2016–MLA Austin

Keywords in Humor Studies Roundtable

Papers will be posted here by December 5, 2015.

429. Keywords for Humor Studies

Friday, 8 January5:15–6:30 p.m., 6B, ACC

Program arranged by the American Humor Studies Association

Presiding: Tracy Wuster, Univ. of Texas, Austin

Speakers: James Caron, Univ. of Hawai‘i (on Satire), Mānoa; Jennifer Ann Hughes, Averett Univ.; Peter Kunze, Univ. of Texas, Austin; John Wharton Lowe, Univ. of Georgia; Tracy Wuster (on Humorists)


Keyword: Satire

James E. Caron, University of Hawaiʽi at Mānoa


On Satire


I’m for it.

(Please, sir, can we have some more?)


A palate cleanser

From all the multimedia

Nonsense that pulses round

The body politic.


“Satire” (a working definition)

Signifies a comic attitude and a comic tactic,

Names a mode within the discourse of The Comic.


Entails an act of judgment

Based on a (moral) value

Made with an intent to reform/change

The comic butt (target) of a ridiculing presentation.


“Reform” is NOT about a real-world social or political policy reformation, but rather a metanoia, a change in thinking/perception/belief, a repentance of the old way of thinking, perceiving, believing.

Satire is THE most public of comic modes, always part of the public square conversation within a body politic, the comic mode most involved with civic issues and so most likely to have extra-textual elements referring to current social and political events.

Thus satire is the most appropriate keyword for students of the comic arts in this roundtable discussion, given the MLA theme: “Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future.”

The need for satire never goes away: there will always be the imperfections of human beings fueling the conception that we all should and could be better. Satire, says Northrop Frye, “strikes roots in the soil of stupidity.” The use of satire implies that you can fix stupid (or at least retard its coral-reef process of accumulation). Satire does not need to project Utopia, but it does suggest a progress forward and toward a more perfect union of citizens in a given society.

The issue of what is legitimate satire is also clearly in the public square conversation, witness all the essays in popular publications about the topic, especially after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Often, the controversy pits free speech against safe spaces, an ability to joke in public against fear of verbal (or physical) attacks.



I add two supplemental theses to the definition of satire, but without looking for a cathedral door onto which they could be nailed. That image, however, is appropriate enough for the topic in that it implies protest against entrenched social norms while it also implies rules and parameters for protest, i.e. rational discourse versus blood in the street.

Thesis #1: Satire is marked by a methodological paradox because it strives to aid in the process of social change using the verbal violence of ridicule and artful insult.

Satire entails a social responsibility and appears eminently responsible in its moral/judgmental aspect. However, its inherent playfulness, endemic to all comic artifacts, plus the degradation of the comic butt entailed in its ridicule, leaves satire open to the charge of being amoral or unethical.

Thesis #2: A concern within Western thought for centuries, the dilemma of ethical ridicule is exacerbated by the post-modern condition, i.e. a lack of centering norms or standard values as a moral metric for making comic judgments complicates the contemporary production and reception of satire.

The satirist projects a world of knaves and fools. In pure forms of such representation, the satirist must be distanced from this world. He or she is not represented within the world but instead remains outside it, god-like in his or her judgments. We might label such purer instances of satire as “classic” because the necessary god-like transcendence must be supported by a stable cosmology as well as an “aristocratic” attitude and outlook that imply clear standards applied universally.

Instead, the current environment for a satiric standard displays discursive integration, in which “discourses of news, politics, entertainment, and marketing have grown deeply inseparable [and] are being melded into previously unimagined combinations” (Geoffry Baym).

Stephen Colbert’s neologism “truthiness” might be used to name the postmodern mash-up of discourses, especially those that are supposed to keep fact and fiction separate. Similarly, truthiness captures the shift from an older discursive frame for civic issues, one that features an institutional process of rational argument in the service of a public good, to new discursive frames that (for example) render politics as a sport, as events lodged in the theater of show business. In these new frames, drama and spectacle reign and citizens become the audience. Politics are marketed so that the media speaks without irony of the Republican party “brand,” and the news or an interview becomes free advertising for the brand.


Keyword: Humorist

Tracy Wuster

“America has produced four . . . genuine and genial humorists in Hawthorne, Mrs Stowe, Holmes, and Lowell. These have given to American literature a better right of challenging a comparison with other literatures, in the department of humour, than perhaps in any other.”

