Category Archives: controversial humor

Ask a Slave: The Exasperating World of Teaching Tourists about American Slavery

ask a slave

Tourists say the dumbest things. They travel the globe ostensibly to learn and to gain experiences so that when they return home they can do so as more well-rounded and informed human beings. Well, that’s the dream anyway. Tourists are always out of place, they are often pretending to be (much) smarter than they are, and they carry with them a sense of entitlement–all of these factors set them up to be perennially funny as objects of ridicule. Few things are funnier than ignorance, but when it combines with arrogance, then a wonderfully silly comic star is born: the American tourist, a figure of derision for about hundred and fifty years now.

Mark Twain as Full Dressed Tourist

It was Mark Twain who first popularized and perfected the American tourist, in his best-selling The Innocents Abroad in 1869, a narrative of a bumbling five-month tour–America’s first pleasure cruise–across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean Sea to see the “Old World.”  He later built on that persona in other travel books like A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1897). Twain captured the perils of tourism in many ways, but one of his most effective and hilarious shticks was to mock the inherent ignorance and arrogance of tourists simply by reporting what they said.

Tourists say the dumbest things. Just ask Azie Dungey, an actor who, while looking for stage work in the Washington D.C. area, found roles, as she puts it, playing “every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Carline Branham–Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid.” Readers here may be too timid to ask this: Is that THE Martha Washington, President George Washington’s wife? Yup. History is fun. Ms. Dungey, during the energy and optimism infused into the presidential election of 2008 and throughout President Obama’s first term, Azie Dungey supported herself by playing a slave who served the first, first family. American irony at its best.

Her role is as “Lizzie May,” a fictional character drawn from Ms. Dungey’s experiences performing as a slave woman at George and Martha Washington’s home named Mount Vernon, now a popular tourist site. And her forum is Ask a Slave: The Web Series. The short sketches recreate many of the questions that tourists posed to Ms. Dungey over the years. Ask a Slave is promoted as “Real Questions, Real Comedy.” It will make you cringe.

Ask a Slave Banner

When tourists reveal their ignorance and arrogance, we have what is called in the profession “a teachable moment.” A traditional method of trying to encourage a learning process is called the Socratic Method, named after Socrates that famous smart guy from ancient Greece. He is dead now. The method involves getting people to ask questions and from the answers to encourage more questions and thereby lead to the gathering of knowledge–and, from that process, achieve the gaining of wisdom. Or something like that. Tourists all over the United States (and the world, for that matter) are often encouraged to ask questions of their guides. At many historical sites, guides are often complemented by historical re-enactors to create “living history.” It is an appealing bit of stage craft.  “All of history is but a stage, and we are merely reenactors and tourists.” Shakespeare wrote something along those lines. I just updated it.

But when the questions are so clueless, what’s a slave to do?

Well, the actor Azie Dungey performed her role to the best of her ability (and with much patience), but all the while she collected information, and now, as Lizzie May, she has some different answers to give. She, with the help of other members of the crew, are re-enacting those tourist re-enactments and providing the rest of us with our own funny teachable moments. The first episode immediately reveals why the online comedy series has caught fire.

Lizzie May is a significant expansion of the role that Ms. Dungey played at Mount Vernon. She is able to provide answers that would have gotten her fired at Mount Vernon, all the while maintaining a demeanor that is seemingly polite and deferential and that the original role demanded. Yet the answers are assertive and thus subversive. She thereby provides a compelling satirical voice. The resulting humor is well worth viewers’ time and offers us our own teachable moments.

Ignorance is funny. It has always been funny because it provides us the wonderful opportunity to laugh at someone else’s stupidity. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of it, so humorists can always find some facet of human behavior to exploit for laughs. When the subject matter is tied to the legacies of slavery, the humor has an unavoidable edge. One thing that the tourist questions reveal beyond their stupidity is a desperation for self-affirmation, or an almost pathological need to lessen the horror of slavery, to give many modern tourists more distance from the slaveowners and supremacists in their racial family tree. The need is understandable; the ongoing moral cowardice, however, is tiresome to say the least.


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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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Wendy Davis: Humorous responses in a time of passionate political debate

Tracy Wuster

Over the past few weeks here in Austin, Texas, the issue of women’s health and abortion restrictions has been front and center, becoming a national story with the dramatic filibuster of SB5 by Wendy Davis (along with Kirk Watson, Judith Zaffrini, Leticia Van De Putte, Sylvester Turner, and others).  Thousands of protesters filled the capital building, hundreds of thousands of people watched online (while CNN discussed blueberry muffins), and Wendy Davis became a national celebrity.  Witnessing these events from both inside the capital and online, I was struck by the intense passion on both sides of the issue and by the ways in which humor might both express and relieve the tension that passionate political debate creates.

wendy davis filibuster cartoon comic

Source

I understand that the issue of abortion is sensitive, so I will stick with the humorous responses to the issue.  What struck me, as an observer, was the swift creation of humorous memes, the jokes on twitter, and the use of humor within the filibuster itself.

