The Truth and Consequences of Trivializing Humor

In a letter to Mary Fairbanks in 1869, Mark Twain referred to his “calling” to literature as a low one—humor. Authors Van Wyck Brooks, Bernard Devoto, and many others who came after have expended ink on Twain’s feelings of inferiority and desire to be taken seriously in the literary world. Twain is neither the first nor the last author/humorist to be labeled in this way—as if, somehow, humor can have no serious purpose. The “mere humorist” label has haunted many an author whose career has since exerted a lasting influence on American culture.

So, can we take the “mere” out of the “mere humorist” label, please?

Humorists have been combatting the labeling of their chosen vocation (a serious term, yes?) for generations. It seems that the world believes that humor has no place in a “serious” discussion. The two terms–serious and humor—come to most of the world as oppositions. And yet, humor can be deadly serious even as we are laughing fit to split. When we academically spend time and scholarly energy in an attempt to separate out the “serious” humorists from the “merely funny,” we trivialize and denigrate the very serious sociocultural work that humor has been doing for centuries to advocate and sometimes realize change. I would argue that the dichotomy itself is false, and ultimately neither useful nor germane. I would begin with a simple statement: All humor is subversive. Period. That being the case, such a dichotomy is a fraud that wastes valuable time that could be spent analyzing humor itself, how it works, and why it is such a necessary part of human lives.

For example, each year the Kennedy Center offers a Mark Twain Prize for Humor. The prize generates a great deal of controversy in Twain circles—those of us academics who study Twain’s life and work—as to whether or not that year’s winner is worthy of or as great a humorist as Mark Twain. In these arguments, we are perpetuating the dichotomy. Does being more or less like Twain make one more than a “mere” humorist? Or any less than a great one?

In 1773, Benjamin Franklin wrote “Rules by which a great Empire may be Reduced to a Small One.”  The piece is a humorous essay designed to mirror the Declaration of Independence in style and format as an ironic open letter to Americans. It comically reverses the actions of England against the colonies, supposing that these actions take place because England is weary of administering its grand empire, and thus takes all of the actions later to be published in the Declaration in order to reduce the empire into something more manageable. It predates the Declaration’s publication and paves the way for agreement among the colonies that Revolution is inevitable. In hindsight, Ben Franklin is considered one of America’s first great humorists (and most likely, one of the “serious” ones). I would agree; however, I would also contend that during his own time, he was revered and remembered more for his inventions, diplomacy, and clever almanacs, and may well have been considered a “mere” humorist who did serious work as his actual calling. And although his humorous writing may not have been his “serious” work, it paved the way for acceptance and support for the Declaration of Independence later, and eventually support locally for the Revolutionary War. Humorous poetry flew back and forth during the Revolutionary War supporting both sides of the conflict. The authors of these works certainly considered their writing as “serious” in that they hoped to influence the War in one way or another.

The Civil War had its own humorists, also covering both sides of the conflict. One such was David Ross Locke, an Ohio newspaperman who wrote under the pseudonym Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby. In addition to his comic articles on the War, he wrote and lectured on suffrage, secession, and slavery.

Locke supported liberal causes by appearing at first to oppose them, demonstrating the illogic of supporting arguments for each. Jon Grinspan quotes Locke as calling his alter ego (Nasby) “a nickel-plated son of a bitch” and asserts that Locke was the Stephen Colbert of the Civil War. Yet in studies of his work, Locke is given the title of comedian rather than the more “serious” designation of humorist.

Support for the suffrage movement from women came from humor as well. Marietta Holley, one of the most successful female writers writing in the second half of the nineteenth century, dedicated several of her 25 novels in the character “Josiah Allen’s Wife” to the cause. She also wrote on “The Negro Question” and other important social issues—temperance being one.

Holley, like most highly successful female authors of her time, is little read today, but her influence on the Suffrage movement was pervasive, and she was asked to speak at The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. A shy woman, Holley declined that invitation preferring to let her novels speak for themselves, and speak they did. They reached both men and women, and her humorous descriptions of her husband and characters such as Betsey Bobbits arguably brought more attention to the movement than the convention itself.

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen a shift in the media through which humor is distributed; however, the films and stand up comedy (both live and in video form) perform the same sociocultural work that humor has always been known for. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, George Carlin, Chris Rock, and many others use their humor to point out problems and inconsistencies in our culture in exactly the same way. Their work can be seen live, on television, on the Internet, and on DVD. The most thoughtful reviews of their work call them satirists or point out the irony in their performances, yet the label they wear is still comedy.

I might also point out that scholars like myself, who focus their study on humor and humorists, are often asked when they intend to work on “something serious,” and until quite recently that study has gone unrecognized as the proper work of a scholar.

Given the importance of the humorist in America’s social and cultural development, why should this be so? Perhaps because it is impossible to believe that anything which causes laughter can have a serious purpose. Perhaps because as Americans we tend to separate “play” from “work.” But much more likely is the fact that the influence of humor on culture disguises itself in laughter to such a point that it is hardly noticed by those whom it influences. Stories, situations, and written pieces–whether sketches or novels–that evoke laughter remain in our memories much longer than the more serious polemics we hear and see. The influence is subtle but long lasting.

So, I assert again, all humor is subversive. And I ask on more time, can we ditch the “mere humorist” label once and for all?

Mark Twain’s Letters 1853-1875,;rmode=landing_letters;style=mtp

Grinspan, Jon, “The Stephen Colbert of the Civil War,” Opinionator, New York,


One response

  1. Very insightful piece. I have always taken my humor very seriously indeed.

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