Archive for Humor

How to Talk Nonsense

John Tenniel, Mad Tea Party

Last Friday, in my English 703: Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature class, the students and I spent 5 minutes talking nonsense.  We’d been reading theories of nonsense, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books — I thought it would be both fun and educational to put those theories into practice.

So, based on our readings of Tigges, Anderson and Apseloff, and others, I had them enumerate some of nonsense’s formal qualities: language as game; use of puns, double meanings, inversions, opposites; playing on idiomatic language, taking figurative language literally; and so on.  Then, we prepared for the nonsense chat. I set it up as a conversation with me on the one side, and a student on the other.  These were the rules: (1) I asked them to raise their hands when they felt they had an entry point.  (2) When the student could sustain the nonsensical banter no longer, she or he was to pass off the conversation to the next person whose hand was raised.

If speaking nonsense isn’t your forte, you could modify the above exercise as follows: make the teacher both referee and equal participant (i.e., not obliged to hold up the entire side of the conversation).  Speaking nonsense comes quite easily to me.  (Try to contain your surprise.)  You see, my brain naturally comes up with multiple options in reply.  Most of the time, I chose the “sense” reply, and ignore the other options.  If I’m in a social situation, I listen to the other options, and will move back and forth between humor and seriousness, depending on my audience.

Anyway, back to class.  We sustained the conversation for 5 minutes, no problem.  (I wish we’d recorded it — some of our exchanges were quite funny.)  After we finished, I asked them about the experience of talking nonsense.  What had they learned?  This conversation was interesting.  As one student point out, it’s using language not to communicate, but to compete.  As another said, it’s an isolating experience — echoing a comment from nonsense scholar Wim Tigges, whose “An Anatomy of Nonsense” (1987) we read.  Speaking nonsense does, of course, heighten one’s awareness of language’s formal qualities: in order to speak it, you sustain syntax in order to subvert sense.  As Tigges puts it, “nonsense is not the absence of sense, but rather a frustration of expectations about sense” (25).  It plays on the tension between meaning and its absence.

I love to discover pedagogical “stunts” that work (I dislike such stunts for their own sake).  This, I am pleased to report, was a useful exercise.  It educated while it entertained.

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Syd Hoff’s Teeth: The Leftist Satire of A. Redfield

Redfield's The Ruling Clawss (1935): title pageWhile he was contributing to the New Yorker as Syd Hoff, he was also contributing to the Daily Worker and New Masses as A. Redfield — the pseudonym he adopted for his radical work.  The Ruling Clawss (Daily Worker, 1935) collects his cartoons originally published in the Communist daily.  Contrary to what all published biographies (except for the one in Julia Mickenberg’s and my Tales for Little Rebels) allege, Hoff’s first collection of cartoons was not Feeling No Pain (Dial, 1944).  His first such collection — and, in fact, his first published book — was The Ruling Clawss.  Here are a few selections.

Redfield's The Ruling Clawss (1935): "I wish mother would let me live like that for six months so I could write a novel."

Hoff mocks this bourgeois “artist” as a voyeur with no understanding of true suffering.

Redfield's The Ruling Clawss (1935): "... we who turn the wheels of industry ..."

This wealthy, well-fed speaker attempts to align himself with the workers.  He’s also oblivious to how thoroughly he is failing.  The workers’ stony expressions make that failure quite clear to us, though.

Redfield's The Ruling Clawss (1935): "Anybody who says there's starvation in America ought to have his head examined."

If you tuned in to Fox News during the presidency of George W. Bush, you would have heard sentiments similar to those expressed above.

Redfield's The Ruling Clawss (1935): "Give him a nickel, sweetheart. After all, you made a couple of million on the war."

In what may be the most acid cartoon in The Ruling Clawss, Hoff aims at those who profit from war, but remain indifferent to its human costs.

Redfield's Ruling Clawss (1935): "I'm against unemployment insurance — it would make people lazy"

Hoff attacks the still-current conservative argument that suffering is somehow ennobling or motivating.  Only someone who has never suffered could make such a claim.

Redfield's Ruling Clawss (1935): "Aren't you exaggerating just a little bit, Mr. Redfield?"

