Tag Archives: Satire

In the Playground of Parody

We’ve all had that heart-stopping moment going through airport security, when our bag (or the bag of someone near us) is swept off the belt and meticulously torn apart by grim TSA personnel.   Everyone lucky enough to have already passed through watches out of the corner of their eye as they hurry to get their stuff and get away — just in case.  We all know that those orderly lines are just a stampede waiting to happen.

And we’ve also all felt the intrusiveness of a TSA agent who got a little personal and over-aggressive with the wand or with a manual search because the scanner picked up the quarter we forgot was in our breast or pants pocket.   We know that vulnerable moment of personal terror when we realize that our line leads to the scanner that requires us to raise our hands over our head rather than just walking through — in spite of the fact that our belt, now riding in the gray tub, was the only thing keeping our pants up.  We know that we’re just regular folks, but it feels like a violation when we’re singled out for further screening.  Terrifying, too, as we know that with the threat level at Orange or above, they aren’t messing around; protestations of innocence will be utterly ignored.  And forget it if you even look like you fit into one of the “terror profiles.”  You’re positive, right then, that you’re about to find out just how tenuous our freedom actually is.  Gitmo, here we come.

This spring, director Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford Coppola) teamed up with comedian and actress Debra Wilson to play on these collective fears and feelings of vulnerability in — of all things — an Old Navy commercial.  The ad has roused much comment, running the gamut from its dismissal as racist trash and egregious minstrelsy to its celebrations as hilarious, as brilliant parody or satire.

Wilson, an eight-year veteran of MADtv, plays a TSA agent who tries to spice up a job that is both high-stress and boring, injecting a little humor to keep herself awake and alert as she’s encouraging passengers to follow the rules and keep the lines moving along:

“Sir, keep your pants on.  Ma’am, water is a liquid all over the world, so that’s H – 2 – no!”

The characterization is pitch perfect, balancing just the right amount of bored stoicism and aggression with humor.  Then the comedian takes it over the top:

So, is it a brilliant spot or is it a particularly egregious bit of corporate racist fantasy, blackface minstrelsy haunting us still?

The answer, perhaps, is both.

In creating characters, Debra Wilson draws a firm distinction between doing “impersonations” and “impressions.”  In impersonation, her goal is to “be” the person she’s impersonating, to make someone feel that they’re seeing that person, actually meeting that person.  Impressions, on the other hand, are presentations of “social perception” — take-offs of what people see or want to see, of public persona and behaviors.

Impressions are parody, and Wilson says, “I am there to represent what most people are saying, most people are thinking, most people are reading about.”  Her intent is not to represent the real person, but rather to parody what is acted out in the social arena, to parody and caricature the public actions of a person, or the public’s perception of that person, rather than the person herself.   The object of the impression, then, is to hold the public image, actions, and social perceptions up to a mirror of parody.

Wilson further argues that there’s “no point in doing it if it’s not a playground.”  She loves complex situations, with multiple levels of actions, opinions, perceptions clashing, which offer her “the opportunity to have a larger playground.”  (See interview below, of Wilson’s 2010 appearance on the Gregory Mantell Show.)

So what is the “playground” of parody offered in this commercial featuring Connie, the TSA agent?  Continue reading →

Advertisements

Play and Purpose: Teaching Humor in Introductory Literature Courses

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

Huffington Post’s List of 25 Best SNL Commercial Parodies of All Time

 and Salon.com’s 10 Best Segments from Stewart and Colbert:

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.

Continue reading →

The Changing Nature of Political Satire

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:

Cheney sisters 2

Cheney Sisters

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

“A University Course” on the Value of Satire in a Crazy World

Life, fundamentally, is absurd.  Every day we encounter opinions, actions, experiences, or events that make us wonder whether we are crazy, whether the world is — or whether there is sanity to be found anywhere.

Satire provides a vehicle for holding such contradictory world views in simultaneous suspension — a way of shifting the ground to contain the uncontainable, to allow the simultaneous expression of unresolvable and sometimes ambiguous opposites.  While some argue that students struggle with recognizing satire or analyzing it successfully, I think that the struggle is more than worth it — and I find that once students move away from the idea that there is one right answer, they truly enjoy the power of satire to open their minds to new possibilities, uncertainties, or perspectives, without the overwhelming despair that sometimes comes from a “serious” or “straight” presentation of difficult material or moral conundrums.   As I have argued in a previous posting, the power of satire lies not in its unambiguous moral target, but in its propensity to force us to make a choice about what that target (or those targets) might be.  To both force critical thinking and allow us to laugh painfully, or laugh it off — if we so choose.  Because sometimes, laughing is the only way that we can keep moving, keep functioning in an upside-down world.

In the late spring of 1923, W. E. B. Du Bois found himself in such a place.  About six months earlier, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill “died” in the Senate, the victim of a filibuster and a deeply divided nation, after four years of Congressional debate and re-working of the bill in committee and on the floor of the House.  The bill had been introduced by Congressman Dyer of Missouri in 1918, and its defeat was marked that spring by a lynching in his home state, the communal and extra-legal murder of James T. Scott in Columbia, Missouri.  Scott was an African American employee of the University of Missouri, and the lynching was noted nationally for the presence of students — and particularly, 50 female students — though reports state that none of them actually “took part,” but were spectators.  While Du Bois had often responded to previous lynchings with a trademark sarcasm and satirical outlook, the defeat of the Dyer Bill and the lynching of Scott seem to bring a new level intensity to his satire — a satire marked by both despair and desperate hope.

