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Comedians in Cars

August 11, 2017

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

Before we even begin, I feel that I have to apologize...today's post takes the fun out of humor. In analyzing what makes a joke funny, we are pretty much surgically separating humor from the joke. So, having said that, let's dive in.... To better understand today's conversation, you might take a peek at the following video of Jerry Seinfeld talking with Alec Baldwin in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (about 11 minutes).

Jerry Seinfeld started Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee after a successful career as a stand-up comedian and television star. Each episode highlights a car which he uses to pick up another comedian. The show documents them discussing what makes a good joke. Sometimes, however, humor is best left to demonstration, as in the episode with Alec Baldwin. Instead of defining what makes a joke funny, they demonstrate how to tell a humorous story. The viewer is along for the ride, and hopefully, attentive to the demonstration. It's the old adage of show, don't tell. Of course, it helps that Baldwin also does impersonations. The ability to reenact a story is one aspect that enhances the stand-up routine. In other words, reading the story off of a page would probably be funny. But seeing the story, and hearing a variety of accents from a single actor, transcends funny. Baldwin makes the humor come alive.

The episode with Alec Baldwin begins with an inside joke. Since Seinfeld and Baldwin grew up in the same neighborhood, they share a personal history that the viewer does not. In this case, we laugh along with a discussion of their shared hometown. As they recreate a physical setting based upon their shared reality, the viewer constructs something similar. Though they are not identical settings, the jokes work because of a shared narrative. We each know a little bit about the dividing line between poverty and wealth. We envision the poor kid spying on the rich kid (who is, by the way, squandering his wealth and toys by singing into a fake microphone). This type of joke may require less foregrounding between the two speakers because of a shared history. In other words, the joke works on a meta-level that includes everyone, but is perhaps more powerful to those within the circle. So, while Baldwin and Seinfeld grew up with different circumstances, they have a literal terrain in common. Yet, the story works for us too because: a] we are included in the dialogue and b] most of us share some basic communal terrain and c] the delivery is well-crafted. This last part is, without a doubt, an art form. Knowing how to deliver, how to read, how to create a persona that gets a laugh and underscore it with some harsh truth, is, as Seinfeld indicates, probably unteachable.

Seineld notes his friend's story-telling talent when Baldwin retells a story of Rip Torn's bar fight. As Baldwin knows exactly what details to add (or more likely, what details to remove) in order to create a suspenseful and hilarious story. He re-enacts the bar fight, imitating Torn's voice and expressions. Narrative alone cannot create humor. Rather, a joke is shared. If something gets a laugh, then two people have held a single truth, at least momentarily.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines humor as something “absurdly incongruous” or “ludicrous”. Much like Rip Torn, a man in his 70s cracking jaws in a bar fight. Though the two actors know Torn better than the viewer, we definitely share in the joke. It seems very important to highlight the places where humanity connects like this. These absurdities enlighten our view of the world while also removing elements of fear. One can, of course, describe a bar fight in any number of ways. This version certainly aims to draw out the humor of the situation. But to what end? What is the point of creating a shared space, especially one that is funny?

In response to his reenactment and imitation of Torn, Seinfeld comments: “This, by the way, is your curse... you're a gifted, gifted actor who is cursed with the mind of a writer.” I have been puzzling over the idea that Baldwin is, in some way, cursed. I can see how it would be difficult to act if one disagrees with the vision of the director. I can also see how the character that one envisions no longer fits into the play with other dramatic interpretations. But I am not exactly sure how Seinfeld intends to separate actor and writer. Obviously they are different, but in what ways? People publish and read novels at rapid pace. Likewise, we consume television and movies at fast speeds. So, what exactly is the difference, and how does it affect our interpretation?

There are many types of humor. Slapstick can be overplayed successfully, whereas other jokes require subtlety and finesse. In most episodes of Seinfeld's show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee he asks for more than a chat. Seinfeld is trying to understand how humor works, and it is worth our attention, because humor may very well be an essential form of human connection.