In “Social Satire,” an essay by Hoff (as Redfield) included as an afterword, the artist argues that most contemporary satirists are not sharp enough: “Today we have a new group of satirists who, at the same time that they bite the bourgeoisie, use only their lips, but not their teeth” (180).  He singles out Peter Arno, Otto Soglow (The Little King), Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie), Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), and Percy Crosby (Skippy) for particular criticism.  He praises only Art Young, “the greatest satirist of his day.”  Everyone else falls short.  They “are talented and funny, but . . . their comedy is all too often a whitewash for people and conditions that, in reality, are not funny” (183).

Hoff (1912-2004) was something of a renaissance man in the field of cartooning.  He wrote syndicated comic strips, satirical cartoons (both with and without teeth), children’s books, and even a 400-page illustrated history of political cartooning.  All told, he was the author, illustrator, or author-illustrator of over 100 books.  Only a few of those books betray the political commitment of his youth — notably, Gentleman Jim and the Great John L (1977) and Boss Tweed and the Man Who Drew Him (1978).  The latter book is about Thomas Nast, another satirist who — like Hoff — created art that, sometimes, sunk sharp teeth into the powerful.

Redfield's Ruling Clawss (1935): left endpaper Redfield's Ruling Clawss (1935): right endpaper

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Crockett Johnson on humor

Crockett Johnson on humor.  From 1969 Weston Woods catalogue.

This appears in the 1969 catalogue for Weston Woods Studios. As far as I know, Crockett Johnson said these words on no other occasion. He did, in 1943, tell journalist Charles Fisher, “I don’t draw or write Barnaby for children. People who write for children usually write down to them. I don’t believe in that” — a sentiment echoed above.  But this Weston Woods catalogue is my sole source for these thoughts on humor. And, as it turns out, I ended up not using them in The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi, 2012).  Perhaps they’ll turn up in The Complete Barnaby (first volume due from Fantagraphics in 2012)?

And, with that brief excursion into some (currently) un-used materials gathered while researching the bio…, I’ll conclude.

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Get on that pig, and hold on tight.

Baby Monkey (Going Backwards On A Pig).  Artwork by Nathan Mazur.With a hectic new semester about to begin (or, for many of us, already begun) and our new governor’s proposed assault on some of Kansas’ most vulnerable citizens, let us seek solace — and inspiration — in the verse of our greatest living YouTube poet, Parry Gripp.  As he counsels, when

The world has gone insane

and you don’t know what is right,

you got to keep on keepin’ on:

get on that pig, and hold on tight.

This of course is excellent advice for that baby monkey riding backwards (below).

It’s also sound advice for the rest of us.  The world does have a tendency to go “insane,” as Mr. Gripp suggests.  But we must not lose our grip (ha!).  We must “get on that pig, and hold on tight.”

Gripp‘s tunes offer insight into many other predicaments.  If you visit his website, you will also find hummable wisdom on the benefits of oatmeal (in your face, cholesterol!), the dangers of excessive self-Googling, and of course the versatility of our good friend the hamster.

In case you’re curious how a baby monkey came to be riding backwards on a boar, this wasn’t staged.  Both animals were orphaned, and live in the same zoo (in Japan, I think).  The zoo staff introduced them to one another, and they bonded.  Here’s the video clip that inspired Gripp’s song and video:

As aficionados of Gripp know, the “Baby Monkey” song made its debut in September 2010 (not incidentally, also the beginning of a semester).  And he posts a new song on his site every week.  So, check there or follow him on Twitter.

But, come what may, don’t let go of that pig!

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Safety Last

When I was about 9 years old, watching television one weekend afternoon, I saw a black-and-white film of a bespectacled man climbing the side of a building.  He ascends a floor, narrowly misses falling, is about to enter the building through the window — then, another man emerges, with a policeman in pursuit, and tells the first man to keep climbing for just one more floor.  He does, and again nearly falls (but in a different way than previously).  The pattern repeats, he ascends higher, and the peril increases.  The film oscillates between anxiety and comedy.  I found it riveting.

Harold Lloyd in Safety Last

The film was Safety Last (1923), and the actor Harold Lloyd (1893-1971).  Ever since that afternoon, Lloyd has been imprinted on my imagination.  I will always think of that style of eyewear as “Harold Lloyd eyeglasses.”  (Indeed, when I met my agent for the first time, the first thing I noticed was that his glasses were just like Harold Lloyd’s. And before you ask, no, George is not an accident-prone comedian.  But he does do all his own stunts.)

A couple of years ago, I bought a DVD of the film, and watched it from the beginning, learning that the friend of the character played by Lloyd is supposed to climb the building as a publicity stunt. When the law catches up to the friend, Lloyd’s character ends up doing it instead.  I had not remembered this — I remembered only the intense nervousness of watching Lloyd’s casually dangerous climb, and of being unable to look away… while simultaneously wanting to look away.  And when I watch the film today, I have the same experience.

Given the anxiety it arouses, the image of Lloyd dangling from that clock (see above) is, I suppose, a strange choice for the background of my computer’s desktop.  And yet it’s been my “wallpaper” image for years.  Why?  Because I always feel that there’s never enough time?  Because I’m daily confronting my dislike of heights?  Those may be some of the reasons.  But the main reason, I think, is an acute sense of the precariousness of being alive. We’re here. And then we’re not here. As Woody Allen says in Annie Hall (1977),

There’s an old joke — two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know — and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life — full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.

Allen and Lloyd both understand that comedy and tragedy are not opposites.  They’re close kin.  And, in Safety Last, Lloyd dangles between them, always just a few fingers from falling. To borrow a joke from Steven Wright’s classic comedy record I Have a Pony (1985), “You know how it feels when you’re leaning back on a chair, and you lean too far back, and you almost fall over backwards, but then you catch yourself at the last second? I feel like that all the time.”

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It’s a Joke, Jackass

Lane Smith, It's a BookI’m surprised by the extent of the kerfuffle over the use of a single word in Lane Smith’s It’s a Book.  In her review, librarian Margaret Burke writes, “I usually love Lane Smith’s books but was disappointed with the word jackass in the first page. I will NOT put this book in my library collection.”  On her blog, Library Lady writes that the word “simply isn’t necessary” and that, although she “will still share the book in storytime,” she “just won’t read the last page.”  Even Adam Gopnik’s smart and otherwise laudatory review in the New York Times takes issue with the word, calling it a “false note” and a “too-easy joke.”

It is a joke, but easy?  I defy Mr. Gopnik and anyone else to come up with a better punch line.  “It’s a book, silly” and “It’s a book, donkey” simply are not as funny as “It’s a joke, jackass.”  The double meaning of the word “jackass” makes the joke work.  The character is both a male donkey and a foolish individual.  No other punch line will work as well here.

The joke is not exclusively “for adults,” as many reviewers allege.  It’s a joke for kids, too.  How do I know this?  I know this because kids will get the joke.  A joke for adults goes over the heads of children — so, for example, the humor of a joke that relies upon sexual innuendo would likely be lost on a 7-year-old.  But the “jackass” joke is one that a grade-schooler can get.  I suspect that what really upsets the book’s critics is the idea of a child laughing at this “jackass” joke.  Laughter conveys the child’s knowledge that the term for an animal is also a term for a blockhead.  Laughter confirms that the child is not as “innocent” as the adult wishes to believe.  Not willing to concede that his or her assumptions about the imagined innocence of children may be flawed, the adult instead strikes back at the evidence — which, in this case, is It’s a Book.

One reviewer even calls the word an “expletive,” but it isn’t.  “Jackass” is a noun, and certainly an insult to the character at whom it’s directed, but I wouldn’t elevate it to the status of “expletive.”  Nor would any reputable dictionary.  Neither Webster’s Unabridged nor the Oxford English Dictionary lists “jackass” as “slang,” “vulgar,” “offensive,” or “taboo word” (these latter two are terms used by the OED to describe some expletives).  It’s simply conveying the fact that this character is a bit of a dolt. And it’s making a joke as it does so.

