Category Archives: Washington Irving

Truthiness and American Humor

Stephen Colbert, in the inaugural episode of the Colbert Report (October 17, 2005), coined the word truthiness to capture the underlying absurdity of the human preference to assert a truth that arises from a devout belief in one’s gut rather than one supported by facts (see:Colbert Introduces Truthiness). Truthiness reflects the desire of a formidable section of the population (or is it the entire population?) to assert that what they believe to be true is true, not necessarily because the facts support it but because they want to believe it so strongly. Colbert, in character, asserted that the nation was at war between “those who think with their heads and those who know with their hearts.” As Colbert put it in an interview with the A.V. Club by The Onion (January 26, 2006), “facts matter not at all. Perception is everything” (see: Colbert Interview).

To say that the word took off is a lame understatement. A Google search of “truthiness” yields 969,000 hits. Wikipedia–where I get all of my facts with full enjoyment of the ironic potential of that statement–has an article on the word that offers 57 footnotes pointing to a wide range of popular culture and media sources. If you are so inclined, you could follow #truthiness on Twitter and receive a constant string of observations from some of the brightest minds of the time, but I can’t recommend that in good conscience.

In no uncertain terms, truthiness is in the American grain, politically and socially. Colbert claims that the word–and its satirical context–is the thesis for the Colbert Report itself. Whether all of his viewers really get that could be debated, at least if one considers viewers early in the run of the show. See the 2009 article examining the complicated range of audience responses to the Colbert Report by Heather LeMarre here: The Irony of Satire.  I have commented on that conundrum in an earlier post questioning the power of satire — Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically). That essay was followed by a first-rate essay by Sharon McCoy reaffirming at least some of my optimism — (Embracing the Ambiguity and Irony of Satire).  By 2013, however, Colbert has appeared out-of-character enough and has built such a clear following, it would be much more difficult to find an audience who would be as confused regarding his true political thinking as some viewers were in 2005. He is too big, and he has appeared more often out-of-character via interviews in a variety of outlets. He is liberal, OK?

I would argue that no humorist has ever called into service a word with more usefulness to cultural and media critics, and to lovers of irony. But the concept behind truthiness is not Colbert’s. It’s the cornerstone of American humor, and our greatest writers and characters have built a tradition of humor forever exploiting the grand American attraction to self-delusion, to the power of desire over the power of facts. It is what makes us so funny.

Rip Van Winkle

Washington Irving gave us our first enduring humorous character through the sleepy ne’er-do-well Rip Van Winkle, a man who abandons his family for twenty years and returns after his wife’s death to become a grand old man of the town, living the life he always wanted–talking and drinking with friends. Irving brings Rip to readers through his narrator, “Geoffrey Crayon” who takes the story from “Deidrich Knickerbocker,” who takes the story verbatim from Rip himself. That’s a lot of room for creative use of truthiness. Rip is no match for the idealized romantic heroic male of the revolutionary era, the Daniel Boone’s who built it, so to speak. He presents a different kind of American. He does not fight for love of country or for political freedom; he sits out the war. He does not build a homestead thus failing to accept his role in the making of the national Jeffersonian dream. Nope. Within the story are all the facts to show that Rip is a sorry excuse for a man and a lousy American, a troubling subversive. But we love him because he seems like such a nice guy, and his wife is such a pain–as Rip tells it. Of course, his narrative is self-serving–and successful. Although some townspeople clearly know he is a liar, most accept his story of sleeping for twenty years–because it feels right, or at least it allows them to go about their business. They are willing to believe in the mysteries of the hidden corners of the Catskills, but more importantly, they are eager to believe in a man they like. It just feels right. And easier.

Readers, moreover, do the same. They like him; they hate Dame Van Winkle. They forgive Rip his indiscretions and welcome him back into the fold. They believe him because he seems so earnest. Rip abides, bless his heart.  They believe, for the similar reasons, in the exploits of Daniel Boone. But I digress. All of Rip’s late-life success in becoming a center of attention is made possible by his willingness to lie and the inherent desire of most of the townspeople to believe his story simply because they want to. Facts and deductive reasoning be damned. That is funny.

Washington Irving, in giving us Rip, deserves recognition as the first worthy exploiter of truthiness in American humor. The great master of the 19th century was, of course, Mark Twain–who I will come back to in another post. There are many others, from the eternal optimism of Charlie Chaplin, to the befuddled female misfits of Dorothy Parker, to the secret dreams of Walter Mitty envisioned by James Thurber, to the disturbed struggles of Lenny Bruce, to the white Russians of the Dude from the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. It is a long list that has as its current master-artist Stephen Colbert. It is a timeline of writers, characters, comedians, and satirists covering just under two hundred years (using the 1819 publication of “Rip Van Winkle” as my starting point).

