31 March, 2014Issue 24.6EssaysLiterary CriticismLiterature

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“Our laughter may yet have a future”

Ian Reilly

Reilly


Teaching a course in your area of specialisation is at once an energising endeavour and a terrifying proposition. To impart knowledge and stimulate discussion and debate on a subject you’re passionate about is a truly wonderful thing; to fail in this endeavour is to suffer a potentially crushing and demoralising defeat—stretched out over a thirteen-week period (and perhaps beyond). When the topic of your seminar is contemporary humour and laughter, expectations that you will deliver a brilliant, engaging, and thought-provoking course reach an ostensible fever pitch. More than this, such a course should be relevant, hip, and sexy.

In the Fall of 2013, I took my chances, offering the Advanced Seminar in Cultural Studies to a group of twenty upper-level undergraduate students. In lieu of the course’s generic title, I presented what I considered a fresher, sexier alternative subtitle—The Politics of Contemporary Humour and Laughter—to better reflect the themes and debates we would engage throughout the semester. Following Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement that, “Perhaps even if nothing else today has any future, our laughter may yet have a future,” I presented the course as a critical exploration of humour and laughter in 2013, so as to gauge the temperature of the contemporary moment (i). To do so, we addressed humour in relation to the social order, tackling broader questions surrounding cultural representation, social justice, political repression, dissent, and civic engagement; laughter in relation to audiences, taste culture(s), Internet humour, art, and creative expression. Through the weekly lectures, seminar presentations, research papers, and self-reflexive writing assignments, students examined a vast and interesting range of performers (Sarah Silverman, Louis CK, the Yes Men), texts (Nyan Cat memes, rape jokes, Pi San cartoons), platforms (Tumblr blogs, Twitter feeds, YouTube channels, 4chan threads), and sensibilities (sarcastic, ironic, parodic). But before we could do any of this work, I had to qualify and contextualise why the study of humour is all-too-often marginalised (if notably absent) across both scholarly disciplines and university curricula. By the end of the course, I also needed to validate why humour and laughter should occupy a greater place in higher education as a whole.

The challenges of researching and writing about humour
To help explain in part why humour has traditionally received little (if uneven) attention in academic circles, one need only look to the climate of its reception in recent decades. First, there are the challenges associated with writing about humour. As noted folklore and humour scholar Elliott Oring puts it, “When one speaks or writes about humour, there is often an expectation that the speech or essay should itself be humorous. I know of no other subject matter that engenders parallel expectations. No one expects a discourse on tragedy to be tragic, a treatise on schizophrenia to be dissociative, or a declamation on music to be melodious. With humour, it is otherwise” (ii). A similar note is struck by John Carty and Yasmine Musharbash, who describe these anxieties in relation to anthropological research: “writing about laughter and humour is rarely funny. Translating the joke and preserving its funniness is a precious skill possessed by few. Perhaps this is precisely why so few anthropologists come to write or analyse the humorous aspects of their experience. Perhaps, having worked so hard to be in on the joke, we want to avoid dissecting a treasured aspect of our own belonging” (iii).

If writing about humour produces its own set of personal anxieties, the act of undertaking research on humour presents its own professional dilemmas. In 1976, Walter O’Connell famously offered the following caution to psychology researchers: “anyone embarking upon research into the origins and development of humour will, more often than not, be seen as a deviant and a freak, one who does not take psychology seriously enough” (iv). Given this pronouncement (and many other statements of this kind), it is no wonder that researchers may have been influenced to pursue more “serious” research agendas. After all, academics do not strive to be interpreted as deviants and freaks. Given the mildly discouraging climate of academic research on humour, it follows that the study of humour has figured as a side project for researchers, or as an area that has never been given its due as a site of legitimate scholarly endeavour. According to this logic, it follows that a serious researcher would never consider humour or laughter as primary objects of study. Just as the world of popular entertainment reserves its most vaunted prizes for dramatic works, comedy has yet to receive its due critical attention from venerable critics, academies, and institutions. Thus, a key question arises: have scholars been sufficiently dissuaded from carrying out research in these and other areas?

Conflicting accounts: The dearth or surplus of humour and laughter research?
The study of humour and laughter has received critical attention in several academic disciplines: communication studies, linguistics, literary/cultural studies, philosophy, sociology, biology, computer science, neuroscience, and religious studies, amongst others. In virtually all of these fields, researchers stress just how little research exists on humour and laughter. While reasons vary for these omissions, it is commonplace for scholars to cite the lack of seriousness attached to the study of humour. For example, humour has not proven to be a legitimate subject area in sociology (it remains at best a minor subfield in the discipline). As Giselinde Kuipers suggests, sociologists have traditionally privileged macro-level social phenomena—modernisation, industrialisation, urbanisation, and secularisation—over the micro-level “‘unserious’ business of everyday life: interactions, emotions, play, leisure, private life” (v). Indeed, sociological interest in humour only truly emerges in the 1980s, gaining greater traction once humour is perceived as a problematic site from which to discuss social issues (namely: race, ethnicity, political conflict, social resistance, and gender inequalities) (vi). Another interesting pattern emerges in psychology: despite the supposed dearth of literature on the psychology of humour, there exists a sizable body of scholarship on the topic (largely unnoticed and unacknowledged by mainstream psychology). As Rod A. Martin observes, in 2006 alone, keyword searches using humour, laughter, and irony yielded over 3,400 peer-reviewed journal articles (vii). The inclusion of this body of work is curiously missing from undergraduate textbooks, giving the impression that the study of humour is frivolous, fringe, marginal, and unimportant. Again, one of the ongoing and pervasive biases within academic disciplines is that humour and laughter are not serious enough in nature to warrant academic study.

What is evident, however, is that humour research is increasingly characterised as a multifaceted and multidimensional site of critical exploration, inviting a broad range of “interdisciplinary cooperation and understanding” from a vast pool of scholars (viii). One need only review Lawrence E. Mintz’s brief summary to witness first-hand the great variety and depth of existing scholarly work on humour (ix). In the past decade alone, social sciences and humanities scholars have contributed to a veritable explosion in the publication of sophisticated article- and book-length studies on humour and laughter, tapping into the zeitgeist of the current moment. For example, recent studies have examined satire as a dominant mode of dissent and deliberation (x), comedy as a tool of political critique (xi), irony as a predominantly postmodern (read: contemporary) sensibility (xii), parody as a benchmark for challenging cultural norms and standards (xiii), laughter as a rallying point for understanding a given century (xiv), and so on. That both the Internet and popular culture have proven incredibly fertile terrain for the accelerated/steadfast creation and distribution of humorous, parodic, and satirical content has surely encouraged this scholarly work.

Course now “legitimate” – Now what?

Having argued for the legitimacy of humour and laughter as important areas of academic study, I was left with the thornier challenge of navigating between upholding a serious pedagogical agenda and embracing a playful and fun(ny) disposition. Given the rarity of such a course offering in my (Communication Studies) department, how I taught the course would ultimately frame how students would perceive the subject matter not only in relation to their studies, but also in terms of their everyday lives. If I chose to use our weekly three-hour class time to watch hilarious YouTube videos and to browse Internet memes, to say nothing of indulging the fantasy of using this stage as an opportunity to perform in a stand-up comedy register, students would leave the course with the impression that both the subject matter and the professor were a joke. If I assumed the role of an instructor who wished to express above all the cultivated seriousness of the endeavour, presenting the material purely in terms of key theories, concepts, texts, thinkers, and historical debates, students might also wrongly assume that humour scholarship is humourless and, what’s worse, successful in achieving one primary end: to ruin humour for everyone. Thus the weekly challenge centered on my ability to balance the serious, rigorous aspects of presenting a complex body of knowledge with the desire to impart this knowledge in a highly engaging, pleasurable, and entertaining way.

In juxtaposing difficult theoretical readings with case studies surrounding, for example, the cultural significance of bullshit, the impact of memes in a digital world, humour under repressive regimes, the gender politics of comedy spaces, and the role of humour in civic engagement, students were offered a compelling point of departure for addressing the seriousness of it all. At the same time, the group was privy to a wide range of hilarious, problematic, and challenging content from the likes of Comedy Central, The Onion, The Office, Louie, Family Guy, Saturday Night Live, ACT UP, Guerrilla Girls, the Yes Men, and Anonymous, among many others. Student work examined an equally fascinating range of humorous content: feminist rape jokes, Michelle Williams GIFs, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s public announcements, Jewish comedy cycles, Tina Fey impersonations, Catdoge memes, sitcom laugh tracks, Twitter parody accounts, Vine feeds, #Fail blogs, Aziz Ansari stand-up segments, nature/animal videos, miscellaneous reddit and 4chan posts. In the process of studying these texts, students were able to discuss important critical questions and concerns, to situate them within the larger framework of humour and laughter research, and to present more nuanced readings and critiques of content they encountered in their everyday lives. And while class discussion was often heavy due to the thought-provoking nature of our interactions, we did manage to laugh a great deal. Without laughter, it’s likely we wouldn’t have reached the end of semester in such good spirits.