What, then, is a humorist? Scholarship on American humor, and humor studies in general, has looked at “Humor” as its central keyword, as the production or instant of something funny. But as scholars have challenged the centrality of the “text” in literary studies generally, I believe we need to decenter “humor” from Humor Studies. Instead, I will argue that we need to examine the interplay between producer, text, and audience—or between the humorist, the humor, and the audience (can we call the audience “the laugher”?).

The term humorist has an important history in the 19th century that links the production of funny material, or funny moments in serious material, to the economics of printing, distribution, and reception. This history is intensely national—as humorists were largely thought to reflect national character—and thus is inherently transnational—as humor was largely classified by national types. As the British scholar quoted above makes clear, the term humorist was put to fascinating uses in the 19th century as a key term in defining American (and British) literary and popular cultures.

In this roundtable, I will give a brief tour of this history, hitting on a few key points and moving forward, tentatively, into the 20th century to think of how the classification of “humorist” might have changed, as well as how it might relate to related keywords such as comedian and wit.


Keywords for Humor Studies: “Comic Text”

Peter C. Kunze, University of Texas at Austin

While film comedies are relatively stable objects of study, other comic texts in media culture often prove unstable. One need only think about the tonal shift in M*A*S*H* in latter years, how Seinfeld moved away from being a “show about nothing” to one that became increasingly incredulous, or the ways in which comedians alter stand-up routines from nightclubs to late night show appearances to stand-up specials. Internet humor proves to be even more unstable: Vines loop every six-and-a-half seconds, YouTube and other viral videos can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes, and memes often depend upon a knowledge native to digital spaces. In this brief presentation, I highlight some of the challenges of studying various comic texts, especially online, from viral videos to tweets to comic personae honed across media. We need to broaden our understand of “text” from the narrative limits to new variations, including studying meme networks, comic personae of digital content creators, and websites and digital forums—The Onion, Funny or Die, Reddit—as comic texts on their own right, prone to specific styles of humor, genre limitations, and codes of conduct. To address these concerns, many critics often ignore variation to suggest a stable notion of textuality. I contend we need to foreground the complexity and variation to consider not only the richness of comedy, but the various factors (textual and contextual) that inform its development. Economically and pragmatically speaking, comic texts exist in variorum across various platforms, which we must acknowledge and engage in our work. To continue our work into the digital age, we must consider institutional, industrial, and technological concerns to fully understand the rich possibilities digital environs have fostered for the production, distribution, and consumption of American humor.


“Keywords in American Humor Studies”


John Lowe, University of Georgia

When we ask the question, what is the public for humor – and we ask this at MLA – we are also asking, who is the public for humorous performance and literature? One of the great glories of our nation’s literary heritage is comic ethnic literature, which has helped immigrants to “enter laughing.” Over and over, seemingly strange and exotic new arrivals to the U.S. discovered that a key way of disarming Nativist suspicions lay in accepting, and then exploding existing stereotypes used against them, and also by employing self-reflexive humor, a technique particularly embraced by Jewish Americans and African Americans, who along with the Irish, transformed American popular culture, particularly during the early days of burlesque and vaudeville. These entertainers were inspirations for the many ethnic writers who created comic literature that featured their group – or sometimes, multiple ethnic groups, as in the plays of Edward Harrigan. My presentation will define the word “ethnic,” and then point to some key early humorists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who were able to achieve intimacy and then acceptance through various forms of comic performance and writing.

This talk will build on and extend my oft-quoted essay “Theories of Ethnic Humor: How to Enter, Laughing,” which appeared in American Quarterly over twenty years ago. Since then, I’ve taught and written on many ethnic novels, and I’ve been especially interested in the ways in which the authors employ humor. In my “theories” article, I quoted Fredrik Barth’s pronouncement that ethnic communities are often defined more by the boundary surrounding them – the line between them and other groups – than by their culture. This seems to be ever more the case, in many situations, especially in terms of the troubling current prejudice against Mexicans, Arabs, and Muslims. Despite these recent examples of ethnic profiling, which have everything to do with “othering” – i.e., the construction of hostile boundaries – immigrants from these areas and second generation Chicano/as and Arabs have produced comic literature that both employs stereotypes and explodes them.

This past term I taught a course on “Ethnic Humor in U.S. Literature,” and all of these features were abundantly present in the literature we examined. Complicating things, however, were the several works we read where characters had more than one ethnic identity. Of course all “_________-Americans” have a bifurcated identity; but in works such as Fran Ross’s Oreo (where we have a black and Jewish protagonist), or Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land (Jewish, but this time also Chinese) we are dealing with a triple ethnicity, which in both cases is further complicated by the female gender of the main characters.

