“Can I get to that heart? Can I get to that mind?”A tribute to the frank, contested humor of intense teachers—and to Henry Higgins
Nine years ago in my first class in graduate school, a course on approaches to teaching writing, we read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as a break from composition theory. I was thrilled, but I reigned in my enthusiasm when I noted that others in the class, including my professor who I respected immensely, felt apologetic about the book. Words like abusive and misogynistic were thrown casually around the seminar table, as they sometimes are in graduate seminars. Why was there this worry about the teacher in the story—about Henry Higgins? I was surprised that so many disliked his method because I had always thought of him as an effective teacher. My only real support for this inkling was that I found him . . . funny.
Did I have this wrong and, if so, what was the source of my misunderstanding? Or, if I was right that Henry Higgins was a funny and therefore benevolent man (I had collapsed the two conditions in my mind), what caused the confusion among others in my graduate school class? Why had everyone else failed to note his humor? And what did I see in his humor anyway? Could it be that I thought his humor lightened—or even completely neutralized—his seemingly harsh dealings with Eliza Doolittle? Or did we all have it wrong? Did a “correct” reading of the play really fall somewhere in the middle—was it really that Higgins was both funny and harsh? I began to doubt my first intuition about professor Higgins, as I seemed to be faced with a more complicated story.
The irony was that my own professor in this class, a good man with a fiery heart, who was, that very semester, dying of cancer (this would be his last seminar on teaching writing), was a gruff man himself. He and Henry Higgins shared a vocational intensity. In fact, like Henry Higgins, this professor had made it his life’s work to teach writing (or “speech”) to the underserved, hugely advancing the trend in what is now called “access” education at top universities. He was passionately focused on this until his last breaths—and he was passionately focused on us, his students; he read our final papers days before he died. Although we, his students, didn’t have a personal rapport with him—we would never have imagined going out for a beer with this man—our engagement with theories of speech and writing, particularly where low-income populations were concerned, kept him alert, stubborn, and justifiably cranky until the end.
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.
When I am asked to teach a new course, I often revert back to my coaching days. I approach its purpose and structure with all the seriousness and lofty intentions of an English Premier League (EPL) manager. As in soccer, I feel the pressure and necessity of a solid performance. Prior to kickoff, I spent many a late night watching films, meeting with those who held superior knowledge of the game, reviewing formation and dependable goal scorers. All in all, I thought I created a well-researched, slam-dunk course. (Please pardon my mixed sports metaphor – this is my first post – and I am currently suffering from a case of the recently diagnosed DB – dissertation brain.) This semester, as head of an introduction to literary genres team, with humor as my reliable captain, I wanted my students and my course not only to be good, but great. Ryan Giggs great. Or, for those of you less-than-enthusiastic fans, Cristiano Ronaldo great.
Pedagogically, I wanted to build an historical context and contemporary appreciation for my freshman students through an introduction to various types of humor, including farce, satire, dark comedy, parody, slapstick and screwball humor. In our first few meetings, I lectured a bit, and we watched various YouTube videos, SNL skits, and The Daily Show segments, which afforded them comical examples and repartees.
Classic Three Stooges video
We read articles on humor, its theories, and laughter’s physiological benefits (see Wilkins and Eisenbraum’s abstract). I was trying to convince my students of humor’s merit, of its historical purpose and value in our modern daily lives. For many reasons, I felt protective of humor, and I wanted them to take the study of it seriously.
In order to accomplish this goal, as well as my course objectives, I stacked my team. My strikers right out of the gate were Swift and Twain. Behind them were O’Henry, O’Connor, Thurber, and Stewart. Two newcomers, Gionfriddo and Alexie, provided necessary depth to my defense. I believed that with the right combination of gentle guidance and direct instruction, my students would grasp the dichotomous nature of my course: play and purpose. While I wanted to set a mutually understood context for laughter, (necessary, I believe, for them to ‘get’ the jokes), I deeply desired for them to see the author’s purpose behind the chuckle: to question and critique social structures and ideology imbedded into America’s framework, as well as their own lives. For the first two weeks of the course, my game plan failed. I had spent so much time trying to force them to understand the legitimacy of humor that I had overlooked the aspect of playing with the language, the situations posed to us by various readings.
Around this time of year, I can always feel the tension whenever I walk into the building. Everyone I greet has puffy eyes, the bags under them extending all the way to their knees, from too many late nights, too many hours hunched over computer screens, books, and essays, frantically trying to get it all done before the deadline.
And those are just the instructors.
