Teaching American Humor: Laughing with Laugh Tracks
My life would be better with a laugh track. My writing would be better, too. So would your reading experience–well, with a laugh track and a few drinks…
I am with the majority opinion on this issue, at least according to most producers of American situation comedies for the last sixty years. The reasoning behind the laugh track, as I see it, goes like this: A laugh track makes people laugh; people who laugh enjoy situation comedies; people who enjoy situation comedies see plenty of commercials; people who see commercials while in a good mood tend to buy things; a laugh track makes people laugh, and so on… Those who buy and sell commercials fund sitcoms, and they have never been inclined to trust writers or audiences. Neither do I.
I have skillfully written two first-rate jokes thus far. But, of course, you can’t really know that because this post does not have a laugh track. I spent several hours trying to insert laugh track audio here and failed. That’s funny–I think–but how can any of us be sure?
Teaching the American sitcom requires some discussion of laugh tracks. I admit that I have only glossed over laugh tracks in courses on American humor thus far. This has been a mistake. I have awakened to an obvious point: laugh tracks provide a compelling way for students to consider a more challenging array of characteristics of the art form–from the aesthetic to the mundane, from the heart of performance to the mechanics of production, from the implicit honesty of comedy to the manipulative potential of technology. From now on, I will begin all coursework focused on the sitcom with the laugh track.
Here is how I came to this astounding awakening; it’s all about The Big Bang Theory. I like the show (though I can’t decide whether I should consider it a “guilty pleasure” or an appreciation of solid, if broad, writing). The laugh track, however, drives me crazy. It is loud and intrusive. I don’t believe it at all. I am not alone. Any quick Google search of “laugh tracks” will provide over 31,000,000 hits. Type in “Big Bang Theory,” and you will find 127,000,000 hits, virtually all of which refer to the show (I didn’t check out all of them, by the way. I simply reached that conclusion using the scientific method based on my observations of the first two pages). Here is a fact: lots of people care about the television show; almost nobody cares about the scientific theory. A search of the show title combined with “laugh tracks” gets 181,000 hits. Lots of people hate the laugh track (lots of people hate the show, too). YouTube has plenty of clips of the show with the laugh track removed. Here are two examples:
These clips draw out two basic responses from interested parties: one, that the show is hurt by the laugh track (so the complaint concerns its use rather than the inherent quality of the show itself); two, that the laugh track lamely attempts to cover up a lousy show. There is no reconciling of these opposing positions, but the removal of the laugh track is disingenuous in that it creates a show wherein the comedic timing has been wholly distorted. The Big Bang Theory is filmed in front of a live audience, and the performance reflects the interaction between audience and cast. The producers of the show claim that the audience responses are genuine and have not been “sweetened,” a term to imply that the laughter has been engineered in production to enhance audience responses. This claim is disingenuous as well. Any production process will inevitably “sweeten” the final product–from placement of microphones to volume applied. All steps in the process of preparing a show for airing are a form of “sweetening.” Simply because the producers do not use canned laughter (laughter recordings NOT from an live audience) does not mean that no laughter manipulation occurs. Of course it does. As always, The Onion provides the best satirical take on laugh tracks with the show by simply raising the volume of the laugh track so that it wholly overpowers the show itself: Big Bang Theory with laugh track enhanced by The Onion
Last month I explored the anatomy of jokes by looking simple joke forms, “light-bulb jokes” in particular, in the ongoing context of applying the scientific method to understanding humor. See: Cracking the Codes of Comedy Part 1
Since I named that post “Part 1,” it would seem that I needed to follow up with a “Part 2.” I am a man of my word.
When I made the implied promise to provide a second installment built off of the popularity of the fine book The Humor Code, I expected to finish the book. I have not. That’s on me and in no way a criticism of the book. Things came up.
But I have continued to think about ways to analyze humor in the classroom using simple joke forms. The light bulb joke form still seems to me to be a rather useful joke. It is simple; it is well established in American culture; and it, in a remarkably short space–time and type–can open up a world of cultural relevance.
I discussed in the earlier post several problematic versions of the joke as they employed clear cultural biases that depended directly on choices of audience and targets. That is the approach that I have recently used in the classroom and to interesting results, to my mind.
I used the light bulb joke as a class activity forcing students to read several versions of the a joke, picking their favorite and justifying their choice base on their understanding of humor in general and their own preferences.
