Tourists say the dumbest things. They travel the globe ostensibly to learn and to gain experiences so that when they return home they can do so as more well-rounded and informed human beings. Well, that’s the dream anyway. Tourists are always out of place, they are often pretending to be (much) smarter than they are, and they carry with them a sense of entitlement–all of these factors set them up to be perennially funny as objects of ridicule. Few things are funnier than ignorance, but when it combines with arrogance, then a wonderfully silly comic star is born: the American tourist, a figure of derision for about hundred and fifty years now.
It was Mark Twain who first popularized and perfected the American tourist, in his best-selling The Innocents Abroad in 1869, a narrative of a bumbling five-month tour–America’s first pleasure cruise–across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean Sea to see the “Old World.” He later built on that persona in other travel books like A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1897). Twain captured the perils of tourism in many ways, but one of his most effective and hilarious shticks was to mock the inherent ignorance and arrogance of tourists simply by reporting what they said.
Tourists say the dumbest things. Just ask Azie Dungey, an actor who, while looking for stage work in the Washington D.C. area, found roles, as she puts it, playing “every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Carline Branham–Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid.” Readers here may be too timid to ask this: Is that THE Martha Washington, President George Washington’s wife? Yup. History is fun. Ms. Dungey, during the energy and optimism infused into the presidential election of 2008 and throughout President Obama’s first term, Azie Dungey supported herself by playing a slave who served the first, first family. American irony at its best.
Her role is as “Lizzie May,” a fictional character drawn from Ms. Dungey’s experiences performing as a slave woman at George and Martha Washington’s home named Mount Vernon, now a popular tourist site. And her forum is Ask a Slave: The Web Series. The short sketches recreate many of the questions that tourists posed to Ms. Dungey over the years. Ask a Slave is promoted as “Real Questions, Real Comedy.” It will make you cringe.
When tourists reveal their ignorance and arrogance, we have what is called in the profession “a teachable moment.” A traditional method of trying to encourage a learning process is called the Socratic Method, named after Socrates that famous smart guy from ancient Greece. He is dead now. The method involves getting people to ask questions and from the answers to encourage more questions and thereby lead to the gathering of knowledge–and, from that process, achieve the gaining of wisdom. Or something like that. Tourists all over the United States (and the world, for that matter) are often encouraged to ask questions of their guides. At many historical sites, guides are often complemented by historical re-enactors to create “living history.” It is an appealing bit of stage craft. “All of history is but a stage, and we are merely reenactors and tourists.” Shakespeare wrote something along those lines. I just updated it.
But when the questions are so clueless, what’s a slave to do?
Well, the actor Azie Dungey performed her role to the best of her ability (and with much patience), but all the while she collected information, and now, as Lizzie May, she has some different answers to give. She, with the help of other members of the crew, are re-enacting those tourist re-enactments and providing the rest of us with our own funny teachable moments. The first episode immediately reveals why the online comedy series has caught fire.
Lizzie May is a significant expansion of the role that Ms. Dungey played at Mount Vernon. She is able to provide answers that would have gotten her fired at Mount Vernon, all the while maintaining a demeanor that is seemingly polite and deferential and that the original role demanded. Yet the answers are assertive and thus subversive. She thereby provides a compelling satirical voice. The resulting humor is well worth viewers’ time and offers us our own teachable moments.
Ignorance is funny. It has always been funny because it provides us the wonderful opportunity to laugh at someone else’s stupidity. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of it, so humorists can always find some facet of human behavior to exploit for laughs. When the subject matter is tied to the legacies of slavery, the humor has an unavoidable edge. One thing that the tourist questions reveal beyond their stupidity is a desperation for self-affirmation, or an almost pathological need to lessen the horror of slavery, to give many modern tourists more distance from the slaveowners and supremacists in their racial family tree. The need is understandable; the ongoing moral cowardice, however, is tiresome to say the least.
What do you call a black man flying an airplane? A pilot, you racist.
It is not complicated, but this meta-joke activates a complex meaning-making process. The setup connotes a genre of racist jokes, inviting the listener to imagine what possible stereotype about black men will fulfill the question in an unexpected way. The answer of “a pilot” is surprising precisely because it is unsurprising. If orthodox racist jokes tend to fulfill psychoanalytic models in their ability to express otherwise forbidden acts of expression, this joke plays more on the surprise theory by inverting dramatic irony to pleasurably expose the listener’s own prejudices and ideally creating some positive self-awareness in the process.
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something a fictional character does not. I read the above joke as an inversion of that particular form because the “audience” for this joke is the one kept in ignorance until the moment of the punchline. Though not necessarily given to social justice for every listener, this joke is ideally didactic in that it makes a pleasurable game of exposing the listener’s prejudices. Neither this form of humor nor its seeming aspirations to a small lesson in social justice are limited to verbal jokes though. To illustrate these points, I turn to an example that uses visual and verbal language to similar ends with relevant contemporary implications.
In 2003, Chappelle’s Show aired a sketch titled “Diversity in First Class.” Although given to left-leaning rhetoric, Chappelle’s Show was not above admissions of prejudice in certain situations. Taking place on a commercial airplane, the camera pans past a pair of men coded as Middle Easterners by their clothing and language. Engaged in a heated discussion, their performance displays aggression in both speech and hand motions. Clearly meant to invoke the image of Islamic terrorists, its original airdate less than 18 months after 9/11 framed its reading in terms of that national trauma. Subtitles further encourage reading the pair as a threat, adding verbal cues to the visual language connoting terrorism. But as the men continue, the subtitles reveal the true nature of their conversation.
By leading his expectations in one direction before dashing them, this contradiction between image and reality makes the viewer foolish. Not only that, but these Others discuss a well-known bit of Western pop culture, making their conversation familiar and laughably non-threatening.
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.”
The finale of the 37th season of Saturday Night Live was also an occasion to say goodbye to one of its finest and funniest performers, Kristen Wiig, whom Lorne Michaels himself has ranked among the “top three or four” of all time on SNL. With an ever skeletal Mick Jagger crooning his own “She’s a Rainbow” and “Ruby Tuesday,” the lengthy send-off allowed the cast members to share a short dance with Wiig as she became increasingly almost tearful, offering rare glimpse into the uncontrollable humanity of an actor who almost never breaks onscreen.
Of the many characters that Wiig has played over the last seven years at SNL, she excels at creating the kind of persona who is confident to the point of being absolutely unselfconscious — marginalized eccentrics who are either oblivious or immune to the idea of being judged. Her “Target Lady,” for example, simply cannot contain a sense of surprise and excitement for each product that comes through the register (“Dog collar… hope you have a dog! Wink.”), to which she then offers a slice of her own inexplicable life. Or Shanna the “sexy coworker,” whose airy and absentminded eroticism at a Halloween party quickly devolves into a detailed story involving peanuts and digestion. Similarly, Wiig’s impression of Bjork is that of a unattenuated pixie who giggles at her own preciousness not out of irony or embarrassment, but because she is pleased with herself for being herself.
There is clearly something unsettling about these characters, but the humor here is not a result of their being outrageous and brazen so much as our awareness of their perceived lack; our laughter emerges nervously, diffusing a certain desire to teach them about self-consciousness. In other words, we become painfully aware of the gaze of the Other in us, as though to compensate for the seeming absence of inhibition and self-restraint in them. For many of us — post-meta subjects who can’t really have a thought without then thinking about that thought (and so on, en abyme) — the pure presence that these characters seem to embrace is like spinach in the teeth of the mind; inside, I am practically screaming to quietly take them aside and set them straight about being seen.