Category Archives: laughter

Laughing with Laugh Tracks

people_laughing

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?

Audience-clapping

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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Langston Hughes on Hard Laughter

Langston Hughes’s roughest book of poetry is also an homage to laughter.

In 1925 Langston Hughes lived with his mother on the north side of S Street, a few short blocks from Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. The tiny two-story square row home, painted in deep brown trim today, is set back from the sidewalk. A meandering path leading up to the house meets, at the sidewalk’s edge, the meandering path of the house next door; they bend together in the rough shape of a heart. The first story of the home has a large single window, broad and revealing like a storefront display. The second and top story, where Hughes most likely lived and wrote, seems squat, pared down, resting atop the broad window. The house itself is inconspicuous, quiet, and low––slyly hidden by the grander-seeming homes surrounding it.

Langston Hughes Fine clothes to the JewLangston Hughes lived in many places during his pivotal year in Washington, but, walking by this house one day recently, I found myself wondering if it was here that the seeds were planted for his 1927 book of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, a book famous among a small group of scholars for its controversial release but that remains unknown to many.

Today the book is out of print. Google Books does not “preview” it, most libraries do not carry it, and even The Library of Congress cannot locate their lone copy. A small number of first editions are available on-line for upwards of a thousand dollars. The book is worth far more. (Two Collected Works of Langston Hughes editions, Arnold Rampersad’s and Dolan Hubbard’s, contain the poems from Fine Clothes to the Jew.) The book received scathing reviews when first released, mostly from Hughes’s fellow literati in Harlem, for its seemingly unabashed and degrading depictions of African Americans.

In situation and appearance, Langston Hughes’s mother’s home resembles the paradox in the reception history of Fine Clothes to the Jew. The house is removed, easy to miss, simple, and confined in the heart of a bustling city. Yet the house is also solid and stern, its gazing window luminous. Likewise the poems in this book are hard, describing people who live hard lives in the brusque city or lonely, rural south. Actually, written in six parts alternating between the city and the country, Fine Clothes doesn’t describe these people; rather, each poem is spoken in the voice of a different, struggling soul—the prostitute, the pimp, the abusive husband, the abused wife, the player, the played, the child, the worried parent, the broken-hearted, and the philanderer—to name just a few of the characters. A burdened consciousness of race and ethnicity is made overt notably in the book’s title, which pairs beauty or opulence (fine clothing) with the ugliness of bigoted social perceptions.

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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.

 

Play and Purpose: Teaching Humor in Introductory Literature Courses

When I am asked to teach a new course, I often revert back to my coaching days. I approach its purpose and structure with all the seriousness and lofty intentions of an English Premier League (EPL) manager.  As in soccer, I feel the pressure and necessity of a solid performance. Prior to kickoff, I spent many a late night watching films, meeting with those who held superior knowledge of the game, reviewing formation and dependable goal scorers. All in all, I thought I created a well-researched, slam-dunk course. (Please pardon my mixed sports metaphor – this is my first post – and I am currently suffering from a case of the recently diagnosed DB – dissertation brain.) This semester, as head of an introduction to literary genres team, with humor as my reliable captain, I wanted my students and my course not only to be good, but great. Ryan Giggs great. Or, for those of you less-than-enthusiastic fans, Cristiano Ronaldo great.

Pedagogically, I wanted to build an historical context and contemporary appreciation for my freshman students through an introduction to various types of humor, including farce, satire, dark comedy, parody, slapstick and screwball humor. In our first few meetings, I lectured a bit, and we watched various YouTube videos, SNL skits, and The Daily Show segments, which afforded them comical examples and repartees.

Classic Three Stooges video

Huffington Post’s List of 25 Best SNL Commercial Parodies of All Time

 and Salon.com’s 10 Best Segments from Stewart and Colbert:

We read articles on humor, its theories, and laughter’s physiological benefits  (see Wilkins and Eisenbraum’s abstract). I was trying to convince my students of humor’s merit, of its historical purpose and value in our modern daily lives. For many reasons, I felt protective of humor, and I wanted them to take the study of it seriously.

In order to accomplish this goal, as well as my course objectives, I stacked my team. My strikers right out of the gate were Swift and Twain. Behind them were O’Henry, O’Connor, Thurber, and Stewart. Two newcomers, Gionfriddo and Alexie, provided necessary depth to my defense. I believed that with the right combination of gentle guidance and direct instruction, my students would grasp the dichotomous nature of my course: play and purpose. While I wanted to set a mutually understood context for laughter, (necessary, I believe, for them to ‘get’ the jokes), I deeply desired for them to see the author’s purpose behind the chuckle: to question and critique social structures and ideology imbedded into America’s framework, as well as their own lives. For the first two weeks of the course, my game plan failed. I had spent so much time trying to force them to understand the legitimacy of humor that I had overlooked the aspect of playing with the language, the situations posed to us by various readings.

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More Cowbell and Teaching American Humor

more-cowbell-o

I have a fever for exploring the curious life of one of the most bizarre and compelling comic sketches to work itself into the American grain, the collective unconsciousness, cultural zeitgeist, internet meme-life, and merchandising half-life: Saturday Night Live’s (SNL) “More Cowbell,” first shown on 08 April 2000.  According to Wikipedia (yes, “More Cowbell”–the catch phrase–has its own page), “the sketch is often considered one of the greatest SNL sketches ever made, and in many ‘best of’ lists regarding SNL sketches, it is often placed at number one [citation needed].” I don’t understand why Wikipedia wants a citation for this statement; we don’t need any stinking citations for something that is so clearly and indisputably true.  I have a “More Cowbell” app on my phone to prove it.

Here is a link to the sketch itself: More Cowbell Full Sketch

Gene Frenkle on Cowbell

The sketch, written by Will Ferrell, is inscrutable and inexplicable, which makes it a perfect tool for teaching American humor. In the introductory days of a class I teach called American Popular Humor, I have always included contemporary sketch comedy as a way to get students to explore what makes humans laugh and also to break down that laughter into components. In short, I ask them to dissect the humor. It is what teachers do, with apologies to the damage inherently done to the sheer joy provided by humor itself.

I have found that “More Cowbell,” provides an ideal source for exploring the layers of humor in any given piece of material. The sketch offers the complexity of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” That is a joke with its own layers (which is what humor scholars say when a joke is not as funny as they think it should be). Actually, most of Eliot’s poetry is a bit more complicated that a Will Ferrell SNL sketch, but almost nobody cares, and nobody wears a t-shirt with “More Prufrock” on it. If I am wrong about that, I am sorry–and saddened, as I gaze at my own rolled-up slacks. If I am the first the come up with that idea, I freely grant full licensure to anyone who wishes to make such a shirt. Surely, there are a few English grad students who would scrounge enough money together to buy it.

Gotta-Have-More-Cowbell1-2cowbell-brown

But “More Cowbell” as both a fine example of American humor and a cultural phenomenon provides a useful and fun way to talk about humor and how laughter depends on some many tenuous moments. Students bring much to such a discussion built around “More Cowbell,” because they are familiar with it and recognize its references. With that in mind, a discussion of the sketch can lead to a stronger awareness of how the humor of any given sketch depends on far more than the quality of the writing and performances. The context is the thing.

First, the sketch is funny in and of itself. It is built around simple incongruities, most obviously regarding the overblown attention that a simple instrument like a cowbell earns in the production of a rock song., in this case, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult. The supposedly famous producer–the Bruce Dickinson, played by Christopher Walken, creates the first true comic moment of the bit by pronouncing his desire for “more cowbell.” This is incongruous–and funny–because anyone who has ever listened to the song would be hard-pressed to argue that it needs more cowbell. But even so, those hearing the song opening measures for the first time can recognize how prominent the cowbell is along with the dominating physical presence of Will Ferrell (as “Gene Frenkle,” the fictional lead cowbell player).  That is the core written joke of the sketch: a great producer has a curious (and absurd) passion for more cowbell. Additionally, the sketch is an astute parody of the silly hyper-seriousness afforded to rock bands and their recording processes; the sillier-still seriousness of the VH1 rockumentary as a medium. All of this makes the sketch funny but alone is certainly not enough to earn or explain its legendary status. No, that comes from the live performance and the audience’s willingness to embrace the intangibles of the sketch. This is the point I am eager for students to embrace–the essential interaction between comic performances and audience desire.

“More Cowbell” is a funny bit that becomes hysterically funny in the moment based on the live performance. Students generally first assert that they enjoy the laughter of the actors on stage. This has been a key to the success of SNL from the beginning: audiences love when a performer breaks character and laughs–or, more appealingly, tries to suppress laughter. It is infectious. Jimmy Fallon’s SNL career, his greatest moments, are almost exclusively built around his difficulty in playing a straight man. The other players crack up as well. The sketch finds that magical balance between good comedic writing and the stage energy on the verge of chaos. The sketch is on the verge of collapse at every moment.

Which brings us to Christopher Walken, the essential component of the sketch as written and as performed. Students generally assert, without qualification, that Walken is the only actor that fit for that roll. His off-stage quirkiness carries into the performance itself in the minds of viewers. In short, “the Bruce Dickinson” is funny because Christopher Walken is weird, baby.

Walken-CowbellSNL_Fever_Cowbell_Black_Shirt

American humor at its best is alive and always feeding on the moment. That does not mean it must always be “live,” so to speak. Rather, it means that the humor must always derive from the energy between performer and audience and a mutual love and disdain for the world they share.

As “More Cowbell” has become more entrenched as a “classic” SNL sketch, it has become funnier still. For many of us, it also carries the warm glow of nostalgia for those times before we started rolling up our pants and counting our coffee spoons, when we could still stay awake late enough to see SNL and could recognize the hosts and the musical guests, and when those guests played musical instruments, and sometimes cowbells.

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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 →

Heteroglossia and Dialect Humor: Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral

Jan McIntire-Strasburg, Executive Director–American Humor Studies Asociation

Humorist employ many different stylistic techniques in order to incite thought-provoking laughter in their readers.  Once such is Mikhail Bahktin’s concept of heteroglossia.  As Bahktin used it, this term refers to a linguistic play of different forms of a language from different races, classes or genders that highlights difference.  While such use does not always result in humor, it is an excellent way to do so.  Juxtaposing the dialects representing upper and lower classes, for example, can result in humorous misunderstandings that highlight the differences between the two classes in education or experience, and demonstrate the difficulties of effective communication between the two.  The elements of contradiction and surprise that result from such conversations often invoke laughter.

Mark Twain makes excellent use of this linguistic play in “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” a short sketch in his travel book, Roughing It.  Miner Scotty Briggs’ Washoe slang and poker analogies are incomprehensible to the Eastern minister he is trying to convince to officiate at Buck’s funeral.  The minister, in his attempts to understand Briggs’ request are equally confusing to the miner.  The minister’s “clarifications” are long-winded and employ theological vocabulary well outside of Scotty’s experience.  Thus for the space of several pages, the reader is treated to the experience of watching (hearing) two men groping toward an understanding of each other.  Since the reader already knows what is required, she is free to enjoy laughter at the expense of both the formal, highly educated minister and the slangy Western miner.

Mark Twain Rouging It Buck Fanshaw's Funeral

Such laughter can, and often does, result in humor for entertainment purposes only.  But in Twain’s case, the laughter engendered by Scotty and the minister also highlights major differences in Eastern and Western life in nineteenth century and the clash of two cultures within American borders.  He demonstrates through the dialog a wide gulf in value systems and invites the reader to take a side—should we favor the minister who, though well educated, comes off as stuffy and superior, or should we instead value Scotty’s more homey and practical view of life on the frontier?

