Humor Studies: An Interview with Don Nilsen

Don Nilsen interviewed by Tracy Wuster, August-September 2011
Don and Alleen Nilsen became emeritus professors at Arizona State University on May 15th, 2011. Their opus magnum is the Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor which in 2000 was selected as an “Outstanding Academic Book” by Choice, and which in 2001 won an “Outstanding Reference Source” award from the American Library Association’s.  Don has also written three books about humor in British literature, one about humor in American literature, and one about humor in Irish literature.  In 2004, Don and Alleen published two books about teaching metaphor in public schools, and in 2007, they published their Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature.  Don and Alleen’s most recent book is their revised Pronunciation Contrasts in English, about half of which is about English spelling as a rule-governed system.  Don and Alleen are presently working on the 9th edition of Literature for Today’s Young Adults, which will appear in 2012.

Tracy Wuster:  Tell me about your start in humor studies.  How and when did you begin pursuing it as a subject?

Don Nilsen:  I’m a linguist and a teacher.  If I make an insightful point in my teaching, it is of no value if the students have all gone to sleep.  So I started inserting humor into my presentations and interactions with students.  In class I try to keep my humor on task, but I also try to force students to see the world from a slightly new and surprising perspective.  I guess, that like Mark Twain, I’m sort of a “Gonzo Journalist.”  I’m reporting real truths, but at the same time I’m exaggerating these truths, or parodying them, or understating them, or making strange connections.  A teacher needs to be careful in using humor, because students may miss the point you are making, or may take the humor the wrong way.  Sarcasm is especially dangerous for two opposite reasons.  It is so powerful that it can hurt a student’s self esteem.  But if you use sarcasm on a smart student, you are challenging him to a classroom duel that you might not win.  Ironies and paradoxes are especially good humor tools to use in the classroom.  Erma Bombeck, Art Buchwald, Gary Trudeau, and Charles Preston have been major influences on my life.  Erma Bombeck and Art Buchwald both received honorary Ph.D. degrees from ASU, Gary Trudeau wrote Arizona’s impeached governor Evan Meacham into his comic strip, and Charles Preston, cartoonist for the Wall Street Journal did a cartoon about one of our humor conferences that was published in the Wall Street Journal.  His original cartoon can now be seen hanging in our home.

Caption: “There are essentially for basic forms for a joke–the concealing of knowledge later revealed, the substitution of one concept for another, an unexpected conclusion to a logical progression, and slipping on a banana peel.”

TW:  Was there resistance from others in your field or department to the study of humor as a “non-serious” subject?

Don Nilsen: My use of humor in the classroom was met with two kinds of resistance from other teachers.  Some teachers assumed that my humor was a diversion and was detracting from the course content; I felt that the humor was helping the course content.  If teachers or students are a bit overworked or paranoid (and which teacher among us is not a bit overworked paranoid at one time or another), the humor can by annoying.   Therefore I try not to use humor so much when students have Research Papers due, or are studying for the Midsemester Exams, or Final Exams.

TW: What have been the most interesting developments in humor studies in your time in the field?

Don Nilsen: Twenty-five years ago there was no field of humor studies, and no respected journal in the field.  Then a bunch of psychologists had an international conference on humor studies at the University of Wales in Cardiff, and in 1981 Art Buchwald visited ASU and from 1981-1988 we had international conferences at Arizona State University.  In 1989 we went national by moving to Purdue University.  And from then on the International Society for Humor Studies has alternated between the United States and a Foreign Country, not missing a year.  We have had conferences in Spain, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, France, Italy, England, and Ireland, and next year we will be in Poland.

TW: Tell me about the founding and development of the International Society for Humor Studies.

Don Nilsen: During the six years that international humor conferences were held at Arizona State University, we were called the “World Humor and Irony Membership” (WHIM), and our proceedings were called World Humor and Irony Membership Serial Yearbook (WHIMSY).  We called the writeups in WHIMSY “concretes” rather than “abstracts” because they were much longer than abstracts (about 1 1/2 pages each).  We received grants from the Arizona  Humanities Council for most of our ASU conferences, and in order for conference participants to receive travel and registration money from their universities we got rid of our whimsical onomastic acronym (WHIM & WHIMSY) and changed it to a more scholarly acronym (ISHS).  The conference hotels would give us two or three free room, which we gave to the keynote speakers, and we also gave them free conference registrations.  Because many people were curious about what we were doing, this was enough incentive to attract some pretty big names.  As the historian for ISHS, I have started sharing my video clips and PowerPoints with humor scholars.  These can be accessed at , or if you send your name and address to me at , I will send you a flash drive of humor related video clips and PowerPoints.  My three favorite PowerPoints are “Music & Humor,” “Humor Theories,” and “Television Humor.”


TW:  What trends do you see (or wish you saw) in the development of humor studies?  What do you hope for the future of the field?

Don Nilsen: Alleen and I just attended the ISHS conference at Boston University, and we feel that the organization, and the field of humor studies in general is very strong.  At all of our conferences we have had a blend of workshops, practitioners, and scholars.  We are now trending away from the workshops and practitioners and toward more scholarly presentations.  I think that the biggest impact we will have is related to the digital field. Computers are not yet really friendly, but humor scholars are trying to make them more playful, more friendly, more interactive, and more fun.  In the past we have been worried about computers (like HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey who was taking command of the space ship). Once we teach computers to be more playful and more interactive and more fun, we will be much more able to socialize them.

TW: In your time away from being a humor scholar, what type of humor do you enjoy?  Are there new (or new-to-you) humorists, movies, books, cartoonists, etc. that you are currently enjoying and would like to recommend?

Don Nilsen:  The humor that I like best includes smart allusions.  I find smart allusions in The Simpsons, and in Lost, and in editorial cartoons, but the best ones for me can be found in the Harry Potter books, the Lemony Snicket books, and in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.  If you’re interested in this type of humor, send me an e-mail at, and I’ll send you a PowerPoint.

(c) Don Nilsen and Tracy Wuster

Editor’s note:  This interview inaugurates a new feature of interviewing humor studies scholars about their work in the field.  If you would like to conduct an interview with someone, let me know.

2 responses

  1. […] Humor Studies: An Interview with Don Nilsen […]

  2. […] Humor Studies: An Interview with Don Nilsen […]

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