Category Archives: Memes
Mark Twain’s “Literary Nightmare” (1876), published in the Atlantic Monthly, represents an early example of a “viral” piece of popular culture. The “Viral Text” project at Northeastern University is tracing 19th-century newspaper stories as they circulated, and “A Literary Nightmare” might be a unique example–being a story about a viral text–in this case, a poem–and its infectious effects, which in turn helped spread the original poem, Mark Twain’s story about it, and the very genre of poetry across the nation and, possibly, around the world. The story even inspired a song. And was being discussed as late as 1915.
The poem presented the key example of “horse-car poetry” that enjoyed a brief vogue as popular doggerel. A discussion of the phenomenon of “horse-car poetry” was printed in Record of the Year, A Reference Scrap Book: Being the Monthly Record of Important Events Worth Preserving, published by G. W. Carleton and Company in 1876. The story, beginning on page 324, details how a New York rail line posted a placard on fares that became a poetic sensation, leading to Mark Twain’s use of the lines in his story. The phenomenon of “horse-car poetry” then, according to the Record of the Year, spread to other cities and countries, causing an “epidemic” that aroused passions and even violence. The Record of the Year contains one story of a woman literally possessed by the sketch, reading in part:
The entire scene is worth reading at the link above.
Mark Twain’s extended comic sketch details the hypnotic, yet meaningless, power of humorous writing to infect one’s mind like a virus. Entitled “A Literary Nightmare” (February 1876), Twain’s piece starts with a verse of poetry:
“Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare
Punch, brothers punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”
These lines, the narrator “Mark” writes, “took instant and entire possession of me.” For days, the only thing in his mind are the lines of verse—they keep him from his work, wreck his sleep, and turn him into a raving lunatic singing “punch brothers punch…” After several days of torture, he sets out on a walk with his friend, a Rev. Mr. ——- (presumably his good friend Rev. Joe Twichell). After hours of silence, the Reverend asks the narrator what the trouble is, and Mark tells him the story, teaching him the lines of the jingle. Instantly, the narrator puts the verse out of his mind. The Reverend, on the other hand, has “got it” now.
You can read the sketch in its entirety below.
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.
Mark Twain was a hairy dude. We have always known this. His unruly shock of hair balanced by the tire brush of a mustache gave us all the information we needed. The man could grow hair. Now we all also know without a doubt hat he had one hairy chest. The image above has enjoyed (endured) a recent viral spread on the web. Type in “shirtless Mark Twain,” and you will find somewhere around 137,000 hits.
The image has appeared in the last couple of weeks on npr.org under the title “Book News: Even Mark Twain Has A Shirtless Picture on the Internet”:
The Daily Beast also includes the photo in a spread called “Shirtless Mark Twain and Other Naked Writers.” It includes among others, by the way, Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway (guess which one is holding a shotgun):
Likewise, The Huffington Post joins in with a short piece titled simply “Mark Twain, Shirtless (PHOTO):
The story implies that the picture was discovered or revealed by Open Culture, a website dedicated to providing open-source educational content. The picture has in no way been hidden, however, and has been rather easily available. This recent run of online postings has nonetheless created a new and energetic life on the web that cannot be denied. It thus feels like a new thing for most viewers and a big surprise for most.
In the reader comments below the Huffington Post image, the depth of analysis seems rather typical:
“Anyone think he kinda looks like Mario?”
“Looks like Tom Selleck in the video pic”
“Pretty decent bod. Harkens back to the day when people walked everywhere, chopped their own wood and did many other physical labors that we no longer feel the need or don’t have to do any longer. He probably didn’t go to the gym every day.”
That’s true, Twain rarely went to the local Gold’s Gym more than two or three times a week. But I do agree that Twain did chop wood for his family at the log cabin in Hartford, CT. That experience helped him to create an appealing public persona that would later be crucial to his election as President of the United States, you know, the one that starred in that recent movie. But I digress.
Matthew Daube’s recent piece pointed out The Onion‘s unique role in responding to tragic events like those in Newtown a few weeks ago. As he notes, the satirical newspaper, while performing comic bravery, still tempers its rhetoric with regard to stories of this nature. But while The Onion has built a reputation as a comedic first responder to tragedies of this nature, it is neither alone nor does it come close to showing the limits of “too soon” humor. Internet forums dedicated to sick humor offer limit cases in both speed and offensiveness. In this way, they offer a discourse that rebels against the framing offered by news coverage.
