Humor and Anthropology - Arizona State University

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					Humor and Anthropology/
    Ethnic Humor

      by Don L. F. Nilsen
    and Alleen Pace Nilsen

      Humor is Everywhere
Anthropologist Mahadev Apte has
observed that
• Not only does humor occur in all
  human cultures, it also pervades all
  aspects of human behavior, thinking,
  and sociocultural reality. It occurs in
  an infinite variety of forms and

         Both Folklorists and
     Anthropologists Study Humor
Folklorist Elliott Oring has observed that:

• Anthropology focuses on the concept of culture
  whereas folklore emphasizes the notion of tradition.

• Folklorists confront and study humor because a
  number of the traditions they study—tales, songs,
  proverbs—are humorous.

• In fact, jokes and other forms of humorous
  expression have come to be recognized as the pre-
  eminent form of folkloric expression in
  contemporary urban society.

    Kan Ghu Ru = “We don’t understand!”
Some anthropological findings are funny only
  in retrospect because when cultures first
  interact, there are bound to be mistakes .

 One of the earliest and most famous mistakes was when
 Christopher Columbus named Native Americans Indians
  because he thought he had come to India. These two
photos illustrate one of many cultural differences even 500
                         years later.

As the world becomes smaller through technology and
   travel, such mistakes are less common as ordinary
people make efforts to learn about other cultures. Here
 a girl in one of our classes tries on an Afghan chaderi
(a burka) and then folds it back when getting reading to
                    serve Afghan food

 In another example of cultural differences, when the ISHS
humor conferences are held in the United States, we use the
   smiley face on the left, but when in 2012 it was held in
    Poland, the organizers used a face like the right one.

            Margaret Mead
• Derek Freeman writes that anthropologists
  need to know the cultures they are studying.
  He wrote that,

• “Margaret Mead did not speak Samoan and
  in large measure became a victim of the
  Samoan sense of humor—what fun it must
  have been for lively young Samoans to
  deceive this tiny, pink, foolish American
  woman who was asking them silly
                                    (Davies 159).
• He thinks that the Samoans were
  playing a practical joke on Mead.

• For example, she was deceived into
  thinking there was no rape in Samoa
  (which had a far higher incidence of that
  crime than most other societies)

          (Freeman (1983) 347-349, Davies (2008) 160).

  Common Ethnic Metaphors Based on the
   Colors of RED, YELLOW, and BROWN.
• In Asian Am. communities,     • A ‘Twinkie’ is a person
  the most common slurs           yellow on the outside, white
  are not such terms as           on the inside.”
  ‘Chink’ or ‘Jap,’ but ‘FOB’
  (‘Fresh Off the Boat’) or     • Native Americans call other
  ‘white-washed,’ meaning         Indians ‘Apples’ if they are
  too assimilated.”               red on the outside but white
                                  on the inside.
• Kids who do not assimilate
  drive cars dubbed as ‘Rice    • African Americans call other
  Rockets,’ and their             Blacks ‘Oreos’ if they judge
  pastimes and clothes are        them to be brown on the
  likely to be Asian.             outside but white on the
   Further Complications Connected to
            Chinese Ethnicity
• Chinese writer Frank Chin criticized Maxine Hong
  Kingston for Woman Warrior, Amy Tan for The Joy
  Luck Club, and David Henry Hwang for his plays
  F.O.B., and M. Butterfly.

• He accused these writers of “boldly faking” Chinese
  fairy tales and childhood literature.

• Kingston responded, “Sociologists have criticized
  me for not knowing myths and for distorting them.”

• Kingston has explained that in China, pirates
  illegally translate her books for publication in
  Taiwan and China.

• These pirates “correct” her myths, and
  revise them to make them conform to
  traditional Chinese versions.

• “They don’t understand that myths have to
  change, be useful or be forgotten.”

• “Like the people who carry them across
  oceans, the myths become American.”

