It’s here. The event of the century. The one we’ve all been waiting for with dread.
Trump Planning To Throw Lie About Immigrant Crime Rate Out There Early In Debate To Gauge How Much He Can Get Away With
HEMPSTEAD, NY—Saying he would probably introduce the falsehood in his opening statement or perhaps during his response to the night’s first question, Republican nominee Donald Trump reported Monday he was planning to throw out a blatant lie about the level of crime committed by immigrants early in the first presidential debate to gauge how much he’d be allowed to get away with. More…
With over a hundred million people projected to watch the debate, roughly sixty million of them will be barely sentient after ingesting what they deem to be the necessary dose of intoxicants. More…
Standing slightly crouched with her fists raised up in front of her in the middle of her campaign office’s mock stage, a blindfolded Hillary Clinton reportedly implored her high-level staffers to attack her with talking points from all sides Wednesday in preparation for next week’s first presidential debate. More…
“You just watch, folks,” Trump told supporters in Toledo, Ohio. “Crooked Hillary is going to slip in little facts all night long, and that’s how she’s going to try to rig the thing.” More…
Stay safe out there.
“Of the 2,000 individuals surveyed, we found that nearly nine in 10 said they would be watching tonight’s debate on the off-chance that they might get to witness the roof of Hofstra University’s Hagedorn Hall suddenly cave in and crush the nominees for president,” said Quinnipiac spokesman Michael Jovan.
“So, just as a recap: You had numerous options and a full year to decide on the candidates you wanted to be your next president, and these were the two you picked. These two. Right here. All right, now let’s begin.”
I have a fever for exploring the curious life of one of the most bizarre and compelling comic sketches to work itself into the American grain, the collective unconsciousness, cultural zeitgeist, internet meme-life, and merchandising half-life: Saturday Night Live’s (SNL) “More Cowbell,” first shown on 08 April 2000. According to Wikipedia (yes, “More Cowbell”–the catch phrase–has its own page), “the sketch is often considered one of the greatest SNL sketches ever made, and in many ‘best of’ lists regarding SNL sketches, it is often placed at number one .” I don’t understand why Wikipedia wants a citation for this statement; we don’t need any stinking citations for something that is so clearly and indisputably true. I have a “More Cowbell” app on my phone to prove it.
Here is a link to the sketch itself: More Cowbell Full Sketch
The sketch, written by Will Ferrell, is inscrutable and inexplicable, which makes it a perfect tool for teaching American humor. In the introductory days of a class I teach called American Popular Humor, I have always included contemporary sketch comedy as a way to get students to explore what makes humans laugh and also to break down that laughter into components. In short, I ask them to dissect the humor. It is what teachers do, with apologies to the damage inherently done to the sheer joy provided by humor itself.
I have found that “More Cowbell,” provides an ideal source for exploring the layers of humor in any given piece of material. The sketch offers the complexity of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” That is a joke with its own layers (which is what humor scholars say when a joke is not as funny as they think it should be). Actually, most of Eliot’s poetry is a bit more complicated that a Will Ferrell SNL sketch, but almost nobody cares, and nobody wears a t-shirt with “More Prufrock” on it. If I am wrong about that, I am sorry–and saddened, as I gaze at my own rolled-up slacks. If I am the first the come up with that idea, I freely grant full licensure to anyone who wishes to make such a shirt. Surely, there are a few English grad students who would scrounge enough money together to buy it.
But “More Cowbell” as both a fine example of American humor and a cultural phenomenon provides a useful and fun way to talk about humor and how laughter depends on some many tenuous moments. Students bring much to such a discussion built around “More Cowbell,” because they are familiar with it and recognize its references. With that in mind, a discussion of the sketch can lead to a stronger awareness of how the humor of any given sketch depends on far more than the quality of the writing and performances. The context is the thing.
