“Get your cape on, and let’s take flight! We can be who we like!” – DC Super Hero Girls theme song.
My daughter is a Caped Crusader.
Even in her toddler phase, she always preferred colorful costumes and cataclysmic combat over Barbification or Dora-mania. Yet, as far as we can tell from her second grade peers and pals, she is not a “geek” or a “mean girl.” She’s not a tomboy either, since prim princesses and personified ponies and adamantly American Girls and absolutely anything related to Alex Morgan all fill a good quotient of her 8-year old day. She does quite well in school, just completed her First Communion, plays two sports with aplomb, and has recently survived her first ear piercings, not to mention a fairly brutal soccer-smashed fibula.
Yet, when she really wants to cut loose and get her missy mojo working, she always turns to cosplay. Over the years, she has done turns as Super-girl, Maleficent, Frozen‘s Queen Elsa (Elsa is, ironically, her actual name!) and Leia Organa, but her more recent repertoire includes Batgirl, the Scarlet Witch, the Wasp, and most especially of late, Cat Woman and Agent Carter.
She is hardly alone among her age group in her inclinations toward super-couture, and believe it or not, neither Mom nor I have had much influence on her passionate attraction to wonder-duds. In fact, there isn’t much superhero merch about the house beyond my basement hobbit hole of a Media Studies library. Nor are we a particularly super-duper family, aside from fond memories of the original Super Friends and the occasional spontaneous viewings of The Incredibles or Big Hero 6. For further proof, just ask my 10 year-old son, who completely skipped over all of the superhero genres and contexts that fascinated many of his friends. From his earlest safaris around our home, he has always favored scouts, birding, tennis, and baseball. So super-stuff abides in our lives, but it does not beckon, inundate, or restrict our offspring’s access to other forms of generally pleasant and genuinely good-hearted American middle class fun. Still, on her own time and in her own mind, my daughter is definitely a Super Hero Girl.
By Rachel E. Blackburn
One of my all-time favorite Seinfeld episodes featured the dentist character Tim Watley, played by Bryan Cranston. Watley begins making Jewish jokes after a recent conversion to Judaism. Seinfeld discovers this, is clearly bothered by it, and in response, visits one of Watley’s fellow patients, Father Curtis (sitting in a confessional booth to do so). After Seinfeld shares with Father Curtis the humorous antics of Watley, Father Curtis asks Seinfeld, “And this offends you as a Jew?” And Seinfeld responds, “No, it offends me as a comedian.” As one who was raised Jewish myself, complete with Bat Mitzvah, years of Hebrew school and the requisite trip to Israel, I always secretly revered that statement, however silly it may be. I might go so far as to say I found it admirable and noble; all hail in the name of laughter! I readily identified with the notion that Seinfeld ultimately held his identity as a comedian closer to his heart than that of his ethnic and cultural heritage.
The opportunity came to test my commitment to comedy above all, however, when I recently co-directed (with Ms. Gina Sandi-Diaz) a play titled The Last Cyclist. The Last Cyclist, written by Karel Svenk, is a comedy borne out of the Holocaust; specifically, written and rehearsed inside Theresienstadt, one of many concentration camps in operation roughly from 1940 – 1945 during WWII. What sort of authorial voice do we have in Karel Svenk, who in the midst of starvation, degradation, torture and dehumanization, found the energy and inspiration to write a comedy? What might he have to laugh about in his given circumstances? And, beyond all this – how did I approach directing such a piece nearly seventy years later after its initial conception?
Karel Svenk, the man who found the motivation and enthusiasm for laughter despite everything, was a Czech prisoner. What little we know of Svenk – a comedian, actor, and playwright – was that he was charismatic, funny, goofy in the best of ways, and inspiring to his fellow prisoners. Naomi Patz, who has reconstructed and reimagined his work (the script adaptation of The Last Cyclist which I directed in the theatre), has often stated in her discussions of Svenk that he was something akin to a European Charlie Chaplin, in terms of his physical comedy. Were he to be alive today, she says, we might read him as analogous to a Robin Williams: someone whose manic energy was infectious, and could somehow shine light in even the darkest of corners. Svenk was someone who could readily demonstrate for us the value of comedy as a tool for overcoming the worst cruelties of life, in the skillful manner of a true artist and comedian.
This essay begins with a story about the American frontier—one that most of you may already know—and I’d like to use it to try to explain why it is that we remember a few particular 19th Century humorists and NOT the 30 or 40 others who were also writing and publishing popular work during the pre-Civil War years and later.
