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American humor of the nineteenth century is characterized by egalitarian values. A reflection of the changes in America's social and cultural landscape as the Republic moved toward greater democratization, the humor is discernibly native, its inception growing out of a decline in the hierarchical social structure that gave way to more attention and voice for marginalized peoples, usually rural or backwoods types. Regional customs, modes of behavior, peculiarities, eccentricities, and anti-intellectuality were reflected in the subject matter as well as in the characterization. As Walter Blair noted in Native American Humor, "American humor . . . [became] a graspable phenomenon" (p. 39).


In the 1820s Washington Irving (1783–1859) was America's best-known and most influential humorist, especially reflected in his two classic tales "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," both published in The Sketch Book (1819–1820), Irving's first significant work. Though the language of Irving's narrator, Geoffrey Crayon, is formal and ornate, these tales feature and privilege the rustic—Brom Bones and Rip Van Winkle, respectively, who represent stability and harmony and who are admired by the community, even though neither character is particularly exemplary or given significant voice in the narratives. The humor in "Sleepy Hollow" derives from the clash of cultures: the genteel and cultivated as represented in the idealistic, enterprising, and gullible Connecticut schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, an intruder in the rural hamlet of Sleepy Hollow and a harbinger of disruptive change, and Brom Bones, a rambunctious, affable, free-spirited ring-tailed roarer and instigator of practical jokes and pranks, who frightens Ichabod, forcing him to leave, and who in so doing restores communal harmony. Like Brom, Rip Van Winkle is another congenial backwoods type who avoids work, hunts, plays with children, tells stories, and evades civilization, withdrawing to the wilderness for twenty years and escaping time, thereby never having to grow up and live responsibly. In addition to introducing native character types, Irving created scenarios that would be widely used by American humorists in the decades immediately following, especially some antebellum southern frontier humorists who would likewise refashion similar scripts endorsing the triumph of the common person and rural, frontier values over newness and inevitable transformation.


By 1830 America's native humor had been significantly shaped by a type that had become widely associated with the United States, the comic Yankee, a New England rustic who had been prominently featured in Royall Tyler's 1787 play The Contrast. While Tyler and others helped to popularize the comic Yankee, the election to the presidency in 1828 of Andrew Jackson—a war hero and man without pedigree or high social status who did not favor eastern banking interests and was suspicious of European influences, which he believed threatened American values—was a major stimulus in prompting the development of Down East humor.

Down East humor was initially published in newspapers and magazines, and its practitioners used conventional literary modes, such as mock letters, essays, and poems. Voice was given to common folk characters, who spoke their sentiments in a colloquial idiom and, although lacking the advantages of formal education and cosmopolitan outlook, depended on common sense, traditional values, and practical experience to guide their judgments and observations. Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill define this brand of humor as "reputable," one that "tended to exalt traditional values . . . , upheld order over disorder, decorum over unbridled license . . . , and championed a moral and predictable universe" (p. 163).

In 1830 Seba Smith (1792–1868), the editor of the Portland (Maine) Daily Courier, created the most popular and influential of these unsophisticated rustic Yankees with his Jack Downing, a cracker-barrel philosopher who wrote comic letters in the colloquial mode to his relatives back in the country about current events he observed in the city. (Smith did not invent this comic type: George W. Arnold, the creator of the Vermonter Joe Strickland, did that in 1825.) Smith created his amiable country naïf and wise fool for reasons of expediency: to rejuvenate his failing independent newspaper. Jack's letters initially focused on his simplistic observations to his relatives and friends in Downingville, his rural home, about the politically balanced but ineffectual state legislature in Portland, where political affiliations created a ridiculous impasse. Smith felt these dialect letters would serve as an effective vehicle for satire and would entertain his readers, thereby boosting subscriptions to his newspaper. The letters were actually more popular than Smith had anticipated and were reprinted in newspapers throughout the country. The enthusiastic and national reception of the letters encouraged Smith to continue to write them for twenty-nine years, expanding the correspondents to include some of Jack's Downingville relatives—Uncle Joshua, Aunt Keziah, Cousin Ephraim, and Cousin Nabby. Many of the Downing letters were collected and published in two popular books, The Life and Writings of Major Jack Downing (1833)and My Thirty Years out of the Senate (1859). Typically the humor in the early letters depends on Jack's innocent manner of pointing out foibles of the political process that he only half understands because of his literal-minded, shallow perceptions about the state legislature. In a letter from Portland (18 January 1830) to his cousin Ephraim, Jack naively renders the confrontation between pro-Jackson Democratic-Republicans and the anti-Jackson National Republicans, who have about the same number of representatives, as being like two boys playing on a seesaw. At another point, when opponents protest the seating of a new representative who has apparently been elected unfairly, Jack doesn't quite follow the problem and sympathetically observes, "for they wan't crowded, and there was a number of seats empty." After treating the political scene in Portland, Maine, Jack goes to Washington, D.C., as an adviser to President Jackson and a member of his Kitchen Cabinet, and his letters shift their focus to national issues, such as Manifest Destiny, the nullification controversy, the abuses of the spoils system, and weaknesses in national leaders, such as Presidents Jackson and James K. Polk, Daniel Webster, and General Winfield Scott. Smith's humorous satire is double-edged, not only belittling political parties and their devious ways but also exposing Jack's naïveté and cynicism.

The rich lode featuring the rustic Yankee wise fool that Seba Smith first popularized in the Downing letters was also adapted by other Down East humorists. Charles Augustus Davis (1795–1867), the principal Downing imitator, wrote a series of comic letters, published initially in the New York Daily Advertiser. He subsequently reprinted more than two dozen of them in Letters of J. Downing, Major, Downingville Militia, Second Brigade, to His Old Friend, Mr. Dwight, of the "New York Daily Advertiser" (1834). A writer with a clear-cut political agenda, Davis used Downing as a vehicle to attempt to sway public feeling against Jackson's efforts to destroy the Bank of the United States.

In the 1830s the Canadian Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796–1865), regarded by his fellow Nova Scotians as the "Jack Downing of British North America," created Sam Slick, a rustic clock maker and shrewdly enterprising peddler from Slickville, Connecticut, whose "go ahead" spirit reflected progressive American attitudes of the time. Haliburton published his Sam Slick pieces, mainly in monologue form, in the Halifax Nova Scotian beginning in September 1835, giving Sam voice to showcase his homespun, aphoristic wit in amusing anecdotes. Between 1836 and 1844 Haliburton wrote several widely popular books, including The Clockmaker; or, The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville, which appeared in three series in 1836, 1838, and 1840; and The Attaché; or, Sam Slick in England, which appeared in two series in 1843 and 1844. Sam is a Yankee outsider with a cracker-barrel wit, keen insight into human weaknesses, and an equally keen understanding of how to use flattery to serve his personal financial advantage. Haliburton employs him to address slavery, marriage, and English travelers as well as to ridicule Nova Scotians, who waste much of their time raising horses, building expensive houses rather than barns, and bickering over politics rather than moving toward constructive change. Like Sam Slick, Jonathan Slick, his fictive brother and the comic rustic persona of the journalist and prolific author of sentimental novels Ann Stephens (1810–1886), is a likable and unsophisticated outsider from an onion farm in Weathersfield, Connecticut, and an aspiring writer who combines feeling and honesty with common sense and morality. The Jonathan Slick letters, which treat such topics as theater, fashion, parties, and social manners, were first published in the New York Express in 1839; Stephens collected and reprinted them in High Life in New York by Jonathan Slick, Esq. (1843). Like his comic Yankee predecessors, Jonathan Slick employs vernacular discourse. The spelling reflects the spoken word of an uneducated rustic, and the word choice and imagery reflect reference points familiar to the rural world from which Jonathan has come. Stephens has Jonathan chronicle his experiences in the city, where he faces new customs and modes of social behavior that result in a humorous juxtaposition between the world of New York City and Jonathan's rural Connecticut background. Like Smith before her, Stephens employs double-edged satire: Jonathan functions as both the vehicle and the object of ridicule, who unwittingly exposes urban falsity and pretentiousness and at the same time displays ignorance and an absence of sophistication.

Frances Miriam Whitcher (1814–1890) and B. P. Shillaber (1814–1890) were the first Down East humorists to give Yankee comic women extensive treatment and voice. Whitcher focused on rural home life reflective of a woman's culture, creating several memorable comic characters—Widow Spriggins, Aunt Maguire, and the Widow Bedott—who were featured in the Albany Argus, Neal's Saturday Gazette, and Godey's Lady's Book. Shillaber created Mrs. Partington, whose comic sayings and monologues appeared in the 1840s in the Boston Post and the Carpet-Bag, the latter of which he edited. Mrs. Partington, a character in the mold of Benjamin Franklin's Silence Dogood, is a narrow-minded literalist and user of malapropisms (words that sound like the one intended but are comically misused) whose monologues and witty sayings voice the sentiments of the common people regarding the sociocultural environment of Boston. Whitcher's comic women, like Stephens's Jonathan Slick, are vehicles used to mock shortcomings such as narrow-mindedness, pretense, gossip, and the vulgar provincial tastes of New York village culture as well as to serve as objects of self-deprecating ridicule. The more popular book-length collections featuring these comic women are Shillaber's Life and Sayings of Mrs. Partington and Others of the Family (1854) and Whitcher's The Widow Bedott Papers (1855) and Widow Spriggins, Mary Elmer, and Other Sketches (1867).

James Russell Lowell's (1819–1891) chief contribution to Down East humor is his first series of The Biglow Papers (1848), an anti–Mexican-American War satire in the form of versified letters in untutored New England dialect. Disturbed by the federal govern-ment's decision to bring the country into an unnecessary war that he feared would also extend slave territory into the West, Lowell, who had strong faith in the judgment of the common person, employed as his principal mouthpiece Hosea Biglow, a conservative, moralistic Yankee farmer whose satiric letters in humorous verse convey Lowell's condemnation. Parson Homer Wilbur, verbose and pedantic as well as vain and likable, is another source of amusement who functions as counterpoint to Hosea and to the despicable, disreputable, bogus superpatriot Birdofredum Sawin ("bird of freedom soaring"), who goes to war for his own self-aggrandizement but becomes disillusioned. Lowell subsequently revived these characters for a second series of The Biglow Papers (1862–1867) to support the stance of the North in the Civil War. Through his caricaturing of Birdofredum, who migrates to the South and settles on a plantation, Lowell derides the worse aspects of southern culture.


The humor of the Old Southwest (encompassing North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee) is also known as frontier or backwoods humor and the humor of the Old South. This form of humor, which flourished between the mid-1830s and the Civil War and reflects many of the concerns of antebellum southern culture, developed concurrently with Down East humor and shares some of the same characteristics. Like its Yankee counterpart, antebellum southern humor features regional types and eccentric local characters, particularly the tall-talking braggart or ring-tailed roarer; vernacular dialect; extravagant and extraordinary situations and activities; and exaggerated, outlandish descriptions. Moreover, it celebrates rural and frontier lifestyles and culture, concentrating on the moment during "flush times" when the civilized and the primitive clash and agrarian and frontier values are being threatened with replacement by a higher standard of life that would foster materialistic and social progress. In contrast to most of the Down East humorists, the humorists of the Old Southwest were amateurs and only writers by avocation. Moreover, all these humorists were white men and professionals—newspaper editors, doctors, judges, lawyers, planters, ministers, officials in local or state government, actors and theatrical managers, and soldiers—who typically wrote to instruct but more often to amuse other men of their class and status, an agenda that is not unusual given the earthy, sometimes raucous subject matter and character types featured in their comedy.

The practitioners of southwestern humor include Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, William Tappan Thompson (Major Jones), Johnson Jones Hooper, Thomas Bangs Thorpe (the Bee Hunter; P. O. F.), Henry Clay Lewis (Madison Tensas), Joseph Glover Baldwin, George Washington Harris (Mr. Free; Sugartail), Davy Crockett, Alexander G. McNutt (the Turkey Runner), Solomon Franklin Smith, James Kirke Paulding, Mason Locke Weems, Henry Junius Nott (Thomas Singularity), George Wilkins Kendall, Christopher Mason Haile (Pardon Jones), Joseph M. Field (Everpoint), Charles F. M. Noland (N. of Arkansas and Pete Whetstone), Hardin E. Taliaferro (Skitt), Matthew C. Field (Phazma), John S. Robb (Solitaire), Phillip B. January (Obe Oilstone), William Gilmore Simms, Thomas Kirkman (Mr. Snooks), William C. Hall (Yazoo), Francis James Robinson, John Gorman Barr, William Penn Brannon, Orlando Benedict Mayer (Haggis), Adam G. Summer (Vesper Brackett), J. Ross Browne, Marcus Lafayette Bryn (David Rattlehead), Joseph B. Cobb, Joseph Gault, William Elliott, Charles Napoleon Bonaparte Evans, Hamilton C. Jones, Bartow Lloyd, Kittrell J. Warren, James Edward Henry, and others who wrote anonymously or pseudonymously and have not been identified. Unlike Down East humor, where the emphasis was on the comic Yankee, the humorists of the Old Southwest focused on a broad range of topics reflective of the interests and the way of life of a culture still largely rural and on the fringes of a frontier threatened with extinction. Fights (between men or between men and animals), horse races, militia drills, hunting excursions, camp meetings, sermons, gambling, primitive medical practices, drunkenness, con artistry and roguery, pranks and practical jokes, courting, dances, dandies and foreigners, horse trading, the rural rube in the city, legal procedure and courtroom activities, and similar subjects are featured in their work, which makes this brand of humor the first flowering of realism in American literature.


In addition to the influence of Down East humor, the origins and analogues of the humor of the Old Southwest are found in diverse literary and subliterary forms and draw on a rich legacy of literary conventions and prior discourses. These include, but are not limited to, the extravagant boasts of mythological heroes who exchanged attenuated insults with each other; the oral tradition of storytelling associated with traditional folk cultures; the popular and widespread influence of the German Rudolph Raspe's Baron Munchausen tall tales, first published in Baron Munchausen's Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns (1785); the braggart soldier figure of the commedia dell'arte tradition; the essays of the eighteenth-century British writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele; the picaresque tradition in the eighteenth novel; early-nineteenth-century British sporting periodicals such as the London Sporting Magazine and Bell's Life in London, which featured sketches and reports on horse races, hunting excursions, and travel adventures; William Byrd II's History of the Dividing Line, which records his observations about the topography, scenes, activities, and inhabitants of the area near the dividing line of the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina in 1728; Ebenezer Cooke's satiric burlesque of the clash of urbane and civilized culture with the primitive society of Maryland planters; the comic eclogues of the southern poet William Henry Timrod; Washington Irving's widely popular American comic tales "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (especially the influence of the latter, which was appropriated and imitated by such southwestern humorists as Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, William Tappan Thompson, Joseph B. Cobb, Orlando Benedict Mayer, Frances James Robinson, and William Gilmore Simms); and the Jack Tales of the southern Appalachians.

The popularity and wide dissemination of Down East humor, with its comic rustics, vernacular discourse, and emphasis on common sense and traditional values, may have provided the most immediate impetus for the humor of the Old Southwest. And like Down East humor, the humor of the Old South had its precursors. The Drunkard's Looking Glass (1812) by Mason Locke Weems, a book peddler and preacher, is a collection of humorous observations, anecdotes, and replications of vernacular speech that he had accumulated during his travels on the southern frontier. James Kirke Paulding's Letters from the South (1817) comprises epistles recording the humorous manners and customs of Virginia backwoodsmen, while his The Lion of the West (1830) features a tall-talking Kentucky frontiersman. The opening section of Henry Junius Nott's Novellettes of a Traveler (1834) depicts the comical misadventures of Thomas Singularity, whose knavery anticipates that of Johnson Jones Hooper's rogue Simon Suggs. These represent the trailblazing efforts of the writers who first experimented with themes, subject matter, and character types that became staples in southern antebellum humor. Davy Crockett's autobiography Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee (1834), possibly edited by Thomas Chilton and featuring humorous anecdotes about Crockett's hunting adventures and skirmishes with the Indians, also anticipates the kinds of materials that later and more significant southwestern humorists would similarly exploit.

Yet it is the widely popular Georgia Scenes (1835) by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (1790–1870) that can be considered the first book of southwestern humor. This collection of eighteen sketches and tales, which he had previously published pseudonymously in 1833 and 1834 in the Milledgeville (Georgia) Southern Recorder and the Augusta States Rights Sentinel, provided the major stimulus and generated widespread appeal for the southern brand of frontier comedy. Edgar Allan Poe, who reviewed Georgia Scenes for the Southern Literary Messenger in March 1836, confidently predicted that Longstreet's book was "a sure omen of better days of the literature of the South" (Poe, p. 29). Among the most amusing tales in the collection are "Georgia Theatrics," "The Fight," "The Dance," and "The Horse Swap," which combine two levels of discourse—the formal and standard language of the educated and refined gentleman and the frontier vernacular of the uninhibited yeomen and backwoodsmen—in which the reserved and genteel behavior and judgmental attitudes of the former humorously clash with the unrestrained actions and sometime amoral values of the latter.

This clash of civilized and backwoods cultures, which Longstreet prominently featured in Georgia Scenes and which would be variously adapted, modified, and rejected by other southern humorists of the period, depended on contrived structural control: the frame device was used as a means of separating and distinguishing between the rural folk and the dignified gentleman-outsider, who spoke in formal discourse, establishing the circumstances that occasioned the tale before shifting the emphasis to the colloquial-speaking rustics. The gentleman-outsider, as a moral arbiter, would sometimes interject his judgment on what has transpired and would close the tale. Kenneth Lynn, in Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (1959), who used Longstreet's Georgia Scenes as a focal point and who viewed southern antebellum humor generally as a criticism of Jacksonian democracy, claimed that the "morally irreproachable Gentleman" of Southwest sketches and tales formed a cordon sanitaire around himself, placing him "outside and above the comic action" (p. 64). In doing so, Lynn further observed, the "Self-controlled Gentleman" was able to restrict and to condemn satirically the excesses of the yeoman characters. Lynn's thesis, an affirmation of the Whig ideal of an order in which the wealthy, educated, moderate, and genteel were at the top of the social ladder, has subsequently been challenged because it is not widely applicable to the large and diverse body of southwestern humor that has emerged through later studies. What Lynn failed to note is that most of the humorists willingly chose to live in the Southwest, primitive, deficient, or lacking in culture as it may have been. Moreover, in many southwestern humorous texts, backwoods vernacular characters are apportioned major space and emphasis and granted extensive, mostly uncensored voice. Rarely in southwestern humorous texts do the authors consciously disparage or belittle yeomen; instead, they often make their rustics appealing, thereby affording readers the opportunity for a temporary vicarious release from order, formality, and responsibility so that they can laugh comfortably with the yeomen.

Among the texts that create these circumstances most favorably are the letters of an untutored rustic, Major Joseph Jones, authored by and initially published in 1842 in Georgia newspapers by William Tappan Thompson (1812–1882) and subsequently reprinted in Major Jones's Courtship (1843); and the letters of Pardon Jones, authored by the journalist Christopher Mason Haile (1814–1849), who published the majority of them in the New Orleans Picayune between 1840 and 1848. Both Joseph Jones and Pardon Jones are fashioned in the mold of Seba Smith's Jack Downing, and their letters exclusively feature dialect-speaking rustics. Other texts in which the vernacular voice dominates are the humorous tall tales recounted by Surry County, North Carolina, storytellers and the comical dialect folk sermons of the Reverend Charles Gentry, an African American slave preacher—all of whom the author Hardin E. Taliaferro (1811–1875) portrays approvingly in his book Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters (1859). An even better example of authorial indulgence of a yeoman are the sketches and tales featuring George Washington Harris's (1798–1882) Sut Lovingood, the fun-loving, conscienceless, sensually oriented East Tennessee mountaineer who recounts—with little or no interruption from the authorial narrator George—his encounters and scrapes with and triumphs over doctors, preachers, sheriffs, adulterers, and other frauds and hypocrites deserving of his pranks.

The most famous tale of southern frontier humor is "The Big Bear of Arkansas" by Thomas Bangs Thorpe (1815–1878), which William Trotter Porter, the editor of the New York Spirit of the Times, published on 27 March 1841, calling it "the best sketch of backwoods life that we have seen in a long while." A hunting tale that has been compared to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and William Faulkner's "The Bear," both of which, like Thorpe's tale, give the hunt a ritualistic and mythical dimension, "The Big Bear" is the masterwork in southwestern humor. It employs the key ingredients of the genre, the frame device, vernacular dialect, exaggerated figurative comparisons reaching tall tale proportions, and contrasts the civilized audience of auditors with an enthralling backwoods raconteur, Jim Doggett. In the story within the story, Jim hyperbolically describes crops and game in Arkansas of incredible size. His litany of whoppers culminates in an engaging, imaginatively embellished yarn of his unceasing hunt for and eventual killing of an "unhuntable" bear, an event most Thorpe critics perceive as representing the sad fate of the vanishing American wilderness.

In addition to the frame-tale format, the southwestern humorists employed other forms: sketches; tall tales; turf reports; almanac pieces; essays on outdoor sports such as horse racing, hunting, and fishing; profiles of local characters; mock sermons; letters; burlesques; and mock historical accounts. Southwest humor also featured a wide gallery of characters, the most memorable and entertaining being storytellers (Uncle Davy Lane, Larkin Snow, and Oliver Stanley in Taliaferro's Surry County sketches and tales; Simms's Bill Bauldy in "Bald-Head Bill Baudy"; and Jim Doggett in Thorpe's "The Big Bear of Arkansas"); hunters and adventurers (Mikhoo-tah in Henry Clay Lewis's "The Indefatigable Bear Hunter" and the mythologized Davy Crockett in the Crockett Almanacs); half-horse, half-alligator types, otherwise known as screamers and roarers (Nimrod Wildfire in James Kirke Paulding's The Lion of the West, the keelboatman Mike Fink, and the "shemales" Lotty Ritchers and Sal Fink in the Crockett Almanacs); and con artists, pranksters, and rogues (Ned Brace in Longstreet's "The Character of a Native Georgian," Simon Suggs in Hooper's "The Captain Attends a Camp-Meeting," Sut Lovingood in "Parson John Bullen's Lizards," and Ovid Bolus in Joseph Glover Baldwin's "Ovid Bolus, Esq.").

As an exclusively male enterprise, the humor of the Old South was expectedly a patriarchal genre restricted by gender and racial politics. Therefore, in these humorous works it is understandable why women and African Americans typically did not play major roles or rarely transcended their marginalized status. Several of the humorists, however, did challenge the conventional attitudes and assumptions toward race. The best texts exhibiting these transgressions include James Edward Henry's "My Man Dick," John S. Robb's "The Pre-Emption Right," Taliaferro's folk sermons "The Origin of Whites" and "Jonah and the Whale," and Francis James Robinson's "Old Jack' C—." Others transgressed the barrier of gender, notably Thompson's "Supposing a Case" and "A Runaway Match," Orlando Benedict Mayer's "The Corn Cob Pipe," Harris's "Dick Harlan's Tennessee Frolic" and "Blown Up with Soda," Solomon Franklin Smith's "The Consolate Widow," and Lewis's "The Curious Widow" and "A Tight Race Considerin'." Humorists of both groups, though not radically subversive in defying minority stereotyping, nevertheless encouraged the inclusion and a less-constricted representation of African Americans and women, empowering them by liberating their voices and expanding their race- or gender-circumscribed roles. The diversionary tactics these humorists employed created a safe ambivalence: the comedy provided a noncontroversial means for legitimating increased freedom for women and African Americans through greater emphasis, more complex characterization, and more verbal freedom than minorities customarily enjoyed in canonical texts authored by men during the antebellum period.

