Published on June 17, 2007
GALLOWS HUMORSee also “Literary Genres”: GALLOWS HUMOR See also 'Literary Genres' by Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen Is Gallows Humor fantasy, or is it reality?: Is Gallows Humor fantasy, or is it reality? In Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, Guy Grand buys a huge newspaper company and converts the newspaper entirely to readers’ opinions. In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Osarian protests the brutality of war by sitting naked in a tree. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 46) Slide3: In John Barth’s The Floating Opera, Todd Andrews contemplates his own suicide as he works out a puzzle involving $3 million and 1129 pickle jars filled with excrement. Thomas Pynchon in his Gravity’s Rainbow tells a joke about a boy born with a golden screw in his navel. A voodoo doctor finally gives him a potion that sends him into a wild dream, and when he wakes up, the golden screw is gone. In ecstasy, he jumps out of bed and his bottom falls off. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 46) ALFRED HITCHCOCK: ALFRED HITCHCOCK Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry is a fairly early example of black comedy based on mis-identification. Harry Rogers is an apparent murder victim whose body is found over and over again, buried, exhumed, and reburied. In the anticlactic ending, Harry is discovered not to have been murdered at all. Other examples of Hitchock’s Gallows Humor include Rebecca, and The Birds, both based on novels by Daphne DuMaurier. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 46) STANLEY KUBRICK: STANLEY KUBRICK Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb satirizes war. At one point, a fight breaks out between the characters and the group is severely admonished, 'You can’t fight in here; this is the war room' (Nilsen and Nilsen 47). Slide6: The missile complex in Dr. Strangelove is named Laputa. Hydrogen bombs that are being prepared for 'Operation Drop Kick' are named 'Hi There' and 'Dear John.' POE is an acronym for both 'Peace on Earth' and 'Purity of Essence.' Closing of the Doomsday Gap is seen as a deterrent to war. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 47) EVELYN WAUGH: EVELYN WAUGH Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One satirizes the commercialization of death by showing how the California funeral industry turns burials into Hollywood extravaganzas. At Whispering Glades, caskets come in three grades: waterproof, moisture proof, and dampness proof. The park is divided into zones, each having its own work of art. The 'Poet’s Corner' for example has 'Xanadu Falls' and is dedicated to Homer. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 47) Slide8: The movie becomes darker as it focuses on Aimee Thanatogenous, whose first name is French for 'beloved,' and whose last name relates to Thanatos, the Greek God of death. When the Guru Brahman sarcastically tells her to go to the 14th floor, his office, and jump out of the window. She does so. As she jumps, she clasps, also injects herself with embalming fluid, just to make sure. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 47) TERRY SOUTHERN: TERRY SOUTHERN Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian targets capitalism, war, violence, and gender roles. Peter Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, the Richest Man in the World; Ringo Starr plays a homeless person who becomes Youngman Grand, Sir Guy’s son and heir. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 47) Slide10: In the movie, heavy artillery is used for the hunting of pheasants, and during the war games in the living room, all the furnishings get blown up. To demonstrate Sir Guy’s richness, a restaurant episode shows the waiters ignoring all the other patrons while giving full attention to Sir Guy. Sir Guy is equipped with a wet suit and safety belts, and after a lusty battle with caviar meatballs, has to be hosed down. Sir Guy fills a large tank full of excrement and then throws $100 bills into the excrement to see if men in suits will dive in after the money. They do. In a boxing match, the fighters end up kissing each other, and the announcer says that the crowd seems to be sickened by the sight of no blood. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 47) MONTY PYTHON: MONTY PYTHON Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a satire about the romances, the wars, and the quests of the Middle Ages. When King Arthur fights the Black Knight, he cuts off the knight’s arms and both of his legs, but the Black Knight still taunts King Arthur and wants to continue to fight. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 47) Slide12: During their adventures, the knights have to cross the bridge of death, where three questions are asked: 'What is your name?' 