The History of Humor By Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen 1 Humor in Gothic Cathedrals Notre Dame Cathedral is on the Isle de la Cit in Paris France. At the entrance is the sculpture of a beheaded Christian martyer holding his own head.
Winchester Cathedral is a Gothic Cathedral in England. In the rafters is the Winchester Imp, placed there by the masons, and smiling down on the congregation below. 2 Winchester Cathedral & Notre Dame Cathedral 3 Classical Graffiti & Ironic Oratory
In ancient Greece and Rome, there are examples of graffiti, many of which are very funny. Classical Oratory also contained many examples of Irony, Paradox, Parody, and Ridicule. 4 The History of Comedy Greek comedies were often bawdy or
ribald and ended happily for everyone. To Chaucer, Shakespeare, and other writers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a comedy was a story (but especially a play) with a happy ending, whether humorous or not. 5 Homer (9 -8 Century BC) th
th Aristotles Poetics, includes Homer in his discussion of the comic: A poem of the satirical kind cannot indeed be put down to any author earlier than Homer; though many such writers probably there were. But from Homer onward, many instances of the comic can be cited. 6
Homer 7 Old Comedy, Middle Comedy and New Comedy Old Comedy of the 6th & 5th Centuries BC often made fun of a specific person and of current political issues. Middle Comedy of the 5th & 4th Centuries BC made fun of more general themes such as literature,
professions, and society. New Comedy of the 4th & 3rd Centuries BC usually revolved around the bawdy adventures of a blustering soldier, a young man in love with an unsuitable woman, or a father figure who cannot follow his own advice. 8 Aristophanes (c450-c388 BC)
Of the Old and Middle comedies, the only ones that have survived complete are eleven plays of Aristophanes. The Clouds lampoons Socrates in heaven, in the Old tradition, while Lysistrata makes fun of human nature in general. In Plutus both the wealth and the poverty in Athens are
personified. The citizenry are so distracted that they neglect the gods. Plutus is considered to be Middle comedy. 9 Aristophanes
10 Titus Maccius Plautus (c254-184 BC) Plubius Terentius Terence (185-c159 BC) Comedy in the Roman Empire is generally reduced to the works of Plautus and Terence, the former of whom lived at about the same time as Menander, the latter about a century later. Both Plautus and Terence wrote plays of the old Greek sortfarces involving the same
stock characters (father, soldier, slave) and which, unlike the plays of Aristophanes, offended no one in particular. 11 Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) Most of Dantes The Divine Comedy is not at all funny.
It is about Paradiso as contrasted with Purgatorio and the Inferno. It was called a comedy because it is a story about the powerless vs. the powerful, or the little man vs. the big man, or even about the perils and pitfalls of social pretence.
And thus, The Divine Comedy was indeed a comedy only in the classical sense of the word. 12 Dante Alighieri 13 The Inferno, the first installment of
Dantes The Divine Comedy, describes damned souls engaging in bawdy behavior and word play. The second and third installments of The Divine Comedy are however distinctly not funny, and demonstrate that in the fourteenth century a comedy need do nothing more than end happily. 14 Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)
Boccaccios Decameron is a collection of stories told by a group of ten nobles who have fled the Black Death by shutting themselves up in a lonely castle. Chaucers Canterbury Tales were influenced by Boccaccios Decameron, and they have basically the same structure. 15 Giovanni Bocaccio
16 Geoffrey Chaucer (c1342-1400) In the Middle Ages, the farces, bawdies, and satires of Greek and Roman literature continued to be popular. Chaucer is best known for his Canterbury Tales, some of which (e.g. The Millers Tale) are both bawdy and still funny by todays standards.