The humor of the Old Southwest was mainly a newspaper enterprise. While many of these materials were published in small-town newspapers, such as the Greenville (South Carolina) Mountaineer, the Columbia South Carolinian, and the Lafayette East Alabamian, others were printed in big-city dailies, such as the New Orleans Picayune, the St. Louis Reveille, and the Cincinnati News, and occasionally in literary magazines, such as the Southern Literary Messenger, the Magnolia, and the Southern Literary Journal. The most important outlet for Southwest humor, however, was the New York Spirit of the Times, edited by William Porter, who, during his twenty-five-year editorship, encouraged numerous correspondents from the South to contribute humorous materials to his paper. Among Spirit's southern contributors were Joseph M. Field, Matthew C. Field, Haile, Harris, Hooper, Phillip B. January, Hamilton C. Jones, George Wilkins Kendall, Thomas Kirkman, Lewis, Alexander G. McNutt, Robb, Sol Smith, Adam Summer, Thompson, Thorpe, and Charles F. M. Noland (who contributed over two hundred sporting papers and humorous letters, making him the Spirit's most prolific contributor). Because Porter's Spirit enjoyed wide circulation, his paper gave these humorists greater exposure than they might have ordinarily expected. Porter subsequently collected some of the better pieces previously printed in the Spirit and published them in The Big Bear of Arkansas, and Other Sketches (1845) and A Quarter Race in Kentucky, and Other Tales (1847).

A number of other southwestern humorists collected and reprinted their comic sketches and tales. These collections include Hooper's Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845) and A Ride with Old Kit Kuncker (1849), Joseph Gault's Reports of Decisions in Justice's Courts, in the State of Georgia, from the Year of Our Lord 1820 to 1846 (1846), Thorpe's Mysteries of the Backwoods (1847), Robb's Streaks of Squatter Life and Far-West Scenes (1847), Joseph M. Field's The Drama in Pokerville (1847), Thompson's The Chronicles of Pineville (1845) and Major Jones's Sketches of Travel (1848), Lewis's Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana "Swamp Doctor" (1850), Joseph B. Cobb's Mississippi Scenes; or, Sketches of Southern and Western Life and Adventure (1851), Baldwin's Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (1853), Robinson's Kups of Kauphy (1853), Kittrell J. Warren's Ups and Downs of Wife Hunting (1861) and Life and Public Services of an Army Straggler (1865), and Sol Smith's Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years (1868).


The satirist and proto-feminist Sara Payson Willis Parton (1811–1872), who wrote under the pseudonym Fanny Fern, represented a new departure from the Down East and southern frontier brands of humor. Her humorous sketches, critiques on social manners and conventions, particularly patriarchal attitudes resulting in the oppression of women, were Fern's assertive and ironic responses to erroneous or absurd public claims. Though many of these sketches first appeared in her weekly newspaper columns in the Boston True Flag and in the New York Ledger, she reprinted some of the best of them in Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio (1853). Fern's derisive barbs are bluntly disparaging and outspoken; her persona speaks in formal English rather than in dialect and displays a demeanor that is neither self-effacing nor respectable, thus distinguishing her humor from that of her female predecessors, Frances Whitcher and Ann Stephens. In representative sketches—"Aunt Hetty on Matrimony" and "Hints to Young Wives"—Fern forthrightly attacks the inequities of married life, warning young women to beware of male duplicity and ridiculing wives who sacrifice their identities by foolishly catering to their husbands' whims and desires.


The humor of the Old Southwest, like Down East humor, proved that native American comedy was marketable and paved the way for the emergence of the nation's first professional humorists—the literary comedians or "phunny phellows"—and Mark Twain. The major humorists of this school—Charles Farrar Browne (Artemus Ward), Henry Wheeler Shaw (Josh Billings), David Ross Locke (Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby), George Horatio Derby (John Phoenix; Squibob), Robert H. Newell (Orpheus C. Kerr), Edgar W. Nye (Bill Nye), and Charles H. Smith (Bill Arp)—initially published their work in local newspapers and gained even greater public exposure when their work was reprinted through the newspaper exchange system and in books, such as Browne's Artemus Ward: His Book (1862), Smith's Bill Arp, So-Called: A Side Show of the Southern Side of the War (1866), and Locke's Swingin Round the Cirkle (1867). In addition, most of the literary comedians turned to the lecture circuit, discovering that the public humorous performance was financially lucrative. The multiple outlets for their work brought their humor to a larger, more diverse audience than their predecessors had enjoyed, "permeating," as Jesse Bier observes in The Rise and Fall of American Humor, "the national mind as never before" (p. 77).

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Though the literary comedians employed some of the same forms as the Down East and southwestern humorists—letters, dramatic monologues, and anecdotes—the conscious intent of their humor, Walter Blair has noted in Native American Humor, was on "continuous amusement," with comic ingredients contained in every sentence and generated by using ludicrous verbal discourse and techniques. In the preface to his first and most popular book, Doesticks: What He Says (1855), Mortimer Neal Thomson (1831–1875), one of the pioneers in employing verbal humor, described his basic strategy for enlivening his language for a comic effect, stating that he "dressed up" his thoughts "in a lingual garb . . . quaint, eccentric, fantastic, or extravagant," fabricating in the process a "trick of phrase, [an] affectation of a new-found style" (p. vi). In his meshing of words and phrases into amusingly clever, figurative syntactical configurations, Thomson clearly anticipated the mode of humorous wit employed by Browne and other

The literary comedians, or "phunny phellows," of the nineteenth century used a variety of verbal eccentricities, devices, and strategies to achieve their brand of popular humor. A sampling follows.


I see in the papers last nite that the Government hez institooted a draft, and that in a few weeks sum hundreds uv thousands uv peeceable citizens will be dragged to the tented field. I know not wat uthers may do, but ez for me, I cant go.

(David Ross Locke [Petroleum V. Nasby],"[Nasby] Shows Why He Should Not Be Drafted," in Blair, Native American Humor, p. 410)

Tears are unavailing! I once more become a private citizen, clothed only with the right to read such postal cards as may be addressed to me, and to curse the inefficiency of the postal department. I believe the voting class to be divided into two parties; viz., those who are in the postal service, and those who are mad because they cannot receive a registered letter every fifteen minutes of each day, including Sunday.

(Edgar Wilson Nye [Bill Nye], "'A Resign' from an 1883 letter to the president of the United States, tendering his resignation as postmaster of the Laramie, Wyoming, post office," in Blair, Native American Humor, p. 454)

The symphonie opens upon the wide and boundless plains, in longitude 115° W., latitude 35° 21′ 03″ N., and about sixty miles from the west bank of the Pitt River.

(George Horatio Derby [John Phoenix], from "Musical Review Extraordinary," in Blair, Native American Humor, p. 395)

Orthographic Wit

I'm in a far more respectful bisniss nor what pollertics is. I wouldn't giv two cents to be a Congresser. The wuss insult I ever received was when sertin citizens of Baldinsville axed me to run for the Legislater. Sez I, My frends, dostest think I'd stoop to that there? They turned as white as a sheet. I spoke in my most orfullest tones, & they knowed I wasn't to be trifled with. They slunked out of site to onct.

(William Farrar Browne [Artemus Ward], "Interview with President Lincoln," in Blair, Native American Humor, p. 401)

Mr Linkhorn, sur, priviately speakin, I'm afeerd I'll git in a tite place here among these bloods, and have to slope out of it, and I would like to have your Skotch cap and kloak that you travelled in to Washington. I suppose you wouldn't be likely use the same disgize agin, when you left, and therefore I would propose a swap. I am five feet five, and could git my plow breeches and coat to you in eight or ten days if you can wait that long. I want you to write to me immeditly about things generally, and let us know whereabouts you intend to do your fitin.

(Charles Henry Smith [Bill Arp], "Bill Arp to Abe Linkhorn," in Blair, Native American Humor, pp. 421–422)


"Large bodys move slo," this ere proverb don't apply tu lies, for the bigger tha ar, the faster tha go.

It is tru that welth won't maik a man vartuous, but i notis there ain't ennyboddy who wants tew be poor jist for the purpiss ov being good.

(Henry Wheeler Shaw [Josh Billings], in Bier, The Rise and Fall of American Humor, p. 104)

literary comedians. Their humor is the comedy of phrase and sentence, a burlesque of the spoken word and the consequence of the deliberate defiance of grammatical and syntactical correctness and logic, as manifested in misspelling (a quasi-phonetic spelling), mixed metaphors, misquotations, anti-proverbs, neologisms, puns, non sequiturs, malapropisms, anticlimaxes. Because their comic materials mirrored the social and historical concerns of their times and because of the fractured grammar, malapropisms, eccentric sentences, dominance of dialect discourse, and other distorted verbal concoctions, the humor of the literary comedians creates difficulty for contemporary readers who do not regard it as particularly amusing. Also, because of the oral qualities of this humor, it seems to have been better suited to performance on the lecture platform.

As comic lecturers, Browne and other literary comedians found a new venue for their comedy. Adopting the poses of their homespun, semi-illiterate personae as their mouthpieces, they successfully transferred to the stage the amusing "lingual garb" they had first tried out in print. As performers they amused large audiences, assuming a dim-witted demeanor and exhibiting a dead earnestness as they slowly meandered through their droll, digressive, and ludicrously absurd routines.


Samuel L. Clemens (1835–1910), who adopted the pen name Mark Twain and who became America's most famous humorist, was the principal beneficiary of the brand of humor popularized by the humorists of the Old Southwest and the literary comedians, a dual legacy that would reach the pinnacle of artistic achievement in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Recognizing the potential of the humorous story as a distinctive American art form, one reflective of his preferred improvisational manner of storytelling, Twain wrote in "How to Tell a Story" (1895) that "the humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that . . . there is anything funny about it. . . . To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities is the basis of the American art" (Selected Shorter Writings, pp. 239, 241).

Knowledgeable of the work of his predecessors who exploited the vernacular and prominently featured rustic, semiliterate characters, Twain, in some of his own early humorous pieces, drew freely from the comic devices they had popularized. Twain's first sketch, "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter" (1852), published in Shillaber's The Carpet-Bag, re-creates the familiar plot of the clash of civilized and backwoods cultures and the triumph of the back-woodsman. Twain likewise drew on the conventions of southwest humor in three humorous letters he published under the pseudonym Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass in the Keokuk Post on 1 and 29 November 1856 and 10 April 1857 while working as a journeyman printer. Snodgrass, an innocent, dialect-speaking country bumpkin, like Thompson's Major Joseph Jones, is duped during his adventures in the city. Several other of Twain's apprenticeship pieces—including his letter to Annie Taylor (25 May 1856), featuring a "great mass meeting" of bugs, and "A Washoe Joke" (1862), an account of a petrified man found in the West and a mockery of serious scientific papers reporting incredible findings—reflect his assimilation and application of the tall tale genre widely used by antebellum southern humorists.

Published on 18 November 1865 in the New York Saturday Press, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" (subsequently published as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County") masterfully merges some of the conventions of southern frontier humor and the narrative strategies of the literary comedians. A frame story juxtaposing a naive, genteel easterner, who is also the frame narrator, and an affable westerner, an old miner named Simon Wheeler who feigns earnestness and recounts in the vernacular an amusing, rambling, outlandish narrative, the "Jumping Frog" tale features Jim Smiley, a compulsive bettor who becomes the victim of a stranger's deception as Wheeler's eastern auditor becomes the dupe of the old miner's fanciful narrative ruse. Actually the easterner, who retrospectively introduces and closes Simon Wheeler's story, employs a dead-pan pose too, both in his ironic comment about Wheeler's "monotonous narrative" and his pretended boredom and abrupt departure after Wheeler, who is momentarily interrupted, returns to continue his story. This sudden ending, which is not a resolution at all but rather an unexpected comic reversal, illustrates Twain's application of anticlimax, a favorite device of Artemus Ward and other literary comedians.

Mark Twain extended his humorous repertoire to encompass the experience of American travelers in Europe and the Holy Land in a series of letters he wrote principally for the San Francisco Alta California during a five-month cruise he took in 1867 aboard the steamship Quaker City; he then revised and expanded the letters for inclusion in his first book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). Combining humor and burlesque, Twain ridicules American provincialism, cultural inferiority, chauvinism, and barbaric manners (the latter exemplified when American tourists, desirous of bringing home souvenirs, vandalize revered monuments). An equal-opportunity satirist, Twain likewise debunks European snobbery, exploitation of dubious relics for commercial purposes, irritating guides, and even the conventions and rhetoric of travel books, particularly those deceptively describing venerable places in the Holy Land.

Roughing It (1872), Twain's second book, which like The Innocents Abroad is fictionalized autobiography, is based on the five and a half years Twain spent in the Far West and Hawaii during the early 1860s. In a manner similar to much of his earlier humor, in Roughing It, Twain employs verbal and physical exaggeration of details, formal and vernacular discourses, and the frame device to juxtapose different cultures, represented by a naive young man who retrospectively recounts his amusing experiences in his encounters with western life. The familiar script in "Bemis's Buffalo Hunt," "Jim Blaine and His Grandfather's Old Ram," "The Genuine Mexican Plug," and "Lost in the Snow"—the most amusing pieces in the book—involves the misadventures of a young greenhorn whose inexperience and naïveté make him look ridiculous. For instance, in "Jim Blaine and His Grand-father's Old Ram," the narrator, who is deceived into believing that, when drunk, Jim would recount the story of his grandfather's ram, never actually hears this tale but instead hears a shaggy dog story, a string of rambling irrelevant digressions about a cast of unusually amusing characters.


The brand of comedy that emerged between 1820 and 1870, the golden age of American humor, celebrates the subject matter of the evolving democratic nation, features a memorable gallery of rustic characters, and employs a colloquial vernacular that mimics the oral speech of the uneducated and semi-literate. This tradition, especially the humor of the Old Southwest, left a rich legacy to Mark Twain and to some of Twain's contemporaries, female local humorists such as Mary Noailles Murfree, Idora McClellan Moore, Sherwood Bonner, and Ruth McEnery Stuart. This same style of humor has also had its inheritors among moderns—William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Fred Chappell, Ishmael Reed, and numerous others from both literary and popular culture—all of whom in their comedy have drawn on some of the properties of nineteenth-century native American humorous traditions, reconfiguring and giving them a renewed vitality.

See also"The Big Bear of Arkansas"; "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"; Dialect; Satire, Burlesque, and Parody; Short Story; Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs


Primary Works

Derby, George Horatio [John Phoenix]. "Musical Review Extraordinary." In Native American Humor, by Walter Blair, pp. 393–399. San Francisco: Chandler, 1960.

Doesticks, Q. K. Philander [Mortimer N. Thomson]. Doesticks: What He Says. 1855. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimile and Reprints, 1986.

Locke, David Ross [Petroleum V. Nasby]. "Shows Why He Should Not Be Drafted." In Native American Humor, by Walter Blair, pp. 410–411. San Francisco: Chandler, 1960.

Nye, Edgar Wilson [Bill Nye]. "A Resign." In NativeAmerican Humor, by Walter Blair, pp. 453–458. San Francisco: Chandler, 1960.

Rachels, David, ed. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's GeorgiaScenes Completed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Smith, Charles H. [Bill Arp]. "Bill Arp to Abe Linkhorn." In Native American Humor, by Walter Blair, pp. 421–422. San Francisco: Chandler, 1960.

[Taliaferro, H. E.]. Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters, by "Skitt," "Who Was Raised Thar." New York: Harper, 1859.

Thorpe, Thomas Bangs. 1841. "The Big Bear of Arkansas." In Humor of the Old Southwest, edited by Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham, pp. 336–347 Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Twain, Mark. Selected Shorter Writings of Mark Twain. Edited by Walter Blair. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

Secondary Works

Bier, Jesse. The Rise and Fall of American Humor. New York: Octagon Books, 1981.

Blair, Walter. Horse Sense in American Humor: FromBenjamin Franklin to Ogden Nash. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Blair, Walter. Native American Humor. San Francisco: Chandler, 1960.

Blair, Walter, and Hamlin Hill. America's Humor: From PoorRichard to Doonesbury. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Cohen, Hennig, and William B. Dillingham. "Introduction." In The Humor of the Old Southwest, edited by Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham, 3rd ed., pp. xv–xl. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Covici, Pascal, Jr. "Mark Twain and the Humor of the Old Southwest." In The Frontier Humorists: Critical Views, edited by M. Thomas Inge, pp. 233–258. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1975.

Cox, James M. "Humor of the Old Southwest." In TheComic Imagination in American Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin Jr., pp. 101–112. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Dresner, Zita Z. "Sentiment and Humor: A Double-Pronged Attack on Women's Place in Nineteenth-Century America." Studies in American Humor 4, nos. 1–2 (1985): 18–29.

Eby, Cecil D. "Yankee Humor." In The Comic Imagination in American Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin Jr., pp. 77–84. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

Grammer, John M. "Southwestern Humor." In ACompanion to the Literature and Culture of the American South, edited by Richard Gray and Owen Robinson, pp. 370–387. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Inge, M. Thomas. The Frontier Humorists: Critical Views. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1975.

Justus, James H. Fetching the Old Southwest: HumorousWriting from Longstreet to Twain. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

Kesterson, David. B. "Those Literary Comedians." In Critical Essays on American Humor, edited by William Bedford Clark and W. Craig Turner, pp. 167–183. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Lemay, J. A. Leo. "The Origins of the Humor of the Old South." In The Humor of the Old South, edited by M. Thomas Inge and Edward J. Piacentino, pp. 13–21. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Lenz, William E. Fast Talk and Flush Times: The ConfidenceMan as a Literary Convention. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985.

Lenz, William E. "The Function of Women in Old Southwestern Humor: Rereading Porter's Big Bear and Quarter Race Collections." In The Humor of the Old South, edited by M. Thomas Inge and Edward J. Piacentino, pp. 36–51. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Lynn, Kenneth S. Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.

Morris, Linda A. Women Vernacular Humorists inNineteenth-Century America: Ann Stephens, Frances Whitcher, and Marietta Holley. New York: Garland, 1988.

Nickels, Cameron L. New England Humor from theRevolutionary War to the Civil War. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

Piacentino, Ed. "Contesting the Boundaries of Race and Gender in Old Southwestern Humor." In The Humor of the Old South, edited by M. Thomas Inge and Edward J. Piacentino, pp. 52–71. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "Georgia Scenes." In Humor of the OldSouthwest, edited by Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Pullen, John J. Comic Relief: The Life and Laughter ofArtemus Ward, 1834–1867. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1983.

Romine, Scott. "Darkness Visible: Race and Pollution in Southwestern Humor." In The Humor of the Old South, edited by M. Thomas Inge and Edward J. Piacentino, pp. 72–83. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Rourke, Constance. American Humor: A Study of the National Character. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1931.

Walker, Nancy. "Wit, Sentimentality, and the Image of Women in the Nineteenth Century." American Studies 22, no. 2 (1981): 5–22.

Weber, Brom. "The Misspellers." In The Comic Imagination in American Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin Jr., pp. 127–137. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

Wimsatt, Mary Ann, and Robert L. Phillips. "Antebellum Humor." In The History of Southern Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, pp. 136–156. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

Wonham, Henry B. Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Yates, Norris W. William T. Porter and the "Spirit of theTimes": A Study in the Big Bear School of Humor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957.

Ed Piacentino


views updated Jun 08 2018


HUMOR. Aristotle, in De partibus animalium, defined man as a being capable of laughter, but laughter is not, as some optimists have claimed, a universal language. Its function and importance differed so widely, even during our historical period, depending on national, social, and other variables, that it is far easier to ask questions than to answer them. Why did (and do) some Christians, like Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (16271704), strongly disapprove of laughter? Is there any common element uniting the hearty, even crude, laughter provoked by carnival merrymaking and slapstick comedy (French farces and sotties, Spanish pasos, the Italian commedia dell'arte) and the urbane wit called festivitas by Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) and Thomas More (14781535) and exemplified by the noble speakers in Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1528)? Can we clearly separate "popular" from "refined" or "learned" humor? And why is the terminology of humor not easily translated from one language to another?

Laughter was often considered more important in the Renaissance than it has been since. Several Renaissance princes, including Lorenzo de' Medici (14491492) and Louis XII of France (ruled 14981515), were reputed to enjoy jokes, even those directed against themselves, whereas France's Louis XIV (ruled 16431715) is said to have made only one joke in his life. Unfortunately, even today no explanation of why we laugh is universally endorsed. Sixteenth-century theorists about humor were mainly medical authorities (Laurent Joubert [15291582], Ambroise Paré [15101590]) interested in physiology; in the seventeenth century Thomas Hobbes (15881679), following Aristotle, articulated the first of the three commonest modern explanations of laughter: superiority, incongruity, and release from restraint. If we can usually see why satire provokes laughter, we are at a loss when we try to compare the humor of Molière (16221673) and Shakespeare (15641616), or of Miguel de Cervantes (15471616) and Laurence Sterne (17131768).


The Renaissance and the Reformation inspired a remarkable variety of verbal and visual humor. The great humanist Erasmus, in his Colloquies (1518), produced both biting anti-church satire ("The Funeral"), and sly and charming wit ("The Abbot and the Learned Lady"). Reformation and anti-Reformation satirists created an explosion of comic caricature in broadsheets attacking either Luther and his cohorts or the venal priests and hypocritical monks of the Roman Catholic Church. Humanist polemic did not shrink from scatological invective that would horrify most readers today (the Eccius Dedolatus ), and French farce characters could urinate on stage. Much humanist wit, like the Epistles of Obscure Men, is incomprehensible to readers with no knowledge of Latin.

The century apparently reveled in jokes (facetiae in Latin) and in comic short stories, as numerous anthologies in England, France, Italy, and Germany attest. The most influential were those of Poggio Bracciolini in Italy (14381452) and Heinrich Bebel in Germany (15081512), both written in Latin. Later collections became larger and more inclusive; there are 981 facezie in the 1574 edition of Ludovico Domenichi, written in Italian. An Erasmian love of humor inspired both François Rabelais (Gargantua and Pantagruel, 15321564), who used wit and hyperbole to convey his humanist message, and Shakespeare, whose comedies radiate a smiling acceptance of human frailty. Comic theater came to life again in most European countries in the sixteenth century, stimulated by the rediscovery of Aristotle's dramatic principles and of Plautus and Terence. National differences in comic outlook are strikingly illustrated by the German adaptation of Rabelais (15751590) by Johann Fischart, which is much cruder than its model and much less humanistically inclined. Comic visual art includes not only a wealth of satirical engravings, but the compelling visual grotesques of Pieter Bruegel (1525?1569) and Hieronymus Bosch (1450?1516) and the whimsical portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 15301593), which are created exclusively of fruit, flowers, or fish.


