Teachers Are Awesome

This is a screen shot of a post in a teachers’ social media group to which I belong. (It’s OK, it’s a public group!) I’m genuinely proud to have such cool colleagues. This post made me smile. #Puns




9 Blue Jokes in Shakespeare That Made Me Laugh

I admit, these juvenile gags gave me a giggle, and I kept track of them in my notes.  In chronological order:

#9. Guys get teased about someone sleeping with their mother.

Shakespeare is full of practical life advice. Like this: let’s say you’ve been secretly sleeping with some powerful female executive, which would really cause a scandal if revealed, because you’re black.

But then she gets pregnant and the baby comes out black, so the cat’s pretty much out of the bag on that one. Then, her two spoiled brat sons start whining to you that your little scandal has ruined mom’s career. What’s a guy to do?

Don’t worry, Shakespeare’s got you covered:

Demetrius. Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron. That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron. Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron. Villain, I have done thy mother.

–Titus Andronicus, Act IV, Scene 2, emphasis added

That’s right: tease the jerks about it. When Chiron says, “Thou hast undone out mother,” he means that Aaron has spoiled their mother’s reputation. Perhaps Titus Andronicus is set in Mississippi. But Aaron replies with one of those clever plays on words that Shakespeare is so famous for. Aaron’s response also uses the word “done,” but here it means…something more literal.

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Double Points WIN

OK, I realize how juvenile this joke is, but that’s part of what makes it funny: it’s so obvious, that whoever designed this ad had to have thought of it. 

In Sunday’s newspaper, there was an ad for a sale at Dillard’s called “Double Point Days,” and the ad shows a woman modelling a bra. 

Get it?  Double points?  A bra?  I know, I know, it’s not exactly sophisticated humor, but could something so cheesy have been an accident? 

Maybe the joke would be even more clear if the model was wearing a vintage 1950’s-style bullet bra. 

Star Wars Pun

Even in my long, storied career of making bad puns, this may well be the very worst:

Obi-want Kenobi and Lack Skywalker each got a chance to fight Dearth Vader.


My apologies.  This headache-inducer grew out of my attempt to illustrate to a class what “dearth” means.  I don’t think it was especially helpful.

Pun Good Turn…

Thanks again to the good folks over at Arts & Letters Daily for linking to this delightful piece where an African immigrant opines on the surprising animosity America has towards puns.  The essay is not only a worthy appreciation of punning, but a lucid work of style in its own right.  (Local note: author Teju Cole makes heavy use of Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinak, a Nobel laureate and apparently an inveterate punster.  Soyinka has been associated with UNLV for several years.  Strangely, though, there’s not a single reference to James Joyce.) 

I don’t know that Americans hate puns, though.  Drive through your town and look at the independent store names.  For some reason, especially the beauty salons.  In Las Vegas alone, some popular spots that pop into mind are: Curl Up and Dye, Clip Joint, and Scissor’s Palace.  All locally appropriate, those.  There’s also an “exotic” barber shop called…wait for it…A Little Off the Top. 

And while we’re on the subject, let’s bring on a few more groans with my personal list of terrible puns:

  1. Mildly humorous country in Eastern Europe: Chuckleslovakia
  2. Inspires people to appreciate motor vehicles: automotivational
  3. Sensibly applied care for the spine: chiropractical
  4. Very impressive technical innovation: scienterrific
  5. If U2 and Shakespeare collaborated: “Now is the winter of our discotheque.”
  6. Nepalese monster with strong stomach muscles: Abdominal Snowman
  7. Excellent Spanish speaking man: Juanderful
  8. Excellent Spanish desert: flantastic
  9. Bones of professional academics: scholartons
  10. A leisurely-perambulating homeless artist from a swanky part of New York: A slo-mo boho hobo from Soho
  11. A Celtic person lamenting a dearth of fortunate females: “Alas!  A lack o’ lucky lasses!”
  12. When I say something pretentious or tacky: Hustontatious

Genesis, Geniuses, and Guinesses: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

Jospeh Campbell’s brilliant classic, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (a wonderful tome of literary criticism that glossed Joyce’s Sphinx-like final novel through the lens of mythology) had been out of print and impossible to find for years–until it was resissued two years ago as part of Campbell’s collected works.  Being a fairly active Joyce fan, I asked my local library to order a copy.  Three months later, they emailed to say it was in.  That was yesterday, and I picked it up this morning.


Reading this seminal text reminds me of a silly but useful introduction to the Wake that I wrote a few years ago, and which was published in the Fall 2005 Common Review.  The idea was to structure my favorite trivia about it and advice for enjoying it around a parody of the first verse of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (see the bold headings in the piece below).  To tickle your logophilic fancy, here it is:

Genesis, Geniuses, and Guinnesses

ONE OF THE AMERICAN masters of horror fiction, H. P. Lovecraft, once wrote about a book so alien to our finite minds that reading it for too long would drive you insane. He was referring to the mythical Necronomicon, but the description applies just as well to James Joyce’s 1939 opus, Finnegans Wake.

That weirdness makes Joyce’s last work inordinately unpopular. Finnegans Wake is rarely acknowl­edged, and even then often reluc­tantly, like Grandma’s collection of potato chips that resemble St. Jude. In the Modern Library’s infamous list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century, Joyce’s two earlier novels, Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ranked first and third, respectively. However, Finnegans Wake came in at seventy-seven. A companion list created by online vot­ing also included Ulysses and Portrait, but left the Wake off entirely.

