Archive for the ‘Humor’ Category

The Gentle Art of Newspaper Humor

A 1920 book by humor columnist C.L. Edson provided advice for the aspiring humor columnist. His biggest advice dealt with when — and when not — to make puns.

Mr. Edson has here laid down a code for the columnist, the first law in which reads: “Do not write Paragraphs with Puns on Names.” He gives as Horrible Examples: “The Russians are rushin’ the Finnish, who can see their finish” and “Austria is Hungary for a piece of Turkey.” Then he tells us that “this is the lowest depth to which humor could descend.” And certainly these Examples are truly Horrible.

Yet there are always exceptions to the rule.

A little later, Mr. Edson admits an exception to his rule — punning is permissible when it is not on a proper name and when at the same time it has what Mr. Edson terms a “news-slant,” that is when it possesses what Augustine Daly used to call “contemporaneous human interest,” when it is absolutely timely, not only up to date, but up to the very last minute. He cites as an instance of this legitimate use of what has been contemptuously called the “lowest form of wit,” this paragraph by Mr. Franklin P. Adams: “Homer Aids Boston to Conquer Giants. – TIMES headline. Yet the universities are abolishing Greek.”

Hopefully Edson would have approved of my timely pun routine in early 2019, punning on the then-current flood of Democratic presidential candidates entering the race.

 

The Gentle Art of Newspaper Humor (PDF)

Published: Sunday, January 9, 1921

Leave a comment

Written by A Step in the Write Direction

January 7th, 2021 at 5:13 pm

Posted in Humor

Must We De-Alcoholize Literature?

Two months after the 18th Amendment established prohibition, this satire wondered how far the movement would go. Would Dickens and Shakespeare’s references to alcohol be expunged?

The losses would be appalling; Chaucer would be a walking casualty, Shakespeare a stretcher case, and the forces of Dickens would be decimated. Think of Mr. Pickwick bereft of the mellowing influence of punch! He would undergo a complete character transformation. Remembering the Cherryble Brothers, old Fezziwig, Mr. Micawber, Bob Cratchet at his humble Christmas dinner, and a score of others, one asks: “Can a Dickens character realize good cheer without the artificial aid of liquid inspiration?” The sheer capacity exhibited by Dickens’s world for exhilarating beverages suggests the principle of unlimited supply responding to the call of unceasing demand. Other times, other manners, indeed! Expurgate Dickens in terms of intoxicants and about the only unmangled characters will be Little Nell and Paul Dombey.

These fears went unrealized, as written references to alcohol were not removed. Indeed, even the most beloved book nearly a century later, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, would contain references to copious alcohol consumption by the character Hagrid — and that book has an 11-year-old protagonist!

However, what would be later censored in the 2010s were the n-word and the word “injun” in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

In 1919, those words were okay but alcohol was not. In 2019, those words are not okay but alcohol is. Times change.

 

Must We De-Alcoholize Literature?: How Shakespeare, Rare Ben Jonson, Robert Burns, and Omar Khayyam Will Sound if They Are Revised to Fit Those Sober Days Soon to Come (PDF)

Published: Sunday, March 16, 1919

Leave a comment

Written by A Step in the Write Direction

March 15th, 2019 at 3:18 pm

Posted in Humor,Literature

Nicotine Next! Then Abolish Coffee and Tea!

A month after the 18th Amendment banned alcohol, Gerald Van Casteel satirized the push for banning anything which seemed wasteful or excessive, in the name of morals or productivity: namely, banning sleep.

I now suggest a reform by prohibition far more fundamental. While we are in the mood to prohibit let there be no half measures.

There is one overpowering habit that affects not only the whole human race, without exception, but has grown also upon most of the animal kingdom. I refer to that form of wastefulness known as sleep.

