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What’s the most annoying form of humor? April 11, 2014

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Our friend Ben believes that humor is the most individual form of taste, or enjoyment, if you will. What makes you burst out in a deep belly-laugh or uncontrollable snickering may make your colleague a few cubicles over writhe in discomfort, and the guy across the aisle may not even get the joke. This doesn’t make you right and them wrong; it simply adds to the rounding out of who you are, it paints a unique portrait of you.

I do think, however, that some forms of humor are generally considered more offensive or annoying than others. Here’s my list of top ten annoying forms of humor, and how I feel about them:

1. Clowns. I absolutely hate clowns. I think they’re creepy, and can’t see any humor in them. Alice Cooper’s song “Can’t Sleep, the Clowns Will Eat Me” says it all as far as I’m concerned. Clowns originated in mediaeval Europe to terrorize the populace into abandoning sin and falling in line with Church teachings; to me, they’re every bit as scary now as they were then.

2. Mimes. If anything, I hate mimes more than clowns. Besides not being funny, they seem to cloak themselves in an aura of self-righteousness. Watching mimes be self-righteously rude to people who are minding their own business in public squares, train stations and the like makes me sick. If I behaved that obnoxiously to my fellow travellers, I’d be detained. But mimes? Hey, this is performance art! Give me Groucho over Harpo any day.

3. Lame cartoons. It can’t be easy to be a cartoonist and come up with a funny strip every day. But some strips are never funny, and yet there they are, day after day after day. Why do papers insist on publishing “Peanuts,” “Mutts,” “Doonesbury,” and their ilk? Why is “Peanuts,” one of the most boring strips in cartoon history, revered? Even “Blondie” is occasionally funny, and “Mark Trail” sometimes has interesting nature facts. But, much as we might long for the days of “The Far Side” and “Calvin and Hobbes,” there are good contemporary cartoons like “Get Fuzzy,” “Pickles,” “Jump Start,” “Pearls Before Swine,” and “Brewster Rockit” we could be enjoying in the space taken up by those lame ducks. All I can say is, thank God for “Dilbert.”

4. Puns. A pun is a play on words that can range from clever to extremely clunky and painful, especially when used clumsily or overused, as punsters seem prone to do. (Example: A colleague mentions the episode in “Game of Thrones” where Brienne is forced to fight a bear. The punster immediately chimes in with “What a shocking scene! I could barely bear to watch it!”) Ouch. Our friend Ben once had a boss who insisted on reciting a pun-riddled version of “Cinderella” at each and every corporate Christmas party. Trust me, fighting a bear would have seemed like a party by comparison.

5. Slapstick. Our friend Ben knows many people who can’t stand slapstick. But generally speaking, I love slapstick; it makes me laugh out loud. If I want to be cheered up, I watch a clip of Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) from the Pink Panther series; his interplay with Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau is simply marvelous to me, combining verbal wit with physical faux pas. Groucho Marx was also a master of this art, the ability to combine razor wit and physical incompetence. Charlie Chaplin performed the most brilliant slapstick I’ve ever seen, his legs seemed like rubber. I’ve still never seen a Chaplin film, but I saw the clips of him at the end of the bioflick where he was played by the brilliant Robert Downey Jr. To this day, I wonder how he managed to pull this off.

6. Sadistic humor. I list this one here because in essence it’s a form of slapstick, one epitomized by the Three Stooges. It’s physical humor, like slapstick, but in this case, you have bullies like Mo poking innocents like Larry and Curly in the eye and slapping them around. What’s funny about that? Nothing that I can imagine. Apparently the damage Mo inflicted on his siblings and fellow actors was so great that the actor who played Curly Joe forced him to sign a contract promising not to actually hurt him. Ha, ha, ha! What a laugh riot.

7. Sarcasm. Sarcasm is another form of sadism, but this time, it’s verbal. Nonetheless, the point (pun intended) is to stab your target with the sharpened blades of your wit, scoring points at their expense. Our friend Ben’s mother always maintained that sarcasm was the lowest form of humor and should not be indulged in by any respectable person, since it targeted people who were weak and unable to defend themselves. Nastiness disguised as humor is still nastiness, and sarcasm is just mockery unter another name. Mockery is just another form of bullying, and like all forms of bullying, is unworthy.

