I have a friend who takes Saint Patrick’s Day very seriously. His extended family gathers on the weekend nearest March 17 to trade sarcasms and drink alcohol. They boil meat on the Massachusetts shoreline, and balance small talk with cruel reminders of past grievances until whiskey favors one end of the scales. Still, the older members of the clan can cover up scandal, debating sports while training the next generation in table games using root beer instead of the hopped variety for everyone under age. But what is under age? It’s up to them. Pretty standard for Jews.
Not really. They’re Irish. Of course they’re Irish. I’m Irish too, but not that Irish. None of us are Jewish, but the contradiction in ethnic stereotypes makes it funny, and necessary to present my title here instead of above: The Jewish Comic and the Irish Muse. Anything sooner would’ve altered the chemistry of the anecdote, and like a good bartender, a storyteller must know the order of ingredients to deliver their greatest effect, and repeat when necessary. Make it a double.
Fine art tends not to be funny. Of course there are many, many exceptions (basically, all of the examples that everyone immediately thought of upon reading that first sentence), but it’s no stretch to say that galleries and museums only infrequently resonate with giggles and guffaws. Or at least we become suspicious of our own aesthetic pedigree when something in a putatively fine art setting seems funny, because maybe the piece is actually supposed to be, like, serious art and the artist is making a statement about apartheid or something.
And there is nothing less enjoyable than trying to figure out whether or not you should laugh at something.
The Clifton Benevento gallery in New York is currently holding an exhibition of five artists entitled “Hello? I Forgot My Mantra,” of which the title is a reference to Jeff Goldblum’s memorably random line of dialogue in Annie Hall. The show features painting, sculpture, and an unusual post-perfomance piece that involves the having-thrown of dice. To me, though, the most interesting work in the show is Anhedonia, a work of video art by Aleksandra Domanović that isolates the entire audio track from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and replaces the film’s original scenes — you know, all the stuff that happens — with an elaborate montage of short clips of stock footage from the Getty Archive. As though the reverse premise of Woody Allen’s re-dubbed What’s Up Tiger Lily?, Domanović’s piece uses all of the dialogue, diegetic sound, and music (of which there is surprisingly little, it turns out) of Annie Hall and supplants the familiar action of Alvy and Annie with generic bursts of video that are specifically cued to what is being said. For example, the phrase “how I feel…” is juxtaposed with a woman rubbing (i.e. feeling) her neck, and “…about life” becomes black-and-white video of spermatozoa wriggling toward an unfertilized egg.
Anhedonia is therefore akin to a 90-minute motion-rebus, a kinetically hieroglyphic account of everyday existence. It’s worth recalling that Anhedonia was Woody Allen’s original working title for Annie Hall during most of its production, and Domanović adopts it in this instance to evoke not only the generic and sterile quality of the stock footage and photography that constitutes way more of what we see every day than we probably realize, but also the base boringness of how we tend to picture what life looks like.
With that being said, though, the piece — intended or otherwise — is really pretty hilarious. This is perhaps because what many of us have practically memorized in Annie Hall is subverted and supplanted by a Borges-level library of images that are wacky enough on their own, to say nothing of having been meticulously reconfigured to recreate Allen’s original study of the absurdity of everything that we do.
And so in Anhedonia‘s final seconds, Allen’s famous joke about “needing the eggs” is replaced with actually seeing the eggs, which — both in the end and as the end — literally depicts the original film’s conclusion about the delicate surface of the world we’ve constructed for ourselves.
[Thanks to Amelia Colette Jones for the tip!]
It so happens that I wear glasses. You know, to see better. This is much to the chagrin of my mother, who assures me that because I was not born with them, these glasses therefore obscure what she has non-ironically referred to as my “good looks.” It also so happens that I have the thick plastic frames that are currently favored among hipsters, art students, and the similarly fashion-forward. To wit, art openings in my town basically look like somebody brought a case of PBR to a Lenscrafters showroom. If anything, though, my own choice in eyewear is decidedly fashion-backward in an obvious homage to – if not outright emulation of – one of my most enduring idols: Woody Allen. (I learned last night that a friend of mine had a similar experience with black framed glasses when, in 8th grade, he walked into an eyeglass shop with a picture of Isaac Asimov and said “I want to look like this.”)
To my students, these glasses probably just seem like a consequence or corollary of being an English professor – a standard issue accessory – but that might all change when we get back from spring break, when the first thing that we’ll watch in my Introduction to Film class is Annie Hall.
In the film, Woody famously plays Alvy Singer, a semi-autobiographical comedian and writer who performs some of the material originally found on Woody’s album The Nightclub Years: 1964-1968, which – like so much of his work – has taught me to diffuse my own insecurities in public by making myself seem like I’m the single most important person in the world.
The Nightclub Years is something that I have come to more-or-less memorize since I first picked it up as a used double-LP in my college years, and it remains today the primary channel through which most of us know the most famous bits of Woody’s stand-up: the moose, being kidnapped, his science-fiction film about aliens and dry-cleaning, and so on. It’s quite interesting, then, to note the minute differences that emerge between this album and the other various recordings that have surfaced in the forty years since its initial release in 1972. From a more elaborate description of the “Neanderthal” who robbed him in his own apartment lobby to a significant bit of clarification about American ethnic politics for his British audience, the so-subtly altered rhythms of these clips are at once a testament to the practiced precision of Woody’s stand-up and a welcome riff on jokes that have seemed to have the same timing for the last four decades.
More after the break!
On this day in 1895, songwriter Harry Ruby was born. In 1920, he teamed up with lyricist Bert Kalmar and they collaborated until Kalmar’s death in 1947; writing some of the cleverest and most enduring standards in the history of Vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood.
If you were here, I’d channel “The Drowsy Chaperone” and play Harry Ruby songs until the wee hours of the morning. Today, we’ll share just one– a personal favorite from the many they wrote for the Marx Brothers.
In this clip from the 1934 comedy “Horse Feathers,” eccentric Professor Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) serenades beautiful Connie (Thelma Todd) at a graceful pace now lost to the ravages of time. The song, “Everyone Says I Love You” is reprised in the film as each Marx Brother performs his own rendition. In 1996 it was the title song of a cinematic musical written and directed by Woody Allen.
Thank you, Harry and Bert. . . wherever you are. . .
The complete list of Harry Ruby song titles is available for perusal at your leisure and many more audio and video recordings can be found online.
This year, I finally did it. I caved. I welcomed Christmas into my home. Despite that I am Jewish and my wife claims to be “opposed to all forms of organized religion,” our house is now also home to a 1/4-sized Xmas tree — illuminated, ornamented, and tinseled to the hilt. Two enormous stockings, appropriately stuffed and festooned, hang from our gas-fireplace mantle, atop which sit boughs of holly and fake hemlock, intertwined with more twinkling lights. Lastly, an elf-on-the-shelf sits (where else?) on the bookshelf beside the TV, just below the Buddha, a gift from my adorable sister-in-law.
Now, before you go congratulating me on a successful assimilation, consider this. I had to do it. I had no choice in the matter. The reason? You guessed it. The kids, of course. Because let’s face it, when it comes to winter-solstice holidays, us pathetic meddling Jews got nothing on you kitschy, ubiquitous Christians.
Sure, you guys got the Son of God and the whole Wise Men spiel and the beatific Virgin Mother but as you and I well know that’s not what sells it. It’s all about the fat guy with the hippie beard who breaks into your house, eats your cookies, and leaves behind everything you ever wanted, all your hopes and dreams.
For Christ’s sake, your holiday literally boosts the entire US economy! Anti-Christmas is anti-American! It’s no wonder everyone got so pissed when Walmart decided to start going with “Happy Holidays.” They had every right to be upset. I mean, those fat-cats put the entire country in jeopardy! The ruination of Christmas is one of every sensible American’s greatest fears, right up there with public speaking and public nudity. Christmas goes down, the almighty dollar goes down with it. Thank God Walmart recognized the error of its ways. Thank God it overcame its “fear” (Walmart’s word, not mine) of the rest of us and rescued the economy from certain collapse by definitively going back to their former, more correct, “Merry Christmas” greeting!
Now, if they could only stop killing babies with their Chinese formula, we’d really be onto something.
