Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Theory of Humor Series, part 15, A Sex Joke in Two Contexts

This series of blog posts began as an analysis of the comic quality of the novel A Confederacy of Dunces (Confederacy), by John Kennedy Toole. After about ten posts, I had only just laid out the theory of humor I am using to frame the analysis. In early 2018, I was invited to write a book chapter on Toole and Confederacy, so now I will only use this series of blog posts to more fully articulate that theory of humor.

Back in the early 1990s, I was reading Eric Johnson's A Treasury of Humor (Prometheus, 1989). Johnson was the former headmaster at an elite private K-12 school in Philadelphia. A joke on page 18 struck me because I recognized that I could modify it slightly and use it at the fortieth wedding anniversary of my parents, where we were having a bit of a roast.

The reason I am recounting this experience is that it highlights how the same joke in a slightly different social context can have a much different effect. This joke told between two people gets the laugh on the incongruous ending. However, told before a large crowd that has been warmed up by other speakers and their jokes, the laugh comes on the disparagement line. So in a small setting, the dominant aspect is the joke's incongruity, but told in a large setting, the dominant aspect is the social function of disparagement.

Here is the joke:

Well, this is a story from when my parents moved back to town with their two children in the 1950s. My father had set up practice as the area's obstetrician and gynocologist. The local high school principal came to him and asked him if he would give a talk to some of the high school girls about human reproduction, and, well, sex. He was a bit nervous but agreed, and the date was set.

When he was going to the event, my mother asked him where he was going, and he said he was going to give a talk at the high school. She asked him what about, and, embarrassed, he said, "Sailing." "Sailing?" she said incredulously. "Sailing," he insisted.

The next day, the principal ran into my mother in town. He told her that my father's talk was very good and so appropriate. She said, "Well, I don't know why you asked him to talk about that. I mean, he's only ever done it three times. The first time, he was sick to his stomach; the second time, he got all tangled up in the sheet; and the third time, his hat blew off!"

Some features of this version should be noted: Although the mistaken schema in the fictional mind of the principal belittles the husband's sexual prowess, it does not require that husband was cockolded or that the woman was unfaithful. (Later I found some variations on this joke that did require cockolding and infidelity.) The principal's use of the word "appropriate" should be a signal to the wife that he talk was not about sailing. The last sentence of the joke has a strong setup and punchline: one of the ropes on a standard sailboat is called "the sheet." The mention of a sheet reinforces in the imagined mind of the principal the schema (or committed belief) where the wife really is talking about sex. The final punch suggests that the husband was wearing a hat the third time he had sex, which is absurdly ridiculous. And the ending creates such an absurd image in the mind of the principal that the listener of the joke might well assume that the truth will be sorted out between the fictional principal and wife, and that the husband's humiliation will be temporary.

The joke worked for my father, because he was an overworked doctor who owned a sailboat, but who did not have enough free time to become a skilled sailor. Also, he was a private person who would not want to be embarrassed. Although he did not as a general rule lie to cover up his behavior, he was very guarded in areas that could be embarrassing, so one could imagine him avoiding the truth if it would be an embarrassing admission.

I do not have much experience telling a joke to a large gathering. When I practiced this joke with individuals, no one laughed at the line, "he's only ever done it three times." However, they laughed heartily when the hat blew off in the final snap of absurd incongruity. So the incongruous aspect of the joke was dominant.

However, in front of a crowd of people who knew the targets of the joke well, and knew that the specifics of the joke fit their personalities well, the line "he's only ever done it three times" caused the house to explode with laughter. My mother especially laughed a solid thirty seconds. I could barely eke out the joke's true punchline, which hardly anyone could hear or understand.

So the reception of a joke changes dramatically depending on the context of the telling. A crowd has different expectations than a lone individual does. To the individual, the absurdist ending and the cognitive surprise were what counted. The disparaging "three times" did not generate mirth. To the crowd, the delight in the ridicule of the target took hold as the dominant aspect of the joke. The joke changed from being absurdist and playful to being primarily and aggressively disparaging. Perhaps in the public space, dignity and status are of higher importance, and the disparagement was therefore more salient and fraught with tension.

The contrast in the reception was very educational.

