With all the contenders throwing their hats in the presidential ring, it is refreshing to have a honest and serious candidate to consider…
In keeping with our recent political focus, we present Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate.” In light of revelations in the presidential campaign (both embarrassing and partial), it is nice to see Twain’s refreshing candor. Here it is, rom June 1879:
I have pretty much made up my mind to run for president. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any congressional committee is disposed to…
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It’s that time of year again when we all get busy in academia. Jeff Melton wrote me with some nonsense about having a “job” and “kids” and such and asking me nicely to post this piece on clowns in place of a new contribution. Here is another recent take on the question: http://splitsider.com/2015/03/what-the-hell-is-the-deal-with-clowns/
Clowns are terrifying.
I am convinced that the very concept induces anxiety. While on the surface, the “clown” seems to be an innocuous effort to play on simple comedic principles of exaggeration–big facial expressions; big hair; big noses; big shoes, all capped by physical buffoonery–it really taps into our most perverse fears. This is not a new idea, of course. Having a character in a comedy who is deathly afraid of clowns is a staple of American humor. The best example that comes to mind is Kramer from Seinfeld. Using Kramer’s always over the top responses to otherwise normal social contexts is comedic gold (“Gold, Jerry, Gold.”), but his rather restrained response to coming face to face with a dangerous clown is instructive. We should keep in mind that Kramer’s fear was a point of rational thought within the context of the plot-line of the episode that featured Crazy…
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In case you missed it—and you probably did unless you are an English nerd like me—National Grammar Day was March 4th. It came to my attention a few years ago, perhaps because I was teaching an Advanced Grammar class (as I am also doing this year). The “holiday” began in 2008, so it is relatively short on tradition. Martha Brockenborough started the tradition rolling because she felt deeply about proper grammar—this prompted her to start the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPROGG) and institute National Grammar Day as March 4 (March forth—an imperative). The society has its own website, though posts to it seem few and far between.
As an English nerd, I have tried to take this day and society seriously; however, a quick look at the established website and its posts make that extremely difficult. Most of the posts demonstrate the ways in which “poor” grammar can create unintended humor. See for yourself:
Instead of the proper respect and seriousness, what National Grammar Day did prompt was some semi-serious thought concerning the nature of insider humor and what work such humor actually performs. Grammar jokes belong to one of a great many “niche” jokes—that is, they require that a listener or reader know something about the subject matter in order to appreciate the humor. Mathematics jokes fall into this category of insider humor, as do jokes from other disciplines such as chemistry, engineering, and physics.
Some jokes are universal. Example: Passing gas in almost any situation outside a bathroom—and only private bathrooms at that—seems to provoke universal laughter. These and other slapstick jokes usually do not require insider knowledge in order to tickle the funny bone. Grammar jokes proliferate on the Internet and have always been present as texts even before the Information Superhighway. They are simply easier to access now. Not all of these require as much insider knowledge as some other disciplines because native speakers of English can recognize anomalous errors of Standard English that form the joke. Thus the insider group is relatively large: anyone who has English language proficiency. Yet for the student/scholar of English, the jokes have a richer meaning. For example:
Lower Slobbovia is a fictional manifestation of Al Capp in his” Li’l Abner” cartoon strip. According to a description in one of his strips, it is in the arctic regions so the average temperatures are well below zero. Also, according to the illustration below, it is below sea level; however, the humans have no problem breathing. It is telling that the woman in the third panel is up to her knees in snow, but she is not dressed for sub-zero weather. Apparently, all of the residents of Lower Slobbovia are acclimated to the weather, and/or since Al Capp prided himself on his ability to draw attractive women, he was bound and determined to under-dress his hotties as often as possible.
Somehow or another, after years of periodically leaving Dogpatch, USA and the trials and tribulations of Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae, Al Capp’s cartoon strip ventured to the icy realm of Slobbovia—either Upper or Lower, or both (as with this episode), the term “Lower Slobbovia” made its way into some dictionaries. As cartoon readers know, anything can happen in the comics, so the need for gaseous oxygen is suspended, and gravity transitions from being a law to a suggestion. Dictionary.com defines “Lower Slobbovia” as “Any place considered to be remote, poor, or unenlightened.” The definition makes no comment on how enlightened the creator of the cartoon was.
