Tag Archives: Funny

The Funny Ritual of the American Family Vacation

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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.

National Lampoon's Vacation chevy chase family vacation

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 vacation

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.

Chevy chase punches moose at wally world

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.

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John Oliver, FIFA, American Humor, and Topic Sentences

Oliver Show TitleJohn Oliver got rid of Sepp Blatter. That would be a bold statement if I cared at all about Sepp Blatter or FIFA. I do not. I do care, however, about John Oliver, my favorite funny person from Great Britain (currently; it is a long list). More importantly, for this venue, is the contribution that John Oliver with his work on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) is making to American humor. As one who has been distraught over the loss of The Colbert Report and the impending departure of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, I have been worried that we were facing the end of a golden age in American television political and social satire. I think it will last a bit longer, and I am sure that John Oliver is key to its future.

The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore is solid, and Trevor Noah may prove to reinvigorate the Daily Show, so my worries may be overblown. It is Last Week Tonight, however, that holds the most promise. Quite simply, it transforms the basic formula codified by The Daily Show under Jon Stewart (and applied to a specific parodic context by Colbert) and makes it decidedly more argumentative. Last Week Tonight is thesis-driven humor, which marks a dramatic shift in ambition, or, perhaps, confidence. In either case, Oliver will not admit it.

Oliver is nonetheless catching fire. On a recent appearance on CBS This Morning , Charlie Rose asked one question that seemed clear and concise (if you can believe it): “What is the intent of this ‘dumb’ show?” (Oliver had already called it “dumb” based on the introductory clips).

“Just to make people laugh.” OK, John, you get a pass since this is the standard answer for any such discussion of humor. Why a duck? Because ducks are funny, that’s why. But you are lying.

Oliver’s self-deprecation notwithstanding, the fact is that no one in American television has ever put together satirically charged arguments in segments ranging from 12 to 20 minutes (easily 2 to 4 times as long as standard Daily Show bits) that are focused on one issue with such depth and humor. Never. There are easier ways to make people laugh.

In the interview, Oliver would not assert a more elaborate purpose and underplayed any major role for satire itself. As to whether satire served a deeper purpose in his work, he simply said, “I have no idea. Ideally, satire would do no better than anyone.” He went on to explain the show’s long form, weekly approach: “It’s some slow cooking, what we do.”

Yes, slow cooking. It took a year to get Sepp Blatter. That is the pace of satire. C’mon, John, admit it.

Oliver

To begin a closer look at the Last Week Tonight formula, let’s stick with Blatter and the two episodes that most directly skewer FIFA, the first of which aired on 8 June 2014 and the second on 1 June 2015. A brief look at these two episodes should provide a good indication of the power of Oliver’s thesis-driven comedy and the potential of long-form television satire. Both episodes feature FIFA as the main topic, and each segment runs just over 13 minutes. Here are links to each:

The key to Oliver’s approach could be understood best, perhaps, by considering it as a model for clear, argumentative writing. In fact, I urge all freshman composition instructors in the nation to drop all textbooks and simply use Last Week Tonight to teach the modes of argumentative writing. Let’s consider the most basic element of building effective arguments: Write clear and concise topic sentences. Note the few examples below:

–“FIFA is a comically grotesque organization.” (8 June 2014).

–“There is a certain irony in FIFA setting up any kind of justice system given the scandals that have dogged it over the years.” (8 June 2014).

–“The problem is: all the arrests in the world are going to change nothing as long as Blatter is still there.” (1 June 2015)

–“When your rainy day fund is so big that you’ve got to check it for swimming cartoon ducks, you might not be a non-profit anymore.” (8 June 2014)

–“Peanut butter and jelly are supposed to go together; FIFA and bribery should go together like peanut butter and a child with a deadly nut allergy.” (8 June 2014)

–“That is perfect because hotel sheets are very much like FIFA officials; they really should be clean, but they are actually unspeakably filthy, and deep down everybody knows that.” (1 June 2015)

Note the clarity of the argumentative position in each statement above. They assert positions, all followed by multiple levels of support within the show (follow the links). That, dear readers, is how you build good essays! It is also how to build fresh, ambitious humor.