The students, though they have the resilience of youth on their side, tend to be in even worse shape, all of their tension exacerbated by too many dining hall meals, homesickness, lingering self-doubt, and being rousted out of bed or the shower in the wee small hours of the morning by fire alarms pulled in the dorms.
And yet, the serious business of learning must continue, and it must continue to be effective.
Humor can be a useful tool to deflect the tension and keep us focused on what matters. It can also be an extremely effective mnemonic device if it hammers home a concept. But I have discovered over the years, for myself anyway, that it isn’t a good idea to wait until this time of the year to try to inject that sanity-saving humor. It works best if by this time of the semester, it is already a habit.
Numerous studies have explored the links between laughter and learning, demonstrating that when humor complements and reinforces the concepts — not distracting from them — students retain more, their anxiety levels drop, and their motivation increases (Garner 2006). Self-deprecating humor on the part of professors relaxes students and makes them seem more approachable or understandable (Shatz and LoSchiavo 2005). The focus must always remain on learning, and a teacher must be careful not to undercut his or her purpose or credibility by becoming more of an entertainer in students’ eyes (Bryant and Zillman 2005).
A teacher must never forget the power dynamic in the room, either, and use humor to target a student or group of students (Gorham and Christophel 1990), or “put them in their place.” Such humor is far too aggressive and has no place in the classroom. As I’ve written elsewhere on Humor in America (Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?), humor depends upon some level of shared ground, and because of this reveals the boundaries of a particular community. Making a student or group of students the butt of a joke sets them outside the community rather than bringing them in, and further, raises anxiety levels in all of the students, causing them to wonder what would make them become a target. This doesn’t mean that you can’t kid around with students or gently tease them, but the focus must always be on enhancing their learning or reassuring them that you don’t doubt their abilities. You can never forget who holds the real power in the classroom, or the damage you can casually do.
Humor shouldn’t be forced or feel obligatory either. It isn’t for everyone, but it sure gets me through the day, and my students seem to enjoy it. More important, they learn, doing themselves and me proud.
I teach writing and literature, with a focus on research. Much of the humor I use in the classroom is geared toward revealing the absurdity behind bad habits of writing or sloppy thinking, or toward removing some of the mystery about what makes good scholars, writers, and researchers — and students’ anxiety about whether they have what it takes.
Because many of them come to the classroom well-trained in timed exam writing, they tend to want to have a thesis before they start writing, to need to know what they want to say before they begin, before they really look into the evidence. I’ve kidded around with them about this for years — if a thesis is an interpretation of evidence, how can you interpret what you haven’t got yet? But this video is the best thing I’ve found for helping students see that when you narrow your focus too soon, you cherry-pick the evidence, seeing only what you want to see or have decided that you will see — and often miss the best part in the process:
After watching this video, I have a ready-made shorthand for marginal comments or conferences. As the video says, “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for,” so it is dangerous to have a thesis too early, and in the evidence-gathering part of the process, you must remain open to what is there. When a student is having problems with this, I can just point out briefly that there seem to be some moonwalking bears around. And instead of getting defensive, they laugh ruefully, and settle in to talk about what else might be there.
Another problem students often have is missing key facts in a text, reading hurriedly or sloppily, and ending up with arguments that cannot be supported because the facts are against them. While there is never one correct interpretation of a text, there are wrong ones, interpretations that violate or ignore facts. But when you point out that a student is doing this, s/he often feels defensive, stupid. Humor can help. So I tell students, “You can’t make a stunningly brilliant argument about the symbolic significance of a yellow shirt if . . . Continue reading →
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.
Good families have a proper evening meal, all members gathered around the dinner table. No television.
Good parents reserve dinnertime for wholesome conversation about the day. It is a forum to work toward solving problems and to reaffirm the grace and power of the family unit. A celebration of middle America, the family mealtime is a profound expression of togetherness.
I know this from watching American sitcoms.
Few actual families perform this revered ritual with any level of success, confidence, or consistency. I know this from experience and a good dose of common sense. But most believe in the ritual nonetheless. I am no exception. My wife and I think that we are good parents, but deep down we fear being exposed as frauds because we rarely sit down as a family for dinner. Mostly, we feed the kids (two of them) as they sit at the table and watch a television, or we set up trays for them in the den so they can watch a bigger television. As they eat, we go about making dinner for ourselves—something defined by ingredients rather than shapes. At no time do we all four sit down together, almost never.
If you want an image of what’s wrong with America, my house at dinnertime may be useful. An anthropologist could easily conclude that there is nothing cohesive or unifying about this “family” time at all. I’m inclined to agree.
