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The power of humor

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Title:
The power of humor imagining "the American" into a reality
Creator:
Brandt, Melanie Beth
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Language:
English
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viii, 133 leaves : ; 28 cm

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Subjects / Keywords:
American wit and humor ( lcsh )
National characteristics, American ( lcsh )
Comedy ( lcsh )
Comedians -- United States ( lcsh )
American wit and humor ( fast )
Comedians ( fast )
Comedy ( fast )
National characteristics, American ( fast )
United States ( fast )
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bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

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Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 128-133).
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Melanie Beth Brandt.

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|University of Colorado Denver
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Auraria Library
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
656833100 ( OCLC )
ocn656833100
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LD1193.L58 2010m B36 ( lcc )

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Full Text
THE POWER OF HUMOR:
IMAGINING THE AMERICAN
INTO A REALITY
by
Melanie Beth Brandt
B.A., University of Colorado Denver, 2002
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
2010


This thesis for the Master of Humanities
degree by
Melanie Beth Brandt
has been approved
by
Pamela Laird


Brandt, Melanie Beth (M.H., Humanities)
The Power of Humor: Imagining The American Into a Reality
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Jake Adam York
ABSTRACT
Humor is not just a product of culture, it is an active agent in the
development of the culture. One particular branch of humor provides ideas and
images about American culture, and in doing so, can effect change in its audiences
understandings of the American.
Looking at humor in America as collections of humorous performances
with shared social and political concerns about the nation provides a perspective for
both detecting the American in the humor and analyzing what it is suggesting. By
linking together individual performances through the similarities in their imaging
of American characters and experiences, they reference one another and,
together, seem to work towards corresponding versions of a dominant American
identity.
A selection of performances are connected in this work in the way that they
form the American in reaction to contradictions between the nations ideals, as they
are laid out in its founding documents, and the experiences of most Americans.
Together, these performances portray the American in humor as both an evolving
figure of citizenship and a set of qualities that support this figure. In this way, their
humor criticizes the incongruity between Americas promises and its realities, and
their imaginings offer solutions to this situation. Separate yet united, these


humorous performances suggest that the American could, should, and must be
increasingly inclusive and democratic.
By using their humor and its imaginings towards ends that seem to match
up with American ideals, these performances make claims for a true American.
In their cultural imaginings they envision who or what constitutes as American and
thereby reflect on the real world of American experiences. The humorists tools,
namely, the comic form, voice, and mask, make it possible for them to narrate
imagined worlds for their audiences that communicate their social or political
concerns. The performance allows audience members to try on an abstracted and
alternative experience of America and consider the truth of its suggestions. In as
much as audiences consent to their truths, these performances can influence their
constitutive understandings of the American as an increasingly inclusive figure
of citizenship and democratic experience of the nation.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Signed
Jake Adam York


DEDICATION
I dedicate this work to my dad and mom who have steadfastly encouraged, loved,
and supported me no matter what I wanted to do with my life. Thank you for
always believing in me. I also dedicate this to my sister who has been an endless
source of love and humor, empathy and sarcasm. Thank you Patton, Chloe, and
Ally for your comforting presences. To Jake, this has been a long, long time
coming and you never quit encouraging and inspiring me. And, of course, I
dedicate this to my Philip who remains invaluable to my success and happiness in
life. Thank you for your endless amount of the p word (i.e. patience) and support
no matter how many nights you slept alone while I wrote until the wee hours of the
mom.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
My eternal gratefulness to my friend, mentor, and advisor, Jake Adam York, for the
many years of encouragement and guidance. Your wisdom has been invaluable to
my development as your student and as person in the world. I can only hope that
some of it has worn off on me. Thank you also to my committee members Pamela
Laird and Brad Mudge for offering their valuable insights, feedback, and attention
when they already had too much work on their hands.


TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION: INVESTIGATING AN
"AMERICAN HUMOR"..........................................1
2. THE MAGIC OF RICHARD PRYOR.............................6
The Transformative Effects of Humor.................6
The Comic Voice and Comic Form..................9
Humor Scholarship.............................13
Incongruence................................... 16
Speech Acts......................................21
American Contexts..................................26
Cultural Dialectics and Transformation...........29
A Public Space.....................................34
3. WHAT THEN IS THE AMERICAN,
THIS NEW MAN?..........................................38
The Humor of Tall Tales
Gives Form to The American.......................38
The American.....................................49
The Non-American.................................58
4. CRACKER-BARREL PHILOSOPHERS...........................66
vii


Comic Masking and Voicing the Rights
of American Citizenship...................................66
Cultural Significance.....................................79
5. LENNY BRUCE..................................................83
The Healing Effects of a Sick Comic.......................83
Poetics...................................................87
Individual Offense........................................91
Offending The System....................................96
Success..................................................102
6. CONCLUSION: PASSING THE TORCH...............................104
An Evolution of Humor in America and Its
Bittersweet Demise.......................................104
Political History and the Comic Mask...................106
Evolution to the 21st Century............................116
Futures..................................................125
BIBLIOGRAPHY..........................................................128
viii


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION:
INVESTIGATING AN AMERICAN HUMOR
The phrase American humor suggests that a collection of humorous
performances can be defined by their expression of something akin to
Americanness. It sets up an expectation that an observation and study of these
performances will reveal some insight into the identification of what constitutes as
American. However, locating something that can identified as American in
particular humorous performances is not satisfied by looking at a collection of
static qualities or characteristics that coincide with established notions of a singular
American nation. This approach is prevalent in early humor study where, for
instance, the use of exaggeration in early humor in America is seen as a reflection
of settlers reactions to the immensity of the geography. Instead, in my own use of
the phrase American humor I claim that particular humorous performances create
dialogue about a national identity through their imagined American experiences
and that this dialogue can then affect audiences constitutive understandings of the
nation.
I am not suggesting that there is any one particular type or kind of humor
that can be categorized as American since making this sort of claim ignores
Americas complex multiculturalism. Even the collections of samplings from
various social, ethnic, and political groups that are found in American humor
anthologies really only amount to limited selections of performances and possible
cultural categories, and therefore, they cannot demonstrate an all-inclusive
American categorization. A more fruitful claim is that collections of humorous
performances imply linkages amongst the varieties of these performances and, in
1


doing so, make it seem that they portray an American humor. That is, by
referencing one another both directly and indirectly, and even intentionally and
unintentionally, these performances make it seem as if they form a normative
standard of humor in America. With this in mind, I both engage in and complicate
the idea that a collection of humorous performances can be American by looking
into the performances assumptions about national identity in combination with
their humor and the ways in which they communicate these to one another.
This line of investigation that frequently involves looking into the inner
workings of humorous performances, does not, however, end here. The relationship
between the audience member and the performance allows for the possibility that
the humor can change or affect the real world. When the imaginings within the
performance become true in the minds of its audiences then it has the power to
influence culture. Even granting that there is no single American humor, some
humor can affect audiences notions of who or what constitutes as American.
Modem humor scholarship provides the methods by which I make and
support these claims. This involves drawing from a variety of disciplines in order to
seek answers to the question, what does humor do? One branch of humor study
provides some possible answers to this question by treating particular humorous
performances as rhetorical spaces for locating American culture. The question then
becomes, how does humor do this? That is, how can humor portray the
American? In answering this question the larger question then reemerges as, what
does the American in humor do?
In my responses to these questions, I argue that humor is not only a
reflector, but a force in shaping culture which I will illuminate through the critical
analyses of select humorous performances. Each of the main performances chosen
for this text stands out in its ability to: a) provide a form for delineating specific
aspects of my argument; b) exhibit cultural, political, and artistic significance in its
2


