Tag Archives: Interview

All Joking Aside: An Interview with Rebecca Krefting on her new book (with an excerpt)

Tracy Wuster


Rebecca Krefting, all Joking asideI have been excited for Rebecca Krefting’s All Joking Aside (out now through Johns Hopkins University Press) to come out since hearing her present at the 2010 AHSA/MTC conference in San Diego (this year in New Orleans).  Krefting’s approach to stand-up comedy is thoughtful, nuanced, and entertaining.  In the book, Krefting uses the concept of “charged humor” to describe a particular type of stand-up performer, providing both a useful rubric for understanding certain types of stand-up and solid case studies of performers.  You can read a section on the concept of charged humor here. From All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents, by Rebecca Krefting. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press.  Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

I recently interviewed the Krefting about the book and her experiences as a humor scholar:

 Tracy Wuster) Tell me about your start in humor studies.  How and when did you begin pursuing it as a subject? who has influenced you as a scholar of humor?

 Rebecca Krefting: I think I began studying comedy the moment I began writing my first set. I contemplated questions like: what words would create the greatest comedic effect and in what order? How do you take everyday occurrences or a terrible situation and make it funny? Why is something funnier coming out of his mouth than out of mine? I started performing stand-up comedy and improv in August of 2001, a mere six weeks before 9/11. I was fresh out of college and while considering graduate school, had not made any commitments either way. I worked several jobs: bartender/server, legal secretary, and domestic worker and had just enough time and chutzpah to try my hand at comic performance. I strove to be a comic and attacked it with the fervor of a beaver building a dam—like my life depended on it (if you know anything about beavers, you know that’s true). The improv acting I fell into by auditioning on a lark for a professional troupe called The Skeleton Crew performing out of Nashville, TN. Looking back, I know now just how lucky I was to train in this comedic cultural form, which informed my stand-up and later my teaching. In both stand-up and improv, I was acutely aware of my identity as a woman while performing (this more so than my being a lesbian because although I was out, I opted not to call attention to this during my stand-up) and so I became a critical observer of how identities played out on stage. Thus began my fascination with the practice, history, and analysis of comedy. When I started applying for grad schools, I knew that an MA in Women’s Studies would expose me to the scholarship that would help me make sense of the gender gap in comedy and other cultural phenomena I had been observing in the comedy world. Having been schooled in one identity-based discipline, it seemed a natural shift to obtain a doctorate in American Studies, the first identity-based discipline in academia. It didn’t hurt that the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park also housed (at that time) the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies, where I was offered employment.

My influences as comic and scholar are manifold. They are comics like Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Maria Bamford, Kate Clinton, and Patton Oswalt; they are comic performers like Sissieretta Jones, Trixie Friganza, Judy Gold, Meryn Cadell, Nellie McKay, Greg Walloch, and the Five Lesbian Brothers; they are scholar-mentors like Linda Mizejewski, Brenda Brueggemann, Mary Sies, Ronit Eisenbach, Sharon Harley, and Larry Mintz; they are scholars like Karl Marx, Patricia Hill Collins, Philip Auslander, Eddie Tafoya, bell hooks, Judith Butler, Coco Fusco, Rosemarie Garland Thompson, Jill Dolan, and Shane Phelan.

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The Sound and the Furry: An Interview with Alfra Martini, Creator of The Kitten Covers

Alfra Martini is a musician, runs a record label, sells vintage posters, freelances as a designer, and – like Walter Benjamin’s famous Angel, but of Parody instead of History – may very well be there at the end of the internet. In other words, Alfra is also responsible for The Kitten Covers: a website which, if you have not seen it, is both exactly what it sounds like and exactly as cool as you think it is. Her “kittenized” album covers have since gone viral with good reason, about which she was kind enough to speak with Humor in America.

David B. Olsen: A common observation that seems to frame discussions of your work is that these images were kind of inevitable. Like it’s almost weird that it has taken us so long as a culture to add kittens to famous album covers. My favorite assessment of your work comes from a short piece in New York Magazine online: “It’s a new blog in which the subjects of iconic album covers are replaced with kittens. So, basically, that’s a wrap, Internet!” What combination of cosmic forces did it take, therefore, for The Kitten Covers to come about through you?

