I have been excited for Rebecca Krefting’s All Joking Aside (out now through Johns Hopkins University Press) to come out since hearing her present at the 2010 AHSA/MTC conference in San Diego (this year in New Orleans). Krefting’s approach to stand-up comedy is thoughtful, nuanced, and entertaining. In the book, Krefting uses the concept of “charged humor” to describe a particular type of stand-up performer, providing both a useful rubric for understanding certain types of stand-up and solid case studies of performers. You can read a section on the concept of charged humor here. From All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents, by Rebecca Krefting. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
I recently interviewed the Krefting about the book and her experiences as a humor scholar:
Tracy Wuster) Tell me about your start in humor studies. How and when did you begin pursuing it as a subject? who has influenced you as a scholar of humor?
Rebecca Krefting: I think I began studying comedy the moment I began writing my first set. I contemplated questions like: what words would create the greatest comedic effect and in what order? How do you take everyday occurrences or a terrible situation and make it funny? Why is something funnier coming out of his mouth than out of mine? I started performing stand-up comedy and improv in August of 2001, a mere six weeks before 9/11. I was fresh out of college and while considering graduate school, had not made any commitments either way. I worked several jobs: bartender/server, legal secretary, and domestic worker and had just enough time and chutzpah to try my hand at comic performance. I strove to be a comic and attacked it with the fervor of a beaver building a dam—like my life depended on it (if you know anything about beavers, you know that’s true). The improv acting I fell into by auditioning on a lark for a professional troupe called The Skeleton Crew performing out of Nashville, TN. Looking back, I know now just how lucky I was to train in this comedic cultural form, which informed my stand-up and later my teaching. In both stand-up and improv, I was acutely aware of my identity as a woman while performing (this more so than my being a lesbian because although I was out, I opted not to call attention to this during my stand-up) and so I became a critical observer of how identities played out on stage. Thus began my fascination with the practice, history, and analysis of comedy. When I started applying for grad schools, I knew that an MA in Women’s Studies would expose me to the scholarship that would help me make sense of the gender gap in comedy and other cultural phenomena I had been observing in the comedy world. Having been schooled in one identity-based discipline, it seemed a natural shift to obtain a doctorate in American Studies, the first identity-based discipline in academia. It didn’t hurt that the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park also housed (at that time) the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies, where I was offered employment.
My influences as comic and scholar are manifold. They are comics like Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Maria Bamford, Kate Clinton, and Patton Oswalt; they are comic performers like Sissieretta Jones, Trixie Friganza, Judy Gold, Meryn Cadell, Nellie McKay, Greg Walloch, and the Five Lesbian Brothers; they are scholar-mentors like Linda Mizejewski, Brenda Brueggemann, Mary Sies, Ronit Eisenbach, Sharon Harley, and Larry Mintz; they are scholars like Karl Marx, Patricia Hill Collins, Philip Auslander, Eddie Tafoya, bell hooks, Judith Butler, Coco Fusco, Rosemarie Garland Thompson, Jill Dolan, and Shane Phelan.
In 1960, Time magazine placed Mort Sahl on its cover, declaring him, “the patriarch of a new school of comedians” that included Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, and Jonathan Winters.
His brand of erudite political humor had made him the comic of the moment – and this was a fertile moment for American comedy. While careful to maintain his image as an iconoclast, Sahl nevertheless went to work writing jokes for the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign. However, his comedy remained critical of Kennedy both during and after the election, at least until late 1963.
There were signs that Sahl’s popularity began to wane due to broad trends resulting from decreased demand for political humor and sharp satire after Kennedy’s death. However, most narratives of Sahl’s career, including his own autobiography, point to a more important factor in his retreat from the spotlight: his becoming a Kennedy conspiracy theorist. As part of his work on a syndicated television program, Sahl traveled to meet Jim Garrison (the subject of Oliver Stone’s JFK) who by 1967 claimed to have solved the mystery of Kennedy’s shooting. The CIA, by Garrison’s account, killed the president because of his efforts at ending the Cold War and weakening the CIA. Garrison deputized Sahl who, funded from his own pocket, delved into the investigation. These years proved particularly difficult for Sahl. Not only was he spending time and money investigating instead of performing, his reputation and performances as a paranoiac prevented bookings and disappointed audiences. Of course, by Sahl’s probably not entirely false account, his career was torpedoed by those who disagreed with or wanted to silence his opinions on this matter, including the powerful in the entertainment and political world.
