Planet Funny by Ken Jennings: Chortling Towards Bethlehem? or We Are Amusing Ourselves to Death

Planet FunnyPlanet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture

by Ken Jennings

Hardcover, 320 pg.
Scribner, 2018
Read: June 21 – July 6, 2018
This is going to be much shorter — and much more vague –than it should have been, because I was in a rush to get out the door on the day I took this back to the library and therefore forgot to take my notes out of the book. Which is a crying shame because I can’t cite some of my favorite lines (on the other hand, I don’t have to pick from my favorites). I’m actually pretty annoyed with myself because of this — I spent time on those notes.

I’m going to try to save a little time here and just copy the Publisher’s synopsis:

           From the brilliantly witty and exuberant New York Times bestselling author Ken Jennings, a history of humor—from fart jokes on clay Sumerian tablets all the way up to the latest Twitter gags and Facebook memes—that tells the story of how comedy came to rule the modern world.

For millennia of human history, the future belonged to the strong. To the parent who could kill the most animals with sticks and to the child who could survive the winter or the epidemic. When the Industrial Revolution came, masters of business efficiency prospered instead, and after that we placed our hope in scientific visionaries. Today, in a clear sign of evolution totally sliding off the rails, our most coveted trait is not strength or productivity or even innovation, but being funny. Yes, funniness.

Consider: presidential candidates now have to prepare funny “zingers” for debates. Newspaper headlines and church marquees, once fairly staid affairs, must now be “clever,” stuffed with puns and winks. Airline safety tutorials—those terrifying laminated cards about the possibilities of fire, explosion, depressurization, and drowning—have been replaced by joke-filled videos with multimillion-dollar budgets and dance routines.

In Planet Funny, Ken Jennings explores this brave new comedic world and what it means—or doesn’t—to be funny in it now. Tracing the evolution of humor from the caveman days to the bawdy middle-class antics of Chaucer to Monty Python’s game-changing silliness to the fast-paced meta-humor of The Simpsons, Jennings explains how we built our humor-saturated modern age, where lots of us get our news from comedy shows and a comic figure can even be elected President of the United States purely on showmanship. Entertaining, astounding, and completely head-scratching, Planet Funny is a full taxonomy of what spawned and defines the modern sense of humor.

In short, Jennings is writing about the way that humor — the entertainment culture in general, really, but largely through humor — has taken over the cultural discourse in this country, so much so that you can’t make a serious point about anything anymore without injecting a smile or a laugh. This could be subtitled, Neil Postman was right. Jennings looks at this phenomenon through a historical lens (mostly over the last century) and a contemporary lens — analyzing and commenting on both.

The initial chapters on defining humor, the history of humor and academic humor studies are probably the best part of the book — not just because of their scope and subject matter, but because how Jennings is able to be amusing and insightful while informing. (although the amusing part is problematic given the thesis of the book). I enjoyed learning about the use of humor in the 20th Century — who doesn’t associate the two? I don’t remember a time when the best advertisements/commercials weren’t the funniest (other than things like the crying Native American anti-litter AdCouncil stuff). But there was actually a time when that was looked down on? Who knew?

I also particularly liked the history of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and then pivoting that into a look on the way even entertainment changed in the last few decades because of the funny-ification of all things. Jennings gives a pretty decent defense of Alanis’ “Ironic” (while enjoying a few shots at it, too) — and the ensuing discussion of Irony the cultural waves embracing and shying away from Irony, Enjoying things Ironically, and a need for sincerity was excellent.

Politics, obviously, has fallen prey to this comedy-take over as well. From Nixon shocking everyone by showing up on Laugh-In to Clinton (pre-presidential candidate) on The Tonight Show to then-candidate on The Arsenio Hall show to every political player doing Late Night shows. Obama appearing on Maron’s podcast and Between Two Ferns (crediting that appearance with saving ObamaCare?) and onto the entire Trump campaign. At this point, the book got derailed — I think — by getting too political. If Jennings had kept it to Trump’s embracing/exploiting the comedy takeover, I probably would have enjoyed it — but he spent too much on Trump’s politics (while having ignored Nixon’s, Clinton’s, Obama’s), enough to turn off even Never-Trump types.

I’m pretty sure that the book was almost complete about the time that Louis CK’s career was felled by allegations of sexual misconduct — which is a shame, because Jennings had to go back and water-down a lot of insightful comments from Louis CK by saying something about the allegations while quoting the comedian. At the same time, it’s good that the book wasn’t completed and/or released without the chance to distance the man from the points used — otherwise I think Jennings would’ve had to spend too much time defending the use of those quotations.

