Category Archives: seriousness

Risk vs. Reward: When are Jokes too Risky?

The “reward” for humor is obvious—the payback for the humorist is when the audience laughs. The payback for the audience is also the laugh—it brightens an otherwise difficult day, relaxes as the laughter happens, and lets an audience leave the show, piece, or joke a bit happier than they were before. However, being the humorist is not without risk. What induces laughter in one person can offend another—this has been the legacy of humor since ancient times. Thus, those to whom humor is a profession must walk a fine line between taking a risk and reaping a reward.

Mark Twain found this out during his Whittier Birthday speech, delivered on 17 December 1877. In the speech, he told a story about four drunken miners whom he described such that without doubt, the characters referred to Whittier, the guest of honor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—often described as the “Boston Brahmins.” The joke fell through, and Twain was embarrassed by the reactions of the audience and the public when the speeches were published in the Boston Globe the following day. The Cincinnati Commercial asserted that Twain “lacked the instincts of a gentleman,” and even in the less conservative West the Rocky Mountain News called the speech “offensive to every intelligent reader.” Twain published an abject apology a week later, and even after 25 years the criticism still stung. Sometimes parodying a cultural icon is just too risky.

Twain’s 1877 faux pas illustrates just how difficult it is to gauge an audience’s reaction to material that the artist considers humorous. At this year’s Modern Language Association in Vancouver, three fine presenters delivered papers on the topic of “Comic Dimensions and Variety of Risk.” Jennifer Santos read her paper on Holocaust jokes in Epstein’s King of the Jews, Roberta Wolfson presented on the Canadian television show, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and John Lowe read his essay on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Each presenter focused the talk on reception of the humor and the acceptable amount of risk a comedian or humorist can take and still reap the “reward” of laughter. Aside from hearing three wonderful examinations on a variety of humorous subjects, this panel generated discussion of the broader issue of risk versus reward every purveyor of humor must determine for any written or spoken performance. Who is allowed to joke about possibly sensitive events? From whom are we willing to accept a joke that takes a risk of offending?

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Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

Humor in America

Those of us who study humor, and I would think that many people in general, have spent a lot of time the past few days thinking and reading about the meanings of the Charlie Hebdo Massacre in France.  We have collected here a number of the articles, cartoons, videos, and other pieces that have been helpful and/or provocative, although this list is in no way exhaustive.  Feel free to add suggestions in the comments.

*The Onion’s brilliant piece on the fear of publishing anything on this subject.  Also, this and this from the Onion.

*A few cartoons  from the last week: Tom Tomorrow, Khalid Albaih, the Atlantic Monthly,

*And more collections here and here and  (and why the media should pay cartoonists here).

*Joe Sacco’s provocative cartoon “On Satire“: “In fact, when we draw a line, we are often crossing one too.  Because lines on paper are a weapon, and satire is meant to cut to the bone.  But whose bone?  What exactly is the target?”

*Ruben Bolling of “Tom the Dancing Bug” “IN NON-SATIRICAL DEFENSE OF CHARLIE HEBDO”

*The Daily Show on the tragedy.

*Ted Rall, “Political Cartooning is almost worth dying for.”“Which brings me to my big-picture reaction to yesterday’s horror: Cartoons are incredibly powerful.

Not to denigrate writing (especially since I do a lot of it myself), but cartoons elicit far more response from readers, both positive and negative, than prose. Websites that run cartoons, especially political cartoons, are consistently amazed at how much more traffic they generate than words. I have twice been fired by newspapers because my cartoons were too widely read — editors worried that they were overshadowing their other content.”

*Unmournable Bodies, by Teju Cole:  “But it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal.”

*”Charlie Hebdo is Heroic and Racist” by Jordan Weissmann.  “So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. We should be able to keep both of these realities in our minds at once, but it seems like we can’t.”

*Were Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons racist?  This says yes.  This provides much needed context on the difficult question of cultural norms. NYT on the context of Charlie Hebdo and French satire. Some explanation of some of the controversial Charlie Hebdo covers.  And more context on the satire of the magazine.

