I have been excited for Rebecca Krefting’s All Joking Aside (out now through Johns Hopkins University Press) to come out since hearing her present at the 2010 AHSA/MTC conference in San Diego (this year in New Orleans). Krefting’s approach to stand-up comedy is thoughtful, nuanced, and entertaining. In the book, Krefting uses the concept of “charged humor” to describe a particular type of stand-up performer, providing both a useful rubric for understanding certain types of stand-up and solid case studies of performers. You can read a section on the concept of charged humor here. From All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents, by Rebecca Krefting. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
I recently interviewed the Krefting about the book and her experiences as a humor scholar:
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?
Rebecca Krefting: I think I began studying comedy the moment I began writing my first set. I contemplated questions like: what words would create the greatest comedic effect and in what order? How do you take everyday occurrences or a terrible situation and make it funny? Why is something funnier coming out of his mouth than out of mine? I started performing stand-up comedy and improv in August of 2001, a mere six weeks before 9/11. I was fresh out of college and while considering graduate school, had not made any commitments either way. I worked several jobs: bartender/server, legal secretary, and domestic worker and had just enough time and chutzpah to try my hand at comic performance. I strove to be a comic and attacked it with the fervor of a beaver building a dam—like my life depended on it (if you know anything about beavers, you know that’s true). The improv acting I fell into by auditioning on a lark for a professional troupe called The Skeleton Crew performing out of Nashville, TN. Looking back, I know now just how lucky I was to train in this comedic cultural form, which informed my stand-up and later my teaching. In both stand-up and improv, I was acutely aware of my identity as a woman while performing (this more so than my being a lesbian because although I was out, I opted not to call attention to this during my stand-up) and so I became a critical observer of how identities played out on stage. Thus began my fascination with the practice, history, and analysis of comedy. When I started applying for grad schools, I knew that an MA in Women’s Studies would expose me to the scholarship that would help me make sense of the gender gap in comedy and other cultural phenomena I had been observing in the comedy world. Having been schooled in one identity-based discipline, it seemed a natural shift to obtain a doctorate in American Studies, the first identity-based discipline in academia. It didn’t hurt that the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park also housed (at that time) the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies, where I was offered employment.
My influences as comic and scholar are manifold. They are comics like Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Maria Bamford, Kate Clinton, and Patton Oswalt; they are comic performers like Sissieretta Jones, Trixie Friganza, Judy Gold, Meryn Cadell, Nellie McKay, Greg Walloch, and the Five Lesbian Brothers; they are scholar-mentors like Linda Mizejewski, Brenda Brueggemann, Mary Sies, Ronit Eisenbach, Sharon Harley, and Larry Mintz; they are scholars like Karl Marx, Patricia Hill Collins, Philip Auslander, Eddie Tafoya, bell hooks, Judith Butler, Coco Fusco, Rosemarie Garland Thompson, Jill Dolan, and Shane Phelan.
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?
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.
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.
Congratulations to Carol Burnett for winning the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. According to the Kennedy Center:
The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
Upon being notified of the award, Burnett noted:
“I can’t believe I’m getting a humor prize from the Kennedy Center. It’s almost impossible to be funnier than the people in Washington.”
The ceremony will take place on October 20, with tickets starting at $1000. In the meantime, enjoy one of Burnett’s best performances:
In other humor news:
*This week is the annual American Literature Association conference. Please join the American Humor Studies Association for the following panels:Session 5-G (Thursday 3:00) Humor in American Periodicals (Great Republic 7th Floor) Session 7-E (Friday 8:10) Reading and Teaching Humorous Texts (St George D 3rd Floor) Session 8-O (Friday 9:40) Business Meeting (Parliament 7th Floor)
And join the Mark Twain Circle of America for the following panels:
Session 15-C (Saturday 9:30)
Mark Twain: Iconic Texts Reconsidered (Essex North Center 3rd Floor)
Session 17-C (Saturday 12:30)
Mark Twain and History (Essex North Center 3rd Floor)
Session 18-M (Saturday 2:00)
Business Meeting: The Mark Twain Circle of America (North Star 7th Floor)
*For panels on Kurt Vonnegut and others, see the schedule here. Additionally, there has traditionally been a reception on Saturday. I believe that 2-4 of the writers for this site will be there.
*A number of the authors of this page will also be at the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies at the beginning of August. The registration and program information can be found at the Center for Mark Twain Studies site. Even if you are not a scholar, this conference is well worth the trip. This year features a screening of a new documentary on Hal Holbrook, a keynote by Peter Kaminsky of the Mark Twain Prize, a closing picnic at Quarry Farm, and paper presentations by Sharon McCoy, Jeffrey Melton, ABE, and myself.
*Speaking of awards, did you know about the James Thurber Prize for American Humor, given annually for the best humorous writing of that year?
