Category Archives: Childhood

Spectaculum Horribilis

Vacations are meant to be relaxing. Swim, sun, cook, drink, rinse, repeat. Due to personal and professional deadlines my vacation went more like: clean, trash, write, apply, review, request an extension. Between submitting for publication, looking for new employment, refinancing the house, and running an amateur wrestling clinic for small children out of my living room, I found enough time to scribble a few thoughts on humor, drink unwatered whiskey, and beg for a quick death between the hours of 11pm and midnight before it all began again the following day.

Few and far between do I ever find the emancipated evening, like my pass to the local class on voice acting I mentioned last time. If you’re the type to follow links in an online article like E. T. tracking Reese’s Pieces (timely I know), then your detective work discovered my town of residence. Salem, MASS. There are a lot of Salems in the United States, but only ours burned witches so their descendants could sell cheap gimcracks that turn tragedy into novelty. History is ripe for humor, and when that humor becomes routine, the resulting tradition can be called horrible.

Or rather, Horribles. The Ancient and Horribles Parade is a fading New England tradition that sounds a lot like a lottery in Shirley Jackson literature. “We’ve always had a parade!” some old codger mutters before throwing a rock at the chosen sacrifice. Similarly, the parade stretches back into forgotten memory, where many claim its origin but no one really knows when exactly. But they do know what and how. Usually on or around July 4, a community informally gathers to lampoon people in the public eye as a supplement to the formal celebrations sponsored by the government on our day of independence. Like Gerrymandering, the North Shore above Boston also made the event a political device, “whereby the speaker argues against taking a certain course of action by listing a number of extremely undesirable events which will ostensibly result from the action.” But why speak of politics when it can be satirized?

I live in the left leg

I live in the left leg

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A Revelation: WTF with Marc Maron

If these eyes could talk…thank God for the mouth below them.

If these eyes could talk…Thank God for the mouth below them.

Patton Oswalt: Yeah, we had in our garage we had a treadmill, and [laughs] then we had a dent-free heavy bag. [laughs] Clearly never been hit. Just smooth as the day it was bought—
Marc Maron: What was the day that Patton Oswalt decided I gotta get a punching bag?
PO: I gotta get a heavy bag, in my mind, I’m like—
MM: What were you preparing for?
PO: In my mind there’s always gonna be—the world’s gonna freeze, and we’re gonna have to fend for ourselves, I—
MM: So you’re gonna train at that moment?
PO: In the back of my mind, I’m like, I should learn to make fire, I should learn to, you know, set a—
MM: You should be trained when that happens, it’s not when the shit goes down, you’re like “Hold on!”—Poof! Poof!—
PO: Yeah, give me ten minutes, I’m ready. Get out there with Viggo Mortensen.
MM: Do you really have that fear?
PO: Oh, totally. Yeah. And it gets worse and worse.
MM: How do you think it’s going to go down?
(WTF, Episode 144, 1/27/2011)

For almost two years I’ve pictured a story in my head, cinematically. It starts off small, like an indie film. Just a collection of friends, five or six, gathered around a dining table. They are drinking wine, tearing at the end of a baguette, smoking pot, and sitting before plates mostly empty but for the bits of food not consumed for whatever reason. The meal is over, but the stories continue. They are comedians, so the potluck of anecdotes is larger than the small feast they consumed. Patton Oswalt sits there, so does Marc Maron, and we fade in to the opening scene with the preceding conversation clearly part of a bigger picture.

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In the Archives: Thomas Nast and Santa Claus (1862-1890)

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Ho! Ho! Ho!

I can remember my first scholarly thought. Well, I should say that I can visualize the context of my first scholarly thought. Like a Polaroid of a younger me looking through a View-Master: I know that I saw something, and how, but can’t remember what.

