Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict (University of Chicago Press, 2006), 219 pp., $25.
Studies of humor can be serious business. Unless they’re mere anecdotalists, the scholars involved probably, if perhaps unconsciously, feel an extra burden of gravitas when dealing with it, lest their subject matter be confused with academic frivolity. And in truth, humor is an important window into society, so there’s no reason to bedeck one’s study with laugh tracks. When the approach is also historical, an added burden involves the common though not invariable difficulty of translating humor across time—what may have been screamingly funny way back when may not strike the same chord a few decades later.
All of which is to suggest that the books here under review, while interesting and stimulating in many ways, are far from hilarious. (There is, of course, a pun-ish touch in the title of Revel with a Cause, but it’s quite unfunny; and I assume that Cracking Up was supposed to be catchy, but it’s largely irrelevant to what is a very sober treatment.) Both books reproduce jokes and cartoons and these may generate a chuckle, but in contexts that do not emphasize the lighter side. Indeed, both books urge readers to see that humor has serious consequences—in one case productively so, in the other with more mixed results.
More troubling than the gravity of the books themselves, however, is the fact that I simply can’t think of anything funny to say about them. Cracking Up, indeed, made me feel self-conscious about what I already recognize is a revealing urge to get a laugh before virtually any audience. Whatever chances I had to do so shriveled before a single keyboard impulse made its way to my computer screen. So playing straight it is.
Kercher and Lewis both focus on politically and socially relevant humor, though Revel with a Cause is aimed more precisely than Cracking Up. Kercher, an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, deals with the humor of the 1950s and early 1960s, with a glance further back in time. Lewis, an English professor at Boston College, sees a sea change in American humor opening up in 1980 and extends his treatment to the present day, ending—and admittedly this involves beating around the Bush—with the anomalous comedic position of the sitting President. The authors seem to be totally unaware of each other (even if the editors at the University of Chicago Press were not), but their work can usefully be compared as a basis for discussing change and continuity in American humor over the past half century. That is because they contradict each other on at least two key points, and while they both implicitly agree that humor is serious business, they disagree over the social and political consequences of the genre as a whole.
Kercher’s Revel with a Cause is an impressively systematic if largely descriptive treatment of political humor. It ranges from the transformation of Bill Mauldin into a civilian cartoonist in the late 1940s to the eclipse of radical humor with the obscenity trial of Lenny Bruce in the mid-1960s. For people of a certain age, the book is among other things a beautifully nostalgic trip through the routines of comedians once cherished and, for me at least, a surprising number I’d never heard of. The accomplishment is all the more significant in that the author looks too young to have lived through any of this—unless his cover photo is itself a practical joke.
But there’s more than nostalgia involved here. Kercher is at pains to rescue the 1950s from any lingering impression that it was merely a conformist, humorless decade—though, of course, he freely acknowledges that many of his characters were inspired by an active desire to puncture conformist balloons and the triteness of dominant mass media. Major chapters deal with cartoonists—not only explicitly political satirists, but subtler figures like Walt Kelly and his Pogo comic strip. Kercher details the emergence of “sick humor” (it was delightful to be reminded of the “why are we celebrating Christmas in July” series—“because you have leukemia and won’t make it till December”), with something of a culmination in Tom Lehrer and the smash hit MAD magazine. Standup and improvisational comedy win appropriate attention, including groups like Second City and individuals like Bob Newhart and Mort Sahl. Two other chapters deal intriguingly with satirical attacks on racism during the early 1960s, and with the Cold War through a vigorous assessment of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). Kercher sees That Was the Week That Was (a British import) as a tentative network experiment with pointed humor, an experiment ultimately cut off before its time. And the growing verbal extremism of the early 1960s, epitomized by the edgy routines of Lenny Bruce, effectively closes the account with liberal humor in some eclipse, though not in total decline.
David Frost and Lance Percival in That Was the Week That Was [credit: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images]
Some analytical themes join the narrative detail. Kercher is appropriately concerned with humorists’ jousts against McCarthyism and later conservative critics. He speculates, too, about ultimate liberal estrangement, after some satirists turned their barbs in John F. Kennedy’s direction after his election. He also discusses tensions between standard laugh-track fare on television and political humor, along with the predominant media skittishness (amid some fascination) with the edgy genre. We also get good assessments of the male dominance and frequent misogyny in this period of American comedy (which the author, true to the standards of our own time, cannot refrain from deploring). Nor does Kercher miss the out-of-proportion involvement of Jews and, later, African Americans in the hit parade of American humor.
For all of its narrative richness, Revel with a Cause begins and ends rather abruptly. There’s little sense of how all of this fits into any earlier or larger pattern of American political humor (a rich vein, in fact), or where it would lead. Although Kercher does not fully articulate it, he seems to suggest that a promising run of satire encountered new difficulties in the form of JFK’s more liberal presidency. This tension showed itself in a reluctance to make gibes more edgy than Vaughn Meader’s adoring and anodyne “First Family” routines. Whatever they may have found to satirize, most political liberals hesitated before the prospect of becoming implicit allies of Republicans. On the other hand, the Kennedy presidency may have helped push satirists to more extreme behaviors, Kercher suggests: When the establishment moved left, satirists moved further left so as not to lose their critical edge. It’s an interesting analytical proposition, and perhaps the contemporary run of liberal satirists will have the good fortune to face similar problems beginning in January 2009.