Post-Revolutionary War America was a place of constantly shifting frontiers both to the west and to the south. In a given year, the western frontier might be Upstate New York and gradually moving westward, with the southern frontier in Virginia gradually moving further and further south; in later years, it became anything west of the Mississippi River as the influx of population pushed the borders westward and southward. In order to understand the humor that comes out of these liminal (border) spaces, one needs to think just a bit about what the frontier(s) were, how things operated there, and who migrated to those spaces. As the “new” settlements became more populated and the opportunities for jobs and wealth became less plentiful, pioneers moved further south and west in search of prosperity. Typically, we think of these folks as the rugged individualists who brought their skills and strength to bear on carving civilization out of the wilderness. In many cases, this was true.
However, in addition to the skilled laborers and farmers, the frontiers also attracted a seedier element–the con man and the pettifogger, the liar and the cheat, the gambler and the speculator–into these newly settled territories. Often they were one step ahead of criminal charges, lynching, or tar-and-feathering, and searching for a fresh start somewhere where they were an unknown quantity, and where new victims for their fraud were readily available. Given the nature of boom-towns on the frontier, it stands to reason that these would serve as topics for humor writers who inhabited that space.
These borderlands—primarily Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama for the purposes of this study—are the regions from which those authors we call the Southwestern humorists sprang and flourished. When we speak of these humorists today, three or four of them remain and stand in for the whole of southwestern humor from 1830-1865 or so. Thomas Bangs Thorpe, for example, is still often anthologized and read in high schools and colleges occasionally. His “Big Bear of Arkansas” survives as a representative of the rough and ready braggart type of the American frontier. His language is a bit crude, his story quite exaggerated, and its conclusion a bit off-color. George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood tales are also occasionally anthologized. Students still respond to Sut with a mixture of horror and fascination, and most of the tales—“Parson John Bullen’s Lizards” comes to mind—demonstrate written slapstick humor at its best; and Sut’s character, while not exactly a con man, walks a fine line between “good fun” and that which is legal and/or moral. Similarly, Johnson J. Hooper’s Simon Suggs remains a memorable and sometimes anthologized character in American humor. If Sut often straddles the line between propriety and crudity, Simon Suggs broad-jumps that line, happily defrauding the country folk and slaves at every opportunity. His tag line is: “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” What these most often remembered and read authors have in common is the use of vernacular language, themes that involve fighting, fraudulent horse swaps, practical jokes that range from the mean spirited to the downright dangerous, and a frame featuring a narrator more refined and educated than the characters of their stories.
Here’s the thing. I really don’t like to get too political on social media or other public platforms, but my frustration with the critiques of the new Muppets show has reached peak levels – peak levels I say! And so, like the great critics of our time – the Edward R. Murrow’s, the Frank Rich’s – I must take pen to paper in passionate defense of what I view as the brilliant new direction of The Muppets.
Critiques since airing the pilot episode last month range from so called “friends” on Facebook, who claim the new incarnation has “ruined childhood,” to conservative news outlets such as Breitbart, where John Nolte claimed, “By making the Muppets ‘edgy’ left-wing partisans who attack Fox News, come out as pro-abortion, and hurl sex jokes, the once-universally beloved franchise has been doomed…More proof the old saying is true: Liberals ruin everything.” Well drink it up, new Muppets show haters: I’m leaving this matzah ball out for all to see.
Firstly, a lot of the chief complaints are variations on a theme: that the new show can’t compare to the original version (which aired 1976-1981), and that this new incarnation carries a kind of cynical modernity, distastefully embodying the mockumentary filming style of shows like The Office. For starters, these criticisms contain the classical logical fallacy of “argumentum ad antiquitatem,” or “appeal to antiquity.” This is the fallacy which falsely argues a “thesis is deemed correct on the basis that it is correlated with some past or present tradition.” In other words, the older idea is better, because it’s old. Or conversely, the new idea doesn’t work because it doesn’t adhere to the old one.
The “reward” for humor is obvious—the payback for the humorist is when the audience laughs. The payback for the audience is also the laugh—it brightens an otherwise difficult day, relaxes as the laughter happens, and lets an audience leave the show, piece, or joke a bit happier than they were before. However, being the humorist is not without risk. What induces laughter in one person can offend another—this has been the legacy of humor since ancient times. Thus, those to whom humor is a profession must walk a fine line between taking a risk and reaping a reward.
