Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘humor’

29 NOVEMBER, 2013

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

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From scientific miracles to literary criticism, by way of bodily functions and failures of common sense.

Many moons ago, I wrote about the art of the humorous Amazon review as a modern masterpiece of parodic genius, embodying Arthur Koestler’s seminal “bisociation” theory of how humor and creativity work. It turns out this peculiar micro-genre of satire is surprisingly expansive — here is a sequel-selection of amusing, absurd, preposterous, and plain funny reviews, spanning everything from literary classics to industrial equipment.

Some take advantage of Amazon’s tendency to mash up the brand name and product description in the same title field, which often makes for some inherently funny propositions — like the Pelican 1510-004-110 Case with Padded Dividers, Black, on which “Teddy Picker” pounces elegantly:

With others, it’s hard to tell whether the person was aiming for comedy or was simply displaying a tragic level of learnedness — which, arguably, makes it all the funnier. From a one-star review of Lolita titled “Wake Me When It’s Over” (with Proper Capitalization) to an unambiguously titled one-star review of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, these “literary critics” employ Koestler’s bisociation in juxtaposing personal preference and cultural credence to a comedic effect, whether intended or not:

Some are doubly amusing not only by virtue of the humorous review but also by the sheer absurdity of why such an item would be sold on Amazon in the first place. Take, for instance, the Cyclone 4006 Ultra High Pressure Hard Surface Cleaner — a giant machine weighing 28,000 pounds and used primarily at airports for removing paint and rubber. A reviewer who goes by Wandrwoman ‘Wise as Aphrodite, Beautiful as Athena…'” — a name that already promises amusement — writes:

Some seem wholly earnest — but, between the nature of the product and the language of the review, they produce an irrepressible chuckle. There’s Body Mint and its ultimate fan, a woman named Anita (who, Amazon kindly informs us, is using her Real Name):

Others reap the irresistible low-hanging fruit of an especially questionable product, such as the AutoExec Wheelmate Steering Wheel Attachable Work Surface Tray. Just when you might think this is intended as a gag gift for that common-sense-defiant teenage driver, you realize this is a serious “ergonomic work surface” “designed to be used in a vehicle’s steering wheel” and “developed for the mobile worker on the road needing support for their tablet or a great place to write” … in an age when it’s both idiotic and illegal to text-and-drive, let alone type-and-drive. Some reviewers go for the meta:

Others take it a satirical step further:

I just picked uuyp my laptop hoder from the post offfice and I’m ddriving home now. It’s OK Iguess, but the bumpy road majkes it hard to type. And theree’s a lot of pedeestrians and traffi c that keep distracti9ng me fromm my computer.

It’s prolly OK ffor web browsing or email, but I don’gt think it will be so useful for mmore complex tasks. Oh, and yyou can’t make any sharrp turns. So when you turn right, somnetimess you have to use the oppsing lane of traffic.

Another reviewer points out the obvious:

Adding this desk to my car’s steering wheel has been baby Jesus awesome. I love emailing the Highway patrol while I drive to let them know the tag numbers of cell phone using drivers. Lordy!

Some reviews weave entire micro-novellas around the product, such as this three-star treatise on the Denon AKDL1 Dedicated Link Cable by none other than Star Trek star George Takei:

Another reviewer offers a different, equally entertaining twist on the cable:

After I took delivery of my $500 Denon AKDL1 Cat-5 uber-cable, Al Gore was mysteriously drawn to my home, where he pronounced that Global Warming had been suspended in my vicinity.

Yes, I had perfect weather: no flooding, no tornadoes, the exact amount of rain necessary, and he pronounced sea levels exactly right and that they were not going to rise within five miles of my house.

Additionally, my cars began achieving 200 mpg and I didn’t even need gasoline. I was able to put three grams of cat litter into the tank and drive forever.

What’s more, the atmosphere inside my home became 93% oxygen and virtually no carbon dioxide. In fact, I now exhale oxygen.

One heck of a cable.

Didn’t notice any improvement in audio quality though.

The $800 Apple iCable is clearly superior.

Then there are those that simply defy categorization, such as this one-star review for the Accoutrements Horse Head Mask:

But my favorite remains this brilliant gem from the first installment, wherein an Edgar Allan Poe impersonator reviews a humble jug of milk in the style of “The Raven”:

Read the rest in all its full Poe-tastic glory here, then revisit the original omnibus here.

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30 SEPTEMBER, 2013

How To Be a Nonconformist: 22 Irreverent Illustrated Steps to Counterculture Cred from 1968

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“Avoid socks. They are a fatal giveaway of a phony nonconformist.”

“Why do you have to be a nonconformist like everybody else?,” James Thurber asked in the caption to a 1958 New Yorker cartoon depicting a woman fed up with her artist partner. It remains unknown whether the cartoon itself, or this cultural dismay shared by some of the era’s counterculture thinkers, inspired the 1968 gem How To Be a Nonconformist (public library) by Elissa Jane Karg. One could easily imagine that if Edward Gorey, master of pen-and-ink irreverence, and Patti Smith, godmother of punk-rock, had collaborated, this would’ve been the result. But what’s most impressive is that Karg was only sixteen at the time, a self-described “cynical & skeptical junior at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Connecticut,” qualified to examine nonconformity as “an angry and amused observer” of her “cool contemporaries.”

