To celebrate the summer and to coincide with an impending Father’s Day, I am reposting this piece on National Lampoon’s Vacation. I reassert that the film is a formidable contribution to American humor, a fact made even more evident by the lame updated version of the film released in 2015 (simply titled Vacation), written and directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. The return to the Griswold family featured an adult Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) repeating the desperate but loving efforts of his father all those years ago. The film is just plain awful but still managed to make substantive money at the box office. I see that success as testament to the legacy of the original film along with the enduring appeal of disastrous family vacations in the American psyche. The original film remains the seminal statement of this beautiful and dysfunctional family ritual.
In the summer of 1983, Americans were treated to one of the best comedy films to examine the American family vacation and its inescapable heart of darkness: National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis and written by John Hughes, who based the screenplay on his short story “Vacation ’58.” The film stands as the best cultural document to exploit the humor of the American family vacation, that mainstream celebration reasserting the right to own the landscape and be miserable in the process–and all at great expense. There is no cultural behavior that is so consistently marked with promise year after year and also, in equal proportions, disappointment–unless we talk about marriage itself, but I dare not suggest that.
Few movies tapped into the zeitgeist more effectively than Vacation. This is not only evidenced by its success in the marketplace, immediately in that big first summer (most online sources assert a box office of $61,000,000 and a budget somewhere around $15 million) ; then also with the continuing payoff from the sequels it encouraged and the high-rotation syndication it has earned for the last thirty years. There are few film or television families with greater reach into American culture than the Griswolds.
The film is especially poignant to American fathers who, no matter what other factors come into play, enter upon this challenge as if they are performing a noble duty to God and Country. (I hasten to add that women–mothers–have their own nightmares of the family vacation, primarily built around having to recreate the domestic space in any and all spaces occupied by the family–talk about exhaustion!–but Vacation is driven in all ways by Clark, the failed provider.) When a father begins a family vacation, the task is taken on out of a feeling of obligation first and foremost, not a desire for relaxation. As Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) puts it; the family is on a “quest for fun,” a perpetual search just as elusive as any effort to find the Holy Grail.
It is the delving into the pathetic psyche of the mainstream American father who chooses year after year to endure the ritual that makes Vacation such a compelling example of American humor. Every father is Clark Griswold, a bumbling simpleton with a good heart but very little understanding of his limitations.
Chevy Chase, in his dream role, deserves an Oscar in his creation of Clark Griswold simply for making him worthy of our sympathy. He is both ridiculous and believable. He is a first-rate idiot, bless his heart. But he keeps trying because he understands what all American family vacation providers understand: he cannot stop. Stopping is failure. Deep down he must always believe that the obeisance of such a powerful ritual will be repaid. Marty Moose owes us.
As I write this, I am on vacation, and I am exhausted. I can’t wait to get home so that I can get some rest. I am going to float the idea of leaving a day early. But in the meantime, today is for sea kayaks. The four of us will explore like Lewis and Clark. The sea looks a bit angry today, but what could go wrong? Good family fun, with a hint of danger, or at least….hassle.
Teaching American Humor: Laughing with Laugh Tracks
My life would be better with a laugh track. My writing would be better, too. So would your reading experience–well, with a laugh track and a few drinks…
I am with the majority opinion on this issue, at least according to most producers of American situation comedies for the last sixty years. The reasoning behind the laugh track, as I see it, goes like this: A laugh track makes people laugh; people who laugh enjoy situation comedies; people who enjoy situation comedies see plenty of commercials; people who see commercials while in a good mood tend to buy things; a laugh track makes people laugh, and so on… Those who buy and sell commercials fund sitcoms, and they have never been inclined to trust writers or audiences. Neither do I.
I have skillfully written two first-rate jokes thus far. But, of course, you can’t really know that because this post does not have a laugh track. I spent several hours trying to insert laugh track audio here and failed. That’s funny–I think–but how can any of us be sure?
