MLA 2013: Boston, MA

MLA 2013: Boston, MA


MLA 2013  Boston
Saturday, 5 January

Session 519. “Laughing to Keep from Crying”: Pain and Humor

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Jefferson, Sheraton

Program arranged by the American Humor Studies Association

Presiding (due to health reasons for presider of record):  Jan McIntire-Strasburg, Saint Louis University
Presiding (of record): Sharon D. McCoy, Univ. of Georgia

1. “The Servant’s Laughter and the Dissolution of Colonial Authority in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea,” Rick Rodriguez, Loyola Univ., Chicago

2. “‘Hopefully You’re into That Kind of Thing’: Cultural Implications of the ‘Rape Joke’ in Contemporary America,” Natalie Carter, George Washington Univ.

3. “‘There Are Some Things So Serious That You Have to Laugh at Them’: Humor in the Concentration Camp Narratives of Alicia Partnoy and Hernán Valdés,” Kimberly Nance, Illinois State Univ.



The Servant’s Laughter and the Dissolution of Colonial Authority in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea
Rick Rodriguez, Loyola University Chicago

As the Rochester figure in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea arrives in Jamaica to do his father’s bidding and acquire through marriage an estate “gone to bush,” he is met with the malicious smiles and under-the-breath gibes of servants who obey under the thin guise of contemptuous mockery: “she was laughing at me I could see. A lovely little creature but sly, spiteful, malignant perhaps, like much else in this place.” Surprisingly, the servant’s insult goes unpunished, acknowledged only in Rochester’s self-conscious interior monologue.  Not an isolated incident, the servant’s impudence becomes infectious, spreading beyond the servants’ orbit to his new Creole wife (Bronte’s mad woman in the attic), who soon estranged from her husband joins in the ridicule of the master.

Laughter’s disturbing transmissibility makes it a difficult to track subversive object in the novel.  As it spreads from subject to subject, its repercussive instability troubles notions of agency, obscuring its legibility as the cause or effect of the breakdown of colonial authority.  As I will argue here, laughter figures in the novel as neither simply the subversive act of subalterns, nor as a symptom of the dissolution of colonial authority.  The anxiety-inducing laughter that unsettles Rochester reveals that power and authority are not consubstantial, as he is painfully reminded that, though he’s nominally in charge, he’s merely an errand boy on his father’s employ.  Intensely aware of himself as an object of ridicule, Rochester is denied the pleasures this kind of colonial adventure obtains for someone in his position.  If colonialism is designed to provide experiences that confer mastery and manhood on him, this particular venture has all the feel of a bad joke, one where the servant’s laughter finds in the gap between power and authority a resonant hollow space for the potential for freedom.

“‘Hopefully You’re into That Kind of Thing’: Cultural Implications of “The Rape Joke” in Contemporary America
Natalie Carter, George Washington University

This paper will examine the work of several stand-up comedians who frequently make jokes about sexual violence against women a part of their acts. I will demonstrate that a surprisingly
large number of comedians utilize a “rape joke” as a mode of cultural commentary, but that almost all fall flat when doing so because they tend to maneuver themselves into the position of
victim. These jokes tend toward reductive binaries or tropes like “the unbelievably stupid man” and “the woman who can’t make up her mind.” I will also analyze the work of comedians who
have delivered what could be considered a successful rape joke, and the fine line that divides such a sensitive topic into funny, offensive, or somewhere in-between. I will also trouble the
definition of “success” here—what, exactly, is it that makes a joke about a traumatizing corporeal attack “funny”?

I will examine the routines of three comedians—Louis C.K., Wanda Sykes, and Tig Notaro—who confront the issue of rape in their stand-up. I will also address the particularly racial themes
that run through the work of each, and the ways that this subject becomes funny to the unique audience of a performer who is a white man/black woman/white woman. I am especially
interested in Notaro’s work, and I will present a reading of her routine No Moleste, which commentators on the feminist website Jezebel have claimed is “the only truly funny rape joke.”
This is a particularly provocative categorization when one considers that No Moleste is actually a routine about race, linguistics, and Notaro having her own jokes explained to her by a man in her audience.


“There are some things so serious that you have to laugh at them”: Humor in the Concentration Camp Narratives of Alicia Partnoy and Hernán Valdés
Kimberly A. Nance, Illinois State University

This paper examines the multifaceted relationships between pain and humor in the personal experience narratives of two young writers who were held and tortured in concentration camps in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s: Alicia Partnoy’s The Little School, and Hernán Valdés’s Tejas verdes (Diary of a Chilean Concentration Camp).  In Argentina in particular, members of the military junta framed the disappearance of students, day care workers, and others as a continuation of the Nazi project that had been truncated in Europe.  Partnoy, disappeared from her apartment and brought to the Navy Mechanics’ School—the largest of the secret camps—is soon singled out by the guards (“I heard you’re a Jew.  Is that right?”) who threaten to “make soap out of her, ” although as she reflects “I’m convinced that at the Little School there isn’t sufficient technology to make soap out of anybody.” Although Valdés’s chief offense is having failed to notice and discard a manuscript left in his apartment by his ex-girlfriend, the markers of his counterculture membership—tight blue jeans, a Magritte poster, and a pile of 150 empty wine bottles in the corner of his apartment—arouse further suspicion, leading the military police to approach him, in his words, “like a combination Che Guevara and James Bond.” Drawing on theories of pain and torture from Elaine Scarry and David Morris, among others, as well as a variety of theories of humor, the paper considers relationships between pain and humor among the guards, between guards and prisoners, as well as for the two writers and their fellow prisoners.  All quotations will be provided in English.