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Alert: This Blog is Archival!

This blog was part of my humor theory research when I was still teaching. It's no longer active, but if you're interested, my current blog is Tech In Translation.

Review: RED

2010 October 20

With a movie like RED, there’s really only one question: was it as fun as the ads made it look?

The answer is yes. The movie is highly entertaining. It’s like Oceans 11, except waaaay less complicated and with a lot more shooting. (Fine with me, I don’t like movies that make me think.)

Still from RED movie: Bruce Willis and Mary Lousie Parker

The lady loves Bruce Willis. She's okay and all, but no competition for Helen Mirren.

A friend, who’s read the comic, worries this movie doesn’t look ‘broody’ enough. I can’t speak to that, but I can say that Bruce Willis always brings a certain amount of laconic, if not brooding, charm. I’m in agreement with another friend who noted that this movie had ‘a little romance, but not too much’, ditto the violence, ditto the intrigue. It is, in short, just right.

And I admit that I went mostly to see Helen Mirren but it speaks to the movie’s quality when I say that, even though it took her about halfway through the movie to appear, I was digging the old dude action — and I am someone who refused to see Wall Street II, the trimphant Boomer announcement of”we’re still here.”

But when she does appear, Helen Mirren with a gun is simply the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Still from RED: Helen Mirren and John Malcovich

And this doesn't even do her justice...

And the rest of the cast is very good. And so is the writing. Seriously, just go see it.

Review: Samantha Bee ‘I Know I Am But What Are You?’

2010 October 18

I didn’t know what to expect from this book. I’ve always loved Samantha Bee on The Daily Show, but it’s tricky with the correspondents — you never know how much their persona reflects the reality of who they are and often, they aren’t writing their own material. But I was eager to continue my chick-comedienne reading list.

Cover of Samantha Bee's book, I Know I Am But What Are You?

With I Know You Are But What Are You, the cover photo kind of says it all — it’s a memoir (of sorts) that reflects Bee’s slightly warped view of life, as well as a seriously strange upbringing. Like all great comedians, Bee balances some intimate details (a teenage obsession with shoplifting, near brushes with pedophiles) with an almost clinical sense of detachment — and, natch, tells some highly amusing stories in the process. Whether its her budding romance with now-husband Jason Jones, which began when she was dressed as Sailor Moon for a kids’ show, or her thoughts on growing old (“I’m ready for it!” she says, noting that she has old lady hands already), Bee’s book is highly readable, occasionally shocking, and really well written.

On the chick-comedienne scale, Bee’s book at first doesn’t seem a startling as Sarah Silverman’s or Olivia Munn’s. Bee is much more sparing with the gory sex details, for instance, and only drops the F-bomb a few times in two hundred pages. But don’t let her restraint fool you; she uses those F-bombs very effectively, and the book’s weirdness builds.

It takes a while for this book to get under your skin, but once it does you realize why Bee is so darned funny – she’s just as tormented as any other comedian. But she’s also Canadian, which is why you’d never have guessed it.

Vince Vaughn’s Gay “Slur” And Other Offensive Jokes About Being An Idiot

2010 October 16

The trailer for Vince Vaughn’s The Dilemma has caused quite a commotion. I saw the original, ‘gay’-containing trailer in the theater and didn’t think much of it, but now I can’t even find it on YouTube — and they’ve even replaced the “Fuck You” song  with “Forget You,” how lame is that?

The argument, which began with Anderson Cooper, is that having Vaughn’s character Ronny use ‘gay’ as an insult is simply not acceptable. Granted, the timing of the this trailer just couldn’t be worse with the advent of some truly tragic events.  Still, I tend to side with Vaughn when he argues that you should still be able to make this particular kind of joke.  That’s because in my professional opinion, Ronny (like many of Vaughn’s characters) is supposed to be an idiot.

Vince Vaughn in a still from The Dilemma, but probably not making a gay slur.

This character is clearly an idiot, or a least a buffoon in the grand Aristotelian tradition.

But people who deliberately make jokes about being an idiot are very easy confused with people who are actually acting like idiots, as several incidents have shown.

Sarah silverman performing Jesus is Magic.

Sarah Silverman plays an idiot onstage, and she's the first to admit that she's uncomfortable knowing that some people take her "nigger" jokes at face value.

In The Bedwetter, Sarah Silverman describes an ill-fated incident on Late Night with Conan O’Brien:

The joke goes like this: I got a jury duty form in the mail, and I don’t wanna do jury duty. So my friend said, “Write something really racist on the form so they won’t pick you, like ‘I hate niggers.'” I was like, Jeez — I don’t want people to think I’m racist, I just wanna get out of jury duty. So I filled out the form and I wrote “I love niggers.”

Frank says I can’t say “nigger” on the how, even though it’s obviously not a racist joke, it’s a joke about an idiot — me — trying to get out of jury duty.