Somewhere amidst all of the Superbowl spectacle, Valentine’s spooning, St Patrick’s Day carousing, Passover reflection, V-Day agitation, and Lenten abstention, a strange and somewhat sleazy new trend reached its zenith, crested, and then settled down to a steady, new buzz within our national pysche. This slightly awkward, insistently uncomfortable climax was, of course, the highly engorged premiere, ritual critical circumcision, and premature box office depletion of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Hollywood adaptation of the opening rounds of E.L James’ titillating trilogy of triage, 50 Shades of Grey.
Though the film opened to sold-out shows on that raciest of all holiday weekends, The Guardian has more or less summed up its econo-sexual stamina down the stretch: “Dramatic plunges from its opening weekend – -73% in the US (one of the largest falls on record) and -57% overseas – suggest that it has already exhausted its core audience, the EL James faithful, let alone any casuals pulled in by the furor… Prospects-wise, Fifty Shades is no Avatar, which did a game-changing six consecutive $100+ overseas weekends – this is strict box-office wham-bam-thank-you-sir.” In short, Fifty Shades will probably come to signify the most high profile case in a very familiar syndrome that plagues America’s reactions to the uses of explicit sexuality and erotica in entertainments of all sorts.
The fact that 50 Shades – a sadomasochistic fantasy rooted in the “therapeutic” cruelty of an enigmatic, aloof tycoon and his sweet, little ingenue-cum-whipping post – has commanded such attention in all of its forms is fascinating, sensational, and like most such phenomena, a little bit sad.
Now, please don’t grab the ball-gag yet. It’s not that I disapprove of anything as exciting as a randy trilogy of explicit sexcapades that has somehow infiltrated the shelves of every major warehouse store, supermarket, airport stationer, and nightstand in the nation. Quite to the contrary, as Leslie Bennetts observes in her Entertainment Weekly feature on the 50 Shades phenomenon, “None of us will ever know how many orgasms Fifty Shades of Grey has inspired, or how much marital boredom it’s enlivened with vaginal balls and riding crops, but its impact is incalculable far beyond the bedroom.” Far be it from me to poo-poo anything that has so vehemently and profitably fueled the free world’s sex drive. Again, Bennetts provides us with some startling numbers: “Since the first volume of E L James’ S&M trilogy was published in 2011, the books have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and been translated into 52 languages. From the Bible to the Harry Potter series, only a handful of books have ever racked up such numbers, and no previous work of pornography has captured the erotic imagination of so many women.”
There has been more than enough curmudgeonly commentary, critique, and conflict revolving around both James’ pseudo-Sado-fiction and Taylor-Johnson’s darkly lit film. Quite honestly, the segments I read from James’ work do their job as adequately as any other artifact of arousal probably should. If you push the right narrative buttons involving suggestion, anticipation, and seduction, in nearly any order, the usual explosive results are pretty much inevitable. Or as as EW’s Lisa Schwartzbaum observes, “James may not be much of a prose stylist, but she can write an effectively dirty, hot, easy-to-read, complicated-to-accessorize sex scene when she puts her mind to it. James throws in descriptions of bondage, submission, foreplay, cosmic orgasms, private helicopters, and fine white wine. And minus the boring bits about private helicopters and tedious wine -sipping, it’s all tatty, arousing fun.” I also admit that I have not yet seen the now largely panned film adaptation, though I will probably give it a go eons after its original shock have faded through Sisyphean runs on late night cable.
I have no qualm or quarrel with the book that launched a tsunami of coital clashes, or the movie that looks like it does its best to somehow make romance out of punishing, joyless, sexual violence. No, my gripe has nothing to do with 50 Shades‘ explicitness, triteness, or brutality, though I generally prefer more actual pleasure in my private reading and personal media consumption. I am more disappointed in the simple fact that every authorized rendition of the dirty dalliances of Mr. Grey and Ms. Steele seems to lack any iota of (intentional) humor, joy, or playfulness. With all of that role play, kinky couture, and so very many scandalous props and toys, shouldn’t there be at least one non-literal gag to enjoy? Wouldn’t some part of James’ great teasing Trilogy of Tight-Knottedness celebrate the incredibly transgressive, inscrutable, unstoppable FUN of sexual experiment and erotic excitement?
Where are the farcical phallic jokes? The sloppy puns? The slippery entendres and sassy pillow talks? Where, for heaven’s sake, is the great comedy of busy bodies falling across each other in exciting ridiculous ways? We don’t really seem to mind what’s missing either. Instead of getting hot and bothered by great sex between good people, readers and audiences are more entranced by a stiff (groaning pun intended) and icy erotic aesthetic that might be best classified as “Brain Dead Sexy.” Where is the sex farce and satyr play? Where are the May Day mummers and hot-blooded courtesans? Couldn’t Anastasia find better, more vibrant, and more virile company at Ridgemont High and wouldn’t Sob Sister Christian find riskier business during a quick power lunch at Porky’s? More importantly, wouldn’t we all?
For the time being, 50 Shades of Grey has brought sexually intimate fiction, erotically charged art, and “pervy” non-normative forms of sexual activity and exploration into the mainstream. If there is any greater “good” that could arise from Mr. Grey’s holsters, harnesses, and harangues, it is probably the widespread lessening of our national provincialism, righteous rigidity, and pervasive hypocrisy concerning the role that sexual pleasure, erotic performance, and perverse fetishes may have in our culture and our lives. But shouldn’t humor play a leading part in that voluptuous victory of good clean vice over venal virtue? Don’t we need the aggression and anarchy of comedy to satisfy our healthy sexual hungers? Whither wag our winsome willies and why do we seem to prefer them when they are locked away in Castle Greyskull or grimly sheathed in Steele? Wouldn’t it be more fun for everyone involved to just share the warmth of some good old fashioned American cherry, apple, or banana cream pie?
In 1984, a young filmmaker and a group of musically gifted comedians set out to make a low budget comedy and ended up inventing a genre. This is Spinal Tap was the directorial debut from Rob Reiner, who was then primarily known from his role as Michael “Meathead” Stivic from All In the Family. Reiner would go on to direct Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and Misery, among many other classic films.
This is Spinal Tap was filmed in a mere 25 days and was almost entirely improvised. The film, about the declining years of fictitious hard rock band Spinal Tap, spoofed not only the pretentiousness that had enveloped rock ‘n’ roll by the 1970’s, but the even greater pretentiousness surrounding rock journalism and documentaries, or “rockumentaries.” The deliciousness in This is Spinal Tap is that it was a double-edged sword, lampooning two separate phenomena and subcultures simultaneously and to perfection.
The method of filming, a series of interviews and footage told in a faux-documentary style became known as “mockumentary” and its influence can be seen in comedy today, from The Office to Modern Family, and especially in the Christopher Guest-helmed ensemble mockumentaries that have followed: Waiting For Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration.
I recently escaped the bitter chill of Philadelphia in early March and traveled to Zamorano University (affectionately referred to here as ‘Zamo’), an oasis of warmth situated approximately 45 minutes outside of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras (or ‘Tegus’ as the locals call it). I was fortunate to be a part of a course studying the language and culture of various groups, ranging in age from children to college students, while traveling. We had the unique opportunity to work with Zamo students on their conversational English through the sharing of ‘dichos’ or proverbs. While translation from Spanish to English often proved difficult, the proverbs presented a way to bridge the language gap. Students had the chance to act out their proverbs, all the while subjecting themselves to the laughter of their fellow Zamo classmates as well as a few giggles from the American students. We also worked with children at REMAR, an orphanage on the outskirts of Zamo. While this trip was momentous in many ways, it was here that I had a humor epiphany.
While there is much research on the understanding of humor through cross-cultural communication in the fields of psychology, sociology, linguistics, and others (Bell, 2002, 2007; Coulson et al., 2006; Hay, 2001; Carrell, 1997), my epiphany came through physical humor, the kind of slapstick we’re accustom to from the likes of Charlie Chaplin or The Three Stooges.
You see, in Honduras, soccer is ingrained into the fabric of everyday life. Boys and girls alike know how to ‘bend it like Beckham’ – seriously. One mention of Mario Martinez’s goal in the 2012 Olympic quarterfinals against Brazil brings nods and smiles to many of the young faces. In case you missed it, take a look:
At REMAR, the young children place soccer balls at their friends’ feet and emulate the master, volleying the ball between the posts with flawless precision. They then place a ball by my feet, and I cross it through the air and onto the foot of an anxiously awaiting 13-year-old who dreams of playing for FC Barcelona. When they direct me to stand by the goal line and await a pass, I play along. Not only do I miss, but the ball also pops up and hits my face, knocking me to the ground. It is while I am on the ground that I come to a realization: I hear the children laughing. Similarly to the Zamo students’ feelings while acting out their proverbs, I, too, felt a pang of gelotophobia. There existed a major similarity to the classroom activity and the game: slapstick humor, above all else, seems to be universal in cross-cultural communication. We encountered language barriers and a few laughs through the translations, but it was not until the Zamo students acted out the proverbs that a real bond formed between the two groups of students, the native Spanish and English speakers, through laughter. The children at REMAR picked me up and helped to dust me off, all the while laughing and ‘high-fiving’ me for my mishap. They referred to me as ‘Martinez’ for the rest of my time there – a joke – easily translated and understood by all.
Was it our ability to let down our guard, to fumble and be picked up, that made the communication between these diverse groups possible? Is there something in the mishaps of the body that translates better than language? What other types of humor easily translate across cultures? My epiphany, much like my soccer skills, is still under construction, but for now, I’m headed outside to practice.
c 2015 Tara Friedman
As a poor-quality young poet, my verses were overwrought, melodramatic, and a bit odd. Then I discovered James Tate, and I decided that if I was to be a poet, then an odd humor would be my game. Years of teenaged notebooks were filled with poems cribbed from Tate–aping his tone, style, and playful surrealism. Then I discovered that I didn’t want to be a poet. I’d leave that to my older brother.
After a few short films that might have been influenced by Tate, I ended up in grad school studying humor. No poetry, per se, in my research, but I like to go back to Tate once in awhile to rediscover some of that absurd magic that shaped–and might continue to shape–my experience of language.
With our poetry editor away for a few months, I decided to step in with a couple of my favorite poems by Tate. I also found this article–James Tate: “The Cowboy” How to be funny and sad. BY STUART KRIMKO–which discusses one of Tate’s poems in terms of humor. Here is Tate reading some of his poems, with a biography. And two of Tate’s poems.
Teaching the Ape to Write Poems
They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”
James Tate, 1943
from Absences. Copyright © 1970 by James Tate.
The List of Famous Hats
Napoleon’s hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous hat, but that’s not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all honesty wasn’t much different than the one any jerk might buy at a corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities. The first one isn’t even funny: Simply it was a white rubber bathing cap, but too small. Napoleon led such a hectic life ever since his childhood, even farther back than that, that he never had a chance to buy a new bathing cap and still as a grown-up–well, he didn’t really grow that much, but his head did: He was a pinhead at birth, and he used, until his death really, the same little tiny bathing cap that he was born in, and this meant that later it was very painful to him and gave him many headaches, as if he needed more. So, he had to vaseline his skull like crazy to even get the thing on. The second eccentricity was that it was a tricorn bathing cap. Scholars like to make a lot out of this, and it would be easy to do. My theory is simple-minded to be sure: that beneath his public head there was another head and it was a pyramid or something.
From Reckoner, published by Wesleyan University Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by James Tate
Can lovers ever really be fools? Can fools really lose themselves in romantic love? The lover and the fool are comic literary archetypes, but they are funny in very different ways. Lovers in romantic comedies typically exhibit buffoonish humor; these movies are funny at the expense of their protagonists. We think their counter-times and missed messages are humorous for the clumsiness and coincidence they reveal, but the characters do not “know” that their experiences seem funny. Hugh Grant’s romantic anxieties must be genuine anxieties for his character in order to be funny to his audience. Even Shakespeare’s Kate from The Taming of the Shrew must be sincere in her impetuousness for her audience, guided by a humorous theatrical interpretation, to find them outrageous and funny. But she is never laughing—her position is quite the opposite of amused, in fact.
The fool seems different. Fools know they are speaking in wit and riddle, and they are disinterested players without a personal stake in the interpersonal dramas before them. Shakespearean fools are often androgynous; they do not meddle, at least with any personal agenda, in human passions. King Lear’s fool makes the crudest, even the most scathing jokes, yet he is “boy” to Lear, and sometimes he is even played by the same actress who portrays Lear’s daughter Cordelia.