Alfra Martini: It’s funny that for some, The Kitten Covers seem to signify the end to the internet.  As if to say, all our advances in information sharing have culminated into this final point. Like the punchline to a long drawn out narrative, our ambitions for advanced global communication have produced this ultimate monstrous phenomenon: Rock n Roll Kittens!!  It’s like a kittenized Planet of the Apes moment where Charlton Heston freaks out realizing human technological progress has led to it’s destruction: “We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” Hahaha. Kittens Rule!

But the truth is anthropomorphism is as old as humanity itself and animal parodies have been used forever.  Also, parodying classic album art is nothing new to the internet. Sleeveface, Lego Albums, and Album Tacos had all been around before The Kitten Covers. And though I don’t spend a massive amount of time on the internet, I do run a record label (All Hands Electric) and am a musician myself. Pair that with my love of vinyl records, cover art, and music iconography in general, and throw in a dash of my graphic design interests… I had, of course, been exposed to these viral images in the past so had an idea of this type of humor.

But how The Kitten Covers came to being more specifically: I was staying home from my day job as a vintage poster dealer, recuperating from a cold and feeling a little restless in bed.  Lucky for me, I always have something to do for the record label, regardless of whether I can get out of bed or not, and as we are a very independent DIY outfit, I started researching alternative methods for record distribution on my laptop, i.e. checking out stores who might be interested in carrying our stuff. It’s not the most effective thing, but you have to start somewhere, and I wasn’t about to waste my time sneezing all day. Sifting through online catalog after catalog, well, you revisit some iconic album covers and, if you are like me, you get distracted by the graphic decisions and the exaggerated style of rock iconography.

It was then that a vision popped into my head: David Bowie as a kitten. I don’t know how or why. Perhaps it’s because I’m a huge Bowie fan and have an Aladdin Sane tote bag I use and see everyday – or perhaps it was because my little calico cat was sleeping at my feet, as she usually does when I’m in bed – or maybe it was the Theraflu – but it was a very clear image and the thought made me laugh.  The die was cast. I had to see it in real life.

In hindsight, the image speaks loads to the current state of things, but at the time I wasn’t thinking meme, or blog, lol cats, or body of work. I was just thinking David Bowie as a kitten… I must see David Bowie as a kitten. Could I do it? Did I have the photoshopping skills? I abandoned my “work task”, crawled out of bed, and started up the desktop. The rest is mainly just technical.

After it was done… I giggled. It looked pretty close to my initial vision. And I was thinking, maybe I should do another, so started on the New Order cover, which is such a serious looking image to start with and the idea of using a kitten… just seemed so absurd. And then came Nevermind, because how iconic and bizarre is that cover already? And what’s more ludicrous than a kitten swimming underwater? Theoretically they all seemed so ridiculous and yet endearing.  It was then that my boyfriend came home and saw what I was doing and was like: “WTF?? Are you okay? Do you have a fever or something?”  Haha. But he couldn’t deny the eeriness of the David Meowie and suggested that I do a few more and start a Tumblr page, as he heard it had been good for photo blogs. Honestly, I was just going to show a few friends to get a laugh… who knew that I was planning the demise of the internet? Heh.

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Humor, Irony and Modern Native American Poetry

By: Caroline Zarlengo Sposto

Author, editor, lecturer, poet and scholar, Geary Hobson was born in 1941 in Chicot County, Arkansas. A Cherokee-Quapaw-Chickasaw, Hobson grew up immersed in the Cherokee language and culture. Last week, I was lucky enough to catch him by telephone in his office at The University of Oklahoma to talk about his poem, “A Discussion about Indian Affairs.”

H.I.A.: I find it interesting that so much Native American poetry is humorous. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Dr. Hobson: “I’m not sure how we got stuck with the stereotype of the stoic Indian. I have been in the habit of saying for many years that Indians have wonderful senses of humor. Humor varies from culture to culture. There is a Scottish sense of humor, a Jewish sense of humor and so forth. There is a great deal of irony in a lot of Indian humor.”

H.I.A.: I’m a little bit surprised to hear you using the term “Indian.”

Dr. Hobson: “I think getting hung up on the terms–Native American, American Indian, Indian–is being a little over-sensitive and calling too much attention to something that is very minor.

H.I.A.: What does bother you?

Dr. Hobson: That Indians are so often spoken of in the past tense instead of as a part of today’s society.”

H.I.A.: On that note, let’s look at your poem.

A Discussion about Indian Affairs

by: Geary Hobson

She was a white woman
from some little town
in one of the Dakotas.
“I’ve heard about Cherokees
–everybody’s heard about Cherokees–
but I always thought Chickasaws
were some made-up tribe—
one that never existed—
invented by someone like Al Capp,
a word like ‘Kickapoo,’ you know?”

