We are very excited to present this interview with Judith Yaross Lee. Judith is Professor & Director of Honors Tutorial Studies in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University. She is the author of, among many works,Defining New Yorker Humor and Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America.
Judith is the new editor of Studies in American Humor. Through the American Humor Studies Association, and on her own, Judith has mentored many humor studies scholars, including myself. It is a pleasure to print this interview and an excerpt of her excellent and important new book: Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture. (Find an Excerpt here).
Tracy Wuster: Tell me about your start in humor studies. How and when did you begin pursuing it as a subject? who has influenced you as a scholar of humor?
Judith Yaross Lee: I had the great good fortune to take a course on Mark Twain with Hamlin Hill in my first quarter of my M.A. program in English at the University of Chicago, where I was first introduced to the study of humor as an interdisciplinary historical and cultural study, largely through my ancillary reading in Henry Nash Smith, later augmented by the works of early American Studies luminaries such as Perry Miller and Leo Marx.
Then in my second year of doctoral study I had another course with Ham, a seminar in contemporary American humor in which I was one of just two students (I guess we were the only ones who trundled over to the department office to find out what the special topic was, because all our friends were jealous when they learned about it). We were so intimidated by Ham’s expertise and so worried about holding up our end of the discussion–my classmate had taken the regular course in American humor from Walter Blair, who was retired but had filled in during Ham’s sabbatical, but I had not–that we spent huge amounts of time preparing each class. The result was that both of us had found dissertation topics by the end of the term. My dissertation covered humor in six novels by Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Nathanael West, and Philip Roth under the pompous title “To Amuse and Appall: Black Humor in American Fiction.” I never published it or any piece of it, though I revisited two of the novels in Twain’s Brand, which now that I think of it has a similarly large scope, though this time around I felt more able to manage it.
So obviously the Chicago school of neo-Aristotelian formalism and the Blair-Hill school of humor and Mark Twain studies influenced me from the start, as did the humor theory of Constance Rourke, whose work I felt did not have the stature it deserved. But I was mortified when, soon after defending my dissertation in 1986, I read Emily Toth’s “A Laughter of Their Own: Women’s Humor in the United States” (1984) and realized how little I knew about women humorists, so I began devouring the pioneering articles and books by Nancy Walker, whose scholarly rigor I appreciated as much as her insights, and by Regina Barreca, whose first book had such an exciting title—They used to call me Snow White– but I drifted: Women’s strategic use of humor (1991)–that I ordered it something like a year before it came out. About the same time I was also inspired and greatly helped by David Sloane, especially his bibliographic work; his American Humor Magazines and Comic Periodicals (1987) is a trove yet to be fully mined.
In the 1990s (like everyone else) I also began reading Bakhtin, whose focus on the “lower stratum” I found immediately satisfying and much more congenial than Freud’s joke theory. However, I have also been strongly influenced by communication theory–most strongly by the medium theory of Walter Ong and the performance theories of Erving Goffman–and cultural theorizing by Edward Said and W. E. B. DuBois, among others. I like Johan Huizinga on play, which I think has strong overlaps with humor as a non-instrumental form of human expression. I confess to love reading humor theory!
TW: Was there resistance from others in your field or department to the study of humor as a “non-serious” subject?
JYL: I felt a lot of encouragement from my professors at the University of Chicago. Because Ham left before I was ready to write my dissertation, however, I worked with three other Americanists, William Veeder, as director, John Cawelti, as second reader, later replaced after he left by James E. Miller, Jr. John was a pioneer of popular culture historiography and theory, so he had no qualms about my work on humor, but Bill, who worked mainly on 19th-century fiction, insisted that I prepare for a field exam in an unequivocally serious or heavy topic in order to demonstrate to a search committee that I was not an academic lightweight and that I could contribute to the core teaching mission of an English or American Studies department. (I was inclined toward the latter, but those jobs were very scarce.) That was wise advice, as my decision to do a special field in theories of literary effect as particularly relevant to humor that landed me my current position in the Rhetoric and Public Culture program in the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University.
Humor has not been an issue at either of the two schools where I’ve been on a tenure line. My colleagues in the School of Communication Studies have promoted me through the ranks since I arrived as an advanced assistant professor in 1990. Far from exhibiting prejudice against my topic, they think of my work as hard-core traditional humanities scholarship because of my archival and historical research methods. I am grateful for their collegiality and open-mindedness.
Before Ohio I had an assistant professorship teaching composition at LaGuardia Community College/CUNY, which was a wonderful place to learn the ropes of being a teacher and faculty member. And before that, while writing my dissertation, for many years I taught composition and occasionally media theory as an adjunct. I often marvel at my good fortune at escaping the adjunct ranks.