The farseeing reformers who have instituted our midnight cabarets are glimpsing a new dawn, and the child’s objection to going to bed is the inarticulate protest of nature. Edison says he can work with less than half the sleep we ordinarians require. If it were not for the handicap of his sleep-habituated ancestors and environment he would probably not sleep at all. Away with this incubus and let us insist that everybody live twenty-four hours a day! A Society for the Suppression of Sleep offers a great career to wideawake reformers.

As humor columnist Dave Barry wrote in his December 2018 “year in review” column:

Meanwhile Seattle becomes the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws and utensils in all restaurants. San Francisco, sensing a threat to its status as front runner in the Progressivelympics, responds by banning food and beverages in all restaurants.

Nicotine Next! Then Abolish Coffee and Tea! (PDF)

Published: Sunday, February 16, 1919

Leave a comment

Written by A Step in the Write Direction

February 16th, 2019 at 11:31 am

Posted in Humor,Life

Vagaries of the German “Michel”

“In Germany, a ‘Michel’ is, freely translated, a fool, a clown, a weak-wit of great physical power when aroused, but wholly dominated by his masters of higher intellect or greater power. You hear it every day and everywhere in Germany.”

So reported A. Curtis Roth, the former American Consul General in Plauen, Saxony, Germany in 1918. He provides this example:

Is any clearer evidence needed of the “boobery” of the race than the conduct of a German in a foreign land? Does he, as a guest, keep quiet and listen, trying to absorb some knowledge of the new country? He does nothing of the sort. Acting upon the principle that everything in the world was created for the German, he howls and blusters, organizes noisy societies such as he knew in Germany, and makes himself a general nuisance.

Or try this:

The Germans in America, while I was still acting for our Government in Saxony… had collected a considerable sum of money which they wished to devote to the relief of German war widows and orphans… Imagine my surprise when I learned that, following a long and serious conference among themselves, the various [German] Town Councils had voted unanimously to decline the money, because it came from America and was tainted, even though it had all been contributed by men of German blood, or men and women born on the soil of Germany. And this was long before America took a hand in the fight!

I don’t believe this stereotype still exists today — unless it does and I’m just not aware of it? The main German stereotype now appears to be that they always talk like this:

 

Vagaries of the German “Michel” — In Plain American It Means “Boob,” Yet the German Applies It to Himself and Seems Proud of the Title (PDF)

Published: Sunday, June 30, 1918

Leave a comment

Written by A Step in the Write Direction

July 1st, 2018 at 10:34 am

Posted in Humor,Life

Echoes in Lighter Tone from Washington

Should we be referring to WWI as the stenographers’ war? That’s what one article in 1918 predicted that “future historians” might call it:

And, hurrah, here come the stenographers! They are here from multi-storied city skyscrapers and from country lawyers’ offices; from business colleges and from just-learned-it-by-myself; calm, self-possessed, clear-eyed; helpers of detail — helpless men. Power resides in their right hand and in their left… Therefore, some future historian may call this the stenographers’ war. At least, they know who is running it.

Alas, the conflict eventually came to be known as World War I. One wonders if we just missed out on an eccentrically-named conflict instead, such as the 1739 one between Great Britain and Spain called the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

 

Echoes in Lighter Tone from Washington: Some Observations on the Military Salute, the Stenographer, and the Temporary Buildings — Wartime Capital Seen in Its Amusing Phases (PDF)

Published: Sunday, June 16, 1918

Leave a comment

Written by A Step in the Write Direction

June 17th, 2018 at 11:47 am

Foods People Won’t Eat Because of the Names

Muskrat. Field mouse. Dogfish. All are examples of foods that Robert T. Morris, M.D. cited in 1918 as foods many people refused to consume due to their names.

This article leads off by describing how many people wouldn’t eat dogfish, because it brought to mind a dog as much as a fish. According to Wikipedia, by 2018 the species is primarily called a bowfin, although “Common names include mudfish, mud pike, dogfish, griddle, grinnel, cypress trout and choupique.” They should really settle on just one name.