Teaching the American sitcom requires some discussion of laugh tracks. I admit that I have only glossed over laugh tracks in courses on American humor thus far. This has been a mistake. I have awakened to an obvious point: laugh tracks provide a compelling way for students to consider a more challenging array of characteristics of the art form–from the aesthetic to the mundane, from the heart of performance to the mechanics of production, from the implicit honesty of comedy to the manipulative potential of technology. From now on, I will begin all coursework focused on the sitcom with the laugh track.
Here is how I came to this astounding awakening; it’s all about The Big Bang Theory. I like the show (though I can’t decide whether I should consider it a “guilty pleasure” or an appreciation of solid, if broad, writing). The laugh track, however, drives me crazy. It is loud and intrusive. I don’t believe it at all. I am not alone. Any quick Google search of “laugh tracks” will provide over 31,000,000 hits. Type in “Big Bang Theory,” and you will find 127,000,000 hits, virtually all of which refer to the show (I didn’t check out all of them, by the way. I simply reached that conclusion using the scientific method based on my observations of the first two pages). Here is a fact: lots of people care about the television show; almost nobody cares about the scientific theory. A search of the show title combined with “laugh tracks” gets 181,000 hits. Lots of people hate the laugh track (lots of people hate the show, too). YouTube has plenty of clips of the show with the laugh track removed. Here are two examples:
These clips draw out two basic responses from interested parties: one, that the show is hurt by the laugh track (so the complaint concerns its use rather than the inherent quality of the show itself); two, that the laugh track lamely attempts to cover up a lousy show. There is no reconciling of these opposing positions, but the removal of the laugh track is disingenuous in that it creates a show wherein the comedic timing has been wholly distorted. The Big Bang Theory is filmed in front of a live audience, and the performance reflects the interaction between audience and cast. The producers of the show claim that the audience responses are genuine and have not been “sweetened,” a term to imply that the laughter has been engineered in production to enhance audience responses. This claim is disingenuous as well. Any production process will inevitably “sweeten” the final product–from placement of microphones to volume applied. All steps in the process of preparing a show for airing are a form of “sweetening.” Simply because the producers do not use canned laughter (laughter recordings NOT from an live audience) does not mean that no laughter manipulation occurs. Of course it does. As always, The Onion provides the best satirical take on laugh tracks with the show by simply raising the volume of the laugh track so that it wholly overpowers the show itself: Big Bang Theory with laugh track enhanced by The Onion
I am a sucker for romantic comedies. I am not alone. Americans have loved romantic film comedies for just short of 100 years now with an unparalleled degree of passion and even zealotry. I am a zealot. What else could explain my love of The Wedding Singer? OK, that’s a cheap shot at the film just for a rhetorical joke. I regret it already, so I will confess a simple fact: I love The Wedding Singer and without hesitation will defend it as Adam Sandler’s best comic performance. OK, even as I type this I realize that such an assertion could be taken ironically or as a shot at Sandler. Once such jokes start, they are hard to stop. The truth is simple, though: I will watch The Wedding Singer and enjoy it any chance I get. The Steve Buscemi cameo alone makes it time well spent. Take a moment with it: Steve Buscemi in The Wedding Singer
Back to the popularity of romantic comedy. Go ahead and do a Google search for “popularity of romantic comedies”: 7,280,000 hits. That is a scientifically irrefutable testament to their cultural centrality. Just to seal the point with a point of comparison, a control group of sort for popularity: type in “popularity of Taylor Swift” and you will get 592,000 hits. That’s a large response but paltry compared to the rom-com, even though Swift’s music is in its own way a celebrant of romantic comedy. One more, in case you are not convinced: type in “popularity of Kanye West”: 545,000 (and trending downward), another win for Taylor Swift! But we are way off the point that I want to make here, which is this: romantic film comedies are crucial to the survival of the United States.
And they are in trouble.