8. Vulgarity. Comedians like the late George Carlin and Richard Pryor apparently felt that the shock factor of vulgarity equalled humor, and millions of fans apparently agreed with them. Fans of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” and Russell Brand’s and Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up comedy also agree. Vulgar or not, stand-up comedy is a dead bore to our friend Ben. The only time I’ve ever enjoyed it was in Gabriel Byrne’s send-up in the TV movie “Trigger Happy” (aka “Mad Dog Time”). Coupled with Paul Anka’s send-up of himself, it was a performance to remember.

9. Late-night shows. Why do people watch these shows? Who really wants to see Kim Kardashian being interviewed by David Letterman? We have friends who grew up watching Johnny Carson and the like with Grandma, but sheesh. What could possibly be funny about an interminable late-night talk show?! We wish Stephen Colbert all the best, but please. We could use our sleep.

10. Verbal swordplay. Like slapstick, our friend Ben loves the sharpened tongue, the ability of the underdog to humorously defeat his enemies when they don’t even know what hit them. Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields, Lord Tyrion Lannister of “Game of Thrones,” and Sherlock Holmes are all experts at this art. (A close read of the Holmes canon will reveal the humor that is so often hidden in the film versions.) A brain is as good as a sword when it comes to defeating brawny but moronic enemies.

So what are your most-hated forms of humor? Let us hear from you!

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Live like it really matters. August 9, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. I understand that there was once a soap opera called “One Life to Live.” Well, we all know what soap operas are, yesterday’s forebears of today’s reality TV shows. If you truly realize that you only have “one life to live,” hopefully you won’t be wasting it watching either of the above.

Instead, what would you do? I was just talking to a friend who chose “early” retirement and severance when given the choice of that or giving up her job of 34 years (and all benefits) and reapplying for a different job, competing against God-knows-who for it. Her company’s betrayal paled beside the toll corporate mismanagement had taken on her health in the past few years. She said she’s still going through an adjustment/mourning phase, while thinking about her next steps, perhaps forming her own company.

People who work outside of a corporate environment don’t “get” the comic strip “Dilbert.” They don’t find it funny that the pointy-haired boss, the conehead CEO, and numerous other jobless higher-ups make it their business to ensure that the company’s engineers, who actually do the work and make the company’s profits, are incapable of doing their jobs thanks to bureaucratic incompetence.

Those of us who have worked in a corporate environment find “Dilbert” hilarious. Been there, done that. Our bosses call us “worker bees.” We call them “drones,” completely worthless idiots who contribute nothing to the bottom line or to innovation and progress—who in fact suck the life out of the bottom line with their exorbitant, completely unearned salaries, and who suck the morale out of their employees with their blatant contempt for them.

They don’t care if they’re morons who inherited the business from Daddy while their employees have genius IQs and doctoral degrees from Stanford and MIT. Hey, they’re in charge!

So what’s the point of this post? Should you give up your job at Wal*Mart and apply for a job at Tesla? My real point is this: Life’s too short to stay stuck in a job that kills you slowly, day by day.

The head of a company I once worked for was a health nut. He had it all—tons of money, the luxury of launching new initiatives that he genuinely believed in, and donating to all the charities he felt strongly about. He worked out, cycled, and ate right. He should have lived to be 112. Instead, he was killed at 60 when a bus crashed into his cab.

None of us can know when our time is up. Rather, it’s up to each of us to make the most of the time we actually have, the time we have now, day by day and hour by hour. I’m not saying you should cash out your 401(k) and head to Vegas. Instead, think about doing what you actually love, in a context that won’t kill you.

Life is short. Make the most of it. Be true to who you are.

‘Til next time,

Silence

My poor hair. June 29, 2011

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Silence Dogood here. I’ve worn my hair long all my life, except for eighth grade, when my mother for some reason decided that I should cut it all off. (I was eventually able to forgive her.)

But two weeks ago, the little local salon our friend Ben and I patronize was having a half-off sale on cuts, and I thought it would be a good idea to cut back to really healthy hair. So I had OFB drop me off en route to running a few errands and asked the stylist to cut it so that it just cleared my shoulders. I thought this would be a radical change. Little did I know.

