When I am asked to teach a new course, I often revert back to my coaching days. I approach its purpose and structure with all the seriousness and lofty intentions of an English Premier League (EPL) manager. As in soccer, I feel the pressure and necessity of a solid performance. Prior to kickoff, I spent many a late night watching films, meeting with those who held superior knowledge of the game, reviewing formation and dependable goal scorers. All in all, I thought I created a well-researched, slam-dunk course. (Please pardon my mixed sports metaphor – this is my first post – and I am currently suffering from a case of the recently diagnosed DB – dissertation brain.) This semester, as head of an introduction to literary genres team, with humor as my reliable captain, I wanted my students and my course not only to be good, but great. Ryan Giggs great. Or, for those of you less-than-enthusiastic fans, Cristiano Ronaldo great.
Pedagogically, I wanted to build an historical context and contemporary appreciation for my freshman students through an introduction to various types of humor, including farce, satire, dark comedy, parody, slapstick and screwball humor. In our first few meetings, I lectured a bit, and we watched various YouTube videos, SNL skits, and The Daily Show segments, which afforded them comical examples and repartees.
Classic Three Stooges video
We read articles on humor, its theories, and laughter’s physiological benefits (see Wilkins and Eisenbraum’s abstract). I was trying to convince my students of humor’s merit, of its historical purpose and value in our modern daily lives. For many reasons, I felt protective of humor, and I wanted them to take the study of it seriously.
In order to accomplish this goal, as well as my course objectives, I stacked my team. My strikers right out of the gate were Swift and Twain. Behind them were O’Henry, O’Connor, Thurber, and Stewart. Two newcomers, Gionfriddo and Alexie, provided necessary depth to my defense. I believed that with the right combination of gentle guidance and direct instruction, my students would grasp the dichotomous nature of my course: play and purpose. While I wanted to set a mutually understood context for laughter, (necessary, I believe, for them to ‘get’ the jokes), I deeply desired for them to see the author’s purpose behind the chuckle: to question and critique social structures and ideology imbedded into America’s framework, as well as their own lives. For the first two weeks of the course, my game plan failed. I had spent so much time trying to force them to understand the legitimacy of humor that I had overlooked the aspect of playing with the language, the situations posed to us by various readings.
By Larry Bush
On the NPR radio show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” they discussed the origin of the folk rhyme, “Georgie Porgie.” Since WWDTM is a humorous news wrap-up, they gave the origin of the rhyme the most licentious interpretation they could find. Their conclusion about the rhyme is that it is about the sexual relationship between George Villiers and King Charles I. Although this interpretation is reinforced by some researchers and disputed by others, there is a strong likelihood that the subject of the rhyme is George Villiers and that it originated in the late 16th or early 17th centuries In England. The verse has appeal to children because the subject is named with a forced rhyme in the same manner as the term “heebie jeebies” has an appeal because of the forced rhyme. But, if there were a 21st century U. S. president who was a closeted gay man, would that person be subject to ridicule or are we beyond that? I think any ridicule in the 21st century would be directed at those who criticize a gay person’s sexual orientation.
A similar occurrence is in U. S. history. In 1802, James T. Callender revealed to the world that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’s children. Callender made jokes about the little slaves at Monticello that looked like miniature versions of the President. That joke and similar stories went viral, or as viral as could be in the early 19th century. While Jefferson denied the relationship and Hemings was mute on the issue, DNA testing has shown that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Hemings’s children. Again, jokes about inter-racial relationships have gone on the wane over the last few decades, but jokes about unequal relationships have not. Should Jefferson have taken the heat because Hemings was younger and black or because he, literally, owned her? Jefferson was a widower when he was alleged to have had the relationship with Hemings, but it was illegal for a white person to marry a black person in Virginia in the early 1800s. If they had wanted to pursue their relationship on more equal grounds, they could not have legally done that.
This month, another sensitive situation has turned into fodder for humorists. Liz Cheney is running for the Senate in Wyoming, and one of the planks in her platform is her steadfast opposition to same-sex marriage. Well, it would be steadfast if she had not attended the same-sex wedding of her sister Mary and wished them well. Since Liz has dissed same-sex marriage, Mary Cheney has gone on a campaign of her own—to point out the hypocrisy of her sister’s campaign. It has caused some very public tension. The fact of Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation also haunted her father, Dick Cheney, while he was Vice President, but the Veep was able to change the subject merely by shooting his hunting partner in the face. Actually, like Jefferson, Dick Cheney refuses to talk about family, and to this point, he has refused to say much about the controversy in his daughter’s electoral campaign, but that has not stopped the humorists. Apparently this is fair game. I have seen no editorials chastising humorists about their treatment of the Cheney feud. Perhaps, if it were happening in a less prominent family, it would seem more tragic, but the former second family is going to take it from the outside as they slam one another on the inside.
