An Afternoon with Mairéad Byrne
Poet Mairéad Byrne came to us on a cold, windy, April Fool’s Day. Her poem “Spring” perfectly illustrated her presence on campus:
After a long winter, April and the promise of sunshine and warmth made us almost giddy as we filed into the auditorium. During her reading, students seemed a bit more . . . aware; faculty seemed a bit more . . . cheerful. We had endured 31 of the darkest days on record, and now Mairéad Byrne, our April, was reading from her collection You Have to Laugh: New + Selected Poems (2013), a compilation of witty and clever musings rife with a propensity toward sadness (“Crop”) and self-deprecation (“Things I’m Good At”; “I Went to the Doctor”). If you are new to her, Byrne is an Irish emigrant living in Providence, RI, and teaching at RISD (below: her faculty profile video).
I have been excited for Rebecca Krefting’s All Joking Aside (out now through Johns Hopkins University Press) to come out since hearing her present at the 2010 AHSA/MTC conference in San Diego (this year in New Orleans). Krefting’s approach to stand-up comedy is thoughtful, nuanced, and entertaining. In the book, Krefting uses the concept of “charged humor” to describe a particular type of stand-up performer, providing both a useful rubric for understanding certain types of stand-up and solid case studies of performers. You can read a section on the concept of charged humor here. From All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents, by Rebecca Krefting. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
I recently interviewed the Krefting about the book and her experiences as a humor scholar:
Tracy Wuster) Tell me about your start in humor studies. How and when did you begin pursuing it as a subject? who has influenced you as a scholar of humor?
Rebecca Krefting: I think I began studying comedy the moment I began writing my first set. I contemplated questions like: what words would create the greatest comedic effect and in what order? How do you take everyday occurrences or a terrible situation and make it funny? Why is something funnier coming out of his mouth than out of mine? I started performing stand-up comedy and improv in August of 2001, a mere six weeks before 9/11. I was fresh out of college and while considering graduate school, had not made any commitments either way. I worked several jobs: bartender/server, legal secretary, and domestic worker and had just enough time and chutzpah to try my hand at comic performance. I strove to be a comic and attacked it with the fervor of a beaver building a dam—like my life depended on it (if you know anything about beavers, you know that’s true). The improv acting I fell into by auditioning on a lark for a professional troupe called The Skeleton Crew performing out of Nashville, TN. Looking back, I know now just how lucky I was to train in this comedic cultural form, which informed my stand-up and later my teaching. In both stand-up and improv, I was acutely aware of my identity as a woman while performing (this more so than my being a lesbian because although I was out, I opted not to call attention to this during my stand-up) and so I became a critical observer of how identities played out on stage. Thus began my fascination with the practice, history, and analysis of comedy. When I started applying for grad schools, I knew that an MA in Women’s Studies would expose me to the scholarship that would help me make sense of the gender gap in comedy and other cultural phenomena I had been observing in the comedy world. Having been schooled in one identity-based discipline, it seemed a natural shift to obtain a doctorate in American Studies, the first identity-based discipline in academia. It didn’t hurt that the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park also housed (at that time) the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies, where I was offered employment.
My influences as comic and scholar are manifold. They are comics like Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Maria Bamford, Kate Clinton, and Patton Oswalt; they are comic performers like Sissieretta Jones, Trixie Friganza, Judy Gold, Meryn Cadell, Nellie McKay, Greg Walloch, and the Five Lesbian Brothers; they are scholar-mentors like Linda Mizejewski, Brenda Brueggemann, Mary Sies, Ronit Eisenbach, Sharon Harley, and Larry Mintz; they are scholars like Karl Marx, Patricia Hill Collins, Philip Auslander, Eddie Tafoya, bell hooks, Judith Butler, Coco Fusco, Rosemarie Garland Thompson, Jill Dolan, and Shane Phelan.
by Bonnie Applebeet and Orquidea Morales
I am so excited to be back on HA! to share a conversation I had with a good friend of mine who studies horror, media, zombies, and Borderlands at the University of Michigan. I always found it fascinating that we, as people with such opposite inclinations, could get along so well, so I sat down one day with Orquidea Morales to ask her about what we thought the overlaps were between humor and horror. The results are wacky and provocative. We talk about Divine and Hitchcock, sex and stabbing, discomfort and vulnerability, all while theorizing the connections and territories between humor and horror. We hope you enjoy our sarcasm-laden conversation and treasure the insight into what two nerdy doctoral students might talk about over some burritos and Coke in a noisy restaurant.
We are very excited to present this interview with Judith Yaross Lee. Judith is Professor & Director of Honors Tutorial Studies in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University. She is the author of, among many works,Defining New Yorker Humor and Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America.
Judith is the new editor of Studies in American Humor. Through the American Humor Studies Association, and on her own, Judith has mentored many humor studies scholars, including myself. It is a pleasure to print this interview and an excerpt of her excellent and important new book: Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture. (Find an Excerpt here).
Tracy Wuster: Tell me about your start in humor studies. How and when did you begin pursuing it as a subject? who has influenced you as a scholar of humor?
Judith Yaross Lee: I had the great good fortune to take a course on Mark Twain with Hamlin Hill in my first quarter of my M.A. program in English at the University of Chicago, where I was first introduced to the study of humor as an interdisciplinary historical and cultural study, largely through my ancillary reading in Henry Nash Smith, later augmented by the works of early American Studies luminaries such as Perry Miller and Leo Marx.
Then in my second year of doctoral study I had another course with Ham, a seminar in contemporary American humor in which I was one of just two students (I guess we were the only ones who trundled over to the department office to find out what the special topic was, because all our friends were jealous when they learned about it). We were so intimidated by Ham’s expertise and so worried about holding up our end of the discussion–my classmate had taken the regular course in American humor from Walter Blair, who was retired but had filled in during Ham’s sabbatical, but I had not–that we spent huge amounts of time preparing each class. The result was that both of us had found dissertation topics by the end of the term. My dissertation covered humor in six novels by Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Nathanael West, and Philip Roth under the pompous title “To Amuse and Appall: Black Humor in American Fiction.” I never published it or any piece of it, though I revisited two of the novels in Twain’s Brand, which now that I think of it has a similarly large scope, though this time around I felt more able to manage it.
So obviously the Chicago school of neo-Aristotelian formalism and the Blair-Hill school of humor and Mark Twain studies influenced me from the start, as did the humor theory of Constance Rourke, whose work I felt did not have the stature it deserved. But I was mortified when, soon after defending my dissertation in 1986, I read Emily Toth’s “A Laughter of Their Own: Women’s Humor in the United States” (1984) and realized how little I knew about women humorists, so I began devouring the pioneering articles and books by Nancy Walker, whose scholarly rigor I appreciated as much as her insights, and by Regina Barreca, whose first book had such an exciting title—They used to call me Snow White– but I drifted: Women’s strategic use of humor (1991)–that I ordered it something like a year before it came out. About the same time I was also inspired and greatly helped by David Sloane, especially his bibliographic work; his American Humor Magazines and Comic Periodicals (1987) is a trove yet to be fully mined.
In the 1990s (like everyone else) I also began reading Bakhtin, whose focus on the “lower stratum” I found immediately satisfying and much more congenial than Freud’s joke theory. However, I have also been strongly influenced by communication theory–most strongly by the medium theory of Walter Ong and the performance theories of Erving Goffman–and cultural theorizing by Edward Said and W. E. B. DuBois, among others. I like Johan Huizinga on play, which I think has strong overlaps with humor as a non-instrumental form of human expression. I confess to love reading humor theory!
TW: Was there resistance from others in your field or department to the study of humor as a “non-serious” subject?
JYL: I felt a lot of encouragement from my professors at the University of Chicago. Because Ham left before I was ready to write my dissertation, however, I worked with three other Americanists, William Veeder, as director, John Cawelti, as second reader, later replaced after he left by James E. Miller, Jr. John was a pioneer of popular culture historiography and theory, so he had no qualms about my work on humor, but Bill, who worked mainly on 19th-century fiction, insisted that I prepare for a field exam in an unequivocally serious or heavy topic in order to demonstrate to a search committee that I was not an academic lightweight and that I could contribute to the core teaching mission of an English or American Studies department. (I was inclined toward the latter, but those jobs were very scarce.) That was wise advice, as my decision to do a special field in theories of literary effect as particularly relevant to humor that landed me my current position in the Rhetoric and Public Culture program in the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University.
Humor has not been an issue at either of the two schools where I’ve been on a tenure line. My colleagues in the School of Communication Studies have promoted me through the ranks since I arrived as an advanced assistant professor in 1990. Far from exhibiting prejudice against my topic, they think of my work as hard-core traditional humanities scholarship because of my archival and historical research methods. I am grateful for their collegiality and open-mindedness.
Before Ohio I had an assistant professorship teaching composition at LaGuardia Community College/CUNY, which was a wonderful place to learn the ropes of being a teacher and faculty member. And before that, while writing my dissertation, for many years I taught composition and occasionally media theory as an adjunct. I often marvel at my good fortune at escaping the adjunct ranks.
I should note for graduate students in English and American Studies that I have not held a position in one of those departments since 1990. But other American humor studies colleagues have, so perhaps they can speak more directly to issues of the job search. Most of them, like me, have their fingers in some more conventional or highly valued pies for their teaching and research portfolios–often particular authors or themes, or in my case, media history (including periodicals) and theory. Humor colleagues probably don’t know that I published a theory of email in 1996.
TW: What have been the most interesting developments in humor studies in your time in the field?
Over the past few weeks here in Austin, Texas, the issue of women’s health and abortion restrictions has been front and center, becoming a national story with the dramatic filibuster of SB5 by Wendy Davis (along with Kirk Watson, Judith Zaffrini, Leticia Van De Putte, Sylvester Turner, and others). Thousands of protesters filled the capital building, hundreds of thousands of people watched online (while CNN discussed blueberry muffins), and Wendy Davis became a national celebrity. Witnessing these events from both inside the capital and online, I was struck by the intense passion on both sides of the issue and by the ways in which humor might both express and relieve the tension that passionate political debate creates.
I understand that the issue of abortion is sensitive, so I will stick with the humorous responses to the issue. What struck me, as an observer, was the swift creation of humorous memes, the jokes on twitter, and the use of humor within the filibuster itself.
My mom once told me that the secret to a happy marriage is to do all of your construction projects while your husband is at work. She knew well what she was talking about — over the years, she cut into walls to create built-in cabinets; she put up new shelves in rich and vibrant woods and hung hinged doors on other shelves that she wanted covered. All construction debris was cleared neatly away, though, each day before my father got home — and this year marked their 65th year together.
What my mom never had to tell me, though, is that the real key to a long and happy relationship is a sense of humor. Life is far too important to take seriously.
When my father passed away last month, among his things we found a treasure that his mother had saved from her wedding shower on June 5, 1919. The gifts to her included a collection of spices in tins to start her kitchen in her new household — and a book of personal and spicy advice, written in acrostics, called How to Manage a Husband. By the Experienced and the Inexperienced. When I started reading, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I got to the “T” in “Edith,” I knew that the women of that long-ago post-war generation were no different. I’ll never think of my seemingly serious and elegant grandmother in quite the same way again.
Eat everything prepared and
Invite no quarrels
Tie him to a tree if unmanageable
Help in everything
Make the ice cream
Receive his friends
Never give up
Never leave him
Love him a little more
Serve him plenty of food
Hang him if necessary
Attract no one else
Get up early in the mornings
Educate him to help with the work
Okay, so I did a double-take on this one. “Hang him if necessary”? One hopes that Nellie was one of the “inexperienced” . . . . Continue reading →
Congratulations to Carol Burnett for winning the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. According to the Kennedy Center:
The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
Upon being notified of the award, Burnett noted:
“I can’t believe I’m getting a humor prize from the Kennedy Center. It’s almost impossible to be funnier than the people in Washington.”
The ceremony will take place on October 20, with tickets starting at $1000. In the meantime, enjoy one of Burnett’s best performances:
In other humor news:
*This week is the annual American Literature Association conference. Please join the American Humor Studies Association for the following panels:Session 5-G (Thursday 3:00) Humor in American Periodicals (Great Republic 7th Floor) Session 7-E (Friday 8:10) Reading and Teaching Humorous Texts (St George D 3rd Floor) Session 8-O (Friday 9:40) Business Meeting (Parliament 7th Floor)
And join the Mark Twain Circle of America for the following panels:
Session 15-C (Saturday 9:30)
Mark Twain: Iconic Texts Reconsidered (Essex North Center 3rd Floor)
Session 17-C (Saturday 12:30)
Mark Twain and History (Essex North Center 3rd Floor)
Session 18-M (Saturday 2:00)
Business Meeting: The Mark Twain Circle of America (North Star 7th Floor)
*For panels on Kurt Vonnegut and others, see the schedule here. Additionally, there has traditionally been a reception on Saturday. I believe that 2-4 of the writers for this site will be there.
*A number of the authors of this page will also be at the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies at the beginning of August. The registration and program information can be found at the Center for Mark Twain Studies site. Even if you are not a scholar, this conference is well worth the trip. This year features a screening of a new documentary on Hal Holbrook, a keynote by Peter Kaminsky of the Mark Twain Prize, a closing picnic at Quarry Farm, and paper presentations by Sharon McCoy, Jeffrey Melton, ABE, and myself.
*Speaking of awards, did you know about the James Thurber Prize for American Humor, given annually for the best humorous writing of that year?
*And speaking of humor writing, if you are a student and in need of a term paper on American humor, look no further than this lovely writing, available for the bargain price of $15.90.
Third, a frosty streak of humor runs done American literary works from early times to present. In many cases, a dash of table salt humor saves a ripe penning from becoming in any case sentimental. American humor tends to be exaggerated rather than subtle. It reflects the peoples cleverness to laugh at themselves during the approximately voiceless times.
In these “approximately voiceless times,” how can you pass up such a bargain, and sure to get a D- or below!
*Ellie Kemper asks, “Can men be funny?”
*Did you see, “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise“?
*Have you been watching YouTube Comedy Week? Anyone want to write a review for us?
*Only 5 days until Arrested Development!
A friend of mine recently moved into a new house that is about as far away from where I live as you can get and still say that it’s nearby. He lives in a new county entirely, actually, which is the county beyond the county that we in the city call “the county.” So basically kind of far away. I recently drove out there to visit and check out the new place, and I found myself suddenly aware of the sky. There seemed to be more of it. It was as though the horizon line had been lowered, somehow, and the sky was increasingly everywhere. Whereas city life tends to block it out or at least finds a way to put an ad in it, the sky in this distant suburb was unbounded and all over. And all I wanted to do was get away from it.
I’m unambiguously aware that, as a person, I am indoorsy (which, unlike “outdoorsy,” is not actually a word according to the dictionary). This might be one of the reasons that I am so drawn to the work of Gabrielle Bell, whose autobiographical comics have been widely acclaimed for over a decade. She has been praised for the simplicity of her line work, her unorthodox use of shading, her judicious attention to detail, and her capacity to transform otherwise ordinary conversations into existential treatises without actually seeming to have done so at all. Bell is also clearly aware that her life and the lives of everyone around her are in a constant state of becoming-comics; she depicts herself incessantly sketching; writes comics about the difficulty of writing comics; and spends time with people doing things that everyone knows will all end up being drawn. It’s a little like if Bertolt Brecht had been a staff writer for Friends.
Her comics are also brilliantly contained, which is why I find a certain comfort in reading them on days when the sky gets too big. I’ve written elsewhere about the tendency toward small spaces in Bell’s earlier work, and her latest collection, The Voyeurs (Uncivilized Books, $24.95), continues to explore our relation to space — both in life and in art. Although many of the episodes in the book were originally published on her website, Lucky, the pages of The Voyeurs are mostly composed with a steady layout of six of the same-sized panels per page, and Bell frames the action with an almost unwavering full shot. For someone whom the Art Editor of the New Yorker, Francoise Mouly, has called a “master of exquisite detail,” it’s amazing how infrequently anything gets singled out or prioritized by a close-up. It’s actually almost never. Rather, Bell seems to want us to see the stuff of her life as… well, as we would actually see it. Sometimes her panels are densely detailed and overfull, but only when that’s the way the world looks. And other times, there’s just not a lot of stuff to look at.
By her own admission, but also obviously enough in the comics themselves, Bell can be quiet, shy, and reserved, and she often retreats into her notebook, sketching and writing even when there’s something else going on around her. But of course, her comics reveal this retreat, and the act of creating comics is as important to her comics as the events that inspire the comics. Part of the irony of her work, then, is that the act of withdrawing into a more private world is in some ways predicated on the future publication of her work. As readers, we are invited to see her world not only as she sees it – which is to say, as it is sketched onto a page – but also to see her sketching this world. In this way, her comics are at once process and product. There’s almost a fractal sense of repetition, by which we as readers are seeing what was once the notebook’s page, which is what Bell is in the process of creating in the story itself, but because she has to draw herself drawing, we are actually seeing her see herself. It’s like the opposite of jockeying for a better view of something in a crowd; Bell’s comics are like two people constantly stepping back and sliding around to get behind each other, further and further away from the action. Continue reading →
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?