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  • feedwordpress 08:01:40 on 2019/05/16 Permalink
    Tags: , , comedy, , , , , , , ,   

    “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious”*… 


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    Jan_Havicksz._Steen_-_Het_vrolijke_huisgezin_-_Google_Art_Project

    Jan Steen, “The Merry Family,” 1668

     

    The governing elites of ancient and medieval Europe were not greatly hospitable to humor. From the earliest times, laughter seems to have been a class affair, with a firm distinction enforced between civilized amusement and vulgar cackling. Aristotle insists on the difference between the humor of well-bred and low-bred types in the Nicomachean Ethics. He assigns an exalted place to wit, ranking it alongside friendship and truthfulness as one of the three social virtues, but the style of wit in question demands refinement and education, as does the deployment of irony. Plato’s Republic sets its face sternly against holding citizens up to ridicule and is content to abandon comedy largely to slaves and aliens. Mockery can be socially disruptive, and abuse dangerously divisive. The cultivation of laughter among the Guardian class is sternly discouraged, along with images of laughing gods or heroes. St. Paul forbids jesting, or what he terms eutrapelia, in his Epistle to the Ephesians. It is likely, however, that Paul has scurrilous buffoonery in mind, rather than the vein of urbane wit of which Aristotle would have approved…

    The churlish suspicion of humor sprang from more than a fear of frivolity. More fundamentally, it reflected a terror of the prospect of a loss of control, not least on a collective scale. It is this that in Plato’s view can be the upshot of excessive laughter, a natural bodily function on a level with such equally distasteful discharges as vomiting and excreting. Cicero lays out elaborate rules for jesting and is wary of any spontaneous outburst of the stuff. The plebeian body is perpetually in danger of falling apart, in contrast to the disciplined, suavely groomed, efficiently regulated body of the hygienic patrician. There is also a dangerously democratic quality to laughter, since unlike playing the tuba or performing brain surgery, anybody can do it. One requires no specialized expertise, privileged bloodline, or scrupulously nurtured skill.

    Comedy poses a threat to sovereign power not only because of its anarchic bent, but because it makes light of such momentous matters as suffering and death, hence diminishing the force of some of the judicial sanctions that governing classes tend to keep up their sleeve. It can foster a devil-may-care insouciance that loosens the grip of authority. Even Erasmus, author of the celebrated In Praise of Folly, also penned a treatise on the education of schoolchildren that warns of the perils of laughter. The work admonishes pupils to press their buttocks together when farting to avoid excessive noise, or to mask the unseemly sound with a well-timed cough…

    Whose laughter? Which comedy?  The formidable Terry Eagleton unpacks “The Politics of Humor.”

    * Peter Ustinov

    ###

    As we LOL, we might recall that it was on this date in 1717 that Voltaire (François Marie Arouet), the “Father of the Age of Reason.” was imprisoned for the first time in the Bastille for writing “subversive literature”– satire.  He would subsequently be imprisoned again, and forced in exile.

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:45 on 2019/04/13 Permalink
    Tags: Buster Keeton, comedy, , , , , , , Stanley Donen,   

    “Dying is easy, comedy is hard”*… 


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    neighbors-keaton

    Neighbors. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Keaton. Metro Pictures, 1920.

     

    As he migrated from vaudeville stage to movie set, [Buster] Keaton realised the comedy itself did not need changing, though the opportunities afforded by the camera could extend the world in which the spatial interplay he had developed since childhood took place.

    “…the greatest thing to me about picturemaking was the way it automatically did away with the physical limitations of the theatre. On the stage, even one as immense as the New York Hippodrome stage, one could only show so much. The camera had no such limitations. The whole world was its stage. If you wanted cities, deserts, the Atlantic Ocean, Persia, or the Rocky Mountains for your scenery and background, you merely took your camera to them.”