The tenderness of this drawing by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, with its peaceful evocation of family and normalcy makes a stark contrast with Du Bois's opening salvo.

The tenderness of this drawing by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, with its peaceful evocation of family and normalcy makes a stark contrast with Du Bois’s opening salvo.

The cover of that June’s issue offers no clue as to the intensity of the subject matter on its opening page.  The drawing is peaceful, a mother and her daughter with flowers against an open and non-threatening backdrop of hills, trees, and sky.  It is an intimate moment, and the mother frankly and calmly returns the spectator’s gaze, while the little girl seems off in her own thoughts, undisturbed by the watcher.  The title of the magazine, The Crisis, jars a little, its meaning in opposition to the peaceful, domestic feeling of the artwork.

But that moment of dissonance becomes cacophony when the page is turned, revealing a scathing and brilliantly, horrifically, and shockingly funny satire entitled “A University Course in Lynching,” penned by W. E. B. Du Bois.

The page is clearly marked “Opinion” in bold letters rivaling the title of magazine, Du Bois opens the editorial by proclaiming that “We are glad to note that the University of Missouri has opened a new course in Applied Lynching.  Many of our American Universities have long defended the institution, but they have not been frank or brave enough actually to arrange a mob murder so that students could see it.”  He notes that the lynching of James T. Scott took place in broad daylight and that at least 50 women were in attendance, most of them students.  Du Bois goes on to satirically praise the University’s efforts in a style that recalls Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”:  “We are very much in favor of this method of teaching 100 per cent Americanism; as long as mob murder is an approved institution in the United States, students at the universities should have a first-hand chance to judge exactly what a lynching is.”

He describes the case in brief detail, stating that “everything was as it should be” for a teachable moment.  Scott “protested his innocence” against that charge that he had “lured” and sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl “to his last breath.”  The father has “no doubt” of Scott’s guilt, but “deprecates” the violence of the mob.  What Du Bois does not say here was that the girl’s father, an immigrant professor at the University, actually tried to speak up and stop the lynching, but chose to be silent when the crowd threatened to lynch him as well.  Du Bois concludes:

Here was every element of the modern American lynching.  We are glad that the future fathers and mothers of the West saw it, and we are expecting great results from this course of study at one of the most eminent of our State Universities.

Suddenly, this little girl and her mother are in a different world.

A world upside-down.  A world in which communal murder is officially condoned, due process is suspended, and lynching is not a phenomenon of a wicked South, but of the West.

My students notice different things every time I teach this satire.  Partly because Du Bois’s piece also mentions a lynching at the southern University where I teach, my students often focus on that aspect, on the power of the satire to enlighten them about history they did not know, history that hits close to home.  This week, however, my students focused Continue reading →

The Timelessness of Satirical Art: Charlie Brown’s Football

While leafing through Herblock On All Fronts, a book of editorial cartoons by Herbert Block, I was struck by one cartoon in particular that was published on February 18, 1976, but resonates today. In it, Block uses Peanuts comic strip characters as an analogy of a political challenge during that time. He depicts Lucy as the “CIA and FBI” and Charlie Brown as “U. S.” Lucy is holding the football for a roughed up Charlie Brown to kick—again, and says, “Don’t worry. This time you can really trust me.” It was pertinent to politics then, and Jeff Darcy shows that it is pertinent to politics in September 2013 as well.

scan0001

Don’t Worry.  This Time You Can Really Trust Me, pen on paper cartoon from Herbert Block, printed on 18 February 1976; rpt. in Herblock on All Fronts (New York 1980) 49.

In 1976, Block was commenting on the illegal wiretaps by FBI agents and its collaborations with the Mafia on certain missions.  Both the CIA and FBI planted false news stories in the media.  Block also decried the efforts of the CIA to spy on American citizens such as Senator Robert Kennedy, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. “as having the same high priority as its intelligence gathering on the Soviet Union and Communist China, according to CIA files” (Block 45).  Referencing Richard Helms, former head of the CIA, Freedom of Information requests have impaired the agency’s ability to do its job, but it is clear that the CIA broke laws and compromised the U. S. Constitution in the name of national security.

In the last fifty years or so since the content to which this cartoon refers transpired, the CIA has managed to get America into even more trouble on the international front.  There have been several coups and murders in Latin America that have been perpetrated wholly or in part by the CIA.  More recently, the CIA led us to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at its disposal.  After years of war and tens of thousands of deaths, America has had to concede that they did not exist.  Now, in 2013, we find that the NSA (another intelligence department) has been illegally spying on Americans.  When it was betrayed by one of its operatives, the agency tells us, “Don’t worry.  This time you can really trust me.”  Like Charlie Brown, Americans are expected to believe the intelligence services as they keep changing their stories, yes, like Lucy who pulls the ball away at the last second—and then rationalizes her actions. Continue reading →

Teaching American Satire: A New Piece for the Classroom from the Onion

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.