I can almost replicate the place from memory, but will never replicate the time. Heraclitus, who was smarter than the average Greek, once wrote fragmentedly, “You cannot step into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on.” True, but the Greeks widely preached the maxim to “Know Thyself,” and I remember helping my grandfather once, and being rewarded with a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

To be precise it was The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, copyright 1981 by Clarkson N. Potter, republished by Norton & Company. When my grandfather gave me the book it was still new scholarship, and I was no scholar, but the text fascinated me. Densely illustrated, the Potter edition uses marginalia to communicate the context of both the novel and Hearn’s Introduction like an analogue prototype for the internet. I was a babe in the woods, looking through the first book I ever owned that did not involve talking animals or a young sleuth by the name of Encyclopedia Brown. I was proud that someone thought me ready for such an impressive text, but make no mistake, the pictures helped. As a child I was not a strong reader, but I was wildly artistic. And the first page I opened had a caricature of two men, in nightgowns, with nineteenth-century facial hair, collecting clocks.

I don’t think I can reproduce it here for legal purposes, but Roman numeral lvi (56) of the Norton edition will show you the two figures identified as the authors George W. Cable and Mark Twain, drawn by Thomas Nast, on Thanksgiving, 1884.

There was no other description behind the cause of their act, collecting clocks at five before midnight, besides: “The two spent Thanksgiving at Thomas Nast’s home in Morristown, New Jersey.” I cannot fault Hearn’s lack of insight, because it sparked the first real academic inquiry in my young mind: What the hell is going on?

I can tell you that later I learned:

On Thanksgiving Eve the readers were in Morristown, New Jersey, where they were entertained by Thomas Nast. The cartoonist prepared a quiet supper for them and they remained overnight in the Nast home. They were to leave next morning by an early train, and Mrs. Nast had agreed to see that they were up in due season. When she woke next morning there seemed a strange silence in the house and she grew suspicious. Going to the servants’ room, she found them sleeping soundly. The alarm-clock in the back hall had stopped at about the hour the guests retired. The studio clock was also found stopped; in fact, every timepiece on the premises had retired from business. Clemens had found that the clocks interfered with his getting to sleep, and he had quieted them regardless of early trains and reading engagements. On being accused of duplicity he said: “Well, those clocks were all overworked, anyway. They will feel much better for a night’s rest.” A few days later Nast sent him a caricature drawing—a picture which showed Mark Twain getting rid of the offending clocks. (Mark Twain, a Biography, vol. II, part 1, 188)

But all this postdates my first academic thought. Before I knew Huck, Jim, the Mississippi River, or the author who sent them down it. I saw a picture and knew the name of the man who drew it. Thomas Nast. I remember I wanted to know more, and now I can share some of it with you, in context.

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Teaching American Sitcoms: Shall We Gather Round the Table?

Good families have a proper evening meal, all members gathered around the dinner table. No television.

Good parents reserve dinnertime for wholesome conversation about the day. It is a forum to work toward solving problems and to reaffirm the grace and power of the family unit. A celebration of middle America, the family mealtime is a profound expression of togetherness.

I know this from watching American sitcoms.

Few actual families perform this revered ritual with any level of success, confidence, or consistency. I know this from experience and a good dose of common sense. But most believe in the ritual nonetheless. I am no exception. My wife and I think that we are good parents, but deep down we fear being exposed as frauds because we rarely sit down as a family for dinner. Mostly, we feed the kids (two of them) as they sit at the table and watch a television, or we set up trays for them in the den so they can watch a bigger television. As they eat, we go about making dinner for ourselves—something defined by ingredients rather than shapes. At no time do we all four sit down together, almost never.

If you want an image of what’s wrong with America, my house at dinnertime may be useful. An anthropologist could easily conclude that there is nothing cohesive or unifying about this “family” time at all. I’m inclined to agree.

As a teacher, one of my standard bits is to ask students to think about the normalizing influence of the sitcom and its role in shaping American culture. I usually ask them to talk about their own family dinners and relate them to many scenes from popular situation comedies that reenact that iconic moment with regularity. It is a valuable way to get students to recognize formulas within the art form. This is not to say that the sitcom dinner table is always defined as a bastion of family accord. Quite the contrary, the dinner table is often raucous. Even if the family discussion is contentious, however, the location of the dinner table has a calming influence. It perpetually gives the impression that at any moment everyone at the table could spontaneously hold hands and say “grace.”