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Mort Sahl: Conspiracy Theorist

In 1960, Time magazine placed Mort Sahl on its cover, declaring him, “the patriarch of a new school of comedians” that included Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, and Jonathan Winters.

Mort Sahl Time

His brand of erudite political humor had made him the comic of the moment – and this was a fertile moment for American comedy. While careful to maintain his image as an iconoclast, Sahl nevertheless went to work writing jokes for the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign. However, his comedy remained critical of Kennedy both during and after the election, at least until late 1963.

There were signs that Sahl’s popularity began to wane due to broad trends resulting from decreased demand for political humor and sharp satire after Kennedy’s death. However, most narratives of Sahl’s career, including his own autobiography, point to a more important factor in his retreat from the spotlight: his becoming a Kennedy conspiracy theorist. As part of his work on a syndicated television program, Sahl traveled to meet Jim Garrison (the subject of Oliver Stone’s JFK) who by 1967 claimed to have solved the mystery of Kennedy’s shooting. The CIA, by Garrison’s account, killed the president because of his efforts at ending the Cold War and weakening the CIA. Garrison deputized Sahl who, funded from his own pocket, delved into the investigation. These years proved particularly difficult for Sahl. Not only was he spending time and money investigating instead of performing, his reputation and performances as a paranoiac prevented bookings and disappointed audiences. Of course, by Sahl’s probably not entirely false account, his career was torpedoed by those who disagreed with or wanted to silence his opinions on this matter, including the powerful in the entertainment and political world.

When Sahl performed, his routines increasingly focused on the assassination. Audiences grew tired of his repeated performances reading word-for-word from The Warren Commission Report and staging sketches using directly-quoted government testimony. Holding the comic up as a prototypical post-Kennedy conspiracy theorist while explaining his downfall, John Leonard in 1978 wrote in The New York Times,

He went strange after the assassination of John Kennedy. And in that sense, too, he was a stand-in for the children of the 1950’s. It suddenly seemed that we were no longer the pampered children of the Enlightenment, getting better every day. Until that particular assassination, there was a European way of thinking about conspiracies (there has to be a conspiracy, because it would absolve the rest of us of guilt) and an American way (there can’t be a conspiracy, because then there’s no one to take the rap). Mort Sahl went European all the way into the swamp wevers of the mind of New Orleans Attorney Jim Garrison.

And the talk shows stopped wanting to hear him go on about the grassy knoll, the two autopsies, the washed-out limousine, Lee Harvey Oswald’s marksmanship, Jack Ruby’s friends. He wasn’t funny. He was also, eventually, unemployed, and bitter, as he made clear in his memoir, “Heartland” [sic].

Although vindicated to some extent by the eventual public mistrust of The Warren Commission Report and more provable conspiracies like Watergate, Mort Sahl’s career never recovered.

Sahl is not the only humorist invested in conspiracy theories. Dick Gregory’s commitment to civil rights and other social justice movements led him down similar paths questioning historical orthodoxy. In more recent years, comics like Dave Chappelle have played around with similar notions while shows including The Boondocks, King of the Hill,and South Park have all taken a turn at conspiracy theory-themed narratives. While different comics and shows are differently invested in these themes, it suggests a commonality regarding the political humorists’ mindset. If comedy’s cultural value arises in part from questioning and straining conventional logic, it only makes sense that it would question and strain conventional history as well.

(c) 2013, Phil Scepanski

What is Not Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor

Teaching American Humor

It’s just a joke. I was only joking. Can’t you take a joke?

In an earlier post, I discussed how I have used opinion surveys as a way for students to examine their own tastes in humor and as a way to introduce humor as a vibrant and crucial component of American culture.  In the first part of the surveys, students name their favorite films and television shows and classify their tastes. I have found it is a useful way to establish a context for discussion of theoretical concepts in humor while also getting students to open up about their expectations for the course. Here is a link to that post, “What is Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor“.

In the second part of the survey, students must address the potential complications to their enjoyment of humor. What if the person next to them not only doesn’t share their sense of humor but finds it offensive? When is a joke not a joke but an attack? And even if that “joke” is a veiled attack, should it be silenced? These are complicated issues and demand much more space (and brain power) than I can offer here, but no class on humor can rightly avoid the ever-present tension concerning differing opinions on what is and what is not funny.