Foods People Won’t Eat Because of the Names: Dogfish Not at All Popular Until It Came to be Called Grayfish — Dainty Morsels from the Muskrat and Field Mouse (PDF)

From Sunday, January 6, 1918

Leave a comment

Written by A Step in the Write Direction

January 11th, 2018 at 8:27 am

Posted in Humor,Life

“Are You Uhmuricun or American?”

Why is there so much slang, mispronunciation, and similar linguistic issues among native-born Americans? The writer Clarence Stratton suggests here that the fault lies in democracy itself:

“Our speech suffers because our wrongly interpreted democratic idea makes common people intolerant of anything like authority in everyday matters. The German acknowledges a standard of usage and pronunciation indicated by Hanoverian. In France and Spain academies determine currency and meaning, and the people recognize their decisions. Italians will quote to you the proverb that settles all linguistic standards for them.”

And to anybody in the modern-day red states who believes the New York Times is elitist and looks down on them, this passage from 100 years ago proves this is nothing new:

“The Southerner departs furthest from the norm of good American speech with his drawling utterance, his radical change of accepted sounds, and his entire disregard of certain letters.”

“Are You Uhmuricun or American?” — Language in United States Seems to Educator a Mass of Sounds Which Are Not Worthy of Being Considered Speech at All (PDF)

From Sunday, July 22, 1917

Leave a comment

Written by A Step in the Write Direction

July 20th, 2017 at 7:31 am

Posted in Humor,Life

Russia and democracy – nervous bridegroom

This cartoon from NYT Sunday Magazine 100 years ago this week holds up eerily well.

From Sunday, May 13, 1917

Leave a comment

Written by A Step in the Write Direction

May 11th, 2017 at 2:08 pm

Posted in Humor

Democracy of the Joke And Lack of German Humor Discussed by Leacock

On the very week that America entered World War I, Stephen Leacock explained in an article how one of the Allies’ unheralded strengths in the battle of ideas was their sense of humor, while one of Germany’s greatest weaknesses was their lack thereof:

“Do you know what is the most democratic form of literature? It is humorous literature. For of humorous literature the only test is: Do they laugh or do they not laugh? No King ever posed as a humorist. No King ever was a humorist, that is, an intentional humorist.

And one proof of the democracy of humor is its absence in Germany. Is there any one not a German to whom the German joke appeals? The German joke, like the peace of God, passeth all understanding.

Real humor is universal in its appeal; its popularity extends beyond national boundaries. Mark Twain has been translated into every language, and he is as funny in French or modern Greek as he is in English… Charles Dickens is the property of all the world; we think of him as a great humorist instead of as a man who wrote to amuse the English. But German humor does not cross the Rhine. The world knows German philosophy and German science and German scholarships, but it knows nothing of German humor. And the reason for this must be that there is no German humor to know.”

The best example of so-called ‘German humor’ ever might be this early Steve Carell clip with American comedians as “Germans who say nice things” —

 Democracy of the Joke And Lack of German Humor Discussed by Leacock: Famous Canadian Wit Also Gives His Views on the Perversity of the Russian Verb (PDF)

Published Sunday, April 8, 1917

Leave a comment

Written by A Step in the Write Direction

April 10th, 2017 at 4:02 pm

Posted in Humor,Military / War

The Funniest Things in the Current Plays

What were the most uproarious lines in theatrical productions from a century ago? Reading most of them mostly confirms my belief that people weren’t funny until the late 1970s or early 1980s.

But this line from Have a Heart by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse was at least somewhat funny, reminiscent of something Woody Allen might have written in his 1970s slapstick comedy days:

“You’re Michael Robinovitch.”

“Robin – Robin – the ‘ovitch’ is silent. In New York we never pronounce our ‘ovitches.'”

The Funniest Things in the Current Plays: Lines to be Heard Just Now in New York’s Theaters Which Have Succeeded in Getting Heartiest Laughs from Audiences (PDF)

Published Sunday, April 1, 1917

Leave a comment

Written by A Step in the Write Direction

April 5th, 2017 at 2:29 pm

Posted in Humor,Theater