February 16, 2014


The Absurdist Insurgency : A history of American humor finds liberation in the horselaugh (BEN SCHWARTZ, February 2014, BookForum)

Debating who gets the funny franchise is in our republic's DNA. According to the weightier tomes on the subject, once the colonial and revolutionary generations of Franklins and Jeffersons aged out of the population, the first Americans--the ones who only knew life as Americans, not as colonials--developed a uniquely rude brand of folk humor that coincided with Andrew Jackson's ascendance. In Blacking Up (1974), Robert C. Toll describes that "common man's culture" as "proud, independent, morally strong, brave, and nationalistic." In American Humor (1931), Constance Rourke writes of these early days:

Laughter produced the illusion of leveling obstacles. . . . Laughter created ease, and even more, a sense of unity, among a people who were not yet a nation and who were seldom joined in stable communities. . . . For a people whose life was still unformed, a searching out of primitive concepts was an inevitable and stirring pursuit, uncovering common purposes and directions.

Waspy, rural, and male, the Jacksonians developed a humor not unlike their politics and economics. It was by and for unlettered yet clever folk--morally correct merchants and farmers rising up in the world. They reveled in comedy that depicted them outwitting urban elites who had more money, cultivation, and education. The Jacksonians gave us the minstrel show, Washington Irving's antielitist A History of New York and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the tall tales of frontiersman Davy Crockett, and hayseed wits like Seba Smith's fictional Major Jack Downing. Waspy Yankee men got to toss the punch lines, and everyone else caught them.

Our inherent Christianity, conservatism and conformity make America's the most naturally-humorous culture going.

Posted by at February 16, 2014 8:57 AM

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