For some reason, there is still a need for satirical minds to tell subversive stories and to exploit the absurdities of American culture because there also remains a powerful urge for many Americans to shun facts and go with their gut to serve their own desires and belief systems. They find regular affirmation in popular culture and politics. One could be somewhat disappointed that after all this time there is still so much work to be done to defeat the powers of truthiness in our political systems and social structures. Not me. I believe things will get better. I can feel it in my gut.

Because Rip abides.

Colbert and Truthiness 2

In the Archives: Washington Irving, “The Art of Book-Making” (1819)

Tracy Wuster

Having recently emerged from a long-winter’s haze (which, here in Texas, involves lounging around in seventy-degree weather), I am now ready to resume the full duties of editor of this humor publication.  Granted, I never really left per se, but I have been absent to a degree, owing to various events both personal and professional, both grand and tragic.  Never mind the details.

One detail: I sent my book off to the publisher.  And while the satisfying thud of a 400-page manuscript in a mailbox would have been nice, the click of the mouse and the electronic thud of the manuscript landing in the publisher’s inbox was rewarding, if a bit anti-climactic.  Now that I have written the definitive tome on the reputation of Mark Twain as a humorist (1865-1882)–or at least a tome that hopefully will come out sometime in 2014–I can resume my full duties as editor of this fine publication, which I had already been doing, but in something of a distracted manner.

So, I apologize for the lack of a post this past Monday.  April Fool’s Day would either require a hoax post or something equally worthwhile of the day.  I thought of writing about the imminent closure of this site but did not get around to it.  See above re: book being due.

Washington Irving sketch book geoffrey crayon

Washington Irving

So, for today, April 3, we have a selection from Washington Irving, born on this day in 1783.  The piece is from his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, published serially in 1819 and 1820.  The subject is fittingly the making of books, the natural predatory nature (and flatulence) of the author, and the inappropriateness of napping and/or laughing in the archive. Here is “The Art of Book-Making”:

If that severe doom of Synesius be true,–“It is a greater offence to steal dead men’s labor, than their clothes,”–what shall become of most writers?

BURTON’S ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY.

I HAVE often wondered at the extreme fecundity of the press, and how it comes to pass that so many heads, on which Nature seems to have inflicted the curse of barrenness, should teem with voluminous productions. As a man travels on, however, in the journey of life, his objects of wonder daily diminish, and he is continually finding out some very simple cause for some great matter of marvel. Thus have I chanced, in my peregrinations about this great metropolis, to blunder upon a scene which unfolded to me some of the mysteries of the book-making craft, and at once put an end to my astonishment.

I was one summer’s day loitering through the great saloons of the British Museum, with that listlessness with which one is apt to saunter about a museum in warm weather; sometimes lolling over the glass cases of minerals, sometimes studying the hieroglyphics on an Egyptian mummy, and some times trying, with nearly equal success, to comprehend the allegorical paintings on the lofty ceilings. Whilst I was gazing about in this idle way, my attention was attracted to a distant door, at the end of a suite of apartments. It was closed, but every now and then it would open, and some strange-favored being, generally clothed in black, would steal forth, and glide through the rooms, without noticing any of the surrounding objects. There was an air of mystery about this that piqued my languid curiosity, and I determined to attempt the passage of that strait, and to explore the unknown regions beyond. The door yielded to my hand, with all that facility with which the portals of enchanted castles yield to the adventurous knight-errant. I found myself in a spacious chamber, surrounded with great cases of venerable books. Above the cases, and just under the cornice, were arranged a great number of black-looking portraits of ancient authors. About the room were placed long tables, with stands for reading and writing, at which sat many pale, studious personages, poring intently over dusty volumes, rummaging among mouldy manuscripts, and taking copious notes of their contents. A hushed stillness reigned through this mysterious apartment, excepting that you might hear the racing of pens over sheets of paper, and occasionally the deep sigh of one of these sages, as he shifted his position to turn over the page of an old folio; doubtless arising from that hollowness and flatulency incident to learned research.

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Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?

Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?

Here is your challenge: come up with a syllabus of material for a course on American Humor. Good luck with that.

