Category Archives: Satire

TGIF: “The worst penis, probably, in the world”


Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. — together at last.  (Video not embedded: click on the image and then hit the YouTube link)

My previous posts on “Andy Warhol” and on “Frye and Obscenity” are good preparation for this master class in the liberatingly obscene element in comedy: Ricky Gervais here makes an appearance on Louis C.K‘s new show on HBO. (Ricky’s father was a Canadian veteran of the Second World War, if an appeal to patriotism might help.)

And, of course, I come armed with a relevant quote from Frye:

Comedy is moral insofar as it expands the range of response; obscenity, for instance, is profoundly moral. (CW 15, 28)

Obscenity is profoundly moral.”  So that’s that, then.

After the jump, a clip from Ricky’s show, Extras, in which Kate Winslet, playing herself playing a nun, provides some sound advice on playing with oneself during phone sex.

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Frye and Obscenity


The 100 Greatest Insults in the Movies.

Anyone who knows Frye well knows that he had no trouble with obscenity and in fact regarded it as creative.  I was fortunate enough to hear Kingsley Joblin, Frye’s first year roommate at Burwash, tell the story of how the 17 year old Frye, with his wild mane of yellow hair, had to pass through a gauntlet of swells and bullies on his way to meals each day to taunts of “Buttercup!”  One day, Joblin reported, Frye’d had enough, turned on his tormentors, and unleashed (as Joblin put it) “an Elizabethan torrent of obscenities.”  The taunting ceased forthwith.  It’d be nice to think that the seed of Frye’s quickly established reputation for genius was planted that day.

Frye himself refers to the story of how one of his favorite writers, Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, liked to go down to the London docks to listen to the sailors swear.  It isn’t obscenity Frye would object to.  It is mindless profanity, the kind of verbal reflex that only communicates the absence of wit or thought:

Obscenity in language is an ornament except when it becomes routine, & in the latter event it approaches mere idiocy.  The most horrid example of passivity & inertia of mind I know is Woodside’s story of the soldier who gazed into a shell hole at the bottom of which a dead mule was lying, and said: “Well, that fuckin’ fucker’s fucked.”  (What sort of person is it, incidentally, whose feelings would be spared by printing the above as “that ____in’ _____er’s ____ed,” or “that obscene obscenity’s obscenitied”?) (CW 8, 10)

Fuckin’ right.  And what sort of person is it exactly who could come across this phrase — “obscenity in language is an ornament” — and not feel challenged about complacent moral reflexes and the unexamined assumptions that lay behind them?

Thanks to Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned, I gained quick access to this entry on “excremental vision” culled from the late notebooks.  The stanza Frye refers to is from Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (which he also refers to in the same context in Words with Power, HBJ, 263-4):

Thus finishing his grand Survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!

Here’s Frye:

Swift’s notorious poem on a woman’s dressing room is usually cited as simply Swift himself being obsessed by the fact that women shit: “insanity,” says Lawrence, “excremental vision,” says Norman Brown.  Well, it’s that, all right: if you haven’t got an excremental vision you have no business setting up as a major satirist.  But “Celia shits” isn’t Swift screaming: it’s Celia’s lover Strephon, whose love for Celia is of the insipidly idealistic kind that hasn’t taken in the fact that women, mutatis mutandis, have the same physical basis to their lives that men have.  Besides, if, like the hero of Berkeley Square, one of us were to wake up in the middle of eighteenth-century London, assailed by all those unfamiliar stinks, wouldn’t we be just as nauseated?  That’s the mark of the great writer: who sees his own time, but with a detachment that makes him communicable to other ages.  (85)

So we might say that the obscene element in comedy and satire is derived from the universal fact that we defecate and fornicate; a humbling but, in the right context, hilarious corrective for an all too human vanity fraught with fear, shame, and resentment when it comes to perfectly natural (not to mention wholly necessary) bodily functions.  As Frye notes in Anatomy, it is important that satire remind us that powerful men and beautiful women have excretory functions and sexual relations as well.  It is a great equalizer: “Obscenity [is] a bodily democracy, also a danse macabre” (CW 8, 19).  In the two clips in our regular TGIF post to follow shortly, for example, it is male sexuality that is the target in the first; and, in the second, anxiety about the still semi-taboo but totally mundane practice of masturbation (again, perhaps more of a male-anxiety problem: as Martin Amis notes, most men think they ought to have outgrown masturbation, but most men also discover they haven’t).