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“Can I get to that heart? Can I get to that mind?”A tribute to the frank, contested humor of intense teachers—and to Henry Higgins

Nine years ago in my first class in graduate school, a course on approaches to teaching writing, we read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as a break from composition theory. I was thrilled, but I reigned in my enthusiasm when I noted that others in the class, including my professor who I respected immensely, felt apologetic about the book. Words like abusive and misogynistic were thrown casually around the seminar table, as they sometimes are in graduate seminars. Why was there this worry about the teacher in the story—about Henry Higgins? I was surprised that so many disliked his method because I had always thought of him as an effective teacher. My only real support for this inkling was that I found him . . . funny.

Did I have this wrong and, if so, what was the source of my misunderstanding? Or, if I was right that Henry Higgins was a funny and therefore benevolent man (I had collapsed the two conditions in my mind), what caused the confusion among others in my graduate school class? Why had everyone else failed to note his humor? And what did I see in his humor anyway? Could it be that I thought his humor lightened—or even completely neutralized—his seemingly harsh dealings with Eliza Doolittle? Or did we all have it wrong? Did a “correct” reading of the play really fall somewhere in the middle—was it really that Higgins was both funny and harsh? I began to doubt my first intuition about professor Higgins, as I seemed to be faced with a more complicated story.

The irony was that my own professor in this class, a good man with a fiery heart, who was, that very semester, dying of cancer (this would be his last seminar on teaching writing), was a gruff man himself. He and Henry Higgins shared a vocational intensity. In fact, like Henry Higgins, this professor had made it his life’s work to teach writing (or “speech”) to the underserved, hugely advancing the trend in what is now called “access” education at top universities. He was passionately focused on this until his last breaths—and he was passionately focused on us, his students; he read our final papers days before he died. Although we, his students, didn’t have a personal rapport with him—we would never have imagined going out for a beer with this man—our engagement with theories of speech and writing, particularly where low-income populations were concerned, kept him alert, stubborn, and justifiably cranky until the end.

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Craft and Magic on the U.S. Comedy Club Stage

by Susan Seizer, Indiana University

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This post is about the interplay between Craft and Magic on the U.S. comedy club circuit. My interest in this topic grows out of a larger ethnographic study of the lives of Road Comics, those professional standup comedians who earn their living playing the comedy club circuit across the central states. These are not the comics you see on stages in New York or Los Angeles, or on cable shows broadcast from these two coastal media hubs. The comics I am interested in are working the road, generally playing to working class audiences and are themselves working class.

In 2012 I produced a documentary, Road Comics: Big Work on Small Stages, that follows the creativity and passion of road comics working clubs and bars in the “flyover zones” of middle America. Two of the comics featured in the film, Kristin Key and Stewart Huff, are also featured in this post. I encourage you to watch the film to see more of their performances, as well as those of another talented comedian, Tim Northern, and to experience their stories from the road as they tell them. After a lively year of festival screenings, including at the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival in New York City, the full film is now available free for streaming and downloading at www.roadcomicsmovie.com.

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Caption: Road Comics: Big Work on Small Stages is available for streaming at www.roadcomicsmovie.com

By Craft here I mean all that such comics do to keep themselves in work: a well-crafted show not only has audiences laughing but also demonstrates to club owners and bookers that a comic can regularly make this happen. Repeat bookings depend on a comic knowing how to work a room. Craft involves all the calculations that make Magic possible; the purpose of honing one’s Craft is to have the opportunity to continue making Magic.

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The Dagwood Sandwich and Humor Theory

In an article that I wrote for the Mensa Bulletin back in 2006, I described a class of words and terms that have entered the English lexicon from cartoons that I call “cartoonyms.”  Among those elite terms are “gerrymander,” “McCarthyism,” and “security blanket.”  There are about thirty more cartoonyms that can be found in any number of dictionaries, and all of them have interesting etymologies.  About that, H. L. Mencken once said, “Comic strip artists have been unsurpassed as diligent coiners of neologisms.”  That may be an exaggeration, or maybe it was truer during the 1920s when Mencken was writing, but cartoonists have contributed their share of new words to English—some have stayed.  Other terms like “23 skidoo” have effectively passed into oblivion.  “Dagwood,” an adjective that has stayed in the English language and is used to describe a rather tall sandwich, laden with ingredients comes from Chic Young’s cartoon Blondie.