First, the sketch is funny in and of itself. It is built around simple incongruities, most obviously regarding the overblown attention that a simple instrument like a cowbell earns in the production of a rock song., in this case, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult. The supposedly famous producer–the Bruce Dickinson, played by Christopher Walken, creates the first true comic moment of the bit by pronouncing his desire for “more cowbell.” This is incongruous–and funny–because anyone who has ever listened to the song would be hard-pressed to argue that it needs more cowbell. But even so, those hearing the song opening measures for the first time can recognize how prominent the cowbell is along with the dominating physical presence of Will Ferrell (as “Gene Frenkle,” the fictional lead cowbell player). That is the core written joke of the sketch: a great producer has a curious (and absurd) passion for more cowbell. Additionally, the sketch is an astute parody of the silly hyper-seriousness afforded to rock bands and their recording processes; the sillier-still seriousness of the VH1 rockumentary as a medium. All of this makes the sketch funny but alone is certainly not enough to earn or explain its legendary status. No, that comes from the live performance and the audience’s willingness to embrace the intangibles of the sketch. This is the point I am eager for students to embrace–the essential interaction between comic performances and audience desire.
“More Cowbell” is a funny bit that becomes hysterically funny in the moment based on the live performance. Students generally first assert that they enjoy the laughter of the actors on stage. This has been a key to the success of SNL from the beginning: audiences love when a performer breaks character and laughs–or, more appealingly, tries to suppress laughter. It is infectious. Jimmy Fallon’s SNL career, his greatest moments, are almost exclusively built around his difficulty in playing a straight man. The other players crack up as well. The sketch finds that magical balance between good comedic writing and the stage energy on the verge of chaos. The sketch is on the verge of collapse at every moment.
Which brings us to Christopher Walken, the essential component of the sketch as written and as performed. Students generally assert, without qualification, that Walken is the only actor that fit for that roll. His off-stage quirkiness carries into the performance itself in the minds of viewers. In short, “the Bruce Dickinson” is funny because Christopher Walken is weird, baby.
American humor at its best is alive and always feeding on the moment. That does not mean it must always be “live,” so to speak. Rather, it means that the humor must always derive from the energy between performer and audience and a mutual love and disdain for the world they share.
As “More Cowbell” has become more entrenched as a “classic” SNL sketch, it has become funnier still. For many of us, it also carries the warm glow of nostalgia for those times before we started rolling up our pants and counting our coffee spoons, when we could still stay awake late enough to see SNL and could recognize the hosts and the musical guests, and when those guests played musical instruments, and sometimes cowbells.
My bar trivia team changes its name with each new tournament. Every few months, this becomes a ritual where I pitch a series of disgusting and/or esoteric names like Bridget Jones’s Diarrhea or Rod Torfulson’s Armada Featuring Herman Menderchuk and the group rolls their eyes as they reject my ideas. In the last go-around, I became insistent that we name ourselves after one of the gangs from the 1979 cult film The Warriors. For no particular reason, I especially wanted to be called The Baseball Furies. In a flash of brilliance and to my surprise, a teammate suggested that we be called The Baseball Furries – combining the fictional gang with the name for people whose sexual fetish is to dress up like a Care Bear.1
This was a good name for a trivia team, but considering their usual aversion to jokes that might offend, I was surprised that the team was amenable to this name. It was difficult for me to imagine naming our team after any minority group – sexual or otherwise. I had to conclude that everyone pretty much assumed there to be no furries in the bar, nor would there be any in our social groups that could possibly take offense.