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Meeting the Gods

August 4, 2017

“As a student I wanted to stand up at the mic during Q and A to challenge the terms under which one applies the term myth not to mention legend but I did not because the line was long because the speaker was well-known well-respected in other words he was a legend but not a myth.” - Layli Long Soldier, “Whereas”

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

As a former high school English teacher, I appreciate any new materials that make teaching easy and accessible. Recently, I read some of Rick Riordan's series of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. I was very impressed by the amount of accurate detail that he included in his texts about the ancient gods and goddesses. In The Lightning Thief, the reader is introduced to some very important mythic figures such as the Fates, Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Medusa and a variety of other gods.

Classical mythology can seem chaotic because it is. The first gods are often both spouse and sibling. Many of them try to kill each other and there is a lot of fear between fathers and sons. Also, the Greek gods are also often the Roman gods, only with different names. Therefore, mapping a family tree becomes complicated very quickly. Instead of simply creating a map, Riordan places the gods into a modern-day environment, allowing fictitious humans to interact with them. In many cases, the gods are true to their mythic figures. Riordan offers details about ancient societies also. Not coincidentally, the reader comes to learn that Percy is actually short for Perseus. Many of the details of Percy's life actually reflect the legend of Perseus. It is interesting to see where the stories intertwine and mix and diverge. Of course, I am already familiar with a good number of these gods, and so I am capable of navigating between the ancient myth and modern-day invention.

I appreciate Riordan's attention to detail and resolve to faithfully describe the gods. Whereas the a few internet sites actually offer some useful details, I was fairly disappointed with the film. I understand that it is difficult to introduce and develop many characters in so short a space, however, I feel that the Disney version left out many important details. I believe that Riordan's text offered a great opportunity since he already laid the groundwork in bringing an ancient belief system into contemporary life. Unfortunately, the movie left out all details about the ancient society. Instead, the movie focused on stunts and action. From the very beginning, the movie vastly differed from the text. In the same way that the Disney film of Hercules left out the motivating factor for Hercules' anguish (the fact that Hera hated him because he was an illegitimate son of Zeus), this film leaves out necessary portions about nearly all of the gods. There is very little understanding about the gods and their motivations, which removes a lot of the impact and tension. Also, the book is set up as a bit of a mystery, which is altogether missing in the movie.

I find this film interpretation very disappointing because the groundwork had already been done. I believe that many missed opportunities turned the film into a fairly flat piece. While it did attempt a nod or two in the direction of ancient myth, they were few and far between. Having said all of that, I do believe that students can learn a great deal from an actual comparison between text and film. For example, in reading the text, then outlining the characters, and finally comparing story lines between text and movie, a student might gain a good working understanding of mythology. This would be a fairly straightforward English assignment, easily implemented in most classrooms. I can think of a number of other exercises which would translate into other necessary skills. So, regardless of my disappointment in the film, a combination of film and text still manages to create useful and worthwhile lessons.

One of the most important elements, that I see, is the way in which myth is depicted in each medium. The quote from Long Soldier at the beginning of this post hints at the fact that, while myths were once a system of belief, as soon as we start to use the term 'myth', then we no longer believe in the transcendent power of that story. Therefore, myths are an ancient system of belief, one in which we no longer believe. As an example of ancient thought, however, myth continues to be relevant. While the story loses power as systems of belief change, the idea that spurred the story is still very much relevant. And this is where Riordan's work excels. He has transported the story into present-day, making it both comic and tragic for teenagers today. He grabs teenagers' attention by creating contemporary contexts for ancient myths. I like this technique in getting readers interested, in making the stories real and relevant for them, and also in displaying a use for creative writing. All in all, I believe that Riordan's work offers an interesting and unique path for a first meeting with the gods.

