Category Archives: Humor in America

Call for Contributors

Humor in America” is looking for contributions for an August issue.  Started in 2011, this website publishes pieces about American humor and humor studies.  We have published over 500 pieces, had over 350k visitors and over 600k page views, and have been attacked by Roseanne Barr (although Ricky Gervais tweeted a nice response).

In January 2017, we decided to go from a weekly (or thereabouts) publication schedule to a twice per year format, in which we hope to publish a number of high quality pieces each year in August and February. Thus, we are looking for contributors who can submit pieces by July 15th for publication in early August.  If you are interested in writing a post, please write Tracy Wuster for more information.

Please review the types of pieces we tend to publish, which are largely focused on humor and its multiple roles in American culture.  We generally to not publish humorous writing.  We do not publish posts meant primarily to drive traffic or advertise something else. We are an academic community dedicated to smart writing about humor. We do not make money and we do not pay money for contributions.

Nerd Prom and Presidential Humor

A little different this year…

Humor in America

Last Saturday the Washington glitterati gathered at the Washington Hilton for what has become a major political event; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The draw has over the years become the president doing a stand-up bit followed by a professional comedian roasting more or less everybody in the room. This year’s invited host was Cecily Strong, a Saturday Night Live cast member known for playing The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With. Strong, only the second female to host in the last 20 years, did not go soft on those attending, pun intended. In twenty minutes she made sure to joke both left and right. My personal favorite was when she went after Obama: commenting on criticism that Senator Elizabeth Warren is “too idealistic and her proposed policies are too liberal,” she told people to look at President Obama “people thought the same about

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The Unbearable Lightness of Don Rickles

Humor in America

His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one — it is too offensive to be offensive. – Gay Talese

don_ricklesDon Rickles is bigger than stand-up comedy. The same way Frank Sinatra is bigger than singing. They each developed a style which would, in essence, become its own genre. They were both actors and, more accurately, entertainers. And they both forged their respective careers by refusing to compromise or vainly chase ephemeral trends. Such stuff as icons are made.

Don Rickles studied acting formally at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy and Kirk Douglas studied. Rickles admits he wasn’t the best student at the Academy, but he received advice and direction there which he applied throughout his career. Rickles landed some film and television roles and appeared in a few stage productions, but the loudmouthed Jewish kid from Jackson…

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Opossum Carols, or Walt Kelly’s Xmas Postludicrosity

Humor in America

As the first snows of December drift across my South St Louis windows, and the last shards of Thanksgiving turkey find their way into the requisite casseroles, cold cuts, and cauldrons of stock, I find myself harkening back to early Advent Sundays of yore.

My childhood, like so many others, was loaded with the humor of the holidays, but one of my family’s favorite traditions always tended in a more marsupial direction. So if you’ie got some time between mixing tubs of “Tom and Jerry” and trimming the tree, I’d like to share one of many meaningful excursions through the absurd quadrants of kiddie Christmas culture.

Charlie3
As I boy growing up in Detroit in the 1970s, I loved watching my mother collapse the last of her gargantuan Thanksgiving feast into a few impossibly crammed Tupperware containers and stuff the serving platters, gravy boats, and silver-plate cutlery away for their long…

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Regarding Rudolph

Humor in America

rudolph-the-montgomery-ward-reindeer‘Twas the day before Christmas and all through the hills
The reindeer were playing . . . enjoying the spills ”

Thus begins Robert May’s charming and lighthearted poem in anapestic tetrameter, (the same meter as “A Visit from St. Nicholas” ––also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”).

While it’s a common complaint that holiday traditions and stories have become too commercialized, this beloved tale actually began as a commercial gimmick.

Robert May created the concept of a misfit reindeer in 1939 at the behest of his employer, the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago. Ward’s had traditionally given a free coloring book to children at holiday time. That year, store executives decided it would be more cost-effective to create an original children’s book in-house. They didn’t know exactly what they wanted, but had the notion it should be an animal story with a main character…

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Happy Birthday, Julia A. Moore!

