Let me propose that American literary humor, in becoming modern, branched in two during the Great Depression. On one side are absurd, language-driven vignettes, short magazine pieces ranging from whimsical to surreal where the narrator tries to make sense of, or at least describe, a crackpot world. This strand was largely created and mainly defined by S.J. Perelman, whose comic genius engendered two of the Marx Brothers’ best movies, Monkey Business (1931) and Horsefeathers (1932), and a steady stream of brilliant short pieces for (mainly) The New Yorker.
The other branch trades in black comic predicaments of grotesque dysfunction: a ridiculous overabundance of misery, of mental and physical illness and often absurd violence. Laughter here is defensive: relief at seeing something so horrible happen to someone else. This strain was best, and arguably first, articulated by Nathanael West, author of the superb short novels Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), who was, funny enough, Perelman’s brother-in-law.
In Perelman’s camp we find his older contemporaries, James Thurber and Robert Benchley, neither of whom had the idiomatic snap, that aggrieved brilliance and fine timing, that Perelman gave the form. Woody Allen and David Sedaris are his natural heirs, along with—in the sillier episodes with his oddly-named characters—Thomas Pynchon.
West’s example, heaping outlandish misery upon uncomprehending and helpless characters, has gained more followers: among the most notable being Joseph Heller (whose Catch-22 only gained wide recognition after Perelman praised it), Stanley Elkin, and David Foster Wallace.
And though West’s own work has never quite overcome the cult status given it following his untimely 1940 death, his artistry is now acknowledged, his works collected in a Library of America edition in 1997. The Day of the Locust may still be our best novel about Hollywood, made into a major 1975 film directed by John Schlesinger, starring Donald Sutherland and Karen Black, and creating, in one of its characters, a hopeless dope named Homer Simpson.
It’s here. The event of the century. The one we’ve all been waiting for with dread.
Trump Planning To Throw Lie About Immigrant Crime Rate Out There Early In Debate To Gauge How Much He Can Get Away With
HEMPSTEAD, NY—Saying he would probably introduce the falsehood in his opening statement or perhaps during his response to the night’s first question, Republican nominee Donald Trump reported Monday he was planning to throw out a blatant lie about the level of crime committed by immigrants early in the first presidential debate to gauge how much he’d be allowed to get away with. More…
With over a hundred million people projected to watch the debate, roughly sixty million of them will be barely sentient after ingesting what they deem to be the necessary dose of intoxicants. More…
Standing slightly crouched with her fists raised up in front of her in the middle of her campaign office’s mock stage, a blindfolded Hillary Clinton reportedly implored her high-level staffers to attack her with talking points from all sides Wednesday in preparation for next week’s first presidential debate. More…
“You just watch, folks,” Trump told supporters in Toledo, Ohio. “Crooked Hillary is going to slip in little facts all night long, and that’s how she’s going to try to rig the thing.” More…
Stay safe out there.
“Of the 2,000 individuals surveyed, we found that nearly nine in 10 said they would be watching tonight’s debate on the off-chance that they might get to witness the roof of Hofstra University’s Hagedorn Hall suddenly cave in and crush the nominees for president,” said Quinnipiac spokesman Michael Jovan.
“So, just as a recap: You had numerous options and a full year to decide on the candidates you wanted to be your next president, and these were the two you picked. These two. Right here. All right, now let’s begin.”
“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.
Photo by Nicola Buck
Dick Van Dyke celebrated his 90th birthday this past December 13, the way most nonagenarians do – by participating in a flash mob. Fitting for a man whose career is peppered with characters of youthful, childlike vision. In his impressive, 70-plus-year career he’s amassed five Emmys, a Tony and a Grammy.
Van Dyke got his start on radio and quickly moved to the stage. In 1959 he snagged the lead in Bye Bye Birdie, a role he reprised for the 1963 film. Other films followed including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Divorce American Style, but it was the 1964 Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins that gave birth to his most remembered film roll, as Bert the chimney sweep. Continue reading →
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.
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?
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.
As a poor-quality young poet, my verses were overwrought, melodramatic, and a bit odd. Then I discovered James Tate, and I decided that if I was to be a poet, then an odd humor would be my game. Years of teenaged notebooks were filled with poems cribbed from Tate–aping his tone, style, and playful surrealism. Then I discovered that I didn’t want to be a poet. I’d leave that to my older brother.
After a few short films that might have been influenced by Tate, I ended up in grad school studying humor. No poetry, per se, in my research, but I like to go back to Tate once in awhile to rediscover some of that absurd magic that shaped–and might continue to shape–my experience of language.
With our poetry editor away for a few months, I decided to step in with a couple of my favorite poems by Tate. I also found this article–James Tate: “The Cowboy” How to be funny and sad. BY STUART KRIMKO–which discusses one of Tate’s poems in terms of humor. Here is Tate reading some of his poems, with a biography. And two of Tate’s poems.
Teaching the Ape to Write Poems
They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”
James Tate, 1943
from Absences. Copyright © 1970 by James Tate.
The List of Famous Hats
Napoleon’s hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous hat, but that’s not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all honesty wasn’t much different than the one any jerk might buy at a corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities. The first one isn’t even funny: Simply it was a white rubber bathing cap, but too small. Napoleon led such a hectic life ever since his childhood, even farther back than that, that he never had a chance to buy a new bathing cap and still as a grown-up–well, he didn’t really grow that much, but his head did: He was a pinhead at birth, and he used, until his death really, the same little tiny bathing cap that he was born in, and this meant that later it was very painful to him and gave him many headaches, as if he needed more. So, he had to vaseline his skull like crazy to even get the thing on. The second eccentricity was that it was a tricorn bathing cap. Scholars like to make a lot out of this, and it would be easy to do. My theory is simple-minded to be sure: that beneath his public head there was another head and it was a pyramid or something.
From Reckoner, published by Wesleyan University Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by James Tate