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?
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.
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.
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.