Steve Brykman recently posted an excellent discussion concerning social and political challenges inherent in this issue. The underlying violence associated with much of American humor becomes especially troublesome when the humor concerns political figures, in particular the President of the United States. The post, “Is a Joke a Joke?,” can provide an astute and perfectly concise introduction for students who must consider the potential power of humor not only to the change the world but also blow it up. A joke can be provocative, but what if it is more accurately described as incendiary speech? Here is a link to Steve’s post.

As a way to force a potentially tense discussion, I use the survey to ask students to address this issue so that initially they can provide comments anonymously.  They must answer the following two paired questions. In each case, I provide a list, but they are also encouraged to add items if they see fit to do so:

1. What subject matter is off-limits for humor with you personally if someone is kidding with you? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)

Your mother

Your religion

Your gender

Your race

Your sexual orientation

Your body (height, weight, etc.)

Your disabilities or challenges

2.  What subject matter is off-limits for humor socially when the audience is public? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)

mothers

religions

genders

races

sexual orientations

bodies (height, weight, etc.)

disabilities or challenges

deaths and/or tragedies affecting real people

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Meta-Racist Airplane Jokes: The Foolish Audience and Didactic Humor

 Airplane-Movie-Poster

What do you call a black man flying an airplane? A pilot, you racist.

It is not complicated, but this meta-joke activates a complex meaning-making process. The setup connotes a genre of racist jokes, inviting the listener to imagine what possible stereotype about black men will fulfill the question in an unexpected way. The answer of “a pilot” is surprising precisely because it is unsurprising. If orthodox racist jokes tend to fulfill psychoanalytic models in their ability to express otherwise forbidden acts of expression, this joke plays more on the surprise theory by inverting dramatic irony to pleasurably expose the listener’s own prejudices and ideally creating some positive self-awareness in the process.

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something a fictional character does not. I read the above joke as an inversion of that particular form because the “audience” for this joke is the one kept in ignorance until the moment of the punchline. Though not necessarily given to social justice for every listener, this joke is ideally didactic in that it makes a pleasurable game of exposing the listener’s prejudices. Neither this form of humor nor its seeming aspirations to a small lesson in social justice are limited to verbal jokes though. To illustrate these points, I turn to an example that uses visual and verbal language to similar ends with relevant contemporary implications.

In 2003, Chappelle’s Show aired a sketch titled “Diversity in First Class.” Although given to left-leaning rhetoric, Chappelle’s Show was not above admissions of prejudice in certain situations. Taking place on a commercial airplane, the camera pans past a pair of men coded as Middle Easterners by their clothing and language. Engaged in a heated discussion, their performance displays aggression in both speech and hand motions. Clearly meant to invoke the image of Islamic terrorists, its original airdate less than 18 months after 9/11 framed its reading in terms of that national trauma. Subtitles further encourage reading the pair as a threat, adding verbal cues to the visual language connoting terrorism. But as the men continue, the subtitles reveal the true nature of their conversation.


Arabs in First ClassArabs in First Class 2

By leading his expectations in one direction before dashing them, this contradiction between image and reality makes the viewer foolish. Not only that, but these Others discuss a well-known bit of Western pop culture, making their conversation familiar and laughably non-threatening.

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Happy Birthday Muhammad Ali!

Muhammad-Ali-ap_1468665c

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.; January 17, 1942, American legend Muhammad Ali turns 71 today.

Whether or not this trash talking boxing champion is the father of Rap depends on whom you ask. I don’t think it matters.

When the World Heavyweight Champion makes a public appearance and the crowd starts chanting “Give us a poem!” there’s rare magic in the air. Ask anyone old enough to remember his heyday and they’re likely to quote one of his poetic pre-fight predictions. His words and wit delighted the American public. The verbal taunts he tossed off at his opponents were a sports promoter’s dream.

When called on his constant braggadocio, he once said, “My way of joking is to tell the truth. That’s the funniest joke in the world.” With a boxing record like his, who’d dare to argue? But it wasn’t just charisma and athletic talent that made Muhammad Ali a standout. He has always been a multifaceted, complex man; a controversial activist, a dedicated philanthropist and by his own definition, a poet. He also knew how to make us laugh.

Ali hung up his gloves in 1981, but he never quit fighting. In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In 1997, he established The Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center and he continues to make goodwill appearances around the world.

mark_steliger_muhammed_ali_michael_j_fox8x10

Parkinson’s patients and activists: former boxing champion Muhammad Ali poses with actor Michael J. Fox.

