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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: June ::
Re: HUmor
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0472.  Monday, 12 June 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Melissa Aaron <
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        Date:   Saturday, 10 Jun 1995 10:43:15 +0200
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0468 Re: Humor
 
(2)     From:   Thomas G. Bishop <
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        Date:   Saturday, 10 Jun 1995 14:18:26 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0468  Re: Humor
 
(3)     From:   Robert Appelbaum <
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        Date:   Saturday, 10 Jun 1995 13:09:32 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0468 Re: Humor
 
(4)     From:   Simon Morgan-Russell <
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        Date:   Sunday, 11 Jun 1995 11:35:48 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Humour
 
(5)     From:   Gabriel Egan <
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        Date:   Sunday, 11 Jun 1995 17:03:46 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0468  Re: Humor
 
(6)     From:   An Sonjae <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Jun 1995 09:13:06 +0900 (KST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0468 Re: Humor
 
(7)     From:   Alistair Scott <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Jun 1995 13:00:25 +0200
        Subj:   American and British Humour
 
(8)     From:   Robert C. Baum <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Jun 95 14:22:09 EDT
        Subj:   Monty Python as superior visual comedy
 
(9)     From:   Terrence Ross <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Jun 1995 09:04:04 -0400
        Subj:   American and British Humor
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Melissa Aaron <
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Date:           Saturday, 10 Jun 1995 10:43:15 +0200
Subject: 6.0468 Re: Humor
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0468 Re: Humor
 
I'd like to second the vote on *Three Men in a Boat* as absolutely hilarious.
However, I have to honestly say that I thought it was funny right away.  There
was a TV version with Tim Curry as J about 15 years agoo--the scene in which
they try to open a tin of lobster with knives, mallets and their oars is enough
to refresh the most careworn.
 
Melissa Aaron
University of Wisconsin-Madison
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas G. Bishop <
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Date:           Saturday, 10 Jun 1995 14:18:26 -0400
Subject: 6.0468  Re: Humor
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0468  Re: Humor
 
John Owen's theory about the verbal British vs the physical American humorist
is like many kinds of pets -- rather more charming to the owner than to others.
A few names suffice to call it in question -- Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel,
Groucho Marx, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Phyllis Diller. Not to mention the
infamous inventor of the Silly Walk, John Cleese.
 
The case of Benny Hill is worth considering at more length -- for me gloriously
naughty Benny, the best analysis of whose humo(u)r is George Orwell's "The Art
of Donald Magill," was funniest not when _telling_ a joke, nor when mugging
once it was told, but in the gleeful moment immediately before it was told,
when he looked at the camera, and you knew that he knew that you knew that he
knew that what he was about to say was scandalous and ribald. There was a very
complicated transaction of mutual knowledge and enjoyment in that moment which
seems to me the essence of one kind of communal comedy (the one analyzed
especially well by Robert Weimann for its place in Shakespeare's plays). It
goes deep into the class experience of British life, of course as Orwell points
out, and it's this above all, it seems to me, that distinguishes British humor
from American where distinctions can be found (there are exceptions, RoseAnne
Barr being a recent example). Even early on, for instance -- it's a true truism
that Chaplin's work tends to revolve around class antagonisms where Keaton's
focuses on individual effort (contrast "The Cameraman" or "The General" with
"City Lights" or "Modern Times").
 
I was very sorry when Benny Hill died -- by all accounts a painfully shy and
self-effacing presence to whom I owe much childhood mirth. His sketch of the
agent receiving a call from Shakespeare remains with me, especially the
following exchange:
 
Hill (as agent):....about a Dream, Will, is it? That's good....In a forest at
night? Well, Will...Fairies? In a forest at night...? Will, I don't think the
audiences...Well...oh, one of them's a woman. What's her name? Tit-ania....Now
Will, I see a small problem there... No, I don't think the Lord Chamberlain
will....What? There's a funny man? That's good Will, audiences always like a
good laugh. What's he called? (deadpan) Bottom. No, I'm sorry Will, we can't
have that. No. No. "Buttock" maybe or even, possibly "Bum", but "Bottom"? It's
lewd, Will. The public will never understand, Will....
 