I should note for graduate students in English and American Studies that I have not held a position in one of those departments since 1990. But other American humor studies colleagues have, so perhaps they can speak more directly to issues of the job search. Most of them, like me, have their fingers in some more conventional or highly valued pies for their teaching and research portfolios–often particular authors or themes, or in my case, media history (including periodicals) and theory. Humor colleagues probably don’t know that I published a theory of email in 1996.
TW: What have been the most interesting developments in humor studies in your time in the field?
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.
I have just returned to the South, after two months in the West helping my mom in the wake of my dad’s death. Getting home is bittersweet and exciting, but also something of shock. Though the South and the West have much in common, in terms of how much both regions are shaped by their land and climate, by how much that land gets under your skin — in the South, it’s a bit more literal.
Like chiggers, for instance. Or the unforgettable burn of re-encountering a fire ant — two things I never knew existed until I moved here. Or 90% humidity, which means that if anything sits still for more than half an hour, something green grows on it. And something four-legged or six-legged walks across it, chased by something four-legged or eight-legged.
Dodging through the toads and frogs playing happily in the garage, my son dove for a bathroom that hadn’t been used in over 8 weeks, his urgency spurred by the last 6 hours without a break in the car in our hurry to get home.
“Mom! Come here!” Desperation tinged the voice.
“There’s a spider in here!”
“That’s okay. Spiders are our friends. They eat the truly icky bugs. No worries!”
“Mom! Stop driveling — this is a spider!!”
And not just a spider.
Is a (tired) goat like a (dead) frog?; or Some thoughts on the objections to the humorous object as an object of study
When computers learn how to make jokes, artists will be in serious trouble.
–Donald Barthelme, “Not Knowing”
We have all had the experience of having something we are fascinated by dampened by learning more about it. The tragedy of poor schooling is not unmet standards or bad test scores–the tragedy of school is having the natural curiosity of childhood deadened. Of course, much of the transition from magical world of wonder to rational world of knowledge is necessary… we wouldn’t want an entire nation of clowns who do not understand that magnets are not miracles. But thought and study don’t have to lead to the death of wonder–what I, and I would hope other scholars of humor (and of almost any subject, really), would like to convince you is that study can lead to both a knowledge and a deeper appreciation of the subject, a deeper fascination with the complicated and, yes, fun workings of humor.
But when it comes to humor, people often have a different reaction. Humor, of course, is not a science–and there is not formula that a computer can learn to tell a joke properly in front of an audience, even if computers can make jokes. Jokes and laughter are a different kind of subject, and one dominant thread holds that turning humor into an object of study might diminish the vitality of the work.
The objection that the study of humor takes something alive and turns it into something like a computer program is a real fear, and surely one with some basis. But often, and maybe unfortunately, this real issue for discussion gets wighted down into one simple, and somewhat misleading, metaphor: “killing the frog.” Both Sharon McCoy and I have taken on E.B. White’s semi-famous warning that studying humor is like dissecting a frog. I have seen several versions of this saying:
Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.
Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.
Sharon nicely explains that the metaphor is off–frogs are already dead when they are dissected–and that the act of dissecting the frog leads to scientific understanding of not only frogs, but of ourselves and of our environment. In my post, I explained that White states this position, and then he goes on to offer some definitions of humor–partaking in a long tradition of people claiming you can’t define or discuss characteristics of humor and then going ahead and doing so. I call it a “definitional denial.”
What I think the prevalence of this quote points to is a larger fear that the study of literature–or of film, or of television, or of any piece of artistic expression–somehow seeks to lessen the experience of that object. That to seek to understand a cultural object is to lessen the authentic interaction one might have with that object. That to call something a “cultural object,” and to point out that it might have a historical or sociological or psychological or linguistic or any other academicalistic meaning, takes that thing out of the realm of enjoyment, of relaxation, of appreciation and then puts it into the realm of school. And with humor–which most people experience as enjoyment, as laughter–the feeling is either heightened or easier to vocalize. For those who didn’t get pleasure out of school, putting humor into the scholarly realm might be a heightened betrayal .
When encountering a frog, most people just want to watch it, not cut it open to see how it works.
But some of people like to think about how humor works. We are scholars. Just as there are scholars of frogs, and of schools, and of Texas music, and of male flight attendants, and of religion, and of stadiums, and of just about everything else, there are scholars of humor. And unless you don’t like scholars in general, there should be no need to defend any particular branch of study: from frogs to funny.
