U.S. Intellectual History Blog

It’s a funny thing…

A professor once asked his audience of captive graduate students, “Is there any room for humor in history?” The question came after relaying a story about a scrambled audio tape, a phrase mistaken for a vulgarity, and the high probability of the translator – seeing as it was Lyndon Baines Johnson they were listening to – correctly identifying the garbled passage as a curse. The joke about this, however, appeared only in the footnotes.

There does seem to be some room for humor in history – at least when it comes to the idiosyncrasies of presidents, that is. How many times have we heard the story about Calvin Coolidge and the loquacious lady at the table? Exactly. I don’t even need to elaborate.

Wander outside the territory of humanizing chief executives, however, and the frivolity grows rather scarce. Particularly in monographs, jokes are hard to come by. Part of this surely has to do with the subject matter; most scholarly history books do not revolve around colorful characters or amusing stories told from either a first person perspective or an all-knowing narrator, the most common formats for contemporary comedy.[1] Neither does much of the material offer itself to comedy – while the shit show of politics provides plenty of material for late night talk shows, the actual gritty details of struggles against oppression are not quite so easy to make light of.

But these excuses will only get us so far. Before the twentieth century, many books melded a relating of events with comedic commentary; indeed even fact and fiction could intermingle in the same text. Such promiscuity is probably nothing to emulate today, of course; even if we tried, it would likely come off as ridiculous. Nonetheless, there does seem something odd about the conspicuous lack of mirth in most modern historical writing.

Professionalization is an obvious source of restraint. For well over a century, historical writing has been the domain of trained, highly educated elites who are so dedicated to the task that it comprises their entire occupation. (This, as opposed to once being written primarily by bored, highly educated elites who had nothing better to do.) As it developed, history as a professional field acquired standards and a process of peer review to determine who was living up to these standards the best. Among the qualities admired in professional history writing, humor, it appears, did not rate highly. Why would this necessarily be so?

The problem lies in the social function of humor itself. In order for any joke, anecdote, or sarcastic snarkiness to be funny, there must be a normative understanding underlying the “punch line” – otherwise it would amount to nonsense. (As I’ve tried to explain to various male relatives, it is not that I choose to be unimpressed by jokes about how women talk too much or plan to kill their husbands; such notions just do not correlate to my known reality and therefore, merely confuse me.) As normative understandings are embedded in culture, politics, power, and so on, it is therefore pretty difficult – especially in the context of books concerning themselves with significant events and individuals – to sneak a joke into a text without introducing an implied politics, or at the least, the authorial voice. The spell of objectivity is suddenly snapped — and we realize that an actual person, with all their humanity intact, has composed this account of The Way Things Were.

But wait a moment!, you might object – don’t all modern historians scoff at the idea of a pure objectivity, writing countless articles clarifying the duties and limits of the historian’s task and reminding students to remember that most history has been “written by the winners”? Well yes, indeed we do all that. But the lack of humor in contemporary history illustrates just one of the many ways in which most professional historians say one thing and then behave according to an entirely different logic. No, we don’t make claims to Pure Objectivity! And no, we’re not even “value neutral” in our writing, how could we be? And yet to joke and jest in a history text violates some unwritten rule – especially if someone suffers at the expense of the joke, for to joke about someone is usually to laugh at them, often with disdain and judgment implied. And although we make value calls about our material all the time – sometimes explicitly so, even though primarily only in introductions and conclusions – to bring that fully to the front in the course of trying really hard to be authoritative is just, somehow, too much. Historians are not objective recording machines, for sure, but we’re not allowed to be that human – or at least, apparently, our work is not.

Interestingly, when it comes to comedy itself – another occupation that is more precisely defined now than in the past – the rules seem to be reversed. Here, there is nothing you should not joke about, nothing you say is supposed to be taken on the merits of what you are saying, and to abstain from the most offensive and bigoted refrains gets chalked up, somehow, to personal and professional mediocrity and cowardice. How odd that our human sensibilities have become so segregated; but to explore the contours of contemporary ideas about comedy will have to wait for a future post.