First, I should explain that I am fortunate enough to teach at the University of Alabama (“Roll Tide!”–I am contractually obligated to say that). This is important to the set-up for the three versions of the jokes because of my choice of the targets of the jokes: students from Auburn University. No offense intended. Of course, this context can be adapted to any context and help to illustrate the importance of having a target (or victim) of the light bulb joke format, a group at whom the audience is expected to laugh. In a college context, the obvious target group will simply be the peers at the main rival university. For Alabama students, that means Auburn, clear and simple.
The students responded to the jokes online in a group discussion, so their comments were written individually but in full view of classmates and often in response to earlier comments. There were three versions of the joke described in the following way: general; aggressive, and vulgar. I only required students to read and comment on two of the versions to allow those that wanted to avoid the vulgar version to do so with no penalty. I chose to handle to exercise online for the same reason. I simply did not want to tell the vulgar version to a captive audience. The level of vulgarity, I should add, is rather tame when placed in context with material most students encounter and enjoy. Still, that does not mean that the professor needs to tell it to the class directly. “Will this be on the exam?”
I will type the versions here, so those who wish to avoid the vulgar joke can do so as well. I “wrote” all three jokes, but to my mind, I simply drew from obvious choices and did so in an effort to pick three levels of jokes, from the generic to the profane. I wanted students to deal with audience and target issues, especially as to how “laughing at” and “laughing with” contexts form crucial parts of humor as reflective of cultural tensions. However, my jokes unwittingly revealed a more complex discussion regarding joke structure, which I will discuss below. Here they are:
Version One (general):
How many Auburn students does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Four: one to hold the light bulb and three to turn the ladder.
Version Two (aggressive):
How many Auburn students does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Four: one to hold the light bulb and three to turn the cow.
Version Three (vulgar):
How many Auburn students does it take to screw in a light bulb?
None: they want it to be dark when they f**k the cow.
The results were interesting and more nuanced than I had expected. That is a good sign, by the way.
Version One was voted overwhelmingly as the favorite version, which was a complete surprise to me. I figured that students would reject it for its generic nature, too tame and too dull. Not so. It is generic, yes, but its structure is perfect. And that’s the point that they responded to, which surprised me. They enjoyed the simplicity of the joke and that it was universal (as opposed to trite). Furthermore, in a very typical niceness that is common among my students, they preferred a version that they could enjoy without being too mean to Auburn students. In short, they figured because the joke is so benign that they could laugh along with Auburn students without anyone getting their feelings hurt. I should add, however, that this collegiality would not occur during the Iron Bowl, the football game between the two schools that occurs every late November. Things get more complicated in that context. Just listen to sports-talk radio during football season in the South (any day between August and July).
Version Two was the least popular. In fact, it fell completely flat. This response actually ended up being the most instructive part of the exercise. Students rejected the joke for its faulty structure and faulty assumptions. I had written a bad joke. That is not easy for me to admit. But I blew it.
The problem is the cow (it’s always the cow).
As the joke writer, I assumed a clear context that tied cows to Auburn as a “Cow College” (short for a university with a rural location and that has an agriculture program). I also assumed that my University of Alabama students knew of that context and had always seen it for its potential as a point of derision toward Auburn. Auburn, indeed, does have a strong agricultural history, as a land-grant institution that from its inception served agricultural interests in the state. Bama students, however, were mostly bewildered by that context. “What’s up with the cow?” Only after one student made the connection to Auburn being a “cow college,” did the students follow the rationale for the four Auburn students supposedly using a cow to screw in a light bulb. Even so, they never thought it was funny. The reference to Auburn as a “cow college” is simply too dated for them.
Fail. But the failure is more complicated. Even when students became aware of the cow connection, the visual component of the joke remains unclear. So the joke not only misfired due to the weakness of the cow reference but also because the audience could not visualize what the hell was going on in any case. In my mind, the image is clear: one student sits astride the cow, and the others pull and tug at the cow to try to get it to walk in a circle as the rider holds the light bulb as it twists into the socket–“Comic gold, Jerry!” They thus provide the same physical movement as with the ladder version, but their efforts are harder and more ridiculous–dumber.