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July Quarterly Discussion Review

July 28, 2017

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

“what other end or period is there of all the wars and dangers which hapless princes run into, whose misery and folly it is, not merely that they make luxury and pleasure, instead of virtue and excellence, the object of their lives, but that they do not so much as know where this luxury and pleasure are to be found?” - Plutarch, “Demetrius”

Plutarch considers the lives of Antony and Demetrius to be filled with vice. And yet, he includes these two lives in his volume dedicated to virtue. It reminds me of the wandering post I wrote about vice last year. I ended that blog with the question about whether or not an intimate understanding of vice could possibly lead to virtue. It seems that Plutarch at least weighs the idea of gaining virtue through a peek at vice in these two chapters. He likens the experience to a way of learning music. He writes, “Ismenias the Theban used to exhibit both good and bad players to his pupils on the flute and say, 'you must play like this one', or again, 'you must not play like this one'; and Antigenidas used to think that young men would listen with more pleasure to good flute-players if they were given an experience of bad ones also. So, I think, we also shall be more eager to observe and imitate the better lives if we are not left without narratives of the blameworthy and the bad.” In other words, virtue is not inherent, but must be taught. Therefore, Plutarch details the lives of Demetrius, the “City-besieger” and Antony, the “Imperator” as examples of how not to live life. In fact, as the introductory quote explains, Demetrius and Antony seem to have set off on the wrong path from the beginning of their lives. Both were from excellent families and both excelled in military skills, but failed to understand virtue off of the battlefield. For example, Antony's earliest friends included cheaters and thieves. He loved ostentatious displays of rhetoric, passion, emotion and drama. Demetrius also loved to appease his own appetites. He appeared to have no understanding of virtue as demonstrated by his extreme desire for pleasure.

It seems to me that their downfall resulted from a desire or need for pleasure. And yet, the way they went about pleasure-seeking seems entirely different to me. Once Demetrius freed Athens, he was rewarded with a room in the Parthenon. This previously unheard of gesture emboldened him, rather than humbled him. Therefore, he darkened the Parthenon (a temple dedicated to the virgin Athena) with prostitution and liquor. Even late in his life, as a prisoner, he eventually gave in to these desires. Rather than pursuing virtuosity, Plutarch notes that he ended his life playing dice and drinking, as if unaware that material pleasures are not the true path towards excellence. This seems, to me at least, to represent his own selfishness. Yet, Antony, who also demonstrated much selfishness, directed all of his passion towards Cleopatra. Plutarch often condemns Cleopatra's hold over him and claims that she manufactured some of his downfall. Cleopatra and Antony also held ridiculously lavish feasts and created unnecessary expenses. However, he was devoted solely to Cleopatra in something more akin to obsession. For her, he abandoned wives and battles and all duties. I wonder if this devotion is different from Demetrius' passion for pleasing himself. I am not sure whether the need to please always stems from selfishness or not. Regardless, these men lost great amounts of money and lives in the pursuit of satisfying their own pleasures. Worse than that, neither had much remorse for having done so. And either way, Plutarch condemns them both. Reading these chapters, I am continually reminded of the War of the Roses as portrayed by Shakespeare. A great many lives were unnecessarily ruined in both cases. And more than that, what they started had incredibly disastrous ends, not for themselves, but for entire civilizations.

Even though I have read Plutarch's analysis, and even though he explains the points at which he finds fault with Demetrius and Antony, I struggle to find one indictment stronger than the other. I wonder, which one does he believe to be better? Yet, it strikes me, while reading through these lives, that there is no better or worse, per se. Instead, I feel that Plutarch wants us to understand complexity. Even these two people who had all the fortunes necessary to be great, could not be great. And in the case of Antony, he faults the public for some of Antony's shame. Plutarch explains that Antony played the part so well, was so charming and lovable, that in the end, the people wanted more from him than he did himself. This strikes me as devastatingly tragic. Likewise, the people of Athens played to Demetrius' ego, and in doing so, they created (or ignited) a monster.

I am indebted to those who spent time on the phone with me in discussing Plutarch's dense text. I continue to learn so much, not only from Plutarch, but from others response to his words. Our next Quarterly Discussion will occur in October and I invite you to join the conversation. Email me at asimon@hmu.edu for more information.