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In the Archives: Edgar Allan Faux (1877 then 1845)

EAP1

They say humor is based on timing. Yes, as is everything else. Ask Elisha Gray about telephone patents. I was plugging along, working on a piece about the comedian Dana Gould, and still figuring out when I would finish writing about Mark Twain and the German language, when an article in my local newspaper caught my attention:

“Dead Poets Society founder visits 300th grave”

The fact that there’s an actual Dead Poets Society prompts visions of Ethan Hawkes’s teeth and an involuntary desire to kill Robert Sean Leonard. Swallowing my bile I learned that the current founder, Walter Skold of Freeport (Maine), has visited the gravesites of 300 poets “ahead of this weekend’s fourth annual Dead Poets Remembrance Day.”

What is “Dead Poets Remembrance Day”? Apparently, “with the help of 13 current and past state poets laureate,” Skold was able to dedicate October 7—“the day that Edgar Allan Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born—to heightening public awareness of the art of poetry.

The article posted October 5. That was Saturday. Making the actual memorial day a Monday. Today. My day to submit. So in honor of dead poets everywhere (and as one who writes the occasional verse and considers the artform dead, and therefore all practitioners the undead) let us examine the two poets tied to this day. What the article does not share is an appreciation for not just the day, but the year. On October 7, 1849, as Edgar Allan Poe lay dying of possibly drunken Rabies in a Baltimore medical college, James Whitcomb Riley was borning in Greenfield, Indiana.

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The Timelessness of Satirical Art: Charlie Brown’s Football

While leafing through Herblock On All Fronts, a book of editorial cartoons by Herbert Block, I was struck by one cartoon in particular that was published on February 18, 1976, but resonates today. In it, Block uses Peanuts comic strip characters as an analogy of a political challenge during that time. He depicts Lucy as the “CIA and FBI” and Charlie Brown as “U. S.” Lucy is holding the football for a roughed up Charlie Brown to kick—again, and says, “Don’t worry. This time you can really trust me.” It was pertinent to politics then, and Jeff Darcy shows that it is pertinent to politics in September 2013 as well.

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Don’t Worry.  This Time You Can Really Trust Me, pen on paper cartoon from Herbert Block, printed on 18 February 1976; rpt. in Herblock on All Fronts (New York 1980) 49.

In 1976, Block was commenting on the illegal wiretaps by FBI agents and its collaborations with the Mafia on certain missions.  Both the CIA and FBI planted false news stories in the media.  Block also decried the efforts of the CIA to spy on American citizens such as Senator Robert Kennedy, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. “as having the same high priority as its intelligence gathering on the Soviet Union and Communist China, according to CIA files” (Block 45).  Referencing Richard Helms, former head of the CIA, Freedom of Information requests have impaired the agency’s ability to do its job, but it is clear that the CIA broke laws and compromised the U. S. Constitution in the name of national security.

In the last fifty years or so since the content to which this cartoon refers transpired, the CIA has managed to get America into even more trouble on the international front.  There have been several coups and murders in Latin America that have been perpetrated wholly or in part by the CIA.  More recently, the CIA led us to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at its disposal.  After years of war and tens of thousands of deaths, America has had to concede that they did not exist.  Now, in 2013, we find that the NSA (another intelligence department) has been illegally spying on Americans.  When it was betrayed by one of its operatives, the agency tells us, “Don’t worry.  This time you can really trust me.”  Like Charlie Brown, Americans are expected to believe the intelligence services as they keep changing their stories, yes, like Lucy who pulls the ball away at the last second—and then rationalizes her actions. Continue reading →

In the Archives: Sprachen Studies (1917 then 1897)