The presence of the cow in this version is intentionally more aggressive and insinuating than the generic ladder of the first version because of the “cow college” reference and the fact that it shows modern students still tied to a primitive solution (beast of burden) to provide electric light in a modern age. Get it? But none of that matters if the visual is not clearly set up. If the audience cannot “see” the absurdity of the cow in the scene or accept any rationale for it to be there, there is no humor.
Simple jokes are complicated.
Let’s pause for a moment to refer to yet another light bulb joke that implies a very sophisticated reference point for its successful punch line.
How many existentialists does it take to change a light bulb?
Two. One to change the light bulb and one to observe how the light bulb symbolizes
an incandescent beacon of subjectivity in a netherworld of Cosmic Nothingness.
I include this here to point out how important common reference points are to successful humor. Although this joke requires some audience awareness of “cosmic nothingness,” the joke itself is no different than the seemingly more simple “cow” reference in my version above. The same rules apply. You have to “see” the light bulb in reference to the cow; or, “see”the light bulb in reference to cosmic nothingness. For a cow to be floating in a netherworld of cosmic nothingness, well, that’s another joke altogether.
The third version had very little support. Some students pointed out something that I had hoped for–that provocative language and vulgarity do have some place in our cultural relationship to simple jokes. Unlike version two, the vulgar version is structurally sound. It is clear and concise, and the profanity as well as the reference to bestiality, carry the power of surprise and conviction. Yes, it is a very aggressive, mean-spirited, and even vicious attack upon the victims of the joke. Still, it is a good joke structurally. But it is not a very funny one the whole once the shock value fades. It is too mean, too clearly desirous of being smugly mean than being cleverly funny. The vulgarity is, as a result, more gratuitous than humorous. I think, also, that students worry about the cow. I worry about it, too.
Light bulb jokes are useful. Student responses to the ones I have employed in class should help us all get ready to move into material that is more delicate as the semester progresses. Being able to see the nuances of social and historical tensions even within the simplest jokes should allow us to examine the structure of a wider variety of jokes and help us assess the complex nature of the codes of comedy. And cows.
It was a golden idea. Take as many major stars as a film budget would allow and set them on a madcap search of buried treasure. It was a perfect American comic premise built around two essential tropes: the American open road as symbol for the pursuit of happiness and the unassailable and American belief that we are all destined to strike it rich. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (196), directed by Stanley Kramer and starring every single major star of film and television in the 1950s–everyone of them–is an American classic and an essential film for anyone interested in saying such things.
The title uses “mad” four times, for those who are uncertain just how mad the film is. Kramer, it seems, had wanted to use it five times but was convinced to hold the number to four because five would be redundant. To clarify: five is redundant; four is OK. There are lots of people in Hollywood who are paid to make such decisions, so we should trust them. Kramer later regretted giving in to the pressure to choose four. This fact may help explain why an early draft of his later film starring Spencer Tracy and Sydney Poitier had the title, “Guess Which Five People Are Coming to Dinner.” But I am getting off topic. I am happy with four, so let’s just leave it at that.
The film was an immediate hit and earned critical accolades as well, a difficult task for film comedies historically. It became one of the highest grossing films of 1963. It was nominated for Golden Globe awards for best musical/comedy film and for Jonathan Winters for best actor in a musical/comedy. It won an academy award for sound editing. AFI lists it at #40 for its list of the best American film comedies.
The film’s strength is its combination of our cultural confidence in the road as symbol for self-development and discovery and the contradictory mainstream belief that we are, in the end, a community of freedom loving individuals on a shared pursuit of happiness. We are a democracy. In this context, the film takes on a more satirical potential with the simple plot structure that takes this open-road ideal from its most romantic notion and reduce it to its most cut-throat race to find buried treasure; Americans of the mainstream as crazed road-pirates. Lennie Pike, the common-man character played brilliantly by Jonathan Winters, provides the best piece of dialogue revealing this core satirical voice within the film: “Then they all decide that I’m supposed to get a smaller share! That I’m somebody extra special stupid, or something! That they don’t even care if it’s a democracy! And in a democracy, it don’t matter how stupid you are, you still get an equal share!”
Sounds like class warfare to Bill O’Reilly. Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad.
