History of Humor
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The History of Humor
By Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen
Two Visual Anachronisms
The History of Comedy • “Greek comedies were often bawdy or ribald and ended happily for everyone.” • “To Chaucer, Shakespeare, and other writers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a comedy was a story (but especially a play) with a happy ending, whether humorous or not. • (Triezenberg : 525) 42
Homer (9th-8th Century BC) • “Aristotle’s Poetics, includes Homer in his discussion of the comic:” • “A poem of the satirical kind cannot indeed be put down to any author earlier than Homer; though many such writers probably there were.” • “But from Homer onward, instances can be cited—his own Margites, for example.” • Triezenberg : 525) 42
Old Comedy, Middle Comedy and New Comedy • Old Comedy of the 6th & 5th Centuries BC often made fun of a specific person and of current political issues. • Middle Comedy of the 5th & 4th Centuries BC made fun of more general themes such as literature, professions, and society. • New Comedy of the 4th & 3rd Centuries BC usually revolved around “the bawdy adventures of a blustering soldier, a young man in love with an unsuitable woman, or a father figure who cannot follow his own advice.” (Triezenberg : 525) 42
Aristophanes (c450-c388 BC) • “Of the Old and Middle comedies, the only ones that have survived complete are eleven plays of Aristophanes.” • “The Clouds lampoons Socrates in heaven, in the Old tradition, while Lysistrata makes fun of human nature in general.” • In Plutus both the wealth and the poverty in Athens are personified. The citizenry are so distracted that they neglect the gods. • Plutus is considered to be Middle comedy. • (Triezenberg : 525)
Titus Maccius Plautus (c254-184 BC) Plubius Terentius Terence (185-c159 BC) • “Comedy in the Roman Empire is generally reduced to the works of Plautus and Terence, the former of whom lived at about the same time as Menander, the latter about a century later.” • Both Plautus and Terence wrote plays of the old Greek sort—“farces involving the same stock characters (father, soldier, slave) and which, unlike the plays of Aristophanes, offended no on in particular.” • (Triezenberg : 526) 42
Menander (fl. 160-135 BC) • “The author of New comedy whose work has best survived the ages is Menander.” • Menander’s Dyskolos (The Grouch) was discovered in 1957. • “Many other long pieces of Menander’s work have survived in Latin translations by Terence and Plautus.” • (Triezenberg : 525) 42
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) • Most of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” is not at all funny. • It is about “Paradiso” as contrasted with “Purgatorio” and the “Inferno.” • It was called a comedy because it is “a story about the powerless vs. the powerful, or the little man vs. the big man, or even about the perils and pitfalls of social pretence.” • And thus, “The Divine Comedy” was indeed a “comedy” only in the classical sense of the word. (Triezenberg : 525)
• “The Inferno, the first installment of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, describes damned souls engaging in bawdy behavior and word play.” • The second and third installments of The Divine Comedy are however distinctly not funny, and demonstrate that in the fourteenth century “a comedy need do nothing more than end happily” (Triezenberg : 526). 42
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) • Boccaccio’s Decameron is “a collection of stories told by a group of ten nobles who have fled the Black Death by shutting themselves up in a lonely castle.” • Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were influenced by Boccaccio’s Decameron, and they have basically the same structure. • (Triezenberg : 526) 42
Geoffrey Chaucer (c1342-1400) • “In the Middle Ages, the farces, bawdies, and satires of Greek and Roman literature continued to be popular.” • “Chaucer is best known for his Canterbury Tales, some of which (e.g. The Miller’s Tale) are both bawdy and still funny by today’s standards.” • (Triezenberg : 526) 42
• “Chaucer also penned The Romaunt of the Rose, a satire on love and courtship, and The House of Fame which seems to spoof Dante’s idea of the narrator and the guide.” • “In Chaucer’s version, the narrator would rather not listen to the guide.” • (Triezenberg : 526)
