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.
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.
Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?
Here is your challenge: come up with a syllabus of material for a course on American Humor. Good luck with that.
First, count yourself lucky. In a parallel universe you could be asked to teach a course on American poetry before 1800 (here’s a hint as to how unpleasant that could be: “Day of Doom”). Unlike the poor soul who is stuck with Michael Wigglesworth and a handful of other dour Puritans, you have choices. In this universe, at least, you have the good fortune to teach humor. But you still have the formidable task of choosing from myriad possibilities. To even begin narrowing them down to a manageable body of work to fit into a course seems rather maddening in and of itself—Doom.
Where to begin? What to include? Why a duck?
I would like to take this forum to put together a working list of humorists, etc., and works that could be deemed essential. What I propose is an American Humor ……(wait for it)… Canon. If you are opposed to the rigid, standard-bearing, pomposity of the word, I understand. If you couldn’t care less and figure any guidance at all that may help you put together a class (or many classes) would be useful, then I greet you as a kindred soul.
This may start a fight. That is not what I am seeking, but I figure a discussion on anything but presidential politics may be welcome. I hope to stir interest and ultimately move toward building a broad and annotated database of sorts that could serve teachers and students alike. And serve American Humor. But there is no getting around the fact that such an enterprise forces limitations. I always tell students (in all courses) that I could easily put together multiple sections of the course without duplicating anything. That is not to intimidate them with the frightful power of my brain (that comes later); it is merely to confess up front that I am playing a bit of a shell game. Generally, they don’t mind. They embrace my “less is more” philosophy and often suggest an even more streamlined syllabus. Great kids, all around.
So, what should be taught?
I will serve up my neck with a few suggestions and wait for others to respond. I currently teach a course called “American Popular Humor,” and I am quite fond of it. I added the “popular” to be able to focus on works that have enduring and widespread appeal because, first, that interested me; second, it gave me some cover for leaving out works that I had never heard of. That statement has all the marks of a sound decision. I do not offer this as an ideal or even finished course; rather, I include it here simply to provide a reference point.
I divide the course into thirds: 1) prose and performance; 2) film comedy; and 3) situation comedy. Now, you can start being appalled at how much I have already left out simply by stating three general categories. It gets worse.
Here is my list of required material for prose and performance:
The time for beach trips and summer cookouts is nigh. To mark the occasion, let’s take a look at a clip from Eddie Murhpy’s [now very dated*] Delirious (1983).
I hope Eddie is out working new material in small rooms across the country. But I’m not exactly hopeful. Rumors of Eddie’s return to stand-up, like rumors about production on the Richard Pryor biopic or the film adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces, have yet to materialize into anything substantial. I guess we’ll have to settle for watching Delirious and Raw in our red and purple leather jumpsuits. (Am I alone on that one?)