[1] Of course there are countless colorful characters in history, but I was thinking along the lines of say, Andy Kaufman.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus has some pretty substantial comedic elements, including about a half dozen (I wasn’t actually counting) palindromes in footnotes (actual footnotes, along with endnotes for basic sourcing). And the whole project is built around the irony of the tradition being much more complex and open than its own adherents realize, and that definitely comes through, tonally.

  2. Humor seems to have a higher degree of subjectivity than that which is present in historical narratives. So I think the problem for the author of the humor would be variable humorous sensibilities.

    Speaking of, I suspect that Dan Wickberg might have something to say about this topic, per this book. – TL

  3. I recall reading a European history textbook in junior college that had a medieval drawing of Charlemagne holding a globe, with the author’s caption reading something like: “Even in the 9th century, many understood that the world was round, otherwise, Charlemagne would have been holding a spatula.” I found this hilarious at the time, and looking back on it, still do.

  4. Love this post. Just spitballing some, I’ve been thinking lately that certain historians of the U.S. South tended to use bitter ironies that were darkly comic, in the sense that they set up deluded segregationist Southerners as the butt of a joke, pointing out the utter preposterousness of their laws and tortured logic. Consider C. Vann Woodward from The Strange Career of Jim Crow:

    In air travel, “No Jim Crow law has been found that applies to passengers while they are in the air. So long as they were upon the ground however, they were still subject to Jim Crow jurisdiction.” In zoos, “An Atlanta ordinance of June 1940 made the single exception of it park segregation…Only in the presence of lower anthropoids could law-abiding Atlantans of different races consort together” (117). Capping off the gruesome silliness, “A Birmingham ordinance got down to particulars in 1930 by making it ‘unlawful for a Negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other’ at dominoes or checkers’” (118).

    I’ve also read in a few places an anecdote from Freedom Summer in 1964 where white college students who came to Mississippi tried to make jokes about segregationists and their hosts in the movement didn’t think it very funny at all.

    There’s the peril in humor, it’s “normative” status as you say. The stakes were deadly serious as those local people in Mississippi knew only too well, and yet I would argue Woodward’s humor (or James Silver’s for that matter in a book like The Closed Society) was also necessary when it came to striking a blow against Jim Crow in certain circles.

    I wonder how historians will write up Donald Trump? Lots will depend upon whether he wins or not. Woodward wrote with some idea that Jim Crow was on the way out (he called his present a “Second Reconstruction”). It’s easier when the subjects of the humor are well on their way to or totally in the dustbin.

    Of course, this all relates to Andy Seal’s really perceptive post recently about empathy doesn’t it? Hofstadter threw some real zingers at Bryan in The American Political Tradition. Agree with him or not, that’s a great book partly because his humor is so caustic.

    Maybe while humor doesn’t comply with the historian’s guises in the text, be it for reasons of objectivity or neutrality or refusing to reveal themselves, humor also requires a certain measure of distance from historical subjects. As you say, “laughing at them.” Yet it’s also intimate, because if the joke works the hope is that the reader “gets” it in terms of a summary judgment. As Henri Bergson mentioned in his short book on laughter, humor is a kind of “freemasonry” where we imagine a community of other laughers.

    Really thought-provoking stuff. Thanks for it.

    • Thank *you* for the comment! Yeah, so much to think about here. As for how Trump has been/will be dealt with, a recent episode of the Daily Show actually comes to mind; I remember back when Stewart was hosting it, he joked about reconsidering his retirement because a Trump candidacy would be comedic gold. This, of course, was when everyone figured it was doomed. Then on Monday night, Trevor Noah and company had an entire audience-free show set in a post-apocplytic, post-Trump presidency setting where black people were frisked every 30 minutes by robots and comedy was outlawed. It is almost as if while the comedy of Trump is so obvious, the reality of what his success means (or could mean) is so terrifying that comedy isn’t exactly sure how to deal with it at the moment.

      And your point about humor being intimate is spot on; that’s one reason I appreciate it when I do come across it, because I do not really want to treat my readers (or be treated, as a reader) any differently than if there was a conversation being had in person, maybe even around beers. Call me sentimental but I feel like that is what a true, honest, and brave intellectual community should aim for. It is more risky that way of course; but I think it also means we stay more grounded to the reality of politics and priorities. Anyway, there’s a whole additional rant there :p, so I’ll leave it at that, and thanks for the thoughts!

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