Unfortunately, the stylist, who’d never before done more than trim the ends of my hair, failed to grasp its essential nature. Being very fine, the strands are weightless. And they have a great deal of body, which becomes more apparent the shorter they are, since then absolutely nothing is weighing them down. Everyone who cuts my hair is aware of the natural wave, but no one in my adult life has witnessed the sight that greeted me and the stylist when I looked in the mirror and saw a mass of hair curling at chin, not shoulder, level.

“Uh, I think your hair looks really cute short!” the stylist announced, recovering quickly.

Not so OFB when he came to pick me up.

“GAAAHHH!!! What’s happened to your hair?!!”

“GRRRRRRRR…”

“I mean, uh, it must be a lot, um, cooler now. Say… it reminds me of the character Alice in ‘Dilbert’!”

“GRRRRRRR!!!!”

I tried to forewarn our friends before OFB and I showed up for our next supper get-together, but even forewarned, they couldn’t manage to bear in mind that useful maxim, “The alternative to the truth is silence.”

“Your hair… There’s this character in the ‘Dilbert’ cartoon strip, I can’t think of her name, do you know her?”

[GRRRRRRR!!!!!]

Somehow both my friends and OFB are still alive… so far. But the ice is definitely getting thinner, especially for OFB, who greets me every morning with endearing comments like these:

“Ever considered becoming a major composer? I think I’ll start calling you Ludwig.”

“Morning, Einstein.”

“Have you ever seen a picture of Homer Simpson’s sisters-in-law?”

GRRRRRRRR.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to focus on one of my hair’s good points: It grows really fast. Maybe by fall this will all be behind me.

             ‘Til next time,

                             Silence

Ben Picks Ten: Cartoon strips. June 2, 2011

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Our friend Ben has always loved good cartoons. Silence Dogood (who contributed her picks to this list) and I prefer witty, funny, well-drawn strips, but will forgive primitive drawing (think Dilbert) if the humor is right.

Great cartoons offer life lessons through laughter, taking on topics that we all deal with but most of us aren’t willing to talk about, such as age, overweight, and failure in a society that demands eternal youth, thinness, and success. And, as we’ll see, the cartoon characters who are coping with these issues often triumph, not by going on “The Biggest Loser” or seeing a plastic surgeon but by using their wits to puncture their denigrators’ pretensions.

Without more ado, our all-time cartoon faves:

Calvin and Hobbes. This one had it all: Brilliant drawing and true wit. From the strip’s name through its conceit of the little boy with the stuffed tiger toy who comes to life when no one’s looking to the sick snowman cartoons, it was lovable but never PC. Thank you, Bill Watterson. We miss you so.

The Far Side. As an armchair archaeologist, anthropologist, paleontologist, and real-life naturalist, how could our friend Ben resist this science nerd’s delight? Gary Larson’s witty cartoons almost always hit the nail on the head, and in a single panel, which is a very difficult feat. Think of the one with the two bears in the hunter’s sights, with one bear pointing to the other one, and you’ve got it. We miss this one, too.

Dilbert. Bless Scott Adams for creating the ultimate worker bees’ (as one of my own bosses famously dismissed the employees who actually created the products that made millions in bonuses for him) revenge. We may love the clueless Pointy-Haired Boss and the wily Dogbert more than the nerdy Dilbert, but Dilbert’s comments are always spot-on, and based on the real-life experiences of our fellow drones trying to remain sane in cubicles across the country while dealing with bosses with 1/4 their IQ. Dilbert speaks to our corporate culture like nothing else, and does it so well that there’s never even been an attempt at competition. Thanks, Scott!

Maxine. Who doesn’t love Maxine, the wisecracking, foulmouthed old lady who doesn’t suffer fools at all and tells it exactly like it is? Cranky and hysterical, she’ll give the finger to old age and to anyone who tries to dismiss elders in a youth-based culture that encourages Baby Boomers to try to look like their grandchildren. Go Maxine go! When we grow up, we want to be just like you. And if you thought Maxine was just a figure on a Hallmark card, she actually has her own strip. Sadly, our local paper doesn’t carry it, but you can view it on her website.