Furries might exist somewhere, but nowhere, we assume, near us. It makes them a convenient reference for a laugh about other people’s perversion. And yet, our assumption that it is a minority group so small as to be nonexistent belies our and everyone else’s assumed familiarity with the practice. For a group that barely exists, there sure are a lot of people talking about furries. This is why the group is “fictional” – the amount of discourse that surrounds furry-ism immeasurably outweighs the reality of its practice. That it is other people’s perversion is key. Furry fetishism is so far off the radar of seemingly possible sexuality that it has come to stand in as a marker for sexual deviance in comedy. It is a common target for television comedies like The Drew Carey Show, Entourage, and Check It Out with Dr. Steve Brule. And in a comic twist on “rule 34,” furry culture is the topic of a lot of internet mockery.2
In an episode of 30 Rock, unlucky-in-love Liz Lemon finds a seemingly great guy who is single. Too good to be true? Yes – he’s a furry. This is reminiscent of the “all the good men are gay” sitcom trope where a woman falls for a gay man. One variation of this trope, which became the basis for Will and Grace, has a female character only realize at a humiliatingly late moment that her crush is gay. The key difference between Grace and Liz, however, is that while Will’s sexuality allowed the pair to easily reformulate their relationship as friends, Liz was so horrified at the prospect of furry-ism that it was borderline unimaginable for her to spend any more time with this man. And as the primary surrogate for the audience, it was implied that the we too should be comically horrified by the prospect of explorations in furry sexuality. That kind of experimentation was Jenna’s domain.
It is difficult to imagine, in the current media environment, having a character like Liz Lemon be horrified by a homosexual. Homer Simpson could get away with homophobia in 1997, as long as he learned tolerance by the end of the program. Although homophobia still exists in American comedy, the kind that would blatantly encourage a kind of abject dread is not terribly common in contemporary mass media. This is due to a host of factors, notably general changing social mores as well as more pointed calls for responsible representation by gay rights groups. Jokes constantly change their particulars while maintaining a common structure. That some gay jokes have shifted their target to furries is thus less notable than the fact that jokes have shifted from an identifiable group to a practically unidentifiable one.
And this is neither only nor simply an issue of redirected homophobia. Jeffrey Sconce provocatively suggests that “the unconscious is slowly dying out” in part because of, “the Internet’s ability to actualize any and all erotic scenarios in seconds.” From a Freudian standpoint, the lack of an unconscious would obviate the need for humor or sexual shame, so why do we seem stubbornly stuck with jokes at the expense of furries? Furry jokes demonstrate at least some aspect of the unconscious is alive and that it is desperately trying to Other furries in an attempt to normalize the things of which we are all silently ashamed. We need furries because they make your internet browser history seem less embarrassing. But beware. Once that stuff becomes normalized, there will be few places left to go for the thrill of perversion. Someday, we will all become furries.
1I am aware that sex is supposedly only a part of this subculture, but let’s be honest – that’s how everyone thinks about this group. Read on in any case, because this relates to my point.
2Rule 34 states that on the internet, if it exists, there is porn of it.
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
Tourists say the dumbest things. They travel the globe ostensibly to learn and to gain experiences so that when they return home they can do so as more well-rounded and informed human beings. Well, that’s the dream anyway. Tourists are always out of place, they are often pretending to be (much) smarter than they are, and they carry with them a sense of entitlement–all of these factors set them up to be perennially funny as objects of ridicule. Few things are funnier than ignorance, but when it combines with arrogance, then a wonderfully silly comic star is born: the American tourist, a figure of derision for about hundred and fifty years now.
It was Mark Twain who first popularized and perfected the American tourist, in his best-selling The Innocents Abroad in 1869, a narrative of a bumbling five-month tour–America’s first pleasure cruise–across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean Sea to see the “Old World.” He later built on that persona in other travel books like A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1897). Twain captured the perils of tourism in many ways, but one of his most effective and hilarious shticks was to mock the inherent ignorance and arrogance of tourists simply by reporting what they said.
Tourists say the dumbest things. Just ask Azie Dungey, an actor who, while looking for stage work in the Washington D.C. area, found roles, as she puts it, playing “every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Carline Branham–Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid.” Readers here may be too timid to ask this: Is that THE Martha Washington, President George Washington’s wife? Yup. History is fun. Ms. Dungey, during the energy and optimism infused into the presidential election of 2008 and throughout President Obama’s first term, Azie Dungey supported herself by playing a slave who served the first, first family. American irony at its best.
Her role is as “Lizzie May,” a fictional character drawn from Ms. Dungey’s experiences performing as a slave woman at George and Martha Washington’s home named Mount Vernon, now a popular tourist site. And her forum is Ask a Slave: The Web Series. The short sketches recreate many of the questions that tourists posed to Ms. Dungey over the years. Ask a Slave is promoted as “Real Questions, Real Comedy.” It will make you cringe.
