Let me propose that American literary humor, in becoming modern, branched in two during the Great Depression. On one side are absurd, language-driven vignettes, short magazine pieces ranging from whimsical to surreal where the narrator tries to make sense of, or at least describe, a crackpot world. This strand was largely created and mainly defined by S.J. Perelman, whose comic genius engendered two of the Marx Brothers’ best movies, Monkey Business (1931) and Horsefeathers (1932), and a steady stream of brilliant short pieces for (mainly) The New Yorker.
The other branch trades in black comic predicaments of grotesque dysfunction: a ridiculous overabundance of misery, of mental and physical illness and often absurd violence. Laughter here is defensive: relief at seeing something so horrible happen to someone else. This strain was best, and arguably first, articulated by Nathanael West, author of the superb short novels Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), who was, funny enough, Perelman’s brother-in-law.
In Perelman’s camp we find his older contemporaries, James Thurber and Robert Benchley, neither of whom had the idiomatic snap, that aggrieved brilliance and fine timing, that Perelman gave the form. Woody Allen and David Sedaris are his natural heirs, along with—in the sillier episodes with his oddly-named characters—Thomas Pynchon.
West’s example, heaping outlandish misery upon uncomprehending and helpless characters, has gained more followers: among the most notable being Joseph Heller (whose Catch-22 only gained wide recognition after Perelman praised it), Stanley Elkin, and David Foster Wallace.
And though West’s own work has never quite overcome the cult status given it following his untimely 1940 death, his artistry is now acknowledged, his works collected in a Library of America edition in 1997. The Day of the Locust may still be our best novel about Hollywood, made into a major 1975 film directed by John Schlesinger, starring Donald Sutherland and Karen Black, and creating, in one of its characters, a hopeless dope named Homer Simpson.
It seems to me that the timing is right for an unapologetically mercenary post that plays with both my innate passion for making lists and my desire for starting arguments. This means that this post will be more self-indulgent than usual. –how can that be?
Here is what I propose: a three-part series that argues not for the twenty-five most important American film comedies but, more specifically, the twenty-five most important American film comedy scenes as represented by screenshots. By “important,” I mean “iconic,” “seminal,” “best,” “most hilarious,” “provocative,” or, in other words, “my favorites.” They should be yours, too.
I intend to start with 7 screenshots that indicate essential comedic moments in American film history in this the first of three posts on the topic. I hope to encourage others to chime in with their favorites by commenting on this post and, ideally, including links or files with the screenshots they suggests. I will follow in subsequent posts with the growing list.
For now, the images are not ranked or presented in any order other than my impulses as I think of them or run through my library of screenshots. In the end, I may try to rank them just for the hell of it.
Here are the first seven:
From Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In perhaps one of the most iconic moments in film comedy history, the Tramp is consumed by the industrial machine but continues to perform his job. It is a concise but cogent statement of class tensions and the perils of the “factory worker” caught in the cogs of industrialism. It is so iconic that one cannot talk about it without puns and symbolic flourishes. See above.
From Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. This first appearance of Clark Gable’s torso provides more than the titillation that such a statement implies. The scene is a remarkable and intricate power struggle between two formidable performers in a comedic gem. The scene, the film as a whole for that matter, would go one to influence the romantic comedy formula to this day. If he had only tried a similar approach to Scarlett.
From the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers. This is a shot from the big finale scene wherein everybody gets on stage like the closing of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards show–lots of folks on the stage but with only a few who do anything worthwhile. In this case, that is fine because it is the Marx brothers who demand the attention in every scene. This scene demonstrates the wonderful comic interplay between the brothers but also mocks the pretensions of respectable society and the smug coziness of the officer’s advice to the subversive Harpo.
From Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. This panoramic shot of the big board and the big table captures a more elaborate scene that the other screenshots selected. It is meant to imply the entire sequence of the power brokers at work to save the world–or at least themselves. In short this shot cuts to the core of all American satire by implicating the inherent horror of a star chamber, no matter how comic.
From Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. This is the money shot–well, that sounds wrong. What I mean is that this shot has its own iconic status and provides the core symbol for both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the film. The triangulating power of Mrs. Robinson’s leg, and little big man Benjamin trying to keep up.
From Harold Ramis’s Caddyshack. No apologies for this one. This shot is from arguably the most concise illustration of the American dream at work in the mind of an inherent loser. Yes, Cinderella is the most American of the European fairy tales. He is the working man dreaming of a Masters championship when all he will end up with is more work replacing the flowers he is destroying.
From The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. This shot is a shot within a shot. The McDonnoughs try to record for posterity their new family portrait, complete with their freshly stolen child. “It’s about to pop, honey.” As we say in the business, this is funny.
Please send suggestions for other essential screenshots via comments to this post.
I have a friend who takes Saint Patrick’s Day very seriously. His extended family gathers on the weekend nearest March 17 to trade sarcasms and drink alcohol. They boil meat on the Massachusetts shoreline, and balance small talk with cruel reminders of past grievances until whiskey favors one end of the scales. Still, the older members of the clan can cover up scandal, debating sports while training the next generation in table games using root beer instead of the hopped variety for everyone under age. But what is under age? It’s up to them. Pretty standard for Jews.
Not really. They’re Irish. Of course they’re Irish. I’m Irish too, but not that Irish. None of us are Jewish, but the contradiction in ethnic stereotypes makes it funny, and necessary to present my title here instead of above: The Jewish Comic and the Irish Muse. Anything sooner would’ve altered the chemistry of the anecdote, and like a good bartender, a storyteller must know the order of ingredients to deliver their greatest effect, and repeat when necessary. Make it a double.
College football has always been funny. From the inherent cartoonish comedy of young men dressed in animal costumes roaming the sidelines (to be clear, I mean the mascots) to the more nuanced ironies and absurdities surrounding conference realignments. How many schools can be in the Big 10? It’s all very funny stuff for a wide range of comedic interests. And all very American.
Many categories and characteristics and contexts of comedy could be offered up as the most definitive of American culture and its traditions, but surely one of the easiest arguments to make would be in support of placing college football at the top of the list. American college football is, well, exceptional. Of course, we would need a computer system in conjunction with votes from academics and comedic performers to be absolutely sure. And it wouldn’t hurt to have some prime locations for conferences to draw in folks for post-semester debates and parades. But I digress. Here is the fact: college football is an American cultural phenomenon as well as an economic and political, pop-cultural juggernaut that has few rivals as a forum and catalyst for American humor year after year. Disappointed in the overall quality and quantity of humor based on and derived from college football this year? Wait until next year! And don’t forget the off-season–just ask Bobby Petrino.
In celebration of the BCS championship game this evening (January 7), I thought I would simply cull together a few exceptional links to humor built around the cultural obsession that is college football. This, at the very least, should suggest many more possible choices, and I hope others will build on this modest beginning.
Let’s start with two examples of the earliest use of football as fodder for physical humor from masters of the art form: The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.
The Marx Brothers’ film Horse Feathers (1932) takes on higher education in general as its target of respectability in this film. The plot revolves around corruption of college football via the recruiting of illegal players to win games. Imagine that! Fortunately, such things do not occur anymore, but it was certainly common enough in the 1930s for the Marx Brothers to use it for a running joke (that’s a college football pun).
Few artists create something so wholly original that they themselves become their own genre. This is certainly true of the Marx Brothers. The family of Jewish immigrant entertainers came from the vaudeville stage tradition – which included sight gags, one-liners, and musical and dance numbers – yet the brothers remain utterly unique, even among the vast variety inherent in vaudeville. There is a certain serendipity in these geniuses developing their craft at a pivotal moment in emerging media. The Marx Brothers were able to perfectly bridge an old-fashioned stage routine with the relatively newer medium of talking film, bringing an otherwise antiquated form of entertainment into the modern age seamlessly.
