Bill Cosby & the Bible

Bill Cosby was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor last night, a much-deserved tribute for a true humorist in the Mark Twain tradition. Notice that Cosby doesn’t tell funny jokes. He tells funny stories. How did he learn how to tell them so well? He tells The Washington Post:

Where does the gift come from? For Bill Cosby, it begins in a housing project in North Philadelphia. He's 6, maybe 7 years old. He's sitting at the knee of his father's father, hoping for a quarter. But first he has to listen.

Samuel Russell Cosby Sr. read the Bible, and told his grandson the stories. Young William didn't exactly listen — "To this day, I don't know the names he said" — but he sure enough heard. The details of the stories, of course, weren't as important as the way his grandfather told them — his tone, his pace, the look on his face. It was how you told it, not what.

All of it stuck with the kid. A couple of decades later, when he was honing his own brilliant stories on a nightclub stage, Cosby would hear it again in his own voice.

"You learned storytelling from a man like this," Cosby says. He's on the phone from Los Angeles, and he's in career-reminiscence mode. He'll be in Washington on Monday night to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. There's a big to-do in his honor, with celebrity presenters (Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Carl Reiner). It's basically a comedy Hall of Fame induction ceremony. So Cosby, 72, is reflecting.

"So [granddad] says, 'This is from the book of something, and then he'd start telling it. Telling it." Not preaching, just telling. "Somehow it pertained to my life, some wonderful lesson."

Little Cos absorbed it, but he was mostly focused on the quarter. Granddad kept his change in a sock, which he kept tucked into his belt. If the boy sat still and listened long enough, his grandfather would pull a coin from his sock-purse.

"He'd say, 'Take this quarter, put it in the bank. Save it. Don't go wasting it on ice cream!' "

So the boy diligently squirreled away Grandpa's quarters and then one day he . . .

"What?! Are you drunk?" Cosby sputters. "I went and got some ice cream! It was five cents a dip in those days. With a sugar cone."

Once again we see the influence of the Bible on a deep structure, cultural level. (Yes, I know it isn’t the purpose of the Bible to teach storytelling but to convey Law & Gospel! That’s not the point right now. Just as Luther’s translation of the Bible had the additional cultural effect of standardizing the German language, and just as the King James translation can be heard in the background of much of English and American literature, and just as the Bible’s portrayal of time as having a beginning, a turning point, and an end shaped our culture’s sense of time, its great stories and a grandpa’s impulse to tell them to his grandson shaped Bill Cosby’s comedy.)

Hu's on first

The Dodgers are in town, on the verge of giving the Nationals their 100th defeat. I was pleased to learn that the team from L.A. has a player from Taiwan named Chin-lung Hu. I’m sure Southern California is already sick of the Abbott & Costello possibilities, but there is no reason the rest of us shouldn’t indulge in that sketch again, now that we really can say, “Hu’s on first.”

Why is this so funny?

Devil's Dictionary, revisited

Ambrose Bierce was a late 19th, early 20th century American satirist who penned The Devil’s Dictionary (1906), a word book of supreme cynicism but with some very funny definitions. A sample:

SELF-ESTEEM, n. An erroneous appraisement.

SELF-EVIDENT, adj. Evident to one’s self and to nobody else.

SELFISH, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.

SENATE, n. A body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors.

Now Matthew Rose “The Wall Street Journal” has made some new entries in light of our current economic woes in The Devil’s Dictionary–Financial Edition. Samples:

BAILOUT, n. First known use: Noah. Novel regressive taxation scheme whereby vast sums of capital are transferred from those citizens who didn’t participate in the illusory Bacchanalia of the housing bubble to those who did and weren’t clever enough to get out in time.

CREDIT-DEFAULT SWAP, n. loose translation from the original Latin “ubi mel ibi apes,” or “where there’s honey there are bees.” 1. A complex financial instrument vital to the functioning of a modern economy in the way it spreads risk among consenting parties. (Greenspan, A., pre-Sept. 2008.) 2. A complex financial instrument that nearly destroyed modern capitalism (Greenspan, A., post-Sept. 2008).

CREDIT LINE, n. A set amount of borrowed money available only to those who don’t need it.

DEFICIT, n. For the party in power, at worst a minor irritant and at best a precondition for economic growth. For the minority, the gravest threat to the stability of the Republic.

FEEDBACK LOOP, n. Process by which the significance of an event is amplified by constant repetition. Orig: CNBC. See ADVERSE FEEDBACK LOOP.

