Tag Archives: frogs

Culture Shock

I have just returned to the South, after two months in the West helping my mom in the wake of my dad’s death.  Getting home is bittersweet and exciting, but also something of shock.  Though the South and the West have much in common, in terms of how much both regions are shaped by their land and climate, by how much that land gets under your skin —  in the South, it’s a bit more literal.

Like chiggers, for instance.  Or the unforgettable burn of re-encountering a fire ant — two things I never knew existed until I moved here.  Or 90% humidity, which means that if anything sits still for more than half an hour, something green grows on it.  And something four-legged or six-legged walks across it, chased by something four-legged or eight-legged.

Okay, so it should be a picture of the spider, but the toads are SO much more friendly.

Okay, so it should be a picture of the spider, but the toads are SO much more friendly.

Dodging through the toads and frogs playing happily in the garage, my son dove for a bathroom that hadn’t been used in over 8 weeks, his urgency spurred by the last 6 hours without a break in the car in our hurry to get home.

“Mom! Come here!” Desperation tinged the voice.

“What?”

“There’s a spider in here!”

“That’s okay.  Spiders are our friends.  They eat the truly icky bugs.  No worries!”

“Mom!  Stop driveling — this is a spider!!”

And not just a spider.

Continue reading →

Advertisements

On E.B. White and the definition of humor.

Humor in America

Tracy Wuster

For two follow-up posts on this question, see:

Sharon McCoy, “Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?” and my piece here.

Born July 11, 1899.  White is famous for children’s books, style guides, and his work at the New Yorker, but in humor studies, he is probably best known for his introduction to the 1941 book, A Subtreasury of American Humor, which he edited with Katherine White.

E. B. White, subtreasury of american humor, frog

The beginning of White’s introduction is one of the most widely known statements about the study of humor, functioning as a witty injunction against the serious study of humor. It reads:

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific…

View original post 666 more words

Is a Joke Really like a Frog?

One of two pieces for today that discuss E.B. White’s famous discussion of jokes and frogs.

Humor in America

A commonly accepted truth holds that to explain a joke ruins it.

But is it true?

Humor depends upon some level of shared ground — a shared communal or cultural background that helps give the joke meaning.  Whatever theory of humor you ascribe to, or whichever theory is appropriate to a particular joke (the exposure of incongruities, aggression, assertion of superiority, masked aggression, suspended defense mechanism, surprise, etc.), it is the shared experience, assumptions, and vocabulary that together create the joke.  Humor reveals, therefore, the boundaries of a particular community.  Further, humor draws or re-draws those communal lines based on who “gets” the joke and who does not.  But whether the joke’s purpose is to more firmly draw the line between “us” and “them” or whether it seeks to bridge communal gaps and make “us” a larger set of people, explaining a joke works only when it is successful in…

View original post 1,893 more words

Mark Twain and The Jumping Frog

Tracy Wuster

One of the key moments in the career of Mark Twain was the tremendous success of his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” first published in the Saturday Post on August 12, 1865.  The reputation of this magazine as a key New York periodical, different in tone but of similar importance in its own literary culture as the Atlantic Monthly was in Boston, was certainly a boon to Twain’s East Coast reputation.  But as James Caron has argued in Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter, the importance of the jumping frog story in establishing Twain’s reputation may be overstated.[1]  Instead of a sudden burst into public consciousness, the piece represents the culmination of more than a year of success on both coasts, where newspapers had published Mark Twain’s writings for the Californian, a magazine aimed at national and international, rather than regional, audiences.[2]

Nevertheless, the story of the Jumping Frog quickly took a central, if possibly oversized, role in the public’s view of Mark Twain.  Writing in the New York Tribune in May 1867, the drama critic Edward “Ned” House wrote:
The chance offering of ‘The Jumping Frog,’ carelessly cast, eighteen months ago, upon the Atlantic waters, returned to him in the most agreeable form which a young aspirant for public fame could desire.  The wind that was sowed with probably very little calculation as to its effect upon its future prospects, now enables him to reap quite a respectable tempest of encouragement and cordiality.
For many years in the early career of Mark Twain, newspapers and magazines linked the fame of the Jumping Frog story to the fame of Mark Twain–sometimes very literally.
****
I would like to share three major images of Mark Twain in conjunction with his jumping frog.  First, and undoubtedly most famous, is the illustration by Frederick Waddy from the English journal Once a Week from December 1872, shortly after Twain’s first visit to England.
Mark Twain Jumping Frog Calaveras County
**Keep reading for two more images of Twain and the Jumping Frog.**

Rarely Seen!

                                                                                   Can’t be missed!
                                                                                         ****

Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?

A commonly accepted truth holds that to explain a joke ruins it.

But is it true?

Humor depends upon some level of shared ground — a shared communal or cultural background that helps give the joke meaning.  Whatever theory of humor you ascribe to, or whichever theory is appropriate to a particular joke (the exposure of incongruities, aggression, assertion of superiority, masked aggression, suspended defense mechanism, surprise, etc.), it is the shared experience, assumptions, and vocabulary that together create the joke.  Humor reveals, therefore, the boundaries of a particular community.  Further, humor draws or re-draws those communal lines based on who “gets” the joke and who does not.  But whether the joke’s purpose is to more firmly draw the line between “us” and “them” or whether it seeks to bridge communal gaps and make “us” a larger set of people, explaining a joke works only when it is successful in inviting more people into the joke’s particular community.

Explaining a joke means taking a risk.  It is a way of reaching out and trying to make a connection with someone who does not “get” it, someone who is outside the domain of the joke because he or she lacks some particular shared ground with you.  The fear that explaining a joke will ruin it reveals a fear that you don’t have as much in common with someone as you may have hoped.  The failure to actually explain the joke forces you to admit it.

Let’s look at this almost axiomatic quip on the subject, paraphrased from E.B. White¹:

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog.  Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

Personally, I have always found this to be a silly formulation in itself, because dissecting a frog does not kill it.  Think about it.  Can you imagine more a ludicrous slapstick routine than a bunch of students trying to dissect live frogs?  What makes anyone think that the frog would stand still for it?  A frog is dead before dissection, either preserved in formaldehyde; etherized or chloroformed; or, if a beating heart or reactive nervous system is required, pithed (the process of rendering the frog “brain dead” by inserting a needle and “scrambling” the brains).  No matter how you slice it, a frog is already dead before you dissect it.

White’s formulation shifts when we think of humor as founded in shared ground.  Analyzing humor becomes like dissection only if you assume that the joke is already dead, that there is no common ground between those who “get it” and those who don’t — and no way to create it.  His statement becomes, then, not a statement about the futility of analyzing humor, but about the lack of willingness to expand one’s community — or the profound pessimism and insecurity about whether the recipient of the explanation would want to join that community:   “Few are interested.”  I’m reminded of Groucho Marx’s quip, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

But setting aside for a moment the question of whether a joke can really be a frog, let’s examine the idea of analysis and dissection.  Dissecting a frog teaches us about frog anatomy, which is something relatively “few” people might be “interested” in, true.  But actually, the most important things we learn from such a dissection are about our own anatomy and physiology, or about the impacts of environmental or pollutant factors on one of the most vulnerable partners in any ecosystem.  In other words, if we’re willing to learn from it, dissecting a frog can teach us much about ourselves and about context.

So can analyzing humor, or explaining a joke.  Sometimes, explaining the joke can even become the joke.  Continue reading →