Part of their genius lies in their audacity, and it is the manic chaos they created that keeps their work from becoming dated. The films were made mostly in the 1930’s and 1940’s although, other than the occasional plot device, the gags are almost sui generis, entirely detached from any current outside events or influences. By creating these exaggerated characters, and playing them consistently in each film, they create their own world, which can be picked up and dropped into any time and any place. This creates a timelessness to their work and is the reason the films still play just as well today as ever. Part of this success was the fortuitous timing of talking films, but only these four brothers possessed the right kind of mad genius and grounded talent to have seized upon it so well.
The brothers were essentially born into show business, and were each musical from the start. In fact, their original act (including brother Gummo, who soon quit to fight in World War I) was primarily a musical one. Billed, in various incarnations, as The Four Nightingales or The Six Mascots, they played theaters, concert halls and other venues throughout the country as a vocal group. In response to audience behavior and events outside one particular venue Groucho began to incorporate off the cuff one-liners into their act, which immediately became more popular with audiences than the act itself. Eventually, the brothers morphed from a musical act with occasional comedy into a comedy act with occasional music. The Marx Brothers formula as we now know it was born, as was the classic line-up of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo.
Musical numbers remained a constant element of the formula. Groucho was an accomplished guitarist, studying the instrument for most of his life. But Groucho’s contribution to the musical numbers in the films was mostly as a comedic vocalist. He did not demonstrate the flashy virtuosity of Chico’s piano or Harpo’s harp, but his numbers became centerpieces of the films and some of the most memorable moments.
Two of his best-known numbers appear as a medley in 1930’s Animal Crackers, where Groucho plays the famed Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding.
One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know.
“Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray For Captain Spaulding” create a mock grand musical number complete with company chorus that heralds the arrival and celebrates the exploits of the famed African explorer. As always, Groucho’s unique dance moves are as graceful as they are ridiculous.
This fact I emphasize with stress,
I never take a drink unless –
I hate a dirty joke I do
Unless it’s told by someone who –
Knows how to tell it.
The Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg penned “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” from 1939’s At the Circus became one of Groucho’s signature songs, and one which he continued to sing for the remainder of his life at appearances. (The occasional songwriting team of Arlen and Harburg wrote several songs together, most notably “Over the Rainbow.”) Continue reading →
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:
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.”
On this day in 1895, songwriter Harry Ruby was born. In 1920, he teamed up with lyricist Bert Kalmar and they collaborated until Kalmar’s death in 1947; writing some of the cleverest and most enduring standards in the history of Vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood.
If you were here, I’d channel “The Drowsy Chaperone” and play Harry Ruby songs until the wee hours of the morning. Today, we’ll share just one– a personal favorite from the many they wrote for the Marx Brothers.
In this clip from the 1934 comedy “Horse Feathers,” eccentric Professor Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) serenades beautiful Connie (Thelma Todd) at a graceful pace now lost to the ravages of time. The song, “Everyone Says I Love You” is reprised in the film as each Marx Brother performs his own rendition. In 1996 it was the title song of a cinematic musical written and directed by Woody Allen.
Thank you, Harry and Bert. . . wherever you are. . .
The complete list of Harry Ruby song titles is available for perusal at your leisure and many more audio and video recordings can be found online.
The portmanteau is one of my favorite forms of humor in everyday life. I combine words constantly around the house. Sometimes the result is humorous; sometimes it only causes my wife to laugh at me. But one portmanteau has found its way into my everyday lexicon and spread to friends and family: productination = productive + procrastination.
Never does doing the dishes, filing paperwork, or writing a blog post sound as good as when one has a deadline for an essay, or even better, a stack of papers to grade. In this spirit, we will offer a regular feature of articles and links on humor-related topics to allow you to productinate when you have better things to do. If you have links of articles or sites to look at, please email me at email@example.com or add a comment to the post.
- A brief article on Tina Fey and women in comedy
- The continued intrigue of Dave Chappelle
- A review of Twain’s autobiography and other recent books on Twain
- A review of a book on seriousness, the reputed opposite of the humorous
- On William Cowper, wit, and poetry by Robert Pinsky
- A nice reading of a Marx Brothers scene
- Onion article of the week