Ultimately, however, Kercher does not offer a particularly venturesome assessment. On the key questions—So what? What were the consequences of all this?—we get an occasional hint but, frankly, no serious exploration. Kercher probably believes that the gradual crescendo of liberal humor through the 1950s helped shape the context for JFK’s electoral victory and the social explosions of the 1960s, but he shies away from any real effort at connection, noting recurrently that actual impacts are “hard to calculate” or at most that the movement had “something to add” to the outrage of the Sixties. Is humor here a mirror, reflecting gradual liberal coalescence? Is it instead a goad? Or something else entirely? A more concerted attempt to answer these questions would have better connected this readable, well-researched book to larger themes in American history. Pity it’s just not here.
Which brings us to the denser and more analytical (though perhaps more objectionable) assessment of Paul Lewis’ Cracking Up. Lewis’ account in one sense reads very oddly in light of Kercher’s work. Lewis believes that in 1980 humor began to have serious, often partisan purposes. It’s obvious from Cracking Up itself that this historical claim—the claim, that is, that major change occurred—is ungrounded in one sense, for Lewis makes no effort to characterize the preceding humor of the 1970s. But given what we know about the clear purposes of liberal satire in the 1950s, Lewis’ claim seems nonsensical, despite the fact that he does display some knowledge of much earlier (19th-century) forms of national humor. Lewis is admittedly in an English, not a history, department, but practicing history without a license is no excuse.
A second assertion also jars the reader. I was skeptical when I first read it and downright dubious after reading what Kercher has to say about the 1950s. Lewis is appalled by the rise of violent humor in the 1980s—dead baby jokes, mock-horror films about knifings, making light of O.J. Simpson, and so on. I grant some apparent 1980s innovation, but the effort to correlate tasteless popular culture (whether putatively humorous or not) and bad behavior is a very old and dubious one. While the links can rarely be entirely refuted, neither are they easy to establish definitively. Lewis sees a direct link between violent humor and manifestations of youth alienation such as school shootings and teenage suicide in the 1980s and 1990s, but the claims are not carefully buttressed. Indeed, the suicide rate has dropped since the early 1990s despite the proud continuity of vulgar humor. When his case is juxtaposed with the unabashedly sick humor of the late 1950s—like the Christmas in July jokes or punchlines about watching lepers disintegrate—doubts multiply. Certainly the earlier round of tastelessness had no clearly violent effects. Without a firmer historical perspective, such seductive claims should be seriously questioned.
However, Lewis has other, more interesting observations to make. He skillfully delineates the current humor divisions that have come to approximate the larger red-blue cultural divides. In apparent contrast to the 1950s (did conservatives even have jokes back then?), humor is now wielded by both camps, each finding the other’s efforts unfunny and even shocking (Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s South Park certainly fits that bill, without being clearly conservative or liberal). Political correctness enters the scene here, and Lewis has some solid analysis of massive fault lines when it comes to defining good taste in contemporary America. He argues more broadly that humor tends to reinforce group identities rather than persuade—a point well worth considering and one that raises some analytical issues involved in assessing the impact of earlier generations of satirists portrayed in Revel with a Cause.
A separate but interesting attack involves a chapter on the exploitation of the presumably recent idea that humor literally cures, and the massive para-therapeutical industry that has arisen around this notion. Lewis clearly dislikes the feel-good profiteering, and he objects vociferously to the belief that all humor is good. Humor can wound, he argues, and it can distract. He also notes the odd contradiction between violent humor on the one hand and therapeutic Laughter Clubs on the other, though he is not entirely clear on where the contradiction leads.
In a final chapter, paralleling Kercher’s partisanship vein, Lewis shows the awkwardness of President Bush’s attempts to distract with humor as well as the difficulties, at least until recently, of getting humor directed against him to stick. Indeed, in the current American political climate, being the butt of liberal jokes by the likes of Al Franken, Michael Moore and the seemingly eternal George Carlin may be an advantage.
The most interesting claim of all is Lewis’ contention that, as a society, we have come to laugh at issues that should be taken as dead serious. In so doing at the presidential level as at the level of the public at large, we are impeding our capacity to take problems seriously and deal with them effectively. While he discusses the humor hiatus after 9/11, he worries that we too routinely subject environmental degradation or torture in military prisons to stand-up comic routines, some of them partisan but some, in the hands of Jay Leno et al., simply designed to entertain.
[credit: Getty Images]
This is a potentially sobering claim, as Lewis no doubt intended it to be. We certainly have evidence, from communist regimes, for example, of how really pointed humor can help people survive, but also how it distracts them from positive action (regarded, of course, as hopeless by what might have been a realistic pessimism, but which might also have been part of a vicious circle of resignation and repression). What’s that got to do with us? Well, recent polling data suggesting that young people who watch Jon Stewart on The Daily Show are less likely to vote than their less amused contemporaries are also troubling: Could this be another case in which humor either reflects a sense of futility or provides the kind of relief that undermines action?
Ultimately, however, while I grant the desirability of pondering the issue, I’m skeptical here as well. Liberal satire in the 1950s may not have caused the uprisings against a more conservative society and American militarism, but it clearly did not prevent them, either. And while some of the Sixties rebels were notably humorless (Tom Hayden, for example), laughter and protest were not incompatible (as Abbie Hoffman proved). Perhaps the situation is different now, but I see no conclusive evidence that it is. Will the new surge of liberal humor prove anticipatory of wider political change? Of course we don’t yet know, but there’s certainly no reason to see that surge as an impediment.
In the meantime, while hoping for change and modestly working in its favor, there’s nothing wrong with laughing. The opportunity to dissect humor—both current and recent past—is salutary, and both Kercher and Lewis have much to offer us here. But the earnestness involved, particularly from Professor Lewis, makes me eager for one of my periodic doses of Stewart and Colbert re-runs. Reinforcement of my political identity? Sure. Stress relief? Maybe. Just plain fun? Yes, indeed. Consistent with political action? I don’t see why not. ?