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Numa Creates the Calendar

July 21, 2017

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

Last week we introduced a couple of less than mainstream calendars . This week, we want to move back into a look at the contemporary calendar, as based upon the Roman calendar. Julius Caesar, of course, attended to the discrepancies in the calendar. Astronomers of each age are challenged to find clever fixes for slight discrepancies, which, over a period of one thousand years, begins to add up. Caesar understood that growing seasons were being negatively affected by these seemingly minor errors and he corrected some of them. But his calendar was not the first Roman calendar. Other Roman emperors tampered with their own versions of a calendar, and often for less respectable reasons than Caesar. Some emperors wanted to place their names into the calendar as a sort of legacy. Others decided to celebrate festivals whenever they wanted, thus changing the custom and the calendar simultaneously.

Numa Pompilius (8th-7th century B.C.) was one of the first Roman emperors to set a fixed calendar. The following text comes entirely from Plutarch's chapter on Numa in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. It describes how the calendar came about from Plutarch's point of view. This discussion continues to develop our understanding of the cultural understanding of time, but also of the contemporary cultures who base their calendar on similar features. As societies fanned out, and the Roman civilization fell, threads of their society transferred to many other places. The transformation was not uniform, however, and so this investigation into time is meant simply to know more about the origin of our modern day customs.

“He attempted, also, the formation of a calendar, not with absolute exactness, yet not without some scientific knowledge. During the reign of Romulus, they had let their months run on without any certain or equal term; some of them contained twenty days, others thirty-five, others more; they had no sort of knowledge of the inequality in the motions of the sun and moon; they only kept to the one rule that the whole course of the year contained three hundred and sixty days. Numa, calculating the difference between the lunar and the solar year at eleven days, for that the moon completed her anniversary course in three hundred and fifty-four days, and the sun in three hundred and sixty-five, to remedy this incongruity doubled the eleven days, and every other year added an intercalary month, to follow February, consisting of twenty-two days, and called by the Romans the month Mercedinus. This amendment, ,however, itself, in course of time, came to need other amendments.

“He also altered the order of the months for March, which was reckoned the first, he put into the third place; and January, which was the eleventh, he made the first; and February, which was the twelfth and last, the second. Many will have it, that it was Numa, also, who added the two months of January and February; for in the beginning they had a year of ten months; as there are barbarians who count only three; the Arcadians, in Greece, had but four; the Acarnanians, six. The Egyptian year at first, they say, was of one month; afterwards, of four; and so, though they live in the newest of all countries, they have the credit of being a more ancient nation than any, and reckon in their genealogies, a prodigious number of years, counting months, that is, as years.

“That the Romans, at first, comprehended the whole year within ten, and not twelve months, plainly appears by the name of the last, December, meaning the tenth month; and that March was the first is likewise evident, for the fifth month after it was called Quintilis, and the sixth Sextilis, and so the rest; whereas, if January and February, in this account, preceded March, Quintilis would have been fifth in name and seventh in reckoning. It was also natural that March, dedicated to Mars, should be Romulus's first, and April, named from Venus, or Aphrodite, his second month; in it they sacrifice to Venus, and the women bathe on the calends, or first day of it, with myrtle garlands on their heads. But others, because of its being p and not ph, will not allow of the derivation of this word from Aphrodite, but say it is called April from aperio, Latin for to open, because that this month is high spring, and opens and discloses the buds and flowers. The next is called May, from Maia, the mother of Mercury, to whom it is sacred; then June follows, so called from Juno; some, however, derive them from the two ages, old and young, majores, being the name for older, and juniores for younger men. To the other months they gave denominations according to their order; so the fifth was called Quintilis, Sextilis the sixth, and the rest, September, October, November and December.

“Afterwards Quintilis received the name of Julius, from Caesar, who defeated Pompey; as also Sextilis that of Augustus, from the second Caesar, who had that title. Domitian, also, in imitation, gave the two other following months his own names, of Germanicus and Domitianus; but, on being slain, they recovered their ancient denominations of September and October. The two last are the only ones that have kept their names throughout without any alteration.

“Of the months which were added or transposed in their order by Numa, February comes from februa; and is as much a Purification month; in it they make offerings to the dead, and celebrate the Lupercalia, which, in most points, resembles a purification. January was so called from Janus, and precedence given to it by Numa before March, which was dedicated to the god Mars; because, as I conceive, he wished to take every opportunity of intimating that the arts and studies of peace are to be preferred before those of war.”

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