popularity with audiences and influence on the evolution of humor; and, c)
imagines an American experience. These selected performances, in effect, give life
to my philosophical and theoretical discussion of humor.
I begin with Richard Pryor. While he does not supply us with a
chronological beginning for a timeline of these performances, his humor in the
opening chapter of this text is foundational to laying out the schematics for
understanding how his or any humorous performance can seek out, present, and
change reality. In Pryors performance, his comic voice narrates the illegitimacy of
race and racial prejudice. He imagines a de-racialized American and, in so doing,
highlights his usage of the assortment of tools that humor provides in order to
achieve this end. Each of the chapters and performances that follow gives a notable
demonstration and in-depth explanation of one or two of these tools. Pryors
performance, however, provides a useful demonstration of a multitude of these
tools including the comic voice and incongruent comparisons. Although his
particular usage of these tools is built upon a long history, his is significant in its
public and politically charged criticism of his American experience. Criticism is
not, however, an end for Pryor. He uses these tools for the ultimate end of
suggesting a democratic solution.
The search for any experience that can be identified as American finds a
chronological beginning in the next chapter on Tall Tales. Crevecoeurs inquisitive
meditations on the character of the American, this new man provide the backdrop
for a response in these vernacular literary texts.1 The Tall Tale tries to imagine
what the American might be. Conversely and concurrently, these tales also envision
what the American might not be. This humorous mode works by displacing
strangeness onto antagonist characters that are also othered through their ethnic
' J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letter III, Letters from an American Farmer (New York: Fox,
Duffield and Company, 1904. Reprinted from original, 1782.), 54
3


differences by normalizing the traits of protagonists. By accepting this incongruity,
the Tall Tale illustrates a hypocritical situation that regularly characterizes humor
in America.
Democratic equality clashes with racial exclusion, yet both of these ideas
contribute to an identification of the American in its formative texts. What Louis D.
Rubin Jr. refers to as the great American joke is the contradiction between
Americas democratic ideals and the realities of Americans.2 This contradictory
situation is the focus of much of humor in America since it is so much a part of
American experiences.
One of the comics tools for creating social commentary on this and other
troublesome American experiences is the comic mask. The humor of the cracker-
barrel philosopher, as it is discussed in Chapter 3, provides illustrations of
characters that are formulated, in part, to communicate much more than what is
available on their surfaces. They are constructed as masks for the actual authors
who disguise themselves within the comic figures that they authorize. The
cracker-barrel philosophers are discussed here as extreme rhetorical figures who, in
their extremeness, gesture toward other commentaries than the ones that they are
expressing on the surface. The author can playfully, yet no less seriously,
communicate social, political, and cultural criticism even in the midst of touchy
situations.
Lenny Bruces humor for many people seems like the opposite of the comic
mask. He encouraged this idea by regularly claiming Im not a comedian, Im
2 Rubin more thoroughly explains that Out of the incongruity between mundane circumstance and
heroic ideal, material fact and spiritual hunger, democratic, middle-class society and desire for
cultural definition, theory of equality and fact of social and economic inequality, [...] between
what men would be and must be, as acted out in American experience, has come much pathos, no
small amount of tragedy, and also a great deal of humor [...] this, then, has been what has been
called the great American joke. Louis D. Rubin Jr., Introduction: The Great American Joke,
in The Comic Imagination in American Literature, ed. Louis D. Rubin Jr. (New Jersey: Rutgers
University Press, 1973), 9.
4


Lenny Bruce. This statement is in itself ironic (whether he meant it to be or not),
and within his humorous performance, Bruce also creates an extreme rhetorical
figure of himself. In this case, it is his use of the comic voice that is an element in
the ironic construction of his humor. This chapter looks at his performance of
specific social conventions and moral or legal standards as tests of their legitimacy.
He uses these tests to ultimately expose their weaknesses and hypocrisies. His
humor is obscene in order to demonstrate the misguided standards of obsceneness,
and sick in order to show society how to be healed. In other words, his narration
of these conventions and standards is their undoing. Bruces comic voice directs the
audiences experiences so that they are temporarily in line with his and they see the
world how he sees it. When this does not happen, and instead his humor leads to
the offense of individuals and larger social institutions, it only reinforces his ironic
treatment of his subject matter. His use of the comic voice sets the stage and
removes legal repercussions for successive comedians that use comic tools in a
similar way as him, including, of course, Richard Pryor.
The impetus for this collection of humorous performances is the response to
the question, what does humor do? By looking at the ways that they connect with
one another and present a mythological American humor, these performances not
only supply a response to this question, but to the question of what the American
in humor can do. That is not to say that the tools that help link these humorous
performance are in any way limited to any particular kind of humor; nor are the
problems that grow out of grand political ideals and social hypocrisies unique to
America. However, these elements, along with other specific details discussed in
the chapters, combine in the imaginings of the American within these
performances. As a result, they have the ability to show us different and alternative
versions of the American experience, and alter our conceptions of what it means to
be American.
5