In short, nothing to be ashamed of.  But plenty to laugh about.

“I Give Up” Reprise


For non-Canadian viewers, here’s a direct link (which I was unable to provide yesterday) to Jon Stewart’s brilliant rant on Congress’ inability to pass a health care bill for chronically ill 9/11 responders.  Not to be missed. (Once again, Canadian viewers can see it here.)

While watching, ask yourself, “Is there anything more repulsive than Republicans from Texas?”  The reason Texas Representative Kevin Brady gives for voting against the bill raises an audible gasp from Stewart’s audience.  This is a congress of whores to big business who can’t find it in themselves to offer humanitarian aid to people they otherwise call “heroes.”  It is as disgusting a display as you could ever hope to see from politicians who actively undermine the duty they owe to the public they are supposed to serve.  As we’re dealing with obscenity today, this is what real obscenity looks like, and Jon’s declaration that Brady is an “asshole” is from God’s lips to your ear.

Mature Content


Tomorrow is Andy Warhol’s birthday, and last week I started putting together a post to commemorate it.  People tend to forget that Warhol for five whole years made nothing but movies, which, even today are exhilerating in their wonder and freshness and the challenge they offer.  One critic has noted that, for the first time, thanks to Warhol’s films, we, the viewers of art, are allowed to see as a painter sees, in real time.

Their subject matter, of course, is often iconoclastic.  The clip I opted to post is from the starkly titled Blow Job, which does not really capture the actual experience of the film, even if it accurately describes what is being very cleverly depicted without actually showing it.

That got me thinking about Frye and the issue of obscenity and — coincidentally coming across a clip I wanted to post in our regular TGIF comedy slot that is as obscene as it is hilarious — that led to a series of related posts on the subject of the artistic relevance of obscenity with Frye acting as our guide the entire time.

All that tomorrow.

Jorge Luis Borges


Interview with Borges (Spanish with English subtitles)

On this date Borges died (1899 – 1986).

Frye in conversation with David Cayley:

Cayley: I believe some of your literary productions as an undergraduate were satires.  You were attracted to this form of [Menippean] satire?

Frye: I was always attracted to that form, because at that time certainly, I knew more about ideas than I did about people.  If someone like Borges had been known to me at the time, I would have tried to pick up that kind of tradition, I think. (Northrop Frye in Conversation, 71)

CODCO: “Pleasant Irish Priests in Conversation”


The skit banned by the CBC in 1991 in the wake of the Mount Cashel Orphanage scandal.

The latest child sex abuse scandals in the Church seem to have broken through the last outpost of public forbearance which for so long put the whole issue into a bizarre moral and legal limbo.

Not many people outside of Eastern Canada seem to remember that the scandal actually began in Canada just over 20 years ago — in Newfoundland, in fact, at the Mount Cashel Orphanage.

Anyone who loves Newfoundland culture knows that nothing distills the black humor and native irreverence of the Newfoundland character better than the legendary comedy troupe CODCO.  Some might even recall that head writer and performer Andy Jones quit CODCO’s weekly CBC TV series back in 1991 over the network’s refusal to air the skit featured above involving a deadpan satire on the sexuality of the supposedly celibate.  (As regularly happens with CODCO, you don’t necessarily laugh out loud, but you do wince and cringe, and that’s the way they sometimes preferred it.)

In this case, we can clearly see that satirists at their best are like EMTs — the first on the scene with potentially life-saving aid.  And yet, in this case, sadly enough, the service being offered was refused by antsy Canadian censors, and the public remained in its peculiar state of denial about what all of this really entailed for another 20 years.

Now with YouTube!


We now have YouTube-embedding capacity!  Of course, we don’t actually have any relevant video. But we do have the capacity to embed video, so we just had to come up with something.  Given the Northrop Frye-Thomas Pynchon nexus established last week here and here, this video might qualify as marginally germane.  Sure, it’s post-modern enough, but is it also Menippean satire?

Frye and Shaw


Bob Denham sends us still more excerpts from Frye on Shaw.  The mischievous spirit of the Vicar of Bray evidently prevails.  All in all,  a remarkable amount of commentary has been generated by a single compellingly ambiguous diary entry from August 25th, 1942.

