Humor. Seriously

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					Humor. Seriously.
                              H u m o r s e rv e s v e ry r e a l a n d v e ry i m p o rta n t
                               psychological and social functions. Humor can
                               help us cope, save face, gain status, te st limits,
                              or bond with others. It also provides a topic
                              for serious research by a pair of asu english
                            professors and their colleagues around the world.
                           By jessica mccann

A Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew walk into a bar.                                 means by which people quickly win over audiences. They also can be
Each orders a Screaming Orgasm cocktail...                                        important tools of persuasion.
                                                                                      “Humor, satire, and irony are often used by a person who is being
Be honest, who just got a nervous batch of butterf lies after reading             critical, but who does not want to offend,” he says. “Since these are inter-
that sentence? Feel an extra bit of tension, perhaps? After all, this is          active devices, they build solidarity between the speaker and his audience.
a university-produced magazine.                                                   People are usually not confrontational when they are part of the process.”
     In a time when “political correctness” is the common rule, it’s reasonable       Political correctness is the idea that any language or action that
to cringe, to wonder if this writer would dare follow through with such a set     could offend one’s political sensibilities should be eliminated. Political
up, much less offer a punch line. And what if the joke was actually funny?        correctness stunts the many positive opportunities that humor
     Humor can be a serious thing, and a joke can mean different things           has to offer. It is censorship that bans all stereotyping, ethnic jokes,
to different people in different circumstances. When used as a weapon,            religious humor and vulgarity. Censorship from the conservative Right
humor can wound, corrupt, and humiliate. Yet, when used as a tool,                says we mustn’t use profanity or joke about body parts, bodily functions,
humor can establish rapport, educate audiences, and empower people.               or religion. Censorship from the liberal Left spells out a whole different
     Don and Alleen Pace Nilsen have spent the better part of their academic      set of taboos, making gender issues and ethnicity entirely off limits.
careers studying humor and its effect on culture and society. Both are                “When this whole issue of political correctness first came up,
professors of English at Arizona State University. Political correctness          we thought, uh-oh,” recalls Don Nilsen. “We’ve already been censored
is just one of more than 100 topics they studied during background research       from the Right, and now we’re going to be censored from the Left,
for the Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor. The new book is just one     as well. What are we going to be able to say?”
of the husband-wife team’s many professional collaborations.                          Those who forbid such humor fail to understand just how prevalent it is.
     “Humor serves very real and very important psychological and social          The Nilsens say that it can serve positive purposes.
functions,” says Don Nilsen. He and Alleen founded the International                  For example, skilled speakers often use ethnic humor to challenge
Society for Humor Studies (ISHS) during the 1980s. “Humor is a very               an audience’s assumptions and to surprise listeners by making them
positive and effective ego-defense mechanism. It can be used for coping,          bump up against some of their own prejudices. Ultimately, the Nilsens
for saving face, for gaining status, for testing limits, for social control,      contend, audiences are more receptive to lessons that come with a smile
and for bonding.”                                                                 than with a scolding.
     As a society, most individuals have only a limited amount of time                “Humor allows us to learn something, because when we’re laughing,
to make a point or connect with another person. The stand-up comic                we’re not defensive and our minds are open,” says Alleen Nilsen,
works to earn a laugh with his first joke. The college professor must             who recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from ISHS
spark an interest from her students during the first lecture. Writers labor       for her scholarship and service. “It’s kind of naïve of people to dismiss
to grab a reader in the first paragraph. The political candidate strives to       all stereotypes as bad, because they’re not. But we also have to take
inspire the masses within a sound-byte. Humor and wit often are the               people beyond the stereotypes and teach them something new.”

