Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘humor’

05 AUGUST, 2013

How to Apologize for Standing Someone Up: A Lesson from Lewis Carroll’s Hilarious Letter

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“I am obliged to use an umbrella to keep the tears from running down on to the paper.”

From Richard Feynman’s sketches to Marilyn Monroe’s poetry to Sylvia Plath’s drawings, we’ve learned that famous creators often harbor little-known talent in a different medium. Among this tendency’s prime examples is Charles Dodgson, better-known today as Lewis Carroll. Though primarily celebrated as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he was also a masterful mathematician and logician, as well as a dedicated practitioner of the then-new art form of photography. Known for his friendships with children, Dodgson had a particular soft spot for photographing them and famously took portraits of Alice Liddell, the real little girl who inspired Wonderland. But his greatest talent of all was perhaps his good-natured humor and irreverent wit.

From the endlessly delightful Funny Letters from Famous People (public library) — the same gem that gave us the best resignation letter ever written, courtesy of Sherwood Anderson — comes Carroll’s charmingly hyperbolic apologetic letter to Annie Rogers, a young friend and photography model whom he accidentally stood up in 1867.

Annie Rogers and Mary Jackson as Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund. Photograph by C. L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), July 3, 1863. Image via the Museum of the History of Science.

My dear Annie:

This is indeed dreadful. You have no idea of the grief I am in while I write. I am obliged to use an umbrella to keep the tears from running down on to the paper. Did you come yesterday to be photographed? And were you very angry? Why wasn’t I there? Well the fact was this — I went out for a walk with Bibkins, my dear friend Bibkins — we went many miles from Oxford — fifty — a hundred, say. As we were crossing a field full of sheep, a thought crossed my mind, and I said solemnly, “Dobkins, what o’clock is it?” “Three,” said Fipkins, surprised at my manner. Tears ran down my cheeks. “It is the HOUR,” I said. “Tell me, tell me, Hopkins, what day is it?” “Why, Monday, of course,” said Lupkins. “Then it is the DAY!” I groaned. I wept. I screamed. The sheep crowded round me, and rubbed their affectionate noses against mine. “Mopkins!” I said, “you are my oldest friend. Do not deceive me, Nupkins! What year is this?” “Well, I think it’s 1867,” said Pipkins. “Then it’s the YEAR!” I screamed, so loud that Tapkins fainted. It was all over: I was brought home, in a cart, attended by the faithful Wopkins, in several pieces.

When I have recovered a little from the shock, and have been to the seaside for a few months, I will call and arrange another day for photographing. I am too weak to write this myself, so Zupkins is writing it for me.

Your miserable friend,
Lewis Carroll

Funny Letters from Famous People, edited by the great Charles Osgood, remains a treat in its entirety.

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25 JULY, 2013

How to Quit Your Job Like Sherwood Anderson: The Best Resignation Letter Ever Written

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“He is a nice fellow. We will let him down easy but let’s can him.”

Like a number of celebrated creators — including Dr. Seuss, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Wendy MacNaughtonSherwood Anderson started out in advertising to make ends meet, first as an advertising solicitor, then as an ad salesman and copywriter for farming equipment, and eventually as a copywriter in Chicago-based advertising agency Taylor Critchfield Co. until he became a successful novelist at the age of 41. Though he was man of timeless, profound insight on the creative life and the originator of some of history’s finest fatherly advice, he was also a man of masterful humor and remarkable wit. In 1918, when the time came to free himself from the shackles of the corporate world and plunge wholeheartedly into his craft, Anderson wrote what’s possibly the best letter of resignation ever penned, found in the altogether delightful Funny Letters from Famous People (public library):

Dear Barton:

You have a man in your employ that I have thought for a long time should be fired. I refer to Sherwood Anderson. He is a fellow of a good deal of ability, but for a long time I have been convinced that his heart is not in his work.

There is no question but that this man Anderson has in some ways been an ornament to our organization. His hair, for one thing, being long and messy gives an artistic carelessness to his personal appearance that somewhat impresses such men as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. Curtiniez of Kalamazoo when they come into the office.

But Anderson is not really productive. As I have said his heart is not in his work. I think he should be fired and if you will not do the job I should like permission to fire him myself. I therefore suggest that Anderson be asked to sever his connections with the company on [the first of next week]. He is a nice fellow. We will let him down easy but let’s can him.

Respectfully submitted,

Sherwood Anderson

Funny Letters from Famous People, edited by none other than Charles Osgood, is a treat in its entirety.

Portrait by Alfred Stieglitz courtesy the New York Public Library; thanks, Kaye

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08 JULY, 2013

Modern Masterpieces of Comedic Genius: The Art of the Humorous Amazon Review

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“Momma didn’t raise a boy with no pink tongue, no sir.”

UPDATE: Part 2 is here

The creative acts of humor “operate primarily through the transitory juxtaposition of matrices,” Arthur Koestler wrote in his famous “bisociation” theory of how creativity and humor work. New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff conceives of humor as “a conflict of synergies” in which “we mashup these things that don’t belong together that temporarily exist in our minds.” That’s precisely what makes the art of the humorous Amazon review, in which the deliberate incongruity of medium and message heightens our amusement and delight, a particularly effective yet under-appreciated modern form of comedic genius. Here are some favorites:

In his absurdist-by-its-very-proposition one-star review for the classic 1978 children’s book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, “Sam” writes:

Maybe this book belongs to a different time and place. The illustrations are great but I wouldn’t recommend it for a child being raised as a vegan. The underlying premise perpetuates carnism.

The Mizuno Women’s Wave Rider 16 Running Shoe has spawned plenty of reviews honoring politician Wendy Davis’s thirteen-hour filibuster seeking to block neanderthal abortion legislation in Texas. This five-star review by an M. Black is but one of the many gems:

Another, titled “Men, do not try these on!” and offering a one-star rating, reads:

I tried on a pair at the local mall and suddenly Texas Republicans started telling me what to do with my genitals. They started explaining reproduction to me like I was a seventh grader. Unfortunately, being male, I had no way to shut the whole thing down. I’m so confused…

Another offers five stars and an ingeniously subtle play on women’s reproductive choice via footwear choice:

I’m not sure I could ever bring myself to buy or wear shoes like this. But you know, I’m so glad I have the option.

On the lighter side of gender politics, this BIC Cristal “For Her” Ball Pen drew hundreds of reviews for the gobsmacking marketing exploitation the “women’s niche” (which is, of course, statistically a population majority) by pinkifying, softifying, and otherwise ladyfying products that are so obviously gender-neutral by nature. This pen, for instance, boasts such alluring female-friendly features as “Elegant design — just for her!” and “Thin barrel to fit a woman’s hand.” Naturally, the snark came pouring. One woman gives it five stars under the ecstatic headline “FINALLY!”:

Where has this pen been all my life???

Another, under the headline “Missing the batteries,” gives this wryly brilliant one-star review:

I can’t find a switch to turn it on, and it didn’t come with batteries. This is not the “for her” product I was expecting. At all.

Yet another:

if you are going to make a pen for her, please refrain from calling it a ball pen. we’re confused enough.

A man (“man”?) named John McGowan weighs in:

i live with my parents and when my dad found me using these pens he threw all of my things in the trash and now he’s taking me on a hunting trip?

For a pop-culture treat, this four-star review of a Harry Potter hat, somewhere between Gertrude Stein and E. E. Cummings, is the best thing since that vintage scientific paper published as a vengeful 38-stanza poem:

In another poetic masterpiece, someone named “Edgar” and sporting a portrait of Poe for an avatar reviews this 1-gallon jug of Tuscan Whole Milk. (Aside: What strange times, when you can buy real milk from what used to be a little internet bookstore.)

Read the review in its full Poetastic glory here.

Every once in a while, a product would come around seemingly designed as a comedic prompt. Such is the case of the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer and its 4,000+ reviews, which unfold into the Rube Goldberg machine of humor familiar from improv. One reviewer begins:

Another takes it from here:

I can’t believe anyone could be so inept as to think that they couldn’t slice their bananas because they bent “the wrong way.” All that person has to do is to buy the model 571C Banana Slicer that is for bananas that bend the other way. Although I prefer left-bending bananas, I got both the 571B and the 571C so that when shopping, I don’t have to have the hassle of finding bananas with the correct polarity. I hope “Angle Was Wrong” sees the light and removes that harsh one-star rating for this indispensable product duo.

There’s also the height of nerdy insidery humor, like this review for the book A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates:

For proof that comedy is a medium-blind art, there’s this elaborate Three Wolf Moon t-shirt video review, a modern classic:

But my favorite has to be this magnificent long-form five-star review for Dr. Tung’s Stainless Steel Tongue Cleaner by Stew Clyde:

I skeptically opened the tongue cleaner and went into the bathroom. Sure, I had read all of the other ecstatic reviews, but I was different. Momma didn’t raise a boy with no pink tongue, no sir, and there was no way it would change now.

I almost chuckled at the absurdity of even trying this, as I raised the scraper into my mouth. “I’ve been through this so many times, so many years…”, I thought.

I opened my mouth and rested the scraper at the back of my tongue, giving myself one last look, almost as if to say “It’s ok Stewart, one day others will judge you not by the color of your tongue but by the flavor of your breath.” But then I remembered that my breath was probably caused by my tongue, and cried.

I shook my head as I looked at myself, giving me lonesome one last sorrowful look, trying to let myself down easy… and started scraping.

As I pulled the gentle scraper down across my tongue, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Read the magnum opus in its full 764-word glory here.

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