Category Archives: onion

Maya Angelou: “If you don’t laugh, you’ll die…”

Tracy Wuster

All Americans are–or should be–aware of the cultural importance of Maya Angelou in documenting our nation’s history and her own experience through poetry and prose.  I will leave it to other sources to remind us of and to celebrate her contribution to American letters and life.  But here, I want to simply bring forward a few things Angelou said about the importance of humor and laughter that remind us of the importance of joy and laughter in the struggles against bigotry and the efforts to create a meaningful life for ourselves and those we love.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style”

“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.”

“I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one.”

If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love. Don’t be surly at home, then go out in the street and start grinning ‘Good morning’ at total strangers.”

“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”

“The main thing in one’s own private world is to try to laugh as much as you cry.”

“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw some things back.”

“If you don’t laugh, you’ll die… Against the cruelties of life, one must laugh.”

“My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness. Continue to allow humor to lighten the burden of your tender heart.”

And don’t forget Maya Angelou’s short-lived prank show–“I know why the caged bird laughs!”

 

The Onion’s announcement.

See also Laughspin’s tribute. 

WHEN I THINK ABOUT MYSELF 

When I think about myself, 
I almost laugh myself to death, 
My life has been one great big joke, 
A dance that’s walked 
A song that’s spoke, 
I laugh so hard I almost choke 
When I think about myself. 

Sixty years in these folks’ world 
The child I works for calls me girl 
I say “Yes ma’am” for working’s sake. 
Too proud to bend 
Too poor to break, 
I laugh until my stomach ache, 
When I think about myself. 

My folks can make me split my side, 
I laughed so hard I nearly died, 
The tales they tell, sound just like lying, 
They grow the fruit, 
But eat the rind, 
I laugh until I start to crying, 
When I think about my folks.

 

Teaching American Satire: A New Piece for the Classroom from the Onion

It is fun to teach humor. Laughter keeps students awake more effectively than most things. The promise of relief or diversion from the cultural and personal stresses implicit in all humor (and explicit in much of it), to my mind, not only makes for more pleasant classroom discussions but also helps to make those discussions more productive. This I believe.

But I have my doubts when it comes to exploring satire. I have revealed my misgivings in this spot before (Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically); see also Sharon McCoy’s excellent response: Embracing the Ambiguity of Satire).

Within the overall umbrella of my courses on American Humor, satire demands its space, and rightfully so. But it’s harder to get through the material, and methinks many students pick up on my hesitations here and there.  I don’t mind the difficulty factor, it’s the pain of the subject matter that wears me out. The suffering underlying much of humor in general stands foregrounded in satire.  This is the nature of the art form. Satire cannot hide its rage, or its hopelessness, and as a result there is very little room for the pleasant relief of laughter. Satire is rarely funny “ha ha,” or funny “weird.” It’s just painful.

I have just read what I consider to be one of the most engaging pieces of satire on political and cultural intransigence that I have encountered since first reading Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” a work by the American master that is perfect both in its conciseness and its artistic vision.

Image for Twain's War Prayer

Twain’s short piece, which has a stranger translate the prayers of a people on the verge of war, is powerful for its accuracy as a comment on the human capacity for making war in the name of god and its recognition that the commentary is timeless because the war making machine is timeless, and unending. Students will always study it because they will always understand its targets. The Onion has just provided another piece that seems, to me, worthy of being taught alongside Twain’s work.

It is an “Editorial Opinion” that first appeared on August 13, 2013 (Issues 49.33). The title is: “The Onion” Encourages Israel and Palestine Not to Give a Single, Goddamn Inch.”

Announcing New Peace Talks

Here is a link to the article: http://www.theonion.com/articles/the-onion-encourages-israel-and-palestine-not-to-g,33473/

Standing in opposition to “the international community” which has pleaded with the two sides to meet to discuss peace, The Onion satirically asks the sides to remain steadfast and persist in absolutist positions:

“Israelis and Palestinians, you must accept nothing short of total victory against those who threaten your religion and way of life. Sacrificing just one of your ideals would at this point be tantamount to compete and utter failure.”

The writers of The Onion then follow this assertion with details that simply recount the history of the last 60 years (and by implication 2,000 years?) in four concise sentences:

“If a settlement is built, you must attack it. If a settlement is attacked, you must rebuild it. Rocks must be met with bullets; bullets must be met with rocket fire; rocket fire must be met with helicopter assaults. This is the only noble way forward for either side.”

Noble. Forward. The writers know, and readers know, the words “noble” and “forward” serve as the key bits of irony here.  There is nothing noble in the bloodshed, nothing forward looking about continued intransigence.

Building on this sardonic tone, the satire gets heavier and heavier, and the reader wants relief while at the same time knowing that none is forthcoming. As with Twain’s work, the writers are devoted to the point of the satire, which is the grotesque pointlessness of continued aggression. The secondary target of the piece, though, may also be the ever-present demands from the international community to urge the parties to sue for peace. Pointless. I don’t really believe that peace efforts are pointless, by the way, but it seems the accurate thing to say here in the context of The Onion satire, the art. If we are to teach such aggressive and unnerving satire, we must be ready to accept the full brunt of the hopelessness the piece addresses. And thus figure out a way to help students talk about it. I am open to suggestions.

I just know that as I read this, I wanted an outlet, some peek from behind the curtain from the jester. But it is not there because there is no peace ready to peek out from behind any curtains either. The article ends concisely and with a key repetition:

“Remain steadfast. Remain strong. And never give up your noble fight, even if it takes several more generations.”