Of the many tropes of sitcoms, the use of the dinner table (or kitchen table, etc.) as a gathering place is both logical and convenient, on one hand, and symbolically resonant and thematically useful, on the other. A family-based sitcom could hardly avoid using the eating table as a major setting. The convenience, however, also allows for sitcom writers to create an enduring statement of normalcy for the American viewing families, one whose features steadily blur distinctions between real American families and our models on television.

Implicit in asking students to discuss their own family dinner memories is the prodding goal of getting them to assess how well their families stack up to television families, and, moreover, how they feel about the spaces in between their reality and the created normalcy of the sitcom. For those interested in the study of the American sitcom as a cultural production, paying some attention to the family dinner table can be valuable. In this space, I would like to suggest that focusing on such scenes and imagery across a range of programs over time could be a productive exercise for students (for everyone). We will take just a short glimpse in this post. Perhaps others will add to the images in subsequent posts.

Few sitcoms resonate in our culture as deeply as Ozzie and Harriet, which ran on ABC from 1952 to 1966. Although it was not a blockbuster hit, it earned a steady and large following and has since become the preferred shorthand reference—from supporters and detracters—for the mainstream family ideals. My favorite reference is in the Coen Brothers film, Raising Arizona, as the aspiring father, H.I., in acknowledging his failures as a proper head of household, states, “Well, it’s not Ozzie and Harriet.” The image below captures the ideals represented by the show as symbolized by the family around the table. We should note, of course, that Harriet is firmly frozen in her role as housewife and mother, standing and serving the family. Likewise, all eyes are on the father as the source of the pleasant family moment. Gee, how does he do it (while wearing a sweater vest and white socks, to boot)?

Ozzie and Harriet, Defining the American Dinner Table

The show establishes a useful pattern that many sitcoms would follow over the years. If the scene around the table is breakfast, a conflict is introduced as the family shares a meal and either some plan or action is initiated to drive the episode; if the scene is around dinner, just as often the conflict is resolved. There are many variations of this theme. Even Ozzie and Harriet would allow the family eating routine to be punctuated by conflict, usually squabbles between the two brothers—enough conflict to set up the modest humor without introducing anything with deeper social tensions. An especially useful episode, “Separate Rooms,” aired February 6, 1953. Here is a YouTube link to the first part of the episode:

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I’m the dog. You can be the wheelbarrow.

Today marks the birthday of Charles B. Darrow, the purported inventor of Monopoly.

Surprisingly, this 22-street microcosm––where the object of the game is to become the shrewdest plutocrat with the biggest pile of loot––was derived from “The Landlord’s Game,”an austere 1904 object lesson about the evils and injustices of capitalism.

Since its 1934 debut, Monopoly has become the best-selling board game in the world with over 250 million sets sold in 41 languages, including a Braille version for the visually impaired. The iconic graphics and comic mascot, “Uncle Pennybags” (above) have defined this time-honored classic for over 65 years.

Award winning poet Connie Wanek succinctly captures the magic of the game in this poem from her book, “On Speaking Terms” (Copper Canyon Press, 2010). You can read it below, or click here to hear Garrison Keillor perform it on The Writer’s Almanac.


We used to play, long before we bought real houses.
A roll of the dice could send a girl to jail.
The money was pink, blue, gold as well as green,
and we could own a whole railroad
or speculate in hotels where others dreaded staying:
the cost was extortionary.

At last one person would own everything,
every teaspoon in the dining car, every spike
driven into the planks by immigrants,
every crooked mayor.
But then, with only the clothes on our backs,
we ran outside, laughing.

What Could’ve Been What’s Meant to Be

When asked last week if I could contribute today, I said yes, because satisfying the request seemed more definite than the possibility of could, or the ability of can, and ranked up there with the obligatory shall. I must contribute today, and so prepared humorous resources and online links to gird my humble opinion into resplendent truth.

And then I was hit by a car.