 Christie Davies has made a chart showing the joking
 targets in 28 different countries. However, the ones
        given below are the most recognizable

• Americans consider Poles, Italians, and Portuguese as
  stupid while Jews, Scots, New Englanders, and Iowans
  are tricky.
• Canadians consider Newfies as stupid and Jews, Scots,
  and Nova Scotians as tricky.
• Mexicans consider people from Yucatan as stupid and
  people from Monterey as tricky.
• Nigerians consider Hausas as stupid and Ibos as tricky.
• The English, Welsh and French consider the Irish,
  Belgians, and Swiss as stupid, and the Scots and Jews
  as tricky.

        Davies also says that:
• The most common targets of ethnic humor,
  live on the geographical, economic, or
  linguistic edge of the society or culture
  where the jokes are told. They live in small
  communities, or rural areas on the periphery
  of a nation, and are immigrants concentrated
  in blue-collar occupations. “There is no
  evidence that the targets are stupid, but they
  occupy stupid locations.”

Also, the marginalized groups learn about
the mainstream groups, but the mainstream
groups remain ignorant of the marginalized

• The joke tellers identify with the target
  groups by seeing them as comically stupid
  versions of themselves.

• The best joking relationship between two
  groups is when the groups exhibit both
  “attachment and separation,” along with
  “social conjunction and social
• Depending on its context, humor can
  be offensive (aimed at ridiculing a
  group different from the joke teller’s).
• But humor can also be defensive
  (aimed at protecting a group from

• Or it can be both at the same time.

• Why aren’t Jews concerned about the
  abortion controversy?

• Because they don’t consider a fetus
  viable until after it graduates from
  medical school.

• If the tellers or listeners of this joke are gentiles, it
  may be anti-semitic, criticizing Jews as being overly
  ambitious and arrogant.

• But if the tellers or listeners are Jews, it may be an
  expression of Jewish pride and the extraordinarily
  high standards of child rearing.

• Can you think of any examples by or about
  your own ethnic or religious group?

• When a group member tells an ethnic or
  religious joke, it opens the door for inner-
  group communication and invites group
  members to examine their attitudes and

• But if outsiders tell the same joke, the effect
  is the opposite, because the outsider focuses
  on the group’s most obvious characteristics
  and implies that these characteristics belong
  to everyone in the group.

• Because outsiders have little power to bring
  about internal change, the effect is to
  stereotype the group, and this lessens the
  chances for change.
                 Legal Issues
• An Arizona Republic headline (7-26-2012) read “Arpaio
  assistant takes heat at trial.” Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his
  deputies were being tried in Federal Court for
  discrimination against Hispanics and for “inaccurate or
  false interpretations of federal immigration law.”
• Sgt. Brett Palmer admitted forwarding racially insensitive
  e-mails to other deputies and members of the human-
  smuggling unit. One was a cartoon of a Hispanic man
  passed out near a bottle of tequila with the caption
  “Mexican Yoga.”
• Pratt said he “regretted sending the e-mails,” but he
  considered them to be jokes (our underlining).
List some of the relevant issues in this case?
   An Old, More Generalized, Joke
    Based on Ethnic Stereotypes
• HEAVEN is the place where the cooks are
  French, the police are English, the
  mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian,
  and everything is organized by the Swiss.

• HELL is where the cooks are English, the
  police are German, the mechanics are
  French, the lovers are Swiss, and everything
  is organized by the Italians.

What are some differences between this joke
and the ones the Deputy Sheriff sent out?
     What to do about such jokes?

• Christie Davies says,
  that to become angry
  about such jokes and to
  seek to censor them
  because they impinge
  on sensitive issues is
  about as sensible as
  smashing a
  thermometer because it
  reveals how hot it is.
• Alan Dundes says that Americans have more
  ethnic than political jokes because America has
  a free press where politicians and politics are
  lambasted on a daily basis.

• Americans therefore have little need for oral
  political jokes.