I thought my father would enjoy the joke, and if he had heard it alone, he might have. As it was, he was able to maintain a calm exterior, but the embarrassment so upset him he destroyed the recording of the event. At the time, he just politely said to my mother, "Well, perhaps it is just as well we only had the one son."

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Theory of Humor Series, part 14, Inside Jokes by Hurley, Dennett and Adams, Review

This series of blog posts began as an analysis of the comic quality of the novel A Confederacy of Dunces (Confederacy), by John Kennedy Toole. After about ten posts, I had only just laid out the theory of humor I am using to frame the analysis. In early 2018, I was invited to write a book chapter on Toole and Confederacy, so now I will only use this series of blog posts to more fully articulate that theory of humor.

In my investigation, I have read the following book, and I will analyze it below.

Hurley, Matthew M., Daniel C. Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams. (2011). Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Admittedly, Hurley, Dennett, and Adams announce in the subtitle of this book that they are aiming for a target other than merely a theory of humor. But theories of humor do not exist in a vacuum: they are usually part of a larger theory of psychology and human nature. So this effort is not unusual. That having been said, these authors minimize the social, and especially the disparagement, aspect of the humor, although it should be noted that they don't specifically disparage it per se. Their belief, naturally their active belief, is that the exploration of humor gives them entry into a process within the human mind that helps propel general intelligence. They argue that a truly intelligent computer would need a sense of humor.

(Now, they might counterargue that they have a definition for humor more narrow than mine, so within their narrow domain, their theory holds. They might then argue that they do not try to offer a theory for the broader domain that concerns me. I don't quite buy that argument, though it has some merits. See my discussion of Question #3 below.)

The book claims to be a new theory of humor; however, to me it is largely a very sophisticated and welcome update to Incongruity Theory. For example, the authors reject the theory of frames (Minsky) and the related theory of scripts (Attardo), but they put forward "mental spaces," which are dynamically created, light-weight frames in working memory. They then argue that the brain thinks using a lazy algorithm called "just in time spreading activation" or JITSA, using those mental spaces. If one uses the computer as a metaphor for the mind, one could say that they basically upgraded from the bulky design of Windows 98 to the light-weight, threaded architecture of Windows XP. To a cognitive scientist, it might be a big difference to go from scripts in long-term memory to activated mental spaces, but for the rest of us, it is, like, big whoop.

Now, to be fair, the theory is more sophisticated than the above computer analogy. For these authors, humor is generated by the discovery of a false committed active belief that was surreptitiously introduced into a mental space. So for the paraprosdokian "I've had the most wonderful evening, but this wasn't it," the first part of the sentence leads the listener to form a mental space in which the speaker is referring to the present evening. However, that committed belief was inferred by the listener as a customary flattery. The second half of the sentence causes the mind to reevaluate that covert committed belief and discover that the speaker was not referring to the present evening after all. Snap! Because the mind has to comprehend the world on the fly, it is regularly discovering that some beliefs it committed to are in fact false. But again, to me this amounts to a refinement of the general Incongruity Theory of Humor.

The major problem with their theory is that they start with an isolated mind; whereas, humans are essentially social animals. So, despite the fact that laughter (here a Duchenne belly laugh, not a polite laugh) is an involuntary mechanism and a social signal that is clearly contagious, they somehow argue that "Basic Humor" is a solitary activity of the isolated mind doing data-integrity maintenance on "committed beliefs." (For example, read pages 130-132.) They do modestly address the value of social capital (139), but that is about as far as it goes. In contrast, I fully agree with Gary Fine (1983): "... any adequate understanding of the dynamics of humor must include a social analysis" (Handbook of Humor Research, v. 1, 159).

During their review of earlier theories, Hurley and company acknowledge that Superiority Theory is the second strongest class of theories of humor behind Incongruity Theory, and they admit that it can offer insight into a large fraction of humor data, but then they proceed to minimize it. For example, when discussing Wyer and Collins, they wave off a need for the concept of diminishment (204). Why? Because it doesn't fit their goal of designing a new (non-social) artificial intelligence system that uses a sense of humor for data-integrity. To illustrate my point, here is an example from the book where they do discuss interpersonal humor:

Person A and B were wading across a river (151). (For the sake of pronouns, I will consider B male.) B slipped and fell in. If B had been genuinely and appropriately cautious, the authors argue that his fall would not have been funny to either A or B. However, A might have laughed at B because A may have attributed B's fall "to overzealousness or overconfidence, in which [B] hubristically assumed the task was easier than it proved to be."