As a teacher, one of my standard bits is to ask students to think about the normalizing influence of the sitcom and its role in shaping American culture. I usually ask them to talk about their own family dinners and relate them to many scenes from popular situation comedies that reenact that iconic moment with regularity. It is a valuable way to get students to recognize formulas within the art form. This is not to say that the sitcom dinner table is always defined as a bastion of family accord. Quite the contrary, the dinner table is often raucous. Even if the family discussion is contentious, however, the location of the dinner table has a calming influence. It perpetually gives the impression that at any moment everyone at the table could spontaneously hold hands and say “grace.”
Of the many tropes of sitcoms, the use of the dinner table (or kitchen table, etc.) as a gathering place is both logical and convenient, on one hand, and symbolically resonant and thematically useful, on the other. A family-based sitcom could hardly avoid using the eating table as a major setting. The convenience, however, also allows for sitcom writers to create an enduring statement of normalcy for the American viewing families, one whose features steadily blur distinctions between real American families and our models on television.
Implicit in asking students to discuss their own family dinner memories is the prodding goal of getting them to assess how well their families stack up to television families, and, moreover, how they feel about the spaces in between their reality and the created normalcy of the sitcom. For those interested in the study of the American sitcom as a cultural production, paying some attention to the family dinner table can be valuable. In this space, I would like to suggest that focusing on such scenes and imagery across a range of programs over time could be a productive exercise for students (for everyone). We will take just a short glimpse in this post. Perhaps others will add to the images in subsequent posts.
Few sitcoms resonate in our culture as deeply as Ozzie and Harriet, which ran on ABC from 1952 to 1966. Although it was not a blockbuster hit, it earned a steady and large following and has since become the preferred shorthand reference—from supporters and detracters—for the mainstream family ideals. My favorite reference is in the Coen Brothers film, Raising Arizona, as the aspiring father, H.I., in acknowledging his failures as a proper head of household, states, “Well, it’s not Ozzie and Harriet.” The image below captures the ideals represented by the show as symbolized by the family around the table. We should note, of course, that Harriet is firmly frozen in her role as housewife and mother, standing and serving the family. Likewise, all eyes are on the father as the source of the pleasant family moment. Gee, how does he do it (while wearing a sweater vest and white socks, to boot)?
Ozzie and Harriet, Defining the American Dinner Table
The show establishes a useful pattern that many sitcoms would follow over the years. If the scene around the table is breakfast, a conflict is introduced as the family shares a meal and either some plan or action is initiated to drive the episode; if the scene is around dinner, just as often the conflict is resolved. There are many variations of this theme. Even Ozzie and Harriet would allow the family eating routine to be punctuated by conflict, usually squabbles between the two brothers—enough conflict to set up the modest humor without introducing anything with deeper social tensions. An especially useful episode, “Separate Rooms,” aired February 6, 1953. Here is a YouTube link to the first part of the episode: http://www.youtube.com/watchNR=1&feature=endscreen&v=OCy0TF_z7a8
Hello all. Do you teach classes on humor or related topics?
One of our goals here at “Humor in America” is the discussion of humor studies pedagogy. Such as:
Teaching American Sitcoms: Ode to The Beverly Hillbillies by Jeff Melton
Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically) by Jeff Melton
Today, our goal is to extend this conversation by politely request that any and all of you who teach, or have taught, humor studies courses (broadly defined) submit them to us to post here (as well as on the website of the American Humor Studies Association, with your permission of course). The plan is to create a single post with a number of links to various syllabi as a resource for teachers and scholars. You can send it as a word doc or pdf.
So, please send us your syllabi for courses on humor, Mark Twain, comics, Kurt Vonnegut, etc. etc. to: firstname.lastname@example.org …. Let me know if you have any questions. Thank you. Tracy, editor.
Writing for a broad audience and creating digital content…
two major learning goals of the 21st century college.
Need a place to post class projects focused on humor studies? Think about “Humor in America.” We would be willing (and excited) to work with professors to post class projects as part of the site. We can give practical advice and link to projects that will be placed into the academic discussion of American humor. Please contact us (email@example.com) well in advance of needing to post anything.
As an example, please see my own class website for fall 2011. Although this class was not focused on humor, the student projects and overall layout might give you an idea of how such material could be laid out. Having students post material on the internet has two main benefits, as I see it. First, students seem to take the project more seriously, as the material will be read not only by me but by their classmates and by a (theoretically, at least) larger audience. Second, I can respond to student work directly on the website, instead of writing comments on papers that probably won’t be picked up next semester. Additionally, I had several students who were excited to share their work with parents, friends, etc.
I would recommend looking at these specific pages: