Category Archives: penalty of humor

Teaching American Humor: the Great Colbert-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014

Somebody should write something about the controversial tweet from @ColbertReport and how it spawned a backlash on Twitter defined by #CancelColbert. It is big news.

Well, to be fair, almost everybody already has. It even gave the 24-hour cable news outlets a chance to pause in the search for MAL 370. For those who need yet a few more links to stories related to the issues, here they are:

Overview of the issue from the New Yorker

One of the several posts from CNN, formally a news organization

First Post from Cleveland.com – solid with clips and twitter examples

Second Post from Cleveland.com – same useful format

WSJ.com post by Jeff Yang

OK. That is a small smattering that should get anyone started down an endless rabbit hole. Let me know if it ever works its way back to this post.

There are no lessons to be learned from what I am calling the Great Colbert-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014 (catchy?). Well, at least there are no lessons to be learned among those who are deeply invested in perpetuating their own righteous indignation on any and all possible sides to the #CancelColbert or #SaveColbert Twitter dynamo. The vast majority of those who jumped into the fray via Twitter have already moved on to the next outrage. For the passive voice phrase “lessons to be learned” to ever be true, to be consummated with actual learning and awareness, the learner would need to engage fully with the complexities of any issue. Who does that on Twitter?

Colbert Responds

But there may be things useful in the classroom for those desirous of  banging their heads on the complexities of American satire. What happens when satire misfires? (That is not what happened in the Great Colbert-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014.) What happens to satire in a digital age wherein the satirical work can be sliced and diced and repackaged and mashed ad nauseam into different mediums with vastly different audiences? What happens in a social media world when a satirist (and/or his corporate  media boss) uses something as potentially inane as Twitter as a constant, tireless promotional tool?

Most importantly, what happens when a sharp piece of satire–pairing offensive language concerning Asian Americans with obvious racist language regarding Native Americans in an effort to repudiate any and all such appropriation–gets lost in a media frenzy?

In reference to the Colbert/Twitter issue, we need to consider how a near-perfect bit of satire was transformed into a social-media outrage phenomenon. Normally, that would be a good thing for satirists; it means that their efforts were noticed, that their social criticism was making an impact. In the age of Twitter, however, the satire can easily be erased and forgotten with only the outrage remaining. I should add that “outrage,” in and of itself, is not a problem. A satirist begins by being outraged, but the satirist also begins by being informed. There’s the rub. Who on Twitter ever really cares to be informed? #Hashtag, #hashtag. Trend it.

The Great Colbert-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014–now known simply as #GC-TM2014–TREND IT!–is over. In hindsight, the event provides an opportunity to consider the challenges and limits of satire in the social media age. A satirist mocks human behavior with the goal–however remote–of changing that behavior, or at least demanding some thoughtful social engagement with contentious issues. The Colbert Report is arguably the most formidable venue for provocative satire in contemporary American culture that reaches a large audience. The Colbert Report, The Daily Show , and The Onion, in particular, all provide a consistent and relentless examination of the foibles of human behavior and the absurdities that threaten to undermine the remarkable social and political experiment called the United States of America. It is a golden age for American satire. That is not to say that it is a golden age for the power of satire to change the world.

Although I simply want to look closely at the tweet itself, readers should see the two sketches from the Colbert Report that provide the opening and the closing of this social media firestorm (The Great Colber-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014, as I may have said above):

Colbert on Dan Snyder and the Washington Redskins

Colbert Who’s Attacking Me Now – the Follow Up

In the original piece, we witness a wonderfully tight satirical attack on the efforts of Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, and his effort to resist any and all efforts to make him and his supporters see the obvious. It is a satirical effort to affect public opinion, first, in its short-term target–the Redskins offensive name–and, second, the overall, longterm target–racism. The satire seeks to destroy both by persistent small cuts.

But, for now, that will have to wait. Twitter takes on a different topic.

For this space, let’s simply focus on the tweet that sets things rolling. We start there because the original sketch from the Colbert Show encouraged no firestorm whatsoever. The tweet, written and released by someone in the Comedy Central office, caused the issue  in the Twitterverse, which, now, apparently, and to the consternation of long-winded people like me everywhere, is the new normal of democratic media–just what the Founding Fathers and Mothers were hoping for.

Here is the text of the offending tweet:

“I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

This is a joke. It is a quote taken from the Colbert Report show that aired on 26 March 2014 and tweeted by the corporate twitter-version of the character “Stephen Colbert,” (Colbert’s personal twitter account is @StephenAtHome.) A play within a play within a corporate twitter feed, wrapped in bacon. The problem of this joke is obvious; it uses stereotypical mockery of spoken East Asian languages as perceived by Euro-Americans who are ignorant and dismissive of any and all foreign languages on the whole. In that case, the language of the tweet perpetuates the stereotypes.

OK, it is easy to see that this tweet/joke contains racially insensitive language, at the very least. However, it is not simply a joke but parody. It is a statement from a character “Stephen Colbert” who is an aggressive and tireless parody of Bill O’Reilly, a bombastic conservative pundit who is clueless of his own racist, simplistic, reductive, self-absorbed commentary day after day after day. As parody, this tweet works. The line works.

Consider the first part of the tweet, the set-up: “I am willing to show #Asian community  I care…” This is boilerplate Bill O’Reilly in that it mimics  his typical moment of minor (very minor) concession to opposing points of an  argument or to show his awareness of nuances on some issues. He does this often, and it is often quite unintentionally funny. Colbert thinks so, too. Here Colbert (both in the original sketch and in the edited Tweet) sets up a self-absorbed moment of magnanimous condescension to anyone who may misunderstand his unquestionable good will and fairness. Note the clever wordplay: “I am willing to show...I care...” not more concisely “I am creating a…” The issue for the pundit is his willingness to perform (“show”) his deep compassion (“I care”), like God deciding to give humans a second chance after, say, a flood. Thank you, God. Thank you, Bill.

With that set-up, the hypocrisy and cluelessness of the narrative “I” is revealed by the absurd and racist name of the foundation in the punchline. The “I” is full of himself and empty of understanding. All ego, no awareness. This is parody that targets Colbert’s perennial and ever-vulnerable target: Bill O’Reilly. This is boilerplate Stephen Colbert. And funny. Thank you, Stephen.

To better understand the context that Colbert uses, watch, for example, this bit from the show:

Colbert on O-Reilly’s Insensitivity to Asian Americans

Colbert on O'Reilly

The Tweet did not destroy the joke; it removed the satirical context but kept the parody in place. Its mockery, then, is simply a brief shot at racial arrogance. The full satire is much stronger and deserves more that Twitter could provide. The @ColbertReport tweet put a joke in the world of Twitter divorced from the persona that originally spoke the words. A person reading the quote who has little familiarity with the Colbert Show and little interest in finding out more before reacting and retweeting draws an easy conclusion: #CancelColbert. The many who are tired of seeing such mockery of Asians, along with so many others, in American popular culture, are right to be concerned. And those who dismiss such concerns without trying to seek an understanding of a long and complicated history that informs the angry reaction against @ColbertReport are simply lazy, and they make me tired.

Colbert performs racial parody and satire daily. Suey Park, who created the @CancelColbert idea, has gained some fame. I am not sure if she has made any progress toward her political and social goals. Perhaps. My hunch, though, is that Stephen Colbert is more likely to alter the mainstream popular culture landscape regarding racism than she will. But, really, I hope they both succeed. But I am not going to follow either one on Twitter.

 

(c) 2014, Jeffrey Melton

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What is Not Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor

Teaching American Humor

It’s just a joke. I was only joking. Can’t you take a joke?

In an earlier post, I discussed how I have used opinion surveys as a way for students to examine their own tastes in humor and as a way to introduce humor as a vibrant and crucial component of American culture.  In the first part of the surveys, students name their favorite films and television shows and classify their tastes. I have found it is a useful way to establish a context for discussion of theoretical concepts in humor while also getting students to open up about their expectations for the course. Here is a link to that post, “What is Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor“.

In the second part of the survey, students must address the potential complications to their enjoyment of humor. What if the person next to them not only doesn’t share their sense of humor but finds it offensive? When is a joke not a joke but an attack? And even if that “joke” is a veiled attack, should it be silenced? These are complicated issues and demand much more space (and brain power) than I can offer here, but no class on humor can rightly avoid the ever-present tension concerning differing opinions on what is and what is not funny.

Steve Brykman recently posted an excellent discussion concerning social and political challenges inherent in this issue. The underlying violence associated with much of American humor becomes especially troublesome when the humor concerns political figures, in particular the President of the United States. The post, “Is a Joke a Joke?,” can provide an astute and perfectly concise introduction for students who must consider the potential power of humor not only to the change the world but also blow it up. A joke can be provocative, but what if it is more accurately described as incendiary speech? Here is a link to Steve’s post.

As a way to force a potentially tense discussion, I use the survey to ask students to address this issue so that initially they can provide comments anonymously.  They must answer the following two paired questions. In each case, I provide a list, but they are also encouraged to add items if they see fit to do so:

1. What subject matter is off-limits for humor with you personally if someone is kidding with you? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)

Your mother

Your religion

Your gender

Your race

Your sexual orientation

Your body (height, weight, etc.)

Your disabilities or challenges

2.  What subject matter is off-limits for humor socially when the audience is public? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)

mothers

religions

genders

races

sexual orientations

bodies (height, weight, etc.)

disabilities or challenges

deaths and/or tragedies affecting real people

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Remembering Phyllis Diller without Apology

I thought it would be nice to start with a video of Diller’s performance without any frames.  She’s genuinely funny, and in spite of the garish dress, she seems very genuine. It’s difficult for me to find the rapid-fire one-liners of yore (and of Jeff Foxworthy) funny, but with Diller, somehow, it works.

Now for the frame.

I recently read a piece in The Atlantic commemorating Phyllis Diller, and I found myself panicking.  Author Ashley Fetters put together many of the points I wanted to make in this post already. (Don’t you hate it when such an esteemed and often brilliant publication says exactly what you were going to say?  It happens to me all the time.)

The piece was thoughtful and thorough, but the premise troubled me:

Diller’s trademark brand of hapless, self-deprecating, ugly-girl humor was based [on] an invented set of shortcomings she didn’t actually have. Which highlights a weird glitch in the system that still plagues women in comedy today: Why can’t funny women be hot? Or accomplished? Or smart? Why do so many women with these otherwise highly valued traits have to downplay them to get laughs?

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On E.B. White and the definition of humor.

Humor in America

Tracy Wuster

For two follow-up posts on this question, see:

Sharon McCoy, “Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?” and my piece here.

Born July 11, 1899.  White is famous for children’s books, style guides, and his work at the New Yorker, but in humor studies, he is probably best known for his introduction to the 1941 book, A Subtreasury of American Humor, which he edited with Katherine White.

E. B. White, subtreasury of american humor, frog

The beginning of White’s introduction is one of the most widely known statements about the study of humor, functioning as a witty injunction against the serious study of humor. It reads:

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific…

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That’s Not Funny: Margaret Cho’s Ableist Faux Pas

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.   Margaret Cho comedyI 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.

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Roseanne, Roseanne, and Where We Stand

Photo of Roseanne Barr by Monterey Media

What did I do the summer after I earned my master’s degree?  I spent the better part of my free time on the couch watching Roseanne reruns.  An F4 tornado unceremoniously concluded my last semester at the University of Alabama, and the frightful costs associated with cleaning up my life and property kept me solidly out of vacation mode. Things had been rough even before that.  Those closest to me were experiencing layoffs, long-term unemployment, and bankruptcy.  My own medical bills were piling up, and to top it all off I was growing out my bangs.

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The Time I Performed Standup Comedy Naked

For some reason, everybody wants to know about the time(s) I performed standup comedy naked. Forget about getting thrown out of the 2000 DNC. We want to know about the nudity! They think it’s, like, a big deal or something. That I’m naked. That I’m not wearing any clothes and that a lot of people are seeing me that way. Maybe  because it’s the unification of two things people fear most of all: public speaking and public nudity, joined into one terrifying whole. The funny thing is, when I perform standup comedy, the clothes I’m wearing are the last thing on my mind. After a minute or so, I literally forget I’m naked. The pressure is on. I’ve got work to do. Got to score some laughs. So from a performative perspective (phew) being naked makes the whole thing easier, getting laughs, that is, which is after all the main point of the thing. Particularly in my case, being as short and yet as hairy as I am.

First off, I should get this out of the way. The show I do is billed as “The Naked Comedy Showcase.” It’s not like I just walk out there and tear my clothes off and everybody’s like, “Woah, What the fuck?!” Not at all. Anybody who buys a ticket does so knowing they are going to see a show made up entirely of unclothed comedians, both male and female.

People who study comedy for a living might tell you something like: it doesn’t matter that a comedian is naked. Comedy is not down there, it’s up here, in the performer’s face. In their facial expressions. In fact, recent studies have shown that within moments of the opening joke, a majority of the audience will stop looking at a performer’s genitals and will focus their gaze on the comedian’s face, where the jokes are coming from. And once that happens, once attention is removed from the groinal region, it makes little difference what the comic is wearing or whether he or she is wearing anything at all.

But here’s the thing. Even if they’re all looking at your face, making good eye contact and whatnot, you know it’s always at the back of their mind, gnawing-away: Don’t look at the junk. Don’t look at the junk. Eyes off the — oh, God, I just saw the junk again. And this tension, this inner conflict, ups the laugh-factor ten-fold.

For this reason, performing standup comedy naked almost feels like cheating. Because here I am, taking these things the audience can’t help but laugh at—nervously or not—and literally shoving them in their collective face. I’m like carrot top. If I slip-up a punchline or two, no biggie. I’ve got great props to fall back on. Besides which, the crowds are always sympathetic: Of course the dude forgot his jokes, they’re thinking, the poor fool’s naked. Cut him some slack!

Here are the rules, (at least for the Cambridge, MA stage):

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Happy Birthday…E.B. White!

Tracy Wuster

For two follow-up posts on this question, see:

Sharon McCoy, “Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?” and my piece here.

Born July 11, 1899.  White is famous for children’s books, style guides, and his work at the New Yorker, but in humor studies, he is probably best known for his introduction to the 1941 book, A Subtreasury of American Humor, which he edited with Katherine White.

E. B. White, subtreasury of american humor, frog

The beginning of White’s introduction is one of the most widely known statements about the study of humor, functioning as a witty injunction against the serious study of humor. It reads:

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.[1]

But as with many essays on the subject of humor, this statement acts as a clever dodge, what I have taken to calling a “definitional denial.”  With a definitional denial, an author says “humor is undefinable”–often in a witty or humorous manner–but this rhetorical move is almost always followed by a definition of various aspects of humor. It is like saying “one can’t define ‘virtue,’ but everyone knows that virtue is this or that, but not the other.”  Thus, for another instance, William Dean Howells’s review of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad from the November 1869 Atlantic Monthly begins:

The character of American humor, and its want of resemblance to the humor of Kamatschatka or Patagonia,—will the reader forgive us if we fail to set down here the thoughts suggested by these fresh and apposite topics?  Will he credit us with a self-denial proportioned to the vastness of Mr. Clement’s (sic) very amusing book, if we spare to state why he is so droll, or—which is as much to the purpose—why we do not know? [2]

And then Howells spends some time discussing humor, not defining it per se, but exploring pertinent aspects of humor in relation to Mark Twain.  And Howells and White are not alone–many discussions of humor begin with this almost ritual denial of the inability, or even the inadvisability, of defining humor, followed by an essay, review, or article that says a good deal about what humor is. Why do authors feel that they must deny their aim of defining humor, or the very existence of such a definition, before they are willing to discuss humor? In the case of E.B. White, after denying the possibility of defining humor (and even pointing to the undesirability of such a task), he goes on to make some pretty large generalizations about humor.  Many of these points, in fact, echo essays on humor from the nineteenth century by Howells and others, such as the line between the humorous and the serious:

Practically everyone is a manic-depressive of sorts, with his up moments and his down moments, and your certainly don’t have to be a humorist to taste the sadness of situation and mood. But there is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying, and if a humorous piece of writing brings a person to the point where his emotional responses are untrustworthy and seem likely to break over into the opposite realm, it is because humor, like poetry, has an extra content. It plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat.

But even though humor is afforded this moment of potential “serious” content in proximity to the big hot fire of Truth, White then notes the lower status afforded to humor, what Brander Matthews and other nineteenth-century critics had dubbed “the penalty of humor.”  White writes:

The world likes humor, but it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts. It feels that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be some- thing less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious. Writers know this, and those who take their literary selves with great seriousness are at considerable pains never to associate their name with anything funny or flippant or nonsensical or “light.” They suspect it would hurt their reputation, and they are right. [3]

Thus, the humor collection is a “subtreasury,” and thus humor studies confronts some longstanding critical and cultural views about humor as a subject of knowledge.  But then again, much can be learned from dissecting a frog, can it not?


[1]  See http://hs.hpisd.org/uploads/45/f69347.pdf

[2] [William Dean Howells], “The Innocents Abroad,” 24: 146 (December 1869), 764.  Kamatschatka (now Kamatchka) is a peninsula in eastern Russia, which had a port prominent in Alaska’s exploration.

[3] Table of Contents of the book:  http://www.modernlib.com/authors/misc/misc/miscMiscToCs/G73Subtreasury.html

(c) Tracy Wuster, 2011-2