The popularity, though many academics pretend not to understand it, is quite simple. The formula affirms basic human desires for–get this–happiness. Imagine that. This desire is especially central American culture since we inculcate the core aspiration (expectation) of happiness in our founding political and social ideology: the pursuit of happiness as an essential right. The romantic comedy simply affirms that happiness can be attained via love balanced with good-hearted laughter. The combination is perfect and whereas it leads to repetition and convention, so does life itself. Have you noticed?
We remain keenly interested in artistic expressions that celebrate love and laughter. The wonderful minds at Cracked have given us a fine discussion on the romantic comedy as form and cultural statement. The formula is indeed vulnerable to parody and mockery. Here is one of the most astute skewering of romantic comedy formula that also, in its own way, affirms the human desire it offers audiences: from Cracked, After Hours, on rom-com formula
The romantic comedy as an art form is yet again under attack. Plenty of people dismiss the predictable formula and the sheer repetitiveness, and, supposed schmaltz of romantic comedy films. That has always been the case, even as multitudes of moviegoers have supported that formula generation after generations.
No other form of popular artistic expression comes close to capturing the absurd vagaries of life on this planet while also maintaining a desire among its audience to continue living and laughing. Cynical ironists, however remarkably clever, always ignore the second but crucial component of the preceding point: humans generally want to be happy on some level. A human willingness to observe the “absurd vagaries of life,” as I put it, rarely comes with any desire to stop believing in the potential to be happy. Thus a paradox, of sorts. On the one hand, there is the human recognition of the Void (the stuff of nihilism, postmodernism, and The Family Guy); on the other hand, there is the human belief in two related expressions that reject the implications of that recognition: love and laughter. Romantic comedies, as the name impliles, bring those two wonderful human aspirations together. In the United States, that combination resonates like no other, and we cannot lose that advantage.
Only one definitive component of American cultural identity really matters: the push to pursue happiness. All else comes from that cultural imperative, all of our comedy and all of our romantic dreams. It is farce and inspiration all wrapped together. And the energy built from that vortex of tension makes for a vibrant comedic landscape. But American humor must always depend on the expectation of romantic celebration that we will live happily ever after. If that bothers you, go look in a mirror and say, “I am a tedious bore,” and leave romantic comedies alone.
Photographs of Gertrude Stein are typically humorless.
Take this almost stern-looking image of her at work or this one with her Baltimore friends, Etta and Claribel Cone, who later visited Stein in Paris and were inspired, through her, to bring the remarkably large and impressive Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art of Cubist and Impressionist art to Baltimore.
Or this famous Picasso portrait of the author, which seems to capture the pensiveness and glumness of her era.
Even Kathy Bates’s portrayal of Stein in Woody Allen’s well-timed comedy Midnight in Paris is one of the least funny impersonations in the film.
Yet her poetry is nowhere near this sober.
Below is a short appreciation of a few of her poems. Like conceptual art, they create meaning through grammatical disorientation, repetition, and odd angles. And like conceptual art, their strangeness can really make a reader mad unless that reader is prepared, as very few museum-goers are, to find this all amusing and then begin to dissect the puzzle.
Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art:
And as you read you may also wonder (my students often do) whether this writing is nothing more than pretentious word vomit––a clever if silly mind game––or does it contain pleasant, even human levity–even a touch of soul.
Does the humor, if it’s there, come from our own ability to laugh at ourselves, having discovered through her poetry that we are too precious about and at the same time not careful enough about language? Should we feel serious about overturned grammar, or should we feel playful about it, or both? Should we laugh at repetition or feel that it’s meaningful, or both?
Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art:
Nearly seventy years after her death, this kind of poetry is rich with the heaviness of her time: world wars; gender prejudice, even from those she mentored and guided; anti-semitism–even perhaps her own self-directed variety; stark inequalities between classes; and perhaps understandably bleak, bleak views of life among artists. Although her words carry this heritage and the mark of her time, she breaks open language and almost seems to free it from its literal certitudes. In this respect she is like Emily Dickinson; both were masters of language, yet in their baffling play, they almost seem to prefer giddiness and silence.
