Category Archives: ISHS

Editor’s Chair: Looking for New Contributing Editor and a Short-Term Poetry Editor(plus News & Conference CFPs from the AHSA!)

Tracy Wuster


We here at Humor in America are looking to fill two posts: a Contributing Editor to write for us on a regular basis and a short-term Poetry Editor to write for 2-3 months.  The Contributing Editor would write once every eight weeks on a topic of their choosing–some editors like having a topic (i.e. “music,” “poetry,” “comics,” etc.) and some prefer winging it on whatever subject seems topical to them (i.e. Brian Williams, Hal Holbrooktelevision shows, risky humor, or Charlie Hebdo…and here and here).  In the short term, we are looking for someone to write two or three posts on poetry for the next few months while our poetry editor is on leave.  Any humorous poetry is fine–from any period.  The first post could go as early as Friday or Saturday, then once per month after that.

If you are interested in either of these, please let me know at

*In other humor studies news, the American Humor Studies Association has a new website design, as does their journal Studies in American Humor.  I designed them both. Kudos will be accepted; critiques pondered.


*On those sites you will find exciting opportunities, such as the ability to purchase the newest special issue of Studies:“MAD MAGAZINE AND ITS LEGACIES” (click for Table of Contents).  The cost is $20 for the issue, or a discount of $18 when you join the AHSA for this year.


*Speaking of special issues, on the journal page you will find a list of all past and upcoming special issues, including the call for papers for an upcoming issue:

Call for Papers: “Is American Satire Still in a Postmodern Condition?”

Special issue on contemporary satire for Studies in American Humor (Fall 2016), James E. Caron (University of Hawaii—Manoa), Guest Editor; Judith Yaross Lee (Ohio University, Editor).

In response to the torrent of satiric materials that has been and continues to be produced in recent years, Studies in American Humor invites proposals for 20-page essays using the rubric of “the postmodern condition” as an analytical gambit for demarcating a poetics of American comic art forms that use ridicule to enable critique and promote the possibility of social change.  See link for more.

*Also upcoming are a number of conferences, including the ISHS 25th anniversary in Oakland, CA; MLA in Austin, TX; and SAMLA in Durham, NC.  You should check out the announcement here.

*Another piece of exciting news is that the whole back run of Studies in American Humor is on Jstor.  See all the Table of Contents and first pages here.

*If you have announcements from other societies or for CFPs or any other news, send them to Tracy Wuster at

*And since the Emmys and Oscars snubbed Joan Rivers in their In Memoriam segments, here is a small tribute:

Joan Rivers picture in memoriam

Parody: A Lesson

 Don and Alleen Nilsen

An essay based on a lesson, the Powerpoint of which can be found (along with many others) here

In the New Yorker, Wolcott Gibbs wrote that parody is the hardest form of creative writing because the style of the subject must be reproduced in slightly enlarged form, while at the same time holding the interest of people who haven’t read the original.  Further complications are posed since it must entertain at the same time that it criticizes and must be written in a style that is not the writer’s own.  He concluded that the only thing that would make it more difficult would be to write it in Cantonese.

Obviously, it is easier for people to enjoy a parody if they know what the original was.  In our increasingly diverse culture, memories of “classic” children’s books may be one of the few things we have in common.  Advertisers, broadcasters, cartoonists, journalists, politicians, bloggers, and everyone else who wants to communicate with large numbers of people, therefore turn to the array of exaggerated characters that we remember from childhood books.  Chicken Little represented alarmists; Pinocchio stood for liars;The Big Bad Wolf warned us of danger; Humpty Dumpty demonstrated how easy it is to fall from grace; The Frog Prince gave hope to women of all ages; and Judith Viorst’s The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day lets us know that we all have really bad days.

Some of Lewis Carroll’s parodies were just for fun.  When Lewis Carroll wrote a parody of the poem “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.  How I wonder where you are,” it became, “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Bat.  How I wonder where you’re at.”  This is merely fun word play.  But some of Carroll’s parodies had a deeper significance.  Lewis Carroll lived in a time when the Victorian poetry tended to be filled with sentimentality and didacticism, so many of Carroll’s poems parodied that sentimentality and didacticism.  G. W. Langford wrote a poem that not only preached to parents, but also reminded them of the high mortality rate for young children:  “Speak gently to the little child! / It’s love be sure to gain; / Teach it in accents soft and mild; It may not long remain.”  Carroll’s parody turned this poem into a song for the Duchess to sing to a piglet wrapped in baby clothes:  “Speak roughly to your little boy. And beat him when he sneezes. / He only does it to annoy / Because he knows it teases.”  The  poem “Against Idleness and Mischief” by Isaac Watts read as follows: “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour / and gather honey all the day / From every opening flower!”  Lewis Carroll’s parody is much more fun, and much less didactic: “How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tail / And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale?”

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How Restaurants Whet Your Appetite with Whimsy and Wit

By Don and Alleen Nilsen, Co-Founders of the International Society for Humor Studies

Now that we have retired from our teaching positions at Arizona State University, we have more time to eat out and what we have discovered is that restaurants are using humor and wit to spice up their patrons’ eating and drinking experiences.  We were recently invited to speak about humor and aging at a big retirement community built in the desert east of Mesa, Arizona.  When we got close, we stopped to eat at a restaurant and were amused to see that the bar area was totally covered with  humorous license plates apparently donated by the retirees (“the Snowbirds”), who come from colder climates to spend warm winters in Arizona.

The license plates were amusing to first-timers, like us, and comforting to repeat customers who were proud to see us taking pictures of a license plate that they identified with, either because they had donated it or because it came from their home state.

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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.”
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