A Dagwood sandwich is one that is stacked high with various ingredients and is so tall that a normal person would not be able to take a whole vertical bite of it.  Typically, Dagwood, the character, is depicted leaving the refrigerator with ingredients in his hands and balanced on both arms as he goes to the dining room table to begin constructing the sandwich.  He is often shown with the tall sandwich in his hands and a big smile on his face as he gets ready to eat the thing, but he is never shown actually eating it. That construction, drawing the impossible, is an aspect of cartooning that is acceptable in sequential drawings like cartoon strips, but is less acceptable in other media like television and movies.  Consumers expect information to be missing between panels of a strip, but there is an expectation that nothing is missing from motion pictures.

First of all, the method Dagwood uses to transfer the ingredients from the refrigerator to the table is pretty incredible.  The cartoon reader is not privy to how Dagwood balances all of the ingredients on his arms and shoulders.  The reader only sees him strut confidently to the table in preparation for the construction project.  In the following cartoon, Cookie, Dagwood’s daughter asks her father about his tradition of making sandwiches.  She stands with her hands behind her back as her father walks the ingredients to the table, unconcerned about a mishap or mess.  She has obviously witnessed this process many times before.

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Following the construction of the massive comestible, the reader is treated to a smiling Dagwood reveling in the prospect of consuming his creation.  Again, the reader sees that the sandwich is taller than anything that a normal human, Dagwood included, can possibly bite from top to bottom–as sandwiches are normally eaten.  He is relishing (pun intended) the prospect of eating that sandwich so much that he is leaning in so far that his chair is tipped forward.   And, while this strip ends with him preparing to take his first bite, other Blondie strips depict Dagwood wiping his mouth after he has presumably finished eating the sandwich (the sandwich is no longer in the tableau, and there are crumbs on the plate).  Again, the reader is not privy to the knowledge of how the character consumes the sandwich; the reader only knows that it is gone.

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Ed Hall, a syndicated political cartoonist from Jacksonville, Florida who draws for the Baker County Press, theorizes that the best cartoons show what happens just before an action or just after an action but do not show the action itself.  Therefore, Dagwood will always be depicted carrying the ingredients to the table, but will not be depicted putting the ingredients on his arms and shoulders.  As well, he will be shown just before he eats the sandwich and when the sandwich is gone and he is wiping around his mouth, but he will never be shown actually eating it.  How Dagwood eats the sandwich and disarms the ingredients are among the many mysteries of the cartoon strip world, mysteries that are best kept secret in order to maintain that child-like faith that everything will turn out—if not always well, always humorously.

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Ask a Slave: The Exasperating World of Teaching Tourists about American Slavery

ask a slave

Tourists say the dumbest things. They travel the globe ostensibly to learn and to gain experiences so that when they return home they can do so as more well-rounded and informed human beings. Well, that’s the dream anyway. Tourists are always out of place, they are often pretending to be (much) smarter than they are, and they carry with them a sense of entitlement–all of these factors set them up to be perennially funny as objects of ridicule. Few things are funnier than ignorance, but when it combines with arrogance, then a wonderfully silly comic star is born: the American tourist, a figure of derision for about hundred and fifty years now.

Mark Twain as Full Dressed Tourist

It was Mark Twain who first popularized and perfected the American tourist, in his best-selling The Innocents Abroad in 1869, a narrative of a bumbling five-month tour–America’s first pleasure cruise–across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean Sea to see the “Old World.”  He later built on that persona in other travel books like A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1897). Twain captured the perils of tourism in many ways, but one of his most effective and hilarious shticks was to mock the inherent ignorance and arrogance of tourists simply by reporting what they said.

Tourists say the dumbest things. Just ask Azie Dungey, an actor who, while looking for stage work in the Washington D.C. area, found roles, as she puts it, playing “every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Carline Branham–Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid.” Readers here may be too timid to ask this: Is that THE Martha Washington, President George Washington’s wife? Yup. History is fun. Ms. Dungey, during the energy and optimism infused into the presidential election of 2008 and throughout President Obama’s first term, Azie Dungey supported herself by playing a slave who served the first, first family. American irony at its best.

