Paul Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College, is one of America’s most eminent scholars of humor.  With this book, he has written another very thoroughly researched study of contemporary American humor, ranging from the “positive humor” and “laughter club” movements that use humor to promote health and efficiency, peace and uplift, to the “killing humor” of American jokes and comedies that seemingly violate all norms of kindness and restraint.

Lewis is quite rightly skeptical of the claims of the laughter clubs, hospital clowns, and corporate humor consultants who have come to constitute both something approaching a New Age religion and a substantial and prosperous business sector.  His detailed review of the now-extensive research literature shows, however, that there is no clear link between humor and health.  Likewise, he is able to deflate the claim that humor reduces hostility and makes people feel good by showing that it very often achieves the opposite result.

Lewis’s accounts of his personal encounters with the professional humor practitioners are both insightful and wryly funny.  The question remains, however: Does it matter that these people are fakes?  The positive-humor movement neither leads patients to ignore more effective cures (as homeopathy sometimes does), nor can it inflict direct harm on patients (as psychoanalysis often does).  No one takes “positive humor” seriously as an intellectual program in the way that many do the vacuous and unverifiable propositions of Freud and company.

The same point applies in relation to Lewis’s fascinating and detailed account of the “killing jokes” of the 1980’s and 90’s about famines and dead babies, the killing of lawyers and therapists, and the amusement drawn from the lives of such murderers as Jeffrey Dahmer and O.J. Simpson.  Lewis links this humor to the social theories of that archliberal Baron Giddens of Southgate, which claim that we are all in a state of anxiety and denial about impending environmental catastrophe.  Has Lewis forgotten the letters written by Walter Sickert when pretending to be Jack the Ripper, the Ruthless Rhymes of Harry Graham, the savage songs of British soldiers in the trenches, American jokes from the 1920’s about lynching, and the American Horror Comics of the 50’s, which were morbid in exactly the same way and popular long before Lord Giddens’ meditations on global doom?

The joke wars detailed in this book are a distinctively American phenomenon in which individuals who make jokes to which the members of a targeted group object are then made the subject of recrimination and harassment.  In 1995, four Cornell freshmen sent out by e-mail “75 reasons why women should not have freedom of speech,” which later escaped to wider dissemination on the internet.  America’s massed feminist harpies went berserk, the students were sent death threats, and attempts were made to get Cornell to discipline them.  May a foreigner wonder why identity politics and the politics of emotion are so strong in the United States?  Why does anger politics work so well in America?  Or more to the point, why is some people’s anger taken more seriously than others’?  Why is it “correct” to be indignant about jokes putting down homosexuals or blacks, whereas jokes about pedophile priests can circulate unmolested?  What does this tell us about who really exercises power in America?

Let us look at two examples that Lewis provides.  The first is an hilarious cartoon by Robert Grossman, published in 2005, called “Babe Lincoln,” which followed the publication of a book suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was attracted to men and shared beds with them.  The cartoon shows a large-breasted, wide-hipped Lincoln in women’s clothing and top hat and beard, wielding an ax onstage, ready to split an imagined trunk into fence rails.  The cartoon is a winner for its sheer incongruity.  There were, however, immediate protests following its publication, saying that the cartoon confused homosexual men, transvestites, and transsexuals and was, thus, grossly insulting to the neatly business-suited, body-building “gay community.”  Yet it would not have surprised me at all to have seen a queer, bearded lumberjack in drag going down Main Street, California, on a float in a gay-pride parade.  Quid rides?

We may contrast this situation with the response to jokes about priests having sex with altar boys—jokes Lewis records as circulating among his students in the 1980’s.  Such jesting, if taken seriously, could be viewed as a malicious undermining of the moral authority of the priesthood and the meaning of the confessional.  Only a small minority of priests are pedophiles, in exactly the same sense that only a small minority of black men are rapists.  Liberals ought to argue that such jokes about priests are wrong because they unfairly indict an entire group.  Why is it, then, that I cannot hear their protests?  Lewis’s take on this joke is an interesting one.  He suggests that such humor could make the seduction of choirboys appear an ordinary, laughable, and—by implication—acceptable event, which could, in turn, make it easier for the hierarchy to tolerate and conceal priestly pedophilia.

These two radically different interpretations prove that jokes do not have clear meanings.  They are meant to be ambiguous and incongruous; that is what makes them funny.  This, in turn, undermines liberal claims that jokes influence people’s opinions and dispositions.  Lewis outlines at length the available research on this point, and it is clear to me, if not entirely to him, that there is very little support for the idea that jokes have any measurable effect on people’s psyches.

At this point, Lewis, who is something of a liberal, suggests that jokes are a different kind of political snare, used to induce us to like and trust good-humored politicians such as Ronald Reagan; they are therefore a “distortion of and detraction from rational reflection.”  Maybe so, but is this not how all image politics, or indeed the “presentation of self,” works?  In his cozy fireside chats, Franklin Roosevelt lulled people into forgetting that he and his advisors (some of whom were, according to recently released KGB files, dangerous Soviet agents) were, against Churchill’s better judgment, handing over Eastern Europe to communist slavery.  FDR’s carefully constructed geniality concealed a policy whose consequences were unspeakably cruel.  Only under hard-joking Reagan was Eastern Europe freed, and only amiable George W. Bush has had the courage to denounce the blunders of the aging, ailing, possibly senile Roosevelt as “one of the greatest wrongs of history.”

A sense of humor and an ability to use humor are undoubtedly an asset to any democratic politician, but they are just as likely to be associated with vision, rationality, and success as with their opposites.  Intellectuals may well choose to rely on “rational reflection” alone, but it is precisely this habit of mind that has led to their attachment to ideologies that have the appearance of rationality, merely because they are systematic.  Perhaps it is better to muddle through with jokes.


[Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict, by Paul Lewis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 224 pp., $25.00]