Trivializing Humor Revisited

For this, my final post on Humor in America this year, I would like to revisit the previous post, in which I made the case that by trivializing humor, we are overlooking one of the most persuasive elements in creating and/or maintaining social norms within our culture. In that post, I asserted that all humor is subversive. I would like to expand on that assertion, as I believe that when we think of subversive behaviors, actions, or texts, we almost always think of radical changes to our culture. In that case, we eliminate from our consideration humorists who, rather than attempting to shift a norm, are actually advocating the status quo.

In the “canon” of humor (a wide range to say the least) examples of authors who try to subvert the status quo abound. In my earlier post, I mentioned Benjamin Franklin’s “ Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One.”

In that piece, Franklin ‘s piece can be read on its face as advice to any country that believes administering its colonies is just too much trouble. All of the ways he suggests to reduce an empire’s size, however, require imposing hardship on the colonists. By the essay’s end, it seems clear that Franklin is speaking primarily about England and King George—all of his examples stem from the hardships the colonies are experiencing. A bit later (1868) Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby (David Ross Locke) takes to the Lyceum Circuit (an early version of the stand-up comedian) to advocate for suffrage for women primarily by portraying an ignorant back country man who is ostensibly arguing that women should not have the vote (page 660 in the referenced text).

Again, this piece can be read at its surface level as Locke offering legitimate reasons why women do not have the necessary judgment to cast an informed vote; some from The Bible, others from their “trivial” nature. Locke creates a similar satire on the Negro Question, as his ignorant narrator was quite popular and effective. His logic in this lecture is similar in examples to the woman question piece, again demonstrating that the narrator’s (Nasby’s) reasoning is faulty.

In addition to these earlier texts, present day comedians use their stand up comedy to contribute to the discussion of race, gender, and other social issues. Chris Rock, well known for his bombastic style and controversial comedy, is still advocating for changes to American society in the form of equitable race relationships. In “Bigger and Blacker,” he offers five to seven minutes in a discussion of whether or not white men can use the word “nigger.” He asks the question several times: “Can an white man use the word nigger?’ His answer is: “Not really.” While his stance seems clear to those who know his work and style, The answer of “not really” might be hard as “in some situations it is possible.” As the sketch continues, though, it becomes more obvious that the n word is reserved for use by black men or women. The white man’s window of opportunity is so exaggeratedly small as to be nonexistent: Christmas Eve between four-thirty and five in the morning, if he is being robbed coming out of a toy story to buy his child the last Transformer doll, and is beaten, kicked and “River Danced on. In that situation, the white man is empowered to use the word nigger for one month, but must carry his “freedom papers”—a note demonstrating that he has met all of the “requirements.”

However, for every author, speaker or comedian who advocates for change, there are others who use their humor to revisit a simpler time gone by, to demonstrate the advantages of current or past social norms, or to sentimentalize the present, without asking overtly or covertly that we, the readers/listeners change a thing about our way of life.

Joseph Glover Baldwin, who wrote from Mississippi and Alabama in the 1850s and early 60s, writes just such nostalgic humor. His Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi: A Series of Sketches collects a series of short sketches depicting the “flush times” of these states when the were classified as the frontier: before either had achieved statehood. His book is dedicated to “The Old Folks at Home” and his friends in “the Shenandoah Valley—this volume is respectfully dedicated”—an overt reference to Virginia and its classical, traditional Southern values.

His most often read sketch is “Ovid Bolus, ESQ., Attorney at Law and Solicitor in Chancery.” The tale hinges upon Bolus’s vices: he is an accomplished liar who borrows money from anyone willing to lend it to him, and eventually escapes the territory without paying back any of his debts. Of him, Baldwin writes:

“Some men are liars from interest; not because they have no regard for truth, but because they have less regard for it than for gain; some are liars from vanity, because they would rather be well thought of by others, than have reason for thinking well of themselves: some are liars from a sort of necessity, which overbears, by the weight of temptation, the sense of virtue, some are enticed away by the allurements of pleasure, or seduced by evil example and education. Bolus was none of these: he belonged to a higher department of the fine arts, and to a higher class of professors of this sort of Belles-Lettres. Bolus was a natural liar, just as some horses are natural pacers…”[1]