Get Fuzzy. We love this strip, and are so jealous that OFB’s father gets it every day in Nashville when we only get it on Sundays here. We feel that it’s the real inheritor of “Calvin and Hobbes,” wonderfully drawn and full of rich and sometimes sick humor as the snaggle-toothed conservative cat tries to undermine his deshevelled, liberal owner, fight off an army of ferrets, put something over on the good-hearted but usually clueless dog, and launch endless get-rich-quick schemes. Screamingly funny. Most of the time. Bless you, Darby Conley.

For Better or Worse. We applaud Lynn Johnston’s well-drawn strip for actually aging her characters rather than freezing them in time. And we enjoy the true-to-life situations she drew with such sympathy and humor. No high drama, no exaggeration. Lynn realized that real life was actually funny enough. We’re sorry she’s no longer cartooning, but are grateful that our paper has chosen to re-run the strip from the beginning.

Zits. Ugh, what a title! Silence actually tries not to look at it when reading the strip. But the strip itself is great, portraying contemporary teen life and the disconnect (as well as the deep bond) between parents and their teenaged kids. Hugely funny and very well drawn. Choosing to portray the parents as a frumpy, droopy-breasted woman and her balding, obese husband took a lot of courage, in our opinion. Kudos!

Shoe. The adventures and misadventures of a cigar-chomping crow and his minion, a frumpy owl, at a newspaper were bound to appeal to me and Silence, editors and writers as we are. But the humor really takes a backseat to the drawing, which is marvelous. Too bad we don’t get it in our local paper! But Jeff MacNelly’s work is delightful; we miss it.

Pickles. This strip got picked up by our paper rather late in the game, so we have no idea why it was called “Pickles.” But it’s wonderfully drawn and focuses on an older couple with deep but gentle humor. It’s the dark horse in the cartoon race, but we enjoy it very much.

Dennis the Menace. Dennis did for parents of young kids what “Zits” has now done for parents of teenaged kids. Dennis was always up to something, and his parents had their hands full trying to cope, yet Hank Ketcham kept it funny. We wish it was still carried by our paper, and can only hope that Dennis and his essential badness is still going on somewhere.

And the bonus:

Cathy. We have huge respect for Cathy Guisewite for depicting her cartoon lead Cathy’s endless struggles to lose weight. This was not the sole focus of the strip, which, like so many others, has been dropped from our paper so we have no clue whether it’s still being written or has been “retired.” Romance, work, and dealing with aging parents, plus the ludicrous nature of contemporary fashion and other concerns of a twentysomething woman featured as often in the strip. But making Cathy a character who’s always on the verge of being plus-sized took a lot of courage, and showing that she was still able to find love and succeed at work has doubtless encouraged many young women who struggle with this issue.

We’d like to give honorable mention to two other strips, “Luann” and “Henry.” Like “Zits,” “Luann” deals with teens and their parents, and does it well. She didn’t creep into our top ten because she’s not as well drawn and not as real as “Zits,” but she’s always a fun read. We like her a lot. Thank you, Greg Evans!

“Henry” strikes us—possibly erroneously—as a strip that dates back to the Great Depression, the era that gave the world “Nancy,” “Blondie,” “Orphan Annie,” “Popeye,” and “Pogo.” Henry was a bald kid who never spoke, an extremely eccentric concept in pre-chemotherapy days. But the strip carried a gentle humor that reminds us of “Pickles.” Nothing riotous, nothing screamingly funny, just a simple pleasure to read. “Henry” had legs, too—it was in our papers growing up, historic as it seemed even then. We don’t know what ever happened to it; perhaps it finally went gently into that good night. But we enjoyed it.

Our friend Ben must end this post with a nod to my all-time favorite cartoonist, George Booth. Booth was a magazine cartoonist who drew single-panel cartoons for The New Yorker, not someone who syndicated in newspapers and appeared daily. But his deranged-looking characters and their equally deranged-looking pets are surely the funniest cartoons ever created, and the ones that, in the end, most truly capture the human experience. Thank you, Mr. Booth, for enriching my life.

This little piggy went to market. April 2, 2008

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There were no Piggly Wigglies in Nashville when our friend Ben was growing up there. But every so often, our friend Ben would encounter one of the eccentrically-named grocery stores on family trips farther South. This was one of the infant Ben’s biggest thrills, and I would squeal (if you’ll forgive the expression) with delight upon encountering a store with such an absurd, outrageous name. Piggly Wiggly?! Oh, no, no.

To my undying shame, our friend Ben sort of forgot about Piggly Wiggly after moving to Pennsylvania, which has extremely ludicrous store names of its own. (WaWa, anyone?) But I was reminded of the beloved childhood chain last summer when Silence and I joined the Hays clan on Emerald Isle (that’s off the southern coast of North Carolina, as opposed to THE Emerald Isle). Before arriving at the wonderful beach cottage, we stopped at a grocery store for necessities like (ahem) whole milk and (gulp) Diet Coke. (For our friend Ben’s views on whole milk, see my earlier post, “The death of moderation.”) And the grocery store happened to be a Piggly Wiggly. Piggly Wiggly!!!

By coincidence, Silence had chosen a library book for vacation reading called Waltzing at the Piggly Wiggly. Suddenly, Piggly Wigglies were back in our friend Ben’s consciousness.

Like our friend Ben, unless you’ve grown up with a Piggly Wiggly and never thought to question the name, you must by now be wondering what on earth the creator of the grocery-store chain was thinking of. Our friend Ben was determined to find the origins of this absurdly wonderful name.

Fortunately, my good friend Google was, as usual, happy to try to help me out. And this led our friend Ben to a really amazing story, but not to the answer I sought. Here’s the incredible story of the Piggly Wiggly chain. But to appreciate the magnitude of the founder’s achievement, you have to understand the leap that he made.

So first, I want you to picture a Western movie—any Western movie—and think about the obligatory scene of Maw and Paw heading in to the nearest town’s general store. They go up to the counter with their year’s profits—a silver dollar or two—and hand their hard-earned money to the clerk. They tell him how much flour, cloth, sugar, and so on they want, and he goes off to the shelves, returning with bolts and bins and burlap bags, weighing and measuring and cutting their goods into the appropriate quantities. The scene usually ends with the clerk handing the kids some peppermint sticks or a few pieces of hard candy as a free treat.

Fast-forward to the twentieth century. Guess what? When your great- or great-great- or whatever grandparents went to the store, anywhere in America, that’s exactly what happened. They gave their list to the clerk and the clerk gave them the goods. Until 1916, when Clarence Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis, Tennessee. As it happens, Saunders was a visionary, and his particular mercantile vision changed the way grocery shopping was done forevermore. In his Piggly Wiggly, you see, customers went into the store aisles, where merchandise was grouped by type, and they chose their own groceries, and then they took them to the cashiers at the front of the store and paid for them. Ring a bell?

Not only did Saunders’s store concept revolutionize the grocery industry, it also brought about the primacy of the brand. There were brands before, of course—various snake oils and hair tonics spring to mind—but when people shopped for groceries, they asked for such-and-such quantity of oats, not Quaker Oats. Now that they were choosing their own oats, however, the brand name and packaging suddenly mattered. Brand merchandising assumed a pride of place that it retains to this day. And it’s all because of Piggly Wiggly.

Okay, that’s the story—the first successful grocery store chain, based on self-service, creating brand awareness, and thanks to one man’s marketing vision and genius. But it’s still not the answer. Why, oh why did Clarence Saunders call his visionary grocery stores Piggly Wiggly?!! Sheesh.

Turns out, we’ll never know. Saunders refused to disclose the origin of the chain’s name, saying only that he wanted it to provoke people’s curiosity. He died in 1953 and took the answer to his grave. The internet yields a little speculation, but nothing that satisfies our friend Ben. The name remains a mystery.

In these times of universal dieting, when even Shoney’s has replaced its “Big Boy” icon with a cuddly bear, it’s astounding to our friend Ben that there are any Piggly Wiggly stores left at all. It’s as though Nancy and Sluggo, Henry, Buster Brown, Orphan Annie, Pogo, and the rest of the Depression-era cartoons were still holding their own in the world of Dilbert and Doonesbury. Our friend Ben recognizes that tastes change, and the market—be it in cartoons or grocery stores—changes with the popular taste. (And okay, I love Dilbert. Or at least Dogbert and the Pointy-Haired Boss.) But lordy lordy, I hope, how I hope, that the Piggly Wiggly stores can stay the course. I know that, every time I’m down South, I’ll be looking for them.