Or words to that effect.
 
It's worth recalling that this was broadcast on prime-time TV to gales of
laughter from the live audience. Hard to imagine now.
 
Cheers,
Tom
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Appelbaum <
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Date:           Saturday, 10 Jun 1995 13:09:32 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 6.0468 Re: Humor
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0468 Re: Humor
 
For John Owen:
 
I thought your theory was interesting, but I doubt that the development of a
cinematic language of comedy can be directly associated with American
ethnicity.  It is true, however, that self-identified ethnic comedy (the
Yiddish comics of the Catskills, some of the black comics of today) emphasize
the spoken word as an in-language expressing an in-humor. And it is also true
that, ethnic considerations apart, popular American culture has by and large
created a mass visual literacy that far exceeds its verbal literacy.  I'm sure
that every American stage director today has to begin with the problem that his
"audience" has had more training in spectatorship than in auditing, that it is
better with pratfalls than with puns, and easily visually bored.  The
association of the development of visual comedy with multi-ethnicity is
suggestive; but then again, the visuality of American film was created to reach
across national boundaries as well as ethnic divisions, and has a lot to do
with the success of the Hollywood culture worldwide, Great Britain included.
(Chaplin of course was British, and so were a number of other "American" silent
film stars.) Moreover, to return, as your interesting argument seems to do,
through the back door to the idea of "national character" (the British again
turning out to have a superior or at least "different" comic intelligence)
seems to occlude the real issues behind the development and distribution of
cultural production.  The uses of comedy are various; so are the users.  In
order to teach worldwide audiences to require the enormously rapid, complex,
and expensive visual stimulation that only a global culture industry can
supply, the industry itself first had to educate its "audience" in visuality,
and addict it to the thrills of its language.  I think there's a sense in which
the Elizabethan stage industry was also educating its audience in a certain
kind of literacy, and in certain uses of humor -- uses which grew out of
various "folk" traditions but which were also suited to a somewhat diverse,
non-folkish but hierarchically organized audience.  They developed a language
of comedy which had to be somewhat broad, but which had to gesture in the
direction of certain social authorities and values, and observe certain
conventions of censorship and self-censorship, a language which was
predominantly verbal, but verbal in a certain way.  In a word, the comedy
developed by shakespeare and company was "neutral" in much the same way that
Hollywood comedy attempts to be "neutral."  It wasn't neutral at all, even if
it was developed to reach a newly fashioned, broadened audience, and even if by
comparison with the comedy of the modern american culture industry its products
still seem adventurous or naughty.  I don't think that the sustaining of comic
traditions in certain national or ethnic communities can be looked at as a
neutral expression of national or ethnic differences either.
 
        -- Robert Appelbaum
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Simon Morgan-Russell <
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Date:           Sunday, 11 Jun 1995 11:35:48 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Humour
 
I'm not sure that John Owens's distinction between visual and verbal holds as a
division between American and British humours (subjects, indeed, dear to my
heart).  I can think of many examples that suggest otherwise.  Isn't (my
current US favourite) "Frasier" largely verbal comedy?  And how about "Fawlty
Towers" and Cleese's tortured physical humour (culminating, perhaps, in the
show when he thrashes his car with a shrub).  I saw the RSC's production of Ben
Jonson's "Epicoene" in 1989? and I felt that a great deal of the play's success
was a result of the visual/physical humour -- Sir Amorous La Foole's "tweaks by
the nose sans nombre" are still with me -- and I'm sure there are plenty of
other examples.  The National Thetare's 1989 production of "bartholomew Fair,"
even.
 
The most memorable discussion of Renaissance comedy in terms of contemporary
British comedy (well, it's more of a "mention" than a discussion) is by Brian
Gibbons in his first edition of "Jacobean City Comedy."  He cites Frankie
Howerd's remark that to be a comedian "these days" required a university
education (commenting, I suppose, on the rise of the "Python" generation of
comedians), which Gibbons, if I remember correctly, paralleled with the
"university men" of the Renaissance stage.  Obviously, I'm citing from dim
memory. Wouldn't this be an interesting distinction to debate?  The reason I
find Python so amusing is the juxtaposition of high and low culture (the
"All-England Summarise Proust Competition," "the Germany vs. Greece
Philosophy/Soccer final," the trip to see Jean Paul and Betty-Muriel Sartre...)
 