Mark Twain found this out during his Whittier Birthday speech, delivered on 17 December 1877. In the speech, he told a story about four drunken miners whom he described such that without doubt, the characters referred to Whittier, the guest of honor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—often described as the “Boston Brahmins.” The joke fell through, and Twain was embarrassed by the reactions of the audience and the public when the speeches were published in the Boston Globe the following day. The Cincinnati Commercial asserted that Twain “lacked the instincts of a gentleman,” and even in the less conservative West the Rocky Mountain News called the speech “offensive to every intelligent reader.” Twain published an abject apology a week later, and even after 25 years the criticism still stung. Sometimes parodying a cultural icon is just too risky.
Twain’s 1877 faux pas illustrates just how difficult it is to gauge an audience’s reaction to material that the artist considers humorous. At this year’s Modern Language Association in Vancouver, three fine presenters delivered papers on the topic of “Comic Dimensions and Variety of Risk.” Jennifer Santos read her paper on Holocaust jokes in Epstein’s King of the Jews, Roberta Wolfson presented on the Canadian television show, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and John Lowe read his essay on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Each presenter focused the talk on reception of the humor and the acceptable amount of risk a comedian or humorist can take and still reap the “reward” of laughter. Aside from hearing three wonderful examinations on a variety of humorous subjects, this panel generated discussion of the broader issue of risk versus reward every purveyor of humor must determine for any written or spoken performance. Who is allowed to joke about possibly sensitive events? From whom are we willing to accept a joke that takes a risk of offending?
Je suis Charlie Hebdo, et aussi Michel Brown, et aussi Darren Wilson et aussi… As Teresa Prados-Torreira recently observed in this space, the last month has seen an international slurry of reactions to the Charlie Hebdo Massacre from outraged officials, scampering journalists, erstwhile academics, dedicated peace-keepers, and, of course, the international community of artists, cartoonists, and satirists. Prados-Torreira astutely summarizes in her 20 January post, “at first glance, it seems obvious that the answer to this dilemma should be a wholehearted affirmation of the need to stand in solidarity with the French magazine, with the murdered cartoonists, and in support of free speech. But the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, their irreverent depiction of Mohammed and Muslims, have resulted in a cascade of critical essays online and elsewhere.”
Many have since noted that, for interpreters within and beyond French culture, the magazine’s scabrous treatment of all things sacred and sanctified could be labelled either courageous or irresponsible depending upon personal preference. One thing is certain, though, Charlie Hebdo was rarely, if ever, about discretion. Even more interestingly, a new angle on the extensive media coverage of the attacks has taken shape that inquires as to why the tragic murder of several talented artists has become, either incidentally or on purpose, a larger global issue and a much more public and popular rallying point than the rampant cruelties taking place in Nigeria involving Boko Haram?
Even more interestingly, we have to admit that slander, satire, and ridicule of Arabs, Muslims, and Islam are hardly rare in America mainstream culture. Consider the skirmishes that erupted over the years surrounding Johnny Hart’s abuse of Islamic and Judaic symbols in several episodes of his comic strip, B.C., especially the “potty humor” episode that fused the sacred icons of Islam with the half-moon of an outhouse door. Is this not Charlie Hebdo territory? With the rhetorical avalanche surrounding Charlie Hebdo just beginning to settle, we might wonder if any more discussion could possibly serve to alleviate the tension, fear, and uncertainty that has seemingly spread across an outraged global public.
It’s a very fair question, but instead, I would like use the terror attacks in France, and their subsequent influence, to explore a few more local and personal concerns about the deploying of satire, the power of cartoons, and the often unexpected inaccuracies of visual wit. Since the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices, there have been several inspiring statements of solidarity and strength in support of free speech and equal opportunity insult, most notably including the great public demonstrations in Paris, throughout France, and across the world.
