Blog

Comedy Hour

October 4, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In a 2014 interview with David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld says that he was inspired to create Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to play with a new format, something that could be viewed on a phone. This occurred to him at a time when recent changes to technology have really disbanded old-school structures in media. No longer must a sitcom, for example, be 22 minutes long with breaks for commercials. Rather, on-demand and streaming devices leave the show length up to writers, directors, and artists. Seinfeld says, “The show happening at the time that it did, and the internet and being able to watch things streaming, a few years ago, I never could have done it. The fact that I could make the shows any length I wanted - that gave me the freedom to do it.” While Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is not a sitcom, but rather an interview, Seinfeld completely upends stereotypes. Camera angles move, cars drive the scenes, and interviews are chopped from three hours down to fifteen minutes.

During this same interview, Seinfeld relates the story of the show’s development. He explains that most of the tech-gurus steered him away from longer formats. They claimed that five minutes was a social-media breaking point and that the majority of people would not watch programs longer than five minutes. Seinfeld disregarded this advice in order to include all of the elements that he wanted to address. The show has no consistent length, but generally runs twelve to eighteen minutes. These edited interviews move between cars and coffeeshops. Seinfeld believes that since the show has no plot or narrative, the action must be artificially introduced. He says, “I think part of what makes the show watchable is that it’s moving. There’s an energy. When you have no narrative drive, you’re not telling a story, no one’s waiting to see what happens - we know they’re gonna get coffee, that’s the only story - you need a kinetic energy. So it’s like, take a talk show and make it move and make it outside and then maybe you could sit through the eleven or twelve minutes that it takes.” This is done via the car as well as moving into different locations. The show usually begins with a focus feature of the car for the episode, picked to match the comedian. Then, Seinfeld includes a phone-call invitation to coffee. After Seinfeld picks up his guest, the conversation is taped and then edited. They may choose scenes from the car, while walking, and while ordering and eating.

One of the most important aspects of comedy, for me at least, is the way that it resonates with so many people at one time. While anyone can be funny within the confines of their family or friends, it is much more difficult to craft a joke that grabs the diversity of a crowd. When discussing his previous television hit show Seinfeld, he explains the amount of years and experience that it takes to get to the point where jokes can be universal. Of course, a joke can capitalize on contemporary rhetoric, but it mostly has to do with rhythm, pacing, grammar, brevity, and timing. In short, it has to do with language.

During his 2017 Netflix stand-up routine Jerry Before Seinfeld, Seinfeld stands on a city street among a series of notes written on yellow legal pads. These notes are actually jokes that he spent years writing and perfecting. He begins with an idea, sketches it on paper, and crosses out bits that may not (or did not) work. Later, in a Wall Street Journal article, he explains why a joke about cereal is funny with Nietzsche’s name included, but in the end, he cut out the part about Nietzsche because it wasn’t universal enough. "You're always trying to trim everything down to absolute rock, solid rock," says Seinfeld. "I will sit there for 15 minutes to make it one syllable shorter." Seinfeld labors over the rhythm of the words, their sound, the delivery and their brevity. Furthermore, in the Letterman interview Seinfeld compares a stand-up routine to a machine built. While the act has been carefully crafted and structured, it often appeals more when it sounds off-the-cuff.

The elements of movement, of unknown length, comedic focus, attention to craft, and diverse personalities all remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. (I am guessing that you didn’t see that coming.) In truth, Chaucer knew all of those pointers and learned them the way that Seinfeld did – by trial and error. Chaucer read poetry in a small, private salon for much of his life in London, but rarely read in public. We consider him one of the first English poets, but truthfully, he combined so many elements that I hate to pin him to a single genre. He lived at a time in England when language was a mix of Latin, English, and French. Chaucer collected tropes and rhetoric from all three of these cultures in a way that was unique and universally appealing. In The Canterbury Tales, he often repeats a joke throughout an entire narrative. For example, in “The Miller’s Tale” (one of the more humorous in the collection), Chaucer alludes to a variety of flowers when describing Alisoun. An awareness of this seemingly small detail sets up the ironic ending when, instead of smelling like flowers, Alisoun offers her backside and a nasty smelling toot to Absolon’s kiss. A key to Chaucer’s success with The Canterbury Tales is his effectual buildup of symbols which overemphasizes the ironic or humorous – the same is true of stand-up. In other words, Chaucer was playing with these ideas of stand-up comedy way back in the 1380s and 90s. As Seinfeld explained, it also took Chaucer most of his life to compile these jokes and organize them into the very appealing Canterbury Tales.