“We have one life, it soon will be past
What we do for God is all that will last”
— Muhammad Ali —

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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Sick Jokes After Newtown: Internet Humor as Media Counter-narrative

A poignant "too soon" joke

A poignant “too soon” joke

Matthew Daube’s recent piece pointed out The Onion‘s unique role in responding to tragic events like those in Newtown a few weeks ago. As he notes, the satirical newspaper, while performing comic bravery, still tempers its rhetoric with regard to stories of this nature. But while The Onion has built a reputation as a comedic first responder to tragedies of this nature, it is neither alone nor does it come close to showing the limits of “too soon” humor. Internet forums dedicated to sick humor offer limit cases in both speed and offensiveness. In this way, they offer a discourse that rebels against the framing offered by news coverage.

When tragedy strikes, American popular media tend to follow a script of information gathering, round-the-clock coverage, memorializing, and a tentative return to normal. Visual and audio cues like minor-key music and still photographs offer an emotive frame that distinguishes such events as more tragic and unique than the conventionally bad news that springs from war zones and more economically depressed areas. Eventually, dramatic fare – from films like Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) or Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) as well as television shows like Third Watch and American Horror Story engage with these events in ways that, while perhaps taking unique angles, more or less reinforce the dominant framing of these events as sacred moments of collective trauma.

Comedic responses to such events tend to be more dynamic and varied. Because of its temporality, wider range of generic registers, and many other reasons, television comedies tend to engage with such events more than does cinema. And television varies widely in this regard. While sick jokes about the Challenger explosion in 1986 certainly existed, my research has yet to uncover any such humor on television. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, David Letterman’s famous return episode, while somber, offered moments of cautious, comforting humor. After some more time, South Park offered a mix of patriotic and critical humor, pointing the way towards more politically daring humor as well as those designed more purely to evoke laughing offense.

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Painfully Funny

Even before I got cancer, my favorite kind of humor was the type you might call “painfully funny.”   One of my favorite short stories, to read and to teach, is “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” by Sherman Alexie.  Jimmy Many Horses has spent his life “laughing to keep from crying,” as the old song goes, telling jokes to gain some illusion of control in bad situations, to claim his humanity in the midst of chaos, death, or inhumanity.  Problem is, he can’t stop telling jokes, even when telling his wife about his visit to the doctor, giving him his diagnosis of terminal cancer:

“I told her the doctor showed me my X-rays and my favorite tumor was just about the size of a baseball, shaped like one, too.  Even had stitch marks.”

“You’re full of shit.”

“No, really.  I told her to call me Babe Ruth.  Or Roger Maris.  Maybe even Hank Aaron ’cause there must have been about 755 damn tumors inside me.  Then I told her I was going to Cooperstown and sit right down in the lobby of the Hall of Fame.  Make myself a new exhibit, you know?  Pin my X-rays to my chest and point out the tumors  What a dedicated baseball fan!  What a sacrifice for the national pastime!”

Sherman Alexie Lone Ranger Tonto Approximate Size of My TumorWhile Jimmy’s wife needs him to be serious for a moment, to give her a chance to process her shock and grief, and while she might even have been willing to join him in jokes to cope later — Jimmy cannot stop and give her that time, even when she tells him she’ll leave him if he says one more funny thing.  But even in the midst of his fury at this unwanted and useless “sacrifice” that has been pressed upon him, Jimmy’s joke is brilliant, both inside and outside the context of the story.

The historical allusions to baseball and Hank Aaron’s supplanting of Babe Ruth’s home-run record (with his 755 career home runs) raise issues about the racism that plays a low-key but omnipresent role in the rest of the story.   Even in 1973, when Aaron was getting close to breaking Ruth’s record, he received about 930,000 letters, the majority of them death threats or wishes that he would die, full of dehumanizing epithets:  “You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth.”   Another letter that has been widely quoted wishes on Aaron a disease primarily connected with Africa and her descendants:  “Dear Hank Aaron, How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?”

But cancer, as Jimmy reminds us, does not discriminate; it is not a respecter of race, class, or power.  Cancer, like humor, is an equal opportunity offender.  And cancer has become almost like a national pastime.  You can’t go anywhere without running into those damned pink ribbons and pricey pink items commodifying death and infantilizing the very personal, protracted, and agonizing fight to survive against breast cancer, a phenomenon some angry breast-cancer survivors have labeled “pinkwashing” — all purchased with the best of intentions and the hope to find a cure.   But that support ironically creates a sense of audience, of fandom and voyeurism, the pink ribbons becoming our admission tickets to the new national pastime.  Cancer itself is like a bad joke that just won’t quit.

To me, it is this kind of humor that reminds us of who we are, how little we actually control, and why it all matters anyway.  Continue reading →