Ethnic writers also strive to show that not all members of their group(s) are alike; for instance, in John Leguizamo’s hilarious one-man play, Mambo Mouth he performs monologues by six different characters drawn from the spectrum of Latinos, even portraying a female prostitute. Similarly, in Jerre Mangione’s affectionate memoir, Mount Allegro, the featured members of the Italian community in Rochester display marked differences, as well as similarities.

Ethnic identity always gets definition through contrast with other ethnic groups. We find this abundantly on display in the ethnic carnival of John Kennedy Toole’s boisterous New Orleans novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, where he does a number on his own Irish Americans, but also on Jewish, Italian, Latino, and African American characters. Sometimes this comparison is reduced to two main groups, as in Thomas King’s postmodern classic, Green Grass, Running Water, where Native Americans are defined in terms of their interactions with Anglos. There too, however, King takes pains to show that “all Indians” are not alike.

Humor has the effect of presenting crucial social issues, which can be disturbing and offensive in propagandistic or simply straightforward presentation, in an engaging way, which foments meditation and dialogue. This can lead to subsidiary issues, such as the effect of higher education on generational divides, a subject that appears prominently in Mangione’s works, but also in Mona in the Promised Land and Alfred Innaurato’s forgotten but memorable play about WASPS, Italian Americans, and Jews, Gemini. As such, they provide a useful supplement to more notorious examples of this syndrome, such as Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory.

As our country continues to be convulsed over issues of immigration, which have exponentially magnified since the recent terrorist attacks and the political campaign’s fixation on border issues, we might find some antidotes and answers in the pages of comic ethnic literature, which gives a multitude of approaches to thorny issues through the lens of humor, which makes us agree with

Terrence: “Nothing human is foreign to me.”



Jennifer A. Hughes

Averett University



The key words of this panel tend to hinge upon laughter; I feel I must trouble my colleagues and argue that their definitions and exegeses hinge upon a lexicographer’s loophole.

The OED defines “humor” as “the quality of being amusing or comic,” and defines “comic” as “causing, or meant to cause, laughter.”[1] What does it mean, though, to cause laughter? Our panel won’t include honest slipperiness if it doesn’t acknowledge that our definitions are built upon the presumption that we know what laughter is, when in reality we are working from a range of theories of what laughter is and what it does. When Jim Caron defines satire as a method of comic reform, metanoia, or protest; when Peter Kunze calls for us to scrutinize how digital media changes our notion of the “text” in “comic text”; when John Lowe defines “ethnic humor” along the lines of its social function of creating intimacy and acceptance, my colleagues are surreptitiously defining laughter, in addition to unpacking ideas around texts, performances, or other artifacts.

A nice, boring, safe definition of “laughter” is that it is the spontaneous movements of the face and body. However, we get onto unstable but richer ground when our definitions include why those spontaneous movements occur, such as “instinctive reactions to amusement or expressions of contempt.” Scientific studies like that of Robert Provine (2001) suggest that such definitions are a problem, and point to the idea that laughter is more like language than it is like a sneeze. Laughter is not caused by an object in quite the same way that a sneeze is caused by illness or an agitating object. Laughter is more like a linguistic reaction, an utterance. Laughter’s uses and significances are arbitrary, so that they must be historically and culturally situated; laughter has no essence other than its bodily performance.

With this entry, I discard the notion that laughter is a form of self-evident body language. To do so enables us to historicize theories of humor and laughter. We can then examine the violence internal to Mark Twain’s definition of laughter as a “weapon” to be used against a society’s “colossal humbugs,” and exposes a view of humor – because it engenders this weapon — as a subversive, revolutionary force.   We can see the racism in Charles Baudelaire’s assertion that a black face is inherently comic, or laughable. We can trace the complex gender politics of viewing women’s laughter as, in one era, impossible, in another, promiscuous – in still another, liberating. It will enable us to evade accusations of contradiction, for at one moment laughter might be collusive or conservative, and in another be disruptive. When Tracy Wuster asks that we “examine the interplay between… the humorist, the humor, and the audience… (‘the laugher’), I would aver that Tracy not only helpfully probing the term “humorist,” but also avoids the loophole of essentializing laughter.   “Laughter” must be a term of particular importance in humor studies, and we must responsibly acknowledge that theoretical definitions are bound intimately with history and culture, just as laughter itself is.


[1] There’s not space here to examine the lengthy etymologies of medical definitions of “the humors” or into definitions of the comic such as “following the structure of classical comedy,” or the noun form, etc.)