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The BCS of American College Football Humor

January 7, 2013

Chico, Harpo and Zeppo in Formation

College football has always been funny. From the inherent cartoonish comedy of young men dressed in animal costumes roaming the sidelines (to be clear, I mean the mascots) to the more nuanced ironies and absurdities surrounding conference realignments. How many schools can be in the Big 10? It’s all very funny stuff for a wide range of comedic interests. And all very American.

Many categories and characteristics and contexts of comedy could be offered up as the most definitive of American culture and its traditions, but surely one of the easiest arguments to make would be in support of placing college football at the top of the list. American college football is, well, exceptional. Of course, we would need a computer system in conjunction with votes from academics and comedic performers to be absolutely sure. And it wouldn’t hurt to have some prime locations for conferences to draw in folks for post-semester debates and parades. But I digress. Here is the fact: college football is an American cultural phenomenon as well as an economic and political, pop-cultural juggernaut that has few rivals as a forum and catalyst for American humor year after year. Disappointed in the overall quality and quantity of humor based on and derived from college football this year? Wait until next year! And don’t forget the off-season–just ask Bobby Petrino.

In celebration of the BCS championship game this evening (January 7), I thought I would simply cull together a few exceptional links to humor built around the cultural obsession that is college football. This, at the very least, should suggest many more possible choices, and I hope others will build on this modest beginning.

Three Stooges on the Field

Let’s start with two examples of the earliest use of football as fodder for physical humor from masters of the art form: The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.

The Marx Brothers’ film Horse Feathers (1932) takes on higher education in general as its target of respectability in this film. The plot revolves around corruption of college football via the recruiting of illegal players to win games. Imagine that! Fortunately, such things do not occur anymore, but it was certainly common enough in the 1930s for the Marx Brothers to use it for a running joke (that’s a college football pun).

The Three Stooges put together a short in 1934 following similar themes. In Three Little Pigskins, the Stooges are mistakenly identified as the “Three Horsemen of Boulder Dam [College],” a reference to the famed backfield for Notre Dame in the mid-1920s: “The Four Horsemen.” It is well worth a football fan’s time.

Spoiler alert: both the Marx Brothers and the Threes Stooges prove successful on the football field. They are the stars of the show if not the game after all. But the humor is basic and consistently entertaining. By being so thoroughly clueless on the field, the misfits point out the absurdities of the game and our passion for it. Such mayhem is funny when comedians do it, but it is just as funny when Southern Cal does it. In any case, two of the greatest American acts of the early 20th century exploited football because of its inherently appealing combination of steadfast seriousness and perpetual silliness. It makes you laugh; it makes you cry; it makes you shout for joy; it makes you scream in anguish. And it has a funny-shaped ball.

Perhaps the most widely appreciated and repeated college humor takes its energy from rivalries. Every college has its own version of the same joke: “folks who love the rival school are idiots.” There are variations on this core theme depending on the specifics of the universities in question. The web offers a wealth of sources for college jokes. Though the jokes do not all necessarily focus on football, we all know that the basic driving force that builds allegiance and provides a forum for college pride comes from sports, and football is king. “Zane’s Zeroes” collects a wide range of jokes organized by university. If you want to take a look or add your own, check this out: http://www.zaneszeros.com/?p=3496. A few minutes of reading will reveal this startling fact: the best way to get a graduate of [rival university] off your front porch is to pay him for the pizza.

The jokes are consistently lame and repetitive. Yet such jokes remain popular and pervasive. For the Alabama fan, jokes about Auburn are always funny generation after generation, and visa versa. It does not matter that the same joke is used between fans of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State; South Carolina and Clemson; Texas and Texas A&M, or Harvard and Yale—forget that last pair; those schools don’t have football teams. The best hit this season, for me, regarding college rivalries came from the folks at ESPN Unite:

Every Other College Football Fan, second

BCS Championship: Notre Dame vs. Alabama:

So the big game is tonight, and it is very serious business for college football fans across the nation, but, of course, Alabama and Notre Dame fans have the most at stake. They are all nervous and exited. But that has not stopped a modest level of humor to arise from the impending championships. A t-shirt design among the Alabama faithful simply states: “No Dame Way.” Fans in Indiana have been a bit more aggressive. Two taglines for the matchup have gotten some play: “Catholics vs. Cousins” and “The Golden Dome vs. the Mobile Homes.” I have to say the second is a bit funny, though both are rather tired regional stereotypes. In short, lame.

Both universities represent the highest of success in the world of football tradition and lore, and they have earned attention from American humorists for their prominence. It is a football matchup with much at stake. The financial implications alone make it a formidable bit of Americana, but that is only part of how deeply intertwined college football is with American culture at large. So the same goes for its humor. Run, Forrest Run!

The fact that there is so much at stake for a game is rather funny in and of itself. I don’t mind that. And I know this: Alabama fans can take the insults in stride from South Bend regarding “cousins” and “mobile homes” because the only joke that matters is the one they expect to be reflected on the final scoreboard. Roll Tide!

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