My commentary: The authors argue that A's mirth was generated merely by the discovery of B's false belief that the crossing would be easy. The purpose of the laughter was to signal that A should helpfully point out the flaws in B's reasoning. But the use of the word "hubristically" indicates something deeper. B didn't just commit to a false belief, he apparently deserved that dunking in A's estimation.

We can highlight this by elaborating on the fictional scenario. Maybe B was head of the expedition and was lording his position over the others. Maybe the rest of the group thought it was crazy to cross the river at that spot, but B was insisting that the group had to cross there. The dunk in the river proved B wrong to the delight of A and the rest. Ha, that B, what a pompous ass! Crow is on the menu for B.

As I have stated earlier in this series, the theory I support posits that a major function of humor within a social group is to adjust the social status hierarchy, specifically by diminishing the status of some member or members. It is a non-violent way of adjusting the dynamics of the group. In the typical group, high-status members enforce the group's rules for correct behavior, and their version of reality is the version acted upon by the group, so false committed beliefs are not usually limited to an isolated mind; instead, they are of deep concern to the whole group. For its part, self-deprecating humor allows the humorist to lower his or her own status, at times to improve the functioning of the group and group cohesion.

To further examine where Hurley and company have gone wrong, it is useful to know something about Dennett's philosophical work. Dennett calls the modern Theory of Mind "the Intentional Stance." The theory of mind is: we humans are able to perceive other beings in our universe, specifically other beings with minds, as having their own set of beliefs and intentions and mental states (143), and we can act accordingly. Children tend to develop this theory of mind or intentional stance around the age of four or five. You need a well-functioning intentional stance to be a good liar. Dennett had been promoting the intentional stance long before writers such as Alison Gopnik started promoting the theory of mind as a mainstream concept.

In this book, the authors state: "Using the intentional stance is how we manage our social lives, by modeling what other people believe" (144). That statement is at best very incomplete. We were a social species long before we evolved the ability to take an intentional stance. When I take my dog to the park to play with other dogs, it does not have an intentional stance, but it knows all about the dynamics of a pecking order, who is top dog and who is an underdog. We might manage some of our social behavior using an intentional stance, but we also manage it by establishing and negotiating status within a group, and the group status ranking system almost certainly predates the intentional stance by millions of years.

These authors claim that interpersonal humor is an "offspring" of their within-brain Basic Humor, but how we understand our world is very shared and social and always has been. To quote Penny from The Big Bang Theory, "Oh, so, you believe your friend, and your friend's wife and your own eyes over me?? Wow." I would say that emotional and psychological precursors to interpersonal humor very much predate the rich inner lives of homo sapiens with our intentional stances, complex mental spaces, and logical pre-frontal cortices. They call social play "kidding around" and "horsing around" because young goats and horses play, too.

To go back to our paraprosdokian, certainly the snap of surprise is triggered by the discovery that the "wonderful evening" was not the present evening of the utterance. But the zing that causes the laughter is generated by this new interpretation being a put-down. The speaker is disparaging the present evening, possibly breaking social decorum by challenging the evening's host, and doing so in a humorous mode that deflects a violent response. In 1974, Zilman and Bryant found that the intensity of humor was not related to the listeners sense of superiority, but was greatest when the target of the put-down was perceived to have deserved it (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 10, pp. 480-488). So this joke would be mean-spirited if the present evening had actually been pleasant, but it would be very funny if everyone else at the party had been thinking the same thing, but they were too polite to say it out loud.

Twenty Questions

I apologize for making this review overly long, but I would like to discuss relevant details. The authors early in the book posed twenty questions that any theory would have to address, and at the end of the book, they summarize their theory by answering them. In the following section I will discuss some of those answers. What I find amusing is that they stick to their theory in some answers, but other answers address some of the shortcomings I see in their theory.

