Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically)

Humor in America

Any time I get the chance to teach American satire, I begin by asserting its power. I use Mark Twain (who else?) to frame the course, taking a line from the Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” I imagine many teachers do the same thing. It is a wonderfully useful statement that grants an aura of legitimacy for the course.  It is also a rather conspicuous effort, as I fight off a perpetual fear that my students (and my peers) hold fast to an underlying belief that “serious” and “humorous” are opposing forces. I confess also that I add Twain’s line to soften my lurking guilt for being able to do something so thoroughly interesting and fun for a living. Still, I believe Twain’s assertion.

But I am having doubts.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone (29 Sep. 2011), Jon Stewart shares his…

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Satire and Conspiracy: Partisanship, Trolling, and the Poisoning of the Public Sphere

by George Carstocea

PhD candidate in Cinema and Media Studies @USCCinema. Occasional/lapsed photographer, filmmaker, actor.

This week, a conspiracy theory emerged in the fever swamps of the Internet, linking Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta to a ring of pedophiles and child abusers. A satirical website titled RealTrueNews posted a story satirizing the ridiculousness of some of the arguments in this conspiracy theory. Within a day, this satirical take was picked up and reproduced in earnest, word for word, by several right-wing conspiracy theory websites. The satirical article is credited to a “Max Insider,” one of the four posters on the website. The others go by the names “Projekt Pyramid”, “#NeverEVERHillary”, and “Lex Icon”. If you are still unsure about the satirical intent from the names, you need only to take a look at their About page and recent articles for proof.

Mr. Insider’s article begins with a link to the emergent conspiracy theory on the CT forum Godlike Productions. One of the supposed pieces of evidence proving this theory is a “suspicious” email found in the Podesta cache, from a Georgetown Law student to the Georgetown Law listserv, to which Podesta is evidently connected. You can find the original email on Wikileaks, but I won’t post a link to it here, for a reason I’ll make clear in just one second. Here are its contents:

My parents are visiting this weekend, and I need to sell my enormous collection of beanie babies! I’ve approximately 480 little creatures of joy, and I’m selling each one for $20.00. You must buy all 480, though. It is a collection (not an auction)… They are very respectful and amicable with one another, and they are (for the most part) cat and dog friendly. Some are sassier than others, naturally. Please let me know! My parents can’t find out.

On the Godlike Productions forum, this email seems to have given birth to some pretty far-fetched madness, although it was (1) not written by Podesta, and (2) not even addressed to Podesta, but rather to a listserv with many subscribers who are in no way related to the Clinton campaign. A sample:

Amusingly enough, this email isn’t even new to the Internet. It was shared — presumably by one of the many other people on the Georgetown Law listserv — on Imgur, picked up by Reddit, and then featured by Internet humor site Uproxx at the end of July, 2015.

At this point, you might wonder: was the initial email earnest? Uproxx makes fun of it as if it were, because the Imgur post includes an image of the beanie babies in question. Here it is, in all its glory:

However, that image had itself been posted, in April 2014 (more than a year before the Georgetown email), by a blog titled Perfectly Ridiculous, under the headline #tbt — a nostalgic throwback to the Beanie Baby craze. I’m not sure whether this is the first version of the image, but it’s the earliest I could find through a quick search; at any rate, it shows that the Georgetown email didn’t originate it.

In that context, and given the odd description of the Beanie Babies as “cat and dog-friendly” and “sassy” in the original email, we’re pretty much forced to surmise that this was a weird joke shared a bit too widely between coworkers at Georgetown. The person posting the email on the Cringe Pics subreddit was essentially doing what the initial sender did — sharing a ridiculous photo of too many beanie babies with a community that will likely have a quick laugh at it and move on with their day. Uproxx picked up the story and showed it to their own viewers for the same reasons, making fun of the initial sender’s ridiculous language as if it were earnest, missing the high probability that the initial sender was joking about it as well. That distantiation increased the chance of laughter, but also decontextualized the image — does the pattern sound familiar?. Luckily, it at least didn’t expose the original sender, redacting the sender address in the email screenshot.

