Category Archives: Founding Fathers

The Changing Nature of Political Satire

By Larry Bush

On the NPR radio show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” they discussed the origin of the folk rhyme, “Georgie Porgie.”  Since WWDTM is a humorous news wrap-up, they gave the origin of the rhyme the most licentious interpretation they could find.  Their conclusion about the rhyme is that it is about the sexual relationship between George Villiers and King Charles I.  Although this interpretation is reinforced by some researchers and disputed by others, there is a strong likelihood that the subject of the rhyme is George Villiers and that it originated in the late 16th or early 17th centuries In England.  The verse has appeal to children because the subject is named with a forced rhyme in the same manner as the term “heebie jeebies” has an appeal because of the forced rhyme.  But, if there were a 21st century U. S. president who was a closeted gay man, would that person be subject to ridicule or are we beyond that?  I think any ridicule in the 21st century would be directed at those who criticize a gay person’s sexual orientation.

A similar occurrence is in U. S. history.  In 1802, James T. Callender revealed to the world that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’s children.  Callender made jokes about the little slaves at Monticello that looked like miniature versions of the President.  That joke and similar stories went viral, or as viral as could be in the early 19th century.  While Jefferson denied the relationship and Hemings was mute on the issue, DNA testing has shown that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Hemings’s children.  Again, jokes about inter-racial relationships have gone on the wane over the last few decades, but jokes about unequal relationships have not.  Should Jefferson have taken the heat because Hemings was younger and black or because he, literally, owned her?  Jefferson was a widower when he was alleged to have had the relationship with Hemings, but it was illegal for a white person to marry a black person in Virginia in the early 1800s.  If they had wanted to pursue their relationship on more equal grounds, they could not have legally done that.

This month, another sensitive situation has turned into fodder for humorists.  Liz Cheney is running for the Senate in Wyoming, and one of the planks in her platform is her steadfast opposition to same-sex marriage.  Well, it would be steadfast if she had not attended the same-sex wedding of her sister Mary and wished them well.  Since Liz has dissed same-sex marriage, Mary Cheney has gone on a campaign of her own—to point out the hypocrisy of her sister’s campaign.  It has caused some very public tension.  The fact of Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation also haunted her father, Dick Cheney, while he was Vice President, but the Veep was able to change the subject merely by shooting his hunting partner in the face.  Actually, like Jefferson, Dick Cheney refuses to talk about family, and to this point, he has refused to say much about the controversy in his daughter’s electoral campaign, but that has not stopped the humorists.  Apparently this is fair game.  I have seen no editorials chastising humorists about their treatment of the Cheney feud.  Perhaps, if it were happening in a less prominent family, it would seem more tragic, but the former second family is going to take it from the outside as they slam one another on the inside.

Following are two of my favorite Cheney sisters political cartoons:

Cheney sisters 2

Cheney Sisters

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

The Mount Rushmore of Mount Rushmores

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.”

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Humor as Ridicule: The Case of UVa

Tracy Wuster

Virginia Sullivan Dragas(Larger version below)

Like many people in academia, I have been intensely interested in the recent events at the University of Virginia.  For those who don’t know the story, this might be a place to start.  There has been a lot of good commentary on the Board of Visitors surprise and controversial decision to oust the popular president–serious commentary, deep thought, insightful introspection.

All very interesting and important.  But what has struck me, in my capacity as editor of this blog, is the humor.  Friends at UVa and at other schools have posted several pieces of satire aimed at the Board of Visitors and their decision.  This is not good-natured humor, or subtle humor; it is attack humor–humor aimed at immediate change.  Superiority humor: laughing at people and encouraging others to do so by making fun of them.

Kieran Healy’s “Declaration of Independence” (published June 20th) certainly fits this mold.  Read the whole thing, but here is a taste:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Universities are endowed by their Donors with certain unalienable Goals, that among these are Strategy, Dynamism, and the pursuit of some sort of Online Degree delivered via the Interwebs,—That to secure these goals, Presidents are appointed, deriving their just powers from the half-baked ideas of idle Billionaires,—That whenever any University President becomes destructive of these Goals, it is the Right of the BoV to institute a new President, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect Strategy, Dynamism, and Strategic Dynamism.

Healy, a sociology professor at Duke, certainly captured the phrase that will undoubtedly become a punchline in academic circles: “strategic dynamism.”

Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at UVa, joined in by providing a written evaluation of the work of the Rector and Vice-Rector (hint: it’s not a good grade).  Here is the introduction (read the whole thing here):

Dear Ms. Dragas & Mr. Kington:

I’m writing to let you know your grade for the Digital Learning Project, as part of your larger grade as Rector and Vice Rector. I wish I brought better news.

On the bright side, let me complement you on your font choice and the formatting of your emails. Further, they feature some unusual words, and a spirit of verve throughout.

But I’m afraid these bright spots pale in comparison to the problems: an immature analysis brought on by terribly shallow research.

More below:

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In the Archives: Fart Proudly by Benjamin Franklin (1781)

Benjamin Franklin

Editor’s Note:  Written around 1781, this piece is one of the classics of flatulence humor.  Also called “A Letter to the Royal Academy” and “To the Royal Academy of Farting,” the piece was written in response to a call for scientific papers by the Royal Academy of Brussels.  Never submitted, Franklin printed the piece and distributed it to friends.  It was long suppressed on collections of Franklin’s writings, although it is discussed in a popular biography and included in the Library of America collection of Franklin’s writings.

And if you like humor on farting from eminent Americans, check out Mark Twain’s “1601,” which is the dirtiest piece of Mark Twain’s writing to see the light of day.

To the Royal Academy of Farting

 c. 1781
GENTLEMEN,

I have perused your late mathematical Prize Question, proposed in lieu of one in Natural Philosophy, for the ensuing year, viz. “Une figure quelconque donnee, on demande d’y inscrire le plus grand nombre de fois possible une autre figure plus-petite quelconque, qui est aussi donnee”. I was glad to find by these following Words, “l’Acadeemie a jugee que cette deecouverte, en eetendant les bornes de nos connoissances, ne seroit pas sans UTILITE”, that you esteem Utility an essential Point in your Enquiries, which has n

ot always been the case with all Academies; and I conclude therefore that you have given this Question instead of a philosophical, or as the Learned express it, a physical one, because you could not at the time think of a physical one that promis’d greater_Utility.

Benjamin Franklin fart proudly full text

Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious

Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age. It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.

That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.

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