A distinct form of communication involving comical or amusing ideas and situations.
The study of humor arose late in the consciousness of folklorists. Although early
folklorists collected humorous materials, they did so because that humor was
encapsulated in recognized traditional genres—tales, ballads, proverbs, riddles—not
because of any interest in humor per se. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm included numerous
humorous tales in their Kinder und Hausmärchen (1812–1816) because these tales,
alongside those of magic and adventure, were alive in the mouths of the folk. The interest
of the 19th– century English folklorists in “folk wit” was an interest in proverbs and
riddles as a repository of old “wisdom,” not humor. Francis James Child included
humorous texts in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–1898) because they
met his criteria for traditional narrative song.
When the historic-geographic, or Finnish, method came to dominate folklore study in
the first half of the 20th century, humor was regarded as something embedded in a
traditional text whose origins and routes of diffusion might be reconstructed. Humorous
tales, like magic tales, were classified and comparatively scrutinized according to this
method. Humorous tale types and motifs were cataloged in the great international and
regional indexes. The historic-geographic approach gave further impetus to the collecting
of humorous texts, and thousands were published in journals and regional collections in
both Europe and the United States, but no interest was expressed by folklorists then in
how humor might be defined, how humorous texts were structured, or what their
communicative possibilities might be.
Folklorists were awakened to these possibilities by American social and literary
historians. As early as 1838, it had been suggested that the originality and distinctiveness
of American literature lay in its unique style of humor, but it was only after Frederick
Jackson Turner focused attention on the role of the frontier in shaping American
institutions and character that historians began to explore American humor with any
degree of seriousness. JennetteTandy’s Crackerbox Philosophers in American Humor
and Satire (1925) and Frank J.Meine’s Tall Tales of the Southwest (1930) were the first
volumes to bring a portion of 19th-century humor to the attention of scholars, but it was
Constance Rourke’s American Humor (1931) that set out to delineate, through the
scrutiny of comic figures—the Yankee, the backwoodsman, the Negro—and forms—the
monologue, the rhapsody, and the tale—the outlines of an American humor and national
character that profoundly influenced the shape of American literature.
Richard M.Dorson (1916–1981), often referred to as the “Dean of American
Folklore,” was trained within this intellectual milieu. Dorson’s publishing career began
with Davy Crockett: American Comic Legend (1939), which was merely a selection of
the “better” stories in the Crockett almanacs. Nevertheless, Dorson regarded this
humor—as did other historians—as a comic mythology that was at once vigorous and
robust and that captured the confidence and boldness of those who settled the vast
American wilderness. In Jonathan Draws the Long Bow (1946), Dorson again set out to capture aspects of national character and historical circumstance in the traditions—
supernatural as well as humorous—of New England from a variety of subliterary sources.
From Dorson’s point of view, the short span of American history did not allow the
creation of the kind of heroic legendry found in the Old World. American mythology was
fragmented and scattered, rather than a consistent and sober whole. Fashioned in an age
of unbelief, American mythology could only be an assortment of humorous episodes
about scalawags, fools, and other comic types. Nevertheless, Dorson came to see these
heroes as the embodiment of a democratic impulse—one of the four great impulses, in his
view, that conditioned the development of American character and culture. On the whole,
folklorists regarded American humor as an expression of democratic optimism born in
the confident rejection of European and Eastern manners and gentility. They tended to
see the humor in a more positive light than historians who seemed more attuned to
undercurrents of darkness and despair.
Although students of American humor recognized that the true roots of 19th-century
American humor were oral, there was little choice but to establish the character of this
bygone era from newspapers and other subliterary sources. Nevertheless, only Dorson
was concerned to demonstrate that such sources were genuine repositories of orally
circulated traditions. He was careful to call attention to the descriptions of oral
storytelling in this subliterature and to identify the traditional narratives that appeared in
their pages. Dorson collected folklore in rural American communities and encountered
oral humor firsthand. He severely criticized social and literary historians for failing to
recognize the spurious character of much of what had been promoted as America’s comic
mythology Too often the materials were what Dorson called “fakelore”—ersatz
compositions of boosters and promoters—rather than genuine American folklore. Dorson
and other American folklorists remained keen to record and document the persistence of
frontier humor—particularly tall lying, practical joking, exaggerated metaphor, and
dialect stories—in oral tradition, attending not only to documenting the texts but also to
occasionally characterizing their styles of performance as well.
Another major influence on folklorists’ approach to humor came from psychology via
anthropology. In 1905 Sigmund Freud published Jokes and Their Relation to the
Unconscious, in which he argued that jokes and other forms of humor were, like dreams,
vehicles for the expression of otherwise unacceptable sexual and aggressive thoughts.
Freud’s theory of jokes was part and parcel of his psychoanalytic psychology, which held
that socially unacceptable impulses were repressed and achieved expression only
indirectly through disguised representations. Freud’s theory was enormously influential,
and numerous books were written about folklore and humor from a psychoanalytic
perspective—although not by folklorists. Folklorists continued assiduously to collect,
catalog, and publish humorous texts from oral tradition with little or no commentary or
interpretation. Anthropologists, however, in their fieldwork, encountered joking
relationships, trickster figures, and ritual clowning. The fact that such humor—often of
the most outrageous and obscene kinds—organized relations between kin and proved
central to an assortment of mythological and ritual expressions required explanation. In
some instances, anthropologists found that explanation in psychoanalytic theory.