(In the end, it was decided that she could say “Chink,” but this slur ended up getting her in trouble for exactly the same reasons.)

Peter Griffin from Family Guy.

I don't see anyone arguing against this statement: Peter Griffin is an idiot.

An NYT interview with Seth Macfarlane reveals a similar joke pattern:

Deborah Solomon: Personally, I find the show’s rape jokes especially unfunny. In one episode, Peter learns that three co-eds were raped and murdered. He says to himself, “Everyone’s getting laid but me.” Why is that funny?

Seth Macfarlane: Because he’s so oblivious. You’re not laughing at rape; you’re laughing at him being an idiot.

At moments like these, I’m glad to see jokewriters defending their craft.

Idiot jokes are insulting.  Polack jokes and blonde jokes, for example, have nothing to do with being fair-haired or Eastern European, and everything to do with insulting the intelligence of certain classes of people. Same goes for calling things ‘gay.’

But jokes about being an idiot are different. The whole point of Sarah Silverman’s joke is to portray racists as idiots. The Family Guy ‘rape’ joke portrayed the unenlightened Peter Griffin as an idiot. Vince Vaughn’s Ronny is just another version of an idiot, an immature jerk who’s bound to get his comeuppance at some point in the film — so, even apart from humor theory, one might argue that this is simply character development.

But, were I to get really theoretical I might argue that, in terms of speech acts, what these people have said ‘in character’ aren’t slurs,  they’re meta-slurs — jokes about people who use such slurs.

Now on the one hand, you can’t argue funny. If people don’t get it instantaneously, explaining doesn’t work. And whole theory behind offense is that if you’re entitled to your personal beliefs about what’s too serious to joke about. So people who don’t think these jokes are funny are under no obligation to reconsider their position.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s fair to say that these jokes make light of racism, homosexuality, sexism, or rape. Structurally, there’s no simply no defense for the interpretation that they are actually advocating such views. And much as we’d all like a world without slurs, absolute bans on hateful language simply do not stamp out the real problem of hatred. This is why I agree with Vaughn, Macfarlane, and Silverman: unlike idiot jokes, jokes about being an idiot actually help keep the channels of communication open — and they remind us that the people who do say stuff like this are complete and utter IDIOTS.

‘Partial Terms of Endearment': Where’s the Feminist Love for ‘Family Guy’?

2010 October 14

No ‘Shmashmortion’ Here

After Knocked Up came out,  Jonah Hill’s infamous “shmashmortion” line enraged feminists everywhere (apparently they were unaware they were promoting a stereotype). While I think they were overreacting a tad bit in that instance, it is true that most non-news media is uncomfortable with having characters discuss the idea of abortion, let alone use the actual word. The squeamishness is annoying; not letting people talk about certain issues, in any context, is actually a pretty effective form of oppression.

As a long-time Family Guy fan, of course I was excited to get my Family Guy DVD in the mail and watch their infamous, never-aired abortion episode, “Partial Terms of Endearment,”complete with uncensored table read and commentary.

I watched it twice, and it is, exactly as creator Seth Macfarlane suggests, “not that bad.” As per the dictates of Family Guy’s tripartite structure the abortion issue doesn’t even get raised until about 2/3 of the way through the episode. But importantly, when the issue does come up, a character asks outright: “What about an abortion?” Look, ma, they said it! A few times, actually, and we even hear the word “abortion clinic” etc.

The abortion discussion is a textbook Socaratic dialogue, highlighting both sides of the issue pretty well. Wisely, though, the jokewriters save the most offensive jokes for other scenes — the most offensive jokes being, IMHO, the one that involved cats with developmental disorders (“we’re not proud,” said Macfarlane of this one), and the one that involved incest (“Aunt Mom and Uncle Dad”).

Oh, there were a couple of barbs: people who are reproductively challenged are described as ” too egotistical to adopt” (ba-zing!) and the religious right’s position is summed up thusly: “Once [the fetuses] get outside the vagina they can go fuck themselves.” But you can’t make an episode of Family Guy without breaking a few eggs. And yes, a staunchly conservative person will likely be horrified, so they just shouldn’t watch it, and probably aren’t likely to.

But given that the writers and actors of Family Guy said that word, and that they treated the issue in a pretty obviously — though not obnoxiously — pro-choice manner, I gotta wonder where the feminist love is. I just searched “feminist ‘Partial Terms of Endearment'” and found only this survey from the time when the episode hadn’t yet been released, targeting the issue described above and asking women what they thought.

So, women, seriously, what did you think? Isn’t this what you wanted, to hear the word and the idea discussed on television? Well, okay, not exactly on television, but you gotta admit they tried.

Ode To Russell Brand Upon The Release of ‘My Booky-Wook 2′

2010 October 12

Actually, it’s not an ode, I just think he’s really,really funny and am eagerly waiting for Amazon Prime to deliver my book. Brand really knows how to use his Twitter account, too, as these TwitPics attest:

Rusell Brand holding a banana and a book suggestively.

This is so ridiculously funny.

And if that weren’t enough:

Still from the Arthur remake: Helen Mirren gives Russell Brand a bath.

From the set of the 'Arthur' remake: Helen Mirren AND Russell Brand, how much more awesome can it get?

That’s all, really.

Adventures in Visual Absurdity

2010 September 30

Absurdity is a form of humor that doesn’t usually provoke an outright laugh. Probably more of a “huh?”, or a smirk, or even a “WTF?” One of the sites I found when trolling for material,, seems to confirm this range of emotion:  a single anonymous decider posts things (s)he “considers to be awesome, fascinating, hilarious or somehow interesting.” Buyer beware: as the owner warns, there is high offense potential here.

I like visual jokes because they test humor theories rigorously; a “universal” theory has to explain the basis of all humor and not just verbal jokes. So, since humor is about the unexpected, and juxtaposing unexpected objects is an effective way to create visual ‘funny’, the theory holds.

I’m also excited to have visual examples to test Veatch’s theory of offense vs. humor. (Summary: humor occurs when you do something unexpected, but if it’s too unexpected, or the social boundary crossed is one that’s held too sacrosanct, you get offense instead of humor.)

According to the AP article, this poster advertising “NaziSexyMouse” went up in Poznan (Poland) in July, announcing an exhibition by Italian artist Max Papeschi. After being defaced multiple times, the poster had to be taken down. This is what got me thinking about visual juxtaposition, offense, and humor.

Max Papeschi's NaziSexyMouse, from several angles.

Max Papeschi's NaziSexyMouse: the P poster, frontal, and with spectator.

Obviously he juxtaposition of Nazi imagery with more frivolous images offended the residents of Poznan. But in Berlin, where the exhibition started, the curator had another take:

For the younger generation, this painting is just a joke; older people sometimes don’t like it or don’t find it funny, but nobody has taken any offense so far,” said Agnes Kaplon, manager of the Abnormals Gallery in Berlin.

She’s absolutely right; many things affect how committed a person is to the idea of that the Holocaust shouldn’t be made fun of in any way. (Personal commitment is part of Veatch’s theory as well.)

Amusingly, the artist claims he intends to make fun of Americans and “all the horror of this lifestyle.” So really, you should be more offended if you’re a farmer from Iowa than if you’re a Holocaust survivor.  (Though to be honest, I didn’t get that just from looking.)

When I was searching for images of NaziSexyMouse, I found a lot of Nazi-Mickey pictures. I guess that’s not so surprising; Walt Disney was infamously anti-Semitic. Still, they’re quite arresting.

Three images combining Hitler and Mickey Mouse.

L to R: An unidentified drawing; the cover of Carten Laqua's 'Mickey Mouse, Hitler, and Nazi Germany'; 'A Greater Evil' from (

These images are absurd, to be sure, but according to what happened with ‘NaziSexyMouse’ they should be potentially offensive. What interests me are the gradations in absurdity — how much of a juxtaposition can you get away with? What emotional response does it provoke?

Cakewrecks, I think, teeters quite beautifully on the edge of WTF-ness. You’re probably not going to get offended by the cakes (unless you’re that devoted to competence), but there’s something genuinely unsettling about some of them.

On the other hand, there’s juxtaposition that’s simply weird and/or amusing. Like these examples:

Hello Kitty painted chainsaw

From makeblog: A Hello Kitty Chainsaw

A Millennium Falcon guitar

Also from makeblog: a Millennium Falcon guitar

Hello Kitty chainsaw, Millennium Falcon guitar —  the names say it all. These objects juxtapose two (or more) ideas, but they’re hardly offensive. Your personal interpretation of this may vary (i.e. you may or may not find it amusing) but I’d guess they’re firmly on the humor (rather than offense) end of the spectrum.

Another image, this one from a super-secret dog show that requires owners to make their dogs look like something else. Check out the full slideshow from The Telegraph and you’ll find Ren Netherland (who is the only photographer allowed to attend) describing the process as “baffling”:

A dog groomed to look like a bison.

Yup, that's a dog-bison. Image copyright Ren Netherland/Bancrotft Media.

Being baffled is one of the most interesting responses to absurdity. It’s a moment of sheer cognitive dissonance which seems neither positive (laughter) nor negative (offense), and it can serve a useful function when dealing with political and cultural polarization. The Dadaists were originally an anti-war movement, and at ComicCon there was a counterprostest to the Westboro Church (the church so foul the Ku Klux Klan denounced it — nuff said.) Nerds and artists took up their signs in an absurdist counterprotest to the WC’s protest against — I don’t even know what, geeks? — and delivered what Comic Alliance called “sweet fan justice.”

Westboro Counterprotest: God Hates Jedi

The iconic image from Comic-Con; note the juxtapostion of Trek, Star Wars, and signage.

Westboro Counterprotest: I have a sign.

Theme and variation.

Westboro counterprotest: Cthulhu Hates Chordates

Obscure, but a what a nice riff on God/hate sign syntax.

The correct response to these images is “Huh?” and that’s what makes them absurd. But what nice use of bafflement — forcing people to stop and distracting their brains a bit is probably a good idea in tense situations.

Thus concludes my initial foray into visual absurdity — it’s so nice to think about humor that’s not verbal for once.  I think I’ll be revisiting the issue many times! is source for spectator image

Tina Fey to Receive Mark Twain Prize in American Humor

2010 September 29
by risatrix

She’s the third woman to get it, and the youngest recipient.


That’s all I have to say about that.

Katy Perry, Elmo and Three Comic Opinions Nobody Asked For

2010 September 28

So, it’s Tuesday and there’s been a lot happening. In my quest to become the next Ann Coulter, I’m just gonna go ahead and play commentator.

1) The premiere episode of Family Guy rocked.

Promo for Family Guy And Then There Were Fewer

One thing I like about established shows is their license to play around, and I particularly love it when Family Guy does musicals and movie spoofs. The lovingly detailed animation of “And Then There Were Fewer” reproduced movie scenes shot-by-shot, and even when I don’t know what they’re referencing, it still makes me happy. (Note: if you want to get all theoretical, Aristotle goes on at inexcusable length about why mimesis — imitation — is so intriguing for humans. But I just want to be happy.)

2) Katy Perry had every right to jiggle Elmo around on SNL.

Earlier this week Katy Perry’s Sesame Street spot with Elmo was yanked, essentially because she had breasts and wore a bustier. Never mind that her outlandish attire made her look like any other cartoon lady, and that there wasn’t actually actual sexuality involved.

Look, even actual parents think this is BS. So when Perry did her spot on SNL‘s ‘Bronx Beat’, it seemed like more than coincidence that she was sporting an Elmo t-shirt and a heavily padded bra.  But that’s comic payback, Sesame Street — you do something stupid, people get to point and laugh. When you start censoring people because they are shaped like normal women, you totally deserve a smackdown. Just be glad Jon Stewart’s not on it yet.

3) Stephen Colbert’s testimony was “inappropriate” and has sparked debate about ‘celebrity’ commentators. NOT.

Um, what did anyone expect from the man who wouldn’t break character in front of the President of the United States? That’s what makes him so awesome. And in this case, the only thing that wasn’t funny about Colbert’s appearance was the fact that the Senate is already a farce. I’m glad he (indirectly) let them know — way to use the jester’s privilege, Mr. Colbert!

SNL Thinks Christine O’Donnell is the New Sarah Palin

2010 September 26

Poor Christine O’Donnell. One mention of witchcraft, and she became the prime target for SNL‘s wrath. The only reason I feel a little sorry for her is that her current situation is the result of Bill Maher being a little nasty — I mean, it’s one of those things where, if you have a decade to talk on television, you’ll probably say something stupid, and he’s definitely being a bully about dishing it out.

Still, I can’t blame SNL for taking advantage.

And, just as Palin won accolades for showing up last year, Gov. David Paterson got his own back last night, and most agree that he stole the show. (Click here to watch the Armisen/Paterson skit on I like this new trend, where politicians have to show their cojones by facing off with their comic critics. More, please!

PS: Lurrrved the nerdy classics references in 30 Rock‘s “Fabian Strategy” — “She Hannibaled my Fabian!” And can’t wait for Family Guy tonight.

Stephen Colbert in the Senate, How Do I Love Thee?

2010 September 25
by risatrix

Let me count the ways…

I’m so excited to be living in a country where comedy is taking over as the dominant form of communication. The Million Moderate March thrilled me to my very core. And now this, my beloved Colbert, creating surreality in the Senate:

Oh, yes. And now it’s news that Colbert effectively confused the Senate by being funny. And the expressions of those trying not to laugh are priceless — no, seriously, they are actually trying to suppress a bodily function, because laughter is a natural physiological reaction! And Mr. Colbert, soldiering on through the non-laughter, proves his cojones yet again.

Can’t we just elect him already? And hasn’t it become painfully obvious that the Senate could use a little more levity — as the NYT recently pointed out in its “Mirthless Senate” piece? Between Al Franken’s contributions and Elena Kagan’s nomination procedure, it’s clear that the actual politicians need to get with the freakin’ program if they want Americans to pay attention to them.

I know I won’t be tuning into  C-SPAN again anytime soon. Unless they feature Senator Al Franken’s greatest hits.