Hamlet has a touch of the fool; in fact, the court jester Yoric is one of the only personalities he respects in the play. I have sometimes wondered if the impossibility of his relationship with Ophelia has to do with his changing role from lover to fool. It seems he cannot be both at the same time. If the courtiers think Hamlet’s out of his mind, then they cannot at the same time think he is fit to marry Cordelia. As a fool he is somehow ineligible for romantic courtship.
Can there ever be a fool-type presence in romantic comedies? For a moment I wondered if the protagonist’s best friend or neighbor might embody the fool. I had in mind Rhys Ifans’s in Notting Hill, but he too is a buffoon as opposed to a knowing riddler, and he too eventually finds love.
Actually, the traditional fool bears a closer resemblance to the stand-up comedian, who is part court jester, part truth speaker, and in those respects the stand-up comedian is a derivative of the Shakespearean fool archetype. Although the stand-up comic’s jokes extend to areas of sexual life that no one else will touch, the comic often also mocks or cynically rejects his or her own romantic prospects. Louis C.K.’s brash jokes about his wife are in some sense a testament to this. When the wife became ex-wife, the jokes seemed more shocking in retrospect. But is it too much to say that the unattached comedian was then freed to become an even more disinterested player? Maybe.
Some stand-up comedians (Steve Martin, Michael Keaton, and Bill Murray come to mind) explore the lover’s role with success, but this only works if they change hats. It seems the lover cannot know that he is the one telling jokes; he must become the joke. He must surrender to the humiliating experience of being in love. One exception might be Groundhog Day (1993), where only the protagonist and the audience understand why this courtship through repetition is funny; and Murray’s lover-protagonist is not sure, until late in the film, that he wants to cultivate any lasting personal ties.
Traditionally, the court jester is in but not of society. It is his detached stance in the drama of life that gives the fool license to say things no one else can say. He must genuinely appear to have nothing to gain and nothing to lose.
When the stand-up comedian stays court jester and also tries to be the lover, the results are confusing—but interesting. Consider Chris Rock’s Top Five, which contains some of Rock’s most experimental and wild tangents into the sexually outrageous (I was reminded of a Laurence Sterne novel) as well as some of the rom-com genre’s more stilted courtship moments. The film represents vibrant new terrain for Rock, but it does not leave one feeling confidant that the stand-up comedian can seamlessly hop from comedy stage to lover’s lair.
Yet Rock’s new genre within the romantic comedy genre could represent a broadening shift for the fool. Unlike Hamlet, Rock’s protagonist is presented with a love interest, Rosario Dawson, who prizes the fool over the lover. In turn, Rock’s languishing stand-up comedian character finds new inspiration through love. It is a transition in progress to be sure, but perhaps these once distinct archetypes are merging into a single character. Perhaps the lover is becoming a little savvier and the fool just a little more tender.
The scene is a hospital room where Luke Dunphy, at age 14 the youngest of the Dunphy children, is being treated for an allergic reaction. His young cousin looks at the IV drop hanging by his bed and asks what it does. Without missing a beat Luke replies: ”I don’t know but thanks to Obama you’re paying for it”. This scene from an episode of the popular sitcom Modern Family, which aired the day after Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term in the White House in 2012, was greeted with cheer among conservatives. Several conservative bloggers and news outlets commented on how Modern Family ”mocked” the president’s signature health care reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act from 2010. The conservative website RedAlertPolitics expanded, writing: “even liberal Hollywood writers can’t escape the reality that is the expensive repercussions from Obamacare”. Others took to social media, within days several clips of the scene had been uploaded to YouTube and comments written on Twitter.
Commentators connected the joke to earlier reports of advertising plans in connection with the roll out of the online marketplace for the medical coverage in California. The New York Times had reported that suggestions from the Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide agency included having prime-time television shows, explicitly naming Modern Family and Grey’s Anatomy, incorporate the health care law into their storylines. The news of the plan was initially met with skepticism among conservative news outlets, criticizing viewers being “force-fed pro-Obamacare propaganda”. Following the Modern Family episode with the comment on the health care law these same voices gleefully saw it as a backlash towards the attempted marketing campaign.