Monday, April 26, 2010

Humor, Truth and the American Way

Mr. Locke, or Nasby, who looks remarkably like Rus! Reincarnation?

A rambling, incomprehensible and wildly ungrammatical (but folksy!) recent Sarah Palin speech was featured as the "Dumbass Quote of the Day" on the Culture Wars blog recently. It was the best laugh of the day, I assume unintentionally. An ironic satirist like Mark Twain or a zeroed-in mimic like Tina Fey could hardly have made it more hilarious. While tastes in humor and the relevant cultural contexts change over time, there have been wise commentators skewering the current insanity from the ancient Greeks through today.
Amos and Andy was the beginning of the end of a vigorous period of dialect humor in America in newspapers, radio, vaudeville and finally television. We grew a little embarrassed at having fun at the expense of different others while, concurrently, those regional and ethnic curiosities were homogenized away by the reach of media and the Interstate highway system. I wouldn't want to give up The Onion or Jon Stewart, but the gentle humor of Will Rogers shouldn't be forgotten. His folksiness was both positive and genuine, so unlike Reagan, Palin and Dubya, just shallow oportunistic humbugs like the Wizard of Oz.
Twain, who has been rated one of the top three American authors overall, may be the only dialect humorist who will not fade into obscurity. They're hard to read and dated, and their medium was newspapers and newsweeklies. (Poor newspapers: Dave Barry is retired, and who would be H. L. Mencken today -- George Will?? Hardly.)
David Ross Locke (one of several nationally known "crackerbarrel comics"), lived in the mid 19th century and worked at various newspapers from the age of 12, eventually owning a major Ohio publication. Like Ben Franklin's invented persona "Poor Richard" before him, Locke posed as "Petroleum V. Nasby" writing horribly misspelled and barely literate letters to the paper. His character was ignorant, violent, lazy, prejudiced and pro-slavery, used as a tool to satirize those same bubbas we hear shouting the same negative, contradictory irrationality today.
Ol' Petroleum didn't notice the irony in his success securing and profiting from the sinecure (back then) position of postmaster while being vocally antigovernment and pro-Confederacy. Like tea baggers wanting the Feds out of their Social Security and Medicare! A part-time reverend, he espoused the position of Southern ministers who used Biblical texts to prove that slavery was divinely ordained and thus unquestionable. We might as well laugh and have some fun with them, because the Father Coughlins, Joe McCarthys and the current crop of true believers will always be there.
While once popular styles of topical humor fade away, the satirist's job won't.

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