17 Geoffrey Chaucer 18 Chaucer also penned The Romaunt of the Rose, a satire on love and courtship, and The House of Fame which seems to spoof Dantes idea of
the narrator and the guide. In Chaucers version, the narrator would rather not listen to the guide. 19 Erasmus (1466-1536) Erasmus has very clear political and religious objectives in The Praise of Folly, where Folly is nursed and instructed by Self- Love, Flattery, Intemperance, and a number of other personified
sins, and goes on to criticize the Catholic Church. These personified characteristics are what made this piece allegorical. Oddly enough, the joke was on Erasmus, who was a staunch Catholic, but whose work became a major catalyst of the Protestant Reformation. 20 Franois Rabelais (c1483-1553) Rabelais published a series of five books collectively known as Gargantua and
Pantagruel. Gargantua and his son Pantagruel are two giants of unfixed size, who can sometimes fit into a normal building and sometimes hold whole civilizations inside of their mouths. 21 Franois Rabelais 22
These books contain satires on the Roman Catholic church, bawdy stories, and scatological humor as well as plain silliness that reminds the modern reader of Monty Pythons Flying Circus. Rabelais brand of silliness and freedom from the laws of physics and of logic was discussed by the critic Bakhtin, who calls this atmosphere the carnival world.
23 William Shakespeare (1564-1616) Shakespeares plays are sometimes divided into Comedy, Tragedy, and History. The history plays are, obviously, those based on historical personages such as Richard III and Henry IV. The difference between comedy and tragedy is still very much the same as in Greek playscomedies have happy endings and tragedies have sad ones;
tragic heroes are larger than life, while comic heroes are flawed. 24 William Shakespeare 25 Shakespeares comedies are also usually funny, but unlike the Greek bawdy plays and satires, their humor lies in word playpuns,
allusions, and double-entendres that are very often lost on todays audience. Careful perusal of an annotated version of Loves Labours Lost or Alls Well That Ends Well will reveal the surprising density of jokes in these plays, which are supposed to have had Elizabethan audiences roaring with laughter. 26 Falstaff, a great comic and humorous
character demonstrates Bakhtins carnival. Falstaff appears not in comedy plays, but in history plays--Henry IV parts I and II. Shakespeares tragedies, too, often include a figure of a clown or fool. His job is not so much to provide mirth or laughter as it is to provide commentary that is sometimes satiric and very often funny. 27 Court Jesters from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance
During the Middle Ages, Kings Court Jesters were not to be in competition with the Kings. So most often they were deformed midgets with humped backs and bug eyes.
They acted stupid to match their clothingcap and bells, motley clothes, and pointed shoes. Their scepters were made from pig bladders as parodies of the Kings scepter of power.
In many plays, the fool is smarter than the King, but because of his appearance he could be critical of the King and the Kingdom. 28 Fools During the Renaissance and Beyond There are both foolish and wise fools in Shakespeares plays.
Contrast the wise fool with the dead fool (Yorrick) in Hamlet and the wise/foolish women in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing. Street jugglers and street musicians came out of these Renaissance traditions.
So did Englands Punch and Judy shows, Italys Commedia del Arte, and Frances Comedie Franaise. As well as Englands Comedy of Humours, and Comedy of Manners, and Americas ventriloquists and political cartoonists. 29 The Eighteenth Century
The eighteenth century saw the rise of a new kind of humorous author: the wit. A wit is usually a person who can make quick, wry comments in the course of conversation. 30 Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) Swift is best known for his novel Gullivers Travels in which sailor Lemuel Gulliver recounts his visits to
strange lands inhabited by fantastic peoples. Gullivers last voyage finds him in a land where horses are the dominant species, and keep dumb, barbaric humans (called Yahoos) as beasts of burden. This novel is a humorous reflection on the failings of civilization. 31 Jonathan Swift
32 Swifts A Modest Proposal is an essay which suggests that the problems of overpopulation and starvation in the lower classes (especially in Ireland) would be readily solved if they would eat their own children. 33
William Congreve (1670-1729) William Congreve was a contemporary of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. His The Old Batchelor (1693), The Double Dealer (1693), Love for Love (1695), and The Way of the World (1700) are all satires filled with ironies and paradoxes. 34 Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
While Jonathan Swift was writing satirical novels, Alexander Pope was writing satirical poetry. Popes Imitations of Horace satirizes the policies of George II and Horace Walpole while imitating the form of a classical poet. Popes Moral Essays are works more of ridicule than of satire, and are not considered humorous by everybody. Popes most celebrated satire was named Dunciad. 35
Voltaire (Franois-Marie Arout) (1694-1778) Voltaire dabbled in many different literary formsfrom novels to plays, history, poetry, letters, and essays. His signature wit is present in all, and some are expressly meant to be satires, especially on the Catholic church, censorship, and French civil liberties (or lack of). 36
Henry Fielding (1707-1754) Tom Jones is a light-hearted tale of adventure, containing many hilarious episodes and ends happily for everyone who is deserving. 37 Henry Fielding 38
History of America http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLdQ4DUnnw4&feature=fvw 39 Charlotte Lenox (1720-1804) Charlotte Lenoxs The Female Quixote tells the story of Arabella, a young woman whose only education and contact with the outside world has
consisted of reading romance novels, and the adventures she has when she becomes independently wealthy and comes face-to-face with the outside world. 40 Jane Austen (1775-1859) Jane Austens characters are simultaneously true-to-life and ridiculous.