Simon Morgan-Russell
Department of English
Bowling Green State University
 
(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Gabriel Egan <
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Date:           Sunday, 11 Jun 1995 17:03:46 +0100
Subject: 6.0468  Re: Humor
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0468  Re: Humor
 
I second James Schaefer's advocacy of Brian O'Nolan, and offer a topical
extract from his 'Cruiskeen Lawn' column in the Dublin Times:
 
Examinations are in the air again. The papers once more demonstrate the curious
immutability of examination marks. Nobody denies that the pound is now about
half its pre-war value and that all other values have altered pari passu. Yet
the examination marks are exactly the same as they were ten years ago. Take
this example from the current Leaving Certificate paper in Arithmetic:
 
        'A person holds a Bill of Exchange for 31,450 pound payable in six
        months and hence. He gets the Bill discounted in a bank at 4% per annum
        and invests the proceeds in a 10% Stock as 245. What will be his
        half-yearly dividend? (30 marks.)'
 
You see? Only 30 marks. Leave aside the fact that the first sentence has no
meaning, forget even the indelicate reference to G. S. R. Surely it is
ridiculous to offer a paltry 30 marks, at present market levels, for
calculations so laborious and recondite as those implied in the question?
 
Another consideration arises. The whole theory of awarding marks is
misconceived psychologically. Walk into a pub and take a look at one of those
electric pin-tables. You can shoot six balls for a penny and your score will
depend on whether you have the skill to direct your ball into certain channels
more highly valued than others. But suppose you know nothing about the game and
with your first ball score the absolute minimum. To your delight you will find
that you have scored 1000. Thus encouraged, you keep on and make possibly 5000.
Even if you are aware that the total score possible is 48000, you think that
you have done very creditably for a beginner. After all, 5000 is a lot of
points. You insert another penny.
 
Students should be encouraged the same way. I know of no reason why the
question given above should not carry 3000 marks. And if there is a reason,
does it not also apply to 30? Why not 3?
 
(No answer, of course.)
 
Benny Hill? I wouldn't give him house-room!
 
Gabriel Egan
 
(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           An Sonjae <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Jun 1995 09:13:06 +0900 (KST)
Subject: 6.0468 Re: Humor
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0468 Re: Humor
 
I'm not sure if this should go to the list or to Pam Powell privately but since
the query "Who is Wendy Cope" came out on the list and since I am sure quite a
lot of others have the same question, let me just say that her two volumes of
poems (and parodies, she has an alter ego she calls Jason Strugnell who writes
some of the best bad poetry you can imagine) were published by faber and faber
(that's how they write it) "Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis" in 1986 and "Seious
Concerns" in 1992. Her autobiographical sketch adds little, except that "she
went to St. Hilda's College, Oxford, where she learned to play the guitar" and
she was a primary-school teacher for 15 years. Let me just add that as a child
in Cornwall I used to laugh more over "Three Men in a Boat" than over anything
I ever read. Come to think of it, some of the humour (!) is similar. An Sonjae
(not my original name, I fear, but a Korean version) 
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(7)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Alistair Scott <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Jun 1995 13:00:25 +0200
Subject:        American and British Humour
 
Bob
 
For your course on humour and satire how about one of the short stories by
'Saki' (H.H. Munro).  My favourite is 'The Unrest Cure' which has a Pythonesque
flavour.
 
Then another very 'British' author giving masses of choice is P.G. Wodehouse.
 
And ... will the course only deal with texts that were originally written in
English?  Translations considered?  Can you address satire and leave out
'Candide'?
 
Cheers
Alistair
 
(8)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert C. Baum <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Jun 95 14:22:09 EDT
Subject:        Monty Python as superior visual comedy
 
John Owen wrote----
 
This is as good an occasion as any to throw out a pet theory of mine (certainly
not new):  British comedy (performed humour rather than written), seems to be
funniest when it is verbal. American comedy works best visually. Benny Hill was
always funniest when performing one of his songs, monologues or two-person
skits. He was at his weakest during those lamentable silent comedy knockoffs
culminating inevitably in a pointless chase sequence. Monty Python thrived on
verbal mishaps, and with a few notable exceptions (American Terry Gilliam's
animations), was weakest in skits where the humour was primarily visual. ---
end of quoted material --- Hello all--
 
(I apologize for any mispellingszzzzz. . .)
 
Benny Hill's pointless chase sequences became "old" before they began. However,
the theory that Monty Python "was weakest in skits where the humor was
primarily visual" is simply untrue.
 
Two great examples of successful (primary) visual comedy are the "How Not Not
To Be Seen" and "The Fish Slapping Dance" sketches.
 
If you recall, the first has John Cleese narrating a series of field (trees,
bushes, etc.) visuals.  The first person stands from behind a bush when called
and is shot.  He can be seen.  Another segment shows a single bush in a field.
Therefore this person can be seen (you can guess where he/she is) and is blown
into smithereens, as he/she releases a very satisfying high-pitched yelping
bird call screem.  When there are multiple places to not be seen, they are all
blown up until the same screem is heard from the center explosion, to which
Cleese says, "It was---the middle------one."  If this isn't superior visual
comedy. . .I don't know what is.
 
A second example is "The Fish Slapping Dance".  To extremely festive (almost
carnival) music, Palin tip-toe dances up to Cleese with fish in his crossed
hands and slaps him in the face; tip-toes back and repeats this crossing and
uncrossing slap assault until the music stops.  Clease remains the straight
man.  Upon the conclusion of the happy song, Clease cracks Palin across the
face with a ten foot fish (scroddddd perhaps?), sending him off their platform
and into the river.
 
(Although this unhumorous description fails to convey the comic merit of the
sketch, if you've seen it or do come across it, you will see visual comedy at
its best.)
 
I agree also that Gilliam's animation could get old before it started, but
occasionally he hit home--the friars hopping and diving into a pool created by
the alteration of a medieval typeface character in _The Holy Grail_ or the man
rudely awakened by the sun, moon, clouds and trees jumping to the intermitant
sounds of a timpani and shouting, "Yeaaaa---up" (or something like that); I
also think of the baby carriage which devoured unsuspecting pedestrians and
immediately marvel at Gilliam's imagination.
 
Is it funny?  I think so. . .but I can also in a heartbeat watch Beavis and
Butthead and have a good chuckle or two. . . . .(why do I have the feeling that
I just opened myself up to relentless criticism and a mailbox full of flames?)
 
The only fair generalization of Monty Python is that they were not only visual
and verbal masters, but their irreverance to sacred tradition in religion ("The
Spanish Inquisition" and "The Bishop", in particular), literature ("Wuthering
Heights" in semaphore) and politics (the sports and popular culture trivia game
with Karl Mark, Ghengis Kahn, Lenin, Mao and Che Guevara) placed them at the
forefront of American and British comedy.  If my memory serves me right, some
of the Pythons guest starred in Saturday Night Live skits, attended world
premieres in New York City, and were very popular on both continents.
 
The blurring of the sacred and the absurd (the crucifixion kick line number in
_The Life of Brian_), bastardized textuality, ("Oh. . .bless'd are the meeeeek.
That's noice.  They 'ave a 'ell of a toime" or "Bless'd are the cheesemakers"
in the same film), reversal of dramatic tradition, (the sketch with the
novelist father and laborer son), and numerous other examples of the unexpected
and the irreverent appeal to my comic sensibilities.
 
But then again. . . I like Beavis and Butthead!
 
Cheers,
Bob

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From:           Terrence Ross <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Jun 1995 09:04:04 -0400
Subject:        American and British Humor
 
Robert C. Evans should consider the 19th Century American parodist, Phoebe Cary
for his course on humor and satire.  She kills me, what can I say?  On the
broader question, whether there are distinctively national senses of humor:
I've known Americans who, upon seeing Peter Cooke's "Frog and Peach," laughed
so hard that their scalps hurt.  On the other hand, Abbot and Costello's "Who's
on First?" would probably seem unfunny to most Englishmen who know nothing
about baseball.
 

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