CHAPTER 2
THE MAGIC OF RICHARD PRYOR
The Transformative Effects of Humor
One thing I got out of it was magic Id like to share with you.
I was leaving. I was sittin in the hotel and a voice said, Took
around and what do you see? And I said, I see all colors of
people doing everything. And the voice said, do you see any
niggers? And I said, no. And it said, you know whycause
there arent any.
And it hit me like a shot, man. I started cryin and shit. I was
sittin there and I said, yeah, Ive been here for three weeks
and I havent even said it; I havent even thought it. And it
made me say, oh my god, Ive been wrong. I been wrong. I
got to regroup my shit. I mean, I said, I aint ever goin call a
black man nigger. You know, cause we never was no
niggers. Thats a word to describe our own wretchedness. And
we perpetuate it now cause its dead. That words dead. We
men and women. We come from the first people on the earth.
You know?! The first people on the earth were black people,
cause anthropologistswhite anthropologists, so the white
people go [white man voice] that could be true you know
Dr. Leakey and them found people remains in Africa five
million years ago. You know them motherfuckers didnt speak
Frenchr
A single man on stage at The Sunset Strip, Richard Pryor re-imagines the
history of the African American. He envisions the grip of the oppression and
violencethe wretchednessthat has defined the relationship between African
Americans and America releasing. By observing Africans as the beginning of the
human race, Pryor makes an Americans African origins a source of pride rather
J N Word, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, DVD, directed by Joe Layton (1982; Culver
City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Video, 1999).
6


than a tool for persecution. In order to engineer the magic of this cultural re-
imagining, Pryor temporarily suspends the power of American racism by
disavowing the relevancy of the language that perpetuates it. Once he left America
and its racial tensions for a visit to the Motherland, i.e. Africa, he realized the
detrimental impact of racist language regardless of ones intentions. Nigger may
be the most potent word in American language.4 A retrospective glance at Pryors
frequent use of the word in his earlier humor seems like a hopeful attempt to
wrench it away from its racist history and appropriate it for his own use.5 Pryors
visit to Africa, where this word does not define black people, reveals to him that the
American history of this word cannot be destroyed or rewritten; it must be left for
dead.6 Appropriation seeks to invest a word from previous owners and previous
usages; but, the residues of this words history remain. Disabling this oppressive
language reestablishes African Americans as people who are not defined by the
history of this word: We never was no niggers [...] we men and women. By
sharing his epiphany with us, Pryor is also asking us to arrive at some of the same
conclusions. If he can show us how language shapes our perceptions of the world,
then perhaps we can join him in declaring I aint ever goin call a black man
nigger.
4 For an extensive and intriguing account of the history of this word, see Randall Kennedy, Nigger:
The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (New York: First Vintage Books, 2003). Though
Kennedy readily admits that it is impossible to trace the exact historical moment when niger, the
Latin word for black, became nigger with its pejorative meaning, there is evidence that by the
end of the first third of the nineteenth century, nigger had already become a familiar and influential
insult 4.
5 In Pryors autobiography, he explains that this one night I decided to make it my own. Nigger. I
decided to take the sting out of it. Nigger. As if saying it over and over again would numb me and
everybody else to its wretchedness. Nigger. Said it over and over like a preacher singing hallelujah.
Fie maintained this perspective from the early 1970s until his 1979 trip to Africa. Richard Pryor and
Todd Gold, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences (New York: Pantheon Books, 1995), 116.
6 Due to the content of Pryors humor where the terms black and African American, as well as
white and Caucasian American are used interchangeably, they will also follow this pattern
within this text.
7


Not only did Pryor essentially de-racializing his own language by
abolishing the use of this word, his performance imagines the de-racialization of
human beings by establishing Africans as the ancestors of the entire human race.
When he tells us that the the first people on the earth were black people, he
reunites all people by bringing to light our shared African heritage and
anthropological origins. This statement makes the next part of his performance
particularly ironic. When Pryor feels the need to substantiate this history by
clarifying that white anthropologists are responsible for these findings in order to
gain the confidence of white audience members (white man voice, that could be
true, you know), he is acknowledging the continuation of racism beyond the
limitations of his performance. Even if early black people in Africa began the
human race as we know it, modem black people in America do not have the
authority to make this claim powerful. Pryors use of a white voice mocks the
need for white people to hear tmths from a racially similar sourcea source they
can identify with and trust. In this identification is the recognition of the white
power which authorizes the statement. However, to continue white prejudice and
acknowledge Africans privileged position as our shared ancestors, Pryor highlights
the irrationality of this prejudice. The human race is homogeneous in Pryors
performance. He wanted us to experience the erasure of racial and racist
distinctions through our shared African ancestry, just as he experienced an erasure
of racial distinctions through his visit to the African continent.
This performance exemplifies the potential power of humor. Within a small
segment of one of Richard Pryors standup acts is a demonstration of the power of
the humorous performance to seek out, present, and change reality. Clearly not all
humor achieves these ends, and much of it does not aim to. A knock-knock joke or
naughty limerick about Nantucket is not meant to have the same effects as Pryors
humor. However, when the humorous performance reaches a level of artistic
8


fulfillment, as Pryors does, it is as significant as, say, a great painting or a famous
piece of literature. In her philosophies on art and symbolism, Susanne K. Langer
brings light to artistic fulfillment as a concept that is tantamount to putting life
into forms that we can recognize and contemplate:
Life is incoherent unless we give it form. [...] we put into
words, tell it to ourselves, compose it in terms ofscenes, so
that in our minds we can enact all its important moments. The
basis of this imaginative work is the poetic art we have
known, from the earliest nursery rhymes to the most profound,
or sophisticated, or breath-taking drama and fiction.7
What is a rather elusive concept finds clarity in Langers explanation. The
usefulness of this explanation is that it sets up a method of valuation for
determining the artistic significance in a humorous performance. Pryors
performance, for instance, articulates an experience of life through the form of his
humor. He performs the human experiences of pain, emotion, and endurance.
Furthermore, he makes use of the humorous performance as a means of both
establishing vital truths, those moments where we instinctively think thats funny
because its true, and then creating new realities, those moments when we then
think thats even funnier because its truer.
The Comic Voice and Comic Form
In order to understand how a performance like Pryors becomes significant
in the sense described above, it is necessary to recognize the role of the comic
voice. This is the voice, or collection of voices, belonging to the protagonist
character(s) which gives shape to the particular experience of life that is being
performed on the stage, page, or screen for its audiences. It focuses and directs our
understanding of the unfolding events and commentary within the comic structure.
The comic voice narrates the virtual world of the performance. Langer explains that
7 Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1953), 400.
9


within this world the livingness of the human world is abstracted, composed, and
presented to us; with it the high points of the composition that are illuminated by
humor. It is in our willing compliance to take in the world created by the comic
voice that we enter into the narrative, and our recognition of the livingness of the
human world allows the performance the potential to recreate our realities.
The relationship between the comic voice and the audience is structurally
similar to the relationship between a hypnotist and a patient in the sense that both
contain a narrator who directs the imaginings of the passive listener. The source of
this comparison is Sigmund Freud who uses the hypnotist/patient relationship as a
means of dissecting the phenomenon of group psyche. What was useful to Freud in
utilizing this relationship is also useful here in my explanation of the comic voice
and audience. Namely, that out of the complicated fabric of the group it isolates
one element for usthe behavior of the individual to the leader.8 9 In Freuds
explanation of this relationship the hypnotist is the sole object, and no attention is
paid to any but him and the ego experiences in a dreamlike way whatever he may
request or assert.10 This account can also apply to the experience of audience
members who focus solely on the comic voice wherein its imaginings also become
their imaginings. Just as the control of the hypnotist is only active during the
hypnotizing session, the influence of the comic voice is only operative during the
performance. And while both of these relationships are temporary, they can have
lasting effects in a sense that both memory and rethinking the experiences can
prolong their effects. Ones exposure to the suggestions of the hypnotist, or the
truths expressed by the comic voice, makes possible alterations in ones thinking
8 Ibid., 348.
9 Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1960; New York: Bantam Books,
1965), 58.
10 Ibid.
10