Erasmus (1466-1536) • “Erasmus has very clear political and religious objectives in The Praise of Folly, where Folly is nursed and instructed by Self Love, Flattery, Intemperance, and a number of other personified sins, and goes on to criticize the Catholic Church.” • “Oddly enough, the joke was on Erasmus, who was a staunch Catholic, but whose work became a major catalyst of the Protestant Reformation.” (Triezenberg : 527) 42
François Rabelais (c1483-1553) • Rabelais published a series of five books collectively known as Gargantua and Pantagruel. • “Gargantua and his son Pantagruel are two giants of unfixed size, who can sometimes fit into a normal building and sometimes hold whole civilizations inside of their mouths.” • Triezenberg : 526) 42
“These books contain satires on the Roman Catholic church, bawdy stories, and scatological humor as well as plain silliness that reminds the modern reader of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
• “Rabelais’ brand of silliness and freedom from the laws of physics and of logic was discussed by the critic Bakhtin, who calls this atmosphere the ‘carnival’ world.” (Triezenberg : 526) 42
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) • “Shakespeare’s plays are sometimes divided into Comedy, Tragedy, and History.” • “The history plays are, obviously, those based on historical personages such as Richard III and Henry IV.” • “The difference between comedy and tragedy is still very much the same as in Greek plays—comedies have happy endings and tragedies have sad ones; tragic heroes are larger than life, while comic heroes are flawed.” • (Triezenberg : 527) 42
• “Shakespeare’s comedies are also usually funny, but unlike the Greek bawdy plays and satires, their humor lies in word play—puns, allusions, and double-entendres that are very often lost on today’s audience.” • “Careful perusal of an annotated version of Love’s Labours Lost or All’s Well That Ends Well will reveal the surprising density of jokes in these plays, which are supposed to have had Elizabethan audiences roaring with laughter” (Triezenberg : 527). 42
• Falstaff, a great comic and humorous character demonstrates Bakhtin’s “carnival.” • Falstaff appears not in comedy plays, but in history plays--Henry IV parts I and II.
• Shakespeare’s tragedies, too, often include a figure of a clown or fool. His job is not so much to provide mirth or laughter as it is to provide commentary that is sometimes satiric and very often funny. • (Triezenberg : 527) 42
Court Jesters: From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance
During the Middle Ages the kings had court jesters.
The jester’s septer was a ludicrous representation of the king’s septer, which represented power.
Because They were not supposed to be in competition with the king, they tended to be deformed In Shakespeare’s plays, the midgets with humped backs and king’s fool represents these bug eyes. midieval traditions. And they were not very smart.
But in King Lear the fool is smarter than the king.
They also wore cap and bells and motley clothes, and funny shoes. And they carried the “jester’s septer” containing an image of the jester’s face. 42
And often smart fools, because they were so “marked” could say things to the king that noone else was allowed to say. 21
Fools during the Renaissance, and beyond There are many foolish fools in Shakespeare’s plays.
And out of these Renaissance traditions came the street jugglers and street musicians,
There are also many wise fools in Shakespeare’s plays.
And the Punch and Judy shows,
Not only is there the wise fool in King Lear, but there is also the dead fool named Yorrick in Hamlet, and the wise foolish women in The Taming of the Shrew, and Much Ado about Nothing.
And Italy’s Commedia d’el Arte And France’s Comedie Française, And England’s “Comedy of Humours,” and “Comedy of Manners.” And America’s ventriloquists and editorial cartoonists. 42
The Eighteenth Century • “The eighteenth century saw the rise of a new kind of humorous author: the wit.” • “A wit is usually a person who can make quick, wry comments in the course of conversation.” • (Triezenberg : 528) 42
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) • Swift is best known for his novel Gulliver’s Travels “in which sailor Lemuel Gulliver recounts his visits to strange lands inhabited by fantastic peoples.” • “Gulliver’s last voyage finds him in a land where horses are the dominant species, and keep dumb, barbaric humans (called Yahoos) as beasts of burden.”
