Category Archives: drunk man riding a horse

Wendy Davis: Humorous responses in a time of passionate political debate

Tracy Wuster

Over the past few weeks here in Austin, Texas, the issue of women’s health and abortion restrictions has been front and center, becoming a national story with the dramatic filibuster of SB5 by Wendy Davis (along with Kirk Watson, Judith Zaffrini, Leticia Van De Putte, Sylvester Turner, and others).  Thousands of protesters filled the capital building, hundreds of thousands of people watched online (while CNN discussed blueberry muffins), and Wendy Davis became a national celebrity.  Witnessing these events from both inside the capital and online, I was struck by the intense passion on both sides of the issue and by the ways in which humor might both express and relieve the tension that passionate political debate creates.

wendy davis filibuster cartoon comic

Source

I understand that the issue of abortion is sensitive, so I will stick with the humorous responses to the issue.  What struck me, as an observer, was the swift creation of humorous memes, the jokes on twitter, and the use of humor within the filibuster itself.

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Humor as Ridicule: The Case of UVa

Tracy Wuster

Virginia Sullivan Dragas(Larger version below)

Like many people in academia, I have been intensely interested in the recent events at the University of Virginia.  For those who don’t know the story, this might be a place to start.  There has been a lot of good commentary on the Board of Visitors surprise and controversial decision to oust the popular president–serious commentary, deep thought, insightful introspection.

All very interesting and important.  But what has struck me, in my capacity as editor of this blog, is the humor.  Friends at UVa and at other schools have posted several pieces of satire aimed at the Board of Visitors and their decision.  This is not good-natured humor, or subtle humor; it is attack humor–humor aimed at immediate change.  Superiority humor: laughing at people and encouraging others to do so by making fun of them.

Kieran Healy’s “Declaration of Independence” (published June 20th) certainly fits this mold.  Read the whole thing, but here is a taste:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Universities are endowed by their Donors with certain unalienable Goals, that among these are Strategy, Dynamism, and the pursuit of some sort of Online Degree delivered via the Interwebs,—That to secure these goals, Presidents are appointed, deriving their just powers from the half-baked ideas of idle Billionaires,—That whenever any University President becomes destructive of these Goals, it is the Right of the BoV to institute a new President, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect Strategy, Dynamism, and Strategic Dynamism.

Healy, a sociology professor at Duke, certainly captured the phrase that will undoubtedly become a punchline in academic circles: “strategic dynamism.”

Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at UVa, joined in by providing a written evaluation of the work of the Rector and Vice-Rector (hint: it’s not a good grade).  Here is the introduction (read the whole thing here):

Dear Ms. Dragas & Mr. Kington:

I’m writing to let you know your grade for the Digital Learning Project, as part of your larger grade as Rector and Vice Rector. I wish I brought better news.

On the bright side, let me complement you on your font choice and the formatting of your emails. Further, they feature some unusual words, and a spirit of verve throughout.

But I’m afraid these bright spots pale in comparison to the problems: an immature analysis brought on by terribly shallow research.

More below:

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Five Subjects Behind: Some thoughts on grunge, time machines, and “Clam Chow-Dah!”

by Tracy Wuster

On January 11th, 1992, I gathered with a group of friends to watch Saturday Night Live, our usual Saturday night activity as high school sophomores.  This was a special night.  Nirvana was playing, and we were living just north of Seattle.  Grunge was our thing: flannel, mosh pits, and, most of all, music.

This was the episode on which the band played “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” thrashed their instruments during “Territorial Pissings,” and kissed each other during the closing credits. The band’s anarchic spirit expressed not only our (possibly exaggerated) teen angst but also the humor of destruction, noise, and pissing off parents and other authorities that went hand in hand with the angst.

But, oddly enough, what I remember most from that episode of Saturday Night Live is not Nirvana’s performance but a sketch featuring the host Rob Morrow.  The sketch is entitled, “Five Subjects Behind,” but I have always referred to it as “Clam Chow-Dah!”

Watch:

In the sketch, Morrow is at a diner with two friends–a man and a woman.  As the conversation proceeds, Morrow awkwardly and consistently returns to previous subjects with a punchline now hopelessly outdated, interrupting the flow of conversation to the increasing consternation of his friends.  At one point, the character played by Mike Myers mentions Boston and clam chowder.  After several subjects go by, Morrow bellows out: “Clam Chow-dah!” in a Boston-esque accent, and then awkwardly recreates the context, defeating the humor of the comment and, in fact, forcing an awkwardness that might be described as “anti-humorous.”*

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