It is a threadbare premise, for a medium still in its pull-ups. When we think of greatness, whose face goes on the largest of sculptures—formed by God but finished by men—vandalizing the Dakotan landscape?
For the field of American humor I’ve had one year to think it over. Last September my friend Steve (whose real name is Mark, but in these kinds of online articles an alias is typical) said to me:
“Twain is sort of the great white whale of American literature. Dickens assumes the same type of stature for 19th century England. And Tolstoy (sorry Mr. Dostoyevsky and my beloved Mr. Chekhov) occupies the place for Russian literature. Who for France? Hugo? What a Mount Rushmore for 19th century literature.”
I agreed with Steve, but turned the direction of our conversation to something even more trivial: American humor. Putting very little thought into it I said:
Of course, the problem is limit. I immediately regretted the absence of George Carlin, but I didn’t know if he trumped Pryor. I couldn’t remove Groucho to include both influential standups when Marx represented the long stretch of Vaudeville and Jewish humor that shaped early Hollywood. And Franklin? You don’t see a lot of comedians today reference Ben Franklin as a significant influence on their craft, but then again what politicians model themselves after Washington? At the time it didn’t matter. Steve agreed with my list.
“I think you’ve nailed the Mount Rushmore for humor…Franklin is the headwaters. Essential. But you’ve got a nice spread of eras there, too. If we were confining this to movies and television, we could throw out Franklin and Twain and make room for Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball (hate to leave Fields out). But they don’t make the cut if we’re looking to represent all of American humor. Groucho is one of the few humor masters, by the way, who mastered almost every medium available to him: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, books. And he could get laughs in a stunning variety of ways: monologues, acting, singing, dancing, ad-libbing, sophisticated word play, low slapstick. Pretty remarkable career.”
Happy Birthday and Good Morning to Pee Wee Herman, fifty-eight years young.
(I don’t make monkeys, I only train them…)
“Work” to help you avoid “work”:
- David Sedaris is not running for President
- A Japanese author on the recent Mark Twain conference in Hannibal, MO
- Another description
- Susan Harris talk at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home
- Witstream–a compilation of comedians tweeting
- Dave Chappelle give an interview
- A podcast on comedy, featuring guest Patton Oswalt
- On Vonnegut banning, more
- On the fate of comic novels in a comedy world
- On the Final Destination movies as comedy
- Ever think you could cartoon for the New Yorker?
- Muppet diagram!
- Molly Ivins on Governor Goodhair
- Hey, you could write your own review of this for this blog! (or of a lot of other stuff…)
- Onion article of the week? This is appropriate for the beginning of school, but this struck me as much more funny.
The portmanteau is one of my favorite forms of humor in everyday life. I combine words constantly around the house. Sometimes the result is humorous; sometimes it only causes my wife to laugh at me. But one portmanteau has found its way into my everyday lexicon and spread to friends and family: productination = productive + procrastination.
Never does doing the dishes, filing paperwork, or writing a blog post sound as good as when one has a deadline for an essay, or even better, a stack of papers to grade. In this spirit, we will offer a regular feature of articles and links on humor-related topics to allow you to productinate when you have better things to do. If you have links of articles or sites to look at, please email me at email@example.com or add a comment to the post.
- A brief article on Tina Fey and women in comedy
- The continued intrigue of Dave Chappelle
- A review of Twain’s autobiography and other recent books on Twain
- A review of a book on seriousness, the reputed opposite of the humorous
- On William Cowper, wit, and poetry by Robert Pinsky
- A nice reading of a Marx Brothers scene
- Onion article of the week