LIGHT TOUCH, n., obsolete. Theory of regulation in which financial companies recycle profits to lawmakers as campaign contributions, prompting them to relax the rules until the banks inevitably mess it up, at which point the dominant theory switches to “heavy hand,” prompting years of economic contraction and the cycle to repeat.

PPIP, or PUBLIC-PRIVATE INVESTMENT PARTNERSHIP, v.t. Orig: Gladys Knight. To use a form of hypnotism in which merely saying you intend to fix a problem has the effect of making everyone forget about the problem. Usage: “We really peepipped Congress on those AIG bonuses.” See ASSETS, TOXIC.

QUANTITATIVE EASING, n. A regulatory approach based on the point in Western movies when the sheriff, having fired all available bullets, in an act of final desperation throws his gun at the bad guys. See also INFLATION, HYPER.

SECURED CREDITORS, n. In modern American capitalism, the parties last in line for repayment after a company’s failure. The others in line include the government, unions, sundry suppliers, friends of the union, friends of the government, unsecured creditors and people vaguely familiar with the matter.

TARP, n. acronym. 1. A synthetic device designed to cover up an unsightly mess, or to protect perishable goods (firewood, banks) from the ravages of the elements, typically costing somewhere between $12.99 and $700 billion. 2. Prime example of how governments use otherwise anodyne acronyms, abbreviations and sports metaphors to disguise matters of controversy. See also TALF, TLGP, TURF, FHFA, BACKSTOP, WRAP, OFHEO and SPECTRE.

TOO BIG TO FAIL, idiom. Banks, insurance companies, car companies, presidential approval ratings, Fed chairmen seeking second terms, other people who think they should be Fed chairman, the reputations of people who’d be responsible for letting things fail. Antonym: TOO BORING TO SAVE.

TOXIC ASSETS, n. 1. A collection of bad loans and other botched financial bets that caused big losses for banks, prompted a credit crunch and sank the economy (Sept. 2008 to May 2009). 2. Long-term investments that will pay handsomely when the housing market recovers (June 2009 onward).

HT: a href=””>Bruce Gee

Conservative guerrilla performance artists

Don’t you have to hand it to James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, two conservative activists who dressed up like a pimp and a prostitute and filmed leftist ACORN community organizers advising them on how to set up their business and launder the profits? They were the ones who also posed as contributors to Planned Parenthood, insisting that their money go to the abortion of black babies, which the abortionists had no problem with. This article tells about them, including the delicious tidbit that they got the idea for their tactics from Saul Alinsky, the godfather of ACORN:

O’Keefe, who majored in philosophy at Rutgers University, said he and Giles funded the project themselves. This kind of undercover, guerrilla tactic is the “future of investigative journalism and political activism,” he said.

Inspired by “Rules for Radicals,” Saul Alinsky’s bible for rabble-rousing, more often associated with the left, O’Keefe said he has been targeting and exposing the “absurdities of the enemy by employing their own rules and language.”

“If you can make impossible demands on your enemy, you can destroy them,” he said.

So he began using a hidden camera “in a location I’d rather not disclose” and started visiting ACORN offices around the Northeast.

As with a series of videos O’Keefe made in 2008, in which Planned Parenthood employees agreed to earmark his donations for the abortions of African-American babies, he said he expected ACORN would yield maybe “a few gotcha moments.”

“But we never imagined they would all comply — it’s just disgusting they didn’t just throw us out of the office,” he said.

In a statement released Saturday, ACORN said that it could not defend the actions of its employees but that what O’Keefe and Giles did was criminal.

“And, in fact, a crime it was — our lawyers believe a felony — and we will be taking legal action against Fox and their co-conspirators,” the statement said.

Fox News aired the Baltimore and Washington tapes.

O’Keefe said, “ACORN wants it both ways.”

“You can’t fire the employees and then say I have defamed them,” he said.

The expose of ACORN has led to the government cancelling several lucrative contracts with them, as well as investigations into their voting registration and housing counseling activities. ACORN was even being hired to conduct the census!

Here is the zany Borat-like couple in the get-up in which they punked ACORN, which totally believed them:

James O'Keefe & Hannah Giles punking ACORN

Wittenberg, the Play

Last Spring I blogged about a new play called Wittenberg, which is about three individuals whom history and literature place at the University of Wittenberg: two professors, a Dr. Luther and a Dr. Faustus, and a student, a Danish international student named Hamlet. See A play I have to see and A Reformation Comedy. In the course of our discussions, playwright David Davalos, who wrote the play, weighed in, making me want to see it even more.

