Category Archives: animal humor

In Defense of the New Muppets Show: A Meditation on Self-Aware Comedy

Rachel Blackburn

Here’s the thing. I really don’t like to get too political on social media or other public platforms, but my frustration with the critiques of the new Muppets show has reached peak levels – peak levels I say! And so, like the great critics of our time – the Edward R. Murrow’s, the Frank Rich’s – I must take pen to paper in passionate defense of what I view as the brilliant new direction of The Muppets.

Critiques since airing the pilot episode last month range from so called muppet show controversy nudity frontal“friends” on Facebook, who claim the new incarnation has “ruined childhood,” to conservative news outlets such as Breitbart, where John Nolte claimed, “By making the Muppets ‘edgy’ left-wing partisans who attack Fox News, come out as pro-abortion, and hurl sex jokes, the once-universally beloved franchise has been doomed…More proof the old saying is true: Liberals ruin everything.”  Well drink it up, new Muppets show haters: I’m leaving this matzah ball out for all to see.

Firstly, a lot of the chief complaints are variations on a theme: that the new show can’t compare to the original version (which aired 1976-1981), and that this new incarnation carries a kind of cynical modernity, distastefully embodying the mockumentary filming style of shows like The Office. For starters, these criticisms contain the classical logical fallacy of “argumentum ad antiquitatem,” or “appeal to antiquity.” This is the fallacy which falsely argues a “thesis is deemed correct on the basis that it is correlated with some past or present tradition.” In other words, the older idea is better, because it’s old. Or conversely, the new idea doesn’t work because it doesn’t adhere to the old one.new muppet show production meeting

Continue reading →

In the Archives: Mark Twain’s Infectious Jingle– “A Literary Nightmare” (1876)

Tracy Wuster

Mark Twain’s “Literary Nightmare” (1876), published in the Atlantic Monthly, represents an early example of a “viral” piece of popular culture.    The “Viral Text” project at Northeastern University is tracing 19th-century newspaper stories as they circulated, and “A Literary Nightmare” might be a unique example–being a story about a viral text–in this case, a poem–and its infectious effects, which in turn helped spread the original poem, Mark Twain’s story about it, and the very genre of poetry across the nation and, possibly, around the world.  The story even inspired a song.  And was being discussed as late as 1915.

The poem presented the key example of “horse-car poetry” that enjoyed a brief vogue as popular doggerel.  A discussion of the phenomenon of “horse-car poetry”  was printed in Record of the Year, A Reference Scrap Book: Being the Monthly Record of Important Events Worth Preserving, published by G. W. Carleton and Company in 1876.  The story, beginning on page 324, details how a New York rail line posted a placard on fares that became a poetic sensation, leading to Mark Twain’s use of the lines in his story.  The phenomenon of “horse-car poetry” then, according to the Record of the Year, spread to other cities and countries, causing an “epidemic” that aroused passions and even violence.  The Record of the Year contains one story of a woman literally possessed by the sketch, reading in part:

The danger of Mark Twain's viral text...

The danger of Mark Twain’s viral text…

The entire scene is worth reading at the link above.

Mark Twain’s  extended comic sketch details  the hypnotic, yet meaningless, power of humorous writing to infect one’s mind like a virus.  Entitled “A Literary Nightmare” (February 1876), Twain’s piece starts with a verse of poetry:

“Conductor, when you receive a fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,

A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,

A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare

CHORUS

Punch, brothers punch with care!

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”

These lines, the narrator “Mark” writes, “took instant and entire possession of me.”  For days, the only thing in his mind are the lines of verse—they keep him from his work, wreck his sleep, and turn him into a raving lunatic singing “punch brothers punch…” After several days of torture, he sets out on a walk with his friend, a Rev. Mr. ——- (presumably his good friend Rev. Joe Twichell).  After hours of silence, the Reverend asks the narrator what the trouble is, and Mark tells him the story, teaching him the lines of the jingle.  Instantly, the narrator puts the verse out of his mind. The Reverend, on the other hand, has “got it” now.

You can read the sketch in its entirety below.

 

Continue reading →

Culture Shock

I have just returned to the South, after two months in the West helping my mom in the wake of my dad’s death.  Getting home is bittersweet and exciting, but also something of shock.  Though the South and the West have much in common, in terms of how much both regions are shaped by their land and climate, by how much that land gets under your skin —  in the South, it’s a bit more literal.

Like chiggers, for instance.  Or the unforgettable burn of re-encountering a fire ant — two things I never knew existed until I moved here.  Or 90% humidity, which means that if anything sits still for more than half an hour, something green grows on it.  And something four-legged or six-legged walks across it, chased by something four-legged or eight-legged.

Okay, so it should be a picture of the spider, but the toads are SO much more friendly.

Okay, so it should be a picture of the spider, but the toads are SO much more friendly.

Dodging through the toads and frogs playing happily in the garage, my son dove for a bathroom that hadn’t been used in over 8 weeks, his urgency spurred by the last 6 hours without a break in the car in our hurry to get home.

“Mom! Come here!” Desperation tinged the voice.

“What?”

“There’s a spider in here!”

“That’s okay.  Spiders are our friends.  They eat the truly icky bugs.  No worries!”

“Mom!  Stop driveling — this is a spider!!”

And not just a spider.

Continue reading →

Is a (tired) goat like a (dead) frog?; or Some thoughts on the objections to the humorous object as an object of study

Tracy Wuster

When computers learn how to make jokes, artists will be in serious trouble.

–Donald Barthelme, “Not Knowing”

We have all had the experience of having something we are fascinated by dampened by learning more about it.  The tragedy of poor schooling is not unmet standards or bad test scores–the tragedy of school is having the natural curiosity of childhood deadened.  Of course, much of the transition from magical world of wonder to rational world of knowledge is necessary… we wouldn’t want an entire nation of clowns who do not understand that magnets are not miracles.  But thought and study don’t have to lead to the death of wonder–what I, and I would hope other scholars of humor (and of almost any subject, really), would like to convince you is that study can lead to both a knowledge and a deeper appreciation of the subject, a deeper fascination with the complicated and, yes, fun workings of humor.

But when it comes to humor, people often have a different reaction.  Humor, of course, is not a science–and there is not formula that a computer can learn to tell a joke properly in front of an audience, even if computers can make jokes.  Jokes and laughter are a different kind of subject, and one dominant thread holds that turning humor into an object of study might diminish the vitality of the work.

The objection that the study of humor takes something alive and turns it into something like a computer program is a real fear, and surely one with some basis.  But often, and maybe unfortunately, this real issue for discussion gets wighted down into one simple, and somewhat misleading, metaphor: “killing the frog.” Both Sharon McCoy and I have taken on E.B. White’s semi-famous warning that studying humor is like dissecting a frog.  I have seen several versions of this saying:

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.

Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog.  Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.[1]

Sharon nicely explains that the metaphor is off–frogs are already dead when they are dissected–and that the act of dissecting the frog leads to scientific understanding of not only frogs, but of ourselves and of our environment.  In my post, I explained that White states this position, and then he goes on to offer some definitions of humor–partaking in a long tradition of people claiming you can’t define or discuss characteristics of humor and then going ahead and doing so.  I call it a “definitional denial.”

What I think the prevalence of this quote points to is a larger fear that the study of literature–or of film, or of television, or of any piece of artistic expression–somehow seeks to lessen the experience of that object.  That to seek to understand a cultural object is to lessen the authentic interaction one might have with that object.  That to call something a “cultural object,” and to point out that it might have a historical or sociological or psychological or linguistic or any other academicalistic meaning, takes that thing out of the realm of enjoyment, of relaxation, of appreciation and then puts it into the realm of school.  And with humor–which most people  experience as enjoyment, as laughter–the feeling is either heightened or easier to vocalize.  For those who didn’t get pleasure out of school, putting humor into the scholarly realm might be a heightened betrayal [2].

When encountering a frog, most people just want to watch it, not cut it open to see how it works.

But some of people like to think about how humor works.  We are scholars.  Just as there are scholars of frogs, and of schools, and of Texas music, and of male flight attendants, and of religion, and of stadiums, and of just about everything else, there are scholars of humor.  And unless you don’t like scholars in general, there should be no need to defend any particular branch of study: from frogs to funny.

That being said, I seem to be venturing close to my a corollary form of the “definitional denial”: the defensive denial–claiming I don’t need to defend the study of humor and then doing so.  Instead, let’s turn not to a dissecting a frog, which is not a terribly good metaphor for humanistic study of humor, to looking at a goat.  Not just any goat.  This goat:

Robert Rauchenberg, "Monogram” (1959)

Robert Rauschenberg, “Monogram” (1959)

Seeing this piece, we might have any number of reactions–“What does it mean?”  “Who is it by?” “is it supposed to be funny?” “I like it” “I hate it” “eh” “wow” “is it art?”  These reactions are not much different from the reactions people might have to a piece of humor more generally.  Your answers to these questions, your reactions, matter to you.  And the range of reactions a cultural object might have are important as evidence of audience reception.

But to the art historian, or the aficionado of art more broadly, the historical context of Rauschenberg’s combine matters, along with its formal characteristics and its place in his development as an artist.

Continue reading →