First, count yourself lucky. In a parallel universe you could be asked to teach a course on American poetry before 1800 (here’s a hint as to how unpleasant that could be: “Day of Doom”). Unlike the poor soul who is stuck with Michael Wigglesworth and a handful of other dour Puritans, you have choices. In this universe, at least, you have the good fortune to teach humor. But you still have the formidable task of choosing from myriad possibilities. To even begin narrowing them down to a manageable body of work to fit into a course seems rather maddening in and of itself—Doom.

Where to begin? What to include? Why a duck?

I would like to take this forum to put together a working list of humorists, etc., and works that could be deemed essential. What I propose is an American Humor ……(wait for it)… Canon. If you are opposed to the rigid, standard-bearing, pomposity of the word, I understand. If you couldn’t care less and figure any guidance at all that may help you put together a class (or many classes) would be useful, then I greet you as a kindred soul.

This may start a fight. That is not what I am seeking, but I figure a discussion on anything but presidential politics may be welcome. I hope to stir interest and ultimately move toward building a broad and annotated database of sorts that could serve teachers and students alike. And serve American Humor. But there is no getting around the fact that such an enterprise forces limitations. I always tell students (in all courses) that I could easily put together multiple sections of the course without duplicating anything. That is not to intimidate them with the frightful power of my brain (that comes later); it is merely to confess up front that I am playing a bit of a shell game. Generally, they don’t mind. They embrace my “less is more” philosophy and often suggest an even more streamlined syllabus. Great kids, all around.

So, what should be taught?

I will serve up my neck with a few suggestions and wait for others to respond. I currently teach a course called “American Popular Humor,” and I am quite fond of it. I added the “popular” to be able to focus on works that have enduring and widespread appeal because, first, that interested me; second, it gave me some cover for leaving out works that I had never heard of. That statement has all the marks of a sound decision. I do not offer this as an ideal or even finished course; rather, I include it here simply to provide a reference point.

I divide the course into thirds: 1) prose and performance; 2) film comedy; and 3) situation comedy. Now, you can start being appalled at how much I have already left out simply by stating three general categories. It gets worse.

Here is my list of required material for prose and performance:

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Happy Halloween!

While watching scary movies this weekend, I noticed the similarities between horror and humor: suspense released through an emotional response, expectations build up and often end in surprise, and lots and lots of blood…

*Seven Graveyard Smashes…our own music editor, Matt Powell, on Halloween music.

*Michael Collier’s “All Souls”

*Will Rogers in “The Headless Horsemen

*Halloween on Parks & Rec

*Comic Pumpkins

*Vincent Price and Muppets!

*Halloween music, via Nine Kinds of Pie

*the origin of Halloween traditions

*Werewolf Bar Mitzvah, spooky scary….

*A great version of Poe’s “The Raven” mixing humor and horror.

*Congratulations to the St. Louis Cardinals San Francisco Giants …via funny baseball quotes.

*Finally, some political cartoons  from the past few years, as Halloween tropes are recycled to address new fears and old.

2014

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Politics and the American Sense of Humor

M. THOMAS INGE

 

If incongruity is at the heart of humor and what makes people laugh, as some theorists have maintained, then nowhere is there a greater disparity between the ideal and the real, between the dream and our failure to achieve it, than in American politics.

The democratic system posits higher values than we can live up to—not only life and liberty, but the pursuit of happiness for heaven’s sake!  Not to mention equality, justice, and freedom of speech.  And then there are the politicians entrusted with achieving them.  We still laugh, unfortunately, at Mark Twain’s quip, “There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.”

A gauge of the success of our system is our willingness to make fun of ourselves and celebrate our failures with the horse laugh.  We hold nothing above ridicule—the law, government, religion, or the President—and we seek redress through satire.

Rather than be discouraged, the use of humor encourages us to try again and see if we can’t get it right the next time.  Laughter is a healthy corrective, and it serves to adjust our hopes and expectations to the reality of what’s actually possible in this increasingly precarious world.

Little wonder then that the editorial or political cartoon has been a mainstay in the media of this country from its very founding.  One of the earliest political cartoons to appear in a newspaper was attributed to Benjamin Franklin in the May 9, 1754 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  The crude drawing portrayed a snake cut into separate portions like the states, with the injunction “Unite, or Die,” a warning that political survival in the colonies depended on union and mutual respect.  Not much humor there really, except in the odd choice of the snake, given all its symbolic weight, as the image of the emerging nation.

We would not have truly belletristic writing in America until Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper several decades after the founding of the nation.  One reason for this may have been the fact that the minds of the leading intellectuals were mainly involved in working out the details of the social and political structure of the commonwealth.  Most of the writing, therefore, addressed practical economic and political problems, as well as theological questions.