Image of Gertrude Stein’s deceptively dreary home while studying as a medical student in Baltimore:
Gertrude Stein, “Susie Asado” from Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. (New York: Peter Smith Publishing, 1992). Copyright © 1992 by Calman A. Levin, Executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein. Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.
Source: The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry Third Edition (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2003)
A Substance in a Cushion
The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.
Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men. Does this change. It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.
A cushion has that cover. Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clean that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange. Come to season that is there any extreme use in feather and cotton. Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them.
A circle of fine card board and a chance to see a tassel.
What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it. The question does not come before there is a quotation. In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense. It shows what use there is in a whole piece if one uses it and it is extreme and very likely the little things could be dearer but in any case there is a bargain and if there is the best thing to do is to take it away and wear it and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning gratitude.
Light blue and the same red with purple makes a change. It shows that there is no mistake. Any pink shows that and very likely it is reasonable. Very likely there should not be a finer fancy present. Some increase means a calamity and this is the best preparation for three and more being together. A little calm is so ordinary and in any case there is sweetness and some of that.
A seal and matches and a swan and ivy and a suit.
A closet, a closet does not connect under the bed. The band if it is white and black, the band has a green string. A sight a whole sight and a little groan grinding makes a trimming such a sweet singing trimming and a red thing not a round thing but a white thing, a red thing and a white thing.
The disgrace is not in carelessness nor even in sewing it comes out out of the way.
What is the sash like. The sash is not like anything mustard it is not like a same thing that has stripes, it is not even more hurt than that, it has a little top.
A Little Called Pauline
A little called anything shows shudders.
Come and say what prints all day. A whole few watermelon. There is no pope.
No cut in pennies and little dressing and choose wide soles and little spats really little spices.
A little lace makes boils. This is not true.
Gracious of gracious and a stamp a blue green white bow a blue green lean, lean on the top.
If it is absurd then it is leadish and nearly set in where there is a tight head.
A peaceful life to arise her, noon and moon and moon. A letter a cold sleeve a blanket a shaving house and nearly the best and regular window.
Nearer in fairy sea, nearer and farther, show white has lime in sight, show a stitch of ten. Count, count more so that thicker and thicker is leaning.
I hope she has her cow. Bidding a wedding, widening received treading, little leading mention nothing.
Cough out cough out in the leather and really feather it is not for.
Please could, please could, jam it not plus more sit in when.
November 30, 2015 will be celebrated as the 180th birthday of one Mark Twain—novelist, humorist, and all around American celebrity. I, for one, will not be celebrating.
You see, I recently finished up a book about Mark Twain, and I know, for a
fact, that Mark Twain was born on February 3, 1863. Or thereabouts. No one knows for certain, but that is as certain as we can be, so that is enough. And not so much born, but created, or launched…inaugurated…catapulted…
That means that this February 3, 1863 will be Mark Twain’s 153rd birthday, which is not that fancy of a number, but it is getting up there for someone still so famous as to have people writing books about him—and more importantly, people reading books by him.
Sure, everyone knows that “Mark Twain” was really the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Even early in his career, almost everyone knew that, often using the names interchangeably, as most Americans still do. Not as many people know the names Samuel Clemens used an abandoned before creating Mark Twain: “Grumbler,” “Rambler,” “Saverton,” “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab,” “Sergeant Fathom,” “Quintus Curtis Snodgrass,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh.” Selecting “Mark Twain” was clearly a wise choice, although the name would have had a second, nautical meaning for many nineteenth century folk.
Samuel Clemens mixed up the use of his given name and his chosen name—making the whole distinction a mush of confusion that is either a bonanza of psychological material or, alternately, meaningless. For most people, I would guess the distinction is meaningless trivia, which is fine. I’m just happy people still know and read books by Mark Twain. But, I for one, will still grumble when people wish Mark Twain a “Happy Birthday” each November 30th, and I will still try to correct them by pointing out that the “Mark Twain” they refer to really was born—or created—on February 3rd, 1863.
But what does it matter?