Thankfully, I had my own car surrounding me at the time to prevent significant damage, but my opinion in truth, unattended this past week, grew desperate in need of a blacksmith and some polish for its brilliant panoply, as I was in need of medical and mechanical attention. But here I am, without my original idea, inspired to write something else—more fitting to my present circumstances.

Sam Kinison came into my life at the impressionable age when children choose sports teams and musical genres to define them. My family had cable in the 1980s, and not just cable but HBO. They later regretted the lack of supervision they placed on their children’s television habits, but before you assume poor parenting remember the time and place. America in the 1980s was Dickensian dichotomy: the best of times and the worst of times, capitalism vs. communism, televangelism vs. the Devil, AT&T vs. MCI. Baby Boomers cared more about their social status than the state of society, and the family unit fell apart from rampant divorce and parental apathy. Preachers, teachers, and politicians condemned the arts for drug abuse and questionable morals while the same vocal minority were caught trafficking their own vice. Cocaine fueled the American dream, but I didn’t know what made it run. Like many children I was just glad it went fast and loud.

Basketball was fast. Magic, Larry, and Michael. Music was faster. Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Steve Vai, and Yngwie Malmsteen were the technical greats, but in the eighties you also needed to shock in order to sell. The biggest comedians were shocking. Howard Stern earned the crown King of All Media in the 1990s, but he won his kingdom one decade earlier pushing the limits of censorship in radio broadcasting. Andrew Dice Clay sold out Madison Square Garden two nights in a row riding a wave of profanity and misogyny in nursery rhyme. Sam Kinison was all of this. He was fast. He was loud. He was good, and he was very, very bad.

Sam Kinison was born to Pentecostal preachers in 1953, and raised in Middle America, where a God-fearing message found its widest bulletin board. Young Samuel accepted the family business warning parishioners of fire and brimstone with the trumpet of his voice and a righteous sneer. He played guitar during service, and these elements of evangelical performance never left his stage act, just reversed direction.

Kinison abandoned the pulpit for the Comedy Workshop of Houston when he joined the Outlaw Comics (Bill Hicks, Ron Shock, Riley Barber, and others) in the late seventies before striking out for Los Angeles a few years later with Carl LaBove, both landing jobs as doormen at the Comedy Store. I don’t remember Rodney Dangerfield’s 1984 Ninth Annual Young Comedians Special when Kinison broke through to the mainstream. I discovered him three years later, watching unedited broadcasts of Dangerfield’s Back to School (1986) on HBO, where he played the volatile Professor Terguson. His rise to the top was meteoric. Suddenly all over MTV, Kinison appeared in Bon Jovi’s Bad Medicine video, and made his own video covering The Troggs’ Wild Thing. He was the hottest comedian in Hollywood, and kept up with the likes of Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses, two more cornerstones of my childhood not known for their Christian missionary work.

But the highs of 1987 preceded terrible lows in 1988. When Sam Kinison’s younger brother, Kevin, committed suicide in May of that year, Sam’s drug abuse spun out of control. For all of his excess, Kinison lasted another four years, and could’ve gone longer, if not killed by a drunk driver on April 10, 1992 in Needles, California, near the Arizona border. I drove through Needles ten years ago. Not much to note besides the obituary.

Twenty years after Sam’s death I wonder if he could’ve survived the rest of the nineties. Like 1970-71 saw the deaths of Jimmi, Janis, and Jim affect the cultural landscape, the loss of Kinison and the release of Guns N’ Roses’s overindulgent Use Your Illusions 1 and 2 in late 1991 helped push society towards the sobering reality of Seattle grunge and alternative comedy grounded in observation and not gimmick (four screams—one long, two short, one long—explain Kinison’s act to current audiences). I miss Sam Kinison. His overcoat covered the chasm of eighties culture, and he knew it: “If you’re going to miss Heaven, why miss it by two inches? Miss it!” I thought of him after my own brush with vehicular manslaughter last week, but it could be the concussion contributing to Humor in America. I can end it here, as I shall make time for medicine. Possibility, ability, obligatory.


Sam Sackett

If the term “novelty song” did not already exist, it would have to be coined to describe the repertoire of the Hoosier Hot Shots, a quartet that amused audiences for years broadcasting as an act on the National Barn Dance.  They were known for such songs as “I Like Bananas Because They Have No Bones” and “When There’s Tears in the Eyes of a Potato”; and for beginning their numbers with “Are you ready, Hexxie?” to which Hezzie replied on a slide whistle, “Wooo-wooo-wooo-woohoo!”  It cannot be doubted that they were an inspiration for Spike Jones and His City Slickers, who were damn funny, but never so funny or meaningful as the Hot Shots at their best.

hoosier hot shots

The Hot Shots were begun by two brothers, Kenneth and Paul (Hezzie) Trietsch, who grew up in a musical family on a farm near Arcadia, Indiana (north of Indianapolis).  The brothers began their career by touring in vaudeville with their banjo-picking father.  When the father retired, the brothers joined an outfit called the Rube Band, where they became friends with a fellow Indiana musician, Charles (Gabe) Ward.  When vaudeville succumbed after the 1929 stock market crash, the Rube Band broke up, and the Trietsch brothers and Ward found a nest with WOWO in Fort Wayne, IN, where an announcer first named them the Hoosier Hot Shots.  In 1933 they were picked up by WLS in Chicago for a daytime local program and the National Barn Dance, broadcast over NBC, where I heard them every Saturday night for years. The following year they were joined by a fourth musician, Illinois native Frank Kettering, also an alumnus of the Rube Band.

All four members of the group were multidimensional musicians, playing various instruments (especially brass: Ken played the tuba, and Frank fife and piccolo), but their usual instrumentation was Ken Trietsch on guitar, Gabe Ward on clarinet and saxophone, and Frank Kettering on string bass.  Hezzie played an assortment of instruments; although he was a drummer, he was most comfortable with a set of slide whistles and a home-made instrument: a washboard mounted with an array of cowbells and rubber-bulb auto and bicycle horns in various keys, pie tins, wood blocks, and garbage can lids.  Hezzie’s musicianship in controlling the slide whistle was truly remarkable.  Vocally they were a quartet with an occasional solo.  Their performances were meticulously designed and rehearsed to sound spontaneous and helter-skelter.  For an example, here’s “She Broke My Heart in Three Places.”

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Sunday Stand-Up: Louis C.K. on Fatherhood.

Well it’s Father’s Day and if you’re anything like me your plans involve something to the effect of a phone call and new profile pic on Facebook. It probably also involves humorous takes on fatherhood and if so you’ve come to the right place.

Today we have Louis C.K.  I recently wrote about his approach to comedy but today is for highlighting how much of his comedy is about being a parent.  Which is to say a lot.  In addition to being wildly successful with his stand up special and TV show, C. K. is also now considered one of the best TV dads with the ways in which he discusses his struggles in being a good single parent.

In this first clip C.K. talks explicitly about why he doesn’t judge other parents, especially in public.  Because those people clearly have never had to deal with an endless stream of annoying questions from a child they are required by law to take care of.

This second clip is an animation about an encounter that C.K. himself had with a stranger judging his parenting skills.  What follows is one of the more insightful and funny takes on what it means to be a father offered in quite a while.

In the Archives: The Philosophy of Laughter and Smiling by George Vasey (1875)

Tracy Wuster

Editor’s Note:  This post is the first in a planned series on archival sources on humor.  We will be posting important primary sources that might be of interest to humor studies scholars and general readers.  If you would like to contribute a post or recommend a source, please let me know.

See our other posts in this series:

In the Archives: William Hazlitt, “On Wit and Humour” (1818)

A new word for the day: misegolast.  Laughter hater.  As Robert Mankoff notes in the New Yorker, misegolasts can be traced back to the Old Testament.  As John Morreall noted in his book, Humor Works, the long history of those opposed to laughter counts the English poet Shelley as a prominent spokesman.  He stated: “I am convinced there can be no entire regeneration of mankind until laughter is put down.”