Whereas much literature of the previous century was still written in Latin, this one saw the flowering of vernacular literatures; it is Spain's Golden Age, and France's Age of Classicism. Cervantes's Don Quixote (1615), generally recognized as the first novel, has comic moments, but its prevailing tone is ironic rather than frankly humorous. Comic theater flourished, with some common elements; for instance, the classical clownish slave lived on as the Spanish gracioso, as Molière's soubrette, as the zanni (crafty servant) of the commedia dell'arte, and as numerous characters in the plays of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson (15731637).

The century's great comic dramatists were not primarily satirists. Shakespeare's dramatic worlds are more imaginary than real. Molière's minor comedies owe more to literary sources than to real life (Les Fourberies de Scapin, 1671), and his best plays only occasionally reveal his scorn for stupid minor nobles, or for dangerous religious hypocrites (Le Tartuffe, 1667). Their genius, like Shakespeare's, lies in revealing character through comedy, though Shakespeare was freer to include farce in his plays. England's Restoration drama (after 1660) was much more satirical; William Wycherley (16401716), John Vanbrugh (16641726), John Farquhar (16781707), and William Congreve (16701729) delighted in skewering stupidity and pretentiousness, as Jonson had before them. Critics continued to discuss the form and function of stage comedy, and comic opera became a popular genre.


The Age of Enlightenment specialized in satire, though less in the theater than in other genres. Carlo Goldoni's (17071793) comedies continue the tradition of comedy of intrigue, while those of Pierre de Marivaux (16881763) are more interested in human emotions than in social mores. In Russia, Denis Fonvizin (17451792) showed members of the nobility in a comic light (The Brigadier, 1769).

England produced some satirical giants: Henry Fielding (17071754), whose sprawling novel Tom Jones (1749) has comic moments; Richard Sheridan (17511816), whose Mrs. Malaprop in The School for Scandal (1777) is a comic type to rival Shakespeare's Falstaff; William Hogarth, whose moralizing series (Marriage à la mode, 1745) prefigured the modern cartoon; the verse satires of John Dryden (16311700) and Alexander Pope (16881744), and above all, Jonathan Swift (16671745). Compared to his mentors, Erasmus and Rabelais, Swift is sometimes too ferocious to be comic, as when he recommends relieving the famine in Ireland by eating babies (A Modest Proposal, 1729), but Gulliver's Travels (1726) remains a humorous and readable indictment of the society of his time.

France's Voltaire (16941778) is often both subtler and funnier than Swift, especially in his masterpiece, Candide (1759), a comprehensive attack on the aristocracy, religion, and general prejudices of his time (a battle is a "heroic butchery"; a Spanish grandee demonstrates "pride suitable in a man with so many names"). A new element in this century is the connection between laughter and eroticism, in works by Charles-Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu (16891755), Denis Diderot (17131784), and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (17411803) (Les liaisons dangereuses, 1782).

See also Caricature and Cartoon ; Castiglione, Baldassare ; Cervantes, Miguel de ; Commedia dell'Arte ; Dryden, John ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Jonson, Ben ; Molière ; Pope, Alexander ; Rabelais, François ; Shakespeare, William ; Sheridan, Richard Brinsley ; Swift, Jonathan ; Voltaire .


Primary Source

Bowen, Barbara C. ed. One Hundred Renaissance Jokes: An Anthology. Birmingham, Ala., 1988. Latin jokes with English translations.

Secondary Sources

Bremmer, Jan, and Herman Roodenburg, eds. A Cultural History of Humor: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Malden, Mass., 1997.

Ménager, Daniel. La Renaissance et le rire. Paris, 1995.

Barbara C. Bowen


views updated May 29 2018


Between 1870 and 1920 Americans produced an immeasurable traffic in humor. Some of it went beneath or beyond language through eccentricities of dress, gestures, and facial signals; as many British travelers noticed, common talk in the United States included banter, deadpanning, irony, and sarcasm. Raconteurs were imitated by scavengers of jokes, and the jokes themselves emerged as a marketable commodity. Amateurs stole from printed sources or from professional performers in minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, stage comedies, and comic "lectures." All of these outlets proved pleasing to audiences in large cities and small towns alike. They were crucial in making humor a respectable form of entertainment.

Journalism was the steadiest supplier. In 1873 contemporary historian Frederick Hudson got specific:

Our four to five thousand daily and weekly publications have columns of "Nuts to Crack," "Sunbeams," "Sparks from the Telegraph," "Freshest Gleanings," "Odds and Ends," "News Sprinklings," "Flashes of Fun," "Random Readings," "Mere Mentions," "Humor of the Day," "Quaint Sayings," "Current Notes," "Things in General," "Brevities," "Witticisms," "Notes of the Day," "Jottings," "All Sorts," "Editor's Drawer," "Sparks," "Fun and Folly," "Fact and Fiction," "Twinklings." ( Journalism in the United States, p. 695)

The typical newspaper had—or pretended to have—a local editor whose duties included supplying amusement, often clipped from the "exchanges," that is, the papers exchanged between different news publications so that they could share material when necessary.

Stories about eccentrics or mismatched circumstances got passed around; anecdotes and aphorisms got wider exposure; and many plays on bumbling syntax got repeated more often than they deserved. Purely comic newspapers and magazines had difficulty breaking even until Puck (established in 1877) attracted enough subscribers to turn a profit. Its success encouraged the startup of Judge (1881) and Life (1883). A submarket, "college humor," quickly recognized as a genre, established its viability. Gradually, the sober magazines, emboldened by the ongoing "Editor's Drawer" in Harper's New Monthly, added a humor department; they particularly encouraged the vogue of comic or "light verse" keyed to current customs. Newspapers, meanwhile, strained to set the pace and, as soon as the print shop could manage, expanded to cartoons and later to the comic strip.

The book trade responded to a rising demand for humorous material. At the fringes, joke books and pamphlets of ephemera circulated through hawkers and peddlers. Bottom fishers pirated hardcover collections until the laws on copyright got tighter. Humorists who built a following—such as Mark Twain and Marietta Holley—racked up totals impressive for the size of the public that could read English. Josh Billings—a pseudonym for Henry Wheeler Shaw (1818–1885)—sold over nine million copies of his Allminax in its best decade. Edward Noyes Westcott (1846–1898) produced David Harum (1898), an amateurish novel about a folksy rural banker that sold half a million copies. Novelists with serious themes understood that light touches would help lure a following. Though genial irony came naturally for William Dean Howells, once known for his one-act farces, Henry James both consciously and perhaps disingenuously created some characters who invited smiles rather than abstract dilemmas.

The process turned into push-pull. Cumulative popularity attracted more practitioners—from the rising trade of joke-smith to almost anybody trying to make a living by writing. Humor grew self-conscious, examining itself admiringly; Henry Ward Beecher's Beecher as a Humorist (1887), which caused no surprise, had many loosely analytic excerpts. Ultimately, listing the authors who shunned humor is far quicker than listing those who employed it, and Theodore Dreiser stands almost alone at his level. While the name of Kate Sanborn or Charlotte Perkins Gilman can pop up in anthologies moldering away, the contents are lopsided with male freelancers. Only lately have feminists managed to exhume a gallery of humorists they judge noteworthy. Except for Jewish writers, immigrants still need a closer census. Most overlooked, the humor of the working classes—on farms and in factories—has sunk beyond reach, though joking, playful or bitter, bubbled on the job, too. Recently, the pointed jokes of the most exploited subclass, the emancipated African Americans, has come into scholarly print. Doubtless, other groups—Native Americans, Hispanics—also had comic routines and sayings.


Many commentators have codified this swarming of humor. Their models, however, clash when they choose their typical authors or patterns—when they choose Thomas Bailey Aldrich over Ambrose Bierce, Marietta Holley over Mark Twain because she perhaps sold more books; when they emphasize the literary comedians over the columnists who wrote drolly about horsecars instead of horses, about transcontinental travelers instead of Arkansas travelers; when they emphasize vaudeville skits over the major magazines; when they focus on personal traits over attitudes claimed as distinctively American. But the more dynamic the advocate, the more that are convinced. An eloquent, hearty critic such as Bernard DeVoto, for instance, sweeps along more believers than quieter voices.

Theorists and classifiers have tended to emphasize that exaggeration held great appeal for humorists and their audiences. British commentators, especially, pointed to overstatement of emotions, bodily shapes, quantities, and outcomes. In some cases, this can narrow to the tall tale or to a stone-faced lying that outrages common sense. Cultural analysts find the most distinctive or else the most popular attitude an untamable irreverence, painfully obvious to less approving British critics. Even Artemus Ward, always intent to entertain, twitted pieties and left biblical morality less imposing. Encouraged explicitly by the humorists themselves, analysts past and present find a hostility to humbug, hypocrisy, or pretense. That hostility also functioned to favor the idiomatic and the colloquial over school-marmish rules or a bookish vocabulary.

Theories that build from historical patterns focus on the social leveling that intensified after the Civil War. Humor about "native" types, that is, rough-hewn white males, grew more respectable to write or to enjoy and resonated more with empathy than condescension. Such types now could guide the humor rather than let it happen to themselves. A blander approach finds a conflicted mixture of nostalgia and modernizing—an affection for a rural simplicity yet amusement at outmoded standards, a resistance to the steam engine of progress yet amusement at stuck-in-the-mud bumpkins. Timeline historians, following the theorists who explain humor as the deploying of incongruity, emphasize the sensitivity to the contrasts between regions. This is not surprising given that improvements in travel infrastructure made it possible to move quickly between vastly different areas—from Chicago, for instance, to a remote mining frontier. More clearly than today, economic levels were recognized—except in campaign speeches. As the middle and upper classes coalesced in the cities, their jokes and their favored sketches and cartoons stereotyped uppity clerks and dull-witted maids. As a woman's magazine fretted over the "servant problem," its humor page chuckled over Irish cooks and handymen. Still, socioeconomic perspectives can get too ponderous. With more leisure for some, with more time and better health for boredom, empty fun sold well, too. In printed bulk, it outweighed tendentious or aggressive humor.

Whenever essayists saw salability in discussing the national distinctiveness of humor, Americans were quickest to claim it. Some British critics agreed, instancing exaggeration, informality, and brashness—further localized vaguely as Western. Still, thorough reading encounters a range that includes reworking the oldest forms such as the proverb; tall tales, likewise, turn up earlier in almost every ethnic tradition.

Much of the dominant American culture had British roots; Charles Dickens had many New World devotees. Closer to home, Canadian humorists were sometimes well received in the United States. Stephen Leacock—like "Sam Slick" (a creation of Canadian Thomas Chandler Haliburton) a century earlier—fit in so easily here that many of his readers did not know or care that he was not a U.S. citizen. American humor could itself travel far because it meshed with basic human nature. But its offhand egalitarianism and its quickness to ridicule snobbery and pomposity was stronger than that of any other country with a print culture.

Much of the humor from 1870 to 1920 does not appeal to readers in the early twenty-first century. Political barbs like those of Thomas Nast or Petroleum V. Nasby—a pseudonym for David Ross Locke (1833–1888)—rust away, but so does the topicality of needling the southern "colonel," the bloomer girl, the boardinghouse landlady, and the "masher." Racist and ethnic slurs have sunk beneath respectability, and the politically correct will merely scowl at opaque dialect. Audiences in the 2000s squeeze less glee out of misused words and none at all out of tortured spellings. Likewise, there is little demand for the light or "occasional" verse that made Oliver Wendell Holmes a celebrity until his death in 1894. Also, when later readers refer back to historic material, they are absorbing it in a way that is quite different from the way that audiences of the late 1800s and early 1900s perceived it. Contemporaries of Josh Billings, for instance, took his writing in weekly doses or skipped around in his almanacs, which made them less likely to notice the recycling of devices and even phrasing. In addition, Billings's first fans did not read his work silently, as later readers tend to do, but shared his columns in groups, much like the television sitcom is vetted around the vending machine. Above all, the modern reader no longer feels that unapologetic amusement is daring, like skipping Sunday school. The late-nineteenth-century public could enjoy themselves enjoying humor while choosing from an expanding menu rather than expecting it to be available everywhere.


Literary historians differ in highlighting names of important works from the hundreds of plausible candidates. They differ on weighing success at the time against appeal today or against retrospective topicality. Ellis Parker Butler's huge success with "Pigs Is Pigs" (1906) evaporated long ago, for instance. But any historian should include Washington Irving, who held his prominence in anthologies used in the schools. James Russell Lowell, more august personally each year, heard from new readers of the first series of The Biglow Papers (1848), which amused even after its topical point failed. For loyal if diminishing fans, B. P. Shillaber carried on the tales of Mrs. Partington. As the wall between high- and lowbrow weakened, the lusty sketches from the old Southwest edged into the parlor, nearly fit to keep company with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Down East yarns through Sam Lawson. Though the Civil War satirists thinned away, Petroleum V. Nasby growled on for the unforgiving northerners while Bill Arp (a pseudonym for Charles H. Smith) genially reminded them that the white South still felt righteous. Though Artemus Ward died in 1867, Josh Billings, who started out imitating Ward's style, prospered for deriding humbug and stock sentimentalism. After the first Samantha Allen collection in 1873, Marietta Holley (1836–1926) published new books until 1914, mixing Billings's old-fashioned wisdom and virtue with calls for women's rights. While the Victorian commonplace that women have no sense of humor persisted, Holley and her ongoing admirers must have laughed at that, too.

Poets working in subliterate dialect tried to turn it into humor. A mini-genre of immigrant-inflected dialect, not indicted yet as ethnocentric, was especially popular. The writer from this style who persisted the longest in anthologies was Hans Breitmann—a pseudonym for Charles Godfrey Leland (1824–1903)—but like other dialect poets of the period, he receives little attention from modern readers. The same is true of the local colorists, who once invaded every nook of the continent and every magazine supplying fiction, and who usually wove some humor into their writing. The local colorists tended to profess curatorial purposes, and the writings of Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908), in particular, have been upheld for helping preserve the folklore of African Americans. Still, the humorous content of such works is an important part of their appeal. Readers surely feel a margin of amusement over the thorny dialect, anachronistic beliefs, and stereotypical characters. They may find the reputed stiffness and practicality of New England in a Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman story, yet they ordinarily smile at the end.


Though Marietta Holley's "Samantha Allen" consistently inserted arguments for women's rights in her written monologues, she registered most effectively through her interactions with her husband Josiah. Josiah, mild, somewhat inept, holds firmly to the gender stereotypes of the small-town Northeast; yet he is fond of Samantha, his second wife, and appreciates her competence. Samantha, more senior partner than wife to him, continually demonstrates her greater practicality, keen mind, tolerant curiosity, poise, and determination—thus continually undercutting the image of the naive, near-helpless female.

In the following passage, Samantha and Josiah are going through the art gallery at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia. More particularly, they are looking at some classical sculptures of nude women. Samantha shows both her usual backbone of propriety and her open-mindedness while Josiah trails along, intellectually as well as physically smaller than she.

But there was some Italian statutes that instinctively I got between and Josiah, and put my fan up, for I felt that he hadn't ort to see 'em. Some of the time I felt that he was too good to look at 'em, and some of the time I felt that he wasn't good enough; for I well knew when I come to think it over, that human nater wasn't what it once was, in Eden, and it wasn't innocence, but lack of innocence that ailed folks. But whether he was too good, or not good enough, and I couldn't for my life tell which; either way I felt it wasn't no place for him; so I hurried him through on a pretty good jog.

Marietta Holley, Josiah Allen's Wife as a P.A. and P.I.: Samantha at the Centennial (Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Company, 1877), pp. 476–79.

Meanwhile, cities were naturalizing the immigrant and depopulating the farms. Chicago ambitiously supported the publishing of books, magazines, and newspapers. While Eugene Field's impressive following has dwindled away because his columns were so fragmented, the writings of George Ade (1866–1944) and Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936) can still have a contemporary feel—at least for those with some familiarity with the writing of the period. While Ade was the more versatile, competing demands on the attention of posterity have winnowed him down to the best of his "Fables in Slang" series, which were collected in nine volumes, the first appearing in 1899. Ade's ideal reader, a shrewd yet tolerant city dweller, has seen through many a mental shell game and has encountered enough people to sort them into types. Dunne's Martin Dooley, who runs a saloon in an Irish enclave on the edge of Chicago, reached syndication by 1900. He commented mostly on national politics, starting with the Spanish-American War. Neither saint nor sage, he was resigned rather than outraged when deflating politicians (notably, Theodore Roosevelt) and the catch phrase of Manifest Destiny. Just as Ade's fables revive the social aura of his times and his citified coterie, so Dunne's monologues revivify the issues and the personalities as discussed by the voters rather than the pundits.

Spotlighting a few names can obscure, however, the hundreds of freelancers who strained for professional status and profits as the public indulged its sense of humor. Every kind of success spawned imitators. Meanwhile, the print media kept demanding more copy and the expanding live-entertainment industry always wanted fresh material. The big-city dailies felt off the pace without their byline humorist, and wordplay seeped into their headlines or stories about love triangles and petty theft. Comic verse replaced the lyric as filler for a magazine page. The joke in dialogic form hardened into an artifact, manufactured like tin cans, adaptable for every niche in the market. Life, started by Harvard graduates, claimed sophistication for its gags; its more expensive format also separated it from competitors. Considering itself non-partisan, it did not need the pinpoint cartoons that were found in Puck (Democratic) and Judge (Republican). The success of all three confirmed Matthew Arnold's complaint about the "addiction 'to the funny man'" in the United States.

Whatever its quality, the greatest quantity of humor was hacked out in the 1880s. Expert journeymen who had honed their skills in previous decades continued to work during this period. One was Richard Malcolm Johnston (1822–1898), who reworked his Georgia materials that had appeared previously. Another was James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916), who brought dialect poetry to its widest popularity, especially when he bonded sentimentality and amiable humor. Still, post-bellum moods and modes would inevitably lose dominance. Changes were driven by the growth of large-scale industry, urban anonymity, and secularism. In order to cater to the metropolitan newspapers, which were increasing in number, humorists presented a middleclass frame of reference and a mainline vocabulary that was spelled conventionally. The writing of Eugene Field (1850–1895), which began to be syndicated in the 1880s, was one sign of this change. When not pandering with sentimental lyrics, Field depended on a whimsy of ideas rather than pratfalls of body or mind.

As competitors multiplied in a national market, some still used regionalism as the safest base of supply. Southerners are likeliest to remember Opie Read (1852–1939) for his Arkansas shadings; midwesterners best remember George W. Peck (1840–1916), who created the "Bad Boy" stories, or Robert J. Burdette from Iowa. Of course, the fastest road to the national market ran through Manhattan, now the center of publishing. Out of the crowd, Francis Richard ("Frank") Stockton (1834–1902), H. C. Bunner (1855–1896), and John Kendrick Bangs (1862–1922) have had the most enduring appeal. Trying every mode like the preceding generation, they excelled in the short story and the cycle of sketches. While pitched below elitism, they assumed a public that not only could read well but was well-read. Likewise, Edgar Wilson ("Bill") Nye (1850–1896), though he got to the New York World through the Laramie (Wyoming) Boomerang, learned to assume a reader too self-confident to enjoy elementary blunders in language.


Finley Peter Dunne's "Mr. Dooley" reached national notice with his commentary on the Spanish-American War, especially on the behavior of Colonel Theodore Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders in Cuba. He continued his commentary, to still greater notice, when the United States occupied the Philippine Islands at the end of the war and a vigorous Filipino guerrilla movement opposed the U.S. troops.

Though a wide majority in the United States supported the policy of the Republican administration, an anti-imperialist group kept active, especially for the presidential election of 1900. Increasingly, however, it was attacked as unpatriotic, and even Mark Twain had to cope with charges of being a traitor. Finley Peter Dunne, while using humor more cross-grained than Twain's on this issue, felt that Mr. Dooley's Irish American idiom helped to deflect expansionist outrage, that readers tolerated dissent better when it was swathed in nonstandard English.

But I don't know what to do with th' Ph'lippeens anny more thin I did las' summer, befure I heerd tell iv thim. We can't give thim to anny wan without makin' th' wan that gets thim feel th' way Doherty felt to Clancy whin Clancy med a frindly call an' give Doherty's childher th' measles. We can't sell thim, we can't ate thim, and we can't throw thim into th' alley whin no wan is lookin'. And 'twud be a disgrace f'r to lave befure we've pounded these frindless and ongrateful people into insinsibility.

Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley at His Best, edited by Elmer Ellis (New York: Scribners, 1938), p. 65.


By far, the humorist of the late nineteenth century who has had the most prolonged appeal is Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910). If Twain's innate genius or the quality of his humor explain his staying power, his career nevertheless exemplified three patterns for ongoing success: a spread of forms and outlets; the manipulating of different personae, coalescing in a complex personality; and appeal to a range of attitudes, sometimes contradictory.

People with little patience for print may know only about the Tom-Huck novels and, perhaps, one or two short stories, but Twain wrote or compiled a shelf of works, including, naturally, Mark Twain's Library of Humor (1888). He began as one of many journalists with a byline who spun tales, sketches, hoaxes, and anecdotes. Moving up to the magazines, he predictably ground out a monthly "department," if only for a year. Meanwhile, he was refining his stagecraft as a "lecturer" so effectively as to get constant pleas for speeches at banquets and ceremonies. All along, he worked at any promising deal—a self-pasting scrapbook, low-cost pamphlets, calendars, postcards, and comic poetry, especially parody. Tenacious bibliographers still have not tracked down his every printed word or every witness to his skill as a yarn-spinner. In 1908 the incorporation of the Mark Twain Company confirmed that his pen name had prospered into a trademark, a logo. He himself marveled at his sustained popularity, which he had worried about since the early 1870s, alert to overexposure.

Twain enjoyed continuing appeal because he steadily experimented with his persona, facing up to failures and adapting to the turns in his highly visible life. Most contemporaries who made a sudden hit stuck with their original approach and so coasted toward satiating their public. While the "I" persona in Twain's first novel, The Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrims' Progress (1869), was already complex, it changed with each of his travel books, especially as Twain became famous, wealthy, and urbane. In the short pieces from Nevada and San Francisco, the Twain persona began as politically and civically engaged; then, working toward a national appeal, he muted his partisan invective. But he could resurface as a fervent independent—close, actually, to the Republican's middleclass core—when not building around basic human predicaments, topically staged. He most often used what the literary critic Walter Blair considers the then dominant strategy of humorists: posing a persona between the fool and the sage, between comically wrong thinking and horse sense, between exuberant joking and livable principles. But Twain, flexible to the end, moved with his times and his fortunes. His uniqueness comes from the fact that he achieved more cross-grained growth than most other writers.