When Sahl performed, his routines increasingly focused on the assassination. Audiences grew tired of his repeated performances reading word-for-word from The Warren Commission Report and staging sketches using directly-quoted government testimony. Holding the comic up as a prototypical post-Kennedy conspiracy theorist while explaining his downfall, John Leonard in 1978 wrote in The New York Times,
He went strange after the assassination of John Kennedy. And in that sense, too, he was a stand-in for the children of the 1950’s. It suddenly seemed that we were no longer the pampered children of the Enlightenment, getting better every day. Until that particular assassination, there was a European way of thinking about conspiracies (there has to be a conspiracy, because it would absolve the rest of us of guilt) and an American way (there can’t be a conspiracy, because then there’s no one to take the rap). Mort Sahl went European all the way into the swamp wevers of the mind of New Orleans Attorney Jim Garrison.
And the talk shows stopped wanting to hear him go on about the grassy knoll, the two autopsies, the washed-out limousine, Lee Harvey Oswald’s marksmanship, Jack Ruby’s friends. He wasn’t funny. He was also, eventually, unemployed, and bitter, as he made clear in his memoir, “Heartland” [sic].
Although vindicated to some extent by the eventual public mistrust of The Warren Commission Report and more provable conspiracies like Watergate, Mort Sahl’s career never recovered.
Sahl is not the only humorist invested in conspiracy theories. Dick Gregory’s commitment to civil rights and other social justice movements led him down similar paths questioning historical orthodoxy. In more recent years, comics like Dave Chappelle have played around with similar notions while shows including The Boondocks, King of the Hill,and South Park have all taken a turn at conspiracy theory-themed narratives. While different comics and shows are differently invested in these themes, it suggests a commonality regarding the political humorists’ mindset. If comedy’s cultural value arises in part from questioning and straining conventional logic, it only makes sense that it would question and strain conventional history as well.
(c) 2013, Phil Scepanski
Tracy Wuster, Editor
For the time being, or maybe permanently (who knows?), we are retiring the “Stand-up Sunday” (or “Sunday Stand-Up”) feature. All Sunday posts, actually. We will be moving to a twice per week schedule, with posts on Monday and Thursday (with an occasional post at other times, if we feel like it, or have a lot of posts). We will still have discussions of stand-up, I am sure, and we welcome you to contribute (yes, you, you-who-are-reading-this).
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And since this is the final Sunday Stand-Up post for awhile, at least, I will end with some stand-up.
Stand-up comedy derives much of its power from the use of the performer’s personal life. Sure, comedians stretch, embellish and outright invent some of the stories they tell on the stage, but most audience members conflate the act they see on stage with the person they imagine the comedian to be off-stage. I believe that this is actually part of the continuing fascination of Andy Kaufman, who derived much of his power from shielding his personal interior life from view of the audience.
Such was the case with Kaufman’s “Foreign Man/Latka” persona, his Elvis impersonation, and definitely his portrayal of the rude and offensive lounge act Tony Clifton.
The Wikipedia entry on Clifton claims that the inspiration sprang from a real Tony Clifton, “a real lounge singer whom Kaufman encountered in the International Hotel in Las Vegas.”The article cites Bill Zehme’s biography of Kaufman, Lost in the Funhouse. Lost in the citation is that Zehme himself notes how Kaufman told so many versions of this trip to Vegas “that no one, not anyone, would ever know exactly for sure what happened” (108).
There are stories — many of them told by Kaufman’s creative partner Bob Zmuda — of other people playing Clifton in performances. When negotiating his contract to play Latka on Taxi, Kaufman reportedly insisted that they hire Tony Clifton as a guest star. When Kaufman-as-Clifton arrived on set, he came with a pair of hookers from the Moonlite BunnyRanch and behaved so badly that Kaufman-as-Clifton was thrown off set. (See Zmuda’s Andy Kaufman Revealed! for a lengthy account.)
I hate word games. I suffer Scrabble, abhor Boggle, and you’ll never catch me cross words. I prefer etymology, and catch myself wondering about the subtleties of language the way you might answer, “I’ll take New York Times crossword for $200, __”. Consider an example: in English the first ordinal number might also serve as the numerical superlative. Given the ordinal role shows rank, or position, and the “-st” ending it shares with the hyperbolic “most” or “best,” I am comfortable maintaining that while “first” may be subject to the same controversies and debates the application of any superlative generates, it inspires the same level of awe upon discovery.
I felt this sense of awe when reading E. P. Hingston’s Prefatory Note, “Artemus Ward as Lecturer,” at the beginning of Ward’s posthumous publication Artemus Ward’s Panorama (1869). You may know the name Artemus Ward as the pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne (April 26, 1834–March 6, 1867), the printed humorist and lecturer whose career influenced that of a young Samuel Clemens when he first wrote under the name Mark Twain. Thirty years after Ward’s death, when describing the American art of telling a story, Mark Twain would commend Ward as one of the best representatives at telling it humorously:
The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it…the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub…Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.
