Monthly Archives: July, 2011

Productination

Tracy Wuster.

The portmanteau is one of my favorite forms of humor in everyday life.  I combine words constantly around the house.  Sometimes the result is humorous; sometimes it only causes my wife to laugh at me.  But one portmanteau has found its way into my everyday lexicon and spread to friends and family: productination = productive + procrastination.

Never does doing the dishes, filing paperwork, or writing a blog post sound as good as when one has a deadline for an essay, or even better, a stack of papers to grade.  In this spirit, we will offer a regular feature of articles and links on humor-related topics to allow you to productinate when you have better things to do.  If you have links of articles or sites to look at, please email me at wustert@gmail.com or add a comment to the post.

Happy Birthday…Estelle Getty!

Born July 25, 1923 (d. 2008).

While spending a week in a city outside of Detroit helping my wife’s grandma transition from a rehab hospital to home, we rediscovered the comedy gold of The Golden Girls, which was one of my favorite shows as a child and remains incredibly funny.  Getty’s character of Sophia Petrillo is a gem.  A reminder of how few older women (and men, for that matter) are represented in TV comedy now (apart from Betty White).

Happy Birthday…E.B. White!

Tracy Wuster

For two follow-up posts on this question, see:

Sharon McCoy, “Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?” and my piece here.

Born July 11, 1899.  White is famous for children’s books, style guides, and his work at the New Yorker, but in humor studies, he is probably best known for his introduction to the 1941 book, A Subtreasury of American Humor, which he edited with Katherine White.

E. B. White, subtreasury of american humor, frog

The beginning of White’s introduction is one of the most widely known statements about the study of humor, functioning as a witty injunction against the serious study of humor. It reads:

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.[1]

But as with many essays on the subject of humor, this statement acts as a clever dodge, what I have taken to calling a “definitional denial.”  With a definitional denial, an author says “humor is undefinable”–often in a witty or humorous manner–but this rhetorical move is almost always followed by a definition of various aspects of humor. It is like saying “one can’t define ‘virtue,’ but everyone knows that virtue is this or that, but not the other.”  Thus, for another instance, William Dean Howells’s review of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad from the November 1869 Atlantic Monthly begins:

The character of American humor, and its want of resemblance to the humor of Kamatschatka or Patagonia,—will the reader forgive us if we fail to set down here the thoughts suggested by these fresh and apposite topics?  Will he credit us with a self-denial proportioned to the vastness of Mr. Clement’s (sic) very amusing book, if we spare to state why he is so droll, or—which is as much to the purpose—why we do not know? [2]

And then Howells spends some time discussing humor, not defining it per se, but exploring pertinent aspects of humor in relation to Mark Twain.  And Howells and White are not alone–many discussions of humor begin with this almost ritual denial of the inability, or even the inadvisability, of defining humor, followed by an essay, review, or article that says a good deal about what humor is. Why do authors feel that they must deny their aim of defining humor, or the very existence of such a definition, before they are willing to discuss humor? In the case of E.B. White, after denying the possibility of defining humor (and even pointing to the undesirability of such a task), he goes on to make some pretty large generalizations about humor.  Many of these points, in fact, echo essays on humor from the nineteenth century by Howells and others, such as the line between the humorous and the serious:

Practically everyone is a manic-depressive of sorts, with his up moments and his down moments, and your certainly don’t have to be a humorist to taste the sadness of situation and mood. But there is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying, and if a humorous piece of writing brings a person to the point where his emotional responses are untrustworthy and seem likely to break over into the opposite realm, it is because humor, like poetry, has an extra content. It plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat.

But even though humor is afforded this moment of potential “serious” content in proximity to the big hot fire of Truth, White then notes the lower status afforded to humor, what Brander Matthews and other nineteenth-century critics had dubbed “the penalty of humor.”  White writes:

The world likes humor, but it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts. It feels that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be some- thing less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious. Writers know this, and those who take their literary selves with great seriousness are at considerable pains never to associate their name with anything funny or flippant or nonsensical or “light.” They suspect it would hurt their reputation, and they are right. [3]

Thus, the humor collection is a “subtreasury,” and thus humor studies confronts some longstanding critical and cultural views about humor as a subject of knowledge.  But then again, much can be learned from dissecting a frog, can it not?


[1]  See http://hs.hpisd.org/uploads/45/f69347.pdf

[2] [William Dean Howells], “The Innocents Abroad,” 24: 146 (December 1869), 764.  Kamatschatka (now Kamatchka) is a peninsula in eastern Russia, which had a port prominent in Alaska’s exploration.

[3] Table of Contents of the book:  http://www.modernlib.com/authors/misc/misc/miscMiscToCs/G73Subtreasury.html

(c) Tracy Wuster, 2011-2

Fourth of July

 

An excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?”  An example of a use of humor (specifically his call to mockery at approximately 3:00) of a great power.