Can there ever be a more heartening and honest sign that humor – especially in its most relentless, hostile form – deserves our attention, respect, and scrutiny? There have also been a wide variety of high profile reactions and commentaries throughout the intellectual honeycomb of bloggers, critics, and scholars. Much has been made of Joe Sacco’s somewhat disappointing Guardian catechism “On Satire.” Important statements have also arisen from doyens of provocative comics including Art Spiegelman, Keith Knight (who produced two suitably irreverent texts from very different perspectives), and Steve Benson, among many, many others. Scholars also have contributed valuable and sometimes revelatory insight into the complex legacy of French cartooning and its contribution to both Charlie Hebdo’s editorial policies and the violent reactions that it frequently instigated. Bart Beaty and Mark McKinney have offered reasoned and informative assessments that went largely ignored in the media frenzy following the attacks. Even richer and more comprehensive studies of the violent potential of editorial cartooning have also arisen from astute historians like Paul Tumey and Jeffrey Trexler. Cartoonists, of course, have been at the vanguard of the fight for freedom of speech, recognition, and reaction. From the very moment that news of the attack broke in France, powerful responses like this one were quickly finding their way around the world’s webs.
His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one — it is too offensive to be offensive. – Gay Talese
Don Rickles is bigger than stand-up comedy. The same way Frank Sinatra is bigger than singing. They each developed a style which would, in essence, become its own genre. They were both actors and, more accurately, entertainers. And they both forged their respective careers by refusing to compromise or vainly chase ephemeral trends. Such stuff as icons are made.
Don Rickles studied acting formally at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy and Kirk Douglas studied. Rickles admits he wasn’t the best student at the Academy, but he received advice and direction there which he applied throughout his career. Rickles landed some film and television roles and appeared in a few stage productions, but the loudmouthed Jewish kid from Jackson Heights made a name for himself with his quick, merciless wit.
Don Rickles never hesitates to credit his mother for much of his success. Like most comedians of his era, Rickles got his start playing mob-run dives and strip clubs. Etta Rickles, who he affectionately refers to as “General Patton,” hustled all the comedian’s early gigs, marching into club owners’ offices and demanding her son be given a slot.
Shortly after the Rickles family moved to Palm Beach, Etta learned that Frank Sinatra was performing in town, and that the famous singer’s mother, Dolly Sinatra, was staying at a nearby hotel. Etta somehow met, and charmed, Dolly. The two mothers hit it off and Dolly assured Etta that her son Frank would be at Don’s show that night. Dolly Sinatra made good on her promise; Frank and entourage showed up for Rickles’ set. Upon seeing Sinatra enter, Rickles quipped, “Make yourself comfortable, Frank, hit somebody.” Silence. Sinatra’s entourage looked to the Chairman for direction. Sinatra howled. Rickles doubled down, “Frank, believe me, I’m telling you this as a friend: Your voice is gone.”
That was it. Continue reading →
The Grim Reaper got its start in English lore during the 14th century. The symbol for death is a necessary reminder that death is always lurking in the shadows and that we may be its next suctim. Perhaps this would have been a better post for October, but I have been collecting cartoons that feature the Grim Reaper, and I think it’s time that I opened the closet and pulled them out for closer examination.
While earlier, more superstitious societies may have taken this symbol of death more seriously, in our age of science, the image is outdated and quaint. That makes it a perfect vehicle for satire.
The following cartoon points the reaper’s scythe at the Republican Party and its opposition to the Affordable Care Act. On December 1, 2013, Jim Morin used the reaper to question the motivations of those opposed to the ACA. The 44,000 deaths per year due to lack of health insurance may or may not be because of the lack of affordable care. It may be because of people’s choices of how they spend their money, but the cartoonist suggests that the GOP will take the heat over this as it did for the Hurricane Katrina debacle.
The Boston Marathon bombing elicited many political cartoons using the Grim Reaper. It is the ideal symbol, because the reaper greets people after a long grueling ordeal—presumably equating a 26.2-mile-run with life itself. The following cartoon by Steve Benson ran on April 16, 2013, the day after the attack.
Langston Hughes’s roughest book of poetry is also an homage to laughter.
In 1925 Langston Hughes lived with his mother on the north side of S Street, a few short blocks from Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. The tiny two-story square row home, painted in deep brown trim today, is set back from the sidewalk. A meandering path leading up to the house meets, at the sidewalk’s edge, the meandering path of the house next door; they bend together in the rough shape of a heart. The first story of the home has a large single window, broad and revealing like a storefront display. The second and top story, where Hughes most likely lived and wrote, seems squat, pared down, resting atop the broad window. The house itself is inconspicuous, quiet, and low––slyly hidden by the grander-seeming homes surrounding it.
Langston Hughes lived in many places during his pivotal year in Washington, but, walking by this house one day recently, I found myself wondering if it was here that the seeds were planted for his 1927 book of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, a book famous among a small group of scholars for its controversial release but that remains unknown to many.
