Editors of Humor in America
As many of us prep our syllabi and get ready to head back to school, some of our readers will be so lucky as to get to teach humor to their students–either in a specifically focused class or in a more general context. One of the founding goals of this website was the importance of the pedagogical discussion of humor. Amy Wright, Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman, and Tracy Wuster discussed some of these issues in An Educated Sense of Humor.
Our writers have taken on a number of topics related to teaching humor. Sharon McCoy and Tracy Wuster have both taken up E.B. White’s famous saying about humor and dissecting a frog (here, here, and here). Jeff Melton and Sharon McCoy have written on teaching satire:
Jeff has also started a series about teaching humor:
To which we could add Sharon McCoy’s pieces:
Other pieces on the site aren’t specifically focused on pedagogy, but they do touch on related questions. Tom Inge’s Politics and the American Sense of Humor launched the website just over 2 years (and 185k views) ago. Michael Kiskis’s The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also helped launch our site. Both pieces offer insight into the cultural roles of American humor, and both have proved to be popular over the course of the site’s life.
In perusing the list of pieces on the site over these last two years, there are too many strong discussions of humor to list here. Pieces of interest in relation to teaching humor might be:
The Muppets: An Exercise in Humorous Metacinematic Irony by Michael Purgason
REMEMBERING DICK GREGORY by Sam Sackett
Humor, Irony and Modern Native American Poetry by Caroline Sposto
The Funny Thing about Cancer by Sharon McCoy
Parody: A Lesson by Don and Alleen Nilsen
The Onion and How Comedy Deals with Tragedy (Or Not) by Matthew Daube
Meta-Racist Airplane Jokes: The Foolish Audience and Didactic Humor by Philip Scepanski
Mojo Medicine: Humor, Healing and the Blues by Matt Powell
The Pitfalls of Activist Humor by Bonnie Applebeet
In the Archives: Mr. Dooley in Peace and War, “On the Indian War” by Luke Deitrich
And so many others… if you wish to write something about humor and learnin’, please write the editor. We’d love to have more.
Finley Peter Dunne was a second-generation Irish American, born in 1867 and schooled in Chicago journalism alongside such late-nineteenth century writers as George Ade and Theodore Dreiser.
Throughout his life, Dunne took his non-fiction journalism seriously, maintaining hopes to publish his own newspaper. But he became most famous for writing his “Mr. Dooley” columns, a series of fictional pieces narrated from the perspective of the title bartender, Martin Dooley. In 600-800 word sketches – in comedic, Irish vernacular – Mr. Dooley offered everyday advice and political opinions to his South Side Chicago clientele.
These weekly articles, initially popular with Chicago’s Irish communities, became widely syndicated when Dunne turned to national politics, satirizing the Spanish-American War. As Dunne’s chief biographer, Elmer Ellis notes, the first Mr. Dooley book collection sold over 100,000 copies from 1899 to 1900. Booksellers ordered more than 25,000 copies of Dunne’s second collection, Mr. Dooley in the Hearts of his Countrymen, before it was even published. Dunne’s writing was admired by Henry James and Edith Wharton, as she describes it in her autobiography A Backward Glance. Dunne was even influential for Langston Hughes’s invention of Jesse B. Semple.
The piece below is taken from Dunne’s first book collection, Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War.
The book itself is divided into two sections: “Mr. Dooley in War” and “Mr. Dooley in Peace.” This column, “On The Indian War,” is paradoxically included in the second section. It gives a good sense, not only of Mr. Dooley’s humor and Irish brogue, but of his complex response to American politics and race relations.
“On The Indian War”
“Gin’ral Sherman was wan iv th’ smartest we iver had,” said Mr. Dooley. “He said so manny bright things. ‘Twas him said, ‘War is hell’; an’ that’s wan iv th’ finest sayin’s I know annything about. ‘War is hell’: ‘tis a thrue wurrud an’ a fine sentiment. An’ Gin’ral Sherman says, ‘Th’ on’y good Indyun is a dead Indyun. An’ that’s a good sayin’, too. So, be th’ powers we’ve started in again to improve th’ race; an’, if we can get in Gatlin’ guns enough before th’ winter’s snows, we’ll tur-rn thim Chippeways into a cimitry branch iv th’ Young Men’s Christyan Association. We will so.