Not Zach Galifianakis

Not Zach Galifianakis, around 1906

So last month, when I recounted the recent Mark Twain Quadrennial, in Elmira, New York, I did not lie to you when I said my last name was a rarity outside of Brazil. But I might’ve misled. I’m not Hispanic. The name, phonetically confusing no matter the accent, originates from a very localized area in the Catholic part of Germany. Before social media made rabble of us all, my immediate network of genetic cognates stretched the length and width of America, but number well under forty (out of 313.9 million Americans without my last name). Once humans began twittering, a search for my surname generates hundreds of Andrés, Rafaels, Guilhermes, Edleides, and Gabriels. All of them write in Portuguese, and the best I can figure populated the Southern Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. Their ancestors did anyway. My ancestors begin with my great-grandfather, his wife, and my grandfather, barely a toddler in 1920, leaving Köln after fighting Americans for the Kaiser in the Great War. He set up his own machine shop outside of Boston, and began a tradition of not passing on family history to the next generation, and so in turn we know very little but apocrypha.

But apocrypha is a start. While we seek a connection with our distant Vaterland, all of us—North and South American—still sit under the shadow of a later holocaust with greater ethical concerns than the mobilized imperial reaction to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. Thankfully, none of us bear any of the guilt, even if there’s always the cinematic suspicion. For those of you too young to remember, Zie Germans were fun adversaries in popular media long after World War II and despite the atrocities committed on their own citizens. Hollywood couldn’t quit them as antagonists until 9/11 made clandestine sleeper cell guerrilla terrorism all the rage. Islamic extremists make for good long-form television, but not epic two-hour cinema. Meanwhile the pomp and circumstance of Nazi regalia still seems a popular attraction. And if the uniform gets a little thread-bare, Hollywood’s costume designers can go back a score and break out the Kaiser’s pointy helmets and Red Baron pilot goggles.

War is Hell

War is Hell

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Wendy Davis: Humorous responses in a time of passionate political debate

Tracy Wuster

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.

wendy davis filibuster cartoon comic

Source

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.

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In the Archives: An Easy Chair in an Uneasy World (1920)

It may be heresy to admit on a website dedicated to American humor that I find great relief in the British variant. Since I first learned of knights who say Ni! I’ve thoroughly appreciated heady concepts wrapped in silly nonsense. I have even found principles to incorporate in my general code of conduct, for instance, in Douglas Adams’s lesser known Dirk Gently detective series, Adams introduces the concept of zen navigation.

“I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere that I needed to be.” You’d be amazed the liberty one feels at discovering the correct destination when relieved of plotting the course. Such was the case for this week’s submission to the Archives.

Quite often we hear the careless expression “In the wake of…” and understand the causality of A on the outcome of B. But the idiom in this case homophonically reminds us of our vigil in a funeral while punning on the context of current events. When the broad scope of law enforcement pulled Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev out of a boat in a Watertown backyard, neither the boat, the backyard, nor the town were near water. But the wake cast by that young man in the boat capsized Boston for the better part of a week.

I was fortunate to be at a Dairy Queen with a small child twenty miles from the finish line when the bombs went off Patriots’ Day. I plan to stay near that child as close as I can when I see the pictures of children whose parents can’t hold them again. It sends the mind looking for answers. I thought I might find them in precedent.

That's me on the left...

That’s me on the left…

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BOSTON YOU’RE OUR HOME

The source of all humor is not laughter, but sorrow. ~ Mark Twain

101183_c81f9951063b278f944877dcc531a961_largeIt has not been a week of laughter. The terrorist bombings in Boston last week were a troubling reminder that we live in a changed and tragic world; a world changed long enough ago we were almost getting comfortable. There have been other attacks and even more horrific tragedies in recent years, but this was a man-made explosion in the heart of an American icon and that carries with it a certain kind of pain and frustration.

The Patriot’s Day holiday in Massachusetts represents everything positive about a civilized society. Patriot’s Day is the biggest day of the year in Boston. Its origins are in tribute to the great American Revolutionary fighters and thinkers whose blood spilled upon those very same streets centuries ago, but it is mainly an excuse to drink during a weekday and watch other, more sober, people run. This itself is noble. What better way to celebrate humanity and freedom than to take a pause from work, bend a few social norms, and host a sporting event that is a testament to the human spirit, individualistic accomplishment, and the coming together of all cultures, from all corners of the globe, to compete in a non-adversarial quest using nothing extracurricular to the human body other than shorts and a pair of shoes? The genius of a marathon is that anyone can do it – you don’t have to run quickly, or run at all. You don’t even have to finish. Performances are timed, yes, but runners truly compete against only themselves. It is whatever the runner wishes to make of it. It is a mission of personal fulfillment that also happens to be witnessed by and shared with the world. For anyone to want to disrupt such a triumph with death and devastation is a painful reminder of the lowest in humanity – oppression, fanaticism, ignorance, and tyranny.