    Keaton’s comedy derives largely from the positioning —and constant, unexpected repositioning— of his body in space, and in architectural space particularly. Unlike other slapstick performers who relished in the close-up and detailed attention to the protagonist, Keaton frequently directed the camera to film with a wide far-shot that could contain the whole of a building’s facade or urban span within the frame. Proud of always carrying out his own (often extremely dangerous) stunts, this enabled him to show the audience that his actions were performed in real-time —and real-place— rather than simply being tricks of the camera or editing process. It also allowed him to visually explore the many ways in which his body could engage with the urban form…

    An appreciation of that greatest of all silent comedians: “Buster Keaton: Anarchitect.”

    * variously attributed to actors Edmund Keane, Edmund Gwynn, and Peter O’Toole

    ###

    As we take the fall, we might send delighted birthday greetings to Stanley Donen; he was born on this date in 1924.  A Broadway dancer (who befriended a young Gene Kelly), Donen followed Kelly to Hollywood as choreographer, then a director– of such classics as On the Town (1949) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), both of which starred Kelly who co-directed.  Donen’s other films include Royal Wedding (1951), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954),  Funny Face (1957), Indiscreet (1958), and Charade (1963).  Credited (with his rival, Vincent Minelli) with having transitioned Hollywood musical films from realistic backstage dramas (a la Busby Berkeley) to a more integrated art form in which the songs were a natural continuation of the story, Donen is highly regarded by film historians.

    One might note a kinship between Keeton’s astounding physical relationship to his surroundings and that of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Fred Astaire in Donen’s films…

    Stanley_Donen_(cropped) source

     

     
  • feedwordpress 09:01:03 on 2018/11/30 Permalink
    Tags: Bathtubs Over Broadway, comedy, , , , industrial musical, , , Nicholas Udall, ,   

    “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”*… 


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    Brody-Bathtubs-Over-Broadway

    Steve Young, who obsessively collects LPs of industrial musicals, at first found them “unintentionally hilarious,” but in addition to absurdity they often contain the sincere and authentic spark of creative imagination.

     

    From the title alone, it’s obvious that “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” a new documentary by Dava Whisenant… will be a delight. Its subject is the industrial musical—plays produced by corporations for their employees to enjoy at nationwide or regional sales meetings and conventions. Steve Young, who was, for more than twenty years, a writer for David Letterman, became obsessed, in the mid-nineties, with these shows—in particular, with LPs of them, which were pressed solely to be distributed to employees as souvenirs. The ostensible subject of “Bathtubs Over Broadway” is the amusement value of these exotic, eccentric by-products of show business, whose kitschy pleasures include celebrations of automobiles, dog food, and disposable blood-absorbing liners for the operating room, in a number that rhymes “hysterectomy” and “appendectomy.” But the overarching and underlying question that the film poses is nothing less than: What is art? And, for that matter, is the conventional definition of good art too narrow to account for the merits of such works as these?…

    Many classic works of art are, in effect, commercials, from Pindar’s epinician, or victory, odes to Bach’s church cantatas. For that matter, plays and movies aren’t immune from propagandistic values, whether imposed on the artists or shared by them. It’s a mark of mediocrity, on the part of an artist or, for that matter, of a critic, to judge works by their ostensible subjects rather than by their approach to them…

    Richard Brody on the new documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway (it opens in some cities today), and on the aesthetic questions that it raises: “Can a musical sponsored by a toilet manufacturer be a work of art?

    * Pablo Picasso

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    As we know art when we see it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1566 that Ralph Roister Doister was first publicly performed at Eton (or so some scholars argue; the exact date is not universally agreed); it was published the following year.  Written in 1552 (again, scholars believe) by London schoolmaster Nicholas Udall, it was probably performed earlier by his own students.

    In any case, scholars agree that Ralph Roister Doister was the first comedy (as opposed to “work with comedic elements”) to be written in the English language.

    Ralph_Roister_Doister

    Illustration in English Plays, by Henry Morley, Cassell’s Library of English Literature, 1891. Caption says from a sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger in Desiderius Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium (The Praise of Folly) (1515/16).