Today the book is out of print. Google Books does not “preview” it, most libraries do not carry it, and even The Library of Congress cannot locate their lone copy. A small number of first editions are available on-line for upwards of a thousand dollars. The book is worth far more. (Two Collected Works of Langston Hughes editions, Arnold Rampersad’s and Dolan Hubbard’s, contain the poems from Fine Clothes to the Jew.) The book received scathing reviews when first released, mostly from Hughes’s fellow literati in Harlem, for its seemingly unabashed and degrading depictions of African Americans.
In situation and appearance, Langston Hughes’s mother’s home resembles the paradox in the reception history of Fine Clothes to the Jew. The house is removed, easy to miss, simple, and confined in the heart of a bustling city. Yet the house is also solid and stern, its gazing window luminous. Likewise the poems in this book are hard, describing people who live hard lives in the brusque city or lonely, rural south. Actually, written in six parts alternating between the city and the country, Fine Clothes doesn’t describe these people; rather, each poem is spoken in the voice of a different, struggling soul—the prostitute, the pimp, the abusive husband, the abused wife, the player, the played, the child, the worried parent, the broken-hearted, and the philanderer—to name just a few of the characters. A burdened consciousness of race and ethnicity is made overt notably in the book’s title, which pairs beauty or opulence (fine clothing) with the ugliness of bigoted social perceptions.
It seems to me that the timing is right for an unapologetically mercenary post that plays with both my innate passion for making lists and my desire for starting arguments. This means that this post will be more self-indulgent than usual. –how can that be?
Here is what I propose: a three-part series that argues not for the twenty-five most important American film comedies but, more specifically, the twenty-five most important American film comedy scenes as represented by screenshots. By “important,” I mean “iconic,” “seminal,” “best,” “most hilarious,” “provocative,” or, in other words, “my favorites.” They should be yours, too.
I intend to start with 7 screenshots that indicate essential comedic moments in American film history in this the first of three posts on the topic. I hope to encourage others to chime in with their favorites by commenting on this post and, ideally, including links or files with the screenshots they suggests. I will follow in subsequent posts with the growing list.
For now, the images are not ranked or presented in any order other than my impulses as I think of them or run through my library of screenshots. In the end, I may try to rank them just for the hell of it.
Here are the first seven:
From Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In perhaps one of the most iconic moments in film comedy history, the Tramp is consumed by the industrial machine but continues to perform his job. It is a concise but cogent statement of class tensions and the perils of the “factory worker” caught in the cogs of industrialism. It is so iconic that one cannot talk about it without puns and symbolic flourishes. See above.
From Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. This first appearance of Clark Gable’s torso provides more than the titillation that such a statement implies. The scene is a remarkable and intricate power struggle between two formidable performers in a comedic gem. The scene, the film as a whole for that matter, would go one to influence the romantic comedy formula to this day. If he had only tried a similar approach to Scarlett.
From the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers. This is a shot from the big finale scene wherein everybody gets on stage like the closing of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards show–lots of folks on the stage but with only a few who do anything worthwhile. In this case, that is fine because it is the Marx brothers who demand the attention in every scene. This scene demonstrates the wonderful comic interplay between the brothers but also mocks the pretensions of respectable society and the smug coziness of the officer’s advice to the subversive Harpo.
From Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. This panoramic shot of the big board and the big table captures a more elaborate scene that the other screenshots selected. It is meant to imply the entire sequence of the power brokers at work to save the world–or at least themselves. In short this shot cuts to the core of all American satire by implicating the inherent horror of a star chamber, no matter how comic.
From Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. This is the money shot–well, that sounds wrong. What I mean is that this shot has its own iconic status and provides the core symbol for both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the film. The triangulating power of Mrs. Robinson’s leg, and little big man Benjamin trying to keep up.
From Harold Ramis’s Caddyshack. No apologies for this one. This shot is from arguably the most concise illustration of the American dream at work in the mind of an inherent loser. Yes, Cinderella is the most American of the European fairy tales. He is the working man dreaming of a Masters championship when all he will end up with is more work replacing the flowers he is destroying.
From The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. This shot is a shot within a shot. The McDonnoughs try to record for posterity their new family portrait, complete with their freshly stolen child. “It’s about to pop, honey.” As we say in the business, this is funny.
Please send suggestions for other essential screenshots via comments to this post.