*And speaking of humor writing, if you are a student and in need of a term paper on American humor, look no further than this lovely writing, available for the bargain price of $15.90.
Third, a frosty streak of humor runs done American literary works from early times to present. In many cases, a dash of table salt humor saves a ripe penning from becoming in any case sentimental. American humor tends to be exaggerated rather than subtle. It reflects the peoples cleverness to laugh at themselves during the approximately voiceless times.
In these “approximately voiceless times,” how can you pass up such a bargain, and sure to get a D- or below!
*Ellie Kemper asks, “Can men be funny?”
*Did you see, “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise“?
*Have you been watching YouTube Comedy Week? Anyone want to write a review for us?
*Only 5 days until Arrested Development!
I thought it would be nice to start with a video of Diller’s performance without any frames. She’s genuinely funny, and in spite of the garish dress, she seems very genuine. It’s difficult for me to find the rapid-fire one-liners of yore (and of Jeff Foxworthy) funny, but with Diller, somehow, it works.
Now for the frame.
I recently read a piece in The Atlantic commemorating Phyllis Diller, and I found myself panicking. Author Ashley Fetters put together many of the points I wanted to make in this post already. (Don’t you hate it when such an esteemed and often brilliant publication says exactly what you were going to say? It happens to me all the time.)
The piece was thoughtful and thorough, but the premise troubled me:
Diller’s trademark brand of hapless, self-deprecating, ugly-girl humor was based [on] an invented set of shortcomings she didn’t actually have. Which highlights a weird glitch in the system that still plagues women in comedy today: Why can’t funny women be hot? Or accomplished? Or smart? Why do so many women with these otherwise highly valued traits have to downplay them to get laughs?
It has seemed to me that those of us who study humor are an optimistic group on the whole. I am no exception. I have lain awake at night thinking about how standup comedy can pretty much save the world. This belief came from noticing a phenomenon in the fight for gay and lesbian equality; gay and lesbian identified standup comedians doubled as social movement leaders. I’d like to throw a stick in my proverbial bicycle wheel and examine the pitfalls that I’d rather not have observed in my research on lesbian comedian activists, using Margaret Cho and Wanda Sykes as case studies.
This entry is the first in a new series entitled, as you may have guessed, “Standup Sunday,” where HA! contributors feature noteworthy comedians.
It gives me great pleasure to share with you a woman who makes me feel weak in the knees: Lea DeLaria. What charisma! What confidence! What carefully crafted hair!
And she can sing!
Also…uh, I think she can cook?
Much of my work studying queer comedians has focused on the prime time glass ceiling shattered by Ellen DeGeneres in 1997, but as I cobble together a larger picture of the status of lesbian comedians in the 1990s, performers like DeLaria helped me acknowledge that there were other, more abrasive queers performing out of the closet before DeGeneres’ outing on Ellen.
As her Wikipedia page will tell you, DeLaria appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1993–the first instance of an openly gay comic on late night. This appearance came in a time in the early 1990s when the number of openly gay comics started to surge. This phenomenon was further evidenced by Comedy Central’s Out There, one of the first in a long line of exhausting “Out” cliches. This, less importantly, was also the first all-gay comedy performance on television.
Here is a brief introduction to her delivery style. And no, it’s not about that kind of Bush, and yes, this is NSFW.
What better way to win the queer hearts of the Out Laugh Festival in LA than to Bush bash?
If you’re interested in learning more about DeLaria and enjoying some more of her fast talking, salty style, she is the subject of the documentary, The Butch, and has a website linking to her musical albums.
Originally from Labor Day 2011, with new additions below the jump.
While there are many reasons that this labor day might not be the happiest, there are crucial ways in which humor might be valuable in addressing social problems. As Brenda Frink examines in her article on humor and feminism, humor can illuminate social inequalities and satirize problems through inversion and impersonation. M. Thomas Inge’s piece provides a great primer on the history of political humor.
This on the pitfalls of activist humor, by Bonnie Applebeet.
This on the leftist satire of A. Redfield.
- What makes people laugh in hard times?
- Does current satire debase our national conversation?
- Counter-argument: Jon Stewart on “World Class of Warfare“
- September 11th and Humor
- Michele Bachmann’s sense of humor?
- Important announcement: David Sedaris–not running for president…
- Molly Ivins on Rick Perry (who is running, unfortunately; update: done)
- A collection of labor songs from Phil Nel’s blog, “Nine Kinds of Pi”
- The Onion on Dick Cheney’s new memoir; Dick Cheney as a comedian
- My favorite muppets discuss politics
CAPTION THIS CONTEST: Place your caption in comments.
Finally, a Happy Birthday to Loudon Wainwright III (whose birthday landed on Labor Day in 2011)…with a fitting song.
And a new comic for those of you entering the workforce: