By Rachel E. Blackburn
One of my all-time favorite Seinfeld episodes featured the dentist character Tim Watley, played by Bryan Cranston. Watley begins making Jewish jokes after a recent conversion to Judaism. Seinfeld discovers this, is clearly bothered by it, and in response, visits one of Watley’s fellow patients, Father Curtis (sitting in a confessional booth to do so). After Seinfeld shares with Father Curtis the humorous antics of Watley, Father Curtis asks Seinfeld, “And this offends you as a Jew?” And Seinfeld responds, “No, it offends me as a comedian.” As one who was raised Jewish myself, complete with Bat Mitzvah, years of Hebrew school and the requisite trip to Israel, I always secretly revered that statement, however silly it may be. I might go so far as to say I found it admirable and noble; all hail in the name of laughter! I readily identified with the notion that Seinfeld ultimately held his identity as a comedian closer to his heart than that of his ethnic and cultural heritage.
The opportunity came to test my commitment to comedy above all, however, when I recently co-directed (with Ms. Gina Sandi-Diaz) a play titled The Last Cyclist. The Last Cyclist, written by Karel Svenk, is a comedy borne out of the Holocaust; specifically, written and rehearsed inside Theresienstadt, one of many concentration camps in operation roughly from 1940 – 1945 during WWII. What sort of authorial voice do we have in Karel Svenk, who in the midst of starvation, degradation, torture and dehumanization, found the energy and inspiration to write a comedy? What might he have to laugh about in his given circumstances? And, beyond all this – how did I approach directing such a piece nearly seventy years later after its initial conception?
Karel Svenk, the man who found the motivation and enthusiasm for laughter despite everything, was a Czech prisoner. What little we know of Svenk – a comedian, actor, and playwright – was that he was charismatic, funny, goofy in the best of ways, and inspiring to his fellow prisoners. Naomi Patz, who has reconstructed and reimagined his work (the script adaptation of The Last Cyclist which I directed in the theatre), has often stated in her discussions of Svenk that he was something akin to a European Charlie Chaplin, in terms of his physical comedy. Were he to be alive today, she says, we might read him as analogous to a Robin Williams: someone whose manic energy was infectious, and could somehow shine light in even the darkest of corners. Svenk was someone who could readily demonstrate for us the value of comedy as a tool for overcoming the worst cruelties of life, in the skillful manner of a true artist and comedian.
Tracy Wuster, Vice President–American Humor Studies Association
The American Humor Studies Association has been active this past year working to promote humor studies as an academic field, and we are excited to share our work with you. Last year, we sponsored excellent panels at MLA and ALA. Many of our members presented on humor and Mark Twain at the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, which featured an excellent keynote speech by Peter Kaminsky on the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. We also published two issues of Studies in American Humor in the last year, as well as our newsletter, “To Wit.” This year sees the transition from Ed Piacentino to Judith Yaross Lee as editor of the journal, with myself as book review editor. Look for an interview with Judith on “Humor in America” soon and an excerpt from her wonderful new book, Twain’s Brand.
The AHSA is excited for our upcoming work for the next year:
*First, the AHSA is very excited to announce the creation of the “Jack Rosenbalm Prize for American Humor.” Jack was the first managing editor, and then editor, of Studies in American Humor and a strong promoter of humor studies as a field. He was awarded the Charlie Award in 1993.
Awarded tor the best article on American humor by a pre-tenure scholar, graduate student, adjunct professor, or independent scholar published in (or accepted for publication in) a peer-reviewed academic journal. Articles published in 2013 are eligible for the inaugural award. Please submit by 12/15/2013 to: email@example.com
See link above for more information.
*The AHSA is working on Calls for Papers for three conferences next year–ALA, MLA, and our Quadrennial conference, which will be in New Orleans in December 2014. Look for the CFP for that and for MLA soon. The ALA call is looking for abstracts in the following topics:
1. “Political Humor from Franklin to Colbert”
2. “Teaching American Humor” (A Roundtable)
3. “Graphic Humor in American Periodicals” (Co-Sponsored with the Research Society for American Periodicals)
See our announcements page for more information.
*The AHSA is also co-sponsoring a Works in Progress symposium with the Mark Twain Circle of America in February. This working conference is intended to advance publication of work on American Humor, Mark Twain, and related work in progress. Individuals papers and group symposia will be offered relating to work in progress which will be presented by participants and discussed and developed with the help of attending scholars.
