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