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.
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.”
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.
Clowns are terrifying.
I am convinced that the very concept induces anxiety. While on the surface, the “clown” seems to be an innocuous effort to play on simple comedic principles of exaggeration–big facial expressions; big hair; big noses; big shoes, all capped by physical buffoonery–it really taps into our most perverse fears. This is not a new idea, of course. Having a character in a comedy who is deathly afraid of clowns is a staple of American humor. The best example that comes to mind is Kramer from Seinfeld. Using Kramer’s always over the top responses to otherwise normal social contexts is comedic gold (“Gold, Jerry, Gold.”), but his rather restrained response to coming face to face with a dangerous clown is instructive. We should keep in mind that Kramer’s fear was a point of rational thought within the context of the plot-line of the episode that featured Crazy Joe Devola–off his medication–dressed up as a clown while on the hunt for the whole gang. He was dangerous.
In most cases, the character who fears clowns is simply part of the humor and seems ridiculous him or herself. But we recognize the underlying fear and share Kramer’s apprehension. We recoil from the hidden or altered face–even if that face is all smiles. Can you really trust anyone with a grotesque painted face? Do you trust Joan Rivers? I saw her in an antique shop in Florida years ago–horrifying. But I digress.
Thanksgiving is my favorite annual celebration. I love preparing the traditional meal, filling the house with guests, saying grace and sharing reflections of gratitude.
However, writing about humorous Thanksgiving poetry presents a conundrum. In a world where an estimated 925 Million people are starving, doggerel about the gluttony surrounding the day strike me as shameful and haughty. While I enjoy cooking and eating the turkey, poems poking fun at the bird’s terror of its own impending slaughter strike mas as callous and arrogant. Stories of the Pilgrims’ first feast at Plymouth offer some poetic potential, but that slice of history has been distorted and sanitized to a degree that gives me pause. Let’s not even go there . . . . on second thought, let’s do because it relates to the bigger picture of American poetry and humor.
The “Plymouth Rock” Pilgrims we commemorate on Thanksgiving were seeking to reform their church. The Massachusetts Bay settlers were Pilgrims who’d crossed the Atlantic in search of religious freedom. There were differences between these groups, but both were Puritans and their lasting impact on American culture was profound.
French political writer Alexis de Tocqueville visited the U.S. in the 1830’s and wrote: “I THINK I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.” This bears out, even today, as residual influences still resonate in our everyday lives.
The Puritans were idealists who dreamed of living under a perfect order. Though we’ve characterized them as stoics, their outlook was positive and full of hope. Progress and optimism have always been core American values, profoundly affecting our sensibilities.
The Puritans sought divine messages in everyday life. Their world was one in which ordinary things held multiple meanings. This metaphorical thinking distinguishes some of our greatest fiction, poetry and humor. Stephen Colbert’s top ten metaphors are legendary and Billy Collins‘ poem Litany has great fun with this literary device as well.
Puritans valued simplicity and straightforwardness in language, just as most Americans do today.
And then, of course are the residual influences of puritanical morality. In 2011, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published the results of a series of experiments conducted by researchers led by Yale psychologist Eric Luis Uhlmann. His findings? The attitudes of American college students are more puritanical than those of their Canadian, British and Asian counterparts. This longstanding cultural outlook helped shape the development of classic American “wholesome” humor while at the same time ushering in another brand that poked fun at priggishness. (Think Mae West.)
By the 1730’s, the First Great Awakening and its Revival culture began to spread, unifying the thirteen and once-very-separate colonies while encouraging individuals to challenge established authority and dogma.
Philosophical theologist Jonathan Edwards was instrumental to this movement. Just when you think you’ve heard everything, here are thoughts and words, along with those of conservative Puritan minister Edward Taylor, set to rap:
While we’re on the subject of Puritans and rap, Christian Rapper, Propaganda recently released this musical/poetic protest to mainstream textbook American history.
On that note, and without the slightest trace of irony, Happy Thanksgiving! Make yours a day for sharing, reflection and gratitude. If you are on the internet reading this post, odds are you live in a country where you can believe, speak, write and live as you wish. By that alone, we are abundantly blessed!
For the contemporary stand-up comedian, the digital age presents both benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, comedians receive great publicity and access to new fans via platforms such as Twitter (which is a custom-made forum for joke tellers) or on podcasts such as Marc Maron’s WTF.
On the minus side, the ease with which audience members can record the audio or visual of an act means that material can be taken out of the comedian’s control and circulated in the digital realm before the wait staff even drop the checks. If there’s an altercation or a line that is crossed in an inexpert manner, the mater can spiral into something viral — and that’s not always good for a comic’s reputation. Just ask Michael Richards, who just this week found himself on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” web series, apologizing again for his racist tirade at the Laugh Factory six years ago. Well, he doesn’t apologize so much as he shows how it still weighs heavy on his soul.
“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” constitutes Seinfeld’s foray into new media, taking the breezy style he developed in stand-up and sitcom, and playing it out on the web with decent production values. Seinfeld gets to indulge his passion for cars — he picks up Richards in a “1962 VW split-window double-cab bus in dove blue, primer grey, and rust.”
“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” also allows Seinfeld to chat with comedian friends, including Larry David, Alec Baldwin, and the comedy duo of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. (I think Reiner and Brooks just might have a future in the industry!)
The episode with Richards involves several doses of nostalgia.
Michael Richards: Those were good days.
Jerry Seinfeld: Those were good days.
Michael Richards: You gave me the role of a lifetime.
Jerry Seinfeld: You gave me the experience of my lifetime, getting to play with you.
Discussing Dane Cook on a humor website is kind of like saying that Twinkies have a recipe; sure, he is technically a comedian by virtue of his standing on a stage and saying things into a microphone, but only in the same way that Twinkies are technically food because we can put them in our mouths and chew. (I’m aware that this is not the best Twinkie metaphor ever, but I really dislike Twinkies. And Dane Cook.)
And yet, disregarding what is apparently a pretty severe personal disinclination toward the comedian on my own part, we find ourselves forced to have to think about him as a result of a recent and gloriously insensitive joke about the July 20th shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, on the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises. A shooting which left twelve dead and over 50 injured. About which, Cook joked:
“I know that if none of that would have happened, pretty sure that somebody in that theater, about 25 minutes in, realizing it [The Dark Knight Rises] was a piece of crap, was probably like ‘ugh fucking shoot me.’”
Playing at the Laugh Factory less than one week after the event, Cook’s joke suggests that the real victims in this tragedy are the people whose theaters were not gassed and gunned down – which is to say, anyone who has actually seen the film itself.
As I would also argue about the recent controversy surrounding Daniel Tosh and a similarly sketchy (and equally unfunny) “joke” about the rape of an audience member – which has been previously addressed by Humor in America – I believe that Cook has every right to say what he did, and I would never seek to put parameters around what is available to be addressed in and through humor. But as contributing editor Joe Faina asks of the appeals to artistic integrity and free expression among the license afforded our comedians and writers:
“Are these really the kinds of jokes that we want to defend in the name of those ideals? I’d just like us all to ponder for a moment what it means that those strange rhetorical bedfellows were made. If Tosh were to be immune from criticism on the grounds that he is an artist then wouldn’t that force us to reconsider the value of such art? If not, shouldn’t it?”
The same should be asked of Cook’s joke, which – unlike Tosh’s trademark, over-the-top compulsion to unsettle his audience – betrays something closer to boredom, as though senseless death and injury occurs frequently enough to be almost unremarkable, and as such – and here is one of the central tenets of comedy, plus a paradox in its own right – this banality of evil is therefore at the same time eminently remarkable as well: the comedian’s personal disaffectedness and distance authorizes the kind of casual observation that remains at the center of modern stand-up (i.e. “Have you ever noticed….?” and so on). What Cook seizes on – and what the audience laughs at, after an initial and probably more honest hesitancy – is the fact that, somewhat sadly, the film The Dark Knight Rises will likely have a more immediate, immanent relation to the majority of our lives, if only because only those three fictional hours are the only element of this tragedy to which we will have had access. Not real death, just that of actors who will be seen somewhere else soon enough. Not real blood on the steeped floor of a theater, just that which for most of us will only ever be soda, sticky on our soles.
The problem is that Dane Cook doesn’t seem to care.
This is not meant to excuse Cook for his cynical, privileged remarks, which are offensive at best and subhuman at worst. Cook has since apologized – via Twitter, of course, so you know it’s as sincere as 140 characters can be after suggesting that at least 12 murder victims are better off for not having to have sat through what he found to be a mediocre film. According to Cook’s Twitter feed, he “did not mean to make light of what happened,” which I’m going to go ahead and say simply cannot be the case, because what else is a joke? Or: why tell a joke at all, if not for the laughter that he, to a degree, would have to have predicted in order to warrant the inclusion of this joke, or any joke for that matter? In other words, he either had to know that it would be funny or he wanted it to be funny. He had to have been the first one to laugh at this joke, to be sure that that’s what it was. Cook’s admission that he “made a bad judgment call with my material last night,” as his tweet continues, is at least more accurate and honest. But it also invalidates the earlier point about meaning to “make light,” because he did judge, did choose this joke, which with any luck – for him, that is – would have transmuted darkness into levity, light. The saddest thing about Cook’s joke is how self-serving it ultimately seems; whatever laughter there is here is his, not ours, and certainly not that of the victims or their families.
The impulse to reverse and redress the worst of what we find in life is in many ways what humor is, or is at least what I think of when considering “the value of such art.” Humor is at its best and most valuable when it breaks down and brings close the distance by which we are removed from anything outside ourselves. In every good joke, there is a willingness to let light be made: yes, light as though a lantern that illuminates and exposes, but also light as in the lifting with someone else of what would have been too heavy otherwise. Instead of apologizing for this imperative – to “make light” – Cook would do better to think about why anyone bothers to be funny in the first place. His joke is indefensible because there is no suture there, no pulling together and repairing some part of ourselves. This is not to prescribe a compulsory program for what humor has to achieve or should always do, but merely to consider the condition of laughter as something that we have to share. It doesn’t always have to feel good to laugh. There is nothing unequivocally wrong with offense. Not all jokes are going to be funny. But lack of taste and tact notwithstanding, the thing that is ultimately really wrong with Dane Cook’s joke is that he doesn’t ask us to laugh with, only at.
By now readers of this blog, and followers of humor in general, are no doubt aware of the recent controversy surrounding comedian Daniel Tosh and the curious case of the misquoted rape joke. If not you can read about it here, or the original account here.
Long story short: Sometime last week, a woman attended a Daniel Tosh show at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. Tosh, known for humor that frequently toes the line on appropriateness, was making comments about the humor of rape jokes. The woman responded that she does not think such jokes are ever funny. Tosh responds to this “heckler” by announcing to the audience “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?”
It is not my aim here to recount what did or did not happen, or whether such jokes are or are not appropriate. Both of those have been hashed out extensively. There was the Huffington Post‘s recap of the incident, complete with a collection of comedians defending Daniel Tosh. More importantly there was a slew of pleas to Please Stop Telling Rape Jokes, along with detailed instructions on How to Make a Rape Joke work and examples of 15 Rape Jokes That Work. Even The Onion got in on the action, giving what is probably the most pointed illustration.
It is important to note that comedians are not all in agreement over this. Here in my adopted comedy city of Austin there is a vibrant discussion of Tosh and more importantly over issues of who is “allowed” to say what to whom. Much of this happened in house on a private Facebook page for Austin comedians. With permission, I’ve included two of the more insightful takes from two comics whom I respect and admire.
From Kath Barbadoro:
I think it’s more about that a person probably shouldn’t be telling jokes where rape is the punchline, or that make rape seem like it’s less of a serious and horrible thing than it is, and expect people to not be pissed off or feel threatened.
Because “wouldn’t it be funny if this woman got gang raped right now” isn’t a funny joke, it isn’t even a joke. This doesn’t disprove the whole “anything can be funny in the right light” thing.