Cutting across the timeline, Twain always appealed to a spread of attitudes. Casual readers, going by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures ofHuckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade) (1885)—especially as illustrated later by Norman Rockwell—consider him quintessentially nostalgic. As early as the 1870s older Americans could yearn for a community nestled in the village, superior to the heartless, noisome city (a grungier place then than now). But another of Twain's publics saw him as urbanized, moving toward a modernizing future and toward an improved human nature. Already in his early days, fellow journalists had called him a moralist, just partly kidding. Showily yet sincerely, he acted out the ideal of the responsible citizen, local and national. But even as his sketches increasingly displayed him as both family man and entrepreneur, he could again droll as prodigal, lazy, irresponsible, and hostile to the thickening bureaucracy. The various publics paid their money and took their choice of Mark Twains. In spite of bursts of appreciatively quoted invective, like his most enduring competitors he laughed with people more than at them—a distinction that was becoming explicit. He was amused as well as amusing, more sympathetic than satiric. Nevertheless, skeptics could quote supportive texts from Twain, agnostics felt comfortable with him, and pessimists inferred a kindred mind.

Twain's use of language encapsulated his multiplicity. Some of his sketches came close to the literary comedians' farfetched similes and slang, but even then he showed respectful affection for colloquial rhythms. Readers of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn admired its flowing yet vigorous cadence more than they chuckled at the boy's fumbling grammar or Pike County dialect. Before and after that novel Twain also showed respect for the correctness set by eastern academia. Especially after 1895 he worked primarily through sanctioned English so precise and graceful as to seem beyond any markers for class. But he would still delight his lifelong admirers by downshifting into slang and regional metaphors. Invoking Americanisms much less than his admirers then or now, his demotic undertones protected him from charges of going high-hat after hobnobbing with the wealthy and the mighty. Aspiring humorists who may not have comprehended the intricacy of Twain's appeal could see the efficacy of his style. Today, novelists who clash among themselves over sociopolitical principles emulate it openly.


Although Twain reigned as king of the humorists until his death in 1910, tastes pointed consciously toward the new century after the severe depression of the 1890s eased. Alongside the carryovers, the cartoon character Abe Martin created by Frank McKinney "Kin" Hubbard (1868–1930) rates as a throwback. A bumpkin who started shucking his kernels of a fool's wisdom in 1906, Hubbard held to a daily, syndicated readership, slowly grooming himself into an impish small-towner. But the top-paying newspapers wanted fresh talent with metropolitan themes and characters. O. Henry, a pseudonym used by William Sydney Porter (1862–1910), moved to New York City in 1902. Don Marquis moved there in 1909, soon doing a column for the Evening Sun. As the low-priced, general monthlies recognized how much female subscribers counted, female humorists got more acceptances in more genres. Carolyn Wells (c. 1869–1942) set the standard for updated professionalism, displaying versatility and writing with cerebral irony on mainstream themes rather than gendered ones. But movies were already luring the less literary; after 1910 the Mack Sennett Keystone comedies leaped many cuts above primitive sight gags.

World War I quickened the self-imagings that would energize the witty clique clustering in Greenwich Village and then around The New Yorker, which was founded in 1925. Most of the magazine's first contributors were already well known—especially Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and James Thurber. When Ring Lardner (1885–1933) gravitated to New York in 1919, he was already known as a sportswriter with a twist that hurt. His sardonic humor, close to nihilism, which now seems to belong to the 1920s, had early surpassed that of Baltimore's H. L. Mencken (1880–1956). Mencken had been charming readers since 1908 with his inventive sarcasm, whatever its real-world salience. At their kindest, Mencken and the early-twentieth-century humorists ignored the small-town's morally ribbed eccentrics, its fading crackerbox philosophers, and its fool in overalls stumbling onto a pebble of sagacity; at their meanest they ridiculed the nouveau bourgeoisie straining for a veneer of suavity. Nevertheless, the acerbic urbanite would attract a smaller audience than the developing persona of the "little man"—the apartment dweller or new homeowner trapped in a white collar, trying to cope with puzzling neighbors, servants by the day or just the hour, panhandlers, and low-level bureaucrats.

Only a fearless critic will round off humor from 1870 to 1920 neatly or, if wary of committing to a master theme, will draw a sharp contrast with antebellum modes and then with those of the 1920s. How can the career of Will Rogers (1879–1935) fit into any dovetailed survey? A cautious historian can at least assert that the most humor in the widest spread of forms was the most self-admiringly enjoyed between 1870 and 1920. With the growth of movies and then radio in the 1920s, the amount of humor printed per capita surely declined. More important, humor grew so ubiquitous that it was devaluing toward common currency, no longer a self-conscious gift from the American character to itself. In the late nineteenth century, some British and American critics decided that the flowering of humor had sprung out of democracy, out of the alleged primacy of English-speaking peoples in establishing human rights; by ignoring much, the literary historian can compile a supportive anthology. Still, the soundest perspective is to frame 1870 to 1920 as the era when the job of humorist became a profession because the idea of and the term for a sense of humor cohered to designate a talent worth having and exerting on humankind.

See alsoAdventures of Huckleberry Finn; Periodicals; Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings


Primary Works

Ade, George. Ade's Fables. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1914.

Billings, Josh. Josh Billings: His Works, Complete. New York: G. W. Carleton, 1876.

Dunne, Finley Peter. Mr. Dooley at His Best. Edited by Elmer Ellis. New York: Scribners, 1938.

Holley, Marietta. My Opinion and Betsey Bobbet's. Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1872.

Lardner, Ring. You Know Me Al. New York: George H. Doran, 1916.

Nye, Edgar W. Bill Nye's History of the United States. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1894.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1885. Edited by Victor Fischer and Lin Salamo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Secondary Works

Bier, Jesse. The Rise and Fall of American Humor. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

Blair, Walter. Horse Sense in American Humor, from BenjaminFranklin to Ogden Nash. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Blair, Walter. Native American Humor (1800–1900). New York: American Book Company, 1937.

Blair, Walter, and Hamlin Hill. America's Humor: From PoorRichard to Doonesbury. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Blair, Walter, and Raven I. McDavid Jr., eds. The Mirth of aNation: America's Great Dialect Humor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Gale, Steven H., ed. Encyclopedia of American Humorists. New York: Garland, 1988.

Hudson, Frederic. Journalism in the United States from1690 to 1972. New York: Harper, 1873.

Inge, M. Thomas. "Comic Strips." In The Greenwood Guide to American Popular Culture, edited by M. Thomas Inge and Dennis Hall. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Mintz, Lawrence E., ed. Humor in America: A ResearchGuide to Genres and Topics. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. See especially David E. E. Sloane, "Humor in Periodicals," and Zita Dresner, "Women's Humor."

Nilsen, Don L. F. Humor in American Literature: A SelectedAnnotated Bibiliography. New York: Garland, 1992.

Sloane, David E. E. The Literary Humor of the UrbanNortheast, 1830–1890. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

Trachtenberg, Stanley, ed. American Humorists, 1800–1950. 2 vols. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.

Walker, Nancy, and Zita Dresner, eds. Redressing the Balance:American Women's Literary Humor from Colonial Times to the 1980s. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.

Wallace, Ronald. God Be with the Clown: Humor in AmericanPoetry. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.

Watkins, Mel. On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, andSignifying—The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor That Transformed American Culture, from Slavery to Richard Pryor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Wickberg, Daniel. The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter inModern America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Williams, Kenny J., and Bernard Duffey, eds. Chicago'sPublic Wits: A Chapter in the American Comic Spirit. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

Yates, Norris Wilson. The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1964.

Louis J. Budd


views updated May 11 2018



Few behavioral phenomena present as many paradoxical contrasts as does humor. To one person a joke may be explosively funny while to another it may be disgusting or even horrifying. Understanding a joke is an intellectual achievement, yet reflective thought destroys the humor. A joke may be nonsensical and yet contain a profound truth. A witty remark or laughter can express either friendliness and affection or derision and hostility. Indeed, unrestrained laughter may signify either madness or good mental health. Perhaps the most dramatic of the contrasts are the attitudes of thoughtful men concerning humor: for some, like Freud (1905) and Grotjahn (1957), humor is liberating, ennobling, and a creative force, whereas for others, like Plato (Philebus), humor brings out the ugly and the destructive, degrading art, religion, and morals, and therefore should be avoided by civilized man.

Modern theory. Partly because of these protean qualities, humor has been a favorite topic of discourse among philosophers and writers, but it has evoked little serious attention from behavioral scientists as an area worthy of research or theory. There are undoubtedly numerous reasons for this lack of scientific interest in humor, but they are unrelated to its significance in human affairs and its possible contribution to general behavior theory. Behavioral theorists until recently have paid little attention to activities like humor and play, which are not clearly goal directed and which do not fit easily into the usual motivational models of drive reduction or need deprivation. Although this narrow view of motivation is now considered by many as untenable, emphasis on the negative or deprival motives for behavior persists.

White (1963) has attempted to take a more positive position toward motivation by postulating a primary drive: the striving for competence or mastery. This drive, which he calls “effectance,” motivates the organism to explore, manipulate, be curious, play, and enjoy humor. Such a view is consistent with the many theories of humor that emphasize superiority, triumph, self-glory, mastery, and release of surplus energy. Whether or not this broad concept of effectance will prove useful remains to be seen. There is some danger that it is too inclusive in its attempt to place many diverse activities under a single rubric. However, it is clear that a further delineation of a motivational basis for self-rewarding activities continues to be needed.

The work of Berlyne (1960) typifies the attempt to apply a modified and more sophisticated version of drive reduction theory to activities like curiosity, exploration, play, and humor. He proposes that humor springs from an “arousal jag” that arises with the experience of threat, discomfort, uncertainty, or surprise, and then is followed by an event that indicates safety, readjustment, clarification, or release. To Berlyne the arousal involved in humor is not a psychological state but a neurophysiological one, denoting preparatory behaviors in the nervous system. While the language is different, the view is a familiar one, best expressed by Immanuel Kant (1790), who defined humor as “an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing.” Thus to Berlyne and Kant, sudden relief from tension is the key to all humor.

There is little question that laughter will erupt in situations in which there is a sudden relief from anxiety or tension or when the individual aroused in preparation for threat suddenly finds he can relax. But must all situations evoking laughter be fit into this schema? We find, for example, experimental demonstration in the studies of Milgram (1963) that laughter will occur as anxiety is elevated, not reduced. He found that smiling and laughter with occasional convulsive outbursts regularly occurred under conditions of extreme tension in which normal subjects were ordered to administer what they thought was increasingly severe punishment to a supposed victim in the context of a learning experiment. As long as we do not fully understand the essential relationships between the various aspects of humor, for example, anxiety, aggression, surprise, and incongruity, neobehavioral models, even if couched in neurophysiological terms, will be of little help.

The protean character of humor. Humor remains a paradox only so long as one sees it as a simple behavioral process having a single meaning or function, involving a unitary class of stimuli which evoke a linear intensity scale of responses ranging from a faint smile to convulsive laughter. Phenomenologically, we know that this is not so. We know that smiling and laughing may have many meanings. Humor plays a myriad of roles and functions. We also know that the same joke may be enjoyed for different reasons, some of which may be minimally related to the joke’s intent. Studies have found repeatedly that although the intended point of a cartoon was missed, subjects thought the cartoon was funny and attributed the funniness to some tangential detail. Psychotic patients often reacted in this manner; a severely schizophrenic young man laughed at a cartoon by Steinberg portraying a man aiming a gun at an apple on top of his head and remarked, “The guy’s nuts. Why does he have to pop a perfectly good apple? I guess it’s a Mclntosh and he should eat it” (Redlich et al. 1951). In a recent study, children in grades two through five were often unable to comprehend the joke in a cartoon but they would focus on some detail and react as though this detail made the cartoon funny.

The importance of cognition. The fact that the schizophrenic patient missed the allusion to William Tell shows the importance of cognitive processes in the appreciation of humor. Appreciating a joke means that we are able to master the symbolic properties with their multiple figurative and allegorical referents; it is not unlike solving a complex problem. It is the sudden discovery achieved by the reshuffling of these symbols into a surprisingly new relationship which contributes to the pleasure in the joke, a fact thoroughly analyzed by Freud (1905). Part of the mild fun in the double-entendre (“gland: the only thing secretive about a woman” or “man refuses to give up biting dog”) lies in grasping the two meanings. Man enjoys using his mental powers by solving puzzles or problems, inventing things, appreciating jokes, or decoding mysteries.

But the pleasure in humor is more than the exercise of cognitive functions, although there are philosophers who insist that the essence of comic laughter lies in man’s use of his logical powers (Swabey 1961). Actually, an allusion or a double meaning is not the only way of making a joke, but it is plainly one of a number of techniques which can contribute to its structure. Other devices like incongruity, nonsense, condensation, plays on words, and exaggeration are all cognitive functions which make up the joke façade. As Freud (1905) pointed out, these same techniques make up dreams as well as jokes and are characteristic of the primitive modes of childhood thinking.

Regression in the service of the ego. Humor, then, like dreams, may be seen as a regression to infantile forms of thinking and acting, and it is partly the momentary freedom from the restraints of logical and realistic thinking that is gratifying. Freud concluded that humor involves a partial regression which is controlled by the ego and is in its service for pleasure rather than for defense. Kris (1952) has elaborated on this notion of “regression in the service of the ego,” applying it particularly to the creative process. Recent interest in creativity has further pointed up this relationship with regression. The likelihood that the creative process utilizes more primitive and unregulated forms of thinking has been suggested by a number of investigators. Barron (1957), for example, has shown in a number of studies of the creative personality that originality is associated with the ability to regress. Wild (1962) found that a group of creative art students was able to shift more easily into primitive and unregulated modes of thought than other groups and derived more pleasure from this shift. The notion of adaptive regression as a basic condition in humor and the creative process is proving fruitful to theory and research.

Freud saw the regression in humor, as in dreams, play, and in literature, as a functionally adaptive mode of withdrawal from reality into a self-made world. The importance to adaptive ego functioning of the capacity to withdraw voluntarily from reality into an imaginary world can be seen in such eagerly pursued pleasures as play, sports, humor, sleep, intoxicated states, and literature. Psychodynamically, neuroses and psychoses represent similar regressive detachment from reality, but they are pathological and involuntary: they do not function for ego gratification but are attempts to cope with conflict and anxiety.

The humor illusion. One can conceptualize the enjoyment of humor as resting on the participation in the humor illusion, where the rules of logic, time, place, reality, and proper conduct are suspended. The make-believe world of the humor illusion is analogous to that found in art—the aesthetic illusion (Kris 1952)—in play, games, and literature, where the metacommunication “this is for fun” gives license to share in the disregard for reality and propriety. Aggression, obscenity, and nonsense are for the moment permissible. From the clumsy pratfalls and antics of the clown to the comedy on television, the sharing of the comic illusion liberates the audience from the procrustean demands of reality [seeAesthetics; Fantasy].

By the achievement of these self-controlled illusions, man is able to soar with his imagination far beyond the confines of reality, whether in the form of a comedy, a novel, a poem, a dream, a painting, or a sculpture. These expressions of imagination may all be based upon common motivational forces and universal fantasies, but, as Freud postulated, their form and language are different.

The psychoanalytic theory. From the psychoanalytic viewpoint, then, humor gives pleasure in two independent ways:

(1) Joke techniques “aim at deriving pleasure from mental processes” and permit regression to infantile modes of thinking, feeling, and acting. The momentary relief from the need to be logical, rational, moral, and realistic is gratifying. Freud ingeniously demonstrated this source of pleasure by translating jokes into everyday language, thereby destroying the humor.

(2) The hostile or sexual purpose of humorous stimuli is gratifying because prohibited wishes originating in the unconscious are momentarily permitted release. The anxiety which normally accompanies the expression of these impulses is reduced or made superfluous by the structural characteristics of the joke that disguise or mitigate the impulse. Humor is consummately a social process and as a shared experience originating with someone else facilitates the regression and further alleviates the anxiety.

Thus, the joke serves as a disguise for the forbidden wish that slips through with little critical scrutiny. In fact, reflection penetrates the disguise and destroys the humor: explaining a joke spoils it. There appears to be some experimental evidence which suggests that during the appreciation of a joke or a cartoon critical judgment and realistic thinking are weakened. In a recent study it was found that college students judged aggressive humor significantly less aggressive while they were enjoying it as humor than when they judged it some time later for aggressive content.

The psychogenesis of humor. It should not be inferred that cognition is assumed to be inherently antithetical to humor, for clearly cognition not only is the mediator of this complex psychological process but also contributes to the pleasure. Understanding a joke is a challenge, and “solving” it is a source of satisfaction. Thus, when jokes are too obvious, they lose their punch. It has been found that as children developed intellectually, their enjoyment of humor depended upon increasingly more difficult jokes. Cartoons which made fewer cognitive demands were considered to be less funny than those which were more of a challenge to comprehension. With cognitive and language growth new and more complex modes of humor expression appear, particularly as symbols and words are elaborated and extended. There is thus an apparent error in conceptualizing sophisticated comedy and satire in the same manner as the stimuli that evoke the baby’s first smiles. Indeed, little has been done to trace the development of humor from the earliest manifestations to the extremely complex social phenomena we encounter in adulthood.

Smiling and its development. As one of the earliest recognizable responses of the newborn infant, the smile has been identified as being in the beginning an innate reaction to pleasurable tactile and organic stimulation. Although the course of humor development has been a much-neglected area, the investigation of the baby’s smile has been most intensively pursued. This great interest in these first expressions of pleasure no doubt springs from the recognition that they usher in the social development of the child and demonstrate the fundamental principles and processes of man’s psychological growth. Spitz considers the appearance of the smiling response as the beginning of the organization of the ego, with the inception of thinking, reality testing, and object relations (Spitz 1959; Spitz & Wolf 1946). The adequate stimulus and the expressive meaning of the early smiling responses have challenged many investigators, no doubt because they are the harbingers of all the sociopsychological processes and affects that characterize the adult.

If scientists are in a quandary about the meaning of the baby’s first smile, most mothers are not and attribute the smile to the child’s sociability. Notwithstanding mothers’ protests, however, the very first smiles may well be, as Schneirla (see Conference … 1955) maintains, nonspecific facial responses to low intensity introceptive stimulation, e.g., gas. However, the importance of the configuration of the human face as the adequate stimulus for the early smile has been amply shown by many investigators (for example, Spitz 1959). After the fifth month only familiar faces are adequate. There is consensus that the development of smiling is a paradigm of the social development of the child. The emotional contact and interaction inherent in the smile is an intrinsic and vital factor in all communication [seeInfancy].

Laughter and its development. The ontogenesis of laughter differs from that of smiling, most notably because laughter retains some characteristics of a partially involuntary convulsive reaction. That laughter never becomes fully controllable is evidenced by the fact that deliberate effort to restrain it only enhances the disposition to laugh. Furthermore, laughter is most easily evoked when ego control is impaired, as in intoxicated states, and when the brain has been damaged. Cases of pathological involuntary or forced laughing under the slightest stimulation are numerous in the neurological literature. Initially, the infant laughs in response to rhythmic and unexpected movement, later to tickling, and eventually to teasing situations like the game of peekaboo. According to Jacobson (1946), where the laughter-producing stimulus is most simple and primitive, the laughter is more expressive only of “pure uncontrolled motor pleasure.” With growth, laughter becomes a social response integrated into the dialect of affective communication. But the sudden relief from great tension remains capable of eliciting laughter. Laughter differs from smiling not only in the intensity of the pleasurable affect expressed by much of the body but as a social response as well. Generally, the individual, by laughing, shows that he is caught up emotionally in the social situation, whereas, with a smile, he communicates a greater detachment and ego control. Cultural and social factors, too, seem to play a more significant role in the expressive style of laughter.

Humor as affective communication. But it is to be noted that both smiling and laughter, in all their expressive variety, transcend cultures and ontogenetic development as affective communication. These two types of expression are among the most primitive and basic interactions between people. Furthermore, we see that affects, including humor, are more effectively communicated by expressive movements, facial expression, and gestures than by language.

It is as humor that smiling and laughing not only communicate many diverse emotions but contribute to their mastery as well. But this mastery is not always successful, as is evidenced by ubiquitous experiences of displeasure and disgust to some humor. Kris (1952) has called this quality of humor its “double-edged” character. Responses to humor of displeasure and anxiety rather than of pleasure are most readily seen in psychiatric patients, who seem to be particularly vulnerable to the disturbing qualities of humor, especially when they are too thinly disguised (Levine & Redlich 1955; Levine & Abelson 1959; 1960).

The development of a sense of humor. We know little about how the child’s sense of humor develops in conjunction with psychological and social growth. In the absence of systematic studies, we can only conjecture from anecdotal observations about the changes in humor behavior in relation to cognitive and emotional development. Humor, arising out of the play situation, clearly offers the growing child, while he is subjected to increasing demands and prohibitions, indirect outlets for the expression of his angry and sexual feelings and anxieties. By claiming “this is a joke” or “this is play,” he can be naughty, talk bathroom talk, tease, and poke fun. Wolfenstein (1954) maintains that indirectness of expression is associated with developmental phases of the joke facade; impulses must be gratified but the child seeks to disclaim responsibility for them. As an illustration of this process, Wolfenstein describes a sequence of dirty jokes of children from 4 to 11 to demonstrate the increasing complication of the joke facade. Excretory activities are primary themes. Wolfenstein considers the development of aggression in children’s humor as following a somewhat different course from sex and excretion. Wolfenstein’s observations point up the fact that the development of humor seems to follow the course of the normal physical, intellectual, and emotional development of the child. The humor a child enjoys is related to the level and phase of its growth and is intimately associated with its mastery of activities. As Kris (1952, p. 213) aptly put it, “What was feared yesterday is fated to appear funny when seen today.” The enormous importance of play and humor to children is sufficient proof of the need for understanding of their psychogenesis from simple undifferentiated behavior patterns to complex psychological processes.

Phylogenetic roots. When we talk about humor we usually think of it as an adult activity which emerges fully developed in man. We tend to disregard the biological and phylogenetic roots from which humor arises. In man, we overlook the primitive origins of humor as simple reflexlike reactions to specific stimuli. The phylogenetic gap betweeen man and the animals in respect to humor is apparently so great and unbridgeable that humor in man is viewed as an emergent phenomenon. Behavioral scientists acknowledge the validity of the most fundamental principle in biology, evolution, but completely ignore it in humor theory and research. Actually, the evidence, unsystematic and naturalistic as it is, strongly indicates that animals do possess primordial signs of a sense of humor, with the capacity to communicate pleasure by facial and bodily expressions which seem to be precursors of smiling and laughing (Darwin 1872; Yerkes & Yerkes 1929; Köhler 1917). Many of the higher animals are tireless in their teasing and their playing of mischievous pranks, being keenly aware of the importance both of surprise and of catching their victims unawares. Monkeys love to engage in clowning and funny posturing for the appreciative laughter of their human audience. The assumption of the humor illusion discussed above is clearly demonstrated in these antics, and the license of the mischief they undertake and the fun they have doing it attest to it.

