Category Archives: Interview

An Interview with Judith Yaross Lee. With an excerpt from “Twain’s Brand.”

Tracy Wuster

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 Judith Yaross Lee Twain's Brand Mark Twain Samuel ClemensWalter 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 titleThey 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?

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A Revelation: WTF with Marc Maron

If these eyes could talk…thank God for the mouth below them.

If these eyes could talk…Thank God for the mouth below them.

Patton Oswalt: Yeah, we had in our garage we had a treadmill, and [laughs] then we had a dent-free heavy bag. [laughs] Clearly never been hit. Just smooth as the day it was bought—
Marc Maron: What was the day that Patton Oswalt decided I gotta get a punching bag?
PO: I gotta get a heavy bag, in my mind, I’m like—
MM: What were you preparing for?
PO: In my mind there’s always gonna be—the world’s gonna freeze, and we’re gonna have to fend for ourselves, I—
MM: So you’re gonna train at that moment?
PO: In the back of my mind, I’m like, I should learn to make fire, I should learn to, you know, set a—
MM: You should be trained when that happens, it’s not when the shit goes down, you’re like “Hold on!”—Poof! Poof!—
PO: Yeah, give me ten minutes, I’m ready. Get out there with Viggo Mortensen.
MM: Do you really have that fear?
PO: Oh, totally. Yeah. And it gets worse and worse.
MM: How do you think it’s going to go down?
(WTF, Episode 144, 1/27/2011)

For almost two years I’ve pictured a story in my head, cinematically. It starts off small, like an indie film. Just a collection of friends, five or six, gathered around a dining table. They are drinking wine, tearing at the end of a baguette, smoking pot, and sitting before plates mostly empty but for the bits of food not consumed for whatever reason. The meal is over, but the stories continue. They are comedians, so the potluck of anecdotes is larger than the small feast they consumed. Patton Oswalt sits there, so does Marc Maron, and we fade in to the opening scene with the preceding conversation clearly part of a bigger picture.

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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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The Sound and the Furry: An Interview with Alfra Martini, Creator of The Kitten Covers

Alfra Martini is a musician, runs a record label, sells vintage posters, freelances as a designer, and – like Walter Benjamin’s famous Angel, but of Parody instead of History – may very well be there at the end of the internet. In other words, Alfra is also responsible for The Kitten Covers: a website which, if you have not seen it, is both exactly what it sounds like and exactly as cool as you think it is. Her “kittenized” album covers have since gone viral with good reason, about which she was kind enough to speak with Humor in America.

David B. Olsen: A common observation that seems to frame discussions of your work is that these images were kind of inevitable. Like it’s almost weird that it has taken us so long as a culture to add kittens to famous album covers. My favorite assessment of your work comes from a short piece in New York Magazine online: “It’s a new blog in which the subjects of iconic album covers are replaced with kittens. So, basically, that’s a wrap, Internet!” What combination of cosmic forces did it take, therefore, for The Kitten Covers to come about through you?

Alfra Martini: It’s funny that for some, The Kitten Covers seem to signify the end to the internet.  As if to say, all our advances in information sharing have culminated into this final point. Like the punchline to a long drawn out narrative, our ambitions for advanced global communication have produced this ultimate monstrous phenomenon: Rock n Roll Kittens!!  It’s like a kittenized Planet of the Apes moment where Charlton Heston freaks out realizing human technological progress has led to it’s destruction: “We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” Hahaha. Kittens Rule!

But the truth is anthropomorphism is as old as humanity itself and animal parodies have been used forever.  Also, parodying classic album art is nothing new to the internet. Sleeveface, Lego Albums, and Album Tacos had all been around before The Kitten Covers. And though I don’t spend a massive amount of time on the internet, I do run a record label (All Hands Electric) and am a musician myself. Pair that with my love of vinyl records, cover art, and music iconography in general, and throw in a dash of my graphic design interests… I had, of course, been exposed to these viral images in the past so had an idea of this type of humor.

But how The Kitten Covers came to being more specifically: I was staying home from my day job as a vintage poster dealer, recuperating from a cold and feeling a little restless in bed.  Lucky for me, I always have something to do for the record label, regardless of whether I can get out of bed or not, and as we are a very independent DIY outfit, I started researching alternative methods for record distribution on my laptop, i.e. checking out stores who might be interested in carrying our stuff. It’s not the most effective thing, but you have to start somewhere, and I wasn’t about to waste my time sneezing all day. Sifting through online catalog after catalog, well, you revisit some iconic album covers and, if you are like me, you get distracted by the graphic decisions and the exaggerated style of rock iconography.

It was then that a vision popped into my head: David Bowie as a kitten. I don’t know how or why. Perhaps it’s because I’m a huge Bowie fan and have an Aladdin Sane tote bag I use and see everyday – or perhaps it was because my little calico cat was sleeping at my feet, as she usually does when I’m in bed – or maybe it was the Theraflu – but it was a very clear image and the thought made me laugh.  The die was cast. I had to see it in real life.

In hindsight, the image speaks loads to the current state of things, but at the time I wasn’t thinking meme, or blog, lol cats, or body of work. I was just thinking David Bowie as a kitten… I must see David Bowie as a kitten. Could I do it? Did I have the photoshopping skills? I abandoned my “work task”, crawled out of bed, and started up the desktop. The rest is mainly just technical.

After it was done… I giggled. It looked pretty close to my initial vision. And I was thinking, maybe I should do another, so started on the New Order cover, which is such a serious looking image to start with and the idea of using a kitten… just seemed so absurd. And then came Nevermind, because how iconic and bizarre is that cover already? And what’s more ludicrous than a kitten swimming underwater? Theoretically they all seemed so ridiculous and yet endearing.  It was then that my boyfriend came home and saw what I was doing and was like: “WTF?? Are you okay? Do you have a fever or something?”  Haha. But he couldn’t deny the eeriness of the David Meowie and suggested that I do a few more and start a Tumblr page, as he heard it had been good for photo blogs. Honestly, I was just going to show a few friends to get a laugh… who knew that I was planning the demise of the internet? Heh.

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