Basically I think it’s not about what is okay to be offended by and what is not okay to be offended by, because people can be mad about whatever they want just like people can say whatever they want. The point is that 1. all rape jokes are not created equal, some perpetuate a culture that is cool with rape and some don’t, and 2. what tosh did to that audience member is fucked up.
Sorry, but as a woman who is in comedy spaces a lot, I really need “jokes” about the audience gang raping a specific individual to not be okay. Is that seriously unreasonable? This isn’t a philosophical or semantic argument to me, this is a matter of self-advocacy.
From Brendan K. O’Grady:
I’m actually still less troubled by Daniel Tosh’s joking about a heckler getting raped than I am by segments from his TV show like “Lightly Touching Women’s Stomachs While They’re Sitting Down.”…As a performer and speech advocate, I’ll staunchly defend Tosh’s right to do what he did on stage at the Laugh Factory (and I’ll applaud the woman, who reportedly will still go see live comedy, if maybe after doing a little research into who’s on the bill beforehand next time), but I’ll condemn him as irresponsible at best and despicable at worst for the way he appears to look at women and other people in general, as evidenced by his other works.
It is a special time to do comedy in the age of the Internet. But it is also a double edged sword. The benefit of increased access to audiences carries with it the increased responsibility to be accountable for things said to those audiences. The last few years have given us numerous examples: Michael Richards, Carlos Mencia, Tracy Morgan, and now Daniel Tosh.
The “sides” that have emerged in this controversy are as intriguing as they are predictable. Supporters of Tosh often appeal to ideals of free speech as integral to an artist’s integrity. If Tosh, or any comedian for that matter, has to watch what they say for fear of offending then we are in effect silencing their right to free expression of ideas. Either everything is fair game or none of it is.
The other “side” appeals to notions of empathy on behalf of those to whom these jokes are “aimed” at. As Kath noted, “not all rape jokes are equal”–we should be mindful of the underlying premise of a joke to examine whether or not it hinges upon attacking those who are already in marginalized positions. Perpetuating harmful stereotypes or world views should not be the purpose of comedy, and comedians should adjust their material accordingly.
If these positions seem roughly sketched or resting upon a false dichotomy, that is because they are. What makes Kath and Brendan’s comment illustrative to me is in how they incorporate elements of both positions. Despite the reactions to several comedians in the aforementioned link, no one is actually saying Tosh isn’t allowed to say what he wants. His free speech rights have not been hampered. He did not go to jail, nor should he. Kath’s comments spoke to the idea that someone “probably shouldn’t be telling a joke where rape is the punchline” and that such requests are not “seriously unreasonable.” Brendan also makes a point to defend Tosh’s free speech rights, but that in doing so creates a space where he can “condemn him for being irresponsible at best and despicable at worst” for suggesting that comments about rape targeted at a specific person are part of his artistic merit as a comedian.
This last point is what sticks with me the most. I also do not find this to be an either/or scenario or that those who initially defended Tosh were doing so because they didn’t think rape is a serious topic. Correlation is not causality. However it does raise some points for reflection that jokes about the heinous act of rape were technically defended using the language of art, integrity, and free expression. Are these really the kinds of jokes that we want to defend in the name of those ideals? I’d just like us all to ponder for a moment what it means that those strange rhetorical bedfellows were made. If Tosh were to be immune from criticism on the grounds that he is an artist then wouldn’t that force us to reconsider the value of such art? If not, shouldn’t it?
Margaret Cho said something on Watch What Happens with Andy Cohen a few weeks ago that offended a lot of people.
I can almost hear you thinking it: “And?” Such an assertion would ordinarily be unnewsworthy. I might as well have said “Everybody poops.” You’d look at me funny, and then go about your day, perhaps wondering why I felt the need to share such an obvious and uncomfortable truth. Cho says and does things that would offend a lot of people. This time, however, there was widespread, very public backlash. I have been wondering why this time, of all times, the response to her offensiveness has been so spirited. Through this faux pas, my eyes have opened to the reality of the profound distance between the stage performer and the person performing on the stage. I think this misstep is a pivotal event for humor studies because it provides a teachable moment in which this distance shockingly reveals itself.