Aggression and humor. It is out of these forms of teasing, pranks, and poking fun that children also develop their sense of humor. In the course of this development, aggression is an important component of the humor process, whether it is expressed as tickling, teasing, kidding, poking fun, being witty, or making wisecracks. Since aggression is such an important factor in humor, it has perhaps been more extensively studied than any other. A number of studies have shown convincingly that people who are generally aggressive or are easily aroused to anger tend to prefer hostile humor (for example, see Murray 1935; Byrne 1956; 1961; Strickland 1959). Attempts to demonstrate quantitatively that the greater the aggressive feelings the more hostile humor is appreciated have led to contradictory findings (Strickland 1959, Byrne 1956; 1961). Most studies relating humor and aggression are derived from psychoanalytic theory and are based upon the assumption that an increase in aggression which typically must be repressed leads to increased appreciation of humor as an outlet.

Perhaps a more important implication derived from psychoanalytic theory is that the enjoyment of aggressive humor leads to a cathartic reduction in the intensity of the aggressive feelings. Porr (1961) was not able to demonstrate a cathartic effect with sexual humor following sexual arousal, although Strickland (1959) found increased appreciation of sexual cartoons following sexual arousal. Singer (1964) was able to demonstrate that the enjoyment of aggressive humor led to a cathartic decrease in aggressive feelings. This experiment was conducted with Negroes during the summer of 1963 when the race conflict was of national concern. Singer first aroused strong aggressive feelings in Negro subjects by playing tape recordings which described the cruel treatment of integrationists in the South as well as a speech by a militant segregationist justifying segregation on the grounds that Negroes are genetically inferior. The subjects were then exposed to hostile anti-segregationist humor and neutral humor from segments of recorded performances by a well-known Negro comedian. He found that the arousal communication in fact did evoke strong aggressive feelings as well as anxiety. There was a significant reduction in aggressive feelings and anxiety following the hostile humor. The neutral humor had no effect [seeAggression, article onpsychological aspects].

Humor as a social process. The study mentioned above suggests the potential fruitfulness of research on the role of humor in relation to social issues. The importance of humor as a molding force in all societies seems to be appreciated mainly by those who apply it in advertising and entertainment. Several historical examples may serve as illustrations. Many have noted that Cervantes with his classic Don Quixote was able to laugh out of existence the ridiculous posturing of medieval chivalry. Thomas Nast, in 1871, with just a few cartoons singlehandedly brought about the downfall of the notorious Tweed ring (Becker 1959, pp. 299-300). During the blitz of World War II the morale of the English was greatly strengthened by the sudden eruption of joking at the time of peril. Perhaps the most dramatic example of humor shaping history was reported by Franklin D. Roosevelt; at the Teheran meeting in 1943, he was able to melt the icy suspiciousness of Stalin and win him over by cracking jokes at Churchill’s expense (Perkins 1946, p. 84).

Humor not only taps basic personality variables, as evidenced by the numerous studies with humor tests, but the popular humor of a people often expresses most clearly many of its concerns, conflicts, and aspirations (Hes & Levine 1962). Yet we know little that is fundamental about national and ethnic differences in humor behavior, although striking contrasts in patterns and ease of joking and laughter are familiar. While these differences are largely socially determined, there are archetypes of affective communication, laughter and joking, that transcend cultures and epochs. This fact is illustrated by the hilarious laughter evoked by Charlie Chaplin among the most primitive tribes of Africa. Completely in pantomime, he was able to convey the humor of certain family relationships which the tribesmen understood immediately (Grotjahn 1957).

The sharing of a humor experience by a group represents a pact between the participants to suspend for the moment the ordinary rules of conduct, logic, and speech. As Freud put it ([1905] 1960, p. 149), humor “is an invitation to common aggression and common regression.”

Although the normal demands of propriety are given up, the social situation in humor creates its own rules of interaction based upon status, intimacy, and purpose. Goodrich, Henry, and Good-rich (1954) studied systematically the joking and laughter of a psychiatric staff conference. They found that laughter and joking served a variety of important social functions, such as promoting solidarity, freeing individuals to disparage others, reducing felt anxiety, and acting as a safety valve for divisive tensions. They concluded that the investigation of humor is just as valuable for an understanding of social processes as it is for an understanding of attitudes and feelings. In two comparable studies, Coser (1959; 1960) investigated the joking and laughter of patients and staff in a mental hospital. She also found that humor allowed its participants a number of functions, including mutual reinterpretation of their experiences, entertainment, reassurance, and communication; it also served to convey their interest in one another, to pull the group together, and to strengthen its structure.

Institutional humor. Since humor serves so many social functions, nearly every society has developed institutional forms of humor, primarily to serve as methods of social release and regulation. For example, in a study of ritual clowning Levine (1961) has shown that among many of our American Indians, like the Hopi, who are normally very reserved and proper, the ritual clown is a highly respected individual, yet in his grotesque comic antics he is permitted to violate nearly every social taboo, including incest. By the assumption of the illusion of humor, the clown and the participants in his rituals are able to throw off ego restraints and regress to the most archaic and infantile levels without undue consequences. This socially approved gratification is an example of regression in the service of the ego and occurs without anxiety or guilt.

The joking relationships of many primitive cultures have long been recognized by anthropologists as performing a crucial function in defining and maintaining certain kinship relationships. Brandt (1948) confirmed the generally held hypothesis that these relationships are expressions of some potential sexual relationships within kinships. Levine has shown that this form of institutionalized humor is typical in reducing the tensions of interpersonal relations (unpublished). The joking relationships were seen as one of the means used by the culture to provide external controls for the sexual and aggressive urges that are most likely to seek expression in the violation of social taboos. By the formalized joking behavior, these tabooed wishes are channeled and relieved in acceptable ways. Again, by the assumption of the humor illusion, taunting and poking fun are treated as a joke, whereas under reality conditions such ridicule could lead to suicide or homicide. Antithetically, when the humor illusion is not present, many anthropological examples exist of the extreme reactions of shame and disgrace suffered by individuals who are publicly laughed at.

Ridicule and satire are also forms of humor which often become institutionalized. Elliott (1960) studied the extraordinary powers of satire in many cultures, particularly “shame” cultures where the worst possible experience is to be laughed at publicly and where suicide is even considered to be appropriate under such circumstances. Elliott showed how great magical powers were attributed to the fool or the satirist who could be very frightening and how extreme measures to appease him often were taken. A dramatic example of such an institutional form of humor is shown among the Greenland Eskimos, where quarrels are resolved by a duel with laughter. Each contestant, armed only with a drum which he uses as an accompaniment, recites humorous insults and obscene jokes ridiculing his opponent. The duelist who wins the most laughter from the audience is the victor. The loser is profoundly humiliated, often going into exile.

It is clear that society, by tradition and experience, knows the powers of humor in shaping human affairs. But humor is inextricably bound to both an inner and an outer freedom, and the view that humor gives license hardly does justice to its potential as a liberating force. As Worcester expressed it, “The intellectual, critical spirit that attacks pretense and acts as the watchdog of society is the comic spirit” ([1940] 1960, p. 7). Where cultures fear freedom of expression and rigidly demand conformity, humor is repressed, and the role of the humorist is dangerous. But, nonetheless, humor provides some immunity and permits freedoms otherwise proscribed. Many have perceived this fact. For example, Freud stated, “In every epoch of history those who have had something to say but could not say it without peril have eagerly assumed a fool’s cap. The audience at whom their forbidden speech was aimed tolerated it more easily if they could at the same time laugh and flatter themselves with the reflection that the unwelcome words were clearly nonsensical” ([1900] 1953, p. 444).

Jacob Levine

[Other relevant material may be found inDevelopmental psychology; Literature, article onthe psychology of literature; Psychoanalysis.]


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Kris, Ernst 1952 Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York: International Universities Press.

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views updated May 21 2018


Benjamin Roberts

While boating on the Rhine River near Leiden in the seventeenth century, a man on board notices a young woman in a garden house along the banks watching the river. He walks to the stern of the ship, starts to urinate in full view of the woman, and yells, " 'You don't have this.' " Without giving much thought to the matter she snaps back, " 'I've seen better' " (Roodenburg, 1997, p. 120). This is one of the many humorous anecdotes recorded in a book of jokes by the Dutch lawyer Aernout van Overbeke (1632–1674). The humor of the past reveals much about society, culture, sexuality, and male-female relations. Overbeke's anecdote suggests that Dutch women in the seventeenth century were quick-witted, that the young man (who like Overbeke belonged to the urban elite of the Dutch Republic) exposing himself was not ashamed of his jest, and that the Dutch of the seventeenth century apparently enjoyed a good dirty joke. This joke was probably told only in the company of men but in all social groups; as humor is not appropriate in all circumstances, the teller of this joke, like any modern counterpart, most likely saved it for the proper occasion. Although humor is just as much a part of human life as eating and drinking, it has constantly been influenced by religious, pedagogical, and political factors in Europe since the beginning of the Renaissance. Examination of a wide range of sources—iconographic images, literary works, moralistic writings, personal documents, satires, film, and television—reveals the development of European humor.


Humor as a social phenomenon is as old as the hills, but studying it is a relatively new research terrain for social and cultural historians. For the history of humor, the Russian medievalist Mikhail Bakhtin fulfilled a role comparable to that of Philippe Ariès in the history of childhood. Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World, published in 1965 after a twenty-five year ban in Russia, was the first study in which humor was illuminated as an essential element of the culture of carnival: carnival, which ritualized winter turning into spring, was celebrated by turning the world upside down, the pauper becoming a prince, the king a jester for a day. The culture of the Middle Ages, as Bakhtin saw it, was distinctly polarized: the official culture of the church and the educated spurned laughter, whereas the popular culture was dominated by the tradition of carnival and laughter. Aaron Gurevich, a cultural historian of the Middle Ages, found this view of medieval society an inadequate simplification of its complex cultural levels, arguing that the church and the educated were not against laughter. In his novel The Name of the Rose (1982), the Italian author Umberto Eco portrays a polarization within the medieval church. In Eco's book the monk of the Benedictine order, Jorge de Burgos, is appalled by laughter, whereas William of Baskerville, of the Franciscan order, is more mundane. As the medievalist Jacques Le Goff argues, ecclesiastical writers in the Middle Ages struggled with two viewpoints: that laughter was natural and idiosyncratic to man, and that laughter was unnatural. The latter view derived from the belief that if "Jesus, the great model for humanity, . . . never once laughed in his human life, then laughter becomes alien to man, at least to a Christian man" (Le Goff, 1997, p. 43). Petrus Cantor, a twelfth-century scholar, argued that, since Christ was born a human and was capable of laughing, his refusal to laugh must be a virtue (Verberckmoes, 1998, p. 80). Throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, this debate was a recurrent theme for theologians and moralists.

Le Goff divides the Middle Ages into two broad periods, one of repressed laughter and one of tolerance of laughter. From the fourth century to the tenth century, for monks especially, laughter was a vice akin to idleness. To laugh was a particularly abrupt way of breaking an almost celestial silence. With the second half of the Middle Ages came greater freedom to laugh, but the church tried to control it. A parallel development was an increase in vernacular literature, an element of which was self-reflection; this self-reflection partly consisted of satire and parody. The royal courts were the first to embrace and domesticate new modes of laughter.


A lack of sources limits the theoretical debate among historians on laughter in the Middle Ages. This is not true of the Renaissance and early modern period. A prominent source and character in the history of humor in the late Middle Ages and early modern period is the court jester. One might say that this "stand-up comedian" in his silly attire was the court's substitute for Prozac. During carnival even friars, monks, and nuns liked to imitate these clowns. Some Italian fools at the time received interregional and international fame, such as Dolcibene, the two Gonellas, Beatrice d'Este's Diodato in Milan, Isabella d'Este's Fritella at Mantua, and Borso d'Este's Scocola at Ferrara, the last immortalized in the frescoes at Schifanoia. A primary source for humor, in addition to the many literary and iconographic references to court jesters in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance are the numerous beffa or jest books. These trick or practical joke books were especially popular around the Mediterranean region, with Florence "la capitale de la beffa" (Burke, 1997, p. 64). Some of these books included plays in which a character was made a fool of, such as Niccolò Machiavelli's La mandragola (1518) and Pietro Aretino's Il marescalco. A common setting was at the court of the duke of Mantua, where the duke requests that the master of the horse get married. The master of the horse is not attracted to women, but he pursues the wedding anyway, only to find out that his bride is a page. The beffe also included instructions for pranks, "such as making someone fall asleep at the dining table, . . . recipes for dyeing one's hair or cures for impotence" (Burke, 1997, p. 64).

Laughter came under religious scrutiny during the Counter-Reformation, when reformers tried to change the Catholic Church from within rather than break with it as the Protestants had. Many clergy and writers of conduct books criticized the beffes on moral grounds. New printed beffes became embedded in a moral story, using metaphors signifying cures, lessons, and punishments, and lost their practical-joke quality. Children had to be taught to control their laughter; the elderly often lost their control. Writers of conduct books preferred verbal jokes to pranks, as did the upper echelons in society. Peter Burke detects at the end of the sixteenth century a general restriction from partaking in humor by the clergy, women, and gentlemen, which corroborates Bakhtin's idea of the polarization of humor, as does northern European art of the sixteenth century. Depictions of laughing faces on people of lower means often served as examples of unacceptable behavior. "Jesters, satyrs, peasants, drunks, bagpipe-players were all presumed to be the opposite of what a civilized person was supposed to be" (Verberckmoes, 1998, p. 47).

Northern European moralist writers of the Counter-Reformation also participated in suppressing verbal humor. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the pedagogical and moralistic writings by the humanists Desiderius Erasmus (1466?–1536), Laurent Joubert, and Juan Luis Vives (1492–1540) were influential in determining how laughter was regarded for the rest of the early modern period. Especially for Erasmus, laughter was no laughing matter. It had serious purposes, such as relieving pain caused by sickness, and he advised that it was good to laugh occasionally while in the company of others. But for other than medicinal uses, laughter was denounced. Humanistic writers understood that laughter is an exceptional form of human expression, yet at the same time were pressured to restrain it by pedagogical means. Faced with this dilemma, they tried to distinguish the real laugh from the false by categorizing the various forms of laughter. Vives described the unstoppable laugh of the Greek philosopher Democritus (c. 460–370 b.c.) as fake and unreal, a forced sardonic laugh, and Erasmus labeled it false, bitter, and foolish. Erasmus classified laughter as follows: the ionic laugh, that of the bon vivant with a taste for luxury and pleasure-seeking; the megaric laugh, or laughter at the wrong moment; the chrionic laugh, or laughter that bursts forth; and the syncronousic laugh, a laughter expressing shock that is difficult for the body to control. According to Erasmus these laughs were inappropriate for respectable people because they implied a wild spirit.

In De anima et vita (1538), Vives theorized about the effects of laughter on the body, drawing on the humor theory developed by Galen, the second-century Greek physician. According to that theory, bodily fluids—the humors—determine a person's health and temperament. Vives wrote that those with yellow bile were inclined to laugh more easily because their hearts gave off warmth, whereas those having a phlegmatic temperament and thus troubled with black bile laughed less due to their slow circulation. For Vives laughter was a natural human condition that nevertheless people should not give into easily. Conduct books advised a controlled laugh and only in appropriate situations. Laughter had a social dimension: the naive, such as peasants, children, and women, were likely to lose their self-control if laughter caught them off guard, whereas intelligent people could control themselves and not burst into laughter.

In Traité du ris (Treatise on laughter, 1579), Joubert studied the physical aspects of laughter, distinguishing real laughs from fake ones. According to Joubert's anthropological description, laughter manifested itself physically: "The face goes into motion, the mouth and lips widened, the chin extended, the eyes glistened and teared, the cheeks blushed, the chest shuck, the voice trembled." The situation became worse as the laugh continued:

The throat widens, the lips stretch even further, the face wrinkles especially the cheeks and corner of the eyes, the teeth become exposed, the eyes tear and swell as if they are going to jump out of their sockets, the veins in the forehead and neck swell, the arms, shoulders, and buttocks tremble, and one starts to stamp with their feet . . . so that one begins to cough, throw up, and the nose spits out what someone has drank, one starts to piss, shit, and to sweat. (Verberckmoes, 1998, p. 61)

In some cases, he noted, a laugh could last so long that a person must lean on something to brace himself or herself or fall down. According to Joubert, in the worst-case scenario a person could faint but not die. Damasceno, an Italian priest and astrologer in the seventeenth century, wrote a pamphlet in which he drew an interesting conclusion from humoral theory: a person's temperament could be determined by the way that person laughed. A hee-hee-hee laugh indicated a melancholic temperament, a heh-heh-heh laugh a choleric temperament, a ha-ha-ha laugh a phlegmatic temperament, and a ho-ho-ho laugh a sanguine temperament. Of course, this view of temperament was not taken too seriously, although humoral theory retained medical currency into the nineteenth century.

During the religious and political upheavals in the northern and southern Netherlands in the sixteenth century, moralistic writers of the Counter-Reformation tried to constrain laughter. Pieter Croon of Mechelen (in present-day Belgium) echoed the church's old conviction regarding laughter, writing, " 'Now is the time for weeping and in heaven will be the time for laughter' " (Verberckmoes, 1997, p. 80). Despite this stern disapproval of laughter, Croon's contemporaries were aware that laughing was part of human nature, thus it was important to restrain and control laughter as much as possible. Spiritual writers consoled their audiences with the assurance that "earthly tears would be followed by heavenly laughter" (Verberckmoes, 1997, p. 81). Reformers distinguished between sacred and profane humor, creating a whole new comic terrain. Those who made fun and folly of the church, such as "the puppet players Jacob Cobbeniers and his wife Elisabeth Lauwers, who around 1600 in a puppet play let St Peter and St Paul kiss and feel a woman, Margite, and even let the two saints embrace each other," could be tried before an ecclesiastic or secular court (Verberckmoes, 1997, pp. 84–85). Mockery of the Catholic Church was not taken lightly.

Early modern society was also aware of the psychological effects of laughter. Depressive bouts known as melancholy were a common plight of the wealthy and the idle. Toward the end of the sixteenth century melancholy was a household term. In The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) the Oxford clergyman and scholar Robert Burton (1577–1640) made a scientific study of the causes and effects of melancholy, and laughter as an important remedy. Various reports claimed people died of melancholy, and numerous pamphlets were published on how to cure it. The physician known as Paracelsus (1493–1541) advised the victims of melancholy to battle it with its opposite. A melancholy patient should be treated with laughter, while a clown, on the other hand, should be handled with melancholy. The idea behind both therapies was to normalize the person's temperament. For those with severe cases of melancholy, some cures called for such unusual remedies as liquid gold or venereal ecstasy (Verberckmoes, 1998, p. 68). More commonly, doctors and others concerned were apt to recommend a good laugh now and then. The letters of the prominent Amsterdam lawyer Willem Backer (1656–1731) urged his daughter, who was plagued with melancholy, to read, paint, take walks, and see a comedy at the theater.


Not surprisingly the elites, who were likely to fall prey to melancholy, were also the first to abide by the numerous domestic conduct books and theological treatises restraining laughter. In the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, the humor of the urban elite shifted to a more cultivated wit and punning. In Amsterdam in the late seventeenth century, for example, the society for the reform of theater rewrote comedies, purging them of their vulgar elements. This was a stark contrast to the scenes depicted by the painter Jan Steen (1626–1679), a keen observer of the human comedy. Steen's themes were everyday situations, such as seduction, lovesickness, marriage, and childbirth, as well as historical episodes from which he culled humor and wit. About Doctor's Visit (c. 1667–1670), which portrays a young, lovesick girl, the art historian Mariët Westermann writes:

The young woman perks up at the sight of the lover entering. Her accelerating pulse confounds the doctor, who signals his incompetence with his costume, outmoded for the 1660s, and with his bewildered expression. The smiling girl at the virginals and the grinning character at far right, who sports Steen's features, enhance the comic flavour. Letting us in on the joke, Steen suspends a herring [a phallic metaphor] and two onions in a farcical simile for the cure. (Westermann, 1997, p. 143)

How could Steen hope to sell his canvases, candidly depicting smoking, drinking, disorderly behavior, and sexual illicitness, to the urban elite with their high moral standards? According to Westermann, the elites saw no resemblance between themselves and Steen's round-bodied characters, nor between their own moral lifestyles and the situations he represented. Thus they could enjoy the humor without feeling morally implicated.

The sense of humor of the seventeenth-century urban elite is more clearly revealed by Overbeke's Anecdota, his book of jokes. Overbeke, who was well educated and friends with many prominent people in the Dutch Republic, recorded some 2,440 jokes and anecdotes, whose subjects included physical handicaps, women, permissive parenting, capital punishment, sex, and bathroom humor. In contrast with the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, it was acceptable to laugh at those who were physically impaired. Many jokes popular among all strata of Dutch society were childlike, with their emphasis on bodily excretions and sexual attributes. The comical situation was also popular, and some jokes along these lines were circulated into the twentieth century. For example, a dimwit ties a rope around his waist. When someone asks why, he replies, "I want to hang myself." The other remarks, "Then you have to tie the rope around your neck and not your waist." The dimwit retorts, "I already tried that but it makes me choke."

Punishment of adults in the early modern period took place in public (juveniles were often spared public humiliation) and was a form of entertainment for the masses. Overbeke's collection includes a joke about a public execution. The sentenced man has to climb the ladder to the gallows backward, to the delight of the spectators, who roar with laughter. The condemned man pardons himself to the executioner, saying, "Excuse me, this is my first time." In another, a man condemned to death by the courts is given the choice of death by hanging or by beheading. (Death by hanging was less honorable.) The man replies, "Hanging, I can't stand the sight of blood."

Many jokes Overbeke recorded were about sex, impotence, and the sex organs. People of his day freely discussed sexuality; such discussions were more restricted later in the seventeenth century. He alluded to the female genitals as "c ...,""stocking," or "slit," and to the penis as "clown," "glodhopper," "finch," "instrument," and "middle knee." Lusting women figured in many jokes. For example, after returning home following an absence a woman complains that her dog was more polite to her than her husband. When asked what she means, she replies, "At least my dog jumped on top of me." Overbeke's contemporaries were not surprised that many women became prostitutes, reasoning that such women longed for sex.

What motivated Overbeke to record the jokes of his day? His father had died from "morbo melancholico" or depression, for which humor was a well-known remedy. Another reason might have been his social background. His forefathers were from the southern Netherlands and had fled to the Dutch Republic during the revolt against Spain. Although they worked themselves up to the higher strata of Dutch society in the seventeenth century, they never belonged to the very top. Overbeke studied law at the University of Leiden, went on the grand tour, and became a lawyer in the Hague, where he was close to many high officials and members of the stadtholder's court. With his sense of humor and love of writing poetry, Overbeke was somewhat of a bohemian. He probably benefited from his sense of humor especially in high circles, where humor had an important social function. As everybody enjoys a good joke, humor serves as a good social lubricant, enlivening all sorts of gatherings. Civilized people released their physical fury through humor. Instead of fighting duels, urban society solved differences in a sophisticated fashion, replacing the sword with the tongue in contests of wit. Lawyers such as Overbeke were especially suitable for this type of linguistic warfare because they honed their wit and dry humor at trials.

In early modern France humor played an important part in the shift from physical violence to verbal retort in the civilization process. Norbert Elias (1897–1990), the father of the theory of the civilization process, never said a word about humor; nevertheless it is a fact that physical violence decreased throughout the early modern period, replaced by sophisticated humor. According to the Dutch historian Rudolf Dekker, who stumbled upon Overbeke's Anecdota in the Dutch national archives, Overbeke's record of humor and anecdotes endorses the image of the seventeenth-century Dutch as a humorous folk and illustrates a shift in the national character by the nineteenth century, when the Dutch no longer were known for their boisterous humor but rather for their sedate soberness. What happened to the image of the boisterous Dutchman slapping his knee? Beginning in the late seventeenth and continuing into the eighteenth, conduct book writers, moralists, and theologians, all influential in the Dutch bourgeois culture, condemned immoderate laughter, especially laughing at the expense of another person. In the course of two centuries the Dutch became heavy-handed Calvinists.

For early modern England Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and the diary of Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) are important sources. Both men owned large collections of jest books, a genre popular among Italian humanists in the Renaissance; as they were translated they became popular throughout the rest of Europe. Stories in these books depicted a scene of daily life, ending with a smart reply intended to make the listener burst out laughing. Indeed, telling jokes was an amusing pastime. On 9 October 1660 Pepys wrote that he and his friends "were very merry at table, telling of tales," and a month later he wrote, "And did tell many merry stories, and in good humours were we all." Many times the affair of telling jokes was accompanied by drinking. Pepys recorded many practical jokes he played, even on William Penn. He noted ludicrous accounts, such as on 1 July 1663, "Sir Charles Sedley stripping himself naked on the balcony of a cook's shop in Covent Garden, before 1000 people, then engaging in various obscene acts, 'abusing scripture', and preaching an obscene 'Mountebank sermon' " (Brewer, 1997, p. 95). In general the educated frowned upon jest books, but apparently Pepys did not. He classified his "merry books" as "vulgaria." Because reprints were often cheaply produced, jest books were literally read to pieces by his contemporaries.

In the seventeenth century little difference existed between the humor of the gentry and of the populace. As elsewhere in Europe this changed in the eighteenth century, mainly because humanist thinkers embraced the French classicism manifested in conduct books. In 1748 Lord Chesterfield (1694–1773) condemned laughter in a letter to his son: "Loud laughter is the mirth of the mob, who are only pleased with silly things; for true wit or good sense never excited a laugh" (Brewer, 1997, p. 103). Apparently Lord Chesterfield was not one to invite to a party. Toward the end of the seventeenth century the court jester died out as well. The English king William III of Orange (1650–1702) was the last king to appoint a jester to the court in 1694. During the eighteenth century humor joined French culture, literature, language, fashion, and court in the esteem of the European elites. Especially in urban areas, people came to prefer sophisticated humor over the traditional boorish humor of rural society with its practical jokes and pranks.


In the early nineteenth century Berliners were well known for their wit. The city was acclaimed by guidebooks as the "mother city of wit," and its inhabitants were applauded for their "mockery, ridicule, bluntness and cheek." Dry wit was reputedly "natural phenomenon, an inborn characteristic of Berlin's lower classes" (Townsend, 1997, pp. 200–201). In 1844 the German author Theodor Mundt noted that Berlin's popular humor had two qualities: it could either ignite or still the frustrations of the people regarding Prussia's political situation in the 1830s and 1840s. Apparently it had a soothing effect on the populace until 1848.

According to the historian Mary Lee Townsend, Berlin humor of the early nineteenth century profoundly influenced the establishment of a public sphere with a sense of community. In that sphere laughter was an important ingredient of public debate. A comic strip figure, Eckensteher Nante, was a significant symbol. Eckensteher, literally one who stands on a street corner, first appeared in the Berlin press in 1832 to denote a lower-class worker, and by the 1848 revolution the character by that name was a major political icon. On some occasions he was even suggested as a candidate for emperor of a united Germany. Eckensteher's popularity can be credited to his wide circulation through an inexpensive medium. His social background as a menial laborer in Berlin appealed to many of the other Berliners who were drawn to the city for work. The strip addressed and satirized many social issues of early nineteenth-century society, such as poverty, drinking, and the political repression of Prussian citizens. A recurring theme concerned the Prussian state's poor care of veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. In a strip in an 1845 booklet, "an ex-soldier remarks to his friend, 'It is nice to die for the Fatherland . . . because then you don't have to live as a disabled veteran' " (Townsend, 1997, p. 212). All social strata read the strip, but each group probably found something different in it. The bourgeoisie most likely laughed at the stupidity, passiveness, and harshness displayed, while the poor probably laughed at the situations with which they identified. The strip's effect on politics was probably marginal in the long run, but it kept the political groups of Berlin on their toes up to the 1848 revolution.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, caricatures became popular in the English magazine Punch, which first appeared in 1841. The editors marketed humor that the English bourgeois middle class could appreciate. During the first nineteen years of Punch's publication, its satire poked fun at the government, the propertied classes, the Catholic Church, and the English royal family. In 1860 the editor Mark Lemon (1809–1870) decided it would be more lucrative to humor than to offend the bourgeoisie, and Punch became a polite weekly that exhibited many characteristics of the English temperament. From 1860 to after the World War II the jokes in Punch fit into a typically English pattern. In his penetrating look at English humor, Harold Nicolson describes the jokes in Punch as childish (with a naive delight in the play on words) and self-protective (ridiculing the unfamiliar, foreigners, surprising events, and intellectual superiority); they required minimal mental effort (whether appreciation of the unfamiliar, of poking fun at knowledge, or of inspired nonsense), aiming instead to comfort (by comparing dilemmas of the present with the past and thus rationalizing them). Nicolson argues that the English are not less sensitive than other nationalities when its comes to making fun of their "institutions, climate, cooking, habits and foibles" (Nicolson, 1956, p. 43). Rather, the core of the English sense of humor is a high self-regard masquerading as self-ridicule: for example, if the English were truly ashamed of their cuisine, they would not be inclined to poke fun at it.

While Punch catered to the English bourgeoisie, Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) constantly made fun of them from above. His plays, such as The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), mocked middle-class norms and values and therefore Victorian society. All the prized merits of the English bourgeoisie, such as hard work, honesty, marriage, good morals, and proper behavior, faced ridicule in Wilde's one-liners. To wit: "Any preoccupation with ideas of what is right or wrong in conduct shows an arrested intellectual development" (Wilde, 1987, p. 1113). In fact self-ridicule became the main ingredient for humor in the film industry and later for television in twentieth-century America. Classics such as Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), which derided industrial society, and The Great Dictator (1940), which ridiculed Hitler, who had risen to power in Nazi Germany, made audiences on both sides of the Atlantic roar with laughter. Hitler, however, failed to see the humor and banned Chaplin's films. By the 1950s American situation comedies such as I Love Lucy brought American culture and the American sense of humor into European households. Europeans produced their own sitcoms, incorporating their own national identities and jokes. Most American sitcoms more or less portrayed American family values with a moralistic message and dealt with matters like sex in an indirect Victorian fashion. The popular 1990s British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous had viewers in Britain and on the Continent gasping for air at the quick-witted humor of its stars, Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. The duo portrayed two forty-something women of the baby boom still living in a version of the hedonistic 1960s world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The candor fired off in high-speed dialogue was a refreshing element in British humor. While most viewers laughed at the mockery of the 1960s, the real butt of the humor was the no-nonsense 1990s and its New Age overtones.


From the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, moralists, theologians, and the church attempted to restrain laughter. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries attitudes toward laughter shifted. By replacing physical violence with verbal wit, the elites first initiated this social intercourse, and the bourgeoisie and the lower strata of society adopted it. Propelled by humanist pedagogical writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Erasmus, Vives, and Joubert, the change was more apparent during the eighteenth century, when the bourgeoisie incorporated humor in their lives on a broad scale. However, the personal documents of Overbeke and Pepys, both of high social status, are closer to the humor of daily life in the seventeenth century and illustrate that people continued to laugh about commonplace matters despite finger-pointing by moralists. Sources from the Renaissance and the early modern period demonstrate that the history of humor is a dichotomy between the humor portrayed in secondary sources and the humor of daily life in personal sources. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the influence of moralists and theologians on the suppressing of humor declined. By the end of the twentieth century, a sense of humor was considered a particular asset, with employers seeking not only skills and commitment in their prospective workers but also the ability to laugh. The old adage, "Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone," survived. Another modern variable involved political regimes and uses of humor to release political tension amid censorship, a key theme for many communist countries in the twentieth century.

The social and cultural history of European humor remains a fertile topic. Specific explorations, such as examinations of early modern Holland, have been revealing and suggest important adjustments of established views. But many periods and regions have not been studied, and systematic accounts have not been developed. The difficulty of the topic lies not in discussing written efforts at humor but in deciphering what humor meant to different people and how it was used. Many studies, such as those concerning the role of political humor and satire amid censorship efforts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are specific. Analysis of new forms of popular theater, such as music halls, in the late nineteenth century inevitably deal with earthy humor and how it was received when the middle class patronized working-class establishments. Other studies refer to humor in passing. Works on changing European manners in the eighteenth century—among them Lord Chesterfield's popular treatise—note a hostility to humor, perceived as suggesting poor breeding and lack of self-control. How much this attitude actually affected humor is another question. Clearly, ample room exists for additional research in a branch of social-historical inquiry fed by the growing interest in cultural evidence and issues.

See also other articles in this section.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington, Ind., 1984. Originally published in 1965.

Brewer, Derek. "Prose and Jest-books Mainly in the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries in England." In A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Pages 90–111.

Burke, Peter. "Frontiers of Comic in Early Modern Italy c. 1350–1750." In ACultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Pages 61–75.

Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Oxford, 1989. Originally published in 1621.

Dekker, Rudolf. Lachen in de Gouden Eeuw: Een geschiedenis van de Nederlandse humor. Amsterdam, 1997.

Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. London, 1982.

Gurevich, Aaron. "Bakhtin and His Theory of Carnival." In A Cultural History ofHumour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Pages 54–60.

Le Goff, Jacques. "Laughter in the Middle Ages." In A Cultural History of Humour:From Antiquity to the Present Day. Edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Pages 40–53.

Muchembled, Robert. De uitvinding van de moderne mens: Collectief gedrag, zeden, gewoonten en gevoelsleven van de middeleeuwen tot de Franse revolutie. Amsterdam, 1991. Translation of L'invention de l'homme moderne: Sensibilités, moeurs et comportements collectifs sous l'Ancien Regime. Paris, 1988.

Nicolson, Harold George. The English Sense of Humour, and Other Essays. London, 1956.

Roberts, B. "Dutch Affective Parent-Child Relations in the Eighteenth Century: Catharina Backer and Her Parents." History of Education Society Bulletin 56 (autumn 1995): 17–26.

Roodenburg, Herman. "To Converse Agreeably: Civility and the Telling of Jokes in Seventeenth-Century Holland." In A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Pages 112–133.

Spierenburg, Pieter. The Spectacle of Suffering: Executions and the Evolution of Repression: From a Preindustrial Metropolis to the European Experience. Cambridge, U.K., 1984.

Townsend, Mary Lee. "Humour and the Public Sphere in Nineteenth-Century Germany." In A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Pages 200–221.

Verberckmoes, Johan. "The Comic and the Counter-Reformation in the Spanish Netherlands." In A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Pages 76–89.

Verberckmoes, Johan. Schertsen, schimpen en schateren: Geschiedenis van het lachen in de zuidelijke Nederlanden, zestiende en zeventiende eeuw. Nijmegen, Netherlands, 1998.

Westermann, Mariët. "How Was Jan Steen Funny? Strategies and Functions of Comic Painting in the Seventeenth Century." In A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Pages 134–178.

Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Leicester, U.K., 1987.


views updated May 11 2018


Humor is such an integral part of the human psyche that philosophers and other intellectuals have long been fascinated with its origins in and its effects on the human brain. Several early theorists have provided subject matter for continuing observation and debate. The Greek word chumoi means "juices," and the ancient Greeks used the word, from which we get the English humor (as well as humid ), to refer to the bodily fluids of blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The amount of these fluids and how they happened to be mixed in a person's body was assumed to determine that person's disposition or temperament. When authors, playwrights, and comedy performers create eccentric characters, they are going back to this old idea of some people being extremely bilious, phlegmatic, sanguine, or jaundiced.

Related to this idea of bodily fluids is a belief that humor is good for one's health as reflected in the Book of Proverbs: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones" (17:22). In 1979 Norman Cousins, a talented writer and former editor of the Saturday Review, popularized the wish-fulfilling idea that laughter could reduce pain and release healing chemicals into people's bodies. While the idea caught the fancy of the general public on a worldwide scale, the twenty-first century's thoughtful researchers are asking questions about possible confusions between causes and effects. For example, even if well-documented evidence could be collected to show that people with a sense of humor live longer, it might be that they have a sense of humor because they are healthy and things are going well. Along the same lines, it might be that hospital patients who are pleasant and find things to laugh about will get well faster than grumpy patients because their pleasant personalities attract a broader support group and make doctors and nurses more willing to spend time with them.

Release or Relief Theory

The subjects that people joke about are likely to be things that make them feel unsure or uncomfortable, as with questions about religion, politics, sex, and ethnic differences. People joke about these subjects as a way of releasing feelings of tension and also as a way of sending up trial balloons. If they say something that does not go over well, they can backtrack and hide behind the cliché, "I was only kidding."

At a 1984 humor conference held at Arizona State University, Robert Priest, a psychologist at West Point, reported on his Moderate Intergroup Conflict Humor (MICH) theory. He agreed that for people to be inspired to create a joke they must feel some tension, but he argued that joking will relieve only moderate levels of tension. If groups or individuals are feeling strongrather than moderatelevels of tension, they will feel frustrated rather than satisfied by jokes. He illustrated his point by showing how history is filled with jokes about the so-called battle of the sexes, but in the late 1970s and the 1980s, as the feminist movement developed and hostilities between men and women increased, sexist joking was no longer viewed as humor. Instead, it was viewed as aggression, and those who told sexist jokes were taken to court and punished for creating hostile workplaces.

A related way of explaining this idea that people need some distance from a problem before they can find humor in it is the statement that "tragedy plus time equals humor." James Thurber has been credited with this observation, but many people, including Steve Allen and Bob Hope, have commented on the idea. After the September 11, 2001, tragedy, it was a topic of general public discussion when comedy clubs and late-night comedians took time off.

Superiority Theory

Conflicts over the censorship of humor go back at least to the fifth century b.c.e., when Plato expressed the idea in his Republic that jokes and humorous incidents should be removed from stories about the gods before they are presented to young people. Plato's idea was that if children were amused by the gods, they would feel themselves superior and hence would lose respect.

Several centuries later the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes spelled out more clearly the idea that humor is an expression of superiority. In his 1651 Leviathan, he defined humor as "the sudden glory arising from the sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others." In the seventeenth century Blaise Pascal, a French scientist and philosopher, proposed, "Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees." In 1750 the Scottish philosopher Frances Hutcheson further developed what has come to be known as the incongruity theory. In his Reflections upon Laughter, Hutcheson pointed out that people do not go to asylums to laugh at the "inferior" beings, nor do they laugh at animals except when they resemble human beings. Even when someone slips on a banana peel, observers laugh not because they feel superior but because of the incongruity between expectations and reality.

Incongruity Theory

In 1790 the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in The Critique of Judgment focused on the requirement of surprise when he claimed that laughter is an emotion that arises from a strained expectation suddenly reduced to nothing. William Hazlitt, in his 1819 Lectures on the Comic Writers, credited laughter as coming from the incongruity that results when one idea disconnects or is bumped up against another feeling. Arthur Schopenhauer agreed in 1844, when he explained in The World as Will and Idea that laughter is a way of acknowledging an incongruity between the conceptions that listeners or viewers hold in their minds and what happens to upset their expectations.

The incongruity theory is especially powerful in explaining humor across different genres, including accidental humor and humor in nature. Some of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, including Marcel Duchamp with his 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, surprised and amused (and sometimes offended) the public by breaking with the expectation that an artist's job was to faithfully re-create items as seen by the human eye. Playful dance companies and playful musicians startle audiences by suddenly changing their patterns, as did Franz Joseph Haydn (17321809) in his Symphony no. 94, also known as the Surprise Symphony. Haydn interspersed fortissimo chords into soft repetitive sequences to wake up slumbering audiences. Designers of theme-park hotels and of much of the community art that decorates modern American cities play with surprise and incongruity. Even comedians who tell stories in sets of three (two to establish a pattern and one to break it) are relying on surprise and incongruity.

Scatological humor is incongruous in that it "unmasks" people as it reminds them of their animal nature. This was one of the ideas expressed by Sigmund Freud in his 1905 Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Freud viewed the jokes that people told as a window to their minds. He thought that jokes were more likely to come from the id or subconscious, while people's other communications come from the superego, where they are refined by a public consciousness. Freud's work with jokes and his belief that humor is basically tendentious and hostile is not as respected as is his other work because modern critics, especially feminists, point out that the source of his jokes (his patients) were far from being a typical sample. Other critics reject the idea that jokes are formed in the subconscious in the same way that dreams are.

The one concept that the general public recognizes from Freud's work is that of the Freudian slip. These are verbal mistakes that people make, which Freud said revealed what they really wanted. In actual conversations, Freudian slips may or may not reveal inner desires. Sometimes they are simply pronunciation or spelling errors, as with the examples that Richard Lederer collected for his popular Anguished English (1987). On the other hand, when creative writers put Freudian slips into the mouths of their characters, their intention is to communicate something about the speaker's personality. Norman Lear was a master at this when in the popular television show All in the Family (19711979) he had Archie Bunker reveal his lack of education and his xenophobic tendencies with such phrases as "Blackberry Finn," "pushy imported ricans," "wel-fare incipients," and "the immaculate connection."

Wit, or Derisive Humor

The French philosopher Henri Bergson in his Le rire (Laughter, 1911) made the point that wit or derisive humor is a universal corrective for deviancy in the social order. He softened the idea of overt hostility by saying that the creators of wit undergo "a momentary anesthesia of the heart" as they poke fun at the actions of someone. According to Bergson's point of view, wit is a tool of satire in that its purpose is to bring about change. Such thinkers and writers as Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Will Rogers, Carl Sandburg, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Oscar Wilde used their wit to focus attention on the kinds of behavior they thought inappropriate or damaging to society as a whole. Most of the twenty-first century's editorial cartoonists and late-night comedians use wit for similar purposes as they criticize changing social, sexual, religious, and political mores.

John Simon in Paradigms Lost describes wit as "aggressive, often destructive (though one hopes, in a good cause), and almost always directed at others." He compares it to humor, which he describes as "basically good natured and often directed toward oneself, if only by subsumption under the heading 'general human foolishness'" (p. 72).

Simon's description of self-deprecating humor as being "basically good natured" is important in understanding why members of ethnic groups can tell jokes about themselves but get offended when someone from outside the group tells the same joke. When a person is inside a group and clearly identifies with that group, then the telling of a joke about the group usually falls under the category of good-natured encouragement for group members to think about changing their ways. Henry Spalding in his Joys of Jewish Humor (1985) says that many Jewish jokes come in the form of "honey-coated barbs" at the people and things loved most by Jews. While they verbally attack their family and friends as well as their own religion, they do it with a great sense of affection. A joke teller from outside of a group has little or no influence on group beliefs and actions and so by telling such jokes is cementing negative stereotypes rather than bringing about changes.

Christie Davies, who has collected and studied jokes across different cultures, as has the cultural anthropologist Alan Dundes, explains that there is great satisfaction in assigning a negative trait to someone outside of one's own group. Placing negative traits far away from oneself is satisfying because it frees the joke tellers from having to think about whether these characteristics are pertinent to their personalities. The comedy writer Max Shulman, in a 1982 talk at Arizona State University, said something similar when he explained that if one of his stories makes a reader say, "I know someone like that," the reader is amused and laughs. But if the story is so on target that the reader says, "Oh, no, that's me!" the reader is not amused.

Other Views

While scholars still believe in theories of superiority and hostility and of surprise and incongruity, the twenty-first century's mass media provides the world with so many different kinds of humor that few scholars try to make observations about all humor. Instead, they study humor to gain insights into their particular areas of expertise. For example, in They Used to Call Me Snow White but I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor (1991), the feminist scholar Regina Barreca uses examples of women's humor to illustrate how a group's humor is shaped as well as evaluated according to the roles that the members play in society. Henry Louis Gates did something similar in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988) by showing how African-American slaves developed double entendre trickster signifiers because they were denied the use of normal and private communication.

For obvious reasons, performers, comedians, public speakers, and advertisers are interested in the features or the characteristics of humor. They want to know what makes people laugh so that they can create and re-create such situations. Rhetoricians and teachers of writing are also interested. Mary Ann Rishel, a professor in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, teaches a class in comedy writing and has authored a book on the subject. Her idea is not to prepare students to move to Hollywood or New York to join comedy writing teams. Instead, she wants to use the pleasures of humor to help students develop the skills needed for most kinds of writing: originality of vision, a keen eye for observation, the inclusion of telling details, and most importantly, succinctness.

The historian Joseph Boskin collects joke cycles, what he calls comic zeitgeists, and uses their popularity as data for revealing Americans' preoccupations and attitudes. He concludes his book Rebellious Laughter (1997) with "Tattered Dreams," a chapter about how "the roseate years of expansion" (p. 180) that followed World War II collided with such technological failures as the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, the radioactive explosion at Chernobyl, the loss of the Challenger space shuttle, and such oil spills as that of the Exxon Valdez. These catastrophes "overwhelmed sensibilities from the late 1970s into the 1990s," and the jokes were as extreme as the events (Boskin, p. 181). They offered "the specter of a totally irrational universe," where the only defense was to engage in what has been labeled "a hellish laughter" (Boskin, p. 190).

Modern literary critics often focus on this kind of humor as they work with deconstructionism, postmodernism, and magical realism. They have long defined satire (which often includes elements of irony and wit) as humor designed for the specific purpose of convincing readers and viewers of the need for some kind of action or a change in attitude and beliefs. On the other hand, black humor or dark humor (also referred to as gallows humor, absurd humor, existentialism, and film noir) illustrates the futility of looking for easy and neat answers to the tragedies of life. In such humor, the lines between fantasy and reality and between tragedy and comedy keep shifting. People laugh because they do not know what else to do. The laughter is itself a testament to the strength of the human spirit in showing that people can laugh in spite of bewilderment, death, and chaos.

Linguists, especially computer programmers working with artificial intelligence and translation, study jokes because their abbreviated scripts leave listeners to fill in the mundane details that "go without saying." Many jokes provide an even greater challenge for computers because they are designed to lead listeners to interpret the story along mundane lines, but then comes the climax or the punch line, which makes listeners laugh in surprise as they realize they have been led "down the garden path." The linguist Victor Raskin at Purdue University is working to program computers with the ability to bring in a myriad of cultural references while simultaneously testing possible interpretations so as to arrive at the one that is "funny." In his book Semantic Mechanisms of Humor (1985) Raskin distinguishes between what he calls bona fide scripts and joke scripts. Joke scripts differ from stereotypes in that a stereotype is an idea that many people seriously believe in and act on, while joke or comic scripts are more literary than sociological or political. They are amusing ideas that serve as the nucleus for folklore. New Englanders do not really believe that French-speaking Canadians are stupid, nor do the British think that the Irish are dirty, nor does the world at large think that Italians are cowards, yet extensive joke scripts circle around these and many other groups. The fact that joke scripts develop rather haphazardly out of the history of particular countries helps to explain why people from different cultures have a hard time catching on to each other's jokes, many of which are variations on old themes or examples of one's expectations being suddenly violated.

