The intro to this wry, imaginative book invites us to “measure our anguish” by “placing a check on page 19 for each tear you shed as you read.” It continues: “Then if, when finished, you have made fewer than one hundred check marks, send us an e-mail at [email protected] with the subject ‘I made fewer than one hundred check marks.’ We will respond with some supplementary materials.”
This tongue-in-cheek invitation, with its whiff of multimedia, is typical of a book that approaches the art of the dozens from many different angles. The book disses the reader’s fictional mama (she’s given an all-purpose name, Winifred) through a dolled-up resume (Honors and Awards: “Perfect Attendance Award, Northern Arizona Nazis”); a pie chart entitled “Results from a Poll of Yo Mama’s Ex-Boyfriends” (15%: “Soul-shattering/soul-crippling”); and “The Menu from Yo Mama’s Restaurant” (The “Nothing Burger: You’re eating one right now” is 7 bucks). Interspersed with these faux credentials are “Field Notes,” more traditional “Yo Mama” snaps with a generous dollop of the left field: “Yo mama is analogous to a footstool”; “yo mama would get a lot more out of those stomach exercises if her form were correct”; “”yo mama ordered yo daddy’s circumcision at his funeral.”
The yo-mama tradition, which is an African-American art form, was the jumpstart for this book, but the engine is absurdist educated humor akin to that of The Onion or the New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs column. (Barlow contributes to the latter, Roberts to the former). While reading the book I was reminded of the white kids (only guys, of course) at my own college, who used to try to freestyle late at night, at the tail end of parties, and ended up incorporating obscure references to math theorems and historical figures into their raps. Throughout the book, in references to Martin Van Buren or the section that’s called the Yo Mama Assessment Test (YMAT) and includes analogy questions like “Nobody is interested in: yo mama’s recipe book::” the authors make no attempt to hide their collegiate roots.
Humor can be difficult to present in a written format, and Portrait takes the opportunity to bend text in different ways. (This is another way in which the book clearly takes a cue from The Onion, which has so successfully incorporated use of charts, op-eds and other newspaper tropes into its coverage.) One page has a picture of a nice landscape and is titled “The Role That A Beautiful Landscape Will Play In Yo Mama’s Life.” (Underneath, the caption: “Yo mama will never go here.”) One section is titled “Yo Mama’s Internet Search History.” (“Boxes boxes boxes,” “internet milk”). A graph charts “Yo Mama’s Happiness, 1955-2006.” (Mostly, yo mama’s happiness is dependent upon the ups and downs of the career and marriages of Julia Roberts.)
The problem with the decontextualization of the yo mama joke is that the fun of yo mama snaps has always been the interplay between the joker and the jokee. The foreword to the book tries to speak directly to us as an audience, “answering” questions such as “If this book is addressed only to me, what’s to prevent others who read it from thinking it is directed to them? How do I know I’m not one of the ‘other readers?'” and “How do you reconcile the contradictory information you present? For example, hoiw can my mama be both overweight and skinny? How can she be both a licensed dirver and blind? Or a yoga instructor yet also a rhinoceros?” The authors’ response: “All right, that’s fine. Run along now.” That’s funny, yeah, but the truth is that there is something disassociated about a book that’s a snap directed towards nobody in particular.