Tag Archives: race

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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Stand-up Sunday: Michael Richards, Six Years On

For the contemporary stand-up comedian, the digital age presents both benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, comedians receive great publicity and access to new fans via platforms such as Twitter (which is a custom-made forum for joke tellers) or on podcasts such as Marc Maron’s WTF.

On the minus side, the ease with which audience members can record the audio or visual of an act means that material can be taken out of the comedian’s control and circulated in the digital realm before the wait staff even drop the checks. If there’s an altercation or a line that is crossed in an inexpert manner, the mater can spiral into something viral — and that’s not always good for a comic’s reputation. Just ask Michael Richards, who just this week found himself on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” web series, apologizing again for his racist tirade at the Laugh Factory six years ago. Well, he doesn’t apologize so much as he shows how it still weighs heavy on his soul.

“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” constitutes Seinfeld’s foray into new media, taking the breezy style he developed in stand-up and sitcom, and playing it out on the web with decent production values. Seinfeld gets to indulge his passion for cars — he picks up Richards in a “1962 VW split-window double-cab bus in dove blue, primer grey, and rust.”

“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” also allows Seinfeld to chat with comedian friends, including Larry David, Alec Baldwin, and the comedy duo of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. (I think Reiner and Brooks just might have a future in the industry!)

The episode with Richards involves several doses of nostalgia.

Michael Richards: Those were good days.

Jerry Seinfeld: Those were good days.

Michael Richards: You gave me the role of a lifetime.

Jerry Seinfeld: You gave me the experience of my lifetime, getting to play with you.

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Stand-Up Sunday: Dave Chappelle

Dave Chappelle has been an enigma the last few years.  After famously walking away from his wildly popular show on Comedy Central Chappelle has largely remained out of the public eye.  More recently the comedian began playing a series of unannounced shows throughout the country that while sparking significant hype have been terribly disappointing.

That is a shame because I still find Chappelle to be one of the finest stand up comics.  Ever.  Recent public flops aside his two specials, Killing Them Softly and For What It’s Worth, remain two of my favorite specials of all time.

Though not necessarily a political comedian Chappelle does occasionally touch upon politicians, especially those who might be linked to the Black experience.  Long before Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president comedians like Cedric the Entertainer opined about Bill Clinton being the de facto first one.

The clip here is from 2000 right near the end of the Clinton Administration.  There are some timely references to then President Clinton’s candor and coolness that those who saw his recent rave review at this year’s Democratic National Convention will find timeless as well.  And since Chappelle initially cut his comedy chops as a teenager at the Washington D.C. improv in the late 80’s there is always room for a well placed mayor joke as well.

See any similarities with the persona here with what we saw during the Democratic Convention?

I recommend watching the rest of this special, found here, or his second special following the release of Chappelle’s Show, found here.

REMEMBERING DICK GREGORY

Sam Sackett

I saw Dick Gregory once, and I want to commemorate that occasion while he is still alive.  I hope he reads this.

Before I enter upon my narration, let me introduce myself and set the stage.Dick Gregory young

My mother did not tell me I was Jewish until I was 46 years old.  I was not raised Jewish in any way.  We ate pork and ham at home.  I had never been inside a temple or synagogue.  And yet I was thoroughly familiar with Jewish family life because I listened to the radio, especially the Jewish comedians like George Jessel (“Hello, Mama, this is Georgy”), Eddy Cantor, and Minerva Pius, who was Mrs. Nussbaum in Fred Allen’s Alley (“You were expecting maybe Greta Garfinkel?”).  I don’t count Jack Benny; he was a comedian who happened to be Jewish, not a Jewish comedian. Gertrude Berg was not a comedian, but her portrayal of Jewish life in the soap opera The Goldbergs certainly had its effect.  There were others whose names I have forgotten, but because of radio comedians I became thoroughly familiar with what English sounded like with a Yiddish accent.  And long before I was 46 I was keenly aware both of antisemitism among the kids I went to school with and of the way in which Jewish comedians were gradually making Jews more familiar and hence more acceptable to goyim.

Now that I’ve introduced myself, let me set the stage.  After the Civil War, the United States Army set up military installations throughout the western U.S. with the purpose of protecting settlers moving west from what we now know are Native Americans but were then called Indians.  Many of the troops assigned to these forts were what were known as “buffalo soldiers” – freed slaves.  After all, during the war the Union army had made use of “colored” troops – not, of course, integrated into white units, but as separate but equal units – and these soldiers had acquitted themselves well in battle.  Around the outposts towns grew up, and as time went on some of them became almost civilized.  The state college where I was teaching was located in such a town, and buffalo soldiers had served in the adjacent fort.

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Stand-Up Sunday: Richard Pryor on the “N-Word”

Tracy Wuster

When I teach classes on race in America, I often like to use this clip as a way to talk about the “n-word,” a word that I don’t say but which I spend a whole class discussing.  After discussing the origins and history of the word, I will have my class watch the following clip from Richard Pryor’s 1982 concert film, “Live on the Sunset Strip.”

In addition to being a brilliant piece of comedy, I enjoy the clip because of the audience reaction–and I am always intrigued to watch my students watching the film.  I also enjoy this piece because Pryor’s concert was one of the first stand-up specials I watched as a young (too young) person, and I have always appreciated my brother and step-brother showing me the movie, which taught me both new swear words and introduced me to the fine art of swearing (this should serve as a warning about the language of the clip below).  The film also helped introduce me to important discussions of race, ones that I was not aware of in my sheltered, mostly white, hometown.

I like to follow this clip with a piece of music/spoken word featuring Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Tavis Smiley.  While not comedy per se, the clip is an enjoyable and illuminating discussion of the use of the word–one in which humor and laughter play a key role.  Enjoy.

Mark Twain’s Tale Within a Tail Within a Tale

In some ways, I tell and explain jokes for a living.   Part of what I love about teaching American literature is sharing its humor with students, some of whom have been schooled to see “LitTRAture” as a serious thing with a capital “L”.   They sometimes feel distant from it, and defensive.

But “getting” humor, as I said in my previous blog entry, involves a shared ground, a common experience.  Trying to directly explain what’s funny about a joke often makes the listener feel even more an outsider, a butt of the joke rather than one who shares in it.  On the other hand, describing the context that makes a joke funny puts you both on common ground.   Further, American humor is often self-deprecating, or based in a feeling of being an outsider or in a perception of being lesser than someone else, somehow less worthy.   Not getting the joke at first can even increase our identification with and enjoyment of it once we have possession of the context that makes it funny.  We share the pain, as it were.

Literary humor works on many levels, depending on the context you consider; the more contexts you consider, the funnier it gets.  Mark Twain, in Chapter XXV of A Tramp Abroad, relates an anecdote in which a young woman seems to get the better of the narrator, taking advantage of his obtuseness; she finally explains the joke, ostensibly to let him in on it, but really to punish him for not remembering her.  The scene is funny enough on its surface level, playing on pretense and the embarrassment most of us have felt when someone we cannot place seems to remember us.  But it is the context that makes the scene hilarious, as Mark Twain claims the last laugh.  And not coincidentally, it is also this humorous context that gives the scene its depth and significance.  We laugh about the things that really matter, often about things that hurt.

The narrator and his companion Harris get into an argument about some folks at another table–whether they’re American and if so, from which state, and then about the age of the—not coincidentally—pretty girl.  As the “dispute . . . waxed warm,” the narrator declares to Harris “with a pretense of being in earnest” (247) that he’ll simply go ask.  Harris dares him to, saying that he’d never have the balls to do such a thing.  Caught, the narrator approaches the table, planning an innocuous opening that will get him out of the awkward situation quickly.

To his surprise, the girl speaks up first, as though she knows him.  When he fails to recognize her but pretends that he does, the girl takes him along a garden path of fabricated reminiscences, one of which refers to someone called “Darley”: Continue reading →