The Criterion Collection released the film on 21 January 2014, and, as with all Criterion productions, the breadth and depth of material provided in support of the film may encourage further analysis of the film and renewed interest. That is a good thing. The Criterion It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World offers the complete film as Kramer had hoped to release before accepting cuts required by United Artists. This director’s cut runs 197 minutes (the theatrical version was cut to a more modest, though still long, 154 minutes). That seems worthy of a fifth “mad” in the title.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World was released in November 7, 1963, a few weeks before the mainstream ethos of the 1950s would end abruptly with the assassination of President Kennedy. The jarring slingshot of the national sensibility into the impending trauma of the 1960s has stifled the film for subsequent generations, despite its initial success in the box office and the high quality of the comedic performances. Its silliness and playfulness, for many viewers, has trapped it in the amber of the mainstream open-road ideal of normalcy. The characters, in the end, seem simply perverse caricatures of middle America. The defining sensibility is then simply silliness. The road as mainstream outlet for affirming adventures of the post-war dream withstood subversion of Kerouac and the Merry Pranksters but could not survive in tact the murder of the President of the United States as he traveled the open road in Dallas, in an open car. Madcap road adventures had come face-to-face with sheer madness.
But it is time to take another look at Kramer’s Mad-x4 World. It has a place in American humor classrooms and overall American film comedy canon beyond its whimsy, though its playfulness is enough for my tastes to keep in in moderate rotation. It is a zany road-trip adventure filled with slapstick humor and broad physical comedy and playful dialogue. It is also, with its long list of comedic performers in main roles and in cameos, a survey of American film comedy. As such, it can be viewed as a primer on mainstream American comedy of the first half of the twentieth century. It is a madcap film (fourth use of “madcap”), but it may also have more in common with other subversive satires of the 1960s than has been readily assumed. Perhaps the Criterion edition will encourage a more comprehensive look at a masterwork of American humor. Mad, mad, mad, mad, mad. Five.
Tracy Wuster, Vice President–American Humor Studies Association
The American Humor Studies Association has been active this past year working to promote humor studies as an academic field, and we are excited to share our work with you. Last year, we sponsored excellent panels at MLA and ALA. Many of our members presented on humor and Mark Twain at the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, which featured an excellent keynote speech by Peter Kaminsky on the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. We also published two issues of Studies in American Humor in the last year, as well as our newsletter, “To Wit.” This year sees the transition from Ed Piacentino to Judith Yaross Lee as editor of the journal, with myself as book review editor. Look for an interview with Judith on “Humor in America” soon and an excerpt from her wonderful new book, Twain’s Brand.
The AHSA is excited for our upcoming work for the next year:
*First, the AHSA is very excited to announce the creation of the “Jack Rosenbalm Prize for American Humor.” Jack was the first managing editor, and then editor, of Studies in American Humor and a strong promoter of humor studies as a field. He was awarded the Charlie Award in 1993.
Awarded tor the best article on American humor by a pre-tenure scholar, graduate student, adjunct professor, or independent scholar published in (or accepted for publication in) a peer-reviewed academic journal. Articles published in 2013 are eligible for the inaugural award. Please submit by 12/15/2013 to: email@example.com
See link above for more information.
*The AHSA is working on Calls for Papers for three conferences next year–ALA, MLA, and our Quadrennial conference, which will be in New Orleans in December 2014. Look for the CFP for that and for MLA soon. The ALA call is looking for abstracts in the following topics:
1. “Political Humor from Franklin to Colbert”
2. “Teaching American Humor” (A Roundtable)
3. “Graphic Humor in American Periodicals” (Co-Sponsored with the Research Society for American Periodicals)
See our announcements page for more information.
*The AHSA is also co-sponsoring a Works in Progress symposium with the Mark Twain Circle of America in February. This working conference is intended to advance publication of work on American Humor, Mark Twain, and related work in progress. Individuals papers and group symposia will be offered relating to work in progress which will be presented by participants and discussed and developed with the help of attending scholars.
Where: The Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, Massachusetts (http://www.redlioninn.com/)
When: Thursday-Saturday February 20-22
Information at the announcements page above.
* Call for Papers: MAD Magazine and Its Legacies Special issue of Studies in American Humor, Fall 2014
Since 1952, MAD Magazine has regaled humor lovers and inspired humor producers in many media. Studies in American Humor, the journal of the American Humor Studies Association, invites submission of scholarly papers devoted to MAD Magazine and its legacies for a special issue of the journal appearing in the fall of 2014, coedited by John Bird (Winthrop University) and Judith Yaross Lee (Ohio University).