Contemporary children face many serious problems: cuts in funding to education, overcrowded schools, poverty, bigotry, abuse, neglect, and so on.  The word “jackass” doesn’t even make the list.  I suppose one reason for opposing the word is that, unlike the many real problems faced by young people, this one seems more manageable.  It’s a single word, it’s uncomplicated, and standing up against it plays upon our culture’s Romantic (and still popular) ideas of children — that they’re innocent, more “pure” than adults.  For some critics, I expect, taking a “principled” stand against “bad language” is satisfying on many levels — emotional, moral, paternal/maternal, etc.

However, decrying the use of this word is also extremely silly.  “Jackass” is a male donkey.  “Jackass” is a fool.  And, in the case of It’s a Book, “jackass” is a joke.

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Crockett Johnson Laughs

Crockett Johnson was not a teller of jokes.  His sense of humor was wry, subtle, sardonic.  He’d quietly offer a well-turned phrase or make an off-hand observation that perfectly addressed the moment.  However, in contrast to his gentle delivery, he “had this sort of earthy laugh,”1 a “marvelous laugh.”2 Courtesy of Nina Stagakis, here is a previously unpublished photograph of Crockett Johnson laughing, circa 1967 — which would make Johnson 60 or 61.

Crockett Johnson Laughs, 1967.  Courtesy of Nina Stagakis.

Having had successful careers as both cartoonist and children’s author, Johnson at the time of this photo had recently embarked upon a new career: abstract artist and mathematician.  He would ultimately paint over 100 mathematically-inspired paintings, and publish two original theorems.

But he’s better remembered for the wit of his words, and the succinct elegance of his artwork’s clean, clear line. One reason his humor succeeded derived from a refusal to condescend to his audience.  As he put it, “Humor for children must be written for adults. I cannot think of a good, humorous children’s book that has not been.  An inconsistency or a line or situation that makes a grownup wince is almost certain to insult, or worse, bore a child.”3

The preceding is part of a series of musings on, material omitted from, and occasional excerpts from my forthcoming The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (UP Mississippi, 2012).  At present, none of the above is in the book.  When my editor returns the manuscript, perhaps I’ll find a way to work it in.  However, given that he’ll be writing with suggestions on how to cut 27,000 words, it’s more likely that you’ll only read the above here.

Harold laughs. From Crockett Johnson, Harold's Circus (1959).

from Crockett Johnson, Harold’s Circus (1959).


1. Dan Richter, telephone interview with Philip Nel, 28 June 2005.

2. Nina Stagakis, telephone interview with Philip Nel, 30 June 2001.

3. Crockett Johnson, in Weston Woods catalogue (Weston, CT: Weston Woods Studios, Inc., 1969), p. 12.

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Parry Gripp, Commercial Jingles, & Other Good Music

What ever happened to commercial jingles?  When I was growing up, it seemed to me that most products had their own theme songs: “My bologna has a first name — it’s O-s-c-a-r,” “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz,” “Hershey is the great American chocolate bar,” “What walks downstairs, alone or in pairs, and makes such a slinkety sound?”

Parry GrippToday, most commercials just use pop songs that have little (or nothing) to do with the product. I enjoy a good pop song, and in fact have discovered some through their commercial use.  But the jingle mostly has gone out of fashion.

Well, save for Parry Gripp.  The frontman of Nerf Herder (perhaps best known for the theme to Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Gripp writes lots of songs that harken back to the commercial jingles of yore — except that he’s generally not selling anything.  He’s just writing very hummable ditties about his various obsessions… which usually include food or animals (especially hamsters and cats).

People seem to either love or hate Gripp, and probably for the same reason.  After one listen, his songs stay with you.  They’re earworms.  If you find his work too “pop” or simply too “silly,” you probably won’t appreciate “Hamster on a Piano” on an endless loop in your head.  On the other hand, if Gripp’s melodic whimsy appeals to your ear or to your sense of humor, his songs are too fun to resist.