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One type of
accidental or

                                                                                                                                                             JO HN C. PHI LLI PS PHO TO
humor is linguistic,
such as in the form of misspellings
or errors in logic. Headline writers,
for example, are especially apt to
create accidental humor because
they are trying to attract attention
and communicate a whole story
in only a few words, as shown
in these examples:                         PUTDOWNS AND REJOINDERS

Dr. Ruth Talks about Sex                   Put-down humor
with Newspaper Editors                     is best appreciated
Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge               when it occurs between people
Defendant’s Speech Ends in Long Sentence   of equal status who respect each
Blind Woman Gets New Kidney                other and so can enjoy the teasing
from Dad She Hasn’t Seen in Years
                                           as a display of wit rather than
                                           meanness. Celebrity roasts succeed                                      POLITICS AND HUMOR

Long before the                            because the person being roasted                                        Besides building a
days of mass media,                        is clearly respected. Snappy           Excerpts from                    sense of community,
                                           rejoinders are also funnier when       Encyclopedia of                  self-deprecating
slang was effectively                      the person on the receiving end
                                                                                                                   humor can be effective
spread by word of                                                                 American
                                           has somehow “asked for it.”            Humor                            in disarming political foes if
mouth. Modern mass media                   When William Gladstone                                                  a candidate is able to beat his critics
can spread slang instantaneously
                                           attacked fellow statesman                                               to the punch by making voters laugh
around the world. Yada, yada,
                                           Benjamin Disraeli in front of the    INTERNATIONAL WORDPLAY             about something that worries them.
yada, master of my domain, and
it’s in the vault all made their way
                                           British Parliament by saying that    Most players of                       John F. Kennedy countered

into popular culture through
                                           Disraeli would die “either on the    the Pac Man video                  those critics who charged that he

television’s Seinfeld sitcom.
                                           gallows or of a horrible disease,”   game do not know                   had an unfair campaign advantage
                                           Disraeli responded, “That depends    that its name comes from           because of his family’s wealth.
D’oh! was adopted from cartoon
                                           on whether I embrace your            a Japanese slang word paku-paku.   He pulled an envelope from his
character Homer Simpson’s
                                           principles or your mistress.”        The word describes a person’s      pocket and read a fake telegram
expression of disappointment
                                                                                mouth opening and closing while    from his father: “Don’t buy one
or self-disgust. Earlier generations
                                                                                one eats. Others have not heard    vote more than necessary. I’ll be
picked up such signature lines

                                                                                the story about the almost-as-     damned if I’ll pay for a landslide.”
as Jackie Gleason’s “How sweet
                                                                                popular Donkey Kong, which
it is!” Jack Parr’s “I kid you not!”
                                                                                features an aggressive gorilla.
Arte Johnson’s “Verrrry inter-
                                                                                According to the story, the
esting!” and Gilda Radner’s
                                                                                Japanese manufacturer intended
“It’s always something!”
                                                                                to name the game Monkey Kong
                                                                                in honor of King Kong, but
                                                                                confused a d for an m.
     take my wife ...please
Like most couples, Alleen and              “Every joke is a miniature intel-     that was our approach,” Alleen                            The Nilsens liken their work in
Don Nilsen have shared a lot of         ligence test that the class either       remembers. “Then came all these                        humor studies to the experience
laughs. But this husband-and-wife       passes or fails,” Don Nilsen explains.   nurses and doctors, physicists and                     of tourists hiking the Grand
team has taken their love of laughter   “They must therefore work very hard      philosophers; and it was great                         Canyon — the further into it
to the extreme. The ASU English         to catch on to the joke, and because     to see so many people taking humor                     they get, the bigger it grows.
professors have devoted 25-plus         of this they make a commitment           seriously.”                                               Today, the organization includes
years to humor studies.                 to the learning process. If jokes and       That conference would be the                        members from around the world.
   The two met in undergraduate         other humor are integrated carefully     first of six consecutive international                 The annual meeting alternates
school at Brigham Young University.     into teaching materials, it will make    conferences hosted by the Nilsens                      between sites in the United States
Both later embarked on careers as       the courses more fun and more            and ASU. The meetings each featured                    and other countries. In addition
English teachers that brought them      memorable. The punch line of             as many as 300 presentations.                          to language scholars, conference
to ASU in the 1970s. Their interest     a joke is a miniature epiphany.”         From that root grew the International                  participants represent the fields of
in humor studies developed out of          The Nilsens' interest in humor        Society of Humor Studies. The Nilsens                  medicine, art, business, philosophy,
desire to make their grammar lessons    studies grew and eventually led          were among the founding members.                       anthropology, history, political
more interesting. They believed that    them to organize an April Fool’s Day     Don has served as executive                            science, social work, sociology,
students could learn as much —          humor conference at ASU in 1982.         secretary of ISHS since its inception,                 education, performance, and
if not more — through language play        “When we had the conference,          and Alleen has been editor of the                      the physical sciences.
and humor as they could through         we thought only those interested         organization’s quarterly newsletter                    Jessica McCann

standard language lessons.              in language would come, because          since 1988.