While I traditionally study language and literature, I have become increasingly interested in humor. Luckily for me, humor can now be formally studied through the Ideas for Inquiry at Harrison Middleton University. Scroll through the list of Ideas on our website for a sampling of what we offer!


To leave a comment, click on the title of the post and scroll down.

Mrs. Maisel's Emotions

October 5, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Spoiler alert: if you are midway through The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, maybe you should bookmark this post because I am going to talk about her character development throughout the first season. If you are not yet familiar with this show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is about a young Jewish woman whose husband leaves her for his secretary. From a wealthy family, she is well-educated, witty, beautiful and well-dressed. After separating from her husband, she moves back in with her parents. Due to the unexpected shame and frustration of her situation, Miriam Maisel (“Midge,” played by Rachel Brosnahan) stumbles into performing an improv act in which she questions who she is and what to do with her new situation. Standing in the front of a room of strangers and disparaging yourself seems like an odd way to deal with her emotions, and yet it is what she does. Why does Midge resort to comedy? Was it a rational decision, or an emotional one? Must it be one or the other? Is a comedic representation of painful events some sort of emotional release?

In the Syntopicon, Emotion is listed as one of the great ideas of Western Civilization. The discussion of it is always extremely rational. Looking at emotion through the lens of reason may be the best way to understand it. However, to me, it seems like this idea would really benefit from a more broadened world view. After reading the discussion of Emotion, I have many lingering questions. Is it an activity that requires thought, or is devoid of thought? Also, why did Kant introduce the idea of emotion in the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, but wait another hundred pages to actually discuss it? As another example, Spinoza generated a long list of emotions (all of which stem from either desire, joy or sorrow). His list includes things like over-estimation, audacity and drunkenness. (Maybe Midge’s drunken state is to blame for her first stand-up routine?) While I don’t believe that Spinoza defined drunkenness as inebriation, there is a real lack of understanding about what emotion encompasses. Being emotional is often portrayed as messy, loud, aggressive, or overwrought, but it can also be none of those things. To that point, Spinoza’s list also includes benevolence, despondency and confidence. I am struggling to understand emotion as a state of being, versus emotion as an action, versus emotion as reaction, versus emotion as a form of knowledge.

In the show, Midge is not really messy or overwrought. Instead, she’s funny. Therefore, I wonder if comedy might complement the path of reason as a means towards understanding emotion. Midge’s first two on-stage experiences were successful. (Do note that she was tipsy for both, however.) When she realized that people reacted favorably to her rambles, she decided to go on stage in earnest. Midge prepared for this experience with notes and contemplation of things she found humorous. Only, this time, she was not funny. This third performance was a rational choice, whereas the previous two seemed to be accidental. Did reason interfere with comedy? Does comedy require a level of emotional ownership, a personal connection to the humor? Why are Midge’s self-deprecating stand-up routines funny, but not the bits of human inanity? After bombing on-stage, Midge’s manager Susie (played by Alex Borstein), explained that improv works until it doesn’t work, and then you have to work at understanding what makes a thing funny. So, Midge began to prepare her shows until she worked up to a successful 10 minute stand-up routine. Sometimes, comedy seems to be an instinctual art. The ability to gauge when something is funny or not seems instinctual, but really, it requires a great deal of emotional education. Many of the jokes throughout this series stem from painful events. She mines these experiences to find humorous nuggets in them, but she is also painfully aware of the double meaning hidden under each joke. A comedian must find this very specific balance between boring or tired details and overly abstract narration.

In the Syntopicon, Adler states, “Like desire, emotion is neither knowledge nor action, but something intermediate between the one and the other” (328B). I wonder, however, can we definitively state that emotion is not knowledge? In seeking out comedy, Midge is not choosing bad behavior, but rather solving an emotional dilemma. Perhaps these comedy acts demonstrate a level of irrationality. Is this a demonstration of the Aristotelean idea that when emotions rule, we lack reason? Adler summarizes this point: “That a man may act either emotionally or rationally, Aristotle thinks, explains how, under strong emotional influences, a man can do the very opposite of what his reason would tell him is right or good. The point is that, while the emotions dominate his mind and action, he does not listen to reason” (331B). In the case of Midge, I argue against that notion, however, because while her improv does carry emotional content, they are not unstructured. Construction requires logic.

