What is Not Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor

Teaching American Humor

It’s just a joke. I was only joking. Can’t you take a joke?

In an earlier post, I discussed how I have used opinion surveys as a way for students to examine their own tastes in humor and as a way to introduce humor as a vibrant and crucial component of American culture.  In the first part of the surveys, students name their favorite films and television shows and classify their tastes. I have found it is a useful way to establish a context for discussion of theoretical concepts in humor while also getting students to open up about their expectations for the course. Here is a link to that post, “What is Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor“.

In the second part of the survey, students must address the potential complications to their enjoyment of humor. What if the person next to them not only doesn’t share their sense of humor but finds it offensive? When is a joke not a joke but an attack? And even if that “joke” is a veiled attack, should it be silenced? These are complicated issues and demand much more space (and brain power) than I can offer here, but no class on humor can rightly avoid the ever-present tension concerning differing opinions on what is and what is not funny.

Steve Brykman recently posted an excellent discussion concerning social and political challenges inherent in this issue. The underlying violence associated with much of American humor becomes especially troublesome when the humor concerns political figures, in particular the President of the United States. The post, “Is a Joke a Joke?,” can provide an astute and perfectly concise introduction for students who must consider the potential power of humor not only to the change the world but also blow it up. A joke can be provocative, but what if it is more accurately described as incendiary speech? Here is a link to Steve’s post.

As a way to force a potentially tense discussion, I use the survey to ask students to address this issue so that initially they can provide comments anonymously.  They must answer the following two paired questions. In each case, I provide a list, but they are also encouraged to add items if they see fit to do so:

1. What subject matter is off-limits for humor with you personally if someone is kidding with you? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)

Your mother

Your religion

Your gender

Your race

Your sexual orientation

Your body (height, weight, etc.)

Your disabilities or challenges

2.  What subject matter is off-limits for humor socially when the audience is public? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)





sexual orientations

bodies (height, weight, etc.)

disabilities or challenges

deaths and/or tragedies affecting real people

The responses to these questions vary slightly, but I can assert without hesitation that students consistently are willing to accept more critical humor directed at them than they are willing to allow in with a public audience. The key, of course, is that their “friends” can tease them without much concern for alienation. Generally, most students do not place limits on jokes that may be at their expense. There are exceptions. Students who are in distinct minorities in any given classroom are more tentative because they know, more so than “mainstream” students that the personal and political lines are often blurred. And this is the rub of such an introductory discussion. We are all willing to take personal “attacks” via humor if we feel safe with the person who offers the joke. That is a complicated dynamic when placed in the public sphere. And, of course, they are related.

I do not discuss the answers to this first question in the classroom beyond a general overview, though I encourage students to talk with me at any point about such issues. The fact is that, although the answers are provided anonymously, I have found that so few students place limits on personal jokes that it is wise to infer that they have endured unpleasant jokes personally based most often on religion, race, sexual orientation, bodies, and/or disabilities. Gender, as the only other demographic category, is largely free from problems of this sort since the numbers are generally equal for males and females in the classroom, thus providing secure anonymity (I am not saying that gender is free from problems). The only non-demographic issue of concern for this discussion is “bodies,” which can present the same level of discomfort as the items mentioned above. The fact is that any discussion of specific answers to this question could reveal individual student’s answers and thus compromise the goals of the discussion.

The broader point is that the personal is political–nothing too surprising there–and that humor weaves through the perilous fabric of our culture by exploiting our personal frailties and vulnerabilities as well as our cultural sins and failures. Funny, eh? (Even as a type this, I cringe, noting yet again that in the first week of a class that promises to be filled with the joy of laughter–rightfully so–I also imply that they will rarely be able to fully enjoy any of it and must always be mindful of the sorrow of laughter, too. No wonder students get tired of academics, but I digress…)

The second question is the one we discuss at length in the classroom. In the most recent section of a popular humor course, the survey produced these responses, which are in line with those of previous sections. “What subject matter is off limits with a public audience?”:

Mothers     6

Religion     15

Gender        3

Race            11

Sexual Orientation         11

Bodies          8

Death/Tragedy          27

Disability           8

The numbers are larger in the “public” question than the “private” one, with the exception of  “gender”–for reasons that I think are made clear is the discussion above. Those who may have had specific individual concerns were not joined by other students, most of whom felt no threat in a room balanced regarding gender. The other items, which are more deeply troubled historically by the personal/political dynamic, earned strong responses from the students on the whole. The results show a broad awareness among students to the trouble spots in American culture and, moreover, a willingness to acknowledge those spots as valid points of potential limits on the use of humor publically. Based on the discussions over the years, those respondents who do not join in this acknowledgement do so from a strong devotion to “freedom of speech” and beleive that “anything goes” with humor. No doubt some of them are being reactionary to cultural debates, but most, I believe, have consistent attitudes on speech issues.

The only consensus point is in response to death and tragedy, though a few of the stalwart free speech advocates held on there, too. I am not exactly sure about that one other than to note that the permanence tied to death exceeds all other fears. Most of us agree that there must be a time of mourning free from laughter. The arguments along those lines are fought out around time–how long to wait–rather than arguing about whether humor may return.

In any case, I hasten to add that our class discussions do not resolve anything. Nor do we need to. Our task in studying American humor is to recognize the complexity of the art of humor and the world it responds to and continually remakes. And we also need to laugh from time to time.

The third question in the survey asks a seemingly unrelated question:

3. Do you use humor in social interactions? 

Often              33

Sometimes     2

Rarely             0

Never              0

They all use humor. And so do the rest of us. Given the complexity of humor and how it works personally and politically in American culture, one thing is certain: when we tell a joke, we are engaging in risky behavior.  And that applies to students, to teachers as they stand in front of the classrooms, and to anybody who ever jokes about someone’s mother.

(c) 2013, Jeffrey Melton

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