In the answers to question one and two, the authors stick to their theory. Question one is "Is humor an adaptation?" and question two is "Where did humor come from?" They maintain that, as our ancestors evolved more sophisticated brains, we had a greater need for data integrity checking, so there was selective pressure for that feature of the mind. They admit that laughter probably comes from the play panting similar to that displayed by chimps, but that it was co-opted by humor. Because chimps do not have a full Theory of Mind, "the breadth of humor that is due to social circumstance and others' perspectives (which is the bulk of humor) is lost to them, and presumably to all other species" (291). Again, the authors cannot see precursors to interpersonal humor without an intentional stance.

In question three, "Why do we communicate humor?" the authors finally offer a origin story for humor with which I can agree. "The communication of humor may have begun as a way of causing our conspecifics to know that we were only half-serious with them during mock-aggression and play" (291). I would argue that that is the origin of all humor, as a signal of playful non-aggression, which has been co-opted as a tool to negotiate status within human groups. The authors agree: "Later, laughter was co-opted for usage in more complex social circumstances, especially the mate-attracting display of intellect and the trading of social capital in various manners" (291). Thus the widely observed social functions of humor sneak in as part of laughter's "trading of social capital." This scenario to my mind is the actual origin and one of the two major aspects of humor, the resolution of false committed beliefs being humor's other major aspect. The authors finish up this section on communication arguing that the sharing of jokes is an instance of the spreading of parasitic memes. (Dennett likes memetics, the poor dear!)

At the beginning of this essay, I said that these authors may be using a more narrow definition of humor, and I think this section shows it. What I consider to be the origin of humor they limit to the origin of laughter. If one limits humor to being strictly the snap of a correction to a false belief, then much of what I consider to be humor is merely the somewhat related phenomena of using humor toward social ends. I believe this argument is wrong, because of the deep social nature of humor, especially its status challenging edge, but it is an argument one could make to reconcile the present text with my own position.

Question seven finally attacks my issues head on: "Why does humor often get used for disparagement?" I will quote their answer at length. "Putting someone down by humorously demonstrating an infirmity in their cognitive capacities efficiently makes the humorist and the addressed audience look superior in comparison, enlisting the audience as like-minded allies and at the same time making the humorist appear good natured, not just angry or aggrieved. This is a common use of humor in modern society, but not its original or even secondary purpose, which is more plausibly the demonstration of intellectual prowess (with or without a target or butt of the joke) to potential mates and allies" (292).

Notice that the authors go to great lengths to insist that disparagement is not even be a secondary purpose of humor? I would agree that it is not secondary, but would suggest that employing humor toward social ends, such as adjusting the group status hierarchy, is, if not the primary driver, than at least one of the main drivers of the evolution of humor. And non-violently adjusting social status within the group preceded humor's function for data integrity or for displaying intelligence. And I'm not just kidding around.

Question thirteen is: "Why can humor be used as a social corrective?" In their answer, the authors limit the correction to errors in logic and inference, but a major type of correction that they ignore is the enforcement of social norms. Why not? Such behavior, in my humble opinion, would inch too close to group selection theory for Dennett. Boyd and Richerson, stay away!

On the positive side, Dennett and company are proponents of applying evolutionary theory to human psychology, so at least their theory has well-thought-out evolutionary justifications. But again, Dennett's agenda intrudes. I believe he is not a fan of David Sloan Wilson's Multilevel Selection Theory, which adds group selection to evolution and could help provide the needed explanatory framework for the evolution of such a social phenomenon as humor and laughter. The 2005 paper by Gervais and Wilson, "The evolution and functions of laughter and humor: A synthetic approach" (Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 80, pp. 395-430) is briefly discussed in this book, but its main point about group selection is neglected. So we are left with humor as a data-integrity process largely in a social deprivation tank. It is good as far as it goes, but it misses one of the two core aspects of humor.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Theory of Humor Series, part 13, The Sociologists Had it Right

This series of blog posts began as an analysis of the comic quality of the novel A Confederacy of Dunces (Confederacy), by John Kennedy Toole. After about ten posts, I had only just laid out the theory of humor I am using to frame the analysis. In early 2018, I was invited to write a book chapter on Toole and Confederacy, so now I will only use this series of blog posts to more fully articulate that theory of humor.