Following are two of my favorite Cheney sisters political cartoons:
It is fun to teach humor. Laughter keeps students awake more effectively than most things. The promise of relief or diversion from the cultural and personal stresses implicit in all humor (and explicit in much of it), to my mind, not only makes for more pleasant classroom discussions but also helps to make those discussions more productive. This I believe.
But I have my doubts when it comes to exploring satire. I have revealed my misgivings in this spot before (Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically); see also Sharon McCoy’s excellent response: Embracing the Ambiguity of Satire).
Within the overall umbrella of my courses on American Humor, satire demands its space, and rightfully so. But it’s harder to get through the material, and methinks many students pick up on my hesitations here and there. I don’t mind the difficulty factor, it’s the pain of the subject matter that wears me out. The suffering underlying much of humor in general stands foregrounded in satire. This is the nature of the art form. Satire cannot hide its rage, or its hopelessness, and as a result there is very little room for the pleasant relief of laughter. Satire is rarely funny “ha ha,” or funny “weird.” It’s just painful.
I have just read what I consider to be one of the most engaging pieces of satire on political and cultural intransigence that I have encountered since first reading Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” a work by the American master that is perfect both in its conciseness and its artistic vision.
Twain’s short piece, which has a stranger translate the prayers of a people on the verge of war, is powerful for its accuracy as a comment on the human capacity for making war in the name of god and its recognition that the commentary is timeless because the war making machine is timeless, and unending. Students will always study it because they will always understand its targets. The Onion has just provided another piece that seems, to me, worthy of being taught alongside Twain’s work.
It is an “Editorial Opinion” that first appeared on August 13, 2013 (Issues 49.33). The title is: “The Onion” Encourages Israel and Palestine Not to Give a Single, Goddamn Inch.”
Here is a link to the article: http://www.theonion.com/articles/the-onion-encourages-israel-and-palestine-not-to-g,33473/
Standing in opposition to “the international community” which has pleaded with the two sides to meet to discuss peace, The Onion satirically asks the sides to remain steadfast and persist in absolutist positions:
“Israelis and Palestinians, you must accept nothing short of total victory against those who threaten your religion and way of life. Sacrificing just one of your ideals would at this point be tantamount to compete and utter failure.”
The writers of The Onion then follow this assertion with details that simply recount the history of the last 60 years (and by implication 2,000 years?) in four concise sentences:
“If a settlement is built, you must attack it. If a settlement is attacked, you must rebuild it. Rocks must be met with bullets; bullets must be met with rocket fire; rocket fire must be met with helicopter assaults. This is the only noble way forward for either side.”
Noble. Forward. The writers know, and readers know, the words “noble” and “forward” serve as the key bits of irony here. There is nothing noble in the bloodshed, nothing forward looking about continued intransigence.
Building on this sardonic tone, the satire gets heavier and heavier, and the reader wants relief while at the same time knowing that none is forthcoming. As with Twain’s work, the writers are devoted to the point of the satire, which is the grotesque pointlessness of continued aggression. The secondary target of the piece, though, may also be the ever-present demands from the international community to urge the parties to sue for peace. Pointless. I don’t really believe that peace efforts are pointless, by the way, but it seems the accurate thing to say here in the context of The Onion satire, the art. If we are to teach such aggressive and unnerving satire, we must be ready to accept the full brunt of the hopelessness the piece addresses. And thus figure out a way to help students talk about it. I am open to suggestions.
I just know that as I read this, I wanted an outlet, some peek from behind the curtain from the jester. But it is not there because there is no peace ready to peek out from behind any curtains either. The article ends concisely and with a key repetition:
“Remain steadfast. Remain strong. And never give up your noble fight, even if it takes several more generations.”
That, my gentle readers, is first-rate satire. It is exhausting and no fun at all.
Stephen Colbert, in the inaugural episode of the Colbert Report (October 17, 2005), coined the word truthiness to capture the underlying absurdity of the human preference to assert a truth that arises from a devout belief in one’s gut rather than one supported by facts (see:Colbert Introduces Truthiness). Truthiness reflects the desire of a formidable section of the population (or is it the entire population?) to assert that what they believe to be true is true, not necessarily because the facts support it but because they want to believe it so strongly. Colbert, in character, asserted that the nation was at war between “those who think with their heads and those who know with their hearts.” As Colbert put it in an interview with the A.V. Club by The Onion (January 26, 2006), “facts matter not at all. Perception is everything” (see: Colbert Interview).
