Category Archives: humor in unexpected places

“Can I get to that heart? Can I get to that mind?”A tribute to the frank, contested humor of intense teachers—and to Henry Higgins

Nine years ago in my first class in graduate school, a course on approaches to teaching writing, we read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as a break from composition theory. I was thrilled, but I reigned in my enthusiasm when I noted that others in the class, including my professor who I respected immensely, felt apologetic about the book. Words like abusive and misogynistic were thrown casually around the seminar table, as they sometimes are in graduate seminars. Why was there this worry about the teacher in the story—about Henry Higgins? I was surprised that so many disliked his method because I had always thought of him as an effective teacher. My only real support for this inkling was that I found him . . . funny.

Did I have this wrong and, if so, what was the source of my misunderstanding? Or, if I was right that Henry Higgins was a funny and therefore benevolent man (I had collapsed the two conditions in my mind), what caused the confusion among others in my graduate school class? Why had everyone else failed to note his humor? And what did I see in his humor anyway? Could it be that I thought his humor lightened—or even completely neutralized—his seemingly harsh dealings with Eliza Doolittle? Or did we all have it wrong? Did a “correct” reading of the play really fall somewhere in the middle—was it really that Higgins was both funny and harsh? I began to doubt my first intuition about professor Higgins, as I seemed to be faced with a more complicated story.

The irony was that my own professor in this class, a good man with a fiery heart, who was, that very semester, dying of cancer (this would be his last seminar on teaching writing), was a gruff man himself. He and Henry Higgins shared a vocational intensity. In fact, like Henry Higgins, this professor had made it his life’s work to teach writing (or “speech”) to the underserved, hugely advancing the trend in what is now called “access” education at top universities. He was passionately focused on this until his last breaths—and he was passionately focused on us, his students; he read our final papers days before he died. Although we, his students, didn’t have a personal rapport with him—we would never have imagined going out for a beer with this man—our engagement with theories of speech and writing, particularly where low-income populations were concerned, kept him alert, stubborn, and justifiably cranky until the end.

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Maya Angelou: “If you don’t laugh, you’ll die…”

Tracy Wuster

All Americans are–or should be–aware of the cultural importance of Maya Angelou in documenting our nation’s history and her own experience through poetry and prose.  I will leave it to other sources to remind us of and to celebrate her contribution to American letters and life.  But here, I want to simply bring forward a few things Angelou said about the importance of humor and laughter that remind us of the importance of joy and laughter in the struggles against bigotry and the efforts to create a meaningful life for ourselves and those we love.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style”

“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.”

“I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one.”

If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love. Don’t be surly at home, then go out in the street and start grinning ‘Good morning’ at total strangers.”

“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”

“The main thing in one’s own private world is to try to laugh as much as you cry.”

“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw some things back.”

“If you don’t laugh, you’ll die… Against the cruelties of life, one must laugh.”

“My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness. Continue to allow humor to lighten the burden of your tender heart.”

And don’t forget Maya Angelou’s short-lived prank show–“I know why the caged bird laughs!”

 

The Onion’s announcement.

See also Laughspin’s tribute. 

WHEN I THINK ABOUT MYSELF 

When I think about myself, 
I almost laugh myself to death, 
My life has been one great big joke, 
A dance that’s walked 
A song that’s spoke, 
I laugh so hard I almost choke 
When I think about myself. 

Sixty years in these folks’ world 
The child I works for calls me girl 
I say “Yes ma’am” for working’s sake. 
Too proud to bend 
Too poor to break, 
I laugh until my stomach ache, 
When I think about myself. 

My folks can make me split my side, 
I laughed so hard I nearly died, 
The tales they tell, sound just like lying, 
They grow the fruit, 
But eat the rind, 
I laugh until I start to crying, 
When I think about my folks.

 

In the Archives: Mark Twain’s Infectious Jingle– “A Literary Nightmare” (1876)

Tracy Wuster

Mark Twain’s “Literary Nightmare” (1876), published in the Atlantic Monthly, represents an early example of a “viral” piece of popular culture.    The “Viral Text” project at Northeastern University is tracing 19th-century newspaper stories as they circulated, and “A Literary Nightmare” might be a unique example–being a story about a viral text–in this case, a poem–and its infectious effects, which in turn helped spread the original poem, Mark Twain’s story about it, and the very genre of poetry across the nation and, possibly, around the world.  The story even inspired a song.  And was being discussed as late as 1915.