Well, I did. The Rep Theater put it on in Columbia, MD, between Baltimore and D.C., so we went with some friends. The play is brilliantly written, extraordinarily learned, and stone cold hilarious. It truly is a comedy of ideas, depicting the conflict between Luther’s Christianity (outraged at the abuses of the medieval church) and Faustus’ philosophical rebelliousness (skeptical of everything except doubt). They are contending for the soul of young Hamlet, who, famously, has trouble making up his mind. Luther and Faustus–who are presented as friends, not as enemies– contending for the souls of each other.

Luther comes out OK. He is a foil for some Christian-mocking, but his conversion to a God of grace and his insights about faith in Christ come out loud and clear. So does his earthy personality and his rhapsodies about the value of beer. And his ideas stand up well against the merry nihilism of Faustus, who, however, comes across even better, at least in this production. Cosmic rebel that he is, Faustus ends up as something of a catalyst for the Reformation, which, yes, does have its rebellious moments. As for Hamlet, Davalos interprets him surprisingly the way I do (which is to say, correctly!) not as a melancholic basket case but as an idealist who comes to trust in God’s providence and His calling.

The play shows us what happens to Luther, showing him at the end making his “Here I stand” confession at Worms. It shows us what happens to Hamlet, showing him making his resigned, confident “the readiness is all” speech. But the play shows us little of what happens to Faustus. He is the philosopher of Goethe’s version, but it doesn’t show his guilt in causing the death of Gretchen (a manifestation of the “Eternal Feminine” that takes several guises in the play, but not this one). He is the professor of Marlowe’s version, but it does little with that unforgettable final scene in Dr. Faustus. OK, there is an allusion to the line about wanting the horses of the night to ride slowly, but nothing about how he sees the sunrise on his last day alive (“Christ’s blood streams in the firmament. . .One drop would save me. . .Half a drop”) and how he bitterly laments his bargain with the devil, which even now he could turn from, but his faith ultimately lurches to Satan instead of to Christ. I could see that the play might not want to give Luther such a clear win, but it could at least show Faustus dreading the moment of his death.

There were lots of academic jokes that I appreciated. Hamlet is a senior who still hasn’t decided what to major in. Dr. Faustus says that he might get excommunicated, tortured, and burned at the stake, but he will not get fired–he has tenure. Some of the jokes over-reached, such as Luther’s reading from the “Song of Solomon” as Faustus and the Eternal Feminine do a lewd shadow show. (What was the purpose of that? Is it funny that the Bible talks about sex? How does this scene line up with the issues of the play?)

The play does a lot with Copernicus’s reconstruction of the Solar system and the existential disorientation it created. Luther favors the old cosmology–which he did–though I wonder if Mr. Davalos knows about that other Wittenberg professor, Rheticus, the devout Lutheran who was the one who actually published and promoted Copernicus’s theories. (He probably interpreted them as this Hamlet finally does, as more of a Christocentric view of the universe, as opposed to the anthropocentric view of classical and medieval humanism.)

Anyway, I don’t mean to complain. Wittenberg was the most satisfying and enjoyable professional theater that I’ve seen in a long time. If it comes to where you live, see it. I hope it makes it to Broadway, gets a Tony, gets made into a movie, gets an Oscar, and on and on. It is far richer, more intelligent, funnier, and spiritually more significant than most of its competitors in today’s theater.

Wittenberg, the Play

Stupid Questions

Every weekend, the comics section in the Washington Post holds a humorous contest called “The Style Invitational” in which readers can send in their humorous contributions. This week readers were challenged to send in “stupid questions” for companies’ customer service representatives. The entries were indeed humorous. Here are a few, but you might enjoy them all:

[The Winner] To the White House: My 2006 Chrysler Sebring is hesitating when I step on the accelerator. When can I bring it in? (Jeff Hazle, Woodbridge)

[second place] To Procter & Gamble: I love your Charmin toilet paper, but I hate those rolls that dispense from the underside. Can you tell me where I can buy rolls that dispense from the top of the roll? (James Noble, Lexington Park) . . .

Ikea: The table I ordered arrived, but all the legs are broken off! (Beverley Sharp, Washington)

General Mills: I just turned 18 and I was wondering if I have to give up Trix now or do I still count as a kid until I’m 21? (Adam and Russell Beland, from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon) . . .

Rolex: I recently purchased one of your fine timepieces and I just noticed that there is an extra “L” in the logo. Would removing that be covered under the warranty, and if so, can I just take it back to the stand where I bought it to have that done? (Dan Ramish, Arlington)

OK, now you do it.