Tag Archives: women’s humor

An Afternoon with Mairéad Byrne

An Afternoon with Mairéad Byrne

Poet Mairéad Byrne came to us on a cold, windy, April Fool’s Day. Her poem “Spring” perfectly illustrated her presence on campus:

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april

After a long winter, April and the promise of sunshine and warmth made us almost giddy as we filed into the auditorium. During her reading, students seemed a bit more . . . aware; faculty seemed a bit more . . . cheerful. We had endured 31 of the darkest days on record, and now Mairéad Byrne, our April, was reading from her collection You Have to Laugh: New + Selected Poems (2013), a compilation of witty and clever musings rife with a propensity toward sadness (“Crop”) and self-deprecation (“Things I’m Good At”; “I Went to the Doctor”). If you are new to her, Byrne is an Irish emigrant living in Providence, RI, and teaching at RISD (below: her faculty profile video).

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Remembering Phyllis Diller without Apology

I thought it would be nice to start with a video of Diller’s performance without any frames.  She’s genuinely funny, and in spite of the garish dress, she seems very genuine. It’s difficult for me to find the rapid-fire one-liners of yore (and of Jeff Foxworthy) funny, but with Diller, somehow, it works.

Now for the frame.

I recently read a piece in The Atlantic commemorating Phyllis Diller, and I found myself panicking.  Author Ashley Fetters put together many of the points I wanted to make in this post already. (Don’t you hate it when such an esteemed and often brilliant publication says exactly what you were going to say?  It happens to me all the time.)

The piece was thoughtful and thorough, but the premise troubled me:

Diller’s trademark brand of hapless, self-deprecating, ugly-girl humor was based [on] an invented set of shortcomings she didn’t actually have. Which highlights a weird glitch in the system that still plagues women in comedy today: Why can’t funny women be hot? Or accomplished? Or smart? Why do so many women with these otherwise highly valued traits have to downplay them to get laughs?

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And now for something completely Dickinson . . .

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Spring’s ahead of schedule this year, and so are the April showers. Nothing better on a rainy day than tea with Emily Dickinson.

What a lady. Idiosyncratic, reclusive, prolific and––though some have called her ‘The Poet of Dread”––she could be funny at times, too.

Here are three little gems. Note the distinctive voice and how her mastery at syntax turns simple vocabulary and meter into poetic gold.

To put it in her words, “The truth must dazzle gradually.”

When she tells it, it does.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

I’m Nobody!
Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June – 
To an admiring Bog!

The Dying Need But Little, Dear

The dying need but little, dear,–
A glass of water’s all,

A flower’s unobtrusive face
To punctuate the wall,

A fan, perhaps, a friend’s regret,
And certainly that one
No color in the rainbow
Perceives when you are gone.

In the Garden

A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad,–
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head

Like one in danger; cautious,
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home

Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, plashless, as they swim.

Enough for today. Turn off that computer. Put down those books. Get outdoors. It’s Friday. It’s spring.

“Drink Some Lemonade, and Forget About It”

I know who I want to be when I grow up.

“I’m having a good time / Please don’t blame me,” she sings to me, her voice full of laughter.

“I’m knocking myself out.  Don’t try to tame me.
Let me have my fun, I’ve got to have my fling . . . .

I’m playing it cool while I’m living, because tomorrow, I may die.
That’s why I’m having a convention today, and I ain’t passing nothing by.
So if I make my bed hard, that’s my problem, let me lay.
I’m having a good time, living my life today.

Her name was Alberta Hunter.  Born on April Fools’ Day, she felt that age was a “condition of the mind” (Taylor and Cook 253), and she lived her life to prove it.  I can’t change my birthdate, but I can lie, can’t I?  I’ve got the fool part down, anyway.

Trouble is, that’s the part I have to grow out of, because Miss Hunter was no fool.  I’m working on it.

It’s a step in the right direction, though, because she believed that with hard work, passion, and laughter, you could achieve anything you set out to do.  And that you should take responsibility for whatever was yours:  “So if I make my road rough–that’s the price I have to pay [not you],” she’d sing.  She never worried much about nay-sayers.  If anything, they just made her more stubborn and the sparkle in her eye brighter. She always did what she loved and drew strength from it.  She had no patience for those “who thought God made them and threw the pattern away,” and she knew that giving of yourself, bringing smiles to others, was the most important thing in life.  She only got better as she got older.

She was a “singer of songs,” who refused to be pigeon-holed.  Hunter was one of the only successful female blues composers, though she could never read or write a note of music or tell a band what key a song was going to be in.  But she knew a false note when she heard it, and in 1923, with Lovie Austin, she wrote a little tune called “The Downhearted Blues,” which she recorded for Paramount.  It sold well, she was encouraged to write more, and given a good contract.  But then came the woman Hunter called “the world’s greatest Blues singer, that awful Bessie Smith,” who made “Downhearted Blues” forever her song, selling 800,000 records.  Hunter loved Bessie, loved her version of the song, but she still sang it her way . . . and loved collecting the royalties.

Hunter gave every song her own spin.  As she sang, she improvised words that came to her, often bringing surprised laughter from her audience with witty double-entendres or unexpected twists to old songs.  And her twists, like her twists in life itself, are always about verve, about life-affirming, don’t-let-anything-get-you-down-or-keep-you-down verve.  “A lot of people take a beautiful ballad, they sing it slowly, tell you they’re singing the blues,” she once said.  “Don’t believe them.  I’m gonna sing you some blues, so help me.”  She knew that when you’re singing the blues, “You’re telling a story.  Blues are a song from your soul. When you’re singing the blues, you’re singing” (Taylor and Cook 37).  And then she’d let you know that when life threw you a curve, you had “take a chance and gamble / Lord, everywhere [you] go.”

She was no stranger to taking the gamble.   She was on her own from the time she was 12 — or 16, depending on who’s telling the story.  Alberta Hunter never let a little thing like chronology pin her down.  She ran from Memphis to Chicago, escaping her stepfather’s fists and her school principal’s lecherous advances.  And she wouldn’t stop singing, even when people told her that she was terrible.  During a time when many people said that “you sing blues and jazz, and you’re on your way to the devil with a hat on” (Taylor and Cook 38), Hunter just “grabbed the lyrics, shook them, stomped on them and then picked them up and caressed them” (Washington Post, 8 January 1979, B9), all the while carrying herself like a lady.  Touched by her passion, dignity, and sheer bull-headedness, the prostitutes and gamblers of Chicago took her under their wing, made sure she stayed safe, and cultivated her talents.  Others may have had stronger voices, but Hunter knew how to work an audience like no one else, and she had stories to tell.  Before long, she was a headliner at Chicago’s famous Dreamland, and then a recording star.  When World War II came, she devoted herself to singing for the troops with the USO.

She quit performing in 1955 because she decided she was too old for the hard life on the road, and began volunteering in a New York City hospital, soon becoming an LPN.  In 1977, Hunter was forcibly retired, after 20 years of service to the NYC hospital, because they thought she was 70.

Hunter had them fooled, though.  She was 82.

And just about to launch her second career as a performer, her voice stronger than it ever was, seasoned now and full of laughter.  She recorded numerous albums and was “rocking” her “castle” at sell-out performances until her death in 1984 at the age of 89.  A little thing like chronology never got her down.  Continue reading →