The idea of looking at the creation and reception of humor to trace the intellectual (as opposed to the emotional) paths that humor takes through the brain is fairly new. Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation (1964) claims that for people to think in new and creative ways, they must engage in bisociative thinking so as to bring concepts together in original ways. The "Ah!" kind occurs when people have an emotional reaction as they create or recognize artistic originality. The "Aha!" kind occurs when they bring divergent concepts together into scientific discoveries, while the "Ha Ha!" kind occurs with the comic recognition of ridiculous situations.

As indicated by these examples, the humor research of the future is likely to focus on particular kinds of humor as created and received by individuals in particular situations. And as the world grows smaller and people are forced to communicate with and adapt to people with different customs and beliefs, there will probably be increased interest in understanding both the bonding and the out-bonding as well as the release of frustration that comes when people laugh together.

See also Dream ; Mind ; Philosophy ; Tragedy and Comedy .


Barreca, Regina. They Used to Call Me Snow Whitebut I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor. New York: Viking, 1991.

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Translated by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. New York: Macmillan, 1911.

Boskin, Joseph. Rebellious Laughter: People's Humor in American Culture. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Cousins, Norman. Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.

Davies, Christie. Ethnic Humor around the World: A Comparative Analysis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Translated and edited by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1960.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro- American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Lederer, Richard. Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults upon Our Language. Charleston, S.C.: Wyrick, 1987.

Morreall, John, ed. The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Humor. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press/Greenwood, 2000.

Raskin, Victor. Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel, 1985.

Rishel, Mary Ann. Writing Humor: Creativity and the Comic Mind. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002.

Simon, John. Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline. New York: Potter/Crown, 1980.

Spalding, Henry D. Joys of Jewish Humor. New York: Jonathan David, 1985.

Alleen Pace Nilsen

Don L. F. Nilsen


views updated May 29 2018


Although the laughable is not usually thought of as a subclass of the beautiful (Aristotle, indeed, said that it was a subclass of the ugly), the problem of "humor" is a special case of the central problem of aesthetic theory. To find something laughable is to have a special kind of aesthetic emotion, but it is not at all easy to say just what features of the laughable situation evoke this emotion. Theories of humor attempt to answer this question.

Types of Humor

The only way to evaluate theories of humor is to see how well they apply to different types of jokes or humorous situations. For this we need a list of the main types of humor. The attempt to provide one may, however, prejudge the issue, since the basis of classification may itself presuppose a theory of humor. Moreover, if any one theory is right, then in the final analysis jokes will be of only one type: They will all turn on release of inhibitions, or superiority to the misfortune of others, or whatever it may be.

With these reservations, the following may be regarded as the main types of humorous situations: (a ) Any breach of the usual order of events, as wearing an unusual costume or eating with chopsticks when one is used to knife and fork (or with knife and fork when one is used to chopsticks). (b ) Any breach of the usual order of events that is also felt to break a rule, whether of morality or etiquette. The drunkard, the glutton, the hypocrite, the miser are all stock figures of comedy, on the stage and elsewhere. (c ) A special case of the second type is indecency, as in Restoration comedy or any smoking-room story. This has a different flavor from comic vice, just as comic vice has a different flavor from mere novelty and oddity. (d ) Introduction into one situation of what is felt to belong to another, as George Bernard Shaw's reference to conventional sexual morality as "the trade unionism of married women" or Mark Twain's introduction of a Connecticut Yankee into the Court of King Arthur. Finding connections between things we usually keep in separate compartments of our minds is, according to one version of the incongruity theory, the ultimate source of all humor. Whether this is correct or not, it is certainly one source that needs to be noted. (e ) Anything masquerading as something it is not. This has been a favorite stage device, from Twelfth Night to Charley's Aunt, and is common enough in other forms of comedy. (f ) Wordplay, of which puns are the most obvious, but not of course the only, example. (g ) Nonsense, especially of the Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll type, which often turns on wordplay but is distinct from it. (h ) Small misfortunes, like those provided by the banana skin, the custard pie, the thumb beneath the hammer. (i ) Want of knowledge and skill, as in the schoolboy howler or the circus clown clumsily attempting to imitate the acrobat. (j ) Veiled insults, as in the catty remarks in The School for Scandal.

Theories of Humor

Most theories find the essence of humor in one or another of the following: superiority, incongruity, and relief from restraint. It has also been suggested that humor derives from ambivalent feelings, in which attraction and repulsion are both present.

superiority theories

If we laugh at the miser, the drunkard, the glutton, the henpecked husband, the man who gets hit by the custard pie, the schoolboy howler, the person with faulty pronunciation, may it not be because we feel superior to all of these? This could account for our pleasure in humor. Accordingly, Thomas Hobbes regarded laughter as the result of a sudden access of self-esteem ("sudden glory") when we realize that our own situations compare favorably with the misfortunes or infirmities of others. We also laugh, he said, at our own past folliesprovided we are conscious of having surmounted themor at unexpected successes.

In support of Hobbes, or perhaps as a modification of his view, it may be said that in humor at its best we are conscious of surveying the whole human scene from some godlike level at which all men and women look pretty much alike: all weak, all lovable, all transparently obvious in their petty pretenses. If "superiority" is interpreted as this god's-eye view rather than as simply a sneering contempt for some failing we do not have, it is possible to account for laughter not merely at comic vice but also at comic virtue, as in Mr. Pickwick or Don Quixote. It may even explain why we often laugh with comic vice rather than at it. No one feels superior to Falstaff, but we may feel pleasantly conscious of "seeing through" him, and perhaps, in sympathizing with him, we feel superior, if only for the time being, to the conventional morality he flouts.

By extending Hobbes's theory in this way, it is possible to account for many of our classes of humor: indecency and masquerade as well as comic vice, small misfortunes, and ignorance. Alexander Bain extended Hobbes in two directions. Sometimes, Bain suggested, our laughter may be a manifestation not of our own feeling of superiority but of our sympathy with someone else who has triumphed in some way. This would account for laughter at veiled insults. Second, the triumph need not be over a person; it can be over anything at all that is conventionally treated with respect. Mark Twain's debunking of feudal values was not directed at any individual, and Samuel Butler degraded a sunrise by comparing it to a boiled lobster. According to Bain, the essential feature of humor is degradation. Some writers have argued, not very plausible, that in wordplay we triumph over the degradation of words. More credibly, nonsense may be regarded as the degradation of what Arthur Schopenhauer called "that strict, untiring, troublesome governess, the reason." Even incongruity, it is argued, always involves degradation. Typically, the incongruous effect is obtained by the bringing of something exalted into contact with something trivial or disreputable. Shaw's phrase has its force because trade unionism is much lower on the conventional scale of values than is chastity: The pleasure in seeing them linked is, at least in part, malicious.

Henri Bergson maintained that the particular characteristic exciting derision is inflexibility, the inability to adapt oneself to the ever-changing demands of life. Laughter is always at "something mechanical encrusted upon the living." With Molière in mind, Bergson claimed that the comic character is usually a man with a fixed idea. This fits in with early stage comedy and with the etymology of the word humor: A humor was originally a quirk, a kink, a mental (and primarily a physiological) oddity that throws a man off balance and twists his view of life. Hence, the comic character is simply a man with an obsession. The joke is to see how this obsession crops up again and again in the most varied situations, so that he always behaves in a manner wildly inappropriate to the circumstances as others see them but entirely appropriate to his own ruling passion.

With more ingenuity than plausibility, Bergson attempted to apply his formula to wordplay, which consists, he claimed, in showing that language is too rigid to be an accurate mirror of an infinitely fluid universe. His main emphasis, however, was on the social function of laughter; it is leveled, according to him, at the eccentric or nonconformist. This seems an unduly restricted view: The most penetrating humor is often aimed at the social code itself. There is nothing in Bergson's theory of humor that need have prevented him from conceding this: The conventions of society may often enough be characterized as "something mechanical encrusted upon the living."

incongruity theories

It can be doubted whether the concepts of "superiority" or "degradation" or even "inelasticity" do justice to the very large element of humor that consists in the intellectual and emotional pleasure of finding connections where none were thought to exist. It is true that if this were the whole of humor, humor would be indistinguishable from fancy or imagination; but then, if "degradation" were the whole of humor, humor would be indistinguishable from malice.

Immanuel Kant asserted that humor arises "from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing," and since his time incongruity has often been identified with "frustrated expectation." But there is more to incongruity than mere surprise, or even anticlimax; we must be, as it were, jolted out of one mental attitude into another completely and violently opposed to it. Usually this results from bringing together two things normally kept in separate compartments of our minds. Shaw's aphorism about the trade unionism of married women may once again serve as an example. Another is Butler's "God and the Devil are an effort after specialisation and division of labour." In Kant's view, the "degradation" of one of the two disparate ideas is quite incidental. What is important is that they normally evoke very different attitudes and that the connection between them appears to be genuine, not artificially contrived. It is on these two features that the neatness of a joke depends.

Kant's formula may be regarded as defective in that by putting the emphasis on surprise it ignores the logical connection between the two ideas that are linked. This is Schopenhauer's criticism. He claimed that all humor can be "traced to syllogism in the first figure with an undisputed major and an unexpected minor, which to a certain extent is only sophistically valid."

This formula applies most obviously to the mock-heroic or to certain types of satire. The point of Henry Fielding's Jonathan Wild, for example, might be summarized syllogistically as: All generals and those who behave like generals are heroes; highwaymen behave like generals; therefore, highwaymen are heroes. Here the major premise is, conventionally, undisputed. The minor is, no doubt, "only sophistically valid," but only "to a certain extent"; there is enough resemblance in behavior to give the satire sting.

The formula applies, however, to other types of humor as well. Oscar Wilde is reported to have said, when he was in prison, "If this is the way the Queen treats her convicts, she doesn't deserve to have any." Here the major premise is: "Those who ill-treat their dependents deserve to lose them." This generalization is then made to apply to a case in which losing them would be no hardship and deserving to lose them no demerit. What is sophistical about the minor premise is the assumption that a convict is, along with a servant, a child, and the like, the kind of dependent to whom the generalization applies.

The objection to Schopenhauer's analysis is that it stresses the formal side of a joke to the exclusion of the content. For him, humor was purely a matter of finding connections where (except in a "sophistical" sense) none exist. By this view, all humor is of the type of Richard Whately's Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte. The essence of it lies in the ingenuity of the argument, underlined by the absurdity of the conclusion. If any derision creeps in, it is at the expense of the reasoning, or perhaps of the governess Reason herself.

What this overlooks is the part that the abrupt dissolution of an attitude plays in our emotional lives. Kant's phrase "strained expectation" hints at this but does not characterize it adequately. Jonathan Wild would not be funny if it were not for the whole complex of emotions that cluster round the concepts of patriotism and national glory. To take another example, Gerald Bullett's adaptation of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Wearing the white feather of a blameless life," is funny, not merely because of its close resemblance to the wording of the original ("the white flower of a blameless life") but because of the startling difference in attitude that results from the alteration of a single word.

So far as superiority theories call attention to the emotional element in humor, they do something to correct this inadequacy. It is doubtful, however, whether the emotion involved is either self-congratulation or malice. In any community certain attitudes are felt to be appropriate to some things and not to others, and there develop "stereotypes" of such figures as the typical politician, poet, businessman. The humorist drags into light the inconvenient facts that shatter these attitudes and puncture these stereotypes. Sometimes, as Bergson pointed out, the humor is at the expense of the person who is unable to live up to the conventional requirements, and here malice may creep in, but often enough the effect is to cast doubt on the conventional attitudes and values. Sometimes it is not clear which effect is intended. Wilde's witticism "Work is the curse of the drinking classes" may be taken either as a gibe at the working classes or as a questioning of the conventional Victorian attitudes to work and to drink. In either case one element in our enjoyment is certainly the sense of enlarged horizons that comes from seeing unexpected connections. This is in part an intellectual pleasure. So far as it is a conventional attitude that has been convicted of inadequacy, the accompanying emotion may be not malice or superiority but a feeling of liberation at the removal of intellectual blinkers.

relief theories

Liberation, or relief from restraint, is regarded in a third type of theory as the central element in humor.

It is well known that people who have been undergoing a strain will sometimes burst into laughter if the strain is suddenly removed. It has been argued that all laughter is of this type and that any joke will be found, in one way or another, to remove the restraints which society imposes on our natural impulses. It is the liberation of our impulses from social constraints, not of our intellects from too narrow a point of view, that is emphasized by this type of theory.

What are these impulses that need liberating? One obvious one is the sexual impulse. Since the mention of the (conventionally) unmentionable is in itself a sufficient cause of laughter, it seems reasonable to say that at least one important type of humor depends on our being able to give vent to forbidden thoughts and feelings.

But thoughts about sex are not the only ones that society calls on us to suppress. Our aggressive impulses are also repressed. Children are taught that it is "rude" both to expose their bodies and to speak insultingly to others. Consequently, the relief theory can account, plausibly enough, for the malicious element in humor and, in general, for most of the aspects of humor that have given rise to superiority theories. Even nonsense can be explained, if it is conceded that trying to be rational all the time is a strain for most of us.

Relief theories have been given considerable impetus by the rise of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud himself wrote a book on humor, in which he suggested that there is a basic resemblance between jokes and dreams. Both are essentially means of outwitting the "censor," the name by means of which Freud personified our internal inhibitions. In dreams forbidden thoughts are distorted and disguised; in humor insults are veiled, masquerading perhaps as compliments, and sexual references lurk behind apparently innocent remarks.

Freud did not, however, regard all humor as the release of inhibition. He distinguished between "harmless wit," indulged in for its own sake, and "tendency wit," which gives us the additional gratification of giving rein to repressed sexual or aggressive impulses. Harmless wit delights us because it provides us with "infantile play-pleasure." In learning to use words, Freud pointed out, children "experience pleasurable effects which originate from the repetition of similarities, the rediscovery of the familiar, sound-associations," and the like. In other words, the pleasure of playing with words and ideas, on which incongruity theories place so much stress, is admitted by Freud to be enjoyable for its own sake, not just as a means of seeking relief from restraint. It is, indeed, because this intellectual play is enjoyable in itself that we can use it to beguile the censor. When Wilde, for example, complained that "the youth of to-day are quite monstrous; they have absolutely no respect for dyed hair," we must suppose that the censor is so diverted by the discovery that this remark differs only in one word from the conventional headshaking of the stuffier kind of matron that the malice in the remark (its complete exposure of the matron's pretensions and its revelation of her envy of youth) is allowed to go unchecked.

Freud explained "infantile play-pleasure" by invoking the concept of "psychic economy." In this he was influenced by Herbert Spencer. Spencer thought that humor consists essentially in the abrupt transition of thought from a noble or elevated idea to a trivial or degrading one, leaving the psyche with an unexpended fund of nervous energy that overflows into laughter, which is, according to him, a physical release of energy. Freud adapted this notion for his own purposes, identifying "psychic economy" first with the line of least resistance and then with the brevity and neatness that is the soul of wit.

Neither Spencer's nor Freud's use of the concept is very satisfactory. It may be pointed out against Spencer that when, for example, an innocent remark is transformed into a sexual reference, the second might be expected to call forth more emotional energy than the first. Against Freud it may be said that the lazy pleasure of following the path of least resistance is very different from our appreciation of the skill with which a master of humor links disparate ideas. When writers such as François Rabelais, G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Fry, James Joyce, and even Laurence Sterne play with words and ideas, it is exuberance rather than economy that they display.

Relation of the Theories to the Types

If the theories are evaluated by their ability to explain the main types of humor listed earlier, it would seem that none is completely adequate by itself. Each of them relies mainly on particular kinds of humor, either ignoring the rest or giving relatively lame accounts of them. Satire and laughter at small misfortunes are very well explained by superiority theories. Incongruity theories find difficulty in dealing with these but are much more satisfactory than superiority theories in dealing with wordplay, nonsense, and indecency. Relief theories can explain malice and indecency, and perhaps nonsense, but are driven to admit that wordplay and the finding of unexpected connections have an intrinsic appeal that cannot be reduced to relief from restraint.

See also Aristotle; Bain, Alexander; Bergson, Henri; Butler, Samuel; Carroll, Lewis; Freud, Sigmund; Hobbes, Thomas; Kant, Immanuel; Schopenhauer, Arthur.



Monro, D. H. Argument of Laughter. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1951; Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.

Sully, J. Essay on Laughter. London: Longmans, 1902.

superiority theories

Bain, Alexander. The Emotions and the Will, 3rd ed. London: Longmans, 1880.

Bergson, Henri. Le rire. Paris, 1900. Translated by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell as Laughter. London: Macmillan, 1911.

Leacock, Stephen. Humour: Its Theory and Techniques. London: John Lane, 1935.

incongruity theories

Eastman, Max. Enjoyment of Laughter. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, 2nd ed., 2 vols. Leipzig, 1844. Translated by E. F. J. Payne as The World as Will and Representation, 2 vols. Indian Hills, CO: Falcon's Wing Press, 1958.

relief theories

Freud, Sigmund. Der Witz und seine Beziehungen zum Unbewussten. Leipzig and Vienna, 1905. Translated by James Strachey as Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960.

D. H. Monro (1967)


views updated May 23 2018


The humor of the colonial and early national periods featured indigenous American character types, some of whom were progenitors of what Louis D. Rubin Jr., in his introduction to The Comic Imagination in American Literature (1973), has defined as the "great American joke"—the difference between what people are and what they should be. In colonial America and in the early days of the Republic, this disparity was often treated satirically, satire being an import appropriated from Great Britain. Many of the practitioners of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century American humor cast their mocking barbs at various character types, manners, and social concerns endemic to the American experience. Their comedy also often displayed a strong democratic tendency, which would become a key recurring ingredient in what Walter Blair has called, in his book of the same title, native American humor.

colonial works

Acknowledged as the father of American humor, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) introduced several comic types who have enjoyed long and prominent currency in American culture. In several of his most memorable comic works, Franklin adopted democratic voices who spoke in a direct, amusing, and sometimes even self-deprecating manner and who expressed essential values for living. Through Silence Dogood, a loquacious New England countrywoman, Franklin spoke forthrightly and practically, deriding Boston manners, education, religion, government, and male idleness in the Dogood Papers, fourteen essays written in a manner imitative of the Spectator papers of Joseph Addison (1672–1719) and Richard Steele (1672–1729) and published anonymously in his brother James's newspaper, the New England Courant, between 2 April and 8 October 1722. Richard Saunders, the wise fool of Franklin's perennially best-selling Poor Richard's Almanack (1733–1758), was both entertaining and moralistic, conveying gems of wisdom in jokes, light verse, comic predictions, and satiric pronouncements—all of which were intelligible to practical-minded common people. A conservative voice, a purveyor of witty advice or, as Walter Blair has classified it, "horse sense," Richard is remembered for his comically didactic and plainspoken aphorisms, such as "He's a fool that makes his doctor his heir," "Men and melons are hard to know," and "Tongue double, brings trouble."

Throughout the eighteenth century, in the competitive almanac market that Poor Richard's Almanack helped to spawn, humor became a major staple. And as Robert K. Dodge observes in Early American Almanac Humor (1987), almanac humor served as a barometer of "what early citizens of the United States considered funny" (p. 4), which included attitudes toward women, relations between the sexes, and attitudes toward immigrant minorities and Native Americans. One of Franklin's most famous comic pieces, "The Speech of Miss Polly Baker" (1747), uses as a female persona a woman of easy virtue who naively and reasonably defends her promiscuity by criticizing the double standard of sexual morality and justifies her sexual behavior by innocently claiming that she was merely following nature and "nature's God," the God who said "increase and multiply."

Another dimension of Franklin's humor, a dark and sinister side, is manifested in his pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary War political satires—"Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One" (1773), "An Edict by the King of Prussia" (1773), "A Method of Humbling Rebellious American Vassals" (1774), and "The Sale of the Hessians" (1777)—each caustically ridiculing oppressive British policies. In them Franklin creates personae, fashions them in the blatantly ironic manner of Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) and Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), and employs them as his mouthpieces, adopting the point of view that he is attacking, pretending to support it while actually carrying this view to an absurd extreme, thereby making a mockery of his subject.

Franklin continued this practice in "On the Slave Trade" (1790), an expression of his opposition to American slavery. Adopting the form of a fictitious letter from Moslem Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim that he enclosed with his own letter to the editor of the Federal Gazette under the signature of Historicus, Franklin, who belonged to a society dedicated to improving the conditions of African Americans, employed Ibrahim's letter as an ironic response to Georgia Congressman James Jackson's defense of slavery. In assuming the guise of Ibrahim, Franklin pretended to defend the continuation of slavery, drawing on some of the same political and economic arguments of Jackson. Although, his actual intent in exposing Moslem pirates' capturing of Christian white people along the African coast, a situation closely analogous to the slavery system in America, was to ridicule the irrationality of Jackson's proslavery stance.

The versatile Franklin also created one of the first American political cartoons, "Join or Die," published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754, depicting a snake severed into eight parts, representing all of the American colonies except Georgia and Delaware. Franklin likewise used this cartoon as part of his "Plan of Union" presentation to the Albany Congress in New York to persuade the leaders of the colonies to unite in order to survive. Another famous political cartoon, Elkanah Tisdale's "The Gerry-Mander" published in the Boston Weekly Messenger in 1812, depicts a political district as a salamander in protest of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry's effort to restructure the state's voting districts to prevent the election of members of the opposing political party.

Humor as a vehicle for political protest can also be found in Thomas Paine's (1737–1809) widely influential pamphlet Common Sense (1776), his spirited and rational plea for ending all attempts at reconciliation and for immediate independence from Great Britain. Sarcasm was among the strategies that Paine effectively employed in Common Sense to persuade his readers to embrace his political agenda, particularly in the section, "Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession," where he debunked the monarchy, particularly the British crown. In attacking the practice of hereditary succession, which he states is "a degradation and lessening of ourselves" and as "an imposition on posterity," Paine sardonically writes that "one of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion." He further caustically observes that persons "so weak" to believe in "the folly of hereditary right … let them promiscuously worship the ass and lion, and welcome. I shall neither copy their humility, nor disturb their devotion." Paine also turns his invective to the notion of the "honorable origin" of monarchy, cynically denying the possibilities of any noble origins of kingship. Instead, what one would discover, he points out, is "the first of them [is] nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or preeminence in subtlety obtained him the title of chief among plunderers."

Another national leader, the future U.S. president, John Adams (1735–1826), also turned to humor, beginning in 1763, in a series of six epistolary satires, written in the vernacular dialect of Humphrey Ploughjogger, a New England farmer. He was an early exemplar of the rustic Yankee who commented critically on political and social issues, including the Stamp Act (1765), and who would reappear in numerous reincarnations in American humor of the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries.

the revolutionary era

The three most prominent humorists of the American Revolution were John Trumbull (1750–1831), Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), and Royall Tyler (1757–1826). One of the Hartford Wits, Trumbull was the author of a two-part mock-heroic poem, M'Fingal (1776, 1782), which satirized both British Loyalists and American Patriots. Warren was a Patriot who anonymously authored five satiric closet dramas between 1773 and 1779, the best-known of which is The Group (1775). In The Contrast (1787), Tyler introduced to the American stage the character of Jonathan, the comic Yankee, creating in him a discernible American identity. In The Group, which employs comedy as a tool for propagandistic ridicule, Warren uses derogatory and ridiculous names such as Meagre, Hateall, Crusty Crowbar, and Dupe to expose and accentuate the greed, self-serving motives, and hypocrisy of Tory sympathizers. For his part Tyler, also a Patriot, employed the strategies of British Restoration comedy in The Contrast to juxtapose the simplicity, virtue, and innocence of Jonathan, a country bumpkin, and the artificial and pretentious manners and speech of urban sophisticates like Dimple, a Europeanized American. Tyler's play, which clearly privileged the virtuous and naïve Jonathan and which offered a corrective to a potentially false, supercilious, standard of America's national manners, afforded the audience the opportunity to examine itself honestly and to determine what manners, fashions, and values to adopt.

The antithesis of Tyler's promotion of a democratic ideal of the innocent and virtuous farmer in The Contrast is found in New England Federalist mock pastorals of the 1790s. In courtship poems like Thomas Green Fessenden's (1771–1837) "Peter Periwinkle to Tabitha Towzer" (1798), they express antagonism toward democratization, mocking the common man by comically denigrating the rural Yankee.

further democratization of humor

Modern Chivalry: Containing the Adventures of Captain John Farrago and Teague O'Regan, His Servant (1792–1815), by Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1778–1816), is a comic picaresque novel and double-edged satire directed against both the common people, depicted as fools, and the educated, presented as impractical. In this work Brackenridge exposes the excesses and dangerous tendencies inherent in a democratic system of government such as existed on the Pennsylvania frontier in the eighteenth century. He focuses on the misadventures of the ignorant and unrefined Teague O'Regan, an Irish servant and the main object of the novel's humor, who repeatedly exposes his ineptitude when trying to pursue responsible vocations for which he is unqualified.

Despite Brackenridge's negative attitude toward democracy, the frontiersman began to emerge as a significant comic figure in America in the early nineteenth century. Mason Locke Weems (1759–1825), book peddler, preacher, and author of a biography of George Washington, also wrote The Drunkard's Looking Glass (1812). It comprises his humorous observations of and anecdotes about his travels on the southern frontier, graphically capturing in print the vernacular voice of the southern frontiersman and some of his rollicking activities, such as boasting, drinking, and fighting. Weems's contemporary, James Kirke Paulding (1770–1860), composed Letters from the South (1817), based on the author's travels in Virginia. It features epistles recounting some of the humorous manners and customs he observed among Virginia backwoodsmen. He subsequently incorporated this subject matter into The Lion of the West (1830), his popular play that features the bravado of Nimrod Wildfire, a tall-talking backwoodsman from Kentucky.

While both Weems and Paulding were important trailblazers in opening up the southern frontier as a rich source of humor, Washington Irving (1783–1859) was the pivotal force in popularizing and expanding the comic possibilities of the character of the backwoodsman. His History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809) was notable for its foolish pedant, Diedrich Knickerbocker; its pseudocomic history; and its robust and earthy humor. More important, however, in the story called "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820), Irving created a paradigm for merging the two American comic types—the Yankee and the frontiersman. Ichabod Crane, a genteel, ambitious Yankee schoolmaster, intrudes on the quiet, settled, rural hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, where he cultivates a design to marry a rich farmer's daughter and then, with her father's money, to migrate to the frontier. But Ichabod's rival suitor, Brom Bones—a rural ruffian known for his marksmanship and roguish, humorous pranks—foils and vanquishes Ichabod through trickery and deception. The eponymous hero of "Rip Van Winkle" (1820) is Irving's other major character creation. A likeable frontiersman, he avoids work by spending his time playing games with the village children or going on long hunts in the Catskill Mountains. In the mountains he escapes both civilization and his termagant wife, an advocate of a staunch work ethic. In "Rip Van Winkle" Irving also fabricated a comic plot formula, the tale beginning on a factual basis, then proceeding into the realm of the fanciful or incredible, and concluding with a return to a realistic semblance. Though derived from German folk sources, Irving's two classic tales are noteworthy for privileging the common man and his way of life and for popularizing several scripts featuring clashes of urban and rural values, lifestyles, and manners and a readily adaptable plot structure. These features would, beginning in the 1830s, be appropriated and reconfigured by the South's amateur frontier humorists and subsequent generations of professional American humorists, including Mark Twain.

See alsoFiction; Frontiersmen; Newspapers; Satire; Theater and Drama .


Bier, Jesse. The Rise and Fall of American Humor. New York: Octagon Books, 1981.

Blair, Walter. Horse Sense in American Humor, from Benjamin Franklin to Ogden Nash. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Blair, Walter, and Hamlin Hill. America's Humor from Poor Richard to Doonesbury. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Dodge, Robert K. Early American Almanac Humor. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.

Dorson, Richard. America in Legend: Folklore from the Colonial >Period to the Present. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.

Leary, Lewis. "Benjamin Franklin." In The Comic Imagination in American Literature. Edited by Louis D. Rubin Jr. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

Nickels, Cameron C. New England Humor: From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

Piacentino, Ed. "'Sleepy Hollow' Comes South: Washington Irving's Influence on Old Southwestern Humor." In The Humor of the Old South. Edited by M. Thomas Inge and Edward J. Piacentino. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. "Introduction: 'The Great American Joke.'" In The Comic Imagination in American Literature. Edited by Louis D. Rubin Jr. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

Ed Piacentino


views updated May 29 2018


There is no classical Muslim definition of humor, but professor Franz Rosenthal offers one that attempts to be universally inclusive. In his Humor in Early Islam, Rosenthal suggests that the hallmark of humor is a "certain freedom from conventional motions" that, in ordinary circumstances, constrain us all. Thus any "deviation" from what is expected may cause laughter even if it happens to be partially tragic.

Humor in Early Islam

Humor is a modality for releasing tension. Muslims, like all other peoples, have their share of jokes, anecdotes, and other "deviations from ordinary reality," to use one of Rosenthal's phrases. While in early Islam there was a tendency to lean toward seriousness because of the need to maintain hilm (dignified and civil behavior, propriety), there was considerable divergence from this austere stance. In the first century of Islam, for example, there were several schools of humorists, storytellers, and professional entertainers. These schools trained individuals in the art of devising as well as relating humorous anecdotes (nawadir, sing. nadira), along with teaching the skills of vocal and instrumental music. While there was religious objection to these arts, the justification for humor in early Islam was also based on religious arguments. The Qur˒an does not forbid laughter as it is God "who grants laughter and tears" (53:43). In fact, there are many instances of humor in Muslim scripture, providing testimony to Islam's "lighter side."

Second only to the Qur˒an are the traditions of the prophet Muhammad, who is said to have made frequent use of humor. There are numerous reports, found in authentic hadith collections, of the Prophet either smiling or laughing, or causing others to laugh. ˓A˒isha, the wife of Muhammad, reportedly said that the Prophet often smiled. She noted, however, that he never laughed in a loud manner or exposed his uvula. The following anecdote, found in Sunan Abu Dawud, illustrates the Prophet's humor:

A man broke his fast during Ramadan. The Messenger of God commanded him to emancipate a slave or fast for two months, or feed sixty poor men. He said: "I cannot provide." The Apostle said: "Sit down." Thereafter, a huge basket of dates was brought to the Messenger of God. He said: "Take this and give it as sadaqa [charity]." He said: "O Messenger of God, there is no one poorer than I." The Messenger of God thereupon laughed so that his canine teeth became visible and said: "Eat it yourself."(Hasan 1984., hadith 2386)

The eleventh-century Muslim author al-Husri refers to the prophet Muhammad's liking of humor, saying he possessed a rather pleasant personality and was not averse to a decent joke. He even reports that the Prophet played practical jokes. For instance, he reports that the Prophet told an elderly woman that old women will not enter Paradise, causing her great distress. The Prophet then cited the Qur˒an, which promises that she will enter Paradise as a young woman. Other companions of the Prophet are also reported to have approved of humor. For example, Ibn al-Jawzi refers to Imam ˓Ali as having said: "Whoever possesses a humorous element is cured of vanity and self-pride."

Classical Attitudes Toward Humor

In traditional Muslim religious discourse, one finds a general reproach for laughter and joking (al-hazl) within a religious context. A widely circulated hadith in support of this stance is taken from Sahih al-Bukhari, which quotes the Prophet as saying: "By God, if you knew what I know you would weep much and laugh little." At the same time numerous scholars in early Islam and continuing on into the Middle Ages found laughter and joking to be of extreme importance to their literary enterprise. The most notable reference work listing collections of humor stories comes from Ibn Nadim's Kitab al-fihrist, a bibliographic work from the tenth century.

Among the works of notable Muslim scholars and mystics, who have either mentioned amusing anecdotes in their otherwise serious scholarly (adab) works, or have devoted entire works to the subject of humor, al-Jahiz's (d. 868) Kitab albukhala˒ (Book of misers) stands out. There are many others, including ˓Uyun al-akhbar by Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889), al-˓Iqd al-farid by Ibn ˓Abd Rabbih (860–940), al-Basa˒ir wa˓l-dhakha˒ir by al-Tawhidi (d. 1010). In al-Jahiz's style of writing, serious subjects are presented together with jokes and amusing stories, and he quotes the Qur˒an in associating laughter with life, stating that while laughter is not prohibited, it must be carried out in moderation.

Other scholars, such as al-Husri al-Qayrawani (d. 1022) in his Jam˓ al-Jawahir fi al-Mulah wal-Nawadir, followed al-Jahiz in inserting amusing stories in their adab works. Similarly, many Shi˓ite scholars, such as Baha al-Din al-˓Amili (d. 1621) and Ni˓mat Allah al-Jaza˒iri (d. 1701), argued for and made use of anecdotal humor in their writings, often citing hadith examples specific to Shi˓ism.

There is ample evidence that numerous collections of such anecdotes (nawadir) existed in early centuries of Islam. Some collections have survived, but many disappeared during the Middle Ages due to criticism of witticism from orthodox circles. It is therefore to be noted that jocularity and laughter was not just a literary issue but also a moral and a religious one for many Muslim authors. Despite religious stiffness, however, a rich heritage of Arab and Islamic humor exists today by way of folklore. Contemporary Islamic and Sufi studies have also helped revive the humorous in conjunction with learning.

Humor Characters in Islamic Literature

In his 1927 essay on humor in Arabic literature, Margoliouth reports that in early Islam there were not only the professional entertainers and court-jesters (sing. maskhara) whose job was to keep the ruler entertained, but even some cities had their known jesters and entertainers. One such personage was Ghadiri of Medina, who earned his living by telling amusing stories to his rich patrons and who was later taken over by Ash˓ab. The figure of Ash˓ab, called "the greedy," was clearly known for his comic poetry and humorous remarks in a variety of circumstances, and his jokes remained popular well into the Abbasid period. In one of the many Ash˓ab anecdotes, the greedy one is told:

"If you would transmit traditions [ahadith, sayings of the Prophet] and give up your jokes, it would be more becoming of you." Ash˓ab replied: "Indeed, I have heard traditions and transmitted them." Asked to tell a tradition, he said: "I was told by Nafi˓ on the authority of Ibn ˓Umar that the Messenger of God said: 'A man in whom there are found two qualities belongs to God's chosen friends.'" When asked what the two qualities were, Ash˓ab replied: "Nafi˓ had forgotten one, and I have forgotten the other." (Rosenthal 1956, p. 117)

Another personage who came to be famous in many Islamic societies and who has survived till the present is Juha, also variously called Joha, Hoca, Zha, and many other names. Juha is seen as a strange character who combines wit and simplicity in his actions. He appears to be foolish and yet his foolishness contains a deeper wisdom. Juha has a reputation for escaping trouble, and his silly actions are a sign of foresight. For instance, when Juha was appointed governor by Timur, the emperor, he wrote his accounts to be submitted to the emperor on thin pieces of bread. This seemingly foolish act is, in fact, quite wise, because he knew that Timur, when angered by his previous governor, had forced that unfortunate man to eat his account books. There were other characters, such as Abu Nuwas and Bahlul, who had similar reputations.

By the eleventh century Juha was accepted as a historical entity, but his precise name and lineage were still a matter of much confusion. In the late Middle Ages, Juha appears in Turkish writings as Nasreddin Hoca (in Arabic, Nasr al-Din Khwaja, the name signifies "a learned man"). The name of Hoca seems to have replaced Juha in popular folklore, and in later Islamic writings they are seen as the same person with two different names. Among Persian speaking peoples, he became known as Mulla Nasr al-Din (or Nasrudin). In the seventeenth century, Turkish folklore absorbed vast number of anecdotes from earlier centuries in the name of Hoca, even though these stories existed in some form before the development of the latter figure.

This jester is still known by various names. As Nasrudin or Nasreddin, he has over twelve hundred stories attached to his name. In Egypt they know him as Juha, in Turkey and Persian-speaking countries he is widely known as either Hoca or Nasreddin; in other regions, including Indonesia, his jokes are told in the name of Abu Nuwas. He thus represents a vast number of characters that have been developed over the centuries by professional humorists and other religious and adab writers, and can be found in some form in every Muslim culture. He has gained considerable popularity in many non-Muslim countries.

Humor and wit are also found in poetry, which is a developed art form in Islamic civilization and finds expression in Arabic, Persian, and other Islamic languages, such as Urdu. The poetic humorists especially flourished during the Abbasid period. They were called shu˓ara˒ al-mujjan, and included court poets such as Abu Dulama, who used to entertain by way of bringing insults on himself. A description of Abu Dulama's style of entertainment is found in al-Husri's Jam˓aljawahir:

Let it be known to you, Abu Dulama

You neither belong to a noble people,

nor do you have any nobility in you.

When you put on the turban, you appear like a monkey,

And when you put off the turban, you look like a swine.

You have combined in yourself both ugliness and meanness,

And meanness is always followed by ugliness.

If you happen to have obtained the worldly pleasure,

Don't shout, for the Day of Judgement is quite near at hand.

(Ali, 1998, p. 57)

Contemporary Humor

Although modern humorous literature may properly be shelved under folklore, contemporary Sufi writers have argued that the use of humor has always been essential in conveying the spiritual wisdom of the sages. Idries Shah, for example, has related many stories featuring the character of Mulla Nasrudin. In his work on the Sufi use of humor, Special Illumination, Shah argues that humor endures because it has the power to teach while it amuses:

Jokes are structures, and in their Sufic usage they may fulfill many different functions. Just as we may get the humor nutrient out of a joke, we can also get several dimensions out of it on various occasions: there is no standard meaning of a joke. Different people will see different contents of it; and pointing out some of its possible usages will not, if we are used to this method, rob it of its efficacy. . . .The joke, like the non-humorous teaching-story, thus presents us with a choice instrument of illustration and action. (Shah 1977, p. 11)

Humor is also a medium for expressing social and political criticism. Often it can present a subject which is otherwise prohibited by political or religious authorities. In her article "Humor: The Two-Edged Sword," Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot offers one example of political humor from Egypt.

When Nasser died, the question of where to bury him arose during a cabinet meeting. One minister said, "Let us bury him in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier." Another objected, saying, "You can't bury a colonel with a common soldier." A third suggested that he be buried in one of the tombs of the Mamluk sultans. "No! No!" was the objection. "You can't bury the Rais with a slave." Finally running out of burial sites, someone suggested Jerusalem. Whereupon, the rest of the cabinet rose in horror and said, "Never! The last time they buried someone there, he came back after three days!" (p. 263)

During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, many Palestinians came up with their own jokes to escape the otherwise horrible experiences of the war and its aftermath. One such joke is related by Sharif Kanaana in his article "Palestinian Humor during the Gulf War":

Shortly after the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, Saddam's little daughter had a birthday. Saddam asked her, "What would you like me to get you for your birthday?" She replied, "Get me Qatar." (Kanaana 1995, p. 70)


Ali, Abdul. "Humour Literature: An Arab-Islamic Legacy."

Hamdard Islamicus 21 (1998): 47–59.

Hasan, Ahmed, trans. Sunan Abu Dawud. Lahore: Sh. M. Ashraf, 1984.

Kanaana, Sharif. "Palestinian Humor During the Gulf War." Journal of Folklore Research 32, no. 1 (1995): 65–75.

Margoliouth, D. S. "Wit and Humour in Arabic Literature." In Arabic Literature and Thought. Edited by Mohamed Taher. New Delhi: Anmol Publications, 1997.

Marsot, Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid. "Humor: The Two-Edged Sword." In Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East. Edited by Donna Lee Bowen and Evelyn A. Early. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Marzolph, Ulrich. "Timur's Humorous Antagonist, Nasreddin Hoca." Oriente Moderno 15, no. 76 (1996–1997): 485–498.

Pellat, Ch. "Seriousness and Humour in Early Islam." Islamic Studies 2 (1963): 353–362.

Rosenthal, Franz. Humor in Early Islam. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1956.

Shah, Idries. Special Illumination: The Sufi Use of Humour. London: The Octagon Press, 1977.

Irfan A. Omar


views updated May 23 2018


Sigmund Freud's astute observation about the design of humor broadly refracted the tone of laughter throughout the Great Depression: "Humour is not resigned, it is rebellious. It signifies the triumph not only of the ego, but also of the pleasure principle, which is strong enough to assert itself here in the face of the adverse real circumstances."

From the earliest settlements in the seventeenth century, humor has been axial in American culture, a rebellious, rallying, and ribald dynamic. Pinpointing its enduring relevance, Constance Rourke noted in American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931) that "Humor has been a fashioning instrument in America, cleaving its way through the national life, holding tenaciously to the spread elements of that life. . . ." Its ultimate objective, Rourke asserted, was uniting "the unconscious objective of a disunited people . . . and the rounded completion of an American type."

Salient motifs of humor, a melange of resistance and rebellion, irony and nonsense, coursed through the travails of the Great Depression, as they had during previous domestic crises. The articulation of humor mirrored and uplifted people in their attempt to cope with events that were confusing, contradictory, and seemingly incessant: "We'll hold the distinction of being the only country in the history of the world that ever went to the poor house in an automobile," offered Will Rogers, the popular crackerbarrel wit in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The comical is often a spirited interplay with incongruity. Initially, the stock market convulsion and swift economic decline recorded instant disbelief. Theatrical comedian Ed Wynn, playing the classic fool in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's Simple Simon (1930), would lay flat on his back on the stage and insist that business was looking up. As financial adversity mounted, the urge to retaliate against the power elite, the Wall Street bankers, investment brokers, and corporate managers, assumed robust comic proportions. Will Rogers cracked that "every international banker ought to have printed over his office door, 'Alive today by the grace of a nation that has a sense of humor.'"

At the same time, distrust of political and economic institutions loomed large. The memorable song, "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It," rendered by Groucho Marx in Horsefeathers (1932), summed up the pervasive, anarchistic feeling that nothing was going right and everything deserved condemnation. Several films spoofed the state outright. The public's rebellious resentments could be scene in the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933) and W. C. Fields's Million Dollar Legs (1932), both set in fictitious countries beset with chaotic economic conditions and corrupt politicians. As the president of "Freedonia," Groucho Marx sings "If you think this country's bad off now, wait till I get through with it," while W. C. Fields, head of "Klopstockia," manages to remain in office as long as he triumphs at arm wrestling.

Virtually every major segment of media, including the stage, novels, magazines, cinema, and radio, sought in humor a means of expressing people's desire to escape from the economic distress while grappling with its tangled meaning. Reaching the largest audience throughout the decade was the comic film. Across the regions, an astonishing sixty to seventy-five million persons, approximately 61 percent of the population, went to the movie theaters each week.

Several themes infused the early films. The comedy of pathos, of irony and frustration, in the early years gave way to the humor of aggression and an expression of hope later in the decade. The major film figures of the 1920s were small, wiry, and resilient. Against the antagonistic environs of the modern city, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langston survived with classical, comedic dignity. The Great Depression forced a shift from the comedy of individual poignancy to the comedy of resilience and retaliation. W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Carol Lombard—as well as the radio comedians, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, George Burns, and Gracie Allen—used their comedy as a buffer against the economic harshness. On occasion, their routines plunged deep into working-class hostility.

A prominent cinematic take-off of the theatrical comedy of manners was the screwball comedy: In addition to Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, and Million Dollar Legs, these include Bringing up Baby (1938), It Happened One Night (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), and You Can't Take It with You (1938). This farcical leitmotif satirized the harsh realities of economic plight and lampooned the upper class, their negative impact and banal life style. Invoking the homeless in My Man Godfrey (1936)—particularly "the forgotten man" emphasized in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech—was a scene of men in a Hooverville shelter by a city dump that dramatically contrasted the woeful condition of the unemployed against the asinine game of a scavenger hunt of the wealthy elite.

Concomitantly, the application of the "Production Code" in 1934 that promulgated "the moral importance of entertainment" altered the language and plot of comedy films. Eschewing the amoral, dark, and surreal comedy that had formed the keystone of farcical routines early in the 1930s, the Production Code led to a rollicking, subversive sexual humor, an imaginative comedy that suggested but never exposed sexual antics. Mae West, whose comedic fare had incited the Code, wrote, directed, and starred in films where her sexual innuendoes became repeatable rejoinders: Night after Night (1932), She Done Him Wrong (1933), and My Little Chickadee (1940). Entering a speakeasy in Night after Night, for example, West replies to a hatcheck girl who exclaims, "Goodness, what lovely diamonds," that "Goodness had nothin' do with it, dearie."

Additionally, radio comedy was a coalescing comedic force that extended through the difficult times of World War II. The most popular shows featured Jack Benny, Amos 'n Andy (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll), Fred Allen, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly (Jim and Marian Jordan), Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, plus a comedy panel, audience-participation program, Can You Top This?

Writers, poets, novelists, and essayists fashioned comic plots that directly or obliquely spanned the economic rupturing: James Thurber, E. B. White, S. J. Perelman, Langston Hughes, H. L. Mencken, and Stephen Leacock. Cartoonists in the preeminent literary magazine, The New Yorker, offered sharp social criticism together with a sardonic look at the crumbling conditions, as well as changes in social mores shaped by the Depression.

In sum, the vast resource of rebellious humor was in full play as the populace confronted the enormous distress and mystery engendered by the Great Depression.



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Gates, Robert A. American Literary Humor during the Great Depression. 1999.

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Martin, Jay, ed. Humor in Economic Depressions (issue title). Studies in American Humor 3, nos. 2 and 3 (Summer/Fall 1984).

Robbins, L. H. "American Humorists." New York Times Magazine 8 (September 1935): 8–9.

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Joseph Boskin