They say humor is based on timing. Yes, as is everything else. Ask Elisha Gray about telephone patents. I was plugging along, working on a piece about the comedian Dana Gould, and still figuring out when I would finish writing about Mark Twain and the German language, when an article in my local newspaper caught my attention:
“Dead Poets Society founder visits 300th grave”
The fact that there’s an actual Dead Poets Society prompts visions of Ethan Hawkes’s teeth and an involuntary desire to kill Robert Sean Leonard. Swallowing my bile I learned that the current founder, Walter Skold of Freeport (Maine), has visited the gravesites of 300 poets “ahead of this weekend’s fourth annual Dead Poets Remembrance Day.”
What is “Dead Poets Remembrance Day”? Apparently, “with the help of 13 current and past state poets laureate,” Skold was able to dedicate October 7—“the day that Edgar Allan Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born—to heightening public awareness of the art of poetry.
The article posted October 5. That was Saturday. Making the actual memorial day a Monday. Today. My day to submit. So in honor of dead poets everywhere (and as one who writes the occasional verse and considers the artform dead, and therefore all practitioners the undead) let us examine the two poets tied to this day. What the article does not share is an appreciation for not just the day, but the year. On October 7, 1849, as Edgar Allan Poe lay dying of possibly drunken Rabies in a Baltimore medical college, James Whitcomb Riley was borning in Greenfield, Indiana.
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.
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?
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.
The American Humor Studies Association welcomes teaching resources for their website. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
So last month, when I recounted the recent Mark Twain Quadrennial, in Elmira, New York, I did not lie to you when I said my last name was a rarity outside of Brazil. But I might’ve misled. I’m not Hispanic. The name, phonetically confusing no matter the accent, originates from a very localized area in the Catholic part of Germany. Before social media made rabble of us all, my immediate network of genetic cognates stretched the length and width of America, but number well under forty (out of 313.9 million Americans without my last name). Once humans began twittering, a search for my surname generates hundreds of Andrés, Rafaels, Guilhermes, Edleides, and Gabriels. All of them write in Portuguese, and the best I can figure populated the Southern Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. Their ancestors did anyway. My ancestors begin with my great-grandfather, his wife, and my grandfather, barely a toddler in 1920, leaving Köln after fighting Americans for the Kaiser in the Great War. He set up his own machine shop outside of Boston, and began a tradition of not passing on family history to the next generation, and so in turn we know very little but apocrypha.
But apocrypha is a start. While we seek a connection with our distant Vaterland, all of us—North and South American—still sit under the shadow of a later holocaust with greater ethical concerns than the mobilized imperial reaction to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. Thankfully, none of us bear any of the guilt, even if there’s always the cinematic suspicion. For those of you too young to remember, Zie Germans were fun adversaries in popular media long after World War II and despite the atrocities committed on their own citizens. Hollywood couldn’t quit them as antagonists until 9/11 made clandestine sleeper cell guerrilla terrorism all the rage. Islamic extremists make for good long-form television, but not epic two-hour cinema. Meanwhile the pomp and circumstance of Nazi regalia still seems a popular attraction. And if the uniform gets a little thread-bare, Hollywood’s costume designers can go back a score and break out the Kaiser’s pointy helmets and Red Baron pilot goggles.
Last week I took a class called Getting Paid to Talk: Making Money with Your Voice. I had never seen this class in our local Parks and Recreation catalogue—usually dedicated to Acting for Youngstars! or Wine Glass Fun. As the title bordered on George Carlin’s superfluous redundancy, I wanted to attend, but could not commit until that day, as children have a habit of ruining the best-laid plans.
I was a child when voices first captured my attention. Yes, I get we all were children when first fascinated by speech, but my concern was delivery. Daffy’s lisp, Porky’s stutter, the Kentucky drawl of Foghorn and da Brooklyn cant of Bugs. I grew up with Looney Tunes the way American education used to teach rhetoric, before it gave up. We watched Disney movies at the Rec Center—a different Rec Center, not the Wine Glass Center—back when video stores were not yet born now long dead, and cable included the cord connecting your TV to thirty-seven possible channels. The only thing on demand was our need to be specific places to watch specific things when other people did the same. The images caught our attention, but the voices kept it. Every one was distinct, and many times they had to be to help differentiate the characters. These products began in an age of radio, when actors used their talents aurally, because they could not offer an audience (Audio, Audire, Audivi, Auditus—to hear) any talents visually.
I hate word games. I suffer Scrabble, abhor Boggle, and you’ll never catch me cross words. I prefer etymology, and catch myself wondering about the subtleties of language the way you might answer, “I’ll take New York Times crossword for $200, __”. Consider an example: in English the first ordinal number might also serve as the numerical superlative. Given the ordinal role shows rank, or position, and the “-st” ending it shares with the hyperbolic “most” or “best,” I am comfortable maintaining that while “first” may be subject to the same controversies and debates the application of any superlative generates, it inspires the same level of awe upon discovery.
I felt this sense of awe when reading E. P. Hingston’s Prefatory Note, “Artemus Ward as Lecturer,” at the beginning of Ward’s posthumous publication Artemus Ward’s Panorama (1869). You may know the name Artemus Ward as the pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne (April 26, 1834–March 6, 1867), the printed humorist and lecturer whose career influenced that of a young Samuel Clemens when he first wrote under the name Mark Twain. Thirty years after Ward’s death, when describing the American art of telling a story, Mark Twain would commend Ward as one of the best representatives at telling it humorously:
The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it…the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub…Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.
Later Twain summarized:
To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purpose-less way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause. Artemus Ward dealt in numbers three and four a good deal. He would begin to tell with great animation something which he seemed to think was wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently absent-minded pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way; and that was the remark intended to explode the mine—and it did (How to Tell a Story, 1897).
Young Mark Twain followed Ward’s professional footsteps when the Sacramento Union sent him to report on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1866, and he returned with enough anecdotes to fill lecture halls out West.
Twain’s now famous use of language in the advertisement could be described in his own, later, language of dropping studied remarks with the printed effect of a pause by contrasting font size. Contemporary programs studying Mark Twain still rely upon advertising “The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock”, but where would Twain be without Ward?