When tourists reveal their ignorance and arrogance, we have what is called in the profession “a teachable moment.” A traditional method of trying to encourage a learning process is called the Socratic Method, named after Socrates that famous smart guy from ancient Greece. He is dead now. The method involves getting people to ask questions and from the answers to encourage more questions and thereby lead to the gathering of knowledge–and, from that process, achieve the gaining of wisdom. Or something like that. Tourists all over the United States (and the world, for that matter) are often encouraged to ask questions of their guides. At many historical sites, guides are often complemented by historical re-enactors to create “living history.” It is an appealing bit of stage craft. “All of history is but a stage, and we are merely reenactors and tourists.” Shakespeare wrote something along those lines. I just updated it.
But when the questions are so clueless, what’s a slave to do?
Well, the actor Azie Dungey performed her role to the best of her ability (and with much patience), but all the while she collected information, and now, as Lizzie May, she has some different answers to give. She, with the help of other members of the crew, are re-enacting those tourist re-enactments and providing the rest of us with our own funny teachable moments. The first episode immediately reveals why the online comedy series has caught fire.
Lizzie May is a significant expansion of the role that Ms. Dungey played at Mount Vernon. She is able to provide answers that would have gotten her fired at Mount Vernon, all the while maintaining a demeanor that is seemingly polite and deferential and that the original role demanded. Yet the answers are assertive and thus subversive. She thereby provides a compelling satirical voice. The resulting humor is well worth viewers’ time and offers us our own teachable moments.
Ignorance is funny. It has always been funny because it provides us the wonderful opportunity to laugh at someone else’s stupidity. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of it, so humorists can always find some facet of human behavior to exploit for laughs. When the subject matter is tied to the legacies of slavery, the humor has an unavoidable edge. One thing that the tourist questions reveal beyond their stupidity is a desperation for self-affirmation, or an almost pathological need to lessen the horror of slavery, to give many modern tourists more distance from the slaveowners and supremacists in their racial family tree. The need is understandable; the ongoing moral cowardice, however, is tiresome to say the least.
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.
May may just be the month of Marc Maron. The stand-up comedian is not new to the scene, having begun his forays into show business alongside the likes of David Cross, Sarah Silverman, and Louis C.K. in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but it is only in the last few years that he has garnered considerable attention due to the success of his podcast interview show WTF. In early 2011, the New York Times featured Maron’s podcast as a “must-hear” for comedians, and of course he has come up on Humor in America, most recently as “a revelation.”
This May, Maron is popping up in the mainstream as never before, issuing a new book entitled Attempting Normal, getting interviewed by Terry Gross, Howard Stern, and Jay Leno — and debuting his own television show on IFC, simply titled Maron.
One of the main reasons that stand-up comedians continue to have television shows built around their personalities is that the stand-up trade requires the creation of a detailed-yet-instantly-recognizable persona. It’s easily transposed to television, but Maron frequently refers to himself as an acquired taste, not for everyone. Indeed, the plot of the premiere episode makes much of that, as Maron cajoles a woeful Dave Foley into accompanying him on a hunt for someone who’s been pseudonymously insulting the podcaster via Twitter.
(By the way, I highly recommend Dave Foley’s real-life appearance on WTF for a discussion of the Kids in the Hall star’s ups and downs in Hollywood, including patented WTF-glimpses into Foley’s tangled personal life.)
For example, Dragonmaster tweets Marc Maron: “I would say don’t quit your day job, but you don’t have one, and it’s too late to get one.” Maron fans will recognize that as an external manifestation of Maron’s internal self-judgment. The dude is a volcano of self-judgment.
Episode One does a decent job setting up some of the Maron essentials. This includes his Twitter addiction, of course. His first ex-wife. His cats. The tension between his exhausting self-involvement and his deep self-awareness. The podcast set-up in his garage.