Her role is as “Lizzie May,” a fictional character drawn from Ms. Dungey’s experiences performing as a slave woman at George and Martha Washington’s home named Mount Vernon, now a popular tourist site. And her forum is Ask a Slave: The Web Series. The short sketches recreate many of the questions that tourists posed to Ms. Dungey over the years. Ask a Slave is promoted as “Real Questions, Real Comedy.” It will make you cringe.

Ask a Slave Banner

When tourists reveal their ignorance and arrogance, we have what is called in the profession “a teachable moment.” A traditional method of trying to encourage a learning process is called the Socratic Method, named after Socrates that famous smart guy from ancient Greece. He is dead now. The method involves getting people to ask questions and from the answers to encourage more questions and thereby lead to the gathering of knowledge–and, from that process, achieve the gaining of wisdom. Or something like that. Tourists all over the United States (and the world, for that matter) are often encouraged to ask questions of their guides. At many historical sites, guides are often complemented by historical re-enactors to create “living history.” It is an appealing bit of stage craft.  “All of history is but a stage, and we are merely reenactors and tourists.” Shakespeare wrote something along those lines. I just updated it.

But when the questions are so clueless, what’s a slave to do?

Well, the actor Azie Dungey performed her role to the best of her ability (and with much patience), but all the while she collected information, and now, as Lizzie May, she has some different answers to give. She, with the help of other members of the crew, are re-enacting those tourist re-enactments and providing the rest of us with our own funny teachable moments. The first episode immediately reveals why the online comedy series has caught fire.

Lizzie May is a significant expansion of the role that Ms. Dungey played at Mount Vernon. She is able to provide answers that would have gotten her fired at Mount Vernon, all the while maintaining a demeanor that is seemingly polite and deferential and that the original role demanded. Yet the answers are assertive and thus subversive. She thereby provides a compelling satirical voice. The resulting humor is well worth viewers’ time and offers us our own teachable moments.

Ignorance is funny. It has always been funny because it provides us the wonderful opportunity to laugh at someone else’s stupidity. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of it, so humorists can always find some facet of human behavior to exploit for laughs. When the subject matter is tied to the legacies of slavery, the humor has an unavoidable edge. One thing that the tourist questions reveal beyond their stupidity is a desperation for self-affirmation, or an almost pathological need to lessen the horror of slavery, to give many modern tourists more distance from the slaveowners and supremacists in their racial family tree. The need is understandable; the ongoing moral cowardice, however, is tiresome to say the least.


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Editor’s Chair: Carol Burnett Wins Mark Twain Prize & Other News

Tracy Wuster

Congratulations to Carol Burnett for winning the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.  According to the Kennedy Center:

The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

Upon being notified of the award, Burnett noted:

“I can’t believe I’m getting a humor prize from the Kennedy Center. It’s almost impossible to be funnier than the people in Washington.”

The ceremony will take place on October 20, with tickets starting at $1000.  In the meantime, enjoy one of Burnett’s best performances:

In other humor news:

*This week is the annual American Literature Association conference.  Please join the American Humor Studies Association for the following panels:

Session 5-G (Thursday 3:00)
Humor in American Periodicals (Great Republic 7th Floor)
 
Session 7-E (Friday 8:10)
Reading and Teaching Humorous Texts (St George D 3rd Floor)
 
Session 8-O (Friday 9:40)
Business Meeting (Parliament 7th Floor)
 
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And join the Mark Twain Circle of America for the following panels:

Session 15-C (Saturday 9:30)

Mark Twain: Iconic Texts Reconsidered (Essex North Center 3rd Floor)

Session 17-C (Saturday 12:30)

Mark Twain and History (Essex North Center 3rd Floor)

Session 18-M (Saturday 2:00)

Business Meeting: The Mark Twain Circle of America (North Star 7th Floor)

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*For panels on Kurt Vonnegut and others, see the schedule here.  Additionally, there has traditionally been a reception on Saturday.  I believe that 2-4 of the writers for this site will be there.

*A number of the authors of this page will also be at the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies at the beginning of August.  The registration and program information can be found at the Center for Mark Twain Studies site.  Even if you are not a scholar, this conference is well worth the trip.  This year features a screening of a new documentary on Hal Holbrook, a keynote by Peter Kaminsky of the Mark Twain Prize, a closing picnic at Quarry Farm, and paper presentations by Sharon McCoy, Jeffrey Melton, ABE, and myself.