That, my gentle readers, is first-rate satire. It is exhausting and no fun at all.

Sick Jokes After Newtown: Internet Humor as Media Counter-narrative

A poignant "too soon" joke

A poignant “too soon” joke

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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The Onion and How Comedy Deals with Tragedy (Or Not)

The most famous edition of the satirical newspaper The Onion has to be its 9/11 edition. That issue was also the first that they published after relocating from Madison, Wisconsin, to New York City. The headlines were shocking to a nation that had not yet returned to its usual fare of late night shtick or our then-new love of “reality” television. (Survivor premiered the year before and American Idol began the year after.)

The Onion writers, however, did not leap into addressing the attack with abandon. According to Onion John Krewson, the humorists were stymied until one of them suggested the headline “America Turns into a Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Film,” after which the dam burst and they felt capable of turning a comic eye on a national tragedy.

The Onion 9_11 cover

Knowing this, should we be surprised that The Onion has already covered the horror of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre? Here is a snippet from an article they published on Friday, the very day of the shootings.

The Onion on Newtown

As with 9/11, The Onion attempts to signal their understanding of the seriousness of the situation by employing epithets. Still, there are multiple ways in which The Onion’s response to Newtown differs from their earlier response to 9/11. For one, the fact that the Newtown victims were predominantly children makes for a greater risk of looking like one is taking a light-hearted perspective on the heavy-hearted matter. In addition, The Onion’s response to 9/11 came from New York City itself. And finally, there is the fact of timing. Remember, The Onion actually cancelled the print edition originally scheduled for 9/11, and they issued the above headlines in late September. In today’s online news world, The Onion could respond within hours.

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The Essential Nature of American Laughter

M. Thomas Inge

Editor’s note:  In a little less than one year, the American people will elect a president.  In the past decade, politics has seemed to become much more polarized and impassioned–with the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street as prominent examples.  Politics has also been consistent fodder for humor–with the rise of The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, as well as the continued influence of SNL and The Onion, among a myriad of other humorists commenting on politics and humor.  The interest of readers in the link between humor and politics is evident in the searches people use to find this site and in the consistent popularity of M. Thomas Inge’s piece “Politics and the American Sense of Humor,” which helped inaugurate this site.

In this spirit, Tom has graciously given us permission to post another piece.  Enjoy.

 

The Essential Nature of American Laughter

M. Thomas Inge

            For one brief moment in our history, it seemed that there was no humor in the land–September 11, 2001.  For the next few days, no jokes were passed among friends on the internet.  The New Yorker published no cartoons in its issue that week for the first time since Hiroshima and shrouded its cover in black.  Dave Barry announced to his readers, “No humor column today.  I don’t want to write it, and you don’t want to read it.”

Editorial cartoonists, caught with no time for reflection, traded in their wit and caricature for outrage and cliché and produced multiple images of the Statue of Liberty or Uncle Sam weeping or averting their faces from the carnage.  The irreverent weekly newspaper, The Onion, cancelled its next edition.  The David Letterman and Jay Leno shows went into reruns, and the comedy clubs closed down.  Even Gary Trudeau in Doonesbury declared his favorite target, George W. Bush, off-limits.  Comedy writers and performers gathered at a symposium on “Humor in Unfunny Times” in New York to discuss what their function should be at a time when the nation was racked by grief.  Several public intellectuals declared that irony, sarcasm, and comic cynicism had died in a country that has prided itself on its caustic sense of humor.  Finally permission to laugh came when mayor Rudolph Guiliani appeared on Saturday Night Live, along with New York police, fire, and rescue personnel.  After an opening tribute, the show’s director, Lorne Michaels, asked the mayor, “Can we be funny?” Guiliani quipped, “Why start now?”

This was a defining moment in our history, because Americans have always placed a high value on their ability to laugh.  William Faulkner once noted that “We have one priceless universal trait, we Americans.  That trait is our humor.”  Americans are thought to have a special sense of humor that often features exaggeration and hyperbole.  But our sense of humor has a direct link to our political system, what Robert Penn Warren once called a “burr under the metaphysical saddle of America.”

Comedy is encouraged by our democratic system because we have posited higher ideals than we can reach, but rather than berate ourselves, we engage in self-ridicule as a safety valve.  It is the incongruity between the ideal and the real, between the dream and the failure to achieve it, to which most American humor is addressed.  Has there ever been a time when we would not laugh at Mark Twain’s statement, that “there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress”?

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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

Halloween political cartoons 6970cf983d30e7e4962f8a71a43ee176f869250e 155447_600 155543_600 155561_600 155582_600 B1NJ0NWIAAAsybq.jpg-large Ebola-Quarantine halloween-cartoon-09 halloween-linus-great-pumpkin-political-cartoon halloween-political-cartoon-isis-ebola-scares halloween-political-cartoon-obama-halloween-candy halloween-political-cartoon-scaring-children halloween razorblades3

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2011

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“Happy Birthday” and “Productination,” together at last

Happy Birthday and Good Morning to Pee Wee Herman, fifty-eight years young.

(I don’t make monkeys, I only train them…)

“Work” to help you avoid “work”:

Productination

the managing editor.

productive + procrastination = productination: a collection of links about humor to spend your time not working in a semi-productive manner.

Feel free to send me articles or to post them in the comments.

Productination

Tracy Wuster.

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 wustert@gmail.com or add a comment to the post.

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