Mark Twain Roughing It Buck Fanshaw's Funeral

These insights are all available to us as we read Twain’s sketch, and because regional dialects comprised a large part of nineteenth century writing, Twain’s contemporaneous readers would have had no trouble discerning the meaning or recognizing the humor.  However, contemporary readers, unused to the idiosyncratic spellings and pronunciations often find this kind of reading slow going, and the “translation” that must take place can affect how readers interpret the humor of the sketch.  The sound recording below, because it offers the opportunity to hear rather than see the dialect, allows for a 21st century “reader” to avoid the difficulties of reading through the dialect, and lets the humor come through.  Thus it frees the reader to think about what is said instead of spending time deciphering the text itself.  For students who are inexperienced readers of dialect, this freedom is necessary to understanding.  For experienced readers of Twain and dialect, hearing the text enhances the fun of it.

Sound recordings can make excellent teaching tools to demonstrate the concept of heteroglossia by showing them how it works in practice instead of telling them how it works.  This recording of “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral” is one example of how we can use sound to enhance teaching humor to undergraduates.  It is also a great way for Twainiacs and humor scholars to entertain themselves.

See also an audio recording of the piece from Harry E. Humphrey in 1913.

The American Humor Studies Association welcomes teaching resources for their website. Please contact us at wustert@gmail.com

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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Teaching American Satire: A New Piece for the Classroom from the Onion

It is fun to teach humor. Laughter keeps students awake more effectively than most things. The promise of relief or diversion from the cultural and personal stresses implicit in all humor (and explicit in much of it), to my mind, not only makes for more pleasant classroom discussions but also helps to make those discussions more productive. This I believe.

But I have my doubts when it comes to exploring satire. I have revealed my misgivings in this spot before (Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically); see also Sharon McCoy’s excellent response: Embracing the Ambiguity of Satire).

Within the overall umbrella of my courses on American Humor, satire demands its space, and rightfully so. But it’s harder to get through the material, and methinks many students pick up on my hesitations here and there.  I don’t mind the difficulty factor, it’s the pain of the subject matter that wears me out. The suffering underlying much of humor in general stands foregrounded in satire.  This is the nature of the art form. Satire cannot hide its rage, or its hopelessness, and as a result there is very little room for the pleasant relief of laughter. Satire is rarely funny “ha ha,” or funny “weird.” It’s just painful.

I have just read what I consider to be one of the most engaging pieces of satire on political and cultural intransigence that I have encountered since first reading Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” a work by the American master that is perfect both in its conciseness and its artistic vision.

Image for Twain's War Prayer

Twain’s short piece, which has a stranger translate the prayers of a people on the verge of war, is powerful for its accuracy as a comment on the human capacity for making war in the name of god and its recognition that the commentary is timeless because the war making machine is timeless, and unending. Students will always study it because they will always understand its targets. The Onion has just provided another piece that seems, to me, worthy of being taught alongside Twain’s work.

It is an “Editorial Opinion” that first appeared on August 13, 2013 (Issues 49.33). The title is: “The Onion” Encourages Israel and Palestine Not to Give a Single, Goddamn Inch.”

Announcing New Peace Talks

Here is a link to the article: http://www.theonion.com/articles/the-onion-encourages-israel-and-palestine-not-to-g,33473/

Standing in opposition to “the international community” which has pleaded with the two sides to meet to discuss peace, The Onion satirically asks the sides to remain steadfast and persist in absolutist positions:

“Israelis and Palestinians, you must accept nothing short of total victory against those who threaten your religion and way of life. Sacrificing just one of your ideals would at this point be tantamount to compete and utter failure.”

The writers of The Onion then follow this assertion with details that simply recount the history of the last 60 years (and by implication 2,000 years?) in four concise sentences:

“If a settlement is built, you must attack it. If a settlement is attacked, you must rebuild it. Rocks must be met with bullets; bullets must be met with rocket fire; rocket fire must be met with helicopter assaults. This is the only noble way forward for either side.”

Noble. Forward. The writers know, and readers know, the words “noble” and “forward” serve as the key bits of irony here.  There is nothing noble in the bloodshed, nothing forward looking about continued intransigence.