Since the days the Toast of the Town and the Texaco Star Theater late-night talk shows have, under the guidance of television legends like Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin, evolved into a humor institution in the United States. Late-night talk shows enjoy a very public and influential position in American life, which is why controversies within the subject have such a significant news value. When Carson, the King of Late Night, quit the choice of replacement caused a rift between Jay Leno and David Letterman that was covered by the press and actually resulted in a HBO film adaptation. Some two decades later, when Leno asked for his show back months after retiring and handing the show over to Conan O’Brien, the fight was again fought out in public. Given their roles as the nation’s public humor institutions, late-night talk shows are also attractive for presidential candidates hoping to form their image in a light setting.
Back in 2012 President Barack Obama joined Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show for an interview and a segment called Slow Jam the News, where he recited news while Fallon provided comedic commentary and his house band The Roots provided a smooth musical soundtrack. The appearance was hailed by the audience but criticized by conservative commentators. Gretchen Carlson on Fox News lamented how the appearance “lowers the status of the office” and called it “nutso”.
Similarly, when Obama recently visited Jimmy Kimmel Live! he participated in one of the show’s most popular comedy segments: Mean Tweets. The bit is very simple, a celebrity reads actual negative messages directed at them on Twitter while Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. plays in the background. While the appearance was incredibly popular, drawing millions of views on YouTube, some found it unworthy of the presidency.
When will we get a President who is more like a behind the scenes CEO and not a megalomaniacal elected dictator obsessed with fame and public image?”
Yet late-night television appearances have long been a part of the political sphere. Going back to 1960, both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon visited Jack Paar on the Tonight Show. Ronald Reagan appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the run-up to his campaign to unseat Gerald Ford as the Republican nominee in 1976. When Bill Clinton came on The Arsenio Hall Show and showed off his saxophone talent, political commentators accused him of demeaning the presidency, yet the appearance came to shape his image as a relatable leader. The same quality helped George W. Bush 8 years later, as he showed off his folksy side in late-night chats.
Like it or not late-night television is an appreciated domain for politicians seeking or holding the highest office. This has been especially clear this autumn as the race for the 2016 election is moving into high gear. Since the end of August a presidential contender has appeared on one of the main late-night talk shows a total of 14 times (as of October 28, 2015). The number can be viewed as both high (roughly every third night of late-night, there is a candidate campaigning) and low (when combining the Democratic and Republican fields the candidates, including the ones who have now dropped out, exceed twenty). There is clear patterns visible in these appearances; the bulk of them are on Stephen Colbert’s new Late Show (5) or Comedy Central’s two late-night shows (3). Neither James Corden nor Conan O’Brien have hosted any candidates this fall and Kimmel has only had Bernie Sanders on. It is clear that Colbert is staying with what he knows and is making his domain one far more political than his late-night competition (besides the presidential candidates he has hosted the First Lady, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senators John McCain and Elizabeth Warren, and even Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer). Despite the far broader Republican field they have only one more appearance on late-night thus far this autumn, with five candidates appearing twice; Secretary Hillary Clinton, Governor Martin O’Malley, Senator Bernie Sanders, Governor Chris Christie, and of course Donald Trump.
With the exception of the late-night veteran Trump, the only candidate from the conservative wing who has entered the lion’s den is Senator Ted Cruz. For late-night remains a space that can be uncomfortable for conservatives, and indeed Cruz was booed by the studio audience for his conservative views. Stephen Colbert pleaded with the audience to show Cruz respect as an invited guest and has taken decisive steps for partisan balance among his guests. But it is clear that the arena is far more risky for conservative candidates than moderate or liberal ones.
For more commentary on the 2016 elections, check out the interdisciplinary election podcast Campaign Context at www.campaigncontext.wordpress.com.
I wish I had coined the phrase: “The John Oliver Effect.” I wish I had jumped onto the John Oliver bandwagon before this past June when I first wrote about it for Humor in America. I wish more people had read my post in June. Here is the link to it for those who want a second chance: John Oliver, FIFA, American Humor, and Topic Sentences. The title is a bit long. I see that now. This follow-up post is better since is shamelessly rides the crest of the “John Oliver Effect” wave. About 60 words into the post, and I have used it three times, including the title. I am seeking traction. John Oliver Effect.