Just imagine what might have happened had they kept on with their left-wing “Happy Holidays” nonsense and all of us all of a sudden started forgetting about Christmas and just figured there was some unidentifiable holiday that happened about this time each year. Maybe it was meant for us, maybe not, nobody could really remember. Thanks a lot, Walmart!! Thanks for almost screwing it up for everybody!
Maybe you think I’m talking out of turn, this idea that we could all somehow forget about Christmas. Well, chew on this. The atheists are poised to strike! And Glory be to Fox News for keeping us abreast of the Godless menace that walks among us. For, just this year, in Los Angeles, we experienced a major “Christmas Controversy,” when atheist displays forced Nativity scenes out of Palisades Park. Santa Monica had allocated the spots via lottery. The Christians put in one bid and got two spots, the atheists, with 11 bids, got 18. And what did the atheists do with all that sacred space? Why, just what you’d expect them to do—nothing! In all of their 18 spots, the atheists have erected three potted plants, two paltry signs, and not a single partridge in a pear tree. As a result, well, let’s just say there’s not a lot of Santa in Santa Monica this year! Christmas-related purchasing in the city is down a full 75% and overall Church attendance has dropped by a depressing 98%. The local economy is in shambles. There is talk of shutting down the town entirely.
But I digress.
Jews and their Chanukah shopping, meanwhile, provide only the merest bump to the economy: specifically in the beeswax sector, along with an almost imperceptible rise in jelly donut profits. Our holidays, as a national budgetary concern, are inconsequential. Because what do we get on our beloved winter solstice celebration? If we’re lucky, we get 8 presents. Your people get about a thousand. I know how it works. I’ve seen what happens: gifts come in from all over the country and by the time Christmas Day rolls around it’s like the season finale of Hoarders.
And while you irradiate the cold night skies with the glow of countless twinkling lights, we strain our backs pulling out the family’s old cast iron candleholder, all just to celebrate the fact that four thousand years ago some guy scored a week’s-worth of free oil. And, lo, what a bargain it was! And to make matters worse, we don’t have twelve kinds of dessert, either! Figgy pudding? We got chocolate money and a four-sided top—a gambling toy. Why? So you can win more chocolate money!
What I’m saying is this: given a choice, what kid in his right mind would choose it?
Choosing to be Jewish?? Why, it’s unheard of! That’s like choosing to be gay!
But don’t get me wrong. My beef is not with Jews adopting Christmas. The best among us have done it. My Christmas Spotify playlist is composed entirely of songs by Irving Berlin, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, the Beastie Boys, Barry Manilow, Bob Dylan, and one of the Ramones. I’m not a monster. I like to make my kids happy. I don’t want them to run around all day wondering why our house isn’t lit up all crazy like the neighbors..or why Santa doesn’t like to give presents to the Hebrews..or why we haven’t gone out and killed a tree for Jesus like everyone else.
I got nothing against Christmas. Hell, I don’t even mind the month-long pummeling of well-wishes and good-cheer tidings. My problem is simply that Christians haven’t met us half-way on this one. They haven’t co-opted any of our Chanukah stuff. Because if what my wife tells me is true—that the Christmas Tree and all its accoutrements are originally Pagan traditions—then what’s the big deal with stealing one more?
So I appeal to you now, Ye Merry Christians of America!! Please. Why not celebrate our common roots, this year, and incorporate a little Judaica into your Christmas Season? This year, why not go ahead and spin a dreidel? Eat a latka. Put on an old Woody Allen record.
What could it hurt, right?
Chappy Cholidays, everyone!!!
from the Kennedy Center website:
About the Mark Twain Prize
“The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
The event is created by the Kennedy Center, and executive producers Mark Krantz, Bob Kaminsky, Peter Kaminsky, and Cappy McGarr. The Kennedy Center established The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in October 1998, and it has been televised annually. Recipients of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize have been Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002), Lily Tomlin (2003), Lorne Michaels (2004), Steve Martin (2005), Neil Simon (2006), Billy Crystal (2007), George Carlin (2008), Bill Cosby (2009), and Tina Fey (2010).”
The award seemingly always generates a good deal of discussion, sometimes consternation, on the Mark Twain Forum discussion list. Over the years, posters there have suggested others who deserve the award. I have placed some of these nominated folks in a poll below.