Topics might include, but are not limited to: *humor, verbal and/or visual *subversive humor *satire (as technique, analysis of individual examples or themes, etc.) *parody (as technique, analysis of individual examples or themes, etc.) *individual artists and writers *regular and occasional features *one or mode recurrent themes (politics, technology, parenthood, suburbia) *cultural impact and legacies *influence, general and specific (including direct influence on individuals and genres) *reception
Potential contributors should send queries and abstracts (500-750 words) by October 1, 2013 or complete manuscripts by June 1, 2014. Email queries and abstracts to firstname.lastname@example.org. General information on Studies in American Humor and submission guidelines are available athttp://studiesinamericanhumor.org/.
*You can join the American Humor Studies Association by mail or electronically. Information on joining can be found on our website. The AHSA website contains a section for syllabus, assignments, and information on teaching American humor. We welcome any additions to this resources. “Humor in America” will be running a piece on using podcasts to teach dialect humor, prepared by our Executive Director–Jan McIntire Strasburg–in the next few weeks. Please contact me–Tracy Wuster (email@example.com)–if you have humor pedagogy resources you would like to share.
*Finally, the AHSA is excited to announce that Studies in American Humor will soon be included in JStor in its full run from 1976 through our recent issues. JSTor is kindly scanning past issues and hopes to include the journal in its next update. Keep an eye out.
It is fun to teach humor. Laughter keeps students awake more effectively than most things. The promise of relief or diversion from the cultural and personal stresses implicit in all humor (and explicit in much of it), to my mind, not only makes for more pleasant classroom discussions but also helps to make those discussions more productive. This I believe.
But I have my doubts when it comes to exploring satire. I have revealed my misgivings in this spot before (Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically); see also Sharon McCoy’s excellent response: Embracing the Ambiguity of Satire).
Within the overall umbrella of my courses on American Humor, satire demands its space, and rightfully so. But it’s harder to get through the material, and methinks many students pick up on my hesitations here and there. I don’t mind the difficulty factor, it’s the pain of the subject matter that wears me out. The suffering underlying much of humor in general stands foregrounded in satire. This is the nature of the art form. Satire cannot hide its rage, or its hopelessness, and as a result there is very little room for the pleasant relief of laughter. Satire is rarely funny “ha ha,” or funny “weird.” It’s just painful.
I have just read what I consider to be one of the most engaging pieces of satire on political and cultural intransigence that I have encountered since first reading Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” a work by the American master that is perfect both in its conciseness and its artistic vision.
Twain’s short piece, which has a stranger translate the prayers of a people on the verge of war, is powerful for its accuracy as a comment on the human capacity for making war in the name of god and its recognition that the commentary is timeless because the war making machine is timeless, and unending. Students will always study it because they will always understand its targets. The Onion has just provided another piece that seems, to me, worthy of being taught alongside Twain’s work.
It is an “Editorial Opinion” that first appeared on August 13, 2013 (Issues 49.33). The title is: “The Onion” Encourages Israel and Palestine Not to Give a Single, Goddamn Inch.”
Here is a link to the article: http://www.theonion.com/articles/the-onion-encourages-israel-and-palestine-not-to-g,33473/
Standing in opposition to “the international community” which has pleaded with the two sides to meet to discuss peace, The Onion satirically asks the sides to remain steadfast and persist in absolutist positions:
“Israelis and Palestinians, you must accept nothing short of total victory against those who threaten your religion and way of life. Sacrificing just one of your ideals would at this point be tantamount to compete and utter failure.”
The writers of The Onion then follow this assertion with details that simply recount the history of the last 60 years (and by implication 2,000 years?) in four concise sentences:
“If a settlement is built, you must attack it. If a settlement is attacked, you must rebuild it. Rocks must be met with bullets; bullets must be met with rocket fire; rocket fire must be met with helicopter assaults. This is the only noble way forward for either side.”
Noble. Forward. The writers know, and readers know, the words “noble” and “forward” serve as the key bits of irony here. There is nothing noble in the bloodshed, nothing forward looking about continued intransigence.
