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Some Serious Talk about Comedy

During the years that I lived in New York City, I frequented a certain scene wherein I got to be friends with a number of performers of various stripes, many of them stand-up comedians. I even tried my hand at comedy a few times, but apparently I am only funny when I’m not trying to be.

Some stand-ups have ambitions of parlaying their comedy routines into an acting career or some other creative field, but many are dedicated wholeheartedly to the art of the joke. There is something romantic (and terrifying) about being alone on a stage with nothing but a microphone and your wits.

Most of the stand-up comedians I know want to be, and should be, considered legitimate artists. However, a lot of them also cannot seem to endure the kind of intellectual scrutiny that “serious” novelists, musicians, actors, and painters undergo regularly. The nature of comedy provides the easy excuse that, of course, it should not be taken seriously. But there is almost always something more serious at work behind comedy, especially when it touches on politics, sexuality, race, or religion.

A comedian friend recently posted on Facebook: “Comedy is protected free speech, so if you hear someone tell a joke that you think is offensive, treat them like an endangered bald eagle and leave them alone!” Within minutes, dozens of people had “liked” this status post and made positive comments. It triggered a kneejerk comment from me about how the First Amendment doesn’t protect one from criticism; it only protects one from jail. It touched a nerve. I didn’t intend to be didactic, but I knew it would come across that way, so I deleted it shortly afterward. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Of course, a person could find a joke “offensive” for all kinds of reasons. Leaving the comedian alone is probably a good first step if that happens to you while watching a stand-up set. There is no need to disrupt a performance in progress to pursue whatever your issue is. At the same time, when comedians venture into sketchy areas, I think it’s fair for them to be prepared to defend their work in a public forum. Jon Stewart, Louis C.K., Amy Schumer, and others are excellent role models in this area. Part of why these comics are successful is because they are engaged with the human experience in a very deliberate way. They don’t go for what’s easy as much as they go for what’s real, and they can talk seriously about the same topics that they cover in their acts.

It’s my nature to be serious, I guess, even about comedy. I’ve been accused a couple of times recently of “not having a sense of humor” because I wanted to probe some offhand humorous remark with mildly earnest rigor. I make my living now in academia. I ask my students to explain why jokes are funny as an exercise in critical thinking. Teaching is also a kind of performance that is a lot like stand-up comedy in many ways, and before I get up in front of the class, I think about everything I’m going to say, the reason I am saying it, and the reaction I expect to get. If the performance doesn’t get the response I hoped for, I have to think about it even more.

The comedians that are my friends are typically very smart, thoughtful people. Otherwise, I probably would not be friends with them in the first place. Even the silliest among them are capable of serious reflection about the impact their work may have on an audience. Comedy is a serious art form, and we should be able to talk about it seriously.

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Some Thoughts on July 4th, Charleston, and Other Topics

As the editor of a magazine that deals with Southern culture and Southern identity, I think it is my duty to be a part of the ongoing conversation about current issues, especially in light of the recent massacre in Charleston, S.C. and its aftermath.

First of all, I want to say that I’m happy to see that same-sex marriages are once again legal in Alabama, and everywhere else in the country for that matter. There is still resistance in some corners of our state, but here in Birmingham, I think most of us are ready to embrace the new normal. With the recent Supreme Court rulings and the Confederate battle flags coming down in many places, I am actually feeling more patriotic than any time in recent memory. It seems that this Great American Experiment might actually be working, still imperfectly, but making steady progress. Now, if someone would just do something about Donald Trump… (okay, I stole that joke from NPR, but you have to admit it’s a good one).

As I am composing this, we are coming up on the 4th of July weekend, and, appropriately enough, my students in the Early American literature class I teach are reading excerpts from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and from Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography this week. We talked about what Paine and Jefferson might think about some of these current issues, and we concluded that Paine, at least, would see these changes as positive. He was not a religious man, so we can hope that if he were dropped into a modern world, he would not have all the hangups that the right-wing evangelical factions have about modern sexuality. He was also an abolitionist. We speculated that if he knew what happened over the two hundred years after his death, with the states of the Confederacy seceding from the union and the role that the institution of slavery played in that, he would see little reason to celebrate that secession 150 years after the war ended. He came to the United States from England in 1774, stirred by the spirit of revolution. He saw little value in clinging to a past where Americans were politically enslaved by England (a metaphor he utilized in his writing), so it’s easy to imagine that he would see little value in clinging to a past that represented actual slavery.

Jefferson, on the other hand, is more complicated. He was a Southerner and a slave owner. Even though he initially wanted to include a statement against slavery in the Declaration of Independence and was voted down, it’s possible that he was acting purely out concern for how history would view him. He probably thought history would pay little attention to his home life. He was a great man in many ways, and a liberal thinker, but it is hard to say what he would think about the history-making changes we are living through right now. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt. I think many of us who have grown up in the South are familiar with how complicated it can be to come to terms with our history. To perhaps put it a little too coyly, issues of race in the South are never completely black and white. They are complicated.