Building on this sardonic tone, the satire gets heavier and heavier, and the reader wants relief while at the same time knowing that none is forthcoming. As with Twain’s work, the writers are devoted to the point of the satire, which is the grotesque pointlessness of continued aggression. The secondary target of the piece, though, may also be the ever-present demands from the international community to urge the parties to sue for peace. Pointless. I don’t really believe that peace efforts are pointless, by the way, but it seems the accurate thing to say here in the context of The Onion satire, the art. If we are to teach such aggressive and unnerving satire, we must be ready to accept the full brunt of the hopelessness the piece addresses. And thus figure out a way to help students talk about it. I am open to suggestions.

I just know that as I read this, I wanted an outlet, some peek from behind the curtain from the jester. But it is not there because there is no peace ready to peek out from behind any curtains either. The article ends concisely and with a key repetition:

“Remain steadfast. Remain strong. And never give up your noble fight, even if it takes several more generations.”

That, my gentle readers, is first-rate satire. It is exhausting and no fun at all.

In the Archives: Mark Twain, “[Date, 1601.] CONVERSATION, AS IT WAS BY THE SOCIAL FIRESIDE, IN THE TIME OF THE TUDORS.”

Tracy Wuster

“[Date, 1601.] ‘Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors” or “1601” is one of the most fascinating works in all of the writing of Mark Twain.  The piece is written as a conversation between Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare, Bacon, and others in the Queen’s closet, by the Queen’s cup-bearer.  As the company talks, the narrator relates:

In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore, and then—

Ye Queene.—Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male; yet ye belly it did lurk behinde shoulde now fall lean and flat against ye spine of him yt hath bene delivered of so stately and so waste a bulk, where as ye guts of them yt doe quiff-splitters bear, stand comely still and rounde. Prithee let ye author confess ye offspring.

Then follows each member of the company discussing the fart, followed by some ribald talk of sex, poetry, and religion.  Depending on your view of the matters at hand, the piece is either immensely hilarious or shocking… or maybe both.  And it is almost wholly without peer in Twain’s writings.

Written in 1876, the same summer he began Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the piece was originally meant for Samuel Clemens’s minister–the Reverend Joseph Twichell.  He later wrote:

“I took it to one of the greatest, best and most learned of Divines [Rev. Joseph H. Twichell] and read it to him. He came within an ace of killing himself with laughter (for between you and me the thing was dreadfully funny. I don’t often write anything that I laugh at myself, but I can hardly think of that thing without laughing). That old Divine said it was a piece of the finest kind of literary art—and David Gray of the Buffalo Courier said it ought to be printed privately and left behind me when I died, and then my fame as a literary artist would last.”

As you read the piece, think about Samuel Clemens writing the piece for his minister–the man who performed his wedding ceremony.

Mark Twain samuel clemens portrait painting 1877

Portrait by F.D. Millet (1877)

In 1880, John Hay–the humorist and statesman–had four copies printed, without a name attached (only one copy of this version is known to exist).  Amazingly, the first book edition was printed in 1882 at West Point, by a friend of Clemens and Twichell, in an edition of 50 copies on handmade paper soaked in coffee, with special punches for the Old English spelling required.  Truly, it may have have been the best use of military technology in the history of the Army. Further editions were printed during Twain’s lifetime, although Twain did not claim the piece until 1906 in a letter. (See Franklin J. Meine’s introduction for more information).

1601 represents the profane, vulgar side of Mark Twain that was seldom seen in his work, although it was well known that he had a passion for swearing.  Franklin Meine argues that:

Although 1601 was not matched by any similar sketch in his published works, it was representative of Mark Twain the man. He was no emaciated literary tea-tosser. Bronzed and weatherbeaten son of the West, Mark was a man’s man, and that significant fact is emphasized by the several phases of Mark’s rich life as steamboat pilot, printer, miner, and frontier journalist.

