Category Archives: Humor Studies

Humor in the Age of Trump

Tracy Wuster

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Having been distracted from the study of humor by the spectacle of politics for the past six months to a year, I have yet to put together a cogent response to the question of the role of humor in the age of Trump.  For many, it seems, there is little to laugh at in such a time–at least not the laughter of pleasure or enjoyment.  The humor that comes with satire, yes, but I have not seen much pro-Trump humor.  Maybe I am not looking in the right place.

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Here I want to gather and direct you to a few pieces that I have found interesting on humor and its role now.  Please feel free to direct us toward others in the comments.

LAUGHTER IN THE AGE OF TRUMP 

MAGGIE HENNEFELD / UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

…Comedy, however spiteful, has always possessed a special power to reveal that the emperor has no clothes. Satire defeats fear with laughter. As Jon Stewart put it in a 2010 MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow—about the destructive impact of news entertainment on journalistic standards—what “satire does best…is articulate an intangible feeling that people are having, bring it into focus, say you’re not alone. It’s a real feeling. It’s maybe even a positive feeling, a hopeful feeling.”3 Unlike the smug laughter of cynical disavowal, the stinging laughter of pointed satire can actively participate in transforming our perception of reality. Since reality is a construct—equal parts unknown trauma and Celebrity Apprentice—it is therefore ripe for the molding, and ours for the seizing….

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“Hold on—that’s a trash fire. Over there is Trump’s Inauguration speech.”

LETTER TO AMERICA
BY MICHAEL P. BRANCH

…First of all, America, never forget the immense power of humor to expose misguided values and destructive practices. Satire is as vital and as useful now as it was when Aristophanes ragged on Socrates in The Clouds back in 423 BC. You remember that gut buster, don’t you? Well, we still have plenty to learn from Swift and Johnson, Bierce and Twain, Orwell and Huxley. Satire is not only funny but also enormously forceful and effective—and, human nature being what it is, the comic exposure of vice and folly has the added benefit of offering great job security. America, I know you feel like you’re on the defensive, that even as you try to inspire, persuade, and reform, you secretly fear that you are now a voice crying in the wilderness. The satirist, by contrast, remains on the offensive, challenging established power structures, revealing their absurdity or violence, forcing villains to account for themselves. Orwell was right that “Every joke is a tiny revolution,” because satirical humor is the enemy of established power—especially power that lacks moral leadership. The satirist’s work is the serious business of striking into that troubling gap between what our ideology promises and the often disappointing outcomes our choices actually produce. We don’t call them “punch” lines for nothing….

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Political Correctness Isn’t Killing Comedy, It’s Making It Better

Diversity Among Comedians and Audiences Makes Room for More Laughs

BY REBECCA KREFTING

…What’s notable about these new, louder voices is that they aren’t stifling free speech (that bludgeon so often used by incorrectness defenders). They’re creating more. Comics such as Jim Norton may criticize the internet outrage gang for spending too much time railing about matters that are inconsequential, namely jokes told by comics. Upon closer examination, however, a lot of these “petty” conversations speak to issues of great significance in our society like how we portray and treat historically disenfranchised groups.

Does some of the outrage go too far? Yes. Will fear of backlash lead to some performers self-censoring their material? Perhaps. (Though you’ll note that most of these complainers aren’t exactly being silenced.) But it’s a false presumption that being more mindful when it comes to producing humor that punches down will somehow create comedy that’s less funny. If anything, it makes it smarter….

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Comedians in the Age of Trump: Forget Your Stupid Toupee Jokes

But these sorts of jokes about him fail to even begin countering the disastrous impact he’ll have upon the world. Because the problem isn’t that he’s unmockable; it’s that he’s too dangerous to simply mock. The saint of the so-called “alt-right,” the man who “tells it like it is,” supports free speech only so long as he isn’t the butt of it. His rhetoric is grounded in hate. But what’s most dangerous is that his entire identity is grounded in the paranoid idea that he, a millionaire who answers to no one — the very definition of a punch-up comedy target — is somehow the victim, and that making fun of him is in fact punching down. The best comedy imagines new, better worlds by laughing at the old, current one. But how do we laugh at this world when it’s run by a man who not only can’t take a joke but would be giddy at the prospect of taking away our right to make them at all?

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Laughing with Laugh Tracks

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Teaching American Humor: Laughing with Laugh Tracks

My life would be better with a laugh track. My writing would be better, too. So would your reading experience–well, with a laugh track and a few drinks…

I am with the majority opinion on this issue, at least according to most producers of American situation comedies for the last sixty years. The reasoning behind the laugh track, as I see it, goes like this: A laugh track makes people laugh; people who laugh enjoy situation comedies; people who enjoy situation comedies see plenty of commercials; people who see commercials while in a good mood tend to buy things; a laugh track makes people laugh, and so on… Those who buy and sell commercials fund sitcoms, and they have never been inclined to trust writers or audiences. Neither do I.

I have skillfully written two first-rate jokes thus far. But, of course, you can’t really know that because this post does not have a laugh track. I spent several hours trying to insert laugh track audio here and failed. That’s funny–I think–but how can any of us be sure?

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Teaching the American sitcom requires some discussion of laugh tracks. I admit that I have only glossed over laugh tracks in courses on American humor thus far. This has been a mistake. I have awakened to an obvious point: laugh tracks provide a compelling way for students to consider a more challenging array of characteristics of the art form–from the aesthetic to the mundane, from the heart of performance to the mechanics of production, from the implicit honesty of comedy to the manipulative potential of technology. From now on, I will begin all coursework focused on the sitcom with the laugh track.

Here is how I came to this astounding awakening; it’s all about The Big Bang Theory. I like the show (though I can’t decide whether I should consider it a “guilty pleasure” or an appreciation of solid, if broad, writing). The laugh track, however, drives me crazy. It is loud and intrusive. I don’t believe it at all. I am not alone. Any quick Google search of “laugh tracks” will provide over 31,000,000 hits. Type in “Big Bang Theory,” and you will find 127,000,000 hits, virtually all of which refer to the show (I didn’t check out all of them, by the way. I simply reached that conclusion using the scientific method based on my observations of the first two pages). Here is a fact: lots of people care about the television show; almost nobody cares about the scientific theory. A search of the show title combined with “laugh tracks” gets 181,000 hits. Lots of people hate the laugh track (lots of people hate the show, too). YouTube has plenty of clips of the show with the laugh track removed. Here are two examples:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmLQaTcViOA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASZ8Hks4gko

These clips draw out two basic responses from interested parties: one, that the show is hurt by the laugh track (so the complaint concerns its use rather than the inherent quality of the show itself); two, that the laugh track lamely attempts to cover up a lousy show. There is no reconciling of these opposing positions, but the removal of the laugh track is disingenuous in that it creates a show wherein the comedic timing has been wholly distorted. The Big Bang Theory is filmed in front of a live audience, and the performance reflects the interaction between audience and cast. The producers of the show claim that the audience responses are genuine and have not been “sweetened,” a term to imply that the laughter has been engineered in production to enhance audience responses. This claim is disingenuous as well. Any production process will inevitably “sweeten” the final product–from placement of microphones to volume applied. All steps in the process of preparing a show for airing are a form of “sweetening.” Simply because the producers do not use canned laughter (laughter recordings NOT from an live audience) does not mean that no laughter manipulation occurs. Of course it does. As always, The Onion provides the best satirical take on laugh tracks with the show by simply raising the volume of the laugh track so that it wholly overpowers the show itself: Big Bang Theory with laugh track enhanced by The Onion

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Comedy Above All Else: On Directing The Last Cyclist

By Rachel E. Blackburn

 

One of my all-time favorite Seinfeld episodes featured the dentist character Tim Watley, played by Bryan Cranston. Watley begins making Jewish jokes after a recent conversion to Judaism. Seinfeld discovers this, is clearly bothered by it, and in response, visits one of Watley’s fellow patients, Father Curtis (sitting in a confessional booth to do so). After Seinfeld shares with Father Curtis the humorous antics of Watley, Father Curtis asks Seinfeld, “And this offends you as a Jew?” And Seinfeld responds, “No, it offends me as a comedian.” As one who was raised Jewish myself, complete with Bat Mitzvah, years of Hebrew school and the requisite trip to Israel, I always secretly revered that statement, however silly it may be. I might go so far as to say I found it admirable and noble; all hail in the name of laughter! I readily identified with the notion that Seinfeld ultimately held his identity as a comedian closer to his heart than that of his ethnic and cultural heritage.

The opportunity came to test my commitment to comedy above all, however, when I recently co-directed (with Ms. Gina Sandi-Diaz) a play titled The Last Cyclist. The Last Cyclist, written by Karel Svenk, is a comedy borne out of the Holocaust; specifically, written and rehearsed inside Theresienstadt, one of many concentration camps in operation roughly from 1940 – 1945 during WWII. What sort of authorial voice do we have in Karel Svenk, who in the midst of starvation, degradation, torture and dehumanization, found the energy and inspiration to write a comedy? What might he have to laugh about in his given circumstances? And, beyond all this – how did I approach directing such a piece nearly seventy years later after its initial conception?

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Karel Svenk, the man who found the motivation and enthusiasm for laughter despite everything, was a Czech prisoner. What little we know of Svenk – a comedian, actor, and playwright – was that he was charismatic, funny, goofy in the best of ways, and inspiring to his fellow prisoners. Naomi Patz, who has reconstructed and reimagined his work (the script adaptation of The Last Cyclist which I directed in the theatre), has often stated in her discussions of Svenk that he was something akin to a European Charlie Chaplin, in terms of his physical comedy. Were he to be alive today, she says, we might read him as analogous to a Robin Williams: someone whose manic energy was infectious, and could somehow shine light in even the darkest of corners. Svenk was someone who could readily demonstrate for us the value of comedy as a tool for overcoming the worst cruelties of life, in the skillful manner of a true artist and comedian.[1]

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The Comedy of the Black Republican

While I am currently working on political ideology on entertainment television in the 1970s, I do enjoy watching more contemporary television as well. Often, however, I am struck by how apolitical network television entertainment today is compared to the 1970s. In fact, the 1970s constitute a very peculiar period in network television. Especially comedies reveled in a new politically relevant humor, and the ratings ensured them leeway. But by the 1980s, the proliferation and weight of a wide array of interest groups had hampered the comedic freedom. Modern Family recently spent a story arch on Claire (Julie Bowen), one of the main characters, running for city council. Yet, her partisan alignment was never identified. This tactic is quite common in an industry that strives for as wide an audience as possible. There are few, if any, upsides in offending parts of your audience with partisan identification.

This is why I was so surprised to come across an episode of the ABC sitcom Black-ish revolving entirely around the idea of the Black Republican. The episode starts with Dre (Anthony Anderson) stipulating facts of life, including:

 “Black people aren’t Republicans, we just aren’t. We vote for Democrats. And it’s not just an Obama thing […] black people also overwhelmingly backed this guy [photo of Dukakis in a tank], this guy [photo of Al Gore kissing Hillary Clinton], hell 91% of black people voted for this guy [photo of Walter Mondale holding boxing gloves]. Fact: 91% of Walter Mondale’s family didn’t vote for Walter Mondale. Sure, the other side may trot out a token black face every now and again, but the fact of the matter is being a black Republican is something we just don’t do.”

The show often deals with perceived cultural differences between black Americans and white Americans, Continue reading →

The Fall of Trump: A New Image of the Donald

Tracy Wuster

 

In September, I collected a range of images of Donald Trump in “The Summer of Trump: Clown, Gasbag, Monster, Anti-PC Hero, and Other Images of THE DONALD.”  Like many people watching the spectacle of the presidential primary season, I felt that surely the Trump spectacle wouldn’t last, something that Trump said would surely lead him to be a footnoted joke like Herman Cain, Michelle Bachman, or Rick Santorum.  I was wrong.

On that post, I promised to keep up with the images, but my fatigue at all things Donald kicked in after an update or two.  And, for the most part, the images were fairly consistent–clown, gasbag, misogynist, racist, etc., with the occasional pro-Donald cartoon coming in from the right-wing.  As this cartoon shows, Trump’s constant media presence and proclivity to shoot off his mouth surely keeps cartoonists busy.
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But over the course of the fall and into the winter, one image started to recur more and more–and image that seems to go beyond the normal confines of the relatively safe satire of political cartoons: the image of Donald Trump as a fascist.

Portraying Trump in relation to Nazi or general fascist imagery seems to me to be a step beyond how cartoonists portray tend to portray major political figures.  A google image search for such images for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush turn up only scattered images.

Especially after Trump’s comments about banning Muslims from the U.S., images connected him with fascism were not scattered, they were prominent.  Here are the images:

All images copyright of their creators.

And in February and early March, we have the link between Trump and the KKK/David Duke.

 

Happy Birthday, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Not you, Mark Twain.

 

Tracy Wuster

November 30, 2015 will be celebrated as the 180th birthday of one Mark Twain—novelist, humorist, and all around American celebrity. I, for one, will not be celebrating.

You see, I recently finished up a book about Mark Twain, and I know, for a
fact, that Mark Twain was born on February 3, Wuster Mark Twain American Humorist1863. Or thereabouts. No one knows for certain, but that is as certain as we can be, so that is enough.  And not so much born, but created, or launched…inaugurated…catapulted…

That means that this February 3, 1863 will be Mark Twain’s 153rd birthday, which is not that fancy of a number, but it is getting up there for someone still so famous as to have people writing books about him—and more importantly, people reading books by him.

Sure, everyone knows that “Mark Twain” was really the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Even early in his career, almost everyone knew that, often using the names interchangeably, as most Americans still do. Not as many people know the names Samuel Clemens used an abandoned before creating Mark Twain: “Grumbler,” “Rambler,” “Saverton,” “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab,” “Sergeant Fathom,” “Quintus Curtis Snodgrass,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh.” Selecting “Mark Twain” was clearly a wise choice, although the name would have had a second, nautical meaning for many nineteenth century folk.

Samuel Clemens mixed up the use of his given name and his chosen name—making the whole distinction a mush of confusion that is either a bonanza of psychological material or, alternately, meaningless. For most people, I would guess the distinction is meaningless trivia, which is fine. I’m just happy people still know and read books by Mark Twain. But, I for one, will still grumble when people wish Mark Twain a “Happy Birthday” each November 30th, and I will still try to correct them by pointing out that the “Mark Twain” they refer to really was born—or created—on February 3rd, 1863.

But what does it matter?

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Bill Burr: A Safe Space for Standup?

Maybe I’ve been watching too many political debates or reading too many articles that pop up as newsworthy on my social media newsfeed (i.e. Starbucks’ Cupgate) – either way, I’ve been craving some authenticity lately and jumped at the chance to see comedian Bill Burr and his borderline-obnoxious-yet-refreshingly-honest standup last week.

My affinity for Bill Burr started years ago when I stumbled upon Bill Burr’s Monday Morning Podcast. Since 2007, Burr has relied heavily on material about sports, food, stereotypes, and even consumer complaints to air out his grievances in his weekly podcast, a part of the All Things Comedy network. During a recent episode on a Thursday night, Burr discussed his upcoming trip to Philadelphia, home of the world’s best cheesesteaks, where I saw him at the Wells Fargo Center, his largest live crowd ever, the following evening. If you’re not familiar with Bill Burr, his role during the second season of Chappelle’s Show might be worth a watch. Or you can catch the Massachusetts native on one of his specials – 2014’s I’m Sorry You Feel That Way being the most recent. Burr’s newest project, F is For Family, airs on Netflix next month.

As I was leaving the show, a group of 3 or 4 women in front of me lamented about giving up a Friday night to attend a show highlighting “another sexist comedian.” They cited his shtick about women’s takeover of the NFL as proof of their supposition. Below, a sample:

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An Afternoon with Mairéad Byrne

An Afternoon with Mairéad Byrne

Poet Mairéad Byrne came to us on a cold, windy, April Fool’s Day. Her poem “Spring” perfectly illustrated her presence on campus:

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After a long winter, April and the promise of sunshine and warmth made us almost giddy as we filed into the auditorium. During her reading, students seemed a bit more . . . aware; faculty seemed a bit more . . . cheerful. We had endured 31 of the darkest days on record, and now Mairéad Byrne, our April, was reading from her collection You Have to Laugh: New + Selected Poems (2013), a compilation of witty and clever musings rife with a propensity toward sadness (“Crop”) and self-deprecation (“Things I’m Good At”; “I Went to the Doctor”). If you are new to her, Byrne is an Irish emigrant living in Providence, RI, and teaching at RISD (below: her faculty profile video).

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Rainbows and Hippies: Humorous Responses to the Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Decision

Tracy Wuster

 

Several years ago, we posted a collection of humorous responses to President Obama’s change to support gay marriage.  For a follow up, here are some of the humorous responses to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize marriage across the country.

Responses seem to fall into a few general categories:

1) Celebration of the ruling

2) Comments on the Supreme Court, pro and con, but with no real connection to the recent Obamacare decision (see bottom for examples of responses to that)

3) Connections to the questions of race and the Confederate flag

4) Satire on the institution of marriage

4) Reactions of opponents

Here are a few cartoons and memes that show examples of these trends.

 

And here are some web-based humorous responses:

Watch Stephen Colbert Celebrate Gay Marriage

The Best Memes About The Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

The ‘Broad City’ stars have the PERFECT response to the gay marriage ruling

The Antonin Scalia “Sick Burn” Generator

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We Asked the Nearest Hippie About Scalia: It Was David Crosby

THE SCOTUS MARRIAGE DECISION, IN HAIKU.

Scalia is getting roasted on social media with hilarious memes after his dissent on the gay marriage ruling

Internet memes on the historic marriage ruling

Disasters You Can Expect Now That Marriage Equality Is Here

People Who Are Going To Be Very Disappointed When They Get To Canada

Anything else?

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Call for Papers: “Is American Satire Still in a Postmodern Condition?” 

Special issue on contemporary satire for Studies in American Humor (Fall 2016), James E. Caron(University of Hawaii—Manoa), Guest Editor; Judith Yaross Lee (Ohio University, Editor).
In response to the torrent of satiric materials that has been and continues to be produced in recent years, Studies in American Humor invites proposals for 20-page essays using the rubric of “the postmodern condition” as an analytical gambit for demarcating a poetics of American comic art forms that use ridicule to enable critique and promote the possibility of social change. Proposals might focus on aspects of the following issues.

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What problems are associated with defining satire as a comic mode, and how do recent examples fit into such debates? How useful is the term postmodern to characterize satire—i.e. does it refer to a period or an operation? How useful for understanding recent and contemporary satire are terms designed to indicate we have moved into something other than postmodernism: e.g. trans- or post-humanism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, post-theory? In accounts of satire as a mode of comic presentation of social issues, what differences arise from varied technologies andplatforms, not just print but also TV sitcoms (live-action or animated), movies, comic strips, stand-up formats, or the sit-down presentation of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Do significant differences emerge from satires on YouTube (or the video-sharing service, Vines) and various Internet sites (e.g., Funny or Die) and social media? If ridicule, broadly speaking, is the engine of satiric critique, what ethical concerns are entailed in its use?

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Various disciplinary perspectives and methods are welcome. StAH values new transnational and interdisciplinary approaches as well as traditional critical and historical humanities scholarship. Submit proposals of 500-750 words to StAH’s editorial portal <http://www.editorialmanager.com/sah/> by June 15, 2015, for full consideration. Authors will be notified of the editors’ decisions in early July.  Completed essays will be due by January 15, 2016.   For complete information on Studies in American Humor and full submission guidelines see <http://studiesinamericanhumor.org/ >.  At the time of publication all authors are expected to be members of the American Humor Studies Association, which began publishing StAH (now produced in association with the Penn State University Press) in 1974. Queries may be addressed to the editors at <studiesinamericanhumor@ohio.edu>.