So, here is your chance to have a say in next year’s award–not any sort of say that matters at all, but a say. Vote–it’s your scholarly duty.
Feel free to comment on this year’s show, or to nominate people for next year’s poll…
As Americans pushed west from the Atlantic seaboard, they formed settlements here and there. In those days before radio or television, they established in nearly every settlement what they called “literary societies,” which met once a month at the schoolhouse or church to provide entertainment. In the intervening days the settlers memorized and rehearsed their presentations.
Winter evenings, when it was too snowy to go outside and plow the frozen ground, families often met in one another’s homes for dinner, and after dinner some of them would be called on to deliver the presentations they had given at the last literary society meeting.
These presentations were not short. They lasted several minutes. They might be poems, like “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” They might be songs, like “She’s Only a Rose with a Broken Stem.” They might be literary narratives, like Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man without a Country.” They might be speeches from drama, like Portia’s moving plea from The Merchant of Venice. Sometimes two settlers would go together. Perhaps a man and a woman would team up for the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet; or two men might present the quarrel scene between Brutus and Cassius from Julius Caesar or a comic turn, like “The Arkansas Traveler.”
“The Arkansas Traveler” required two men and a fiddle or banjo. The settler is sitting on his porch, playing the first half of the tune which derived its title from the name of the sketch. The traveler arrives. “Farmer, can you tell me the way to Little Rock?” “I don’t know bout no little rock, but there’s a whopper down in my spring branch.” And the settler plays the first half of the tune again. The two men go at it, back and forth several times, a straight line from the traveler which is one-upped by the settler, punctuated by the first half of the tune. Finally the traveler asks the settler why he doesn’t play the second half of the tune. The settler admits he doesn’t know it. The traveler takes the fiddle or banjo and plays the tune through. The settler is so overjoyed to learn the second half of the tune that he invites the traveler for dinner.
Editor’s note: In a post on the Not Even Past website, a blog published by the history department of at the University of Texas, the historian Karl Hagstrom Miller discusses the history of the tune and provides several samples of the tune from the The Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The photo below is from this post.
Another type of literary society presentation was a story the teller had heard somewhere, or even one invented by the teller. Such narratives might be humorous stories of the type that Mark Twain described in “How to Tell a Story.” Twain’s essay most likely deals not only with stories told by one person to another and those told before an audience, but also with stories told in the intimate gathering of a literary society or after dinner at someone’s home. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which first brought Twain to national attention, contains a humorous story of the type that might have been told in such a setting.
The literary critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made a sharp distinction between “wit” and “humour,” a distinction that is useful also in characterizing radio and television comedians.
“Wit” was perhaps best defined by Pope in the “Essay on Criticism”:
True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d . . . . (ll. 297-8)
Pope’s poetry also provides numerous examples; one of the best appeared earlier in the same poem:
‘Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own. (Ll. 9-10)
Everyone has noticed how rare agreement is, except among politicians who have been fed “talking points” by their party’s campaign committees; yet no one but Pope thought to compare disagreements about literature to the disagreements we have among ourselves when we try to answer the question “What time is it?”
Wit, then, relies on the expression of an idea. It is a kind of verbal cleverness. “Humor” – or “humour” if you’re British – is an older concept, going back to medieval medicine. Medieval physicians believed there were four fluids (humours) in the body which were responsible for both diseases and he formation of personality: blood, phlegm, yellow bile (choler), and black bile (melancholy). (If I’m telling you what you already know, please forgive me; perhaps somebody else out there doesn’t know it.) A person in whom blood predominated was “sanguine,” that is, eager and excitable; if the blood was excessive, it caused a disease, and the patients had to be bled by attaching leeches to them.
The classic example of the literary application of this theory was a play by Shakespeare’s friend and rival, Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour, in which the comedy arose from the personalities of the characters. It was so successful that Jonson followed it with a sequel, Every Man Out of His Humour.
If you followed radio comedy in the days when there was any, or if you’ve been watching television comedy in the years since radio devolved into disk jockeying, you can see how the distinction between wit and humor applies to the comics on those media. Here’s how my watch ticks – and yours, like Pope’s, may very well run differently from mine.
Click below to read more…