Building on this sardonic tone, the satire gets heavier and heavier, and the reader wants relief while at the same time knowing that none is forthcoming. As with Twain’s work, the writers are devoted to the point of the satire, which is the grotesque pointlessness of continued aggression. The secondary target of the piece, though, may also be the ever-present demands from the international community to urge the parties to sue for peace. Pointless. I don’t really believe that peace efforts are pointless, by the way, but it seems the accurate thing to say here in the context of The Onion satire, the art. If we are to teach such aggressive and unnerving satire, we must be ready to accept the full brunt of the hopelessness the piece addresses. And thus figure out a way to help students talk about it. I am open to suggestions.
I just know that as I read this, I wanted an outlet, some peek from behind the curtain from the jester. But it is not there because there is no peace ready to peek out from behind any curtains either. The article ends concisely and with a key repetition:
“Remain steadfast. Remain strong. And never give up your noble fight, even if it takes several more generations.”
That, my gentle readers, is first-rate satire. It is exhausting and no fun at all.
Teaching American Humor:
What is funny?
I begin all courses on humor by polling students on their tastes. What do they find funny and why? It is a logical beginning from a pedagogical standpoint because it emphasizes the importance of their voice in the class while also asserting a key point of any study of humor: it’s always personal. Students bring an array of predispositions to the humorous material the course will cover. They know what they like, but they may not be so sure as to WHY they like it. We need to use that tension throughout the course. I must also make sure that while they explore their personal preferences that they also find connections to audiences across time and mediums. In short, they need to recognize that the personal responses also have historical, social, and political connections.
A questionnaire assessing students’ tastes in humor could take any number of forms and approaches, and I would love to hear other ideas. I am certain that many teachers do something very similar to what I am sharing here.
Here are the core questions focused on getting students to open up about their tastes:
**Do you have a good sense of humor?
Obviously, the class will respond overwhelmingly in the affirmative. “YES!!” they shout, “WE HAVE A GREAT SENSE OF HUMOR!” This is true, of course, and I congratulate them on this fine accomplishment. It does, however, set me up for obvious jokes as we discuss their answers to the next two questions wherein they provide examples in support of their good senses of humor.
**List two favorite funny films.
**List two favorite television situation comedies.
There is a wide range of answers to these questions, though they lean very heavy to the most recent hits. For example, The Hangover (1 and 2) has been popular for three semesters in a row, though I am certain that run will be gone by next fall–unless two or three more sequels are released this summer. But it is in no way dominant as a favorite. As for sitcoms, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother rank high, but, as with the films, there are no real favorites. This list is broad, with most shows getting only one or two votes (out of 35-40 students).
The wide range is the hoped-for response. It gives us an opportunity to mention quite a few films and shows and seek common ground among the varied responses. The more substantive question follows:
**Judging from your favorite films and sitcoms, how would you define or classify your taste in humor?
This is a key moment in the self-assessment. Students cannot just name a recent familiar title; rather, they have to justify it by defining the attributes that lead to laughter. Here is a rather typical range of the phrases they provide:
–Dry, Witty, Intellectual, Sarcastic
–Vulgar, Unnatural, Tasteless, Crude
–Simple, Physical, Stupid
The two largest responses are consistently the first two above, and they are generally equally represented even though they seem contradictory. A significant group of students always values wit above all else. An equally large group values crudity above all else. Some students see themselves in both. The inherent tensions between these two seemingly opposite taste preferences is the crux of the course, perhaps, as students explore the cultural values that encourage–demand–both strains in American humor.
The next question gets to important issues related to how we experience humor:
**Which is funniest scenario? Choose one:
1. –A man slips on a banana peel.
2. –A man who is showing off his skills as a dancer slips on a banana peel.
3. –A man who has just been dumped by his girlfriend slips on a banana peel as he walks away.
The battle for supremacy is waged between answers 2 and 3. A Few students will choose number 1 because they hesitate to admit any pleasure in the pain of others. A man slipping on a banana peel is enough–small harm, small chuckle. When you add in an element of hubris, then the humor potential jumps up exponentially. The guy showing off deserves humbling; that is an easy choice to make. An equal number of students, however, will opt for the other guy in number 3, the one they call “the loser.” What does he deserve? Well, that hardly matters; we simply love someone falling down, the further the better. In all cases, of course, we are all simply thankful that we are not the victim of the vagaries of banana peels and their inexplicable powers for being so damned slippery. It’s a cold world.