I think Jennings lost his way in the last chapter and a half or so — and I lost a lot of my appreciation for the book as a whole at that point. On the whole, it’s insightful writing, peppered with a good amount of analysis, research, interviews, and laughs — outside of his weekly trivia newsletters, I haven’t read Jennings and he really impressed me here. In short, it’s a fun book, a thought-provoking book, and one that should get more attention and discussion than it is. I may quibble a bit with some of the details, but I think on the whole Jennings is on to something here — and I fear that it’s something that not enough people are going to take seriously until it’s too late.

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3.5 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge

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BOOK BLITZ: Outfoxing the Gaming Club Blitz by Pascale Batieufaye

Biography, Business
Date Published: May 2018
CLAIM INSANITY OR BE FIRED!
Ex-Casino Employee Spills All of the Unseen Corruption
Running Rampant in the Business!
Ideas flow freely through the work environment, and the good ones are scooped up and put into action. But what happens when your ideas are suddenly being claimed by someone else? What if you found out that your employer was hiding secrets from the public? A job is supposed to secure one’s finances, but what if it was actually the cause of your financial troubles?
All of these questions – and more! – are addressed in Pascale Batieufaye’s tell-all memoir, Outfoxing the Gaming Club: A Former Worker Reveals All. From the kitchen to guest services, Batieufaye exposes the corruption and exploitation present in one of the world’s biggest casinos, Resort Casino, where he worked from 1996 to 2004
Through the book’s pages, Batieufaye details how corporate executives undermine their employees and use their ideas as their own, as he found was done with his own ideas when he shared them with leadership at the gambling powerhouse. He also details the mistreatment of the Native Americans he witnessed, who built the very grounds that now contribute to their injustice.
“I have centered Outfoxing the Gaming Club on the emotional suffering I faced while working for my previous employer,”shares Batieufaye. “The book outlines guiding principles for those who have experienced maltreatment and anxiety in their own workplace. Readers will discover the crookedness that occurs right under the noses of the patrons, and unearth the oppression that the employees had to deal with on a daily basis.”
An exposé for both gamblers and those opposed to it,this book details:
· How his own ideas were stolen from right under Batieufaye’s feet
 
· The mistreatment of Native Americans involved with the company
 
· Corruption’s role in the mental health of himself and other employees at the company
 
· Gambles employees took when attempting to contribute, knowing all too well they may not receive proper credit for those ideas
 
· The emotional suffering that workers had to deal with on a daily basis
 
· And so much more!
About the Author

Pascale Batieufaye attended Johnson & Wales University, where he studied travel and tourism. He is technically an animal rights activist and aspires to open an animal rehabilitation center for rescue animals. His principal occupation has been a part time school bus driver since the end of 2012, which allowed him to write five unpublished manuscripts in his spare time. Before that, Batieufaye ran a video store which closed up at the hype of Netflix’s driven internet power. He has also held some backbreaking jobs, such as courier driver (independent contractor) and Skycap/baggage handler, although nothing seems to take as much of a toll as his work with a major, corrupt casino corporation did, as detailed in his book Outfoxing the Gaming Club.
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The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865 edited by Janet E. Croon: A sick and dying teen witnesses history

There’s so much more I want to say, but I ran out of time — and went on pretty long already. It’s really bugging me all the things I wanted to talk about, but didn’t. There may be a follow-up. I updated this slightly after posting thanks to a comment from the publisher.

 The War Outside My Window The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865

by Janet E. Croon, ed.

Hardcover, 480 pg. (includes an 8-page photo insert)
Savas Beatie, 2018
Read: May 1 – 28, 2018

When he was twelve, LeRoy Wiley Gresham, of Macon, Georgia starts keeping a daily journal (well, as close to it as anyone really ever does). The year is 1860 and he and his father are headed to Philadelphia to consult with leading doctors about LeRoy’s medical condition, which local physicians have been unsuccessful in dealing with — the book contains a medical foreword and afterword that will explain these circumstances better than LeRoy ever does (partially because he doesn’t have the whole story). From Philadelphia they return home and to talk of succession — it’s not long before the Confederacy is born and Fort Sumter is fired upon. This is the setting for these journals — published for the first time this year.

LeRoy was born to be a Southern Gentleman and was raised as such — and between the War, his age and disease, he never really had an opportunity to examine his upbringing. As such, he is incredibly partisan, shows nothing but contempt for the Union, Lincoln, the Union Army, etc. The language and attitudes he uses toward his family’s slaves (and pretty much everyone’s slaves) is par for the course during the Civil War, readers need to remember this going on. He is also a pretty astute observer and realist — when the tide begins to turn for the Confederacy, he’s aware and his upfront about it (there are even traces of “I told you so” to his writing when it comes to certain strategies).

Meanwhile, life continues — people go to school, crops are grown and harvested, babies are born, people die and are married, kids get pets. LeRoy’s family were staunch Presbyterians, his father a leader in the local church — presbytery and synod meetings are also reported on.

For LeRoy, the years after his return from Philadelphia (and those leading up to it, really) are also years of deteriorating health, bouts of pain, and ineffective treatments. Those who put this book together have determined (and it seems only likely) that there are two major health problems going on here — a horrific leg injury sustained when he was 8 and tuberculosis. Neither did him any favors — his life wasn’t going to be easy just with the injury, but TB made it short. Tracing the worsening of each is tragic — and LeRoy dies not long after the end of the War.

All of these topics are detailed and recorded — almost every day — in a few brief sentences. Sometimes it can be jarring the way he’ll go from casualty numbers, to talk about his coughing, to a comment on peach harvests and the book he’s reading in a paragraph a little briefer than some of the longer ones in this post. But that’s just what was on his mind that day. Sometimes there are strange doodles or other things recorded, lists of Bible questions, practice trials of his own developing signature and other things like that (often with photos included).

The War reporting is going to get the bulk of each reader’s attention. Which is completely understandable — and it gets about half of the space of the book, the other topics compete for the other half of the space. His information (as the wonderful footnotes demonstrate) is frequently mistaken — and he knows his, and will often speculate about as he reports what the newspapers say. We’re used to news stories developing over minutes and hours, LeRoy had to be content with learning about something days after the event, and then still learning details weeks later. His frustration about that is seen occasionally — especially as te War grinds on and it’s harder for newspapers to be printed and delivered (paper itself becomes scarce). At one point there’s such an outbreak of smallpox that there’s no one available to bring his family their newspaper, so they have to send someone to retrieve it — LeRoy’s utter disgust at that is both hard to believe and completely human. “Fascinating” doesn’t come close to reading his perceptions and understanding the events that are history to us – talking about famous battles as they’re happening and news is getting out. His account of Sherman’s March is incredible – and adds so much perspective to the contemporary reader’s own understanding.

Normally, this writing would be something I’d pan and complain about. But this was never intended for publication — that’s clear — it’s a young man’s private journal and reads like it. You see a growth in his style, his way of thinking — and reading. But it isn’t an easy read with a strong narrative pulling you along. It’s repetitive, full of details that mean only something to him, stupid humor written for an audience of one (which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate his wit). Don’t expect to enjoy this read, to find a style that will grab you (or really, any style at all). It’s authentic — and not authentic in a “so well researched and told that it might as well be the real thing” way, but in a this is what this person thought and recorded about others’ thoughts in the 1860s to himself — it’s completely honest (well, there might be some self-deception/self-aggrandizement at work, but not much).

I grew to really like LeRoy — his attitude, his quiet faith, his patience, his stupid jokes, his intelligence. You watch someone’s life day-to-day for a few years and you almost can’t help it. His death — which I knew was coming before I opened the book, and knew was nigh given the date (and lack of pages left in the book) — struck me hard. I couldn’t believe it, really, but I got emotional in the last couple of entries.

His last entries are followed by the text of his obituary from the Macon Telegraph and a letter that his mother sent to her sister which filled in some details about his last days and condition. That letter is a great touch and helps you see that a lot of what you had learned about LeRoy from his writing was also seen by his family — it wasn’t just LeRoy’s self-image. You also see that LeRoy’s critical gaze, which is displayed frequently, was a family trait (but pretty understandable in the context)

The effort putting this book together — transcribing, deciphering, tracing the family members and friends — the medical research to diagnose LeRoy all these years later) — I can’t fathom. Croon deserves so much more reward than she’ll likely ever receive for this. Really, I’m in awe of her work. The Publisher’s Preface, Introduction, and Postscript (and aforementioned Medical Foreword/Afterword) are must-reads and will help the reader appreciate LeRoy’s own writing and Croon’s efforts.

Every so often, reading my email can be surreal — getting a request to read and post about this book was one of those times. The same form has led me to read a book about a P.I. with a talking (and sentient!) arm, a crime solving frog, and a werewolf rock star — and now, this literally unique book?* I’ve rarely felt so inadequate to the task. What do I know from historic diaries? Here’s what I can say — you have never read anything like this — it will appeal to the armchair historian in you (particularly if you’ve ever dabbled in being a Civil War buff); it’ll appeal to want an idea what everyday life was like 150 years ago; there’s a medical case study, too — this combination of themes is impossible to find anywhere else. This won’t be the easiest read you come across this year (whatever year it is that you come across it), but it’ll be one of the most compelling.

It feels stupid putting a star rating on this — but, hey, that’s the convention, so…no doubt about it:

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5 Stars

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for this post and my honest opinions.


* Which is not to say that there weren’t merit to these books or that there weren’t others — of comparable quality to this. I could provide lists.

Benedict Arnold: From American Hero to British Traitor by in60Learning: A compelling and tragic story of America’s Traitor

Benedict ArnoldBenedict Arnold: From American Hero to British Traitor

by in60learning
Series: in60Learning

Kindle Edition, 40 pg.
in60Learning, 2018
Read: May 4, 2018

If someone knows just two names from the US War for Independence, they’re George Washington and Benedict Arnold. We should all probably know a few more, but most of us have those two in our mental arsenal. He’s easily the most famous traitor since Judas Iscariot — his name is synonymous with the act.

But how many of us know just how he betrayed the American forces? How’d he get to that position? What happened to him afterwards? This book answers those questions — and a few others you hadn’t thought to ask.

The story is just tragic, really. That’s not an apologetic for the guy — don’t make misunderstand me. But there’s just something about his floundering for significance and success that just strikes you as sad — he’s like Forrest Gump, but without engendering any good will anywhere.

I want to read more about Arnold after reading about this — something I never expected.

As they have every time I see them interact with Christianity, these authors just don’t get it. They seem to misunderstand the New Light/Old Light controversy and American Puritanism. It’s a very minor point in this narrative, but as trends go, it’s pretty annoying.

This is a pretty compelling story and the book seems longer than it is — that’s not long as in boring, but long as in it covers a lot and you’d think it’d take at least 20 more pages to fit it all in. This brief biography of Arnold is this series at its best — a brief introduction of something most of us should know about told in a way that you can digest easily, that will drive you to read more.

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3.5 Stars

The Roaring Twenties: A Time of Movies, Mass Production, and Moonshine by in60Learning: A lackluster look at the decade of excess

The Roaring TwentiesThe Roaring Twenties: A Time of Movies, Mass Production, and Moonshine

by in60learning
Series: in60Learning

Kindle Edition, 45 pg.
in60Learning, 2018
Read: May 4, 2018

The Roaring Twenties are frequently considered one of the more exciting periods of American history — it’s right there in the name after all. The cultural, economic and political changes that characterize this decade are the fodder for all sorts of reflection and analysis. This volume in the series attempts to be an introduction and a survey to this. And it is — just an uninspired and very surface-level one.

Something that most people forget — or misunderstand — is that Prohibition came from Progressive roots — sadly, this volume repeatedly attributes it to others. I’m not sure why — the moral/political battles of yesteryear don’t have to look like those of today.

Finally! There’s a Bibliography! I’ve lamented the lack of one of these in every installment in this series. Now we finally get one — it’s not long, but it’s robust enough to equip someone to start looking into the topic in more depth on their own. Bravo!

This isn’t the series at its best — I’m not sure what it was I didn’t like. It was . . . just dull? Lifeless is a better description. It covered the basics, but didn’t seem to want to do anything else — this series, when at it’s best seems like it’s a compression of something longer and more detailed. But This one almost seemed like it was stretching to fill the pages. Still, that Bibliography is worth at least a half start.

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3 Stars

How to Be a Perfect Christian by The Babylon Bee: Winning Satire with a Point

How to Be a Perfect ChristianHow to Be a Perfect Christian: Your Comprehensive Guide to Flawless Spiritual Living

by The Babylon Bee

eARC, 208 pg.
Multnomah, 2018
Read: May 13, 2018

I’m pretty sure my introduction to the concept of satire came from the works of “Jovial” Bob Stine (this was before he discovered you could make a bazillion dollars selling horror books to kids) — The Sick Of Being Sick Book, The Cool Kids’ Guide to Summer Camp, Don’t Stand in the Soup, and How to be Funny. I hadn’t thought of him for years. Until I read How to Be a Perfect Christian, that is.

I’m not trying to suggest that this book is the equivalent of satirical children’s books from the early 80’s and late 70’s. But it’s exactly what someone who grew up reading that kind of thing should read. Also, I’m glad I got to spend a few moments remembering Jovial Bob Stine, and I wonder if I still have those books somewhere (and how un-funny would my own kids think they are).

If you’ve ever read anything from The Babylon Bee, you know what to expect from these guys. If you haven’t — you either should, or maybe this isn’t the book for you.

Styling itself as a guide to sanctification — there’s even a handy ruler at the end of each chapter helping the reader to note their progress — How to Be a Perfect Christian is a hands-on guide to making progress in Cultural Evangelicalism. There’s a chapter on picking the right Church (what can they do for me?), what things to volunteer for at church (minimum of work, maximum of exposure/attention), how to use social media (if your Quiet Time doesn’t result in an Instagram post, was there a point?). There’s a wide variety in the types of jokes here: there are dumb and obvious jokes, some subtle, some clever — all pointed. Which is the idea, they’re pointed so they can deflate contemporary American Evangelicalism — its cultural (sociopolitical/cultural) manifestations, anyway.

Yes, sometimes the prose contradicts itself — because the target or punchline on page 70 is different than the target or punchline on page 47. But that’s okay for two reasons — 1. the jokes land on both pages 70 and 47 (these numbers are made up, by the way), and 2. this books isn’t really trying to make a coherent, consistent argument. At least not for the first 98%, anyway. But the jokes are funny — not all of them laugh out loud funny, but they’ll elicit a chuckle or a grin. Some might just leave you with a general sense of amusement. Most will find a way to strike home (and there are a few duds — but everyone will have their own list of duds, I don’t think there’s one in the book that everyone will dislike).

More importantly, everyone will find themselves at the receiving end of the serrated edge of the satire more often than they’d like. But not in a guilt-inducing way, but in a — “hmm, I should probably work on that” kind of way. Which, I trust, is the point.

The last two percent (for those clever enough to do the math) that I pointed at earlier? Yeah, that’s what the whole book driving toward — the lampooning is for fun but there is an overall point under-girding everything. A point, that’s both well earned, and very needed, by cultural Christians, sincere and thoroughgoing Christians, and a waiting world.

Solid satire — laughs with an edge — directed toward a deserving target. The conclusion was equally on-point and earned. I honestly expected less from this book — yes, I knew there’s be good laughs along the way and that the necessary sacred cows would be shot at — I just wasn’t sure if The Babylon Bee could pull off a piece this long, and count the whole thing as a pleasant surprise.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from WaterBrook & Multnomah via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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4 Stars

Life Begins When The Kids Leave Home And The Dog Dies by Barb Taub: A fun humor collection looking at family and life.

Life Begins When The Kids Leave Home And The Dog DiesLife Begins When The Kids Leave Home And The Dog Dies

by Barb Taub

Kindle Edition, 175 pg.
2018

Read: April 13 – 14, 2018

Barb Taub, a former Midwest newspaper columnist turned blogger, has released a collection of (I think) previously published and/or posted columns and blog posts around the family-related themes — kids, relationships, life, travel, holidays, pets, and death.

You know how there are hard-boiled mysteries, noir mysteries and cozy mysteries? This feels like cozy humor. (I’m sure there are better designations/genre labels, but I don’t know them). There’s nothing offensive, nothing boundary pushing, nothing upsetting — just amusing anecdotes, a slightly off-kilter look at life, and a way with words. Simple entertainment — pretty much what you’re looking for in a collection of humor, right?

I wouldn’t recommend sitting down and reading this cover to cover. Sample from it, a little here and a little there over a few days. Taub has a couple of phrases that she really likes, anecdotes that she returns to often (for different ends sometimes) — and I don’t blame her for doing so, when it works, it works. But when you read them too close together, it takes a way from the moment. But that’s a minor quibble.

This is a simple, straightforward, collection of amusing, occasionally heart-warming, pleasantly humorous pieces. I feel obligated to say something else about it, but I can’t think of anything else to say. Taub’s a funny woman, if you like reading funny things, you should read this book.

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book by the author in exchange for my honest opinion and this post. I appreciate it, but this simple act didn’t impact my opinion.

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3.5 Stars