1847-1920

Julia A. Moore 1847-1920

Inspired by the outcome of the recent presidential election, I decided to devote this blog post to an ersatz poet instead of a real one. Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan” was a poetaster.  Stinking with sentiment, and fouled by forced rhyme, her work was unintentionally amusing and thereby gained a cult following. “Literary,” she explained, “is a work very difficult to do.”

Her most poetized topics were the joys of sobriety, the sudden deaths of small children, and fallen soldiers. Mark Twain is said to have counted her among his favorite poets because she made him laugh. Twain alluded to her work in Following the Equator, and is thought to have based the character of Emmeline Grangerford in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on her as well.

In addition to being maudlin, she was also prolific. Two of her poems are below. If you haven’t had enough, you can read more by clicking here.

LITTLE ANDREW

AIR — “Gypsy’s Warning”

Andrew was a little infant,
And his life was two years old;
He was his parents’ eldest boy,
And he was drowned, I was told.
His parents never more can see him
In this world of grief and pain,
And Oh! they will not forget him
While on earth they do remain.

On one bright and pleasant morning
His uncle thought it would be nice
To take his dear little nephew
Down to play upon a raft,
Where he was to work upon it,
An this little child would company be —
The raft the water rushed around it,
Yet he the danger did not see.

This little child knew no danger —
Its little soul was free from sin —
He was looking in the water,
When, alas, this child fell in.
Beneath the raft the water took him,
For the current was so strong,
And before they could rescue him
He was drowned and was gone.

Oh! how sad were his kind parents
When they saw their drowned child,
As they brought him from the water,
It almost made their hearts grow wild.
Oh! how mournful was the parting
From that little infant son.
Friends, I pray you, all take warning,
Be careful of your little ones.

— Julia A. Moore

 

THE TEMPERANCE ARMY

Come all ye friends, and citizens,
Where-ever you may be,
Come listen to a few kind words
A friend will say to thee,
Although going to speak to you
I mean you all no harm,
Tho’ I wish you’d join the army
Of the temperance reform.

Come join the glorious army
Of the temperance reform,
And every man that joins the ranks,
Will find it is no harm,
To wear Red Ribbon on his breast,
To show to this rare world,
There is one that joined the army
And his colors has unfurled.

Come all men in our nation,
Come join this happy band,
And make your homes an eden,
Throughout our happy land.
Your homes will then be happy,
Your friends will all be kind;
And in the domestic circle
True happiness will find.

Ah, from this temperance army,
Your feet shall never stray.
Your mind will then be balmy
If you keep the shining way.
Your paths are strewn with flowers,
And your homes are rosy light,
And God will watch the hours,
For He’s ever on the right.

Come all ye merry happy lads,
And listen to my rhyme.
Don’t be afraid to join the pledge
And let be the cursed wine.
Ah, lay the flowing bowl aside,
And pass saloons if you can,
And let the people see that you
Can be a sober man.

Go join the temperance army,
And battle for the right,
And fight against the enemy
With all your main and might.
For it is a glorious army
This temperance reform,
And the badge Red Ribbon
Will do you all no harm.

— Julia A. Moore

. . . Here’s to  the next four years. Let’s laugh to keep from crying.

 


 

Announcement: Humor in America Book Series

Tracy Wuster

I am pleased to announce the Humor in America book series at Penn State University Press.  Although sharing a name and an editor, the series is not officially connected with this site, but it does share the same goals: the intelligent and illuminating scholarly discussion of humor.

humor-in-america-series-flyer

Humor in America Series

Penn State University Press

Series Editors: Judith Yaross Lee & Tracy Wuster

 

From Benjamin Franklin to Mark Twain, Mel Brooks to Richard Pryor, Our Gang to Inside Amy Schumer, American humor has time and again proven itself to be more than mere entertainment: it has brought cultural norms and practices in America into sharp relief and, sometimes, successfully changed them. The Humor in America series considers humor as an expression that reflects key concerns of people in specific times and places.