The phrase was coined by Victor Luckerson for Time online (20 January 2015): How the ‘John Oliver Effect’ is Having a Real-Life Impact. At least I think he coined it. In any case, although he introduces it as “so-called John Oliver Effect,” implying that someone had already “called” it, the internet has decided that he coined it based on the multitude of sources that use it and cite him as the originator. I’m in, too.
In a compelling article, Luckerson examines how reactions to particular sketches on Last Week Tonight have encouraged specific responses in the public square. In an especially useful post following the same idea, Sara Boboltz, for the Huffington Post (HuffPost Comedy) discusses ten specific segments from the show: 10 Real-Life Wins for John Oliver. Although I certainly quibble with the tendency in both pieces to use the term “real-life,” I will avoid a tedious existential argument here and simply say that both writers successfully capture a crucial transition in television comedy history. The list of segments from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that deserve substantive attention in the pubic sphere is growing. The show, in no uncertain terms, encourages and even demands responses from politicians, policy-makers, public figures, and, well, from all of us.
This follow-up post on the show reiterates my belief that the most important characteristic of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is the essential quality of the writing. In particular, the thesis-driven approach to satirical humor that the show promotes is deepening the dialogue on any of a number of issues, and it does so with great skill and, so far, substantive success. It is television comedy in long-form, expository writing. What Last Week Tonight is proving that American audiences, indeed, can have an attention span greater than amphibians, current polling on the presidential race notwithstanding. Moreover, humor is effective in proving points. Who knew?
More and more viewers and critics are noticing. The show has earned four Emmy nominations for 2015: for “Outstanding Variety Talk Show Series”; “Outstanding Picture Editing for a Variety Series”; “Outstanding Interactive Program”; and “Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series.” It is the last one that has the most implications for the quality of the show and its long-term impact on American humor and satire. We will find out the results on the Emmys to air on Sep. 20th. Although the competition is formidable, the conclusion should be clear. Long form writing deserves its due.
In the much heralded–and very funny–Daily Show with Jon Stewart farewell episode, the brief banter between Stewart and Oliver was both funny and telling. The core joke, quite simply, was built around the definitive difference between the two shows and their approaches to humor and culture. Here is a link to the segment, wherein Oliver’s part starts five minutes into the seven-minute clip: John Oliver on Jon Stewart’s final Daily Show. The bit begins as Oliver goes on and on about his first day on set. Stewart tries to get Oliver to be more brief in his narrative, saying, “We’re gonna have to pick up the pace, just a smidgen.” To that Oliver responds, “No, no, no, no…we can’t. When something’s important, it’s worth taking the time to discuss it in depth. I’m talking fifteen, eighteen, even twenty minutes, if necessary. Otherwise, what are you really doing?”
This is a direct reference to the writing style of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, wherein the thesis-driven segments run, generally, 15-20 minutes. The comic but pointed rhetorical question is a good one for any politically conscious humor: “What are you really doing?”
Clearly, Last Week Tonight is accomplishing something substantive. Allie VanNest in Parse.ly (8 Sep 2015, Measuring the Impact of ‘The John Oliver Effect’) demonstrates a clear impact of Oliver’s segment examining chicken farming. Here is a link to the segment on YouTube: .
VanNest includes a graph revealing the impact this particular segment had on public awareness. The data is not ambiguous here. VanNest acknowledges that the more seemingly obscure the subject is, the more easily the John Oliver Effect can be measured. Still, the graph below nonetheless offers a formidable indication of the potential of the approach that Last Week Tonight is taking.
I argued in the earlier piece that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, though equally funny to any late-night peers, aspires to alter public debate in a much more clearly articulated manner than any of its predecessors. It is all in the thesis and the sustained argument, all supported by carefully considered evidence, all made palatable with humor. Here is my advice to writing teachers: use John Oliver to teach argumentative writing. Everyone will win with this approach. Call it the John Oliver Effect. It may actually change things.