Speaking of NPR, there was an interview there this week with an African-American gentleman from Montgomery (I can’t seem to find it now, or I would post the link). He was saying that where he lives there are monuments to the Confederacy everywhere, including streets and schools named after Confederate officers. In contrast, he says, there are very few monuments to slavery and Jim Crow, which means we in the South are not really dealing with our history of terrorism and cruelty. This lack of direct acknowledgement makes it impossible for us to have a real conversation about race and what it means.

I agree with many points the gentleman from Montgomery made, but with a few caveats. I have always felt deeply that a defining aspect of Southern culture is the way we live with our history, the good and the bad of it. I’m all for taking the battle flags down from state courthouses and other official state sites, but rather than seeing its presence as a glorification of the Confederacy and all it stood for, we should see it as a recognition of one of the dark moments of our history. Even monuments that overtly glorify or romanticize the Confederate army can be seen through this filter. We are reminded that as recently as fifty years ago, many of us still thought this way. Many of us thought these monuments were a necessary and good idea. We are not so far past it.

One difference between Birmingham and Montgomery is that we do have many monuments that acknowledge the cruelty of the Jim Crow era. We have the Civil Rights Institute, which I have toured many times, often while leading student groups. Some of the exhibits are downright haunting, and I have had students say that it was disturbing and upsetting to them, as it should be. It can be a very emotional experience. Even though Birmingham as a city did not exist during the era of slavery, the connection between Jim Crow and slavery is not lost here. The exhibits in the museum make the connection very clear by presenting a chronological history of civil rights abuses.

Downtown Birmingham is a living monument to the Civil Rights era, which means it is actually giving direct address to the issues to which the Civil Rights era was responding. So, the upshot is that yes, we should take down the battle flags from our government buildings because we don’t need our city and state governments even seeming to openly endorse a faction from our past that defended the institution of slavery. The other public monuments to the Confederacy should remain as reminders of where we have been, even where we have been recently, how far we have come, and how far we still have to go. We should also continue to add new monuments that acknowledge the ugly side of that history, that acknowledge the lynchings and the bombings and the effort to keep the black man oppressed, physically and economically.

For better or for worse, we in the South continue to live with our history and walk among the ghosts of the past. Flannery O’Connor called the South “Jesus Haunted,” which may be true, but it is haunted just as much by our history of slavery and terrorism against our own people. And even if we try to suppress them, those ghosts will not be lain to rest anytime soon.

Steel Toe Review Editor’s Note, #19

Our nineteenth online issue includes short stories from Matthew McEver, Cathy Rose, Christopher X. Shade, Kim Siegleson, and Sarah Jennings; non-fiction from Terry Barr and Rori Leigh Hoatlin; and poetry from Sarah Henning, Maari Carter, Philip Theibert, Dan Jacoby, and Devin Kelly.

The completion of this issue is bittersweet. Now that it is done, and our Volume 3 print issue is available, we find ourselves rather frazzled, and we need to take a break for a little while. Our current plan is to return in six months or a year with renewed focus and energy, but the plan could change depending on other factors in our lives that demand our attention. So far, it has been a very good run. We have made amazing, lifelong friends. We have connected with writers all over the world. And we think, in our own very small way, we have made a difference.

Thank you, all of you, for accompanying us on this journey so far. When we once again have the resources to give this project the time and energy it deserves, we hope to see you again.

Cheers.

Tales of the Cocktail

In the last five days, I probably threw more alcohol in the garbage than some people consume in a year. This was a survival technique because at Tales of the Cocktail, the annual cocktail convention in New Orleans, you are literally given something new to try every few minutes. The only way to not be flat on your face after an hour is to take the smallest possible sip, ponder its flavors and potential, and then walk away from it. There were seminars on things like how to use apple brandy and the history of the pineapple, each of which included up to three cocktail samples and up to five additional samples of base spirits straight. And then there were the tasting rooms, where up to twenty one vendors had samples of their wares available. On top of that, there were parties and spirited dinners. There were way more events than we could possibly attend, and the alcohol was constantly flowing. It was important to drink a lot of water, eat whenever possible, and get a good night’s sleep every night.

One of the highlights was on Thursday night when we attended a spirited dinner sponsored by Bushmills. It was a five-course meal . Each course included a shot of a different Bushmills product as well as a cocktail that included that product. It was just not physically possible to drink everything that was put in front of us. Oh, and the food was pretty good too. Many of the tasting rooms also had food available.

We attended seminars about everything from whiskey to ice to tree bark. It was crazy. It was all so overwhelming that I still can’t quite wrap my head around it. Overall, it was a great experience, and I would definitely go again.

Holiday Reading

holiday reading 2012During the winter break, I’ll actually have time to read some things for pleasure, and you can bet I will be packing in as much as I can. First, I’m going to be re-reading Absalom, Absalom! (though I am genuinely excited about it, the exclamation point is officially part of the title, which is why I italicized it) by our old friend Mr. Faulkner. When that’s done, I have some perusing of an English 102 textbook to do in preparation for the class I’m teaching next semester and some other decidedly nerdy stuff: Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, Donald Davidson’s Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, and How Novels Think by Nancy Armstrong.

If there’s time after that, I might just read Knockemstiff, the collection of short stories by Donald Ray Pollack. I’d also like to read the new Zadie Smith novel, NW, and Inventing Wine by Paul Lukacs (those last two are on my wish list if you are thinking of buying me something… ahem, Mom).

And guess what? If you still don’t have your copies of Zen, Mississippi and the Salvation of Billy Wayne Carter, you might could still obtain them before Christmas if you act quickly.

On the Importance of Lukewarm Enthusiasm

As we get into the final weeks of the campaign season, I want to put a few of my thoughts down. Unlike some people, I’m not inclined to keep my political opinions to myself. I think political discussions are inherently valuable. They don’t have to degenerate into juvenile name calling and facetious insults. And whatever a person says about themselves, I don’t think anybody is actually “apolitical.” I think people who say this about themselves are (1) sick of juvenile name calling and facetious insults on both sides (2) not inclined to supporting one particular party or the other, and (3) not interested in the “horse race” aspect of elections. But everybody has issues that they care about and that affect them on a day to day basis, and it’s useful to talk about those issues in an intelligent, informed manner. Those issues are decided by policy. Politics and policy are the same thing.

When people on the radio say, “that’s just politics,” or “he’s just being political,” what they really mean is “That’s just a cynical narrative device designed to improve his chances at re-election or to attain more power for his party.” Let’s stop using the word politics this way. Politics, in reality is the work of government, and the work of government is everybody’s business. I’m not interested in horse race either, and though I am inclined more toward the Democratic party in elections, it is only because there is currently no reasonable, supportable alternative at the national level. The Republican party takes every opportunity to stand against virtually everything I stand for–equality, justice, peace, and liberty. The Democrats don’t always stand for those things as much as I’d like, but they don’t act against them most of the time.

You might say you stand for the same things, but I’m full of shit about how how Democrats and Republicans relate to those ideals. That’s fine. It’s just my opinion, but hang in there. I’m getting to a point.

President Obama is not my ideal president. In my opinion, he has been too conservative in many ways. He has not always shown the leadership I’d like to see. In negotiating policy, he has given the other side the benefit of the doubt when they have not afforded him the same courtesy. In short, he has been too nice, too moderate. But I understand these challenges as the reality of how national politics work. The presidency, by definition, is a moderate office. Radical changes at that level have many unintended consequences. Obama doesn’t have a lot of radical ideas, and that’s basically okay. Probably the best he can do is fix some little things and enable progress, whereas I feel that his opponent, Mitt Romney, would deter progress. Romney would actively work against it; he would take us backwards, happily, into disaster.

Radical changes need to occur at the local level, at the grass roots level. Third parties have to get footholds at a local level. If you are frustrated by the two-party system, work to get a third party elected to your local government. When you accomplish that, get them elected to your state government. Until we have a half a dozen state governors that are neither Democrat or Republican, we will never have a president from a third party. It just isn’t going to happen. At this time, voting libertarian or socialist or green party at the presidential level actually enforces the two-party system because it makes those third parties look weak and ineffectual. They don’t have enough support to effect actual change. They have just enough support to swing an election from the lesser evil to the greater evil.

I don’t say all this to be depressing. I don’t even think this is a bad thing. If you are serious about real change, you have to understand that it takes a long time, and there are really important but small steps we take during every election cycle that empower long term change. Letting Romney get elected will only set things back another ten years. I am afraid that many people I know will say they would never vote for someone like Romney, but they just aren’t enthused about Obama so they’ll stay home. This is a mistake.

I believe another Obama term will give him a far better chance to stand up to the machine that has worked day and night to make his first term a weak one. He won’t do everything I’d like him to do. The policies I’d most like to see him enact are pipe dreams. They aren’t popular because there are still too many people throwing smoke screens under the labels of socialism and heathenism, and too many people are fooled by those smoke screens. So he won’t do everything, but he will enable progress. It sounds like I’m underselling him, that I’m not passionate enough, but enabling progress is the biggest thing a president actually can do. No president is going to save the world. Enabling progress is actually a really big deal, even though it’s hard to package it as such because our society is addicted to instant gratification.

Long term change requires long term thinking. That’s why I’m lukewarm on Obama, but he still has my enthusiastic vote this November.