Alan Dundes (1934–) single-handedly brought the psychoanalytic perspective to the
attention of American folklorists. His interpretations of scores of myths, legends, tales,
rituals, artifacts, and jokes made the perspective seem more prominent in the discipline than it, in fact, was. Dundes’ interest in humor centered on joke cycles—elephant jokes,
Polish jokes, quadriplegic jokes, Jewish American Princess (JAP) jokes, and the like—
prominent in the United States in the latter decades of the 20th century. Generally,
Dundes viewed these jokes as providing a socially sanctioned outlet for the expression of
forbidden thoughts. Thus, the elephant was a symbol of the Black person against whom
the jokes permitted certain symbolic aggressions—aggressions that could no longer be
openly expressed in a the post-civil rights era. Dead-baby jokes, with their graphic
images of mutilation and destruction, served to express a hatred of babies aroused by
guilt over abortion. JAP jokes allowed for the expression of ambivalent attitudes toward
the redefinition of women’s roles. On the one hand, the Jewish American Princess
expressed women’s discontent with traditional domestic demands, particularly cooking
and sex. On the other, she symbolized the resentment against feminist dogma that a
woman abandon house and home in favor of business and career. Dundes’ interpretations
often presume the underlying hostility of humor and the requisite identification of groups
against whom that hostility is directed. Yet they remain sensitive to the sociohistorical
conditions in which such jokes emerge and are told. The targets of aggression are not
constant; they are a function of time and place.
Dundes’ joke interpretations have been particularly influential in folklore, and the
presumption of aggression runs through a good deal of folklorists’ interpretations of
humor. Nevertheless, recent perspectives have emphasized the close analysis of
humorous texts and performance contexts without the presumption that the humor is
motivated by the desire to attack or degrade. Some scholars have urged that more
attention be paid to the structure of humor and the way information is encoded within that
structure. Humor demands the perception of an “appropriate incongruity”—that is, the
perception of a relationship of two incongruous semantic domains that are somehow
made to seem appropriately linked. The examination of the incongruous semantic
categories and the way that they are made appropriate may lead to alternative
understandings of the meaning of some of the contemporary jokes whose interpretations
have frequently been based on details of plot and character. Thus the question-andanswer racial epithet, but this incongruity can be recognized as ap joke from the 1960s,
“What do you call a Negro with a Ph.D.?”—“Nigger,” cannot immediately be regarded as
motivated by racial hatred. The joke depends upon the incongruity that someone with a
Ph.D. degree who deserves a title of respect such as “Doctor” or “Professor” earns only
an odious racial epithet, but this incongruity can be recognized as appropriate if one
accesses the information that there are individuals for whom race is a stigma that no
achievement can overcome. Hearers of this joke need not believe this to be the case; they
need only recognize that such a view exists. Whether the joke is motivated by racial
hatred or is, in fact, a critical comment on the racist character of a society where Blacks
cannot succeed no matter what they do, cannot be determined firom the text alone. That
determination can be made only if something of the context of the joke is known, such as
who is telling it to whom and under what conditions.
Joke texts are ambiguous; they are usually capable of bearing more than a single
interpretation. Sometimes even the most detailed contextual data may not be sufficient to
resolve the ambiguity. Nevertheless, close attention to the incongruous semantic
categories and the means by which they are made appropriate may alert interpreters to a
range of potential messages encoded within particular humorous texts and repertoires.
Recently, there has been greater emphasis placed on the study of folklore
performance, including humor performance. These approaches regard an oral
performance as a verbal work of art and attend to the full range of devices and techniques
by which this art is accomplished. Performance approaches also regard this art as created
in performance and thus scrutinize the dynamics of the social event within which it is
created. Performance approaches have paid close critical attention to instances of tall
lying, comic anecdotes, and the recounting of practical joking, highlighting their aesthetic
structures, the manipulation of point of view, the use of quoted speech, the employment
of meta-narration, as well as how such techniques and devices contribute to the narrative
as a tactical social accomplishment.
As it stands in the mid-1990s, the primary contribution of folklore to the study of
humor does not lie in the advancement of a particular theoretical perspective or
interpretive methodology. Rather it lies in the relendess collection and publication of
humorous materials from folk sources, the classification and cataloging of these materials
in indexes and finding lists, and the insistence that the contexts of performance are
crucial to understanding the meanings and uses humor.
Bauman, Richard. 1986. Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bluestein, Gene. 1962. “The Arkansas Traveler” and the Strategy of American Humor. Western
Boatright, Mody C. 1946. Folk Laughter on the American Frontier. New York: Macmillan.
Clark, William Bedford, and W.CraigTurner, eds. 1984. Critical Essays on American Humor.
Dorson, Richard M. 1973. America in Legend: Folklore from the Colonial Period to the Present,
New York: Pantheon.
Dundes, Alan. 1987. Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes. Berkeley, CA:
Ten Speed Press.
Mintz, Larry, ed. 1988. Humor in America: A Research Guide to Genres and Topics. New York:
Nilsen, Don L.E 1993. Humor Scholarship: A Research Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Oring, Elliott. 1992. Jokes and Their Relations. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
A distinct form of communication involving comical or amusing ideas and situations.