They say humor is based on timing. Yes, as is everything else. Ask Elisha Gray about telephone patents. I was plugging along, working on a piece about the comedian Dana Gould, and still figuring out when I would finish writing about Mark Twain and the German language, when an article in my local newspaper caught my attention:
“Dead Poets Society founder visits 300th grave”
The fact that there’s an actual Dead Poets Society prompts visions of Ethan Hawkes’s teeth and an involuntary desire to kill Robert Sean Leonard. Swallowing my bile I learned that the current founder, Walter Skold of Freeport (Maine), has visited the gravesites of 300 poets “ahead of this weekend’s fourth annual Dead Poets Remembrance Day.”
What is “Dead Poets Remembrance Day”? Apparently, “with the help of 13 current and past state poets laureate,” Skold was able to dedicate October 7—“the day that Edgar Allan Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born—to heightening public awareness of the art of poetry.
The article posted October 5. That was Saturday. Making the actual memorial day a Monday. Today. My day to submit. So in honor of dead poets everywhere (and as one who writes the occasional verse and considers the artform dead, and therefore all practitioners the undead) let us examine the two poets tied to this day. What the article does not share is an appreciation for not just the day, but the year. On October 7, 1849, as Edgar Allan Poe lay dying of possibly drunken Rabies in a Baltimore medical college, James Whitcomb Riley was borning in Greenfield, Indiana.
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?
Today, May 12th, would have been George Carlin’s birthday. Born in 1937, Carlin was one of the key figures of the stand-up renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s. Carlin is listed as #2 on the Comedy Central list of the 100 most influential comedians of all time and was awarded the Mark Twain Prize in American Humor.
“Seven Dirty Words” originated on Carlin’s 1972 album, Class Clown, and was revisited on 1973’s, Occupation: Foole. Carlin was arrested on July 21, 1972 for performing the routine in Milwaukie. The case was dismissed when Carlin’s routine was judged indecent, not obscene. Carlin’s explication of the words led to a court case that eventually ended at the Supreme Court in Federal Communications Commission vs. Pacifica Foundation—a decision that is a modern touchstone in the debate over obscenity (here is part of the FCC transcript of Carlin’s monologue).
Every once in a while, I try to think what those seven words are–can you think of them?
On March 14th, 1919, in the Jewish section of Saint Paul, Minnesota, writer and humorist Max Shulman was born. Growing up during the Great Depression is what he credited to fine-tuning his wit, wisdom and sense of humanity. In his own words, “. . . life was bitter and I was not. All around me was poverty and sordidness but I refused to see it that way. By turning it into jokes, I made it bearable.”
Schulman is best known as the creator of the character Dobie Gillis, who first appeared in a series of short stories, followed by a popular television sitcom (142 episodes from 1959-1963) and later a Broadway play and musical. The Dobie Gillis stories follow an earnest, all American teenager as he pursues girl after girl. The variety and off-the-wall oddity of some of Dobie’s crushes make the premise work and keep the stories fresh and fun. This character whose television incarnation, played by Dwayne Hickman, often sat in the park beside a copy of Rodin’s “The Thinker” statue, and broke the third wall of theater by asking the audience philosophical questions. This sitcom was one of the first to explore the complex role of the American post-war teenager. Dobie’s television sidekick, beatnik Maynard G. Krebs, played by actor Bob Denver represented the emerging counter-culture whose questioning and challenging the status quo led us into the tumultuous 1960’s.
Like Mark Twain and Booth Tarkington, Shulman’s work captures young people’s callow intensity of feeling in a way that makes us remember ourselves and laugh. Shulman’s trademark is his tendency to pepper his scripts, novels and columns with farcical poetry–most notably, absurd lovelorn poems.
In a newspaper column, he once jokingly advised young men, “The standard way to melt a girl’s heart is to write poetry about her….the range of the subject matter is endless. You can write a poem about a girl’s hair, her eyes, her nose, her lips, her teeth, her walk, her talk, her clothes,her shoes––anything at all.”
Here are a few preposterous examples:
I LOVE YOU
(by Dobie Gillis from “Love is A Science”)
I love you with all my power,
I love you with all my might,
I love you at any hour,
I love you by day or night.
I hope we will soon be married,
But if I should die before,
See to it that I’m buried
Somewhere near your door.
Strew flowers on my grave humbly,
And heave a frequent sigh.
Though I grow gray and crumbly,
I’ll always be your guy.
O, SPECKLED LOVE!
(By “Leda” from the novel “Anyone Got A Match?”)
Sand between the lovers’ toes
Recalls like thorns, the flawless rose.
Gritty, crunching in the shoes
Recollects, rejoices, rues
Untamed blood that starts the hearts
Till sand adheres to yearning parts.
Rasping flesh in grasping hand:
Abrasive love — pervasive sand.
Sorrow learns what bliss can teach
On the fierce and tender beach.
(by “Crip” from the novel “Potatoes Are Cheaper”)
Elaine, Elaine oh sweet and fair
Thy creamy skin, thy gleamy hair,
Thy marble brow, thy sapphire eyes,
Thy secrets I can but surmise.
Oh, where hast thou thy treasure hid?
Oh, dare I hope to ope the lid?
Oh, let me ope it once Elaine,
Then let me ope it once again!
It has been said that the definition of Youth is life yet untouched by tragedy. If Shulman’s work is a barometer, this bears out. Time will march on, but as long as we can truly recall the way we felt when we were young––and remember to laugh––we stand a chance to age gracefully.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of “Mark Twain.” The name. Other reasons to celebrate or otherwise gather should be secondary. By proclamation:
By His Excellency Dannel P. Malloy
Governor: anOfficial Statement
WHEREAS, the state of Connecticut is deeply proud of its association with
Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) who chose–not once–but twice to build
a home here=2C spending 20 years in Hartford and two years in his final ho-
me in Redding; and
WHEREAS, while living here Twain wrote books, articles, speeches,
and other writings that have brought laughter, joy, and cause to think
deeply about the issues of humanity, to millions of readers worldwide,
WHEREAS, one of those residences is now one of that state’s most promin-
ent historic and literary sites, recently voted the State Fan Favorite in-
the Still Revolutionary tourism program, The Mark Twain House & Museum,
WHEREAS, February 3, 2013 marks the 150th Anniversary of the date that
Samuel L. Clemens first used the name “Mark Twain” to sign one of his
WHEREAS, this occasion has created interest and excitement throughout the
state where Twain lived and worked for so long,
THEREFORE I, DANNEL P. MALLOY, Governor of the State of Connecticut,
do hereby officially proclaim February 3, 2013, as
MARK TWAIN’S NAME DAY
in the State of Connecticut
Celebrate accordingly. Non-Connecticut residents are welcome to issue their own proclamations. Toasts also acceptable. Cash donations to your favorite website welcome. Birthday presents to the editor of this site also welcome, although not required.
His First Birthday.
“I remember that first birthday well,” he began. “Whenever I think of it, it is with indignation. Everything was so crude, so unaesthetic. Nothing was really ready. I was born, you know, with a high and delicate aesthetic taste. And then think of – I had no hair, no teeth, no clothes. And I had to go to my first banquet like that.
“And everybody came swarming in. It was the merest little hamlet in he backwoods of Missouri, where never anything happened at all. All interest centered on me that day. They came with that peculiar provincial curiosity to look me over and to see if I had brought anything fresh in my particular line. Why, I was the only thing that had happened in the last three months – and I came very near being the only thing that happened there in two whole years.
“They gave their opinions. No one had asked them, but they gave them, and they were all just green with prejudice. I stood it as long as – well, you know, I was born courteous. I stood it for about an hour. Then the worm turned. I was the worm. It was my turn to turn, and I did turn. I knew the strength of my position. I knew that I was the only spotlessly pure person in that camp, and I just came out and told them so.
“It was so true that they could make no answer at all. They merely blushed and went away. Well, that was my cradle song, and now I am singing my swan song. It is a far stretch from that first birthday to this, the seventieth. Just think of it!”
Remember to get your abstracts in for the 7th International!
Today, September 27th, 2012 marks the fourteenth birthday of Google. (I googled it.) Wikipedia (according to itself) celebrated its eleventh birthday last January 15th. The iPhone (according to a news item in the LA Times I used mine to pull up) had its fifth birthday last June 29th. Each of these innovations have changed our world in their own right, but the three of them together have had a kick that reminds me of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon becoming nitroglycerin.*
*Upon reading, this my husband, who is a walking encyclopedia, (see below) said I forgot to mention hydrogen in the nitroglycerin compound. Rather than throw out the analogy, let’s pretend hydrogen atoms are the people using the technology.
While we’ve been learning to reach for our iPhones to Google Wikipedia, our humor has become increasingly referential as well. Seth MacFarlane for example, leads us down ever-more-elaborate halls of mirrors in his hit show Family Guy.
Of course neuroscientists, psychologists and sociologists are studying the myriad ways this ubiquitous digital technology affects us. Some of their findings are surprising, others . . . not so much to those of us old enough to have been firmly entrenched in adult life in the slower, more deliberate, analogue days.
It stands to reason that there’s less social currency in being a walking encyclopedia in a world where everyone walks around with access to an encyclopedia. But I’ve noticed something else as well: The more these tools are available, the less I trust my own memory. (“No wonder,” you say after the nitroglycerin debacle.) Regardless, the less I trust my own memory, the more I double check. The more I double check, the less I commit to memory. . . and so on.
When it comes to facts at our fingertips, there is a thin line between usefulness and compulsion. Once we cross that line, we become like the guidebook-happy tourist whose every experience either confirms what he read, or will be confirmed by what he is about to read.
We are the last generation to remember digging through our pockets for change to buy a hamburger instead of swiping a card. And we are the last generation to remember searching our minds for facts instead of searching the internet. With that thought, I bring you Billy Collins’ 1999 poem Forgetfulness.
(c) 2012, Caroline Sposto
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.
June 20 is the birthday of Charles Waddell Chesnutt, one of the most important authors and humorists of the Gilded Age. Chesnutt (1858-19320) is often discussed in terms of the humor of his works, especially the short stories of his two collections The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth, both published in 1899. In a journal entry from 1879, Chesnutt wrote of the purposes of his fiction, which he viewed as elevating not the black race but the white. He wrote:
But the subtle almost indefinable feeling of repulsion toward the negro, which is common to most Americans—and easily enough accounted for—, cannot be stormed and taken by assault; the garrison will not capitulate: so their position must be mined, and we will find ourselves in their midst before they think it.
So instead of the “assault of laughter,” Chesnutt saw his goal as using humor to subtly influence feeling, or as he put it: “while amusing them to lead them on imperceptibly, unconsciously step by step to the desired state of feeling.” The entire journal entry is printed below. But, first, I will discuss the ways in which I have taught Chesnutt as a figure in the plantation school of American literature.