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:30 on 2018/08/05 Permalink
    Tags: bon-mot, comedy, , , Judy Canova, , , ,   

    “Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit”*… 


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    bon-mots

    Both published in 1897, Bon-Mots of the Eighteenth Century and Bon-Mots of the Nineteenth Century, pretty much deliver what they promise — that is, a compilation of some of the best conversational witticisms of the two centuries. Examples from many famous and expected names adorn its pages — including Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, and Lord Byron — but we are also introduced to more obscure though no less prolific sources, such as the actor Charles Bannister and the Irish politician John Philpot Curran. Although many of the bon-mots might not stand the test of time — so often firmly rooted in the language or the culture of the time as they are — some don’t fair too badly today. Also don’t miss the two introductions which each include entertaining examples of how various writers have defined “wit” (in Bon-Mots of the Eighteenth Century) and “humour” (in Bon-Mots of the Nineteenth Century). Look out also for the fun little “grotesques” that litter the pages of both volumes, by English artist Alice B. Woodward.

    Voltaire

    Bon-Mots of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century (1897)“; page through them at The Internet Archive.

    * Oscar Wilde (featured in the second volume treated above)

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    As we celebrate celerity, we might spare a thought for Judy Canova; she died on this date in 1983.  A veteran of a sister act in vaudeville (“the Three Georgia Crackers”), she got her break as a teenager when bandleader Rudy Vallée offered her a guest spot on his radio show in 1931.  Her career spanned five decades, during which she performed as a comedian, actress, singer, and radio personality, appearing on Broadway and in films.  She hosted her own self-titled network radio program, a popular series broadcast from 1943 to 1955, first on CBS, then NBC.

    Judy Canova source (and repository of audio examples of her work)

     

     
  • feedwordpress 08:01:06 on 2018/05/19 Permalink
    Tags: , comedy, Fred Moten, , I'll Say She Is, , , ,   

    “I suffer from everyday life”*… 


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    Philosopher, essayist, and poet Fred Moten

    “I think mayonnaise has a complex kind of relation to the sublime,” [Moten] said. “And I think emulsion does generally. It’s something about that intermediary—I don’t know—place, between being solid and being a liquid, that has a weird relation to the sublime, in the sense that the sublimity of it is in the indefinable nature of it.”

    “It’s liminal also,” I offered.

    “It’s liminal, and it connects to the body in a certain way.”

    “You have to shake it up,” I said. “You have to put the energy into it to get it into that state.”

    “Anyway,” Moten said, “mostly I just don’t fucking like it.”…

    The New Yorker‘s David Wallace on “Fred Moten’s radical critique of the present.”

    * Italo Calvino

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    As we contemplate the quotidian, we might recall that it was on this date in 1924 that the Marx Brother’s took Broadway by storm.  Already vaudeville stars, they’d wrangled a spot on the Great White Way, a last-minute opening for which they threw together a review based nominally on an unsuccessful musical comedy by Will and Tom Johnstone, originally written for British actress Kitty Gordon as Love For Sale.  The Marx Brothers substituted in some of their most trustworthy material and called it I’ll Say She Is.

    In one of show business’ great strokes of luck, the opening night of a major dramatic play, slated for this same date, was canceled, leading all of New York’s leading critics instead to the premiere of the relatively-unknown Marx Brothers’ show.  Their extraordinary banter and slapstick astounded the critics, and put the Brothers on the road to Broadway, then Hollywood fame.

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:02 on 2018/05/11 Permalink
    Tags: comedy, , , , , puns,   

    “Punning is a talent which no man affects to despise but he that is without it”*… 


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    The English language is almost nightmarishly expansive, and yet there is no good way to respond when someone drops a bad pun in casual conversation.

    “Stop” seems ideal, but it’s too late—they already did it. If your esophagus cooperates, you can mimic a human chuckle, or you can just steamroll through, ignoring the elephant now parked in your conversational foyer. Either way, having to deal at all with the demand that wordplay be acknowledged is probably the reason so many people think they hate puns.

    Those people are wrong…

    More on this variety of not-merely-meretricious merriment at : “If You Think You Hate Puns, You’re Wrong.”