 

The series engages the full range of the field, from literature, theater, and stand-up comedy to comics, radio, and other media in which humor addresses American experiences. With interdisciplinary research, historical and transnational approaches, and comparative scholarship that carefully examines contexts such as race, gender, class, sexuality, and region, books in the Humor in America series show how the artistic and cultural expression of humor both responds to and shapes American culture. The series will publish mainly authored volumes, not edited collections, and will appeal to audiences that include scholars, students, and the intellectually curious general reader.

 

Questions or submissions should be directed to the series editors at: leej@ohio.edu and wustert@gmail.com

 

Judith Yaross Lee is Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies and Charles E. Zumkehr Professor of Rhetoric & Culture in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and the author, most recently, of Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture.

 

Tracy Wuster teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the director of the Humor in American Project at UT and the executive director of the American Humor Studies Association. He is the author of Mark Twain, American Humorist.

 

Initial inquiries should take the form of a three- to five-page proposal outlining the intent of the project, its scope and relation to other work on the topic, and the likely audience(s) for the book. Please also include a current CV. The editors note that although it is a logical fallacy to expect scholarship on humor to be funny, the best humor scholarship can be fun— and illuminate its exemplars’ comic spirit—while also being intellectually rigorous and a pleasure to read.

 

 

Series Editorial Board

Darryl Dickson-Carr

Southern Methodist University

 

Joanne Gilbert

Alma College

 

Rebecca Krefting

Skidmore College

 

Bruce Michelson

Emeritus, University of Illinois at

Urbana-Champaign

 

Nicholas Sammond

University of Toronto

 

Keeping Up with the Fishes

A historian of celebrity culture might include in a footnote the curious emergence, brief duration, and inauspicious decline of a “star system” in academic literary studies in last quarter of the twentieth century. The recent publication of an authorized biography of Stanley Fish, who was among the most famous of those stars in the brave o’er hanging firmament of higher education in the 1980s and 1990s, offers an occasion to reflect upon this strange moment in modern literary studies. After all, Fish was not merely one among many stars at the time, but he also developed a persona as well as a critical theory that actively fueled this sort of academic glamour, decadence, and celebrity in literary studies at the time. Stanley Fish, America’s Enfant Terrible, by Gary A. Olson, is not so much a study of the life of an influential literary critic and university administrator than it is a tabloid-styled celebration of a popular celebrity. It is less Cleanth Brooks and more Khloé Kardashian.

fish-cvr

In his fascinating study of the rise, spread, and ultimate decline of “French theory” in America, François Cusset identified the emergence of academic stars as one of the more striking side-effects of the phenomenon, but he also observed that these “stars” became better known for their roles in the star system than for their own writings or ideas. Thus, for example, “scores of Americans have heard of Stanley Fish’s car collection, Cornel West’s salary, Stephen Greenblatt’s circle of friends, Donna Haraway’s provocative wardrobe, and queer theorist Eve Sedgwick’s late conversion to Buddhism before – and, also, all too often instead of – knowing their academic works.” Each of these figures proved themselves to be influential teachers, scholars, and literary critics, but if such publications as the New York Times took note of them, it was not always because their research seemed especially newsworthy. But also, lest we give overestimate the grandeur of this star system, please note that Cusset says “scores,” not hundreds or thousands; notwithstanding the enthusiasm of some, there were not all that many stargazers.

Among such luminaries as Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Edward Said, Richard Rorty, and Fredric Jameson, all discussed by Cusset, Fish stands out for a couple of reasons: first, because he became the most widely known outside of the groves of academe, appearing in well-publicized debates, writing a regular online column for the New York Times, and generally making himself familiar to an audience far beyond that found in Milton Studies or similar such communities; but second, because – unlike some of other “public intellectuals” of this era, such as Said, Gates, or West – Fish develops a theory and practice more or less designed to celebrate celebrity. Becoming a “star” was one of Fish’s professional aims, as Olson’s authorized biography of him makes clear. We might even say that, if there were not a star system for him to join, he’d have had to invent one. We might even say that he did.