    Many contemporary comedians and humorists have achieved fame                  from its uniqueness. The Jewish culture is a prime example, says Don.
and fortune by using ethnic humor and stereotyping — even vulgarity —             Much of his research has focused on Jewish humor. The ASU scholar is
to win over audiences. African-American comedians like Richard Pryor,             a principal advisor for a three-hour documentary being produced for
Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, and Chris Rock get laughs from diverse             public television titled “A Gift of Laughter: Comedy and the Jews.”
audiences, often by teasing them about their prejudices. Humor writers                Several pages of the Nilsen’s encyclopedia are devoted to Jewish
such as Dave Barry and the late Erma Bombeck have parodied sex,                   humor, its evolution, and its impact on American humor. It notes that
marriage, and parenthood in ways that allow readers to laugh at the               while Jews constitute a small percentage of the U.S. population, they also
stereotypes and also see beyond them.                                             comprise a large percentage of the nation’s professional comedians.
    Of course, ethnic humor and stereotyping can range from playful                   Some famous Jewish comedians did not or do not use their religious
teasing to hostile hate-speech. Therein lies the problem. “How humor              background as fodder for their jokes. Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis,
is received depends on who you target. It depends on your attitude and            and Roseanne Barr are examples. However, Woody Allen, Rita Rudner,
your audience, it depends on many things,” says Don Nilsen.                       Jerry Seinfeld and others frequently mine their heritage for material.
    Humor’s effectiveness also depends largely upon its goal; whether                 Comedienne Elayne Boosler, the Nilsens write, gives a new twist
it is intended as a tool or as a weapon. According to the Nilsens, jokes          to an old Jewish stereotype when she jokes, “My brother’s gay. My parents
directed toward a particular group from an individual within that group           don’t mind as long as he marries a doctor.”
are considered more palatable, even beneficial. Such humor can expand                 The Nilsen’s point out that the idea of political correctness
the horizons of the group and perhaps allow them to see themselves in             began to take shape during the 1960s and 1970s, as people’s social
an objective light.                                                               consciousness and general distaste for stereotyping grew. Yet, by
    However, humor that is from someone outside the group — especially            the 1990s, the pendulum had already begun to swing back. As a result,
from someone who is hostile toward them — tends to do the opposite.               “pc” had been around long enough to become fair game itself for
Such humor shrinks the horizons, makes the group smaller and more                 America’s comedians and humorists.
sensitive to criticism.                                                               Consider recent television shows like Comedy Central’s Politically Incorrect
    During its infancy, any particular group or movement is particularly          with Bill Maher. The show aspired to push its viewers’ sensibilities to the max.
sensitive to criticism, Don Nilsen explains. Still, to say that one should        Such is our need to laugh with others, even if it means laughing at ourselves.
never poke fun at a particular gender, religion, or ethnic group is               “We just can’t get rid of humor,” Alleen concludes. “It’s so basic to
a discredit to them, he contends.                                                 human life.”
    “When you say a group shouldn’t be criticized or joked about, what                So, exactly how many journalists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
you’re really saying is they’re not strong enough to take it,” he says.           Four — one to change the bulb, and three to distort the facts.
“By not teasing, you’re making them invisible. But by teasing them,
you’re saying they’re strong enough. They’re your equal. They can tease           THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF 20TH-CENTURY AMERICAN HUMOR (ORYX PRESS) WAS HONORED AS ONE
                                                                                       20 OUTSTANDING REFERENCE BOOKS IN 2004 BY THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION. FOR MORE
back. It’s empowering.”                                                           OF
                                                                                  INFORMATION ABOUT HUMOR RESEARCH AT    ASU, CONTACT DON L. F. NILSEN, PH.D., 480.965.7592,
    Once a movement becomes secure enough to take criticism and accept            OR   AILEEN PACE NILSEN, PH.D., 480.965.9577, DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH.
teasing, it’s an indication that it has grown, evolved, and gained strength       SEND E-MAIL TO DON.NILSEN@ASU.EDU OR TO ALLEEN.NILSEN@ASU.EDU

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