An Afternoon with Mairéad Byrne
Poet Mairéad Byrne came to us on a cold, windy, April Fool’s Day. Her poem “Spring” perfectly illustrated her presence on campus:
After a long winter, April and the promise of sunshine and warmth made us almost giddy as we filed into the auditorium. During her reading, students seemed a bit more . . . aware; faculty seemed a bit more . . . cheerful. We had endured 31 of the darkest days on record, and now Mairéad Byrne, our April, was reading from her collection You Have to Laugh: New + Selected Poems (2013), a compilation of witty and clever musings rife with a propensity toward sadness (“Crop”) and self-deprecation (“Things I’m Good At”; “I Went to the Doctor”). If you are new to her, Byrne is an Irish emigrant living in Providence, RI, and teaching at RISD (below: her faculty profile video).
Even though it is still some 16 months to the 2016 presidential elections the campaign is already well under way with most candidates officially declared as candidates. With any presidential campaign comes great humor, something Jon Stewart has brilliantly reminded us of for the last 16 years. One aspect of the campaigns which often provide a few chuckles are election adverts. Most of these laughs seem to be inadvertent, like that of Senator Ted Cruz who claimed to almost have fallen out of his chair laughing when he saw a pro-Hillary ad made by a Super PACs in which an unidentified cowboy sang a country song about standing with Hillary. Or when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released video material online in 2014, apparently for the use of Super PACs, and Jon Stewart pounced on the opportunity to create the trending hashtag “mcconnelling” where the video is set to a humorous choice of music. In her authoritative book on presidential campaign advertising Kathleen Hall Jamieson points out an earlier example where Eisenhower proclaimed that his wife, Mamie, “gets after me about the high cost of living. It’s another reason why I say, it’s time for a change.”
Yet, as long as there has been political television ads, there has also been attempts at deliberatively funny election ads. Among the first is an ad by Adlai Stevenson’s campaign in 1952 where he suggests a bromance between the moderate Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower and defeated conservative candidate Robert A. Taft. The ad is meant to link the former to the latter’s policies by having two syrupy voices infatuated call out the names Ike and Bob to each other.
The most common use of humor in campaign ads are attempts at ridicule. The most notable example, and probably the most effective example as well, is the 1988 ad that showed the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis driving around in a tank while a voice-over details his weak record on defense. The ad, which The Washington Post recently described as “the stuff of legend in campaign circles”, made perfect use of the juxtaposition of the visual material and the message. Dukakis is driving around in circles in a tank in what appears to be an empty field. Most damning, Dukakis, smiling broadly, looks inescapably silly with a funny-looking helmet and an army-green jumpsuit over his, still visible, suit and tie. Attempts to replicate the successful ad include one from 2004 featuring Democratic candidate John Kerry windsurfing while the narration portrays him as a flip-flopper. Since at least the days of Abraham Lincoln the issue of changing positions and thus poor credibility has been politically dangerous and with the advent of television the issue has been the source of many humorous ads. One of the best known is visually simple, putting the face of Republican candidate Richard Nixon on a weathervane while a narrator lists his changing positions. Four years later, Nixon returned the favor by putting a poster of Democratic candidate George McGovern on both sides of a pole and turning it around after every changing position the voice-over details. The same idea was driven home in an ad by the George H. W. Bush team in 1992 that explains the contradictory positions of two undisclosed candidates before revealing that both are Bill Clinton. Making the ad extra funny is a zinger at the end of the ad, Clinton commenting that “there is a simple explanation for why this happened.”