The final question ascertaining students’ taste in humor is the easiest one.
**Which is the funnier scenario? Choose one:
–a group of cows
–a group of sheep
Everybody knows that cows are funnier than sheep. Everybody.
Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?
Here is your challenge: come up with a syllabus of material for a course on American Humor. Good luck with that.
First, count yourself lucky. In a parallel universe you could be asked to teach a course on American poetry before 1800 (here’s a hint as to how unpleasant that could be: “Day of Doom”). Unlike the poor soul who is stuck with Michael Wigglesworth and a handful of other dour Puritans, you have choices. In this universe, at least, you have the good fortune to teach humor. But you still have the formidable task of choosing from myriad possibilities. To even begin narrowing them down to a manageable body of work to fit into a course seems rather maddening in and of itself—Doom.
Where to begin? What to include? Why a duck?
I would like to take this forum to put together a working list of humorists, etc., and works that could be deemed essential. What I propose is an American Humor ……(wait for it)… Canon. If you are opposed to the rigid, standard-bearing, pomposity of the word, I understand. If you couldn’t care less and figure any guidance at all that may help you put together a class (or many classes) would be useful, then I greet you as a kindred soul.
This may start a fight. That is not what I am seeking, but I figure a discussion on anything but presidential politics may be welcome. I hope to stir interest and ultimately move toward building a broad and annotated database of sorts that could serve teachers and students alike. And serve American Humor. But there is no getting around the fact that such an enterprise forces limitations. I always tell students (in all courses) that I could easily put together multiple sections of the course without duplicating anything. That is not to intimidate them with the frightful power of my brain (that comes later); it is merely to confess up front that I am playing a bit of a shell game. Generally, they don’t mind. They embrace my “less is more” philosophy and often suggest an even more streamlined syllabus. Great kids, all around.
So, what should be taught?
I will serve up my neck with a few suggestions and wait for others to respond. I currently teach a course called “American Popular Humor,” and I am quite fond of it. I added the “popular” to be able to focus on works that have enduring and widespread appeal because, first, that interested me; second, it gave me some cover for leaving out works that I had never heard of. That statement has all the marks of a sound decision. I do not offer this as an ideal or even finished course; rather, I include it here simply to provide a reference point.
I divide the course into thirds: 1) prose and performance; 2) film comedy; and 3) situation comedy. Now, you can start being appalled at how much I have already left out simply by stating three general categories. It gets worse.
Here is my list of required material for prose and performance:
Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman, Assistant Professor, St. Edward’s UniversityAmy Nathan
Wright, Assistant Professor, St. Edward’s University
Tracy Wuster, Adjunct Professor, The University of Texas at Austin
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally written for the newsletter of the Association of General and Liberal Studies, but the newsletter was discontinued. Amy and Laura agreed that we could publish it here.
“…liberal learning—the development of knowledge, skills, values, and habits of mind characteristic of an educated person.” –AGLS Mission Statement
Whether humor is used as a strategy for teaching or as content in a general education course, one major goal of a liberal education should be the development of our students’ senses of humor—the skills and habits of mind to interpret and use humor well.
The cliché with humor is that if you have to explain a joke, then it ceases to be funny. The implication is that we, as educators, don’t really need to teach humor, since students either get it or they don’t, and that by explaining humor, we take the fun out of it.
This is true, insofar as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Humor cannot be translated into a non-funny statement of fact or analysis, which is the meaning most people mean when warning against explaining humor. But instances of humor can be contextualized, historicized, and interpreted in ways that can deepen students’ understanding of key subjects, of other people’s points of view, and of a society in which humor has long been a central means of communicating and contesting societal visions and values.
Humor is especially useful in general education classes to introduce, explore, and deepen the understanding of difficult subjects, such as race and gender, for a diverse population of students. In these cases, teachers must help students come to a rich and nuanced understanding of humor, or its can end up accomplishing the opposite of one’s intentions—it can reinforce stereotypes and divide people.
How do we help students distinguish between racial humor and racist humor? How do we help students distinguish between gender-based humor and sexist humor? How do we get students to take race and gender seriously? How do we use humor in the classroom, whether telling the jokes ourselves or providing comedic examples, while engaging students’ critical thinking skills so they get the joke?