But Wikileaks, of course, does not redact, so now the identity of the sender is publicly available and being bandied about by conspiracists. I will not reproduce it here because I don’t want to add to the damage myself. But the plot thickens. Some of the conspiracists who picked up the satire from RealTrueNews wholesale and redistributed it as fact had no idea that the Beanie Baby email contained an attachment of the goods in question. The Conservative Daily Post, however, took the attachment, analyzed it, noticed that it had been posted earlier, and adapted the conspiracy to the new information: the fact that the image had been posted earlier is, to them, proof of the Georgetown sender’s malevolent intent. I am posting a screenshot of their speculation here, redacting the Georgetown sender’s name myself, because this is an absurd witch hunt and he doesn’t deserve to get his name dragged across the Internet because he once sent a joke to his co-workers. Regardless of whether you find the initial joke funny or not, this certainly goes beyond my bounds for reasonable retribution/speculation:

Reminder: this e-mail was not even sent to Podesta, but rather to a Georgetown Law listserv that presumably has hundreds of members

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The Summer of Trump: Clown, Gasbag, Monster, Anti-PC Hero, and Other Images of THE DONALD

Only a few more days left…

Humor in America

Tracy Wuster

An update on a new image that emerged: The Fall of Trump: A New Image of the Donald

Like many observers this summer (and heading into fall), I have been fascinated by the rise (and continued buoyancy) of Donald Trump.  And like many, I considered him a joke at first.

Donald as clown

Early in the Trump Era ™, political cartoonists, like latenighthosts, were excited to have Trump for fodder.  And what is not to love (for a comedian): the hair, the brashness, the class, the near-constant stream of material… it’s the Donald.  He was a walking punchline before he entered the race.

Trump politcal cartoon

Especially for cartoonists: the hair. Earlier this summer, I was riding in a van in Oakland with Yakov Smirnoff, and he mentioned getting his start at a Trump casino.  Someone said, “you mean our next president.”  To which he replied, “no, he…

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In the Archives: Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate” (1879)

Posting without political intent or comment. For your consideration as you prepare for the third and final debate.

Humor in America

Tracy Wuster

To “celebrate” the Iowa Caucuses, we present Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate.”  In light of the sometimes depressing spectacle of the primary season, it is nice to see Twain’s refreshing candor.  Here it is, from June 1879:

Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens politics president Obama RomneyI have pretty much rkde 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 prowl around my biography in…

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At the Crux with Thomas Lux

lux

Thomas Lux Born December 10, 19464

Sardonic, startling, dark and direct.  This accessible, yet often existential poet writes incisive, meaningful poems. His cutting wit, dark humor and haunting irony are his trademarks.

With the debates in full swing, I thought it apt to share two of his protest poems. Enjoy!

The People of the Other Village

hate the people of this village
and would nail our hats
to our heads for refusing in their presence to remove them
or staple our hands to our foreheads
for refusing to salute them
if we did not hurt them first: mail them packages of rats,
mix their flour at night with broken glass.
We do this, they do that.
They peel the larynx from one of our brothers’ throats.
We devein one of their sisters.
The quicksand pits they built were good.
Our amputation teams were better.
We trained some birds to steal their wheat.
They sent to us exploding ambassadors of peace.
They do this, we do that.
We canceled our sheep imports.
They no longer bought our blankets.
We mocked their greatest poet
and when that had no effect
we parodied the way they dance
which did cause pain, so they, in turn, said our God
was leprous, hairless.
We do this, they do that.
Ten thousand (10,000) years, ten thousand
(10,000) brutal, beautiful years.

— Thomas Lux, 1994

 

Plague Victims Catapulted Over Walls into Besieged City

Early germ
warfare. The dead
hurled this way look like wheels
in the sky. Look: there goes
Larry the Shoemaker, barefoot, over the wall,
and Mary Sausage Stuffer, see how she flies,
and the Hatter twins, both at once, soar
over the parapet, little Tommy’s elbow bent
as if in a salute,
and his sister, Mathilde, she follows him,
arms outstretched, through the air,
just as she did
on earth.

— Thomas Lux, 1999

Concerning Cucurbit Comics, or 57 Years of Hilariously Sincere Waiting for The Great Pumpkin.

 

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When Charles Schulz first devised his running holiday gags involving an eager child’s confused blending of  Halloween and Christmas in October 1959, he never dreamed that the myth of the Great Pumpkin would become one of the most beloved and amusing elements of the Fall holidays. Like so many landmark Peanuts routines, what began as a simple joke about a seemingly quaint misunderstanding would eventually grow to sizable proportions throughout the decades, producing a number of memorable antics as well as some particularly pointed commentary on the values and risks of personal perseverance and popular scorn.

Five of the first seven “Great Pumpkin” strips reveal Linus Van Pelt spreading the joyful gospel that will eventually leave him humiliated as “a victim of false doctrine.”

first-strip

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fourth

heresy

shut-up

From then on, Schulz deftly milked the joke every season, focusing mainly on Linus’ unsinkable faith in his own personal legend of a charitable pumpkin-claus who brings toys and treats to good little kiddos awaiting his arrival in the truest, most earnest, and sincere pumpkin patch nestled somewhere in the Great American breadbasket. Playing harbinger to his Halloween hero, Linus’ tone could shift from zealous and prophetic to desperate and dejected, but still he spoke his truth and believed always in his misfit vision of the holiday. Now his legend is ours as well.

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Of course the 1966 TV special, one of many award-winning adaptations that launched Schulz’s Peanuts gang to worldwide fame, would provide the most resonant and popular of all Great Pumpkin routines. Culled largely from the comic strips, and lovingly tweaked for television by Schulz himself and long-time producer, Bill Melendez, the CBS special, like its Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter counterparts, became a seminal element of American holiday media, and its yearly broadcast remains a beloved tradition shared by generations of viewers and fans. It’s safe to say that, ironically, much of the media-driven world now sits eagerly each year with Linus in his pumpkin patch.

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Like Schulz’s tree-eating kite, Charlie Brown and Lucy’s perennial football foibles, and the poor Peanuts kids’ eternal inability to win baseball games – Linus’ yearly disappointment after the Great Pumpkin’s failure to appear makes grand, operatic comedy of frustration and regret. Linus’ agony over another year wasted, his sister’s disgust at her little brother’s unshakable delusion, Snoopy’s perpetual knack for appearing at just the right time to give the poor languishing martyr some hope, and especially smitten Sally’s endless threats of litigation and restitution for a night’s worth of lost candy all frame the Great Pumpkin as a fairly piquant allegory of the complexities of faith, fun, and friendship in America.

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The Garden of Curses: Down on the Farm with S.J. Perelman and Nathanael West

Joe Gioia

west:perelman

Let me propose that American literary humor, in becoming modern, branched in two during the Great Depression. On one side are absurd, language-driven vignettes, short magazine pieces ranging from whimsical to surreal where the narrator tries to make sense of, or at least describe, a crackpot world. This strand was largely created and mainly defined by S.J. Perelman, whose comic genius engendered two of the Marx Brothers’ best movies, Monkey Business (1931) and Horsefeathers (1932), and a steady stream of brilliant short pieces for (mainly) The New Yorker.

The other branch trades in black comic predicaments of grotesque dysfunction: a ridiculous overabundance of misery, of mental and physical illness and often absurd violence. Laughter here is defensive: relief at seeing something so horrible happen to someone else. This strain was best, and arguably first, articulated by Nathanael West, author of the superb short novels Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), who was, funny enough, Perelman’s brother-in-law.

In Perelman’s camp we find his older contemporaries, James Thurber and Robert Benchley, neither of whom had the idiomatic snap, that aggrieved brilliance and fine timing, that Perelman gave the form. Woody Allen and David Sedaris are his natural heirs, along with—in the sillier episodes with his oddly-named characters—Thomas Pynchon.

West’s example, heaping outlandish misery upon uncomprehending and helpless characters, has gained more followers: among the most notable being Joseph Heller (whose Catch-22 only gained wide recognition after Perelman praised it), Stanley Elkin, and David Foster Wallace.

And though West’s own work has never quite overcome the cult status given it following his untimely 1940 death, his artistry is now acknowledged, his works collected in a Library of America edition in 1997. The Day of the Locust may still be our best novel about Hollywood, made into a major 1975 film directed by John Schlesinger, starring Donald Sutherland and Karen Black, and creating, in one of its characters, a hopeless dope named Homer Simpson.