Image for Twain's War Prayer

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.”

Announcing New Peace Talks

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.

Truthiness and American Humor

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.

Rip Van Winkle

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.

Colbert and Truthiness 2

Standing Askew: If Tragedy Plus Time Equals Comedy, What Do You Call It When There Is No Time?

The idea of “comedy” carries with it a sense of lightness, easy laughter, or distance.  It also carries with it the implication that the audience who is listening, watching or reading is primed to laugh.  They expect to be entertained and amused, to hear something funny.

When people are in the midst of tragedy, or dealing with its aftermath, their expectations are different.  They seek comfort.  Connection.  Strength.  Relief.  Information.  Laughter can seem inappropriate — especially lighthearted laughter or any sort of mockery.  But laughter can also provide comfort, connection, strength, and relief.  And sometimes humor — as opposed to comedy or a joke — can also provide information, or a new perspective that enables coping.  In other words, humor can allow us to stand a little askew — a stance that can help in surviving a tragedy, or in coping afterward.  This use of humor is very human, but I also think, in many ways, it is particularly American.

In September 1857, the ship Central America, carrying 626 crew and passengers and almost $2,000,000 in treasure,  went down in a hurricane off the southeastern coast of the United States.  Sighting a ship in the distance, all of the women and children were put aboard the only three lifeboats they had.  The men aboard went grimly about the business of bailing until the ship finally went down.  Of the approximately 576 men cast into the waters when the ship went down, fewer than 10% survived to be rescued.  But amid the terror of the wreck, a group of survivors remembered most what gave them hope and strength:  humor.

One of the passengers on board the ship was the blackface minstrel Billy Birch.  Along with other men, he had put his wife Virgina (with her pet canary firmly and safely tucked into the bosom of her dress) into a lifeboat.  Cast into the sea with the others when the ship went down, Birch swam about until he found a bit of flotsam.  Hailing other survivors in the nearby waters, he invited them expansively to have a perch on his “yacht” to rest, and apparently kept up a running patter of jokes and humorous comments as they waited hours in the cold and stormy seas for rescue.  Years later, long after the stories of the night’s terror had dimmed in the popular imagination, occasional re-tellings surfaced about the incongruity of the famous actor and his impromptu floating stage, of his indefatigable good humor and laughter.

The story resonated because it appealed to something deep within Americans’ sense of themselves.  Unlike the legendary British “stiff upper lip,” Americans seem to pride themselves on meeting disaster and danger with resolve and quips and humor.  Events of the last week show that this is still true.

When on April 15, the Boston Marathon was violently disrupted by bombs exploding near the finish line, the initial response across the nation was of course shock, empathy, sadness, and anger — simultaneous with pride in those who helped and in the resilience of survivors who woke up “happy to be alive” and runners who had not been able to finish the race but who, only a day or two later, were discussing online how to finish the race in honor of the fallen, which included an 8-year-old boy, and out of determination not to be stopped.  Humor quickly came into the national conversation as well, as one of the slain, Krystle Campbell, was described over and over as having “a great sense of humor” as one of her most important and defining characteristics.

Stephen Colbert weighed in the next evening, with a tribute to the people of Boston in his opening monologue that is being shared on websites and in news reports around the world.  The monologue has already been characterized as “masterful,” “meaningful,” “eloquent,” “touching,” “patriotic,” “moving” — and “humorous.”  I would argue that it is also quintessentially American.  Continue reading →

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

Continue reading →

It Takes All Kinds

You can tell it’s the flu season.  DayQuil is flying off the shelves like it has wings, and suddenly people are acting with this incredible generosity — sharing their bodily fluids with us all in arching streams of flying globules every time they sneeze or cough.  True altruists, they make no effort to hoard their treasures or block our access to them,  coughing uninhibited by hand or arm, sneezing as though it were an Olympic event, going for the glory in maximum volume, distance and splatter area.

You know who I mean.

You hear them before you see them, and they seem to especially love the grocery store at this time of year, wandering among the fresh fruit and vegetables, spreading the love and touching every piece of produce.  Though you shouldn’t get your hopes up too high:  since they never seem to wipe their noses except on their sleeves, their hands are probably remarkably clean.

Now I’m not talking about the folks who selfishly hoard their fluids, clutching their wadded-up tissues or grabbing at paper towels provided in the produce or meat sections; I’m not talking about those hoarders who buy a fresh box of tissues just to be able to open it now, or who furtively cough into their hand, down into the neck of their sweater, or into the crook of their arm, as though they’re trying to keep it secret from the rest of us.  I don’t know what ‘s up with these people; their mothers must not have taught them right — they don’t know the first thing about sharing.

No, I’m talking about those generous souls who want to make sure that we all get a piece of the action.  They never pick unless they flick — or wipe thoughtfully on the underside of handles, giving all who come behind them the thrill of that unexpected encounter with riches.

You know who you are.

There was this especially openhearted soul in the grocery store the other day.  Continue reading →