“Ye see, Hinnissy, th’ Indyun is bound f’r to give way to th’ onward march iv white civilization. You an’ me, Hinnissy, is th’ white civilization. I come along, an’ I find ol’ Snakes-in-his-Gaiters livin’ quite an’ dacint in a new frame house. Thinks I, ‘‘Tis a shame f’r to lave this savage man in possession iv this fine abode, an’ him not able f’r to vote an’ without a frind on th’ polis force.’ So says I: ‘Snakes,’ I says, ‘get along,’ says I. ‘I want ye’er house, an’ ye best move out west iv th’ thracks, an’ dig a hole f’r ye’erseilf,’ I says. ‘Divvle th’ fut I will step out iv this house,’ says Snakes. ‘I built it, an’ I have th’ law on me side,’ he says. ‘F’r why should I take Mary Ann, an’ Terence, an’ Honoria, an’ Robert Immit Snakes, an’ all me little Snakeses, an’ rustle out west iv th’ thracks,’ he says, ‘far fr’m th’ bones iv me ancestors,’ he says, ‘an beyond th’ water-pipe extinsion,’ he says. ‘Because,’ says I. ‘I am th’ walkin’ dilygate iv white civilization,’ I says. ‘I’m jus’ as civilized as you,’ says Snakes. ‘I wear pants,’ he says, ‘an’ a plug hat,’ he says. ‘Ye might wear tin pair,’ says I, ‘an’ all at wanst,’ I says, ‘an’ ye’d still be a savage,’ says I; ‘an’ I’d be civilized,’ I says, ‘if I hadn’t on so much as a bangle bracelet,’ I says. ‘So get out,’ says I. ‘So get out,’ says I, ‘f’r th’ pianny movers is outside, r-ready to go to wurruk,’ I says.
In keeping with our recent political focus, we present Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate.” In light of revelations in the presidential campaign (both embarrassing and partial), it is nice to see Twain’s refreshing candor. Here it is, rom June 1879:
I have pretty much made up my mind to run for president. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.
In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me, I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the Battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer, because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded, my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.
My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.
The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?
I admit also that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be, “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.”
These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.
Engraving based on an 1879 photograph.
Support us by shopping at Powells Books (click here–or click on Amazon link in the sidebar).
Surprisingly, this 22-street microcosm––where the object of the game is to become the shrewdest plutocrat with the biggest pile of loot––was derived from “The Landlord’s Game,”an austere 1904 object lesson about the evils and injustices of capitalism.
Since its 1934 debut, Monopoly has become the best-selling board game in the world with over 250 million sets sold in 41 languages, including a Braille version for the visually impaired. The iconic graphics and comic mascot, “Uncle Pennybags” (above) have defined this time-honored classic for over 65 years.
Award winning poet Connie Wanek succinctly captures the magic of the game in this poem from her book, “On Speaking Terms” (Copper Canyon Press, 2010). You can read it below, or click here to hear Garrison Keillor perform it on The Writer’s Almanac.
We used to play, long before we bought real houses.
A roll of the dice could send a girl to jail.
The money was pink, blue, gold as well as green,
and we could own a whole railroad
or speculate in hotels where others dreaded staying:
the cost was extortionary.
At last one person would own everything,
every teaspoon in the dining car, every spike
driven into the planks by immigrants,
every crooked mayor.
But then, with only the clothes on our backs,
we ran outside, laughing.
Editor’s Note: This post is the first in a planned series on archival sources on humor. We will be posting important primary sources that might be of interest to humor studies scholars and general readers. If you would like to contribute a post or recommend a source, please let me know.
See our other posts in this series:
A new word for the day: misegolast. Laughter hater. As Robert Mankoff notes in the New Yorker, misegolasts can be traced back to the Old Testament. As John Morreall noted in his book, Humor Works, the long history of those opposed to laughter counts the English poet Shelley as a prominent spokesman. He stated: “I am convinced there can be no entire regeneration of mankind until laughter is put down.”
George Vasey’s The Philosophy of Laughter and Smiling, published in London in 1875, is a classic of the anti-laughter genre. Coming at time in which humor, especially in the works of the American humorists Artemus Ward and Mark Twain, was exceedingly popular in England, Vasey’s work argued that laughter was both morally and physically dangerous. Indeed, Vasey argues that laughter is a symptom of modern civilization, one that has been commercialized by humorists who spread a dangerous behavior.
According to the article, “”The pleasure of fiends”: Degenerate Laughter in Stoker’s Dracula,” by Mackenzie Bartlett, the book was reviewed by at least 19 British periodicals. And Vasey’s work is not the only argument of the misegolastic variety either at the time, or since. And while the anti-laughter argument my paradoxically inspire much laughter, or at least certain types of smile (which are better than laughter, according to this argument), shouldn’t we take serious the argument that the meanings of laughter might have changed historically and might, in some cases, be harmful. One place to start might be Anca Parvulescu’s Laughter: Notes on a Passion (Short Circuits).
You can download the entire PDF of Vasey’s book here. Enjoy such chapters as “Further observations on the means employed to produce what is termed laughter in infants, and on the injurious effects which result therefrom…”; “On the moral and intellectual characteristics of those who are addicted to laughing…”; “Are laughter and joking, badinage and fun, consistent with dignity of character? or are they conducive to the maintenance of a beneficial political or social influence?”; “On the injurious effects of nursery rhymes and juvenile literature in stultifying the minds of children and youths by furnishing them with extravagant lies and egregious nonsense to excite their wonder and induce them to laugh” (a must read for all the parents out there); and, in an appendix on tickling, a section of special interest to me, as a ticklish person, “On the extremely horrible and agonising condition to which a human being can be reduced by systematic tickling.”
SEE BELOW FOR ILLUSTRATIONS OF LAUGHTER FROM THE BOOK,
including the full size picture of this fine fellow:
Here is a sample from the first chapter: “First–On the pecuniary expense of laughter. Second–On those who are enriched by it. Third–On its imagined advantages and benefits.”