• This novel is a humorous reflection on the failings of civilization. (Triezenberg : 528)
• Swift’s A Modest Proposal is an essay which suggests that the problems of overpopulation and starvation in the lower classes (especially in Ireland) would be readily solved if they would eat their own children.” • (Triezenberg ): 528)
William Congreve (1670-1729) • William Congreve was a contemporary of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. • His The Old Batchelor (1693), The Double Dealer (1693), Love for Love (1695), and The Way of the World (1700) are all satires filled with ironies and paradoxes. • (Triezenberg : 528)
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) • While Jonathan Swift was writing satirical novels, Alexander Pope was writing satirical poetry. • Pope’s “Imitations of Horace satirizes the policies of George II and Horace Walpole while imitating the form of a classical poet.” • Pope’s Moral Essays are works more of ridicule than of satire, and are not considered humorous by everybody. • Pope’s most celebrated satire was named Dunciad. • (Triezenberg : 528) 42
Voltaire (François-Marie Arout (16941778)
• Voltaire dabbled in many different literary forms—“from novels to plays, history, poetry, letters, and essays.” • “His signature wit is present in all, and some are expressly meant to be satires, especially on the Catholic church, censorship, and French civil liberties (or lack of)” (Triezenberg : 528). 42
Henry Fielding (1707-1754) • Tom Jones is a light-hearted tale of adventure, containing many hilarious episodes and ends happily for everyone who deserves to so end.” • (Triezenberg : 528)
Charlotte Lenox (1720-1804) • Charlotte Lenox’s The Female Quixote “tells the story of Arabella, a young woman whose only education and contact with the outside world has consisted of reading romance novels, and the adventures she has when she becomes independently wealthy and comes face to face with the outside world.” (Triezenberg : 528) 42
Jane Austen (1775-1859) • Jane Austen’s characters are “simultaneously true-to-life and ridiculous.” • “All of her novels can simultaneously be read as scorching satires of human nature and society manners.” • (Triezenberg : 529) 42
Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol (1809-1852)
• Some of Gogol’s short stories like The Nose are “bizarre, almost to the point where humor is lost to wonder and confusion.” • In The Nose “a man’s nose goes AWOL and walks about the city causing trouble.” 42
• But some of Gogol’s short stories are “so dark and horrible that, while the story is most certainly a joke with a punch line, the reader is loathe to laugh.” • For example, in The Overcoat “a poor clerk starves himself to buy a new coat, which is stolen from him on the first night he wears it.” • (Triezenberg : 529) 42
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) • Both Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray “became enormously popular for sympathetic portrayals of eccentric characters.” • There are many straightforward jokes and much satire in their novels, which can be considered comedies because they end well for almost everyone. • (Triezenberg : 529) 42
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) • Charles Dickens is famous for the eccentrics that he portrays in his novels. • For example, “the characterizations of Silas Wegg and Mr. Venus in Our Mutual Friend “make us laugh in delight at the recognition and exaggeration of a ‘type’ of person that we ourselves have met in real life.” • (Triezenberg : 529) 42
Mid 19th Century • James Russell Lowell’s Birdofreedum Sawin said, “at any rate, I’m so used up I can’t do no more fightin’ / The only chance thet’s left to me is politics or writin’.” • “On the western frontier, wise fools, con-men, and tricksters like Johnson J. Hooper’s Simon Suggs and George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood were employed to portray the rough and unsophisticated American as an ironic hero. Suggs was lazy and dishonest, and he knew it was “good to be shifty in a new country.” (Mintz in Raskin  287) 42
Sut Lovingood (1814-1869 • Sut Lovingood expressed a rude racism and sexism. • He argued in favor of drinking, sex, roughhousing, and a deep mistrust of preachers, widows, and other guardians of civilization. • His freedom, joy of life, and cynicism supported the counter culture. (Mintz in Raskin  287) 42