All of her novels can simultaneously be read as scorching satires of human nature, comedies of humours and comedies of manners. 41 Jane Austen 42 Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol (1809-1852)
Some of Gogols short stories like The Nose are bizarre, almost to the point where humor is lost to wonder and confusion. In The Nose a mans nose goes AWOL and walks about the city causing trouble. 43 But some of Gogols short stories are so dark and horrible that, while the story
is most certainly a joke with a punch line, the reader is loathe to laugh. For example, in The Overcoat a poor clerk starves himself to buy a new coat, which is stolen from him on the first night he wears it. 44 William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) Both Charles Dickens and William
Makepeace Thackeray became enormously popular for sympathetic portrayals of eccentric characters. There are many straightforward jokes and much satire in their novels, which can be considered comedies because they end well for almost everyone. 45 Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Charles Dickens is famous for the eccentrics that he portrays in his novels. For example, the characterizations of Silas Wegg and Mr. Venus in Our Mutual Friend make us laugh in delight at the recognition and exaggeration of a type of person that we ourselves have met in real life. 46 Charles Dickens
47 Mid 19 Century th James Russell Lowells Birdofreedum Sawin said, at any rate, Im so used up I cant do no more fightin / The only chance thets left to me is politics or writin. On the western frontier, wise fools, con-men, and
tricksters like Johnson J. Hoopers Simon Suggs and George Washington Harriss Sut Lovingood were employed to portray the rough and unsophisticated American as an ironic hero. Suggs was lazy and dishonest, and he knew it was good to be shifty in a new country. 48 Sut Lovingood (1814-1869 Sut Lovingood expressed a rude racism and
sexism. He argued in favor of drinking, sex, roughhousing, and a deep mistrust of preachers, widows, and other guardians of civilization. His freedom, joy of life, and cynicism supported the counter culture. 49 Mark Twain (1835-1910) Like Charles Dickens in England, Mark
Twain in America wrote vernacular novels with eccentric characters. Twain wrote stories about characters that are more real than real life, more true to type than any true person could be. 50 Mark Twain 51
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Oscar Wilde is a great comic playwright whose only joke, it seems, was to contrast the honest, industrious mors of the public world with the lazy selfish motivations of his elegant heroes. Wildes plays exhibit a gift for word play and reparte, as well as cultivation of ridiculous situations. 52
Oscar Wilde 53 P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) Wodehouse wrote many novels about the nitwit Bertie Wooster and his gentlemans gentleman, Jeeves. Wodehouses works usually hinge around a ridiculous social situations
created by the characters themselves. 54 P. G. Wodehouse 55 E. B. White (1899-1985) In 1941, E. B. White wrote, Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the
thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind. 56 E. B. White 57 George Orwell (1903-1950)
Orwells Animal Farm is an allegory. On the surface it is a story about personified farm animals. But it is probably also about the Russian revolution. 58 We should learn from history! 59
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Isaac Asimov is famous as a science fiction writer, but he also published two books of jokes, one in 1971, and one in 1993. These joke books contain commentary on why the jokes are funny, and suggestions on how to become a good joke teller. 60
Joseph Heller (1923-) Joseph Heller wrote gallows humor in which he tried to make people laugh and then feel like fools for having laughed. He wrote Catch 22 in which Yosarian had to prove that he was insane in order to get out of the army, but by trying to get out of the army he was proving that he was sane. Another catch 22 in the novel was that they had to fly a certain number of missions before returning home, but the number kept increasing.