There did seem to be room for humor however.  As early as 1647 Nathaniel Ward ridiculed what he saw as too much religious tolerance and freedom for women in the colonies in The Simple Cobler of Aggawam.  Almost a century later, Thomas Morton, of Maypole fame, turned the spyglass around in the other direction and made fun of Puritan bigotry in New English Canaan (1737).  Ebenezer Cooke in Maryland laid a comic Hudibrastic curse on the entire new world in The Sot-Weed Factor (1708).

As periodicals and newspapers developed, the columns were promptly filled with humorous essays and satires on the absurdities and pomposities of the emerging social and political classes.  Franklin, the Connecticut Wits, Hugh Henry Breckenridge, Seba Smith, Francis Whitcher, and Marietta Holley were among them, the last two women also having their say.

Soon major schools of humor would emerge in New England and the Old South, which would in turn produce Mark Twain, after whom neither American literature nor humor would ever be the same.  As for political humor, do we have a more profound and funnier statement on the conflict between the individual conscience and the laws of the state than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)?

The example of Twain’s comic accomplishments would inspire many other writers to follow, such as James Thurber,  Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, William Faulkner, Woody Allen, and Garrison Keillor, to name only a few.  A strong strain of humor has persisted in American literature.

But just as surely as these writers were observing and commenting on the national scene and the human condition, so too were the editorial cartoonists in the pages of the newspapers.  Although Franklin and Paul Revere are credited with early political cartoons, it wasn’t until Thomas Nast and Joseph Keppler in the nineteenth century that they became a major force.

Nast’s satiric vision was so penetrating and influential that his cartoons seemed to have an effect on national affairs.  One of his Civil War drawings is credited with assuring Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, and his unrelenting attacks on Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies contributed to his downfall and imprisonment.

Although few would have such direct influence, many notable comic artists would follow Tweed’s path into political cartooning as a profession, such as Rollin Kirby, Jay “Ding” Darling, Herbert L. Block (Herblock), Bill Mauldin, Patrick Oliphant, Paul Conrad, and Jeff MacNelly.

Do readers pay attention?  Sometimes with startling results.  While mostly readers respond with letters of complaint, in 1987 a reader was so incensed with a cartoon by Tony Auth in the Philadelphia Inquirer that he broke into his office, trashed it, and warned that if it wasn’t for his religion and humanity, he would have killed the cartoonist.

More recently, in the January 29, 2006 issue of the Washington Post, a cartoon by Tom Toles criticized statements about the war in Iraq by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld through use of a symbolic figure of an American soldier who has lost both arms and legs.

A dew days later, on February 7, the Post published a letter attacking the cartoon as “callous” and “reprehensible” signed by the Chairman and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the only time in memory that a single letter had been signed by all five members for any purpose, much less a cartoon.  The letter did not address the political point of the drawing but only the use of the amputee figure as “beyond tasteless.”

On the same day as the cartoon by Toles appeared in the Post, the pages of the newspaper carried the first story about what would prove to be the most profound and powerful response to a cartoon in history, what has become known as the Danish cartoon incident.

A daily Danish newspaper had published on September 30, 2005, twelve cartoons criticizing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad as a test of freedom of speech, the editor understanding that Islamic tradition forbade any pictorial portrayal of the prophet as a hedge against idolatry.  He may also have understood that any ridiculing of the prophet, as had been demonstrated by Salman Rushdie’s lampoon of him in Satanic Verses, would constitute blasphemy deserving of the death sentence.

Protests, demands for an apology from the editor and the Danish government, and legal complaints were lodged for a year by Muslim groups before it erupted into an international furor.  Danish embassies were closed in Muslim countries, boycotts against Danish trade and products were instituted, and riots broke out in several countries leaving many injured and a considerable number dead.

Editors in the United States and abroad who chose to reprint the cartoons were accused of inciting further violence, while those who did not were condemned for giving in to repressive pressure to gag freedom of speech.  A few resigned or lost their jobs.

However, such radical responses as these are rare in the history of the political cartoon.  Mainly the drawings serve the same function as does all successful humor in providing a useful reality check.  Walt Kelly, former editorial cartoonist and creator of the popular political comic strip Pogo, once put it best: “Humor should not be regarded as the sweetening around a sour pill.  It is something that clears the air, makes life more real, and therefore less frightening.”

 

 

Copyright © M. Thomas Inge