I had been pacing myself at one posting per month, because I was running low on ideas about Confederacy of Dunces, but now that I am looking at all of humor, the entries have been piling up.

In my intense research leading up to my book chapter, I have stumbled across the research programme of the sociological analysis of humor. I believe that I need to modify my theory of humor (and the more I investigate, it has turned into my own theory of humor).

I found this sociological programme through this article: Weisfeld, Glenn. (1993). "The adaptive value of humor and laughter." Ethology and sociobiology 14 (2): 141-169. I read it because of the evolutionary angle. Weisfeld reflexively dismissed group selection citing the old canard of Williams, 1966. So I disagree with his evolutionary assessment. But then Weisfeld helpfully pointed to Fine's paper from 1983 and Martineau's paper from 1972. See citations below.

Fine and Martineau have opened up for me a world of studying the social functions of humor. The research programme has stretched back to the 1940s. Their work has caused me to reevaluate my theory of humor, broadening the "disparagement aspect" into a general "employment of humor for social ends."

The problem I see with the sociological programme is that the various researchers have mixed the interpersonal and small group social functions with the social functions operating at the scale of a mass industrial society. The reason that is important is because humor and laughter as instincts evolved in small groups. By focusing largely on ethnic groups and class conflict in large societies, the programme obscures the fact that the social functions of humor are part of the core of humor. That allows researchers, such as Hurley, Dennett, and Adams (see Part 14 of this series), to argue that the evolutionary origin of humor comes from the solitary functioning of the isolated brain.

I would write more, but I am just embarking on the exploration of this body of work.

Martineau, W. H. A model of the social functions of humor. In J. H. Goldstein & P. E. McGhee (Eds.), The psychology of humor. New York: Academic Press, 1972.

Fine. G.A. Sociological approaches to the study of humor. In Handbook of Humor Research, P.E. McGhee and J.H. Goldstein (Ed). New York: Springer-Verlag. 1983, Vol. 1, pp. 159-181.

NOTE from June 30th: In looking back over my notes, I see that a book I have been heavily influenced by, Michael Mulkay's On Humor (Basil Blackwell, 1988), bills itself a sociological study of humor. So my discovery of the sociological school is a bit backwards. I started in the sociological school. My bad.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Theory of Humor Series, part 12, Hey Dummy! Christie Davies Theories and Targets of Stereotype Humor about Stupidity

This series of blog posts began as an analysis of the comic quality of the novel A Confederacy of Dunces (Confederacy), by John Kennedy Toole. After about ten posts, I only just laid out the theory of humor I am using to frame the analysis. I have now been invited to write a book chapter on Toole and Confederacy, so now I will only use this series of blog posts to more fully articulate that theory of humor.

For a quick recap, humor has IMHO two fundamental aspects: incongruity, a contrast that causes the brain to try to resolve a puzzle of interpretation, and disparagement, a non-violent way to adjust the dynamics of a group status hierarchy, an adjustment which can be either gentle or aggressive. I will try to refrain from calling it MY theory of humor, as the theory is largely pieced together from various strands of the long tradition of trying to define humor.

In the last blog post, I affirmed the fact that, in a mass culture, stereotype humor is common and is used to assert the prestige hierarchy among different groups and classes within the society. In the book Jokes and Targets by Christie Davies (Indiana, 2011), he puts forth a theory regarding jokes about stupidity. Stupidity jokes are, according to Davies, far and away the most common jokes in the folklore collections available. Davies even has a chart, showing for many nations which other nationality or regional group tends to be the target of their stupidity jokes. (He could have also had a chart of the states in the United States and of the neighboring state targeted within each of them.)

Davies rejects the idea that stupidity jokes are strictly about superiority and power within the society, because some occupational groups which are targeted for stupidity jokes are in fact high status. His theory is that the targets of stupidity humor are more likely to be seen as working more closely than others with physical objects and the soil rather that mental activities. So a theoretical physicist will have stupidity jokes about engineers. Neurosurgeons will joke about orthopedic surgeons, who use hammers and saws on bones. Davies theory seems to disprove my theory.

Naturally, I don't see this as disproof. Within the small social group, higher status individuals are more likely to be concerned with the political dynamics of the group, to maintain their status. The leader has to use a broad intelligence to assess not only the immediate situation but its long-term implications for the leadership and the group. So an individual who is an expert at handling the material basis for the group's survival is necessary for the group, but that individual might not be awarded the highest status by other group members. One joke Davies tells is of the engineer who dies in the electric chair because he points out the faulty wiring before he sits down. The engineer is focused on the immediate physical problem but does not see the long-term implications of having an electric chair that works.

So I see these stupidity jokes about occupations as still being about adjusting status within a social group. Another group I have noticed that my own society finds worthy of being a gentle target are dentists. Two of the comic strips in my daily newspaper have a family whose patriarch is a dentist. Again, we need dentists, but they make their living by sticking their hands in other people's mouths, which has a natural element of physical comedy. They are given wealth and a secure place in the economic hierarchy, but they don't have to compete politically within the broader society to earn that place. So there is a tension between their secure status and their lack of stress over fighting to maintain that status. Joking about them brings them down a peg and reasserts the dominance of those who have status due to their political skills and social intelligence. Within the household of the dentist, there are no financial worries, so it is a safe environment where one can afford playfulness and joking. But the head of the household cannot be described as heroic, and that leader can be portrayed as goofy without losing the status inherent in his or her profession.

On a side note, I am not a student of Davies, only having dipped into one of his books, but I have read elsewhere that he rejects the claim that jokes themselves can be tools in social action. He has claimed that a joke is a thermometer, taking the temperature of the masses, rather than a thermostat, which can manipulate the crowd. I completely reject that position. I see humor as fundamentally about status dynamics within social groups. The play of children is often in a make-believe world, disconnected from the adult status hierarchy, but with its own play hierarchy. The absurd humor of youth can be an escape from the unitary worldview of the dominant forces within the adult group. Ridicule and satire can challenge the status position of members of the adult group. Those in power can use humor to delegitimize others who are trying to claim some dignity within the group. (One reason so much humor about African Americans is now so toxic is because it was used to promote a culture in which that segment of the population was belittled to the point of being dehumanized.)

So no, humor can be part of the toolkit of social action, for good or ill.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Theory of Humor Series, part 11, Sociology of Status

This series of blog posts began as an analysis of the comic quality of the novel A Confederacy of Dunces (Confederacy), by John Kennedy Toole. After eight posts, I had only just laid out the theory of humor I am using to frame the analysis. I have now been invited to write a book chapter on Toole and Confederacy, so now I will only use this series of blog posts to more fully articulate that theory of humor.

For a quick recap, humor has IMHO two fundamental aspects: incongruity, a contrast that causes the brain to try to resolve a puzzle of interpretation, and disparagement, a non-violent way to adjust the dynamics of a group status hierarchy, an adjustment which can be either gentle or aggressive. I will try to refrain from calling it MY theory of humor, as the theory is largely pieced together from various strands of the long tradition of trying to define humor.

In part 4, I described a theory of humor in which humor is set within the context of a small human group, where a status hierarchy exists among the members of the group, who all know each other. Humor can act as a method of playfully challenging or reasserting the status of members without threatening to tear the group apart or commit violence against group members. I made the point that social psychology shows us that status orders arise naturally within human groups and are unavoidable.

In part 5, I emphasized that, while all groups have status orderings and humor can act as a gentle way to adjust the group status structure, sometimes the ordering within a group is oppressive to some members. Humor in those situations can be used as a mechanism of oppression. In part 8, I talked about stereotype humor as a pathology of humor within large groups, an easy way to get a laugh without a detailed knowledge of the target of the humor.

I was recently reading a sociological study. That book demonstrated for me that some sociologists (perhaps all) have viewed status hierarchies strictly through the lens of large groups in a mass society, rather than through the lens of personal interactions in small groups. This particular sociologist defined "social classes" as groups within the society united by economic interests, whereas "prestige groups" were defined by a common social status afforded members of those groups.