and behavior.11 This explanation outlines the schematic of the humorous
performance wherein our participation momentarily allows the truths of the comic
voice to be our own truths which then have the possibility of extending into our
living worlds.
Our use of sense or instinct in comprehending the truth(s) in a
humorous performance such as Pryors, allows us to delineate the form that
Langer references. What we may initially sense as the significance in art as
opposed to being able to directly and logically point to itis the result of arts
expression in non-discursive form.12 This form is akin to a symbolic language
that re-fixes the meanings of its references.13 The particular structure or design of
an artistic work imports and maintains its own symbolic significance and
expresses this to its public. The challenge, then, of attempting to uncover the
meaning in an artistically significant work is in deciphering the inner-workings of
its particular non-discursive form.
Langers explanations help make explicit some key concepts that I will use
then within my own arguments. I argue that humor is culturally, politically and
artistically significant, that, in particular instances the humorous performance has
the power to show us a particular version of the experience of life and thereby add
to or alter our perception of it. The non-discursive form, is a schematic for
11 My later chapter on the humor of Lenny Bruce more thoroughly lays out the details of this
structure and considers the audience member who does not consent to the narration within the
performance.
12 Langer, Feeling and Form, 32. For a far more extensive and comprehensive explanation of this
concept read all of Langers Philosophy in a New Key (1942; Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1957). Give specific attention to Chapter 4, Discursive Forms and Presentational Forms, 79-102.
u An example of Langers own definition should also be read in order for it to maintain its cogency:
The concept is the articulate but non-discursive form having import without conventional
reference, and therefore presenting itself not as a symbol in the ordinary sense, but as a significant
form in which the factor of significance is not logically discriminated, but is felt as a quality rather
than recognized as a function. Feeling and Form, 32.
11


understanding how this end is achieved in each of the various examples that I look
into. By accepting that each of these humorous performances contains its own
symbolic languageits own means for communicatingit opens the door for
discussing in the present tense what the humor is doing and how it is doing it. In
other words, I am examining these humorous performances from the perspective
that each continually and consistently expresses itself in its own specific way.
Within the exegesis of each of my examples is the argument that the humor
expresses not only an experience of life, but an American experience of life. As
readers, observers, or audience members, we do not need to have had identical
experiences as those being expressed within the humor in order to recognize them
as both human and American. If the humor is successful, these qualities will be
effectively communicated to the majority of its audiences.
Humorous performances that operate in the aforementioned ways create
political dialogue about what it means to be American. In expressing an American
experience of life, the individual humorous performance participates in a familiar
way of presenting the American in humor, thereby linking it to other humorous
performances. At the same time, it also imparts something new about this quality.
As it stands, this argument allows for such a wide variety of performances and
experiences in creating political dialogue that it seems impossible to assess any
shape of the dialogue. My strategy to deal with this is to assess some humorous
performances that rise above others, both in their enduring popularity within the
public sphere and their impact on successive work within the artistic sphere, in
order to draw some conclusions about the political work that they do. These
performances stand out in the way that they connect with one another by handing
off their tools and purposes to successive humorous performances. And, in this
way, they make it seem that their humor is a standard and dominant American
humor.
12


Humor Scholarship
The idea that humor can be culturally, politically, and artistically significant
is not a new concept. However, arguing that humor achieves its significance
through dual roles as both a reflecting and a shaping agent of political culture is a
fairly modem strategy of American humor scholarship. What began in the early
twentieth century in the works of pioneering humor scholars such as Jennette
Tandy and Constance Rourke was the pursuit of illustrating the attributes of a
humor as a unique product of American culture.14 According to these texts, the
work of humorists reflects the cultural experience of Americans within their
particular time periods. Rourke illustrates this method of analysis in her search for
the historical beginnings of a recognizably American character in humor by
suggesting that by 1815 the American seemed to regard himself as a work of art,
and began that embellished self-portraiture which nations as well