Mark Twain (1835-1910) • Like Charles Dickens in England, Mark Twain in America wrote vernacular novels with eccentric characters. • Twain wrote stories about characters that are “more real than real life, more true to type than any true person could be.” (Triezenberg : 529) 42
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) • Oscar Wilde is “a great comic playwright whose only joke, it seems, was to contrast the honest, industrious morés of the public world with the lazy selfish motivations of his elegant heroes” • “Wilde’s plays exhibit a gift for word play and repartée, as well as cultivation of ridiculous situations.” (Triezenberg : 529) 42
P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) • Wodehouse wrote many novels about the nitwit Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves. • “Wodehouse’s works usually hinge around a ridiculous social situations created by the characters themselves.” • (Triezenberg : 530) 42
E. B. White (1899-1985) • In 1941, E. B. White wrote, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” • (Triezenberg : 530)
George Orwell (1903-1950) • Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory. • On the surface it is a story about personified farm animals. • But it is probably also about the Russian revolution. (Triezenberg : 535) 42
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) • Isaac Asimov is famous as a science fiction writer, but he also published two books of jokes, one in 1971, and one in 1993. • These joke books contain commentary on why the jokes are funny, and suggestions on how to become a good joke teller. (Triezenberg : 530) 42
Joseph Heller (1923-) • Joseph Heller wrote gallows humor in which he tried to make people laugh and then feel like fools for having laughed. • He wrote Catch 22 in which Yosarian had to prove that he was insane in order to get out of the army, but by trying to get out of the army he was proving that he was sane. • Another “catch 22” in the novel was that they had to fly a certain number of missions before returning home, but the number kept increasing.
Television Humor • Television opened huge new vistas for performing arts in general, and humor in particular.
• Early TV featured humorous variety shows like Laugh In, and Saturday Night Live. • There was also much sketch humor in such shows as Monty Python’s Flying Circus. • (Triezenberg : 530) 42
The First Comic Strips • “The early strips such as ‘The Yellow Kid’ were curious combinations of down-to-earth slapstick, topical joking, and rather abstract referencing.” • “In the hands of a Windsor McCay (‘Little Nemo in Slumberland,’ ‘The Adventures of the Rare-bit Fiend,’) they were creative indeed, and could border on the surreal and handle social satire at the same time.” • George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat’ mostly “settled for a domestic humor involving marital conflict and bratty kids.” (Mintz in Raskin  288) 42
The Golden Age of Humor • “The golden age of humor” was often considered to be the 1920s but would be more accurately placed from the end of WWI to the early 30s. • During this golden age, we see the development of the “little man” in Casper Milquetoast, Andy Gump, Jiggs, Mutt (of “Mutt and Jeff”), and Dagwood (of “Blondie and Dagwood”). (Mintz in Raskin  288) 42
Blondie and Dagwood • “Dagwood loses battles to the illogic of his wife, Blondie, his kids, the dog, his boss, and the neighborhood bridge club (intruding on his bath). His defense is napping as often as he can, eating everything in sight [“Dagwood Sandwiches”], and knocking down the mailman as he rushes off to work in the morning.” • “It was a comic counter-balance to American arrogance, self-confidence, and unrealistic self-understanding.” • (Mintz in Raskin  288-289) 42
The 1940s • The humorous comic strips that were revived after the Second World War included Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” and Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner.” • “Kelly’s swamp fables were allegorical ‘swamps’ themselves, loaded with social and political commentary lurking behind the antics and interactions of the familiar cast of animal characters.” • Al Capp’s “hillbillies” gave access to Capp’s views on topical events, government, and American values. (Mintz in Raskin  289) 42
Charles Schulz’s Eccentrics •
The “Peanuts” comic strip uses kids to reflect adult neuroses:
“Lucy uses her meanness to compensate for the unrequited love she has for Schroeder (who keeps trying to play Beethoven on a toy piano with painted on black keys).”