*Speaking of awards, did you know about the James Thurber Prize for American Humor, given annually for the best humorous writing of that year?

*And speaking of humor writing, if you are a student and in need of a term paper on American humor, look no further than this lovely writing, available for the bargain price of $15.90.

Third, a frosty streak of humor runs done American literary works from early times to present. In many cases, a dash of table salt humor saves a ripe penning from becoming in any case sentimental. American humor tends to be exaggerated rather than subtle. It reflects the peoples cleverness to laugh at themselves during the approximately voiceless times.

In these “approximately voiceless times,” how can you pass up such a bargain, and sure to get a D- or below!

*Ellie Kemper asks, “Can men be funny?

*Did you see, “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise“?

*Have you been watching YouTube Comedy Week?  Anyone want to write a review for us?

*Only 5 days until Arrested Development!

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What is Not Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor

Teaching American Humor

It’s just a joke. I was only joking. Can’t you take a joke?

In an earlier post, I discussed how I have used opinion surveys as a way for students to examine their own tastes in humor and as a way to introduce humor as a vibrant and crucial component of American culture.  In the first part of the surveys, students name their favorite films and television shows and classify their tastes. I have found it is a useful way to establish a context for discussion of theoretical concepts in humor while also getting students to open up about their expectations for the course. Here is a link to that post, “What is Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor“.

In the second part of the survey, students must address the potential complications to their enjoyment of humor. What if the person next to them not only doesn’t share their sense of humor but finds it offensive? When is a joke not a joke but an attack? And even if that “joke” is a veiled attack, should it be silenced? These are complicated issues and demand much more space (and brain power) than I can offer here, but no class on humor can rightly avoid the ever-present tension concerning differing opinions on what is and what is not funny.

Steve Brykman recently posted an excellent discussion concerning social and political challenges inherent in this issue. The underlying violence associated with much of American humor becomes especially troublesome when the humor concerns political figures, in particular the President of the United States. The post, “Is a Joke a Joke?,” can provide an astute and perfectly concise introduction for students who must consider the potential power of humor not only to the change the world but also blow it up. A joke can be provocative, but what if it is more accurately described as incendiary speech? Here is a link to Steve’s post.

As a way to force a potentially tense discussion, I use the survey to ask students to address this issue so that initially they can provide comments anonymously.  They must answer the following two paired questions. In each case, I provide a list, but they are also encouraged to add items if they see fit to do so:

1. What subject matter is off-limits for humor with you personally if someone is kidding with you? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)

Your mother

Your religion

Your gender

Your race

Your sexual orientation

Your body (height, weight, etc.)

Your disabilities or challenges

2.  What subject matter is off-limits for humor socially when the audience is public? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)

mothers

religions

genders

races

sexual orientations

bodies (height, weight, etc.)

disabilities or challenges

deaths and/or tragedies affecting real people

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What is Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor

Teaching American Humor:

What is funny?

I begin all courses on humor by polling students on their tastes. What do they find funny and why? It is a logical beginning from a pedagogical standpoint because it emphasizes the importance of their voice in the class while also asserting a key point of any study of humor: it’s always personal. Students bring an array of predispositions to the humorous material the course will cover. They know what they like, but they may not be so sure as to WHY they like it.  We need to use that tension throughout the course. I must also make sure that while they explore their personal preferences that they also find connections to audiences across time and mediums. In short, they need to recognize that the personal responses also have historical, social, and political connections.

A questionnaire assessing students’ tastes in humor could take any number of forms and approaches, and I would love to hear other ideas. I am certain that many teachers do something very similar to what I am sharing here.

Here are the core questions focused on getting students to open up about their tastes:

**Do you have a good sense of humor?

Obviously, the class will respond overwhelmingly in the affirmative. “YES!!” they shout, “WE HAVE A GREAT SENSE OF HUMOR!” This is true, of course, and I congratulate them on this fine accomplishment. It does, however, set me up for obvious jokes as we discuss their answers to the next two questions wherein they provide examples in support of their good senses of humor.