Later Twain summarized:
To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purpose-less way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause. Artemus Ward dealt in numbers three and four a good deal. He would begin to tell with great animation something which he seemed to think was wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently absent-minded pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way; and that was the remark intended to explode the mine—and it did (How to Tell a Story, 1897).
Young Mark Twain followed Ward’s professional footsteps when the Sacramento Union sent him to report on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1866, and he returned with enough anecdotes to fill lecture halls out West.
Twain’s now famous use of language in the advertisement could be described in his own, later, language of dropping studied remarks with the printed effect of a pause by contrasting font size. Contemporary programs studying Mark Twain still rely upon advertising “The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock”, but where would Twain be without Ward?
The most famous comedian I have ever met is Joan Rivers, who I met on the street in New York City while in town researching Mark Twain at the New York Public Library. I haven’t seen “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” yet, but I really want to. Anyone want to write a review of the movie? Or a piece on the importance of Rivers?
“I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking.”
See around 4:00 for a heckler and Joan’s response about the reasons for comedy
From a story on “Fresh Air”:
“Because it’s so politically correct now,” Rivers tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “Everybody is so uptight to say anything, so I started making jokes about anything to my friends, and one of them said, ‘Just jot it down. There’s a book in this.'”
Discussing Dane Cook on a humor website is kind of like saying that Twinkies have a recipe; sure, he is technically a comedian by virtue of his standing on a stage and saying things into a microphone, but only in the same way that Twinkies are technically food because we can put them in our mouths and chew. (I’m aware that this is not the best Twinkie metaphor ever, but I really dislike Twinkies. And Dane Cook.)
And yet, disregarding what is apparently a pretty severe personal disinclination toward the comedian on my own part, we find ourselves forced to have to think about him as a result of a recent and gloriously insensitive joke about the July 20th shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, on the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises. A shooting which left twelve dead and over 50 injured. About which, Cook joked:
“I know that if none of that would have happened, pretty sure that somebody in that theater, about 25 minutes in, realizing it [The Dark Knight Rises] was a piece of crap, was probably like ‘ugh fucking shoot me.’”
Playing at the Laugh Factory less than one week after the event, Cook’s joke suggests that the real victims in this tragedy are the people whose theaters were not gassed and gunned down – which is to say, anyone who has actually seen the film itself.
As I would also argue about the recent controversy surrounding Daniel Tosh and a similarly sketchy (and equally unfunny) “joke” about the rape of an audience member – which has been previously addressed by Humor in America – I believe that Cook has every right to say what he did, and I would never seek to put parameters around what is available to be addressed in and through humor. But as contributing editor Joe Faina asks of the appeals to artistic integrity and free expression among the license afforded our comedians and writers:
“Are these really the kinds of jokes that we want to defend in the name of those ideals? I’d just like us all to ponder for a moment what it means that those strange rhetorical bedfellows were made. If Tosh were to be immune from criticism on the grounds that he is an artist then wouldn’t that force us to reconsider the value of such art? If not, shouldn’t it?”
The same should be asked of Cook’s joke, which – unlike Tosh’s trademark, over-the-top compulsion to unsettle his audience – betrays something closer to boredom, as though senseless death and injury occurs frequently enough to be almost unremarkable, and as such – and here is one of the central tenets of comedy, plus a paradox in its own right – this banality of evil is therefore at the same time eminently remarkable as well: the comedian’s personal disaffectedness and distance authorizes the kind of casual observation that remains at the center of modern stand-up (i.e. “Have you ever noticed….?” and so on). What Cook seizes on – and what the audience laughs at, after an initial and probably more honest hesitancy – is the fact that, somewhat sadly, the film The Dark Knight Rises will likely have a more immediate, immanent relation to the majority of our lives, if only because only those three fictional hours are the only element of this tragedy to which we will have had access. Not real death, just that of actors who will be seen somewhere else soon enough. Not real blood on the steeped floor of a theater, just that which for most of us will only ever be soda, sticky on our soles.
The problem is that Dane Cook doesn’t seem to care.
This is not meant to excuse Cook for his cynical, privileged remarks, which are offensive at best and subhuman at worst. Cook has since apologized – via Twitter, of course, so you know it’s as sincere as 140 characters can be after suggesting that at least 12 murder victims are better off for not having to have sat through what he found to be a mediocre film. According to Cook’s Twitter feed, he “did not mean to make light of what happened,” which I’m going to go ahead and say simply cannot be the case, because what else is a joke? Or: why tell a joke at all, if not for the laughter that he, to a degree, would have to have predicted in order to warrant the inclusion of this joke, or any joke for that matter? In other words, he either had to know that it would be funny or he wanted it to be funny. He had to have been the first one to laugh at this joke, to be sure that that’s what it was. Cook’s admission that he “made a bad judgment call with my material last night,” as his tweet continues, is at least more accurate and honest. But it also invalidates the earlier point about meaning to “make light,” because he did judge, did choose this joke, which with any luck – for him, that is – would have transmuted darkness into levity, light. The saddest thing about Cook’s joke is how self-serving it ultimately seems; whatever laughter there is here is his, not ours, and certainly not that of the victims or their families.
The impulse to reverse and redress the worst of what we find in life is in many ways what humor is, or is at least what I think of when considering “the value of such art.” Humor is at its best and most valuable when it breaks down and brings close the distance by which we are removed from anything outside ourselves. In every good joke, there is a willingness to let light be made: yes, light as though a lantern that illuminates and exposes, but also light as in the lifting with someone else of what would have been too heavy otherwise. Instead of apologizing for this imperative – to “make light” – Cook would do better to think about why anyone bothers to be funny in the first place. His joke is indefensible because there is no suture there, no pulling together and repairing some part of ourselves. This is not to prescribe a compulsory program for what humor has to achieve or should always do, but merely to consider the condition of laughter as something that we have to share. It doesn’t always have to feel good to laugh. There is nothing unequivocally wrong with offense. Not all jokes are going to be funny. But lack of taste and tact notwithstanding, the thing that is ultimately really wrong with Dane Cook’s joke is that he doesn’t ask us to laugh with, only at.
I saw Dick Gregory once, and I want to commemorate that occasion while he is still alive. I hope he reads this.
My mother did not tell me I was Jewish until I was 46 years old. I was not raised Jewish in any way. We ate pork and ham at home. I had never been inside a temple or synagogue. And yet I was thoroughly familiar with Jewish family life because I listened to the radio, especially the Jewish comedians like George Jessel (“Hello, Mama, this is Georgy”), Eddy Cantor, and Minerva Pius, who was Mrs. Nussbaum in Fred Allen’s Alley (“You were expecting maybe Greta Garfinkel?”). I don’t count Jack Benny; he was a comedian who happened to be Jewish, not a Jewish comedian. Gertrude Berg was not a comedian, but her portrayal of Jewish life in the soap opera The Goldbergs certainly had its effect. There were others whose names I have forgotten, but because of radio comedians I became thoroughly familiar with what English sounded like with a Yiddish accent. And long before I was 46 I was keenly aware both of antisemitism among the kids I went to school with and of the way in which Jewish comedians were gradually making Jews more familiar and hence more acceptable to goyim.
Now that I’ve introduced myself, let me set the stage. After the Civil War, the United States Army set up military installations throughout the western U.S. with the purpose of protecting settlers moving west from what we now know are Native Americans but were then called Indians. Many of the troops assigned to these forts were what were known as “buffalo soldiers” – freed slaves. After all, during the war the Union army had made use of “colored” troops – not, of course, integrated into white units, but as separate but equal units – and these soldiers had acquitted themselves well in battle. Around the outposts towns grew up, and as time went on some of them became almost civilized. The state college where I was teaching was located in such a town, and buffalo soldiers had served in the adjacent fort.
I uh… I really like the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. I feel like I have to confess this rather than just drop it casually. I can mention that I like Aziz Ansari at a cool party with hip academics, fog machines, and black lights (which I attend practically all the time, by the way), but I have to “confess” that I like BCCT. I feel like this because I have ideological qualms with the premise of the troupe. I’ll write more on this later, but for now I want to highlight the man who I feel is the cream of the crop: Ron White. Unlike the other, perhaps more infamous of the four performers whose acts stick to your ribs like overcooked oatmeal, White’s act is as smooth as a good scotch–no gimmicks or catchphrases, just pure, acerbic, Texan style.
Although a pillar of the Blue Collar Comedy troupe, White’s persona seems to have no unexamined allegiances to neither class nor political party.
White often falls to the ultimate sin of standup: reusing material ad nauseum. Once you’ve watched They Call Me Tater Salad, you’ve pretty much seen his repertoire. The performance itself is anything but lazy, however, and I highly recommend it. It’s impeccably timed, tightly delivered, and leaves me doubled over every time.