In the end, the experience of teaching a course on the politics of contemporary humour and laughter has shifted my attention to an analogous debate surrounding the importance of sincerity in a culture so deeply informed by parodic, satirical, and ironic sensibilities and modes of expression. Just as these tools have proven some of the most viable, widespread, and adapted forms of twenty-first century communication, old debates regarding the need to engage in more sincere forms of discussion have returned. With the ever-constant proliferation and display of irony and parody, it is no wonder that a return to sincerity has been championed in certain camps. While it would be a mistake to assume that satirists, ironists, and parodists do not produce works that express a sincerity and integrity that would delight even their most fervent opponents, we should make note of the potential for these forms of expression to exhaust themselves over time, thereby diminishing their broader influence (xv). In teaching these materials, I have gained a renewed perspective on both fronts: first, to teach with seriousness, integrity, and wholeheartedness (words commonly associated with sincerity) is to add the intellectual weight and gravitas needed to legitimise the study of humour as an academic discipline; second, to integrate satirical and parodic texts from everyday life—and to adopt a fun, engaging, and at times, quirky, teacherly disposition—is to lay the groundwork for meaningful discussions and debates about the things that may or may not make us laugh. As far as sincerity and irony in the classroom are concerned, they are indispensable to navigating the unpredictable waters of laughter and humour today. If Nietzsche was correct in his assertion that “our laughter may yet have a future,” my experiences as both a teacher and scholar of humour would serve to bolster his guarded optimism.

References:

(i) Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil, in Basic Writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), 340.
(ii) Elliott Oring, Engaging Humor (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), ix.
(iii) John Carty and Yasmine Musharbask, “You’ve Got to be Joking: Asserting the Analytical Value of Humour and Laughter in Contemporary Anthropology”, Anthropological Forum 18.3 (2008): 209-217 (211).
(iv) Walter O’Connell, “Freudian Humour: The Eupsychia of Everyday Life”, in Humor and Laughter: Theory, Research, and Applications, ed. Anthony J. Chapman, Hugh C. Foot (London; New York: Wiley, 1976), 313-330 (316).
(v) Giselinde Kuipers, “The Sociology of Humor”, in The Primer of Humor Research, ed. Victor Raskin (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 361.
(vi) Ibid., 361.
(vii) Rod A. Martin, The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach (Amsterdam: Academic Press, 2007), 27.
(viii) Peter Derks, “Twenty Years of Research on Humor: A View from the Edge”, in Humor and Laughter: Theory, Research, and Applications, ed. Anthony J. Chapman, Hugh C. Foot. (London; New York: Wiley, 1976), vii-xxv (xx).
(ix) Lawrence E. Mintz, “Humor and Popular Culture”, in The Primer of Humor Research, ed. Victor Raskin (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 281-302 (298, 302).
(x) See Megan Boler (ed.), Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), Jeffrey P. Jones, Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement (Toronto: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), and Ian Reilly, “Satirical Fake News and/as American Political Discourse”, The Journal of American Culture 35.3 (2012), 258-275.
(xi) See Ted Gournelos and Viveca Greene (eds), A Decade of Dark Humor: How Comedy, Irony, and Satire Shaped Post-9/11 America (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson, Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era (New York: NYU Press, 2009), and Stephen E. Kercher, Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
(xii) See Jay R. Magill, Chic Ironic Bitterness (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007) and Cynthia Willett, Irony in the Age of Empire: Comic Perspectives on Democracy and Freedom (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008).
(xiii) See Jonathan Gray, Watching with the Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality (New York; London: Routledge, 2006) and Robert Chambers, Parody: The Art That Plays With Art (New York: Peter Lang, 2010).
(xiv) See Ana Parvulescu, Laughter: Notes on a Passion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).
(xv) See Amber Day, Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011) and David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13:2 (1993: Summer), 151-194.

Ian Reilly is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University.