Gripp appeals to the part of me that sang along with the “Slinky” song and tuned into Dr. Demento’s radio show every week. And, as some of the mixes I’ve posted here begin to reflect, I enjoy nearly all varieties of music.  To quote Ray Charles, “It’s like Duke Ellington said, there are only two kinds of music — good and bad. And you can tell when something is good.”  I like that statement because it establishes no aesthetic criteria other than each person’s particular taste.  And that’s as it should be.  When it comes to music, people should not feel obliged to apologize for their taste — say, admit liking a certain type of music, but then dismiss that type of music as “a guilty pleasure.”  With music, there are no guilty pleasures.  To paraphrase Charles’ citation of Ellington, there’s only good and bad, and you can tell when it’s good.

If you enjoy Parry Gripp or Ray Charles or Duke Ellington or Esquivel or AC/DC or Ella Fitzgerald or the Sex Pistols or Jay-Z or Beethoven or Emmylou Harris or Fats Waller or [insert name of artist/composer here], then that’s good music.  If you don’t, then listen something you do enjoy.

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It’s a Lane Smith Book

Lane Smith, It's a BookComedy is hard.  Lane Smith makes it look easy.  I’m not going to reveal the punch line to his latest, It’s a Book, because I don’t have to: There are plenty of amusing moments along the way.  When the jackass asks, “Where’s your mouse?” Smith provides a wordless page in which a mouse emerges from beneath the monkey’s hat.  Deadpan.  And funny.  On his blog, he provides some insight into some of the labor behind the humor: the jackass was originally a child, but he didn’t want people to think he was mocking a child. So, he turned him into an animal. Which is funnier.  For some glimpses of the finished book, here’s a the book trailer, which, incidentally, also omits the punch line:

In many ways, It’s a Book epitomizes what Smith does.  Most of his books have some metatextual element to them.  That is, they’re books about books, books that reflect on what a book is or should be.  His first collaborations with Jon Scieszka — The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf (1989) and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992) — both dismantle fairy tales.  In the former, Al Wolf provides his version of what that huffing and puffing was all about.  In the latter, after Jack the Narrator spoils the story by summarizing it before it begins, the wolf and Little Red Running Shorts leave the story, creating a blank page in the book.  The Happy Hocky Family (1993) and The Happy Hocky Family Move to the Country (2003) parody Dick and Jane and similar primers.  In the first book, Henry and Holly Hocky tell us “We take CARE of our TOYS” because “We do not want our toys to become broken.” Then, enter Cousin Stinky, clad in bright red advertisements from the backs of comic books.  “Where are your toys?” he asks.  Smith follows that with this page:

A page from Smith's The Happy Hocky Family

I love this page.  It gently mocks the earnest good behavior of the preceding pages, where Henry and Holly model how children should take care of one’s toys.  Since Smith has been evoking the well-behaved children of the Dick and Jane books, you might think this page would be on the virtues of sharing, even with Cousin Stinky.  But no.  This page says if you want to take care of your toys, then lie to your cousin.  The comic timing is perfect.

So are all the details. From the ersatz Mondrian on the wall in It’s a Book to the presidential biographies strewn about Katy’s floor in Madam President (2008), Smith creates images that are fun to re-read.  The more you know, the more you notice: his version of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington adorns the wall in Katy’s house and serves as the model for Smith’s version of the first president in John, Paul, George & Ben (2006) — the title of which, of course, is a comic riff on the Beatles.

page from John, Paul, George & Ben
The Beatles, Abbey Road

He’s also careful about the details he chooses.  The title page of John, Paul, George & Ben alludes to the Beatles’ Abbey Road (1969), but Smith shows restraint.  He does not show the “four lads” crossing the street or dressed in identical clothes, but he does place their bodies in the same positions as those of Harrison, McCartney, Starr, and Lennon. (Visually, John Hancock corresponds to George Harrison, Paul Revere to Paul McCartney, George to Ringo Starr, and Ben Franklin to John Lennon.)

Lane Smith, from It's a Book

In It’s a Book, he strips away anything that might distract us from the heart of the story — the conflict between the modern jackass and the traditional monkey.  His backgrounds are unusually spare, a change in color suggesting a change in tone or mood.   His language conveys the essential differences between the characters, which in turn creates the humor.

Yes, it’s a book.  But it’s also a fine example of storytelling, artwork, and humor.  In other words, it’s a Lane Smith book.

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