'What is your quest?' and 'What is your favorite color?' Much of the humor comes from how difficult these questions become for some of the knights. The violence, killing, and bloodshed are all justified in the name of Christianity. In an anachronistic ending, the police arrive, dressed in modern British uniforms, and load King Arthur and the others into a paddy wagon. Slide13: Characters in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian are given such names as Nautius Maximus, Biggus Dickus, and Incontinentia Buttocks. The movie takes place in Bethlehem during the time of Christ--or more specifically, on Saturday afternoon at tea time. Slide14: The film satirically targets religion, ritual, and blind faith. When Brian of Nazareth is asked if he is the Messiah, he says, 'No,' and the villagers respond, 'Only the true Messiah denies his divinity.' Brian becomes a sacred icon, along with his sandal and his gourd. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 47) Slide15: When the Christians ask, 'What have the Romans ever done for us?' the response is 'aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, wine, public baths, peace.' There is confusion over whether Myrrh is a 'balm' or a 'bomb.' The Israelites are referred to as the 'Red Sea pedestrians.' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 47) Slide16: When the Christians write on the walls of the palace, 'Romans eunt domus,' meaning 'Romans go home,' the Romans who see the graffiti are totally oblivious to the meaning as they go about correcting the grammar. The movie ends with Brian and other Christians hanging from crosses, but doggedly singing, 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 48) WOODY ALLEN: WOODY ALLEN Woody Allen’s Bananas makes fun of the military solutions that the United States invokes on third-world countries. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 48) Slide18: As a parody of a parody, the movie also contains Howard Cosell’s play-by-play description, as though on Wide World of Sports, of the consummation of the marriage of Fielding Melish and Norma, an ingenue devoting her life to third-world causes. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 48) Slide19: Other Woody Allen movies that include black humor are Annie Hall Crimes and Misdemeanors Deconstructing Harry Love and Death Mighty Aphrodite and Zelig JOHN IRVING: JOHN IRVING In John Irving’s The World According to Garp, Robin Williams plays the role of T.S. Garp, while Glenn Close plays the role of Garp’s mother, Jenny. Jenny was a nurse who got herself pregnant by taking advantage of an injured and dying soldier, Technical Sergeant Garp, who had been brought in from his downed airplane with a permanent erection. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 48) Slide21: Jenny has a very detached attitude towards sexuality, as can be seen when she conducts an asexual interview with a puzzled prostitute. When she writes a book that becomes a feminist bestseller, she uses the profits to found a shelter for abused women--and one man--a transvestite named Roberta (played by John Lithgow). Roberta used to be a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles. Roberta appears to be the most 'normal' person in the shelter. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 48) Slide22: Everyone else in the shelter has had her tongue cut out in honor of a little girl who had been raped and had had her tongue cut out so she could tattle. So all of the ladies in the shelter had their tongues cut out in honor of the the little girl. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 48) Slide23: Garp’s heritage as the son of a pilot is a motif that runs throughout the movie. It opens with a happy scene of Baby Garp being tossed again and again into the air. During his childhood, Garp tries to fly by jumping off a building. When he gets married and he and his wife are out with the real estate agent looking at a house to buy and a small plane crashes into the roof, Garp knows this is the home for them because of the infinitesimal chances of the same house being hit twice by an airplane. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 48) QUENTIN TARANTINO: QUENTIN TARANTINO Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is a parody targeting pulp fiction, religion, and the criminal world. The setting is Los Angeles, some of it at Jack Rabbit Slim’s place--'a wax museum with a pulse.' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 48-49) Slide25: Four interlocking stories circle around a cast of bumbling robbers, real gangsters, the Boss, and the Boss’s wife, whose hairdo and dress are perfect for the cover of a sleazy novel. In all the episodes, Marsellus, the Boss, watches jealously over Mia, his wife. A man who gives her a foot massage is later pushed from the roof of a building. Mia is so passive and ineffectual that viewers don’t know whether the phrase 'taking care of the Boss’s wife,' means killing her, protecting her, or providing her with sex. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 48-49) Slide26: In a memorable scene, two gangsters go over a speed bump, causing a gun to go off in the face of a man they were guarding in the back seat of the car. Almost as shocking is the history of Butch’s gold watch. His father, who during the war was captured and held as a POW, hid the precious gold watch in his anus for five years. Just before being executed, he passed it on to another POW who also hid it in his anus for a number of years. At last, the watch makes its way home and the grateful and loving Butch keeps it on his bedside table. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 48-49) Slide27: The violence of Pulp Fiction is almost like the violence in a Tom-and-Jerry cartoon. In one scene, bullets whiz back and forth, but through what looks like divine intervention, Vince and Jules remain alive and unharmed. Also, right out of a cartoon is the scene where Butch is looking for a weapon. First, he finds a hammer, then a bat, then a chainsaw, and finally a huge Samarai sword. MARK TWAIN’S “WAR PRAYER”: MARK TWAIN’S 'WAR PRAYER' 'O Lord our God, Help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; Help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; Help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; Slide29: Help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; Help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailinb grief; Help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land…; For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, Slide30: Blast their hopes, Blight their lives, Protract their bitter pilgrimage, Make heavy their steps, Water their way with their tears, Stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen. (Twain 16-37) THE GROUNDING OF GALLOWS HUMOR: THE GROUNDING OF GALLOWS HUMOR Sometimes gallows humor is grounded in reality. In 1883 Judge M. B. Gerry sentenced Alfred E. Packer to death for cannibalism during a Colorado snowstorm. Slide32: A reporter ran from the courtroom to a local bar and announced that the Judge had said, 'There were only seven Democrats in all of Hinsdale County and you, you son of a bitch, ate five of them.' This quote was picked up across the nation and made both Judge Judge M. B. Gerry and Alfred E. Packer famous. Slide33: At the University of Colorado in Boulder, the student cafeteria is named the Alfred Packer Grill, and they sell souvenir seatshirts saying 'Serving all of Mankind,' and 'Keep Your Eyes on Your Thighs.' In the cafeteria there used to be an 'Alfred E. Packer' plaque. But it was taken down, because it was felt to be 'in poor taste.' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 126) DEDICATIONS TO LEMONY SNICKET BOOKS: DEDICATIONS TO LEMONY SNICKET BOOKS To Beatrice—Darling, Dearest, Dead… For Beatrice—You’ll always be in my heart, in my mind, and in your grave. For Beatrice—When we were together I felt breathless. Now you are. For Beatrice—Our love broke my heart, and stopped yours. For Beatrice—When we met, my life began. Soon afterwards, yours ended. Slide35: !For Beatrice—Summer without you is as cold as winter. Winter without you is even colder. To Beatrice—My love flew like a butterfly, Until death swooped down like a bat. As the poet Emma Montana McEllroy said: 'That’s the end of that.' For Beatrice—When we met, you were pretty, and I was lonely. Now, I’m pretty lonely. For Beatrice—Dead women tell no tales. Sad men write them down. !!QUESTION: WHO IS BEATRICE?: !!QUESTION: WHO IS BEATRICE? At age 9, Dante Aligieri met Beatrice Portinari, and fell in love. The greeted each other on the street for 16 years. Dante was promised to another woman, Gemma. In 1290, at age 25, Beatrice died. Dante took refuge in writing to and about Beatrice. Slide37: !!!Dante dedicated his Devine Comedy to Beatrice, who in the novel served as his guide through Paradise. With Gemma, he had a daughter named Antonia She became a nun, and took the name of Sister Beatrice. Slide38: References: Keough, William. Punchlines: The Violence of American Humor. New York, NY: Paragon House, 1966. Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000. Olsen, Lance. Circus of the Mind in Motion: Postmodernism and the Comic Vision. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1990. Pratt, Alan R., ed. Black Humor: Critical Analysis. New York, NY: Garland, 1993. Twain, Mark. Mark Twain: The War Prayer. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1968.