While I am not sure that it is so easy to say that this piece represents the manly man Mark Twain, it does point to a largely masculine culture of letters in which fugitive pieces, often of a rather profane or vulgar bent, were passed around amongst friends.  Benjamin Franklin’s “Fart Proudly,” (1871) was of a similar vein of American humor–one that blends folklore with the dirty joke while presenting the subject in a “respectable” form.  Twain and Franklin’s pieces are surely remembered because of their famous authors, and each is hilariously funny in its own way.  Are there other examples of this type of humor that might be put into the conversation?

In the meantime, enjoy 1601, although if you are at work, there are some truly dirty parts.  Be warned.

[Date, 1601.]

CONVERSATION, AS IT WAS BY THE SOCIAL FIRESIDE, IN THE TIME OF THE TUDORS.

     [Mem.—The following is supposed to be an extract from the
     diary of the Pepys of that day, the same being Queen
     Elizabeth's cup-bearer.  He is supposed to be of ancient and
     noble lineage; that he despises these literary canaille;
     that his soul consumes with wrath, to see the queen stooping
     to talk with such; and that the old man feels that his
     nobility is defiled by contact with Shakespeare, etc., and
     yet he has got to stay there till her Majesty chooses to
     dismiss him.]

YESTERNIGHT toke her maiste ye queene a fantasie such as she sometimes hath, and had to her closet certain that doe write playes, bokes, and such like, these being my lord Bacon, his worship Sir Walter Ralegh, Mr. Ben Jonson, and ye child Francis Beaumonte, which being but sixteen, hath yet turned his hand to ye doing of ye Lattin masters into our Englishe tong, with grete discretion and much applaus. Also came with these ye famous Shaxpur. A righte straunge mixing truly of mighty blode with mean, ye more in especial since ye queenes grace was present, as likewise these following, to wit: Ye Duchess of Bilgewater, twenty-six yeres of age; ye Countesse of Granby, thirty; her doter, ye Lady Helen, fifteen; as also these two maides of honor, to-wit, ye Lady Margery Boothy, sixty-five, and ye Lady Alice Dilberry, turned seventy, she being two yeres ye queenes graces elder.

I being her maites cup-bearer, had no choice but to remaine and beholde rank forgot, and ye high holde converse wh ye low as uppon equal termes, a grete scandal did ye world heare thereof.

In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore, and then—

Ye Queene.—Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male; yet ye belly it did lurk behinde shoulde now fall lean and flat against ye spine of him yt hath bene delivered of so stately and so waste a bulk, where as ye guts of them yt doe quiff-splitters bear, stand comely still and rounde. Prithee let ye author confess ye offspring. Will my Lady Alice testify?

Lady Alice.—Good your grace, an’ I had room for such a thunderbust within mine ancient bowels, ’tis not in reason I coulde discharge ye same and live to thank God for yt He did choose handmaid so humble whereby to shew his power. Nay, ’tis not I yt have broughte forth this rich o’ermastering fog, this fragrant gloom, so pray you seeke ye further.

Ye Queene.—Mayhap ye Lady Margery hath done ye companie this favor?

Lady Margery.—So please you madam, my limbs are feeble wh ye weighte and drouth of five and sixty winters, and it behoveth yt I be tender unto them. In ye good providence of God, an’ I had contained this wonder, forsoothe wolde I have gi’en ‘ye whole evening of my sinking life to ye dribbling of it forth, with trembling and uneasy soul, not launched it sudden in its matchless might, taking mine own life with violence, rending my weak frame like rotten rags. It was not I, your maisty.

Ye Queene.—O’ God’s name, who hath favored us? Hath it come to pass yt a fart shall fart itself? Not such a one as this, I trow. Young Master Beaumont—but no; ‘twould have wafted him to heaven like down of goose’s boddy. ‘Twas not ye little Lady Helen—nay, ne’er blush, my child; thoul’t tickle thy tender maidenhedde with many a mousie-squeak before thou learnest to blow a harricane like this. Wasn’t you, my learned and ingenious Jonson?

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