Maybe Midge has encountered a version of Heidegger’s idea of Dread, and it is this powerful fear which actually draws her on stage. Or is comedy a path that analyzes the gap between something like Freud’s id and ego? Adler summarizes Freud’s belief in saying that he “sometimes goes to the extreme of insisting that all apparently rational processes – both of thought and decision – are themselves emotionally determined; and that most, or all, reasoning is nothing but the rationalization of emotionally fixed prejudices and beliefs” (332B). This idea might help explain Midge’s attraction to improv. She explicates the obvious in a funny and universal way that connects to a broader audience. Near the end of the first season, Susie invites some bigwigs and reporters to see Midge’s solid routine. Only, when Midge arrives on stage, she impulsively decides not to make fun of her family for once. Instead, she pokes fun at a local icon whose hypocrisy bothers Midge. Though the routine was funny, innovative and personal, Midge is ostracized. What behavior explains this irrationality? Is it emotional response? Or is Midge asking questions through humor that would sound absurd through reason?

In the final episode of Season One, Midge discovers her true self on stage. Throughout this series, she has struggled to create a name or find an identity. But at the end of her final set (which the audience assumes was largely improv built upon the past 24 hours of her life), she defines herself as Mrs. Maisel. She charts her own path through personal experience which she then turns into universal experience. Her confidence stems from her comedic abilities.

As a final thought, it is important to mention that only three female voices find their way into Adler’s history of Emotion: George Eliot, Jane Austen and Willa Cather. I feel very strongly that we could broaden this category by looking into other resources. The Syntopicon includes Freud, but what about the poet H.D. who was Freud’s longtime patient? Or why not include Arjuna’s struggles on the battlefield of the Bhagavad-Gita? Translation studies may also assist by helping us to understand how different languages categorize emotions. To me, it seems clear that more work must be done on the category of Emotion.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Chaucer Translations

March 30, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In April, we will be discussing two of my favorite things in the Quarterly Discussion: translation and Chaucer. I love Middle English texts because they show such difference between Old English and contemporary English. Old English was originally spoken by Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. As the Anglo-Saxons formed larger communities, Old English began to overpower Latin as the dominant language in Britain.

There are some stark differences between Latin and Old English. For example, English is structured around the subject-verb sentence structure. If we rearrange the word order, meaning may very likely change. In Latin, however, word order matters much less than the form of the words. Nouns are inflected for case, number, gender, and verbs are inflected for person, number, tense, aspect, voice and mood. Since Latin depends on these constant word endings, the language can attain a rhyme scheme that sounds awkward in English.

In fact, the first English poems depended upon alliteration and repetition instead of rhyme scheme and syllable count. As British arts began to commingle with the highly stylized French poetry, the style began to change. As so often happens when languages collide, the arts begin to absorb and reflect the other culture's style. Middle English began to assume some of the words and styles from French poetry. Beginning roughly in the 11th century, it continued into the 1500s. Since Chaucer constructed The Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, it is important to understand a bit about Chaucer's main dialect: Middle English.

In April, the group of participants in our Quarterly Discussion will review a variety of Chaucer translations. This practice is so interesting because it simultaneously reveals a wide variety of things. First, the Middle English is recognizable in structure (much moreso than Old English). Therefore, reading the original is not impossible. Most originals are now printed with excellent footnotes and background information for those words that have slipped out of the English language since Chaucer's day. Second, we learn about Chaucer himself. What sort of biases, prejudices and experiences he had can be reflected in a work of this magnitude. Finally, we discover cultural clues, such as clothing styles and stereotypes. Since Chaucer was an incredibly playful artist, the reader is required to ascertain tone as well. Is the cultural stereotype, for example, serious, playful or insulting? How will we know through language alone? There will be questions that are impossible to answer, but I find that discussions about Chaucer's works are always entertaining and rewarding.

As a teaser, I have been comparing some of the Chaucer translations, and I find the following bit particularly interesting. Chaucer modeled "The Franklin's Tale" after the French story-telling style of a breton lay. We know, then, that the narrative will be rhymed and involve chivalry. The language is highly stylized and assumes that the speaker is an educated man. Therefore, when the Franklin says “But, sirs, I'm not a cultivated man/ And so from the beginning I beseech/ You to excuse me my untutored speech”, the reader already knows that this is untrue. Chaucer chose the style to fit the speaker, tale and theme. But Chaucer also chose how to deliver the lines. From the very first lines, then, his tale incorporates irony and ambiguity as much as it uses elevated rhetoric.

"The Franklin's Tale" revolves around Dorigen, a fair maiden, who is won over by the knight Arvéragus. They swear their love to each other, but must part soon after their wedding. When Arvéragus is sent away for two years as part of his knightly duties, Dorigen pines away for him. During this time, another suitor approaches Dorigen. Though she rejects him, she does mention that if he can move mountains, she would love him. She says this because it is the mountainous, rocky shore that blocks her husband's safe return. Unfortunately for Dorigen, the suitor finds a magician who eventually moves the mountains. When he proves that he has fulfilled the pledge, Arvéragus consents to the coupling as the only way to save Dorigen's honor. Crestfallen and ashamed, she approaches the suitor and he forgives her debt. After hearing this whole tale, the magician (also called the philosopher), then, forgives the suitor's debt. So, in the end, no one errs other than in words. No crime has been committed, though the magician remains unpaid for his trick.

By looking at the final lines of this tale, we can gain an understanding of some of the tricks with translation.

First, the original reads:

This philosophre answerde, 'Leeve brother,/ Everich of yow dide gentilly til oother./ Thou art a squier, and he is a knyght;/ But God forbede, for his blisful myght,/ But if a clerk koude doon a gentil dede/ As wel as any of yow, it is no drede!

'Sire, I releesse thee thy thousand pound,/ As thou right now were cropen out of the ground,/ Ne nevere er now ne haddest knowen me./ For, sire, I wol nat taken a peny of thee./ For al my craft, ne noght for my travaille./ Thou hast ypayed wel for my vitaille./ It is ynogh, and farewel, have good day!'

And took his hors, and forth he goth his way./ Lordynges, this question, thanne wol I aske now,/ Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?/ Now telleth me, er that ye ferther wende./ I kan namoore; my tale is at an ende.

 

Next, the same section of text from the Great Books series version (translated by Nevil Coghill) reads:

Then the magician answered, “My dear brother,/ Each of you did as nobly as the other./ You are a squire, sir, and he a knight,/ But God forbid in all His blissful might/ That men of learning should not come as near/ To nobleness as any, never fear.

“Sir, I release you of your thousand pound/ No less than if you'd crept out of the ground/ Just now, and never had had to do with me./ I will not take a penny, sir, in fee/ For all my knowledge and my work to rid/ The coast of rocks; I'm paid enough for what I did,/ Well paid, and that's enough. Farewell, good-day!”/ He mounted on his horse and rode away.

My lords, I'll put a question: tell me true,/ Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?/ Ere we ride onwards tell me, anyone!/ I have no more to say, my tale is done.

 

While this translation has a lot to offer, I want to look at just one line for the sake of brevity. Coghill translates: “Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?” as “Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?” According to a variety of Middle English sources, “fre” can be translated as noble, free, of noble status, gracious, and generous. Which word best fits the syntax, meter, meaning and author intention? These are difficult questions, made particularly difficult in a translation of something that may also be tongue-in-cheek. I think it is important to note that Chaucer's original leaves open the possibility that Dorigen may have been the most “fre”. The translation, however, does not because instead of the ambigious “mooste fre”, it asks who was the finest “gentleman”. In my mind, that single word changes the passage quite radically.

Translations are never perfect, but they are fun to explore. I think we will gain much insight from our comparisons. Feel free to join us! Email asimon@hmu.edu for more information and to join the conversation!

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

From Chaucer to Chappelle

January 12, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post: from Chaucer to Chappelle

“Let fancy fly, with all her lofty graces,/ Pack wisdom in, with tenderness and passion,/ But never put good fooling out of fashion.” - Goethe

Chaucer's wit still resonates today. In The Canterbury Tales he developed characters that might also fit straight into contemporary society. Whether read in the original or a translation, Chaucer is simply fun to read. He is funny, irreverent and poignant. I want to demonstrate just two of the possible ways in which Chaucer filters into the present. My ideas may not square with your understanding of Chaucer and if that's the case, post a comment and let's start a discussion of humor's qualities all the way from Chaucer to today!