To say that the word took off is a lame understatement. A Google search of “truthiness” yields 969,000 hits. Wikipedia–where I get all of my facts with full enjoyment of the ironic potential of that statement–has an article on the word that offers 57 footnotes pointing to a wide range of popular culture and media sources. If you are so inclined, you could follow #truthiness on Twitter and receive a constant string of observations from some of the brightest minds of the time, but I can’t recommend that in good conscience.
In no uncertain terms, truthiness is in the American grain, politically and socially. Colbert claims that the word–and its satirical context–is the thesis for the Colbert Report itself. Whether all of his viewers really get that could be debated, at least if one considers viewers early in the run of the show. See the 2009 article examining the complicated range of audience responses to the Colbert Report by Heather LeMarre here: The Irony of Satire. I have commented on that conundrum in an earlier post questioning the power of satire — Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically). That essay was followed by a first-rate essay by Sharon McCoy reaffirming at least some of my optimism — (Embracing the Ambiguity and Irony of Satire). By 2013, however, Colbert has appeared out-of-character enough and has built such a clear following, it would be much more difficult to find an audience who would be as confused regarding his true political thinking as some viewers were in 2005. He is too big, and he has appeared more often out-of-character via interviews in a variety of outlets. He is liberal, OK?
I would argue that no humorist has ever called into service a word with more usefulness to cultural and media critics, and to lovers of irony. But the concept behind truthiness is not Colbert’s. It’s the cornerstone of American humor, and our greatest writers and characters have built a tradition of humor forever exploiting the grand American attraction to self-delusion, to the power of desire over the power of facts. It is what makes us so funny.
Washington Irving gave us our first enduring humorous character through the sleepy ne’er-do-well Rip Van Winkle, a man who abandons his family for twenty years and returns after his wife’s death to become a grand old man of the town, living the life he always wanted–talking and drinking with friends. Irving brings Rip to readers through his narrator, “Geoffrey Crayon” who takes the story from “Deidrich Knickerbocker,” who takes the story verbatim from Rip himself. That’s a lot of room for creative use of truthiness. Rip is no match for the idealized romantic heroic male of the revolutionary era, the Daniel Boone’s who built it, so to speak. He presents a different kind of American. He does not fight for love of country or for political freedom; he sits out the war. He does not build a homestead thus failing to accept his role in the making of the national Jeffersonian dream. Nope. Within the story are all the facts to show that Rip is a sorry excuse for a man and a lousy American, a troubling subversive. But we love him because he seems like such a nice guy, and his wife is such a pain–as Rip tells it. Of course, his narrative is self-serving–and successful. Although some townspeople clearly know he is a liar, most accept his story of sleeping for twenty years–because it feels right, or at least it allows them to go about their business. They are willing to believe in the mysteries of the hidden corners of the Catskills, but more importantly, they are eager to believe in a man they like. It just feels right. And easier.
Readers, moreover, do the same. They like him; they hate Dame Van Winkle. They forgive Rip his indiscretions and welcome him back into the fold. They believe him because he seems so earnest. Rip abides, bless his heart. They believe, for the similar reasons, in the exploits of Daniel Boone. But I digress. All of Rip’s late-life success in becoming a center of attention is made possible by his willingness to lie and the inherent desire of most of the townspeople to believe his story simply because they want to. Facts and deductive reasoning be damned. That is funny.
Washington Irving, in giving us Rip, deserves recognition as the first worthy exploiter of truthiness in American humor. The great master of the 19th century was, of course, Mark Twain–who I will come back to in another post. There are many others, from the eternal optimism of Charlie Chaplin, to the befuddled female misfits of Dorothy Parker, to the secret dreams of Walter Mitty envisioned by James Thurber, to the disturbed struggles of Lenny Bruce, to the white Russians of the Dude from the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. It is a long list that has as its current master-artist Stephen Colbert. It is a timeline of writers, characters, comedians, and satirists covering just under two hundred years (using the 1819 publication of “Rip Van Winkle” as my starting point).
For some reason, there is still a need for satirical minds to tell subversive stories and to exploit the absurdities of American culture because there also remains a powerful urge for many Americans to shun facts and go with their gut to serve their own desires and belief systems. They find regular affirmation in popular culture and politics. One could be somewhat disappointed that after all this time there is still so much work to be done to defeat the powers of truthiness in our political systems and social structures. Not me. I believe things will get better. I can feel it in my gut.
Because Rip abides.