That being said, I seem to be venturing close to my a corollary form of the “definitional denial”: the defensive denial–claiming I don’t need to defend the study of humor and then doing so. Instead, let’s turn not to a dissecting a frog, which is not a terribly good metaphor for humanistic study of humor, to looking at a goat. Not just any goat. This goat:
Seeing this piece, we might have any number of reactions–“What does it mean?” “Who is it by?” “is it supposed to be funny?” “I like it” “I hate it” “eh” “wow” “is it art?” These reactions are not much different from the reactions people might have to a piece of humor more generally. Your answers to these questions, your reactions, matter to you. And the range of reactions a cultural object might have are important as evidence of audience reception.
But to the art historian, or the aficionado of art more broadly, the historical context of Rauschenberg’s combine matters, along with its formal characteristics and its place in his development as an artist.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of “Mark Twain.” The name. Other reasons to celebrate or otherwise gather should be secondary. By proclamation:
By His Excellency Dannel P. Malloy
Governor: anOfficial Statement
WHEREAS, the state of Connecticut is deeply proud of its association with
Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) who chose–not once–but twice to build
a home here=2C spending 20 years in Hartford and two years in his final ho-
me in Redding; and
WHEREAS, while living here Twain wrote books, articles, speeches,
and other writings that have brought laughter, joy, and cause to think
deeply about the issues of humanity, to millions of readers worldwide,
WHEREAS, one of those residences is now one of that state’s most promin-
ent historic and literary sites, recently voted the State Fan Favorite in-
the Still Revolutionary tourism program, The Mark Twain House & Museum,
WHEREAS, February 3, 2013 marks the 150th Anniversary of the date that
Samuel L. Clemens first used the name “Mark Twain” to sign one of his
WHEREAS, this occasion has created interest and excitement throughout the
state where Twain lived and worked for so long,
THEREFORE I, DANNEL P. MALLOY, Governor of the State of Connecticut,
do hereby officially proclaim February 3, 2013, as
MARK TWAIN’S NAME DAY
in the State of Connecticut
Celebrate accordingly. Non-Connecticut residents are welcome to issue their own proclamations. Toasts also acceptable. Cash donations to your favorite website welcome. Birthday presents to the editor of this site also welcome, although not required.
His First Birthday.
“I remember that first birthday well,” he began. “Whenever I think of it, it is with indignation. Everything was so crude, so unaesthetic. Nothing was really ready. I was born, you know, with a high and delicate aesthetic taste. And then think of – I had no hair, no teeth, no clothes. And I had to go to my first banquet like that.
“And everybody came swarming in. It was the merest little hamlet in he backwoods of Missouri, where never anything happened at all. All interest centered on me that day. They came with that peculiar provincial curiosity to look me over and to see if I had brought anything fresh in my particular line. Why, I was the only thing that had happened in the last three months – and I came very near being the only thing that happened there in two whole years.
“They gave their opinions. No one had asked them, but they gave them, and they were all just green with prejudice. I stood it as long as – well, you know, I was born courteous. I stood it for about an hour. Then the worm turned. I was the worm. It was my turn to turn, and I did turn. I knew the strength of my position. I knew that I was the only spotlessly pure person in that camp, and I just came out and told them so.
“It was so true that they could make no answer at all. They merely blushed and went away. Well, that was my cradle song, and now I am singing my swan song. It is a far stretch from that first birthday to this, the seventieth. Just think of it!”
Remember to get your abstracts in for the 7th International!
Michael Giles Purgason
Editor’s Note: Michael Purgason was a student in one of my courses this past year. Even though Michael was a graduating senior who was applying for medical schools, he took a keen interest in the subject of my English class and in the “Humor in America” blog. Tragically, Michael was killed in a car accident in July. With the permission of his family, I am publishing the piece below, which he was in the process of making final revisions for “Humor in America.” –Tracy
As a child growing up two of my favorite films that I watched frequently on VHS were Muppet Treasure Island and A Muppet Christmas Carol. One thing I always noticed about these two films in particular was that they were the only two Disney movies my parents and older siblings would be happy to watch with me consistently, and they would laugh hysterically right along with me. To this day these films remain two of my favorites, and they make me laugh every time without fail.
After my most recent viewing of Muppet Treasure Island I began to ask myself, “what is about these puppets that are so clever and humorous?” While I’m sure that I have not narrowed down all of Jim Henson’s genius in my mind, I believe that I have set out on a productive path to answering that very difficult question. Before I get into any sort of Muppet criticism, a lot of the humor is pure good old-fashioned cleverness on the part of the writers. The roll call scene before the Hispaniola sets sail in Muppet Treasure Island is one example of a scene that renders its viewers into fits of side-splitting laughter without using too much complexity.