Another prevalent theme in humorous campaign ads, especially during the last two decades, is to present statements by the opponent and then question them in a style reminiscent of the popular SNL sketch “Really with Seth and Amy”. The best example is an ad from the 2000 election that features a snippet of Al Gore stating “I took the initiative, in creating the internet.” The female voice-over comments “Yeah, and I invented the remote control, too.” The line “Oh, really?” returns in a curious 2004 ad produced in the visual style of the spy comedy Austin Powers, with the film’s star Mike Myers providing a narration questioning John Kerry’s comments. A Kerry ad from the same election features the “Oh Really?” in bold letters in response to George W. Bush’s claims about the turning the corner.
As with editorial cartoons the humorous ads work best in cases where they only need to remind voters of worries they already have about a certain candidate, instead of actually planting new ideas. I will try to illustrate this last point with two ads. In 1956 the democrats aired an ad with a picture of Vice-president Nixon and a narrator asking “nervous about Nixon? President Nixon?”. The ad is short and to the point but neither humorous nor very persuasive. Making the same point, an ad from 1968 features a man laughing while a pan-out of a television screen reveals the question “Agnew for Vice-President?”. In the end the man’s laughter turns into violent coughing and the text “this would be funny if it weren’t so serious” appears. By adopting laughter the ad illustrates the silliness of the idea of the inexperienced Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew a heartbeat away from the presidency in a way far more convincing than the Nixon ad from 12 years earlier. This shows how and why humor, while hard to wield, can indeed be a useful political tool.
Rue Gît le Coeur: street where lies the heart. On a tiny street in Paris, about a quarter of the length of a New York City block and just a little wider than a Venice passageway, lies a minuscule hotel. Its rooms, replete with medieval-era wooden beams and matching pastoral designs on the wallpaper and curtains, are just as tiny; only one person can move around in the room at a time. The elevator, too, can manage only one person per trip. Charming and minute, there is no space in this hotel for oversized couches and exercise rooms; there is barely space enough to stretch out your arms and yawn, let alone sing.
When I visited this sequestered street last year—almost hidden in the midst of a crowded tourist district—I was amused and surprised to see the plaques, figured prominently on the hotel’s front façade, and the photographs displayed proudly in the lobby, honoring several Beat-era poets who had stayed there more than half a century ago. According to one of the plaques, William S. Burroughs supposedly wrote Naked Lunch there.
This hotel is to architecture what haiku is to literature: charming, ancient, and airtight—“no room for petty furniture,” as Emily Dickinson writes of compressed poetry. If there is a general view of Beat-era poetry, it is that it rides the force of Whitman’s barbaric yawp and delights in expansiveness, open vistas, and freedom. So it is a little unexpected and amusing to imagine multiple Beat poets writing productively in this very cozy, well-appointed hotel, just as there is something unexpected about the Beat poet who ventures into the space of haiku.
Jack Kerouac did not join his colleagues at this hotel, but he did spend considerable time within the small chamber of the haiku, testing its edges, poking fun at its purpose, and stumbling into very sweet encounters with its essence. Yet what stands out in his playful attempts with the form (which he renamed “Pop”) is their humor.
In his Book of Haikus, edited in 2003 by Regina Weinreich, Kerouac toys with nature. In the Japanese tradition of seventeenth-century poet Matsuo Basho, haiku juxtaposes something man-made with something from the natural world. Generally in Basho’s poetry, nature complements if not soothes loneliness.
without flowers or moon
one is alone.
(Matsuo Basho, The Complete Haiku, translated by Jane Reichhold (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008)
However, in Kerouac’s haiku, man and nature collide, confront one another, or fumble towards connection.
A raindrop from
Fell in my beer
(New York: Penguin Poets, 2003), 30
Where Basho’s natural elements blend with or serve to illuminate the human situations in his haiku, Kerouac’s speakers sometimes come off as annoyed with nature.
don’t be like me
even though we’re like the melon
split in two.
Nature is a not a metaphor in Kerouac’s haiku, but an encounter—even a clash:
Bee, why are you
staring at me?
I’m not a flower!
The earth winked
In the john
In his imitations of the Japanese model, Kerouac produces humor by reversing the direction of the metaphor: human experience is no longer compared to something beautiful in nature; rather, nature interferes with or is pitted against man-made entities.