It is true that Boston has had its share of Puritan repression and racial dysfunction. But one thing quintessentially Bostonian is that Boston rejects tyranny. That is essentially its existence. Boston pride is a special breed.

When I lived in Boston I discovered harmony in the past and present coexisting; in the profound poetry of the reflection of Trinity Church in the glass exterior of the John Hancock Tower in Copley Square, mere feet from last week’s explosions. I learned that there are indeed bars where everybody knows your name and that, as my boss at the pizzeria made clear, it would be rude to not bring a pizza from the neighborhood joint where I worked for the bartender at the neighborhood joint where I drank. My boss was happy, the bartender was happy, and I was certainly happy; drinks on the house. There’s a certain cyclical poetic profoundness in that as well.

This is a humor blog and my monthly entries are about humor in music. It has been difficult to enjoy either since last Monday but in Boston you don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself. You show your reverence for the fallen of the past – be it centuries ago or just a few days – by showing your pride for the present.

So here are five funny songs about one tough and beautiful town:

Banned in Boston – Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs

I’m proud to say that my best friends are Boston’s biggest freaks

Boston is known for its bizarre and antiquated “blue laws” (it only became legal to sell liquor on Sundays as recently as 2004 and it is still illegal to harass pigeons). This phrase dates back to the city’s puritanical roots when literary works deemed “objectionable” were forbidden. Sam the Sham was a turban-wearing, Hearse-driving, Mexican-American rock ‘n’ roll singer from Texas named Domingo Zamudio who added his name alongside the likes of Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, William Burroughs and The Everly Brothers as being a little too “weird and bearded, baby, wild and wooly” for Beantown. Now let me get up on this doctored up thunder ticket.

Boston Beans – Peggy Lee

They have Cambridge and Harvard and MIT, they didn’t have any beans for me

The “Beantown” nickname dates back to the slave trade era when the city was infused with an inordinate amount of molasses from the West Indies, which was used to sweeten a then-popular baked bean dish. Imagine Peggy Lee’s surprise to find out no one really eats Boston baked beans in Boston. They have “plenty of fish, Chinese food if that’s your dish,” but, alas, no molasses baked beans.

Dirty Water – The Standells

Frustrated women have to be in by 12:00 (ah, that’s a shame)

The Standells were from Los Angeles, not Boston. But the city’s reputation in the 1960’s for college co-ed curfews and water pollution was enough to inspire one of the coolest and most influential garage rock anthems ever waxed. It remains a staple at local sporting events.

Government Center  – The Modern Lovers

Make those secretaries feel better, when they put the stamps on the ledgers

An ode to the monotony of bureaucratic government workers’ daily doldrums. But it’s nothing a little rock ‘n’ roll can’t fix. Recorded in 1972, this proto-punk track was left off The Modern Lovers’ original eponymous 1976 release.

M.T.A. – The Kingston Trio

He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston

This colorful tale is like a musical T map – name checking Kendall Square, Jamaica Plain, Chelsea, and Roxbury – detailing the adventures of Charlie, a rider stuck on the Boston subway system unable to pay the “exit fare” increase implemented after he started his ride. Never mind that his wife could hand him the requisite extra cash instead of a sandwich at the Scollay Square (now Government Center) station each day. The song was composed in 1949 as part of a political campaign and shares a melody with the train tragedy folk classic, “Wreck of the Old 97.”  The Kingston Trio recorded the definitive version in 1959. More than half a century later, Charlie’s fate is still unlearned.