    * Jonathan Swift

    ###

    As we ponder Alfred Hitchcock’s assertion that “puns are the highest form of literature,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that Monty Python was formed.  Graham Chapman was trained and educated to be a physician, but that career trajectory was never meant to be.  John Cleese was writing for TV personality David Frost and actor/comedian Marty Feldman at the time, when he recruited Chapman as a writing partner and “sounding board”.  BBC offered the pair a show of their own in 1969, when Cleese reached out to former How To Irritate People writing partner Michael Palin, to join the team.  Palin invited his own writing partner Terry Jones and colleague Eric Idle over from rival ITV, who in turn wanted American-born Terry Gilliam for his animations.

    The Pythons considered several names for their new program, including “Owl Stretching Time”, “The Toad Elevating Moment”, “Vaseline Review” and “A Horse, a Spoon and a Bucket.”  “Flying Circus” had come up as well.  The name stuck when BBC revealed that they had already printed flyers, and weren’t about to go back to the printer.

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  • feedwordpress 09:01:18 on 2018/02/24 Permalink
    Tags: Billy Glason, comedians, comedy, Fun-Master Gag Files, Henny Youngman, , , one-liner,   

    “The gods too are fond of a joke”*… 


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    The monthly Fun-Master newsletter, which cost a few dollars per issue, contained sometimes as many as 20 pages of jokes, broken up into subsections such as “Stories,” “Insults—Squelches—Sarcasm,” and “Humorous Views of the News.” The jokes and gags within ran the gamut from cleverly convoluted yarns to snappy one-liners:

    “I know a Texan who rides on a solid gold saddle. Every time he hits a bump, he strikes it rich!”

    “Last week I played golf on a real crummy golf course. It had holes in it!”

    “He’s a real hypochondriac. When he goes to a cocktail party, he stirs his drink with a thermometer!”

    Thanks to Glason’s constant back-page advertising, the newsletter became a well-known industry resource. Famous comedians including Flip Wilson, Dick Gregory, Bob Hope, and Johnny Carson reportedly subscribed, or otherwise got jokes and training from Glason—even if not all of them wanted to admit it. “Jackie Gleason didn’t want to be on record as buying the Billy Glason gag files, so he had his writer, Harry Crane, buy them”… “It was the writer who bought them, but it was Jackie Gleason who ended up with them.”…

    It wasn’t only comedians who took advantage of Glason’s jokes. The newsletter was also bought by ventriloquists, DJs, and magicians. Anybody who needed some jokes in their act.

    The Fun-Master newsletters were also often representative of the comedy of the day, for better and for worse. Jokes about nagging, controlling wives—or marriage as a prison sentence for men—abound, along with a number of ethnic stereotypes… At the same time, during his career, Glason maintained a staunch insistence on working clean. “It used to really make him angry when people used profanity for the sake of getting a shock laugh”…

    The remarkable story of Billy Glason and his “Fun-Master Gag Files,” which influenced the joke industry– and indeed, comedy at large, for decades: “Rediscovering the Newsletter That Inspired a Generation of Comedians.”

    * Aristotle

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    As we ponder punch lines, we might spare a thought for Henry “Henny” Youngman; he died on this date in 1998.  A comedian (and violinist), he was crowned by Walter Winchell “The King of the One-Liner.”  At a time when many comedians told elaborate anecdotes, Youngman’s routine consisted of telling simple one-liner jokes (of the sort in which Glason traded), occasionally with interludes of violin; a typical Youngman stage performance lasted only 15 to 20 minutes but contained dozens of jokes in rapid-fire succession.  He’s perhaps best remembered for the gag that became his trademark: “Take my wife … please.”

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:26 on 2017/09/26 Permalink
    Tags: Acropolis, comedy, Great Turkish War, , Homer, Iliad, , Margites, Odyssey, Parthenon,   

    “I didn’t lie! I just created fiction with my mouth!”*… 


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    Anybody who writes, directs, or consumes any form of entertainment owes a debt of gratitude to Homer. Had the ancient poet not written two of the best—and earliest—epic dramas in Western history, the Iliad and the Odyssey, who knows where our culture would be or what works of art we would cherish.