61 Joseph Heller 62 Television Humor Television opened huge new vistas for performing arts in general, and humor in particular. Early TV featured humorous variety shows
like Laugh In, and Saturday Night Live. There was also much sketch humor in such shows as Monty Pythons Flying Circus. 63 The First Comic Strips The early strips such as The Yellow Kid were curious combinations of down-to-earth slapstick, topical joking, and rather abstract referencing. In the hands of a Windsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland, The Adventures of the Rare-bit Fiend,)
they were creative indeed, and could border on the surreal and handle social satire at the same time. George Herrimans Krazy Kat mostly settled for a domestic humor involving marital conflict and bratty kids. 64 The Golden Age of Humor The golden age of humor was often considered to be the 1920s but would be more accurately placed from the end of WWI
to the early 30s. During this golden age, we see the development of the little man in Casper Milquetoast, Andy Gump, Jiggs, Mutt (of Mutt and Jeff), and Dagwood (of Blondie and Dagwood). 65 Blondie and Dagwood Dagwood loses battles with his wife, Blondie, his kids, the dog, his boss, and the
neighborhood bridge club (intruding on his bath). His defense is napping as often as he can, eating everything in sight [Dagwood Sandwiches], and knocking down the mailman as he rushes off to work in the morning. It was a comic counter-balance to American arrogance, and self-confidence. 66 Blondie and Dagwood, Pogo, and Lil Abner
67 The 1940s The humorous comic strips that were revived after the Second World War included Walt Kellys Pogo, and Al Capps Lil Abner. Kellys swamp fables were allegorical swamps themselves, loaded with social and political commentary lurking behind the antics and interactions of the familiar cast of animal characters.
Al Capps hillbillies gave access to Capps views on topical events, government, and American values. 68 Charles Schulzs Eccentrics The Peanuts comic strip uses kids to reflect adult neuroses:
Lucy uses her meanness to compensate for the unrequited love she has for Schroeder (who keeps trying to play Beethoven on a toy piano with painted on black keys). Linus has his blanket to comfort him when his childhood fears and fantasy get in the way of his intellect,
and the dog, Snoopy, deals with the limitations of his dogness by pretending to be the Red Baron, or a lawyer, writer, hockey player, detective and resident of a deluxe doghouse complete with a pool table and rare paintings. Charlie Brown, the consummate loser, little man character, reflects all the fears, weaknesses, and failures of modern man. He knows that Lucy will pull the football away from him when he tries to kick it, yet every year
he tries again. 69 Charles Schulz 70 History of International Humor Conferences 1976: Cardiff Wales 1982: Los Angeles, CA 1984: Tel Aviv, Israel
1985: Cork, Ireland 1982-1987: Tempe, AZ 1988: West Lafayette, IN 1989: Laie, HI 1990: Sheffield, England 1991: St. Catharines, Canada 1992: Paris France 1993: Luxembourg 1994: Ithaca, NY 1995: Birmingham, England 1996: Sydney, Australia
1997: Edmond, OK 1998: Bergen, Norway 1999: Oakland, CA 2000: Osaka, Japan 2001: College Park, MD 2002: Forli, Italy 2003: Chicago, IL 2004: Dijon, France 2005: Youngstown, OH 2006: Copenhagen, Denmark
2007: Newport, RI 2008: Alcala, Spain 2009: Long Beach, CA 2010: Hong Kong 2011: Boston, MA 2012: Krakow, Poland 2013: Williamstown, VA 2014: Utrecht, Netherlands 2015: Oakland, CA 2016: Dublin, Ireland 71
International Society for Humor Studies (Martin Lampert, Web Master): www.humorstudies.org 72 Two Visual Anachronisms 73
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