From the Diaries,  391-2:

I think the Blake is well in hand, and I’m starting on Shaw. [The reference is to CBC Radio talks on Blake and Shaw that Frye gave in 1950.]  My adolescent interest in Shaw pretty well faded out when I came to college—well, no, it didn’t, as I re-read all of his stuff later, but for some reason I’d never read any play of his later than The Apple Cart. [When he was on a visit to the home of classmate Graham Miller during the summer of 1933, Frye wrote to Helen Kemp that “the family here has all of Shaw’s plays in one volume and I have read six since Wednesday.  I read all of Shaw at fifteen and he turned me from a precocious child into an adolescent fool.  Therefore he has had far more influence on me than any other writer” (NFHK 1:98).]  Doesn’t look as though I’ve really missed much. Too True to be Good is an interesting comedy of humors: his trouble is he can’t just let humors be enlightened by each other: he wants a central character.  In that particular play the nearest norm is Private Meek, an ingenious tricky-slave modulation.  On the strength of The Apple Cart and the name of Good King Charles I’d been saying that Shaw had finally revealed himself as a frustrated Royalist, & I don’t think I was so far out.  Meek is actually a Caesar in disguise, Charles II is certainly the one idealized figure in his play, the Judge in Geneva is a practically royal centre of gravity, & the fact that the king is missing from On the Rocks is what makes that such a silly play: it’s Shaw’s version of England in 1659, waiting for its monarch to appear.  Of course Shaw points out the vulnerable point of hereditary kingship, the non-transmissibility of genius, which he gets around in Major Barbara—significant he has to speak of it.  But there’s more to it than that….

Going on with Shaw, he’s preoccupied by the search for the “ruler”: he simply can’t understand that the world is trying to outgrow all that nonsense about rulers.  He has very little sense of the governor-principle as that which has authority without power: it’s there in the middle of Geneva, I know, but he’s not satisfied with it.  The dialogue of Christ & Pilate ends in a deadlock.  He can see through Pilate, & doesn’t really want a dictator, though he’s enough of a senile enfant terrible to play with the notion.  The closest he comes to it is in the preface to Geneva, where he speaks of Mill & of the right to criticize.  He naturally sees that Stalin is a Pope, the incarnation of a dialectic, & rejects the Papacy, which he’s consistent in regarding as the only possible form of Christianity.  But in a rare flash of real insight he makes King Charles say that the Pope is always a Whig.  And he doesn’t really go for the Platonic philosopher-ruler.  No, it’s the royal epiphany, the king and queen (it’s very funny how he plops the “coupled vote” business into the preface to Good King Charles) [Shaw’s proposal that the representative unit should be a man and a woman so that every elected body would have equal numbers of men and women.  See the preface to “In Good King Charles’s Golden Days,” in Complete Plays with Prefaces (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1962), 6:7–9.] who are also normative in The Apple Cart, the rejuvenated father & mother (Cf. “Mopsy & Popsy” in TTG [To True to be Good]: the process doesn’t carry through there).  Not national royalty ultimately, of course: a Caesar or Charlemagne: Dante’s Feltro or super-Constantine: but still nostalgia for the days “when loyalty no harm meant” [“In good King Charles’s golden days, / When loyalty no harm meant” (The Vicar of Bray, ll. 1–2).] & when a representative of Louis XIV could be the comic Last Judgement on Tartuffe. Continue reading

Frye and Pynchon II


A note from Michael Sinding:

Regarding Pynchon and Menippean Satire:
Charles Hollander notes that at Cornell, Pynchon also took a course with M. H. Abrams. As Abrams reviewed Frye’s “Anatomy,” it is possible that Pynchon picked up the idea of the genre from that class. Hollander reported the course with Abrams in “Pynchon Notes,” and suggested the connection with Menippean Satire at a recent conference. He doesn’t give the year in which Pynchon took the course, but says Pynchon graduated from Cornell in 1959.

The term Menippean satire does not occur in Pynchon’s writings. But as Hollander’s note shows, Pynchon wrote a paper (which Abrams later quoted to students) comparing Voltaire’s “Candide” with Samuel Johnson’s “Rasselas.” Both of those books are (or can be seen as, if you’re fussy) Menippean satire, and that might have led Abrams to talk about the genre.

“Abrams Remembers Pynchon.” Pynchon Notes 36-39 (1995-1996): 179-80.