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Edwina Dumm: The First Woman Daily Political Cartoonist

Edwina Dumm was the first female to draw political cartoons regularly for a daily newspaper in America.  She was born in 1893 in Ohio.  Her father was an entertainer who got into the newspaper business.  Edwina, fascinated by publishing and having a penchant for drawing, took a correspondence course in art and eventually landed a position with the Columbus Daily Monitor in Ohio.  To be clear, Ms Dumm was not the first female to publish political cartoons in the United States, just the first one to publish cartoons on a daily basis for a newspaper.  There are many examples of other women publishing political cartoons in journals, especially suffrage journals, before Dumm.

The Columbus Daily Monitor only ran from July 10, 1916 to July 5, 1917, but Dumm’s contribution to the newspaper is its most enduring aspect.  In the early 20th century, women did not get many opportunities to express themselves politically, and a neophyte newspaper would be the ideal place for a woman to exploit for that purpose.  She was talented and motivated, and in the culture of separate spheres, demanded less money than the men.  What more could a newspaper want?

Shown below, “Lost Argument” is, perhaps Dumm’s best known cartoon.  In it she suggests that women should be recruited for World War I and that they have many of the necessary skills.  However, true to the chivalry of the times and from the look of the commanding officer reviewing the recruits, it ain’t gonna happen.

edwina-dumm-lost-argument

 

 

In her book, Cartooning for Suffrage, Alice Sheppard cites several examples of women’s rights and suffrage cartoons by Dumm, including the one above.  However, the following Dumm cartoon shows how scathing her criticism of the American suffrage imbalance could be.  When Russia gave women the right to vote in 1917, she suggests that if a politically unstable country can grant the vote to women, surely an established country like the United States can as well.

edwina-dumm-fashion-hints

Pulitzer Prize editorial cartoonist, Signe Wilkinson says of women political cartoonists in the early 20th century, “After the suffrage campaign succeeded, these cartoons vanished from the printed page, leaving rare, brittle clippings and the 19th Amendment as the only traces of their public lives.”[1]  And while that happened to most women cartoonists, Dumm’s career ended because the Daily Monitor went out of business two years before the passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.

Of political cartooning for a newspaper, Dumm said the only discrimination she experienced was that she was not invited to socialize with the other political cartoonists drawing for various newspapers in Columbus at the time.  However, she did have to contend with at least one condescending tribute to her efforts.  An article in a 1917 issue of the magazine Cartoons begins, “She is a ‘regular’ cartoonist and has her workshop in a real newspaper office amid the click of telegraph instruments and typewriters.”   When the Monitor went belly-up, no other newspaper in Columbus would hire her; however, she was able to land on her feet.  She moved to New York City and achieved her more notable cartooning legacy.  She created a cartoon strip called “Capp Stubbs and Tippie” (shown below) that was syndicated nationally.

capp-stubbs-and-tippie

 

She also worked on other comic strips and illustrated children’s books until she retired in 1966.  Her retirement included painting watercolors of people in the New York Subways (below).

dumm-watercolor

 

[1] Chris Lamb, Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. 92.

Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically)

Humor in America

Any time I get the chance to teach American satire, I begin by asserting its power. I use Mark Twain (who else?) to frame the course, taking a line from the Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” I imagine many teachers do the same thing. It is a wonderfully useful statement that grants an aura of legitimacy for the course.  It is also a rather conspicuous effort, as I fight off a perpetual fear that my students (and my peers) hold fast to an underlying belief that “serious” and “humorous” are opposing forces. I confess also that I add Twain’s line to soften my lurking guilt for being able to do something so thoroughly interesting and fun for a living. Still, I believe Twain’s assertion.

But I am having doubts.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone (29 Sep. 2011), Jon Stewart shares his…

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