    Would Shakespeare have become the genius bard? Would Cervantes, Faulkner, and Joyce have created the diverse masterpieces that they did, all with Homeric ancestry? Would we have cinematic gems like O Brother, Where Art Thou?

    It’s impossible to know because our boy Homer (or whoever he was—more on that later) pulled through and set the foundation for modern day drama and tragedy. But what would have happened if he had written the first ever comedy?

    That question is a siren song for scholars, though the work of comedy often attributed to the Greek poet was lost millennia ago. But while the text of Margites may have disappeared, we’re not completely in the dark about the form Homer’s comedic style may have taken…

    Before The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer’s very first work—if Homer actually existed—is named Margites, after its main character who was nothing short of a bumbling idiot: “Before The Iliad, Did Homer Write The World’s First Comedy?

    * Homer

    ###

    As we honor humor, we might recall that it was on this date in 1687, during the Great Turkish War (1683-1699), that Venetian bombardment ignited an Ottoman gunpowder magazine stored in the Parthenon and nearly destroyed the temple to Athena that is the crown jewel of the Acropolis.

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  • feedwordpress 09:01:15 on 2016/11/10 Permalink
    Tags: Abel Gance, , comedy, Essanay, , , , montage, , rejection letter,   

    “I think all great innovations are built on rejections”*… 


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    Screenwriters sending scripts to Essanay Studios, a Chicago company that produced silent films between 1907 and 1917, received this form rejection letter in response to their submissions. Here Essanay identified several common problems with scripts; some (“Too difficult to produce”) were probably more helpful to aspiring writers than others (“Not interesting”).

    Essanay, named after the initials of its founders George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson, made Westerns and comedies from its Uptown Chicago headquarters and in California. (Its specialty in the Western explains the use of a stereotyped “Indian chief” head as logo.) Charlie Chaplin was a contract player for the company between 1915–1916 and made The Tramp while he was there. Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Wilmington suggests that Chaplin’s departure for a more lucrative contract in 1916 “hastened Essanay’s demise,” causing “a fatal rupture” between the two founders struggling with a sudden loss in income…

    * Louis-Ferdinand Celine

    ###

    As we inoculate our egos, we might spare a thought for Abel Gance; he died on this date in 1981.  While Essanay was developing the comedic form, Gance– a French film director, writer, producer, actor, and theorist– was working across the Atlantic to lay the foundation for cinema as we’ve come to know it.  One of the first to employ close-ups and dolly shots, he was instrumental in developing both the theory and the practice of montage as it came to be employed in film editing.  He is probably best remembered for three major silent films: J’accuse (1919), La Roue (1923), and the monumental Napoléon (1927).

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:46 on 2016/10/05 Permalink
    Tags: , , , clown motel, comedy, , , ,   

    “The child’s laughter is pure until he first laughs at a clown”*… 


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    Catering to bikers, truckers, and other long haul travelers that find themselves off the beaten path, the Clown Motel is the final port of call before the yet another stretch of unbroken Nevada desert. It must be this location’s oasis-like location that has kept the establishment in business for so long, as the ever-watchful eyes of the ubiquitous clown figurines seem to serve more as a warning than a draw. From the moment travelers enter the adjoining offices they are greeted by a life-size clown figure sitting in a chair, cradling smaller figurines like familiars. In fact the entire office is covered in shelves and bookcases full of clown dolls, statues, and accouterment of every stripe. Stuffed animals, porcelain statues, wall hangings, and more make up the mirthful menagerie, staring down at guests from every angle.

    Leaving the office with key in hand, visitors might also notice an arch just feet away heralding the “Tonopah Cemetery.” Just beyond the gate is a century-old miner’s graveyard made up of a gaggle of wood and stone markers. The very Platonic ideal of a haunted cemetery…

    For those unafflicted by coulrophobia, “Clown Motel.”

    * Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus

    ###

    As we pop on our red noses, we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that the BBC premiered a new comedy sketch show– then improbably, now legendarily– entitled Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

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