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Clinton vs. Trump Debate #1: A Humorous Primer

It’s here.  The event of the century.  The one we’ve all been waiting for with dread.

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

A selection of humor to help you prepare:

Trump Planning To Throw Lie About Immigrant Crime Rate Out There Early In Debate To Gauge How Much He Can Get Away With

HEMPSTEAD, NY—Saying he would probably introduce the falsehood in his opening statement or perhaps during his response to the night’s first question, Republican nominee Donald Trump reported Monday he was planning to throw out a blatant lie about the level of crime committed by immigrants early in the first presidential debate to gauge how much he’d be allowed to get away with.  More…

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

MORE AMERICANS EXPECTED TO SELF-MEDICATE THAN FOR ANY OTHER DEBATE IN HISTORY

With over a hundred million people projected to watch the debate, roughly sixty million of them will be barely sentient after ingesting what they deem to be the necessary dose of intoxicants.  More…

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

Blindfolded Clinton Invites Debate Coaches To Attack Her With Talking Points From All Sides

Standing slightly crouched with her fists raised up in front of her in the middle of her campaign office’s mock stage, a blindfolded Hillary Clinton reportedly implored her high-level staffers to attack her with talking points from all sides Wednesday in preparation for next week’s first presidential debate.  More…

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

TRUMP WARNS THAT CLINTON WILL RIG DEBATE BY USING FACTS

“You just watch, folks,” Trump told supporters in Toledo, Ohio. “Crooked Hillary is going to slip in little facts all night long, and that’s how she’s going to try to rig the thing.”  More…

trump clinton debate cartoon 2016

Stay safe out there.

Poll: 89% Of Debate Viewers Tuning In Solely To See Whether Roof Collapses

“Of the 2,000 individuals surveyed, we found that nearly nine in 10 said they would be watching tonight’s debate on the off-chance that they might get to witness the roof of Hofstra University’s Hagedorn Hall suddenly cave in and crush the nominees for president,” said Quinnipiac spokesman Michael Jovan.

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Lester Holt Begins Debate By Reminding Audience These The Candidates They Chose

“So, just as a recap: You had numerous options and a full year to decide on the candidates you wanted to be your next president, and these were the two you picked. These two. Right here. All right, now let’s begin.”

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The Music of the Coen Brothers – Part III

This is the third installment in a three-part series. Read part one and part two.

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“You should change into a suit.”

Joel and Ethan Coen’s previous film won four of its eight Oscar nominations. They followed the most acclaimed – and bleakest – film of their career with a return to what they do better than anyone – a screwball black comedy based on an original story.

In fact, Burn After Reading (2008) was the first film based on an original story by Joel and Ethan Coen since 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Part of Burn After Reading’s genius is in casting the A-list ensemble as total idiots. George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins all excel as earnest people with small, insignificant lives.

The film is a playful homage to the genre of Cold War spy movies.

Civilians Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand accidently find a copy of what they believe to be top-secret information belonging to a high level CIA agent. In fact, their find is merely the inconsequential memoirs of a disgruntled analyst with a drinking problem and an abusive, philandering, wife.

The characters are all idiots, on an idiotic mission. But they believe they are in real danger, involved in high-level espionage. Continue reading →

Send in the Clowns: A Note on Fear, Humor, and Painted Faces

First thing this morning, I received the following security alert sent by campus police:

“the UA campus is NOT on lockdown. Reports of clowns or any immediate credible threats on the UA campus are not true. These are unsubstantiated rumors. UAPD is patrolling campus.” Clowns roaming a college campus–who knew?

The fact is that numerous stories in varied media outlets have appeared concerning sittings of clowns in a variety of settings. These stories have tapped into a cultural phenomenon concerning our bizarre relationship with clowns. So, it seems logical to repost an earlier piece on the fear of clowns and comedy. Perhaps, it may help calm our fears, but in the meantime, please follow this basic bit of advice: do not follow a clown into the woods. OK?

Humor in America

Clown IT

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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