The first aspect of the complex and clever humor that goes into a Muppet film is each individual Muppet’s very real presence in popular culture. The Muppets are presented publicly as though they are real life Hollywood figures. They show up on the Red Carpet, they are invited to be presenters at awards shows, they make guest appearances on Saturday Night Live, and they frequent other such public appearances. What is significant is that they are presented as though there are actually living and witty puppets walking around living their lives as working Hollywood actors. The ways in which other celebrities converse and interact with them indicate that they are real and they have their own place in the society of actors. If the logical minds of human audiences didn’t know better, they would believe that The Muppets are in fact real life conscious entities. This creates a false consciousness in the minds of audience’s in which we live in a world where Muppets exist as real and conscious entities.
On E.B. White and the definition of humor.
Originally posted on Humor in America:
For two follow-up posts on this question, see:
Born July 11, 1899. White is famous for children’s books, style guides, and his work at the New Yorker, but in humor studies, he is probably best known for his introduction to the 1941 book, A Subtreasury of American Humor, which he edited with Katherine White.
The beginning of White’s introduction is one of the most widely known statements about the study of humor, functioning as a witty injunction against the serious study of humor. It reads:
Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific…
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One of two pieces for today that discuss E.B. White’s famous discussion of jokes and frogs.
Originally posted on Humor in America:
A commonly accepted truth holds that to explain a joke ruins it.
But is it true?
Humor depends upon some level of shared ground — a shared communal or cultural background that helps give the joke meaning. Whatever theory of humor you ascribe to, or whichever theory is appropriate to a particular joke (the exposure of incongruities, aggression, assertion of superiority, masked aggression, suspended defense mechanism, surprise, etc.), it is the shared experience, assumptions, and vocabulary that together create the joke. Humor reveals, therefore, the boundaries of a particular community. Further, humor draws or re-draws those communal lines based on who “gets” the joke and who does not. But whether the joke’s purpose is to more firmly draw the line between “us” and “them” or whether it seeks to bridge communal gaps and make “us” a larger set of people, explaining a joke works only when it is successful in…
View original 1,893 more words
Editor’s Note: One of the best parts of running this blog has been finding new blogs. One of my favorite is Ben Railton’s “American Studier: A central online resource for students of American culture.” Ben has agreed to have us repost one of his posts, which was part of a series in honor of April Fool’s Day. Check out his posts on Seward’s Folly, Albion Tourgee, Nobody’s Fool, and satire.
On one of American literature’s most unique and interesting, and, yes, foolish, works.
I don’t think too many 21st century Americans read or even know about the mid-19th century movement known as Southwestern Humor, and that’s too bad. Besides representing some genuinely American folktales and mythologies—I vaguely remember reading stories about Mike Fink in childhood anthologies featuring Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Pecos Bill and the like, but I wonder if any of those characters remain on our cultural radar in any meaningful way—the Southwestern humor stories are just plain funny, both in their outlandish events and in their ability to capture story-tellers’ voices and effects. T.B. Thorpe’s “The Big Bear of Arkansas” (1854) is not only a clear predecessor to Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1867); it’s also nearly as great an act of literary and local color story-telling and humor. You could do a lot worse, in this April Fool’s week, than spending some time reading Thorpe and his peers.
At first glance, Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857) seems likewise inspired by, or at least parallel to, Thorpe’s story: both works are set on Mississippi River steamboats, and both feature multiple acts of story-telling, comprising communal conversations that are constituted out of such competing stories. Melville even ups the humor ante on two interconnected levels: he published his novel on April 1, and set it on the same day, which had for at least a few years been known as April Fool’s Day. Yet as anyone who has read Melville knows, the author’s sense of humor tended more to the dark and cynical than to the light and folktale-like; he expressed this perspective on humor very clearly in an 1851 letter to his friend Samuel Savage, writing that “It is—or seems to be—a wise sort of thing, to realize that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of joke, especially his misfortunes, if he have them. And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed round pretty liberally and impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it.” And in The Confidence Man, the joke that gets passed round is both dark and, like much of Melville’s work, extremely prescient of ongoing American and philosophical concerns.
One of the key moments in the career of Mark Twain was the tremendous success of his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” first published in the Saturday Post on August 12, 1865. The reputation of this magazine as a key New York periodical, different in tone but of similar importance in its own literary culture as the Atlantic Monthly was in Boston, was certainly a boon to Twain’s East Coast reputation. But as James Caron has argued in Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter, the importance of the jumping frog story in establishing Twain’s reputation may be overstated. Instead of a sudden burst into public consciousness, the piece represents the culmination of more than a year of success on both coasts, where newspapers had published Mark Twain’s writings for the Californian, a magazine aimed at national and international, rather than regional, audiences.
The chance offering of ‘The Jumping Frog,’ carelessly cast, eighteen months ago, upon the Atlantic waters, returned to him in the most agreeable form which a young aspirant for public fame could desire. The wind that was sowed with probably very little calculation as to its effect upon its future prospects, now enables him to reap quite a respectable tempest of encouragement and cordiality.