(c) 2013, Matt Powell

What is Not Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor

Teaching American Humor

It’s just a joke. I was only joking. Can’t you take a joke?

In an earlier post, I discussed how I have used opinion surveys as a way for students to examine their own tastes in humor and as a way to introduce humor as a vibrant and crucial component of American culture.  In the first part of the surveys, students name their favorite films and television shows and classify their tastes. I have found it is a useful way to establish a context for discussion of theoretical concepts in humor while also getting students to open up about their expectations for the course. Here is a link to that post, “What is Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor“.

In the second part of the survey, students must address the potential complications to their enjoyment of humor. What if the person next to them not only doesn’t share their sense of humor but finds it offensive? When is a joke not a joke but an attack? And even if that “joke” is a veiled attack, should it be silenced? These are complicated issues and demand much more space (and brain power) than I can offer here, but no class on humor can rightly avoid the ever-present tension concerning differing opinions on what is and what is not funny.

Steve Brykman recently posted an excellent discussion concerning social and political challenges inherent in this issue. The underlying violence associated with much of American humor becomes especially troublesome when the humor concerns political figures, in particular the President of the United States. The post, “Is a Joke a Joke?,” can provide an astute and perfectly concise introduction for students who must consider the potential power of humor not only to the change the world but also blow it up. A joke can be provocative, but what if it is more accurately described as incendiary speech? Here is a link to Steve’s post.

As a way to force a potentially tense discussion, I use the survey to ask students to address this issue so that initially they can provide comments anonymously.  They must answer the following two paired questions. In each case, I provide a list, but they are also encouraged to add items if they see fit to do so:

1. What subject matter is off-limits for humor with you personally if someone is kidding with you? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)

Your mother

Your religion

Your gender

Your race

Your sexual orientation

Your body (height, weight, etc.)

Your disabilities or challenges

2.  What subject matter is off-limits for humor socially when the audience is public? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)

mothers

religions

genders

races

sexual orientations

bodies (height, weight, etc.)

disabilities or challenges

deaths and/or tragedies affecting real people

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In the Archives: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Diversion (1862)

"So a priest, a rabbi, and a Zulu walk into a bar..."

“So a priest, a rabbi, and a Zulu walk into a bar…”

All history is a reconstruction. “Strictly speaking,” to quote Oxford, “a history is a work in which each movement, action, or chain of events is dealt with as a whole and pursued to its natural termination or to a convenient stopping place, as distinct from annals, in which events are simply recorded in divisions of a year or other limited period, or a chronicle, in which events are presented as a straightforward continuous narrative.”

But what naturally terminates? To quote another reputable source: “Even Old New York was once New Amsterdam…” But if people just liked it better that way, they did not feel any need to change the rest of their amoral den of lewdinous vice and narcotic idolatry. Give it a new name to please King Chuck 2 and leave us to our Wall Street whoremongering.

But I digress. If we construct natural terminations then history is made. Fingo, fingĕre, finxī, fictum: Latin “to form.” We fashion a consensus of what happened, why it happened, and (when necessary) how it had to happen thus. A fiction, but one we all agree upon. Once upon a time, the great Bruce Campbell replied to an email of mine railing against the liberties Xena: Warrior Princess took upon the Homeric Canon: “Yes, but aren’t stories the greatest teachers of mankind?” was his Aristotelian reply.

Homer would agree. Again I digress. I had wanted to call this piece “Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Digression,” but given Mr. Lincoln’s important place in history and the cinema, I think it matters more that it ends in “Diversion.” All diversions are digressions, but not all digressions are diversions. I’ll spare you the definitions if you spare me your time and complete attention. I’ve reconstructed the following from several sources, but the primary anecdote belongs to Edwin Stanton (Lincoln’s Secretary of War), and comes from Wayne Whipple’s “The Story-Life of Lincoln” (1908), who found it some place else. I’ll come back at the end in distinguishing CAPS.

"An instant classic that will leave you weeping with laughter." Andrew O'Hehir, Salon...on another movie.

“One of the funniest %@!# movies I’ve ever seen!” Richard Roeper …on another movie.

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