With her irresistibly wonderful black-and-white drawings and hand-lettered text, which originally appeared in her school newspaper and were eventually published by Scholastic, she offers 22 rules for becoming “a bona fide nonconformist,” poking fun at so many archetypes still strikingly prevalent — perhaps even amplified — today: the misunderstood artist-hipster, the troll grubbing for clout by spewing curmudgeonly comments, the protester-for-the-sake-of-protesting, the musician flaunting her mental health issues as a badge of genius. Rather than derision, however, Karg’s subtler message is a reminder that, as Toni Morrison memorably wrote in Beloved, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” that a full life is about “allowing the various petals of our identity to fully unfold,” and that adhering to any prescriptive mode of living, even if it’s one that rejects the herd of mainstream culture, only flattens us into caricatures of our complete selves and transforms us into a herd of a different kind, one the cultural critic Harold Rosenberg famously called “the herd of independent minds.”

Karg, in true counter-nonconformist fashion, didn’t end up moving to New York City and commodify her brand of creative cynicism. Instead, she moved to Detroit, had two daughters, joined the socialist party, became a nurse, and led an earnest life as an avid advocate for women’s rights on the cusp of the second wave of feminism. Tragically, though perhaps poetically given her life choices, she was killed in 2008 at the age of 57 while riding her bicycle back from a socialist party meeting. She never authored another book, but did co-author the 1980 handbook Stopping Sexual Harassment.

Immeasurably wonderful, How To Be a Nonconformist is long out of print but surviving copies of can be found online. Complement it with Exactitudes, the modern-day photo-anthropological record of the cultural phenomenon Karg satirizes.

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04 SEPTEMBER, 2013

James Joyce’s Humorous Morphology of the Many Outrageous Myths about Him

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How the celebrated author earned a reputation as a lazy coke-head movie mogul with a peculiar clock habit.

While inhabiting all our contradictory selves may be the key to true happiness, when it comes to those in the public eye, such manufactured and often conflicting mythologies of self are often projected onto them by way of popular legend. This is especially true of those most reclusive and reticent about offering direct glimpses of the private persona beneath the public figure, thus enveloping the observed in alluring ambiguity which the observers readily fill with fanciful hypotheses and contemporary folklore.

From the ceaselessly entertaining Funny Letters from Famous People (public library) — which also gave us the best resignation letter ever written, courtesy of Sherwood Anderson, and Lewis Carroll’s hilarious letter of apology for standing a friend up — comes this letter James Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver on June 24, 1921, mere months before Ulysses was published by Sylvia Beach. The celebrated author lays out a characteristically long-winded and uncharacteristically humorous morphology of the outrageous myths and legends about him, while managing to slip in a dual jab at psychiatry frenemies Jung and Freud — an aside especially gratifying in its symmetry, given how meticulously Freud engineered his own myth.

James Joyce by Berenice Abbott

A nice collection could be made of legends about me. Here are some. My family in Dublin believe that I enriched myself in Switzerland during the war by espionage work for one or both combatants. Triestines, seeing me emerge from my relative’s house occupied by my furniture for about twenty minutes every day and walk to the same point, the G.P.O., and back (I was writing Nausikaa and The Oxen of the Sun [for Ulysses] in a dreadful atmosphere) circulated the rumour, now firmly believed, that I am a cocaine victim. The general rumour in Dublin was (till the prospectus of Ulysses stopped it) that I could write no more, had broken down, and was dying in New York. A man from Liverpool told me he had heard that I was the owner of several cinema theaters all over Switzerland. In America there appear to have been two versions: one that I was almost blind, emaciated and consumptive, the other that I am an austere mixture of the Dalai Lama and sir Rabindranath Tagore. Mr. Pound described me as a dour Aberdeen minister. Mr. [Wyndham] Lewis told me he was told I was a crazy fellow who always carried four watches and rarely spoke except to ask my neighbor what o’clock it was. Mr. Yeats seemed to have described me to Mr. Pound as a kind of Dick Swiveller. What the numerous (and useless) people to whom I have been introduced here think I don’t know. My habit of addressing people I have just met for the first time as “Monsieur” earned for me the reputation of a tout petit bourgeois while others consider what I intend for politeness as most offensive. . . . One woman here originated the rumour that I am extremely lazy and will never do or finish anything. (I calculate that I must have spent nearly 20,000 hours in writing Ulysses.) A batch of people in Zurich persuaded themselves that I was gradually going mad and actually endeavoured to induce me to enter a sanatorium where a certain Doctor Jung (the Swiss Tweedledum who is not to be confused with the Viennese Twiddledee, Dr. Freud) amuses himself at the expense (in every sense of the word) of ladies and gentlemen who are troubled with bees in their bonnets.

I mention all these views not to speak about myself or my critics but to show you how conflicting they all are. The truth probably is that I am a quite commonplace person undeserving of so much imaginative painting.

Funny Letters from Famous People is a treasure trove of delight, featuring similarly amusing epistles by such luminaries as E. B. White, Julia Child, Ernest Hemingway, Isaac Asimov, and dozens more.

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