• But because people are often uncomfortable
  discussing such subjects as sexuality or racism,
  these tend to become the hidden subjects of
  joke cycles.

Most of the Success Is in the Telling

• Most good joke-tellers do not memorize jokes.

• They simply remember the punch-line, the theme of
  the joke and possibly a couple of particularly clever

• And then they RE-INVENT the story by putting in
  local color and adapting it to something that has
  recently happened. Arizona’s congressman, Morris
  Udall, was a master at this kind of adaptation.

  Robert Priest’s M.I.C.H. Theory
• A psychologist at West Point Military Academy
  proposed the MICH theory of Moderate Intergroup
  Conflict Humor.

• He says that people will not use humor with each
  other unless there is some kind of tension or strong

• However, when feelings go beyond the moderate
  level then humor exacerbates, rather than helps a
  negative situation.

• Therefore, the most amusing jokes are usually found
  in the middle ranges, because this is where the
  hostility does not overpower the humor.
    Univ. of Maryland Scholar Larry Mintz has
 described stages that immigrants go through as
        they adapt to the majority culture.

1.   Critical humor targeting their own ethnic group
     (e.g. Harpo Marx)

2.   Self-deprecatory humor including themselves in
     the targeted ethnic group (e.g. Chico Marx)

3.   Realistic humor as part of accepting integration
     (e.g. Groucho Marx)

4.   Critical humor targeting mainstream culture (e.g.
     Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks)
• During the “golden age” of radio, ethnic voices were
  especially important in helping listeners know who
  was speaking.

• One radio show which ran during the 1940s was
  named “Allen’s Alley,” and featured Fred Allen.

• There was a loudmouth Irishman named Ajax
  Cassidy, a farmer named Titus Moody, and a
  pompous Southerner named Senator Beauregard
  Claghorn, whose signature line was “that’s a joke,

• The writer of the show, Kenny Delmar
  modeled the Claghorn character after a
  Texas rancher who had given Delmar a
  ride in his Model-T ford.

• Even today there is a Warner Brothers’
  cartoon character by the name of
  Foghorn Leghorn who is modeled after
  Beauregard Claghorn.

  Basic Principles to Keep in Mind:
1. Someone’s else’s ethnicity does not seem nearly as
               important as our own.

                           2. Most people are happy
                              to develop their ethnic
                              awareness through
                              their stomachs.
                           3. The appreciation of
                              ethnic humor
                              correlates with how
                              much we know about,
                              and identify with, the
                              joke target

4. Even within the United States we have cultural
 differences as shown on this decorative map at a U.S. Egg
 restaurant where the egg shells are decorated with
 stereotypical images of different parts of the country.

                               5. Humor is a tool that can
                                  be used either for
                                  building up or tearing
                                  down relationships.
                               6. Today, people are more
                                  sensitive when they hear
                                  jokes, and tellers need to
                                  be aware that a particular
                                  joke can travel much
                                  further than the
                                  immediate environment.

• Toward the end of his career, Groucho Marx worried
  about talented comedians who would soon be out of
  work because dialect humor was out of fashion.

• Charlie Chan’s pidgin English disappeared from the
  airwaves and so did Tonto’s manly grunting.

• Children no longer read El Gordo comic strips and
  both Beaulah and Amos ‘n’ Andy are gone.

• Bill Dana gave up telling jokes through the voice of
  his popular Jose Jimenez character and Frito-lay
  discontinued its Frito Bandito commercials.
What do you think about these changes?
  Larry Wilde, a professional comedian who
came to our humor conferences said that jokes
  are 25% funnier if they are tied to an ethnic
 He claimed this made them more specific and
      therefore funnier, but he got lots of

  Today, what techniques, besides making
characters come from different ethnic groups
     do script writers use to help people
distinguish between particular characters as
      on Sesame Street or in cartoons?

                    Ethnic Web Sites:


*DAVE CHAPELLE: “White People”

*JO KOY: “Chinese People”



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