The poem presented the key example of “horse-car poetry” that enjoyed a brief vogue as popular doggerel.  A discussion of the phenomenon of “horse-car poetry”  was printed in Record of the Year, A Reference Scrap Book: Being the Monthly Record of Important Events Worth Preserving, published by G. W. Carleton and Company in 1876.  The story, beginning on page 324, details how a New York rail line posted a placard on fares that became a poetic sensation, leading to Mark Twain’s use of the lines in his story.  The phenomenon of “horse-car poetry” then, according to the Record of the Year, spread to other cities and countries, causing an “epidemic” that aroused passions and even violence.  The Record of the Year contains one story of a woman literally possessed by the sketch, reading in part:

The danger of Mark Twain's viral text...

The danger of Mark Twain’s viral text…

The entire scene is worth reading at the link above.

Mark Twain’s  extended comic sketch details  the hypnotic, yet meaningless, power of humorous writing to infect one’s mind like a virus.  Entitled “A Literary Nightmare” (February 1876), Twain’s piece starts with a verse of poetry:

“Conductor, when you receive a fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,

A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,

A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare

CHORUS

Punch, brothers punch with care!

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”

These lines, the narrator “Mark” writes, “took instant and entire possession of me.”  For days, the only thing in his mind are the lines of verse—they keep him from his work, wreck his sleep, and turn him into a raving lunatic singing “punch brothers punch…” After several days of torture, he sets out on a walk with his friend, a Rev. Mr. ——- (presumably his good friend Rev. Joe Twichell).  After hours of silence, the Reverend asks the narrator what the trouble is, and Mark tells him the story, teaching him the lines of the jingle.  Instantly, the narrator puts the verse out of his mind. The Reverend, on the other hand, has “got it” now.

You can read the sketch in its entirety below.

 

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The Horror! The Hahahahorror! A Conversation on Two Sides of a Spectrum

One of the greatest performers of all time–she can make us wet our pants with laughter or fear.

by Bonnie Applebeet and Orquidea Morales

I am so excited to be back on HA! to share a conversation I had with a good friend of mine who studies horror, media, zombies, and Borderlands at the University of Michigan.  I always found it fascinating that we, as people with such opposite inclinations,  could get along so well, so I sat down one day with Orquidea Morales to ask her about what we thought the overlaps were between humor and horror.  The results are wacky and provocative.  We talk about Divine and Hitchcock, sex and stabbing, discomfort and vulnerability, all while theorizing the connections and territories between humor and horror.  We hope you enjoy our sarcasm-laden conversation and treasure the insight into what two nerdy doctoral students might talk about over some burritos and Coke in a noisy restaurant.

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Teaching with Humor

Around this time of year, I can always feel the tension whenever I walk into the building.  Everyone I greet has puffy eyes, the bags under them extending all the way to their knees, from too many late nights, too many hours hunched over computer screens, books, and essays, frantically trying to get it all done before the deadline.

And those are just the instructors.

The students, though they have the resilience of youth on their side, tend to be in even worse shape, all of their tension exacerbated by too many dining hall meals, homesickness, lingering self-doubt, and being rousted out of bed or the shower in the wee small hours of the morning by fire alarms pulled in the dorms.

And yet, the serious business of learning must continue, and it must continue to be effective.

Humor can be a useful tool to deflect the tension and keep us focused on what matters.  It can also be an extremely effective mnemonic device if it hammers home a concept.   But I have discovered over the years, for myself anyway, that it isn’t a good idea to wait until this time of the year to try to inject that sanity-saving humor.  It works best if by this time of the semester, it is already a habit.

Numerous studies have explored the links between laughter and learning, demonstrating that when humor complements and reinforces the concepts — not distracting from them — students retain more, their anxiety levels drop, and their motivation increases (Garner 2006).  Self-deprecating humor on the part of professors relaxes students and makes them seem more approachable or understandable (Shatz and LoSchiavo 2005).  The focus must always remain on learning, and a teacher must be careful not to undercut his or her purpose or credibility by becoming more of an entertainer in students’ eyes (Bryant and Zillman 2005).

A teacher must never forget the power dynamic in the room, either, and use humor to target a student or group of students (Gorham and Christophel 1990), or “put them in their place.”  Such humor is far too aggressive and has no place in the classroom.  As I’ve written elsewhere on Humor in America (Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?), humor depends upon some level of shared ground, and because of this reveals the boundaries of a particular community.  Making a student or group of students the butt of a joke sets them outside the community rather than bringing them in, and further, raises anxiety levels in all of the students, causing them to wonder what would make them become a target.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t kid around with students or gently tease them, but the focus must always be on enhancing their learning or reassuring them that you don’t doubt their abilities.  You can never forget who holds the real power in the classroom, or the damage you can casually do.