From the perspective of prestige groups within large societies, I would have to say that stereotype humor is the norm, not the exception. Stereotype humor is a mechanism that one prestige group can use to adjust the status level of another group, specifically downward. When leaders of a group want to challenge the position of their group within the prestige hierarchy, they reject the stereotype humor as unacceptable. Such jokes become politically incorrect.

I would like to argue, nonetheless, that such use of humor between prestige groups does not have to be oppressive. Just as gentle teasing can be inclusive in small groups (see part 6 of the series), not everyone within a target group of stereotype humor might take offense. What comes to mind is the example of the Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor would joke about the Bachelor Norwegian Farmer. Knowing many Norwegian-Americans, I am unaware that they in general took offense, and my sense was that many Minnesotans of Norwegian ancestry were flattered by the attention. The teasing indicated that Norwegian Americans were part of the in-group, though perhaps not at the peak of the status hierarchy. It also acted as a mechanism for putting forth a Midwestern cultural identity and celebrating it.

One could even argue that Keillor was offering a rural American cultural identity which was an alternative to Southern cultural identity. Many rural Americans have been attracted to the humor of Jeff Foxworthy and others and identify themselves as Southern, even when they do not live in an area that was part of the former Confederacy. Keillor's Norwegians offer a rural identity that is decidedly not Southern. My own family is from Appalachia, and could choose to identify with a hillbilly cultural identity, as celebrated in such shows as Hee Haw. Sometimes Appalachian identity is lumped into Southern identity, but in the American Civil War, Appalachia generally fought for the North against the Confederacy (Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, West Virginia, which was the only region to secede from the Confederacy, and Western North Carolina and Maryland, etc.). I found it interesting that my own father passionately embraced Keillor's Midwestern vision rather than a cultural identity with the South, though he did enjoy watching Hee Haw just to annoy my mother (perhaps challenging her pretension that we were not culturally part of Appalachia).

In putting forth a theory of humor as a status adjustment mechanism, I focused on small group status dynamics. I believe that the small group is the origin of the status instinct within humans, and the dynamics of the small group long predates humans, being part of the behavioral repertoire of all social animals. Hominids have lived in small groups millions of years before we humans formed mass societies. So when trying to define humor as a characteristically human behavior, small group dynamics and personal interaction should be used as the base context within which to understand it as a social behavior.

Nevertheless, in hindsight, I should have acknowledged that stereotype humor fits neatly into the sociology of status within mass societies.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Theory of Humor Series, part 10, Changed Priorities Ahead, No Joke

Someone contacted me and invited me to write a chapter for a prospective book of criticism on John Kennedy Toole. I have accepted the invitation. Good thing I dragged this series out without ever getting to the meat of the issue. I plan to take this topic and create the book chapter. I will continue in this series to articulate my own general theory of humor, but not use it to analyze Confederacy of Dunces. You will have to buy the book for that. Or interlibrary loan it. However, if the book project falls through, I may finish this series as originally envisaged here online.

Photo use allowed, credit:

Friday, March 2, 2018

Blog Interrupted by Father's Death

I had a post written and ready to put on the John Kennedy Toole Research blog for March 1st. However, my father died on February 21st. I am now dealing with my father's estate far from my home computer with the text of the post. Click here for the obituary.

What is relevant for my writing on the theory of humor is that my father had a keen sense of humor, which he enjoyed cultivating. He helped educate and inform my sense of humor. In the obituary on the website, we even slipped in a joke. It says, "And some say because of his reputation for punctuality, his portrait now hangs in the waiting room of the hospital’s new Family-Centered Maternity Suite." But his reputation was that he was never punctual. For those in the know, that explains why his portrait hangs in the hospital waiting room.

Much of his humor was in context and usually related to the foibles of individuals around him. Once when I was young, he was driving a crowded car. I passed gas that was extremely foul smelling, and it filled the silent car. He cleared his throat and in a calm voice said, "You know Vernon, it's not the smell we mind so much ... it's the burning of the eyes."

Because of his humor, he was often asked to MC the roasts for doctors at the hospital who were retiring.

In his last year of life, despite a severe stroke, he was able to enjoy humor, and once in that last year, I was able to get him to laugh until he cried. He will be missed.