Tag Archives: Steve Brykman

What is Not Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor

Teaching American Humor

It’s just a joke. I was only joking. Can’t you take a joke?

In an earlier post, I discussed how I have used opinion surveys as a way for students to examine their own tastes in humor and as a way to introduce humor as a vibrant and crucial component of American culture.  In the first part of the surveys, students name their favorite films and television shows and classify their tastes. I have found it is a useful way to establish a context for discussion of theoretical concepts in humor while also getting students to open up about their expectations for the course. Here is a link to that post, “What is Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor“.

In the second part of the survey, students must address the potential complications to their enjoyment of humor. What if the person next to them not only doesn’t share their sense of humor but finds it offensive? When is a joke not a joke but an attack? And even if that “joke” is a veiled attack, should it be silenced? These are complicated issues and demand much more space (and brain power) than I can offer here, but no class on humor can rightly avoid the ever-present tension concerning differing opinions on what is and what is not funny.

Steve Brykman recently posted an excellent discussion concerning social and political challenges inherent in this issue. The underlying violence associated with much of American humor becomes especially troublesome when the humor concerns political figures, in particular the President of the United States. The post, “Is a Joke a Joke?,” can provide an astute and perfectly concise introduction for students who must consider the potential power of humor not only to the change the world but also blow it up. A joke can be provocative, but what if it is more accurately described as incendiary speech? Here is a link to Steve’s post.

As a way to force a potentially tense discussion, I use the survey to ask students to address this issue so that initially they can provide comments anonymously.  They must answer the following two paired questions. In each case, I provide a list, but they are also encouraged to add items if they see fit to do so:

1. What subject matter is off-limits for humor with you personally if someone is kidding with you? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)

Your mother

Your religion

Your gender

Your race

Your sexual orientation

Your body (height, weight, etc.)

Your disabilities or challenges

2.  What subject matter is off-limits for humor socially when the audience is public? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)





sexual orientations

bodies (height, weight, etc.)

disabilities or challenges

deaths and/or tragedies affecting real people

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Into the Mystic

Raegan and I were standing atop the rocks at Whipple Hill, a hundred acres of woodsy conservation land back in Lexington, MA, my hometown. Raegan was giddy, skipping along, insistent something wonderful would happen. I decided to take her word for it. Just a week before, her mom had forbidden her from seeing me, after an incident involving a party and a drug deal gone bad. But it wasn’t my idea. I was having an asthma attack, thanks to their dog, and the guy that saw me pop one assumed they were something else, apparently, and offered me five bucks, and things kind of progressed from there. Next thing I know, everybody wants one. First off, the guy was a dick and totally deserved it, and second off, I needed the money. But even though her mom had forbade her from seeing me, Raegan said, She never said anything about not seeing me with her third eye. At the time, this didn’t make much sense to me. I thought maybe she was talking about her vagina. In any case, I wasn’t about to turn back.

I still don’t get why we need the orange juice? I asked.
The vitamin C, she said, It increases the absorption.
Excuse me?
It makes them better. Stronger. Something like that.
It makes what better?
You know, psilocybin. Magic mushrooms. It’ll be great. We’re going to shroom in the woods.
I don’t do drugs.
These aren’t drugs, they’re mushrooms. They’re totally natural.
Everything’s natural. Hemlock’s natural. Technically speaking, nuclear waste is natural.
And then, like that great Claymation dog Goliath, I said, Are you sure this is a good idea?

Then, suddenly, she was on me, plunging her tongue deep into my mouth. Which wasn’t something I was used to necessarily but was on the whole pretty hot regardless. Until I realized her tongue tasted like a bag of shit.


I pulled away and she left me chewing on a mouthful of what I could only assume were actual pellets of dung, just like Houdini and the key. I know you don’t know what that means, so I’ll explain. See, before Houdini would get locked in that tiny milk can, he would open his hands and run them all along his body, demonstrating he didn’t have anything on him. But before finally squeezing himself in there, he would give his assistant (who also happened to be his wife) a passionate farewell kiss. And then she would lock him in the can, close the curtain, then — ABACADABRA! — the curtain spreads and there he stands, dripping, unchained, and alive.

The secret was this: when they kissed, she passed him the key. From her mouth to his. Simple as that. Only Houdini didn’t have any problem holding onto the key. As for me, I was gagging.

Don’t spit them out! Raegan said. They’re supposed to be disgusting. They grow in cow shit.
Maybe you could have told me that before you regurgitated them into my mouth!

She handed me a VeryFine OJ, the bottle with the Styrofoam-wrap. Then she took out a small Ziploc filled with something that looked to be mulch, pinched half of it into her hand, and tossed it into her own mouth like they were Oreos.

Nature’s candy, she said.

I chewed as quickly as I could. And yet it wasn’t quick enough. It was like eating wood chips dipped in a shit salsa. It sent out a pretty strong signal this was not meant to be eaten—much like the orange caterpillar or the colostomy bag. Again, I started to gag. It was not at all reminiscent of food.
Come on, pussy! Raegan said. Swallow! Use the juice!

I summoned up all the power within me to open my throat and push the substance down. It was Herculean.

Delicious, I said, wiping my mouth on my sleeve, leaving a stain. What’s for desert?

We sat awhile and talked about Pittsburgh and then she recommenced with the kissing.

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