Humor shouldn’t be forced or feel obligatory either.  It isn’t for everyone, but it sure gets me through the day, and my students seem to enjoy it.  More important, they learn, doing themselves and me proud.

I teach writing and literature, with a focus on research.  Much of the humor I use in the classroom is geared toward revealing the absurdity behind bad habits of writing or sloppy thinking, or toward removing some of the mystery about what makes good scholars, writers, and researchers — and students’ anxiety about whether they have what it takes.

Because many of them come to the classroom well-trained in timed exam writing, they tend to want to have a thesis before they start writing, to need to know what they want to say before they begin, before they really look into the evidence.  I’ve kidded around with them about this for years — if a thesis is an interpretation of evidence, how can you interpret what you haven’t got yet?  But this video is the best thing I’ve found for helping students see that when you narrow your focus too soon, you cherry-pick the evidence, seeing only what you want to see or have decided that you will see — and often miss the best part in the process:

After watching this video, I have a ready-made shorthand for marginal comments or conferences.  As the video says, “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for,” so it is dangerous to have a thesis too early, and in the evidence-gathering part of the process, you must remain open to what is there.  When a student is having problems with this, I can just point out briefly that there seem to be some moonwalking bears around.  And instead of getting defensive, they laugh ruefully, and settle in to talk about what else might be there.

Another problem students often have is missing key facts in a text, reading hurriedly or sloppily, and ending up with arguments that cannot be supported because the facts are against them.  While there is never one correct interpretation of a text, there are wrong ones, interpretations that violate or ignore facts.  But when you point out that a student is doing this, s/he often feels defensive, stupid.  Humor can help.  So I tell students, “You can’t make a stunningly brilliant argument about the symbolic significance of a yellow shirt if . . . Continue reading →

Happy Birthday, Thom Gunn!

Thom Gunn 1929 - 2004

Thom Gunn 1929 – 2004

Thom Gunn wasn’t an overtly humorous poet, but his sharp wit, incisive irony and visceral imagery were brilliant. His poetry has been described as capturing “the experience, not the idea.”

His is a voice of isolation and existentialism with overtones of nihilism––so vividly evoked that we’re apt to see glimpses of ourselves at odd moments. Perhaps, therein lies the humor.

Gunn’s subject matter isn’t for sissies. It includes his mother’s suicide, drug use, gay erotica and the AIDs deaths of his friends. (Lest you get the wrong impression, his personality has been described as upbeat –– not morose.)

Below are two of his tamer masterpieces: “Considering the Snail” as performed by Gary of SpongeBob fame, and a text version of “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of His Death.”

The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of His Death

Across the open countryside,
Into the walls of rain I ride.
It beats my cheek, drenches my knees,
But I am being what I please.

The firm heath stops, and marsh begins.
Now we’re at war: whichever wins
My Human will cannot submit
To nature, though brought out of it.
The wheels sink deep; the clear sound blurs:
Still, bent on the handle-bars,
I urge my chosen instrument
Against the mere embodiment.
The front wheel wedges fast between
Two shrubs of glazed insensate green
– Gigantic order in the rim
Of each flat leaf. Black eddies brim
Around my heel which, pressing deep,
Accelerates the waiting sleep.

I used to live in sound, and lacked
Knowledge of still or creeping fact.
But now the stagnant strips my breath,
Leant on my cheek in weight of death.
Though so oppressed I find I may
Through substance move. I pick my way,
Where death and life in one combine,
Through the dark earth that is not mine,
Crowded with fragments, blunt, unformed;
While past my ear where noises swarmed

The marsh plant’s white extremities,
Slow without patience, spread at ease
Invulnerable and soft, extend
With a quiet grasping toward their end.
And though the tubers, once I rot,
Reflesh my bones with pallid knot,
Till swelling out my clothes they feign
This dummy is a man again,
It is as servants they insist,
Without volition that they twist;
And habit does not leave them tired,
By men laboriously acquired.
Cell after cell the plants convert
My special richness in the dirt:
All that they get, they get by chance

And multiply in ignorance.
—- Thom Gunn

Culture Shock

I have just returned to the South, after two months in the West helping my mom in the wake of my dad’s death.  Getting home is bittersweet and exciting, but also something of shock.  Though the South and the West have much in common, in terms of how much both regions are shaped by their land and climate, by how much that land gets under your skin —  in the South, it’s a bit more literal.

Like chiggers, for instance.  Or the unforgettable burn of re-encountering a fire ant — two things I never knew existed until I moved here.  Or 90% humidity, which means that if anything sits still for more than half an hour, something green grows on it.  And something four-legged or six-legged walks across it, chased by something four-legged or eight-legged.

Okay, so it should be a picture of the spider, but the toads are SO much more friendly.

Okay, so it should be a picture of the spider, but the toads are SO much more friendly.

Dodging through the toads and frogs playing happily in the garage, my son dove for a bathroom that hadn’t been used in over 8 weeks, his urgency spurred by the last 6 hours without a break in the car in our hurry to get home.

“Mom! Come here!” Desperation tinged the voice.

“What?”

“There’s a spider in here!”

“That’s okay.  Spiders are our friends.  They eat the truly icky bugs.  No worries!”

“Mom!  Stop driveling — this is a spider!!”

And not just a spider.

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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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All Things with Humor

Richard Talbot

 

Fathers can show sons lots of things: how to buy your first house, how to replace a broken pane of glass, how to cut your meat when you are out in public, but how many fathers show their sons how to die?

In the summer of 1977, he told us that he had cancer. I remember the day when he arrived home with the news. Mom and I were sitting out on the front steps on a warm, sunny July afternoon. Mother sat next to me as I made tape recordings capturing the sounds of meadowlarks in the field across the street. Dad pulled into the driveway and got out of the car. He came up the walk  smiling bravely as he approached. When he got four feet from her, he stopped. Shrugging his shoulders like a man who had just won second prize, he said, “It’s malignant.”

Thirty-five years of marriage afforded them such shorthand communication. Mom rose and fell into Dad’s arms. They said nothing more. She buried her face in the crook of his neck and cried softly. Meadowlarks warbled in the distance.

By this time, my father had been in AA for four years. It was his plan to take this way of living into whatever time he had left.

Earlier that day, when Doctor Duthoy had told Dad that he had cancer, my father asked, “Okay, how long have I got to live?”

“Paul,” the doctor replied, “we take these things one day at a time.”

That’s what Dad knew how to do. That’s the AA way and that’s exactly what he did.

Usually there are five stages that we go through when we learn that we have cancer: first, there’s denial, then bargaining, and then anger. This is followed by depression and finally, acceptance. Dad skipped the first four stages and went immediately to the acceptance.

For this, he was judged to be extraordinary by all who knew him.

There is a certain look, a demeanor that is carried by those who don’t have the cancer. Dad’s visitors fell into this approach when they spoke with him. Like undertakers they’d come, with saddened faces, with folded hands, and they would always say pretty much the same thing:

“Oh, Paul, we’ve just learned that you’re sick. We are so sorry.”

“Well, I’m not dead yet,” was his constant reply. “I think you’re the ones that look ill.”

He seemed awfully brave to those people. He was, in fact, not being brave at all. He had simply accepted his situation, and was going on, doing whatever he could do with the day that had been given to him. With humor, indefatigable humor, he would reply to his sympathizers, “Yeah, the doctor said he’d have to remove my testicles to stop the spread of the cancer. I told him that I wanted them replaced with pickled onions.”

Stunned confusion would wash across the faces of his listeners. He’d go on, “This way, whenever I go past a McDonald’s, I’ll get aroused.” (He didn’t use the word “aroused.)

His silly punch line would shatter the moment and into each other’s arms they would fall, laughing, seeing that all was not lost. Then they would talk. He made his listeners feel comfortable. They each thought he was magnificent.

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BOSTON YOU’RE OUR HOME

The source of all humor is not laughter, but sorrow. ~ Mark Twain

101183_c81f9951063b278f944877dcc531a961_largeIt has not been a week of laughter. The terrorist bombings in Boston last week were a troubling reminder that we live in a changed and tragic world; a world changed long enough ago we were almost getting comfortable. There have been other attacks and even more horrific tragedies in recent years, but this was a man-made explosion in the heart of an American icon and that carries with it a certain kind of pain and frustration.

The Patriot’s Day holiday in Massachusetts represents everything positive about a civilized society. Patriot’s Day is the biggest day of the year in Boston. Its origins are in tribute to the great American Revolutionary fighters and thinkers whose blood spilled upon those very same streets centuries ago, but it is mainly an excuse to drink during a weekday and watch other, more sober, people run. This itself is noble. What better way to celebrate humanity and freedom than to take a pause from work, bend a few social norms, and host a sporting event that is a testament to the human spirit, individualistic accomplishment, and the coming together of all cultures, from all corners of the globe, to compete in a non-adversarial quest using nothing extracurricular to the human body other than shorts and a pair of shoes? The genius of a marathon is that anyone can do it – you don’t have to run quickly, or run at all. You don’t even have to finish. Performances are timed, yes, but runners truly compete against only themselves. It is whatever the runner wishes to make of it. It is a mission of personal fulfillment that also happens to be witnessed by and shared with the world. For anyone to want to disrupt such a triumph with death and devastation is a painful reminder of the lowest in humanity – oppression, fanaticism, ignorance, and tyranny.

It is true that Boston has had its share of Puritan repression and racial dysfunction. But one thing quintessentially Bostonian is that Boston rejects tyranny. That is essentially its existence. Boston pride is a special breed.

When I lived in Boston I discovered harmony in the past and present coexisting; in the profound poetry of the reflection of Trinity Church in the glass exterior of the John Hancock Tower in Copley Square, mere feet from last week’s explosions. I learned that there are indeed bars where everybody knows your name and that, as my boss at the pizzeria made clear, it would be rude to not bring a pizza from the neighborhood joint where I worked for the bartender at the neighborhood joint where I drank. My boss was happy, the bartender was happy, and I was certainly happy; drinks on the house. There’s a certain cyclical poetic profoundness in that as well.

This is a humor blog and my monthly entries are about humor in music. It has been difficult to enjoy either since last Monday but in Boston you don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself. You show your reverence for the fallen of the past – be it centuries ago or just a few days – by showing your pride for the present.

So here are five funny songs about one tough and beautiful town:

Banned in Boston – Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs

I’m proud to say that my best friends are Boston’s biggest freaks

Boston is known for its bizarre and antiquated “blue laws” (it only became legal to sell liquor on Sundays as recently as 2004 and it is still illegal to harass pigeons). This phrase dates back to the city’s puritanical roots when literary works deemed “objectionable” were forbidden. Sam the Sham was a turban-wearing, Hearse-driving, Mexican-American rock ‘n’ roll singer from Texas named Domingo Zamudio who added his name alongside the likes of Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, William Burroughs and The Everly Brothers as being a little too “weird and bearded, baby, wild and wooly” for Beantown. Now let me get up on this doctored up thunder ticket.

Boston Beans – Peggy Lee

They have Cambridge and Harvard and MIT, they didn’t have any beans for me

The “Beantown” nickname dates back to the slave trade era when the city was infused with an inordinate amount of molasses from the West Indies, which was used to sweeten a then-popular baked bean dish. Imagine Peggy Lee’s surprise to find out no one really eats Boston baked beans in Boston. They have “plenty of fish, Chinese food if that’s your dish,” but, alas, no molasses baked beans.

Dirty Water – The Standells

Frustrated women have to be in by 12:00 (ah, that’s a shame)

The Standells were from Los Angeles, not Boston. But the city’s reputation in the 1960’s for college co-ed curfews and water pollution was enough to inspire one of the coolest and most influential garage rock anthems ever waxed. It remains a staple at local sporting events.

Government Center  – The Modern Lovers

Make those secretaries feel better, when they put the stamps on the ledgers

An ode to the monotony of bureaucratic government workers’ daily doldrums. But it’s nothing a little rock ‘n’ roll can’t fix. Recorded in 1972, this proto-punk track was left off The Modern Lovers’ original eponymous 1976 release.

M.T.A. – The Kingston Trio

He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston

This colorful tale is like a musical T map – name checking Kendall Square, Jamaica Plain, Chelsea, and Roxbury – detailing the adventures of Charlie, a rider stuck on the Boston subway system unable to pay the “exit fare” increase implemented after he started his ride. Never mind that his wife could hand him the requisite extra cash instead of a sandwich at the Scollay Square (now Government Center) station each day. The song was composed in 1949 as part of a political campaign and shares a melody with the train tragedy folk classic, “Wreck of the Old 97.”  The Kingston Trio recorded the definitive version in 1959. More than half a century later, Charlie’s fate is still unlearned.

(c) 2013, Matt Powell