Where: The Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, Massachusetts (http://www.redlioninn.com/)
When: Thursday-Saturday February 20-22
Information at the announcements page above.
* Call for Papers: MAD Magazine and Its Legacies Special issue of Studies in American Humor, Fall 2014
Since 1952, MAD Magazine has regaled humor lovers and inspired humor producers in many media. Studies in American Humor, the journal of the American Humor Studies Association, invites submission of scholarly papers devoted to MAD Magazine and its legacies for a special issue of the journal appearing in the fall of 2014, coedited by John Bird (Winthrop University) and Judith Yaross Lee (Ohio University).
Topics might include, but are not limited to: *humor, verbal and/or visual *subversive humor *satire (as technique, analysis of individual examples or themes, etc.) *parody (as technique, analysis of individual examples or themes, etc.) *individual artists and writers *regular and occasional features *one or mode recurrent themes (politics, technology, parenthood, suburbia) *cultural impact and legacies *influence, general and specific (including direct influence on individuals and genres) *reception
Potential contributors should send queries and abstracts (500-750 words) by October 1, 2013 or complete manuscripts by June 1, 2014. Email queries and abstracts to firstname.lastname@example.org. General information on Studies in American Humor and submission guidelines are available athttp://studiesinamericanhumor.org/.
*You can join the American Humor Studies Association by mail or electronically. Information on joining can be found on our website. The AHSA website contains a section for syllabus, assignments, and information on teaching American humor. We welcome any additions to this resources. “Humor in America” will be running a piece on using podcasts to teach dialect humor, prepared by our Executive Director–Jan McIntire Strasburg–in the next few weeks. Please contact me–Tracy Wuster (email@example.com)–if you have humor pedagogy resources you would like to share.
*Finally, the AHSA is excited to announce that Studies in American Humor will soon be included in JStor in its full run from 1976 through our recent issues. JSTor is kindly scanning past issues and hopes to include the journal in its next update. Keep an eye out.
It is a threadbare premise, for a medium still in its pull-ups. When we think of greatness, whose face goes on the largest of sculptures—formed by God but finished by men—vandalizing the Dakotan landscape?
For the field of American humor I’ve had one year to think it over. Last September my friend Steve (whose real name is Mark, but in these kinds of online articles an alias is typical) said to me:
“Twain is sort of the great white whale of American literature. Dickens assumes the same type of stature for 19th century England. And Tolstoy (sorry Mr. Dostoyevsky and my beloved Mr. Chekhov) occupies the place for Russian literature. Who for France? Hugo? What a Mount Rushmore for 19th century literature.”
I agreed with Steve, but turned the direction of our conversation to something even more trivial: American humor. Putting very little thought into it I said:
Of course, the problem is limit. I immediately regretted the absence of George Carlin, but I didn’t know if he trumped Pryor. I couldn’t remove Groucho to include both influential standups when Marx represented the long stretch of Vaudeville and Jewish humor that shaped early Hollywood. And Franklin? You don’t see a lot of comedians today reference Ben Franklin as a significant influence on their craft, but then again what politicians model themselves after Washington? At the time it didn’t matter. Steve agreed with my list.
“I think you’ve nailed the Mount Rushmore for humor…Franklin is the headwaters. Essential. But you’ve got a nice spread of eras there, too. If we were confining this to movies and television, we could throw out Franklin and Twain and make room for Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball (hate to leave Fields out). But they don’t make the cut if we’re looking to represent all of American humor. Groucho is one of the few humor masters, by the way, who mastered almost every medium available to him: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, books. And he could get laughs in a stunning variety of ways: monologues, acting, singing, dancing, ad-libbing, sophisticated word play, low slapstick. Pretty remarkable career.”
One of Charlie Chaplin’s more famous routines is the table ballet scene from the The Gold Rush from 1925 (linked above). However, my first exposure to the scene was from a small film with a young aspiring actor Johnny Depp. He had recently gotten a lot of good press for “Edward Scissorhands” (for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe) and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” I was a young impressionable 23 year old and I loved “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” However, I really loved the goofiness of 1993’s “Benny & Joon” (clip linked below), yes goofiness. I don’t know another word for it. I’ve always loved Depp’s eccentricity. It is a certain something that does remind me of Chaplin however being a cultural critic there are somethings that as an audience strike us very differently. These scenes deserve a closer look. Next week I will follow up with a comparison. I invite readers to do the same.