**List two favorite funny films.

**List two favorite television situation comedies.

There is a wide range of answers to these questions, though they lean very heavy to the most recent hits. For example, The Hangover (1 and 2) has been popular for three semesters in a row, though I am certain that run will be gone by next fall–unless two or three more sequels are released this summer. But it is in no way dominant as a favorite. As for sitcoms, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother rank high, but, as with the films, there are no real favorites. This list is broad, with most shows getting only one or two votes (out of 35-40 students).

The wide range is the hoped-for response. It gives us an opportunity to mention quite a few films and shows and seek common ground among the varied responses. The more substantive question follows:

**Judging from your favorite films and sitcoms, how would you define or classify your taste in humor?

This is a key moment in the self-assessment. Students cannot just name a recent familiar title; rather, they have to justify it by defining the attributes that lead to laughter. Here is a rather typical range of the phrases they provide:

–Dry, Witty, Intellectual, Sarcastic

–Vulgar, Unnatural, Tasteless, Crude

–Simple, Physical, Stupid

–Realistic; Relatable

The two largest responses are consistently the first two above, and they are generally equally represented even though they seem contradictory. A significant group of students always values wit above all else. An equally large group values crudity above all else. Some students see themselves in both. The inherent tensions between these two seemingly opposite taste preferences is the crux of the course, perhaps, as students explore the cultural values that encourage–demand–both strains in American humor.

The next question gets to important issues related to how we experience humor:

**Which is funniest scenario? Choose one:

1.  –A man slips on a banana peel.

2.  –A man who is showing off his skills as a dancer slips on a banana peel.

3.  –A man who has just been dumped by his girlfriend slips on a banana peel as he walks away.

The battle for supremacy is waged between answers 2 and 3. A Few students will choose number 1 because they hesitate to admit any pleasure in the pain of others. A man slipping on a banana peel is enough–small harm, small chuckle. When you add in an element of hubris, then the humor potential jumps up exponentially. The guy showing off deserves humbling; that is an easy choice to make. An equal number of students, however, will opt for the other guy in number 3, the one they call “the loser.” What does he deserve? Well, that hardly matters; we simply love someone falling down, the further the better. In all cases, of course, we are all simply thankful that we are not the victim of the vagaries of banana peels and their inexplicable powers for being so damned slippery. It’s a cold world.

The final question ascertaining students’ taste in humor is the easiest one.

**Which is the funnier scenario? Choose one:

 –a group of cows

–a group of sheep

Everybody knows that cows are funnier than sheep. Everybody.

 

Funny Cow

The BCS of American College Football Humor

Chico, Harpo and Zeppo in Formation

College football has always been funny. From the inherent cartoonish comedy of young men dressed in animal costumes roaming the sidelines (to be clear, I mean the mascots) to the more nuanced ironies and absurdities surrounding conference realignments. How many schools can be in the Big 10? It’s all very funny stuff for a wide range of comedic interests. And all very American.

Many categories and characteristics and contexts of comedy could be offered up as the most definitive of American culture and its traditions, but surely one of the easiest arguments to make would be in support of placing college football at the top of the list. American college football is, well, exceptional. Of course, we would need a computer system in conjunction with votes from academics and comedic performers to be absolutely sure. And it wouldn’t hurt to have some prime locations for conferences to draw in folks for post-semester debates and parades. But I digress. Here is the fact: college football is an American cultural phenomenon as well as an economic and political, pop-cultural juggernaut that has few rivals as a forum and catalyst for American humor year after year. Disappointed in the overall quality and quantity of humor based on and derived from college football this year? Wait until next year! And don’t forget the off-season–just ask Bobby Petrino.

In celebration of the BCS championship game this evening (January 7), I thought I would simply cull together a few exceptional links to humor built around the cultural obsession that is college football. This, at the very least, should suggest many more possible choices, and I hope others will build on this modest beginning.

Three Stooges on the Field

Let’s start with two examples of the earliest use of football as fodder for physical humor from masters of the art form: The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.

The Marx Brothers’ film Horse Feathers (1932) takes on higher education in general as its target of respectability in this film. The plot revolves around corruption of college football via the recruiting of illegal players to win games. Imagine that! Fortunately, such things do not occur anymore, but it was certainly common enough in the 1930s for the Marx Brothers to use it for a running joke (that’s a college football pun).

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