1. It is assuredly a great fact, which cannot be gainsayed, that an immense majority of the inhabitants of most civilised countries hold the habit of laughing in such high estimation, and feel such a craving for the exercise of it, that collectively they expend vast sums of money in procuring the stimulus necessary to produce its action.
2. This golden harvest finds its way into the pockets of those highly-gifted individuals who have acquired the happy knack of writing, or mouthing and spouting, those facetious words, or of performing those grotesque actions, which have the magical power of contracting our cheeks into wrinkles, and distending our jugular veins.
I uh… I really like the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. I feel like I have to confess this rather than just drop it casually. I can mention that I like Aziz Ansari at a cool party with hip academics, fog machines, and black lights (which I attend practically all the time, by the way), but I have to “confess” that I like BCCT. I feel like this because I have ideological qualms with the premise of the troupe. I’ll write more on this later, but for now I want to highlight the man who I feel is the cream of the crop: Ron White. Unlike the other, perhaps more infamous of the four performers whose acts stick to your ribs like overcooked oatmeal, White’s act is as smooth as a good scotch–no gimmicks or catchphrases, just pure, acerbic, Texan style.
Although a pillar of the Blue Collar Comedy troupe, White’s persona seems to have no unexamined allegiances to neither class nor political party.
White often falls to the ultimate sin of standup: reusing material ad nauseum. Once you’ve watched They Call Me Tater Salad, you’ve pretty much seen his repertoire. The performance itself is anything but lazy, however, and I highly recommend it. It’s impeccably timed, tightly delivered, and leaves me doubled over every time.
Editor’s Note: This piece is the first piece in a planned series on teaching humor and television sitcoms. Jeffrey Melton will be spearheading this feature, but he invites you to contribute to the series, as do I. Do you have a sitcom that you teach that you would like to write about? Please contact the editor. Thanks.
I made my ten-year-old daughter watch the first episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. It was going to be a bonding experience for us. At the end as the credits rolled and the Clampetts waved, she said, “That was dumb.” A rift came between us at that moment, a deep realization of disappointment for both of us. We had expected more from one another. But I couldn’t argue against her basic assertion. So I simply said, “Well, you’re dumb, too,” and sent her to her room. No, I didn’t really say that, but I wanted to. I actually said, “Yes, it is dumb, but not as dumb as it seems.” And that’s the moment when “Dad” shifted to “Academic.” She left the room on her own.
There goes the neighborhood: the Clampetts enter Beverly Hills
Why was The Beverly Hillbillies so popular, as corny as it is?
Janet Staiger, in her Blockbuster TV (New York: New York UP, 2000), notes that the early reviews were brutal. Staiger goes on to point out, however, that over a third of all TV households were tuning in by the close of the first season. It was the top show for the 1962/63 and 63/64 seasons by a substantive margin and remained in the top twenty for six more years after its highpoint. According to Staiger, it was THE blockbuster sitcom of the decade.
Years before television found The Little House on the Prairie radio had “the small house halfway up in the next block.” That was the home of Vic and Sade, “radio’s homefolks,” the Gooks.
The purpose of any soap opera, besides selling soap, was to give the American housewife something to focus her attention on while she was ironing the clothes, washing the dishes, and running the pre-vacuum carpet sweeper. The additional purpose of Vic and Sade was to vindicate the housewife’s belief that she had married an idiot. So successful was it at this that it endured from 1932 to 1944, 15-minute episodes five days a week. According to Time magazine, it had an audience of seven million listeners in 1943. Think of it! Seven million American housewives reassured that they were correct in their conviction that, like Vic, their husbands were idiots!
Because of its popularity, after its original twelve-year run Vic and Sade was revived for about three and a half months in the fall of 1945, then again in a 30-minute weekly format for four months in the summer of 1946, next as three half-hour television broadcasts in July 1949, and finally as seven weekly 15-minute episodes on radio station WNBQ, Chicago.
Sandwiched in among Stella Dallas and “Oxydol’s own Ma Perkins” on NBC’s Blue Network, and sponsored by Crisco,.Vic and Sade was unique among soap operas. It was devoted to ridiculing the absurdities and follies of typical American masculine activities. In the days of my youth I found its satire delicious, and when a few years ago I discovered that Radio Reruns had issued four episodes on a cassette tape – remember cassette tapes? – I immediately bought it. It is among my precious treasures, and, knowing the tragedies that can befall cassette tapes, I play it infrequently in order to preserve it.
Vic and Sade was also unique because each episode was self-contained. Other soap operas had stories that continued from day to day and ended with a cliff-hanger summarized by the announcer with a series of questions: “Will Mary marry the Prince of Ruritania? Will the shadowy figure Mary saw turn out to be an assassin, threatening the prince’s life? Tune in tomorrow for the next thrilling installment.” But when an episode of Vic and Sade was over, it was over. The initial problem may have dissipated into a quagmire of bumbleheadedness rather than being resolved, but the episode was over. The fecundity of imagination demonstrated by the show’s creator and sole author, Paul Rhymer, was phenomenal and may perhaps be unequaled in any field of writing.