When tragedy strikes, American popular media tend to follow a script of information gathering, round-the-clock coverage, memorializing, and a tentative return to normal. Visual and audio cues like minor-key music and still photographs offer an emotive frame that distinguishes such events as more tragic and unique than the conventionally bad news that springs from war zones and more economically depressed areas. Eventually, dramatic fare – from films like Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) or Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) as well as television shows like Third Watch and American Horror Story engage with these events in ways that, while perhaps taking unique angles, more or less reinforce the dominant framing of these events as sacred moments of collective trauma.
Comedic responses to such events tend to be more dynamic and varied. Because of its temporality, wider range of generic registers, and many other reasons, television comedies tend to engage with such events more than does cinema. And television varies widely in this regard. While sick jokes about the Challenger explosion in 1986 certainly existed, my research has yet to uncover any such humor on television. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, David Letterman’s famous return episode, while somber, offered moments of cautious, comforting humor. After some more time, South Park offered a mix of patriotic and critical humor, pointing the way towards more politically daring humor as well as those designed more purely to evoke laughing offense.
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In other news, we have an open slot for a day shortly before the election, and I was hoping to post a sampling of the best political humor of the political season. What I need from you is an email with nominations–what humor (cartoons, TV satire, internet meme, video, commentary, joke, tweet, etc.) was your favorite or was most interesting in how humor and politics interact. Please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the meantime, here is one nomination, from Joss Whedon, on Romney and Zombies:
Like many entitled victims in America, I woke up on Thursday morning and didn’t go to work. Sure, technically Thursday is the only day that I don’t have to be at any of my three jobs. Okay, and sure, maybe I was a little hung over from attempting to reach across the aisle and take a bipartisan approach to the debate drinking game the night before (which, like voting itself, I now realize is something for which you really have to choose just one candidate), but Thursday morning I was at home, partially caffeinated, and immediately online with the hope of un-drowning my sorrows in a little debate humor. Because the candidates themselves didn’t exactly bring the laughs. Obama’s opening bit about his anniversary got a chuckle, to which Romney replied rabidly with what felt like the only words that he had not literally committed to memory, and which ended up being almost exactly the same joke that Obama told, and which somehow got a bigger laugh. A little later on, Obama said something about Donald Trump not liking to think about himself as “small anything,” which I think I misinterpreted at the time as way more risqué than it turns out to have been. (And to which I may or may not have shouted “Oh snap!” Like I said: drinking.)
The debate itself was a mess. Romney all up in Obama’s business, Obama pusillanimous and punching-baggy, Lehrer a tired daffodil trampled underfoot. And although Romney never seemed to not be smiling eerily (which Stephen Colbert noticed as well), the occasion wasn’t actually all that fun. Fortunately, Twitter was paroxysmal with activity, much of it absolutely incisive or congressionally incoherent. At one point, the words “Big Bird” were being tweeted at a rate of 17,000 tweets per minute. The beloved creature’s renewed popularity, however, comes at the expense of his own future demise: under a Romney administration, Sesame Street would be out on the street. The response was swift and frequently pretty hilarious.
Here, then, are some of the
debate highlights mid- to post-debate cartoons, memes, and tweets. It’s worth noting, of course, that the widespread attention to Romney’s remarks about Big Bird is distracting at best, particularly in light of more pressing national concerns and especially considering that Sesame Street is pretty much technically immune to whatever puppet death panel the Republican nominee had in mind.
Although it’s safe to assume that the explosion of Twitter accounts putatively penned by “Big Bird” are in fact the work of well-meaning and often not-exactly-SFW imposters, SNL was able to secure a guest appearance by the bird himself a few nights later:
And rounding out our selection on Big Bird is a cartoon by Cameron Cardow that would later play out almost literally in real-life; in a televised interview with Piers Morgan, Republican non-nominee Rick Santorum reinforced his own stance on the value of public broadcasting, adding that it is entirely possible to both kill and eat the things that you love.
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.