“There’s a Kickapoo tribe, too.”
I said.      “Oh,” she said,
and having nothing more to say
on the subject, said nothing.
I wondered if we’d ever have
Anything to say to one another.

H.I.A.: The surface irony of this poem is about tribal names. Can you tell us what we may not be seeing beneath the surface?

Dr. Hobson: “One of the deeper ironies in this poem is that these tribal names aren’t the names that we call ourselves. The name ‘Cherokee’ comes from our neighbors the Choctaw who told the Spanish that we were ‘the people in the hills.’ ‘Navajo’ and ‘Sioux’ are imposed names, and so on. Some of the names imposed from the outside almost sound like words developed for comedy. ‘Kickapoo’ was an imposed name and then in Al Capp they would talk about ‘Kickapoo Joy Juice.’ Beyond that, ‘tribe’ is a word that was put on us. We think of ourselves as nations, each with its own language and culture.”

H.I.A.: Did the story in this poem actually happen?

Dr. Hobson: “Yes. The woman and I were teaching assistants together in the English Department in New Mexico in the 1970s. I wrote the poem to make a broader point; certainly not to make fun of her. The biggest irony perhaps was that despite the last sentence in the poem, ‘I wondered if we’d ever have anything to say to one another.’ we ended up becoming very good friends.”

H.I.A.: Is there anything else you would like to say?

Dr. Hobson: “Indian Literature is a true literary entity–not a side note or an appendage to American Literature. It deserves that level of recognition. Speaking of recognition–and it doesn’t matter if they are in North American or South America–I would love to see an Indian author win the Nobel Prize.”

* “A Discussion about Indian Affairs” was published in Geary Hobson’s Deer Hunting and Other Poems, 1990 and American Indian Literature An Anthology edited by Alan R. Velie, 1991.

Humor Studies: An Interview with Don Nilsen

Don Nilsen interviewed by Tracy Wuster, August-September 2011
Don and Alleen Nilsen became emeritus professors at Arizona State University on May 15th, 2011. Their opus magnum is the Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor which in 2000 was selected as an “Outstanding Academic Book” by Choice, and which in 2001 won an “Outstanding Reference Source” award from the American Library Association’s.  Don has also written three books about humor in British literature, one about humor in American literature, and one about humor in Irish literature.  In 2004, Don and Alleen published two books about teaching metaphor in public schools, and in 2007, they published their Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature.  Don and Alleen’s most recent book is their revised Pronunciation Contrasts in English, about half of which is about English spelling as a rule-governed system.  Don and Alleen are presently working on the 9th edition of Literature for Today’s Young Adults, which will appear in 2012.

Tracy Wuster:  Tell me about your start in humor studies.  How and when did you begin pursuing it as a subject?

Don Nilsen:  I’m a linguist and a teacher.  If I make an insightful point in my teaching, it is of no value if the students have all gone to sleep.  So I started inserting humor into my presentations and interactions with students.  In class I try to keep my humor on task, but I also try to force students to see the world from a slightly new and surprising perspective.  I guess, that like Mark Twain, I’m sort of a “Gonzo Journalist.”  I’m reporting real truths, but at the same time I’m exaggerating these truths, or parodying them, or understating them, or making strange connections.  A teacher needs to be careful in using humor, because students may miss the point you are making, or may take the humor the wrong way.  Sarcasm is especially dangerous for two opposite reasons.  It is so powerful that it can hurt a student’s self esteem.  But if you use sarcasm on a smart student, you are challenging him to a classroom duel that you might not win.  Ironies and paradoxes are especially good humor tools to use in the classroom.  Erma Bombeck, Art Buchwald, Gary Trudeau, and Charles Preston have been major influences on my life.  Erma Bombeck and Art Buchwald both received honorary Ph.D. degrees from ASU, Gary Trudeau wrote Arizona’s impeached governor Evan Meacham into his comic strip, and Charles Preston, cartoonist for the Wall Street Journal did a cartoon about one of our humor conferences that was published in the Wall Street Journal.  His original cartoon can now be seen hanging in our home.

Caption: “There are essentially for basic forms for a joke–the concealing of knowledge later revealed, the substitution of one concept for another, an unexpected conclusion to a logical progression, and slipping on a banana peel.”
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