George Vasey’s The Philosophy of Laughter and Smiling, published in London in 1875, is a classic of the anti-laughter genre.  Coming at  time in which humor, especially in the works of the American humorists Artemus Ward and Mark Twain, was exceedingly popular in England, Vasey’s work argued that laughter was both morally and physically dangerous.  Indeed, Vasey argues that laughter is a symptom of modern civilization, one that has been commercialized by humorists who spread a dangerous behavior.

According to the article, “”The pleasure of fiends”: Degenerate Laughter in Stoker’s Dracula,”  by Mackenzie Bartlett, the book was reviewed by at least 19 British periodicals.  And Vasey’s work is not the only argument of the misegolastic variety either at the time, or since.  And while the anti-laughter argument my paradoxically inspire much laughter, or at least certain types of smile (which are better than laughter, according to this argument), shouldn’t we take serious the argument that the meanings of laughter might have changed historically and might, in some cases, be harmful.  One place to start might be Anca Parvulescu’s Laughter: Notes on a Passion (Short Circuits).

You can download the entire PDF of Vasey’s book here.  Enjoy such chapters as “Further observations on the means employed to produce what is termed laughter in infants, and on the injurious effects which result therefrom…”; “On the moral and intellectual characteristics of those who are addicted to laughing…”; “Are laughter and joking, badinage and fun, consistent with dignity of character? or are they conducive to the maintenance of a beneficial political or social influence?”; “On the injurious effects of nursery rhymes and juvenile literature in stultifying the minds of children and youths by furnishing them with extravagant lies and egregious nonsense to excite their wonder and induce them to laugh” (a must read for all the parents out there); and, in an appendix on tickling, a section of special interest to me, as a ticklish person, “On the extremely horrible and agonising condition to which a human being can be reduced by systematic tickling.”


including the full size picture of this fine fellow:

Here is a sample from the first chapter: “First–On the pecuniary expense of laughter. Second–On those who are enriched by it. Third–On its imagined advantages and benefits.”

1. It is assuredly a great fact, which cannot be gainsayed, that an immense majority of the inhabitants of most civilised countries hold the habit of laughing in such high estimation, and feel such a craving for the exercise of it, that collectively they expend vast sums of money in procuring the stimulus necessary to produce its action.

2. This golden harvest finds its way into the pockets of those highly-gifted individuals who have acquired the happy knack of writing, or mouthing and spouting, those facetious words, or of performing those grotesque actions, which have the magical power of contracting our cheeks into wrinkles, and distending our jugular veins.

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The Dead Joke and the Funny Man

James Whitcomb Riley
1849 – 1916

It’s no coincidence the masks of Comedy and Tragedy hang side by side. Laughter and tears are first cousins––if not flip sides of the same emotional response. Both behaviors can be socially appropriate or inappropriate at certain times in every culture. Both are strangely contagious. Beyond the general connections to mental and emotional health, scientists are now discovering specific physiological benefits we derive from laughter and tears. (The study of the physiology of laughter is called Gelotology. I don’t know of a term for the study of the physiology of crying.) Of course, clinical study will never replace artistic sensibility. Which reminds me . . . .

James Whitcomb Riley enjoyed commercial success during his lifetime because he wrote poems with resonant humor and sentimentality.  He is remembered as “The Children’s Poet” and is best known for his poems, “Little Orphan Annie” and “The Raggedy Man.” (Both of those works were based on servants in his childhood home.)  One my personal favorites is a more grownup piece below–– a simple, “slice of life” look at the intricacy and ambiguity of our visceral reactions.

The Dead Joke and the Funny Man

     by: James Whitcomb Riley

Long years ago, a funny man,
Flushed with a strange delight,
Sat down and wrote a funny thing
All in the solemn night;
And as he wrote he clapped his hands
And laughed with all his might.
For it was such a funny thing,
O, such a very funny thing,
This wonderfully funny thing,

And so it was this funny man
Printed this funny thing–
Forgot it, too, nor ever thought
It worth remembering,
Till but a day or two ago.
(Ah! what may changes bring!)
He found this selfsame funny thing
In an exchange–“O, funny thing!”
He cried, “You dear old funny thing!”