critical thinking.

I emailed my student back requesting a visit and a chat prior to the commencement of my letter writing. We met over coffee on campus, and I learned so much about my student’s hopes and dreams for his future. After our talk, I sat down and crafted a letter, adding in my own sincere request for a phone conference to discuss matters further at the end of the letter. So, during the crazed end of the fall semester, I’m reminded, thanks in part to Schumacher’s hilarious, social critique, not to lose sight of why I even got into this profession in the first place.

c 2014 Tara Friedman