First, stand-up comedy is a fairly new form of comedy. The routines make us laugh (hopefully) but also search for a larger point (hopefully). Stand-up often contains a raw quality that makes us laugh about an uncomfortable truth, just as Chaucer does in something like the “Miller's Tale”. A comedian's craft relies heavily upon the combination of language, word choice, subject matter, rhythm and narrative. None know this lesson more intimately than stand-up comedians whose feedback is immediate and face-to-face with an audience. Reliance upon recognized narrative techniques brings the joke, punchline or story toward a harsh truth which we must communally face. Chaucer developed a sort of humor based upon these uncomfortable truths through the lens of a pilgrimage. His brilliant scheme combines a random assortment of odd personalities who perfectly reflect society's variety. This scheme enables him to poke fun at a wide array of cultural differences (among other things). Literally, everything is ripe for a joke in Chaucer – from potty humor to personal faith to corruption. I believe that Chaucer's success has affected the path of comedy in general, and stand-up comedy more specifically.

First, irreverence. Chaucer did not shy away from uncomfortable narratives. In the introduction to the 1958 Everyman edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Professor Cawley writes, “[S]olemnity is avoided by virtue of Chaucer's unfailing sense of proportion and unerring eye for the humorous incongruities of life”. In other words, Chaucer's study of human nature included those parts which often make us uncomfortable, but he balances these with equality (he makes fun of everyone) and also proportion (not everything is a joke). In a similar way, Dave Chappelle, actor and comedian, recently finished a three-part Netflix series in which he continued to push hot-button issues. Chappelle could not be more forthright with the fact that, at some point, he will offend everyone. And that, according to both Chaucer and Chappelle, might just make us realize something important about ourselves. The Canterbury Tales pokes fun at everyone, even Chaucer himself. Chaucer traveled the world in a way that was rare for his time. He met all sorts of personalities, and I wonder if this is what drove him to write the way that he did. Was Chaucer inspired to write of morality through stories of bawdy embarrassment because he recognized humor's ability to equalize awkward situations? Humor of this type is just, fair and equally unsettling. However, this article in The National Review claims that no comedian can be universally embraced because even comedy is partisan. I think perhaps the author misses the point of Chappelle's comedy, which is not necessarily to push a single agenda, but rather to draw out the ironies present in our lives. Chappelle claims that Americans' heightened sensitivity began to intrude upon his comedy sketches in a negative way. I think a comedian like Chaucer or Chappelle would likely claim that we all participate in these ironies, unwitting or not, and that doesn't make us political, it makes us human. For them, humor is one way in which we can gain a better understanding of our own biases. Laughing at others is insensitive, laughing at ourselves is uncomfortable, but laughing together is social and redemptive.

Second, potty humor. We all remember the Miller's Tale which ends with a kiss on the backside and some fart jokes. Basic human nature was funny then, and it is funny now. One can find these jokes anywhere, but it might surprise you to see it in children's literature. This is another rapidly expanding space in contemporary society. It often combines poetics and morality since children enjoy rhythm and rhyme, but also have many lessons to learn. The sing-song sounds are intended to develop a child's language skills, but are a bit too formal for speech. Therefore, these sorts of rhyme schemes have mostly fallen out of modern-day speech, but are very useful in portraying a message. Chaucer too uses these techniques which is why they would be best spoken aloud. In fact, he uses poetic voice to further distinguish one character from another (something that Shakespeare quickly picked up on). Andrea Beaty is a contemporary author of children's literature. Her book, Iggy Peck, Architect, published in 2007, was an instant success. Written in rhyme, it includes funny, silly details such as the fact that Iggy Peck can build with any material – even soiled diapers. This type of potty humor is funny to kids, but also adults. It's not high-brow, but it is pretty universal.

Humor illuminates incongruities in a unique way. Sometimes we do not know the right emotion to accompany a joke. Often jokes pass our personal comfort levels – and this is the time when we should transition to discussion. The time when we have reached a sensitive point is the best time to develop informed and open conversation. And this is just one reason why I am grateful for Chaucer!

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.