His sketch then goes on to delineate a number of instances that demonstrate Bolus’s “art.” Baldwin’s sketches and tales show none of the illiterate spellings or dialect of other Southwestern writers of his time. Indeed, he quotes Shakespeare and Virgil, and uses the elevated language of a well-educated man. His humor compares most closely to the wit of Carlyle, Addison, and Steele rather than to Thomas Bangs Thorpe, author of “The Big Bear of Arkansas” or George Washington Harris, who wrote the Sut Lovingood stories. While Baldwin is most often remembered or read for these sketches, he would have preferred to be remembered for his historical writing, or for his performance on the Bench as Supreme Court Justice in California.

He writes his wife, Sydney, “I am glad to see that “the notices of the book [Flush Times] do not speak of it as a Suggs-like [2] affair but as gentlemanly authorship.”[3] Each of the sketches commemorates either the “bad old times” or the “gentle raillery” for which he was best known. His humor upholds the social mores of the Old South.

Most readers today might not find Baldwin’s writing laugh out loud funny—my students have told me as much. But he is an example of a popular author of his time who represented the status quo. The book was reprinted several times in its first year, and thereafter; so his contemporaries found it funny and worth purchasing and reading.

In the present day, we can still find examples of humor authors who ask nothing of their readers/listeners except to laugh along with them as they recount experiences from life. Jeff Foxworthy has created a significant comedic career by creating lists of traits that demonstrate that “you might be a redneck” and admonishing his listeners to “check your neck.” A contemporary inheritor of the Southwestern humor of the 19th century, Foxworthy offers his audience a chance to laugh at the antics of rural characters; what he decidedly does NOT do is ask either the characters in his acts or his audience to change. Without the Redneck, Foxworthy would have very little material from which to create his stand up acts. We laugh along with him at those crazy friends, relatives, and strangers without any attempt to make them behave. As Thomas Hobbes wrote, we feel superior to the people in his sketches. Without them, we would have no gauge by which to measure ourselves.

Given that these humorists do not ask us to change, how are they to be considered subversive? In the case of Baldwin, his aim is to reassert the values of the Old South. The “frontier,” wherever that ever-changing line might be at any given time, was always a place that attracted the frauds, the confidence men, and the cheat. Baldwin saw himself as holding the line against such men. His “gentle” humor tried to do two things: allow us to laugh at the antics of the characters who originally settled the territories of Alabama and Mississippi while recognizing that they were transgressing; and assert that these characters had no place in the newly created states as they entered the Southern portion of the Union. Bolus and his ilk leave the territory ahead of the hangman.

Foxworthy’s humor—also “gentle”—proposes to show audiences “characters” who inhabit places most of his audience have never seen. They are examples that allow the audience members to feel good about themselves. They are sophisticated, educated and urbane by comparison to his rednecks. Each show reinforces the non-transgressive behavior of what we like to think of as the American norm.

What makes these, and all humorists subversive is the nature of the humorous trope itself. The author’s message is embedded within a text that blurs the line between surface meaning and covert suggestion. Both the advocates for change and the traditionalists often ask no questions and offer no answers. They simply lay out situations they have observed, choosing their language and situations as guides to the audience. As such, the humorist’s work is prone to misinterpretation. I borrow the final example from Irish humorist Jonathan Swift. “A Modest Proposal” suggests that British rule has created so much poverty in Ireland that the only logical solution is to package Irish babies and children for human consumption. Every time I have taught this satire, I have at least one student who thinks Swift was a cannibal. Yet even though humor is open to misinterpretation by the humor-challenged, it remains our most powerful tool for change. Humor is not for the faint of heart and not for the chronically humorless.

[1] Baldwin, Joseph G. Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi, first published in 1853. The edition used for this writing is published by Bibliolife from the 1891 edition published by D. Appleton and Company, New York.

[2] Simons Suggs was the character created by Johnson J. Hooper, dialect Southwestern humorist writing at the same time as Baldwin.

[3] Letter to Sydney Baldwin, 22 December, 1853, Baldwin Papers, New York Public Library, [microfilm].


(c) 2014, Jan McIntire-Strasburg

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