“Linus has his blanket to comfort him when his childhood fears and fantasy get in the way of his intellect,”
“and the dog, Snoopy, deals with the limitations of his ‘dogness’ by pretending to be the Red Baron, or a lawyer, writer, hockey player, detective and resident of a deluxe doghouse complete with a pool table and rare paintings.”
“Charlie Brown, the consummate loser, little man character, reflects all the fears, weaknesses, and failures of modern man. He knows that Lucy will pull the football away from him when he tries to kick it, yet every year he tries again.” (Mintz in Raskin  289) 42
History of International Humor Conferences 1976: Cardiff Wales 1982: Los Angeles, CA 1984: Tel Aviv, Israel 1985: Cork, Ireland 1982-1987: Tempe, AZ 1988: West Lafayette, IN 1989: Laie, HI 1990: Sheffield, England 1991: St. Catharines, Canada 1992: Paris France 1993: Luxembourg 1994: Ithaca, NY 1995: Birmingham, England 1996: Sydney, Australia 1997: Edmond, OK 1998: Bergen, Norway 1999: Oakland, CA
2000: Osaka, Japan 2001: College Park, MD 2002: Forli, Italy 2003: Chicago, IL 2004: Dijon, France 2005: Youngstown, OH 2006: Copenhagen, Denmark 2007: Newport, RI 2008: Alcala, Spain 2009: Long Beach, CA 2010: Hong Kong 2011: Boston, MA 2012: Krakow, Poland (Carrell in Raskin  318)
History of the International Society for Humor Studies History of America: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLdQ4DUnnw4&feature=fvw Don L. F. Nilsen, Linguistics & Humor: http://www.public.asu.edu/~dnilsen The Fifties: http://oldfortyfives.com/TakeMeBackToTheFifties.htm International Society for Humor Studies (Martin Lampert, Web Master): www.humorstudies.org
• History of English
References (2000-2012): Adams, Bruce. The Revolutions in Russia, Twentieth Century Soviet and Russian History in Anecdotes. New York, NY: Routledge Curzon, 2005. Boskin, Joseph. Corporal Boskin’s Cold War: A Comical Journey. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011. Bryant, Chad. “The Language of Resistance: Czech Jokes and JokeTelling under Nazi Occupation, 1943-1945.” Journal of Contemporary History 41.1 (2006): 133-151.
Carrell, Amy. “Historical Views of Humor” in Raskin (2008) 303-332. Davies, Christie. “Humour and Protest: Jokes under Communism.” International Review of Social History 52 (2007): 291-305.
Dekker, Rudolf. Humour in Dutch Culture of the Golden Age. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2001. Eberhart, Cy. Will Rogers: Discovering the Soul of America. Bangor, ME: Book Locker, 2010. Ehrenreich, Barbara. Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. New York, NY: Holt, 2006. Graban, Tarez Samra. “Feminine Irony and the Art of Linguistic Cooperation in Anne Askew’s Sixteenth-Century Examinacyons. Rhetorica 25.4 (2007): 385-413. Holcomb, Chris. “‘A Man in a Painted Garment’: The Social Function of Jesting in Elizabethan Rhetoric and Courtesy Manuals.” HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research 13.4 (2000): 429-456.
Lewis, Paul. Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Mintz, Lawrence E. “Humor and Popular Culture” in Raskin (2008) 281-302. Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Humor. Westport, CT: Greenwood/Oryx, 2000. Nilsen, Don L. F. Humor Twentieth-Century British Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000. Olson, S. Douglas, ed. Broken Laughter: Select Fragments of Greek Comedy. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2007. Raskin, Victor, ed. Primer of Humor Research. New York, NY: Mouton de Gruyter, 2008. Triezenberg, Katrina E. “Humor in Literature” in Raskin : 523-452.