What gives? It’s not as if Joyce’s earlier works were easy to read. (Ulysses was only the second Eng­lish work of fiction to use the word honorificabilitudinitatibus—Shake­speare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost was the first). But readers with some small measure of persever­ance could make sense of them. At least both Ulysses and Portrait had some semblance of order, with a plot, settings, and characters…Finnegans Wake has none of these.

Instead, the reader gets more than 600 pages of pure puns, allusions, and whimsi­cal riddles, whose loose association comes in the context of a dream (Joyce called the Wake the “night” companion to Ulysses’s “day”). In this dream, we find human archetypes interacting amid references to ev­ery tidbit of trivia you can imagine, with scraps of dozens of languages thrown into the mix just for fun.

In its most famous feature, Finnegans Wake abruptly ends in the middle of a sentence that continues on the first page, creating a circular story with no true beginning or end. Joyce couldn’t have told us any more clearly to leave our linear expecta­tions at the door.

So perhaps readers don’t like the Wake because they don’t understand it. My advice: give up! Comprehension is a counterproductively quixotic quest, to say the least. That’s because there is not much to understand. It’s best enjoyed simply as a swiftly flowing river of wordplay, and at this level of ecstatically abstract linguistic celebration, Finnegans Wake is the richest work in the English language. You’d be selling yourself short by ignoring it altogether, so here’s some advice for getting something out of it.

Load up on puns. Master word­smith Joyce had the time of his life creating his portmanteau “slanguage,” often sounding more like lyrics from Nirvana or REM than English litera­ture. Some favorite puns: a decidedly negative Yuletide wish (“End a muddy crushmess!”) and a snide insinuation about the morals of a Mormon prophet (“bringem young!”). Truly, Joyce had a well-rounded inventory of words, or a “volupkabulary.” Keep your eyes open for thousands of these.

Bring your friends.Want to one-up Oprah’s bold book club choice of Faulknerian fables? Round up your overeducated cohorts and throw the snarkiest literary discus­sion the world has ever seen. Take turns reading out loud, and brain­storm every interpretation and association you can. Nobody can find all the possible meanings of the text, much less notice its infinite references, on their own.

It’s one to muse. Don’t plan on reading this book cover to cover. That kind of compulsive guilt is sim­ply not worth the cost. You might as well pick a random number between 3 and 628 and start on that page. Don’t plan on going quickly, either. Like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, read­ing too much at once will only burn you out. It might take years before you read it all. You might never read it all. Just pick at it and find things you like, then let them marinate in your mind’s stew for a while. Joyce’s juices are exotic; let them simmer.

And use a pen. Before long, your copy of the Wake should look like some endlessly recycled poetry text in a college bookstore—hopelessly un­derlined, highlighted, dog-eared, sticky-noted, coffee-stained, and an­notated in your own swanky style. It will help your self-esteem to keep track of parts you liked and things you understood. Throw in some doodles and the Wake is yours.

Read far more lore. Each page of the Wake has enough winks at both serious academia and pop culture to make Ken Jennings dizzy. Make a game of it: see how many references to music you can find on 359.31–360.16. Don’t worry that you don’t know as much as he did. Joyce’s notes for the Wake spanned forty-seven note­books, and he spent seventeen years writing it. The most accessible guide to Joyce’s myriad references is Wil­liam York Tindall’s A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake. Get it.

Be self-absorbed. The Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone “shows us noth­ing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” Finnegans Wake does the same. That’s the plus side of a book so dense that it can only be understood as a subjective riddle. Whatever your memories and experiences, you’ll find tons of the Wake directed squarely at you. Say you come across the word “guenneses.” The former Sunday School student’s memories suggest the biblical book of Genesis. The linguistic puz­zler sees geniuses. And the drinker sees Guinness. All three are cor­rect—if only because Joyce was all three of those people.

If you haven’t seen your cup of tea yet, don’t fret; Joyce has something on the menu for you. That’s why the Wake is so long. Because it plumbs the murky depths of the common human soul, Finnegans Wake is every bit as universal as any play by the Bard (or, as Joyce refers to him, “Shapesphere”). As Joyce explicitly puts it in the text, “Here Comes Everybody.” (This is also why there’s no apostrophe in Finnegans–Joyce wanted to emphasize plurality, not personal possession.)

And now you read aloud the words. Joyce’s prose was his best po­etry. Like all good nonsense nursery rhymes, it’s even more fun to hear than to see. (Like warming up before a workout, you might try reciting Lewis Carroll’s “Jaberwocky” before tackling the Wake.) You will be surprised at how well it rolls off your tongue, like Irish honey. Listen to Joyce read some of it himself at http://www.finneganswake.org/joycereading.htm.

One more thing is worth noting to help you enjoy the ride. Joyce sug­gests a sort of setting for all of this monumental literary effort: the “chaosmos.” Get it? Chaos + cosmos = the whole crazy universe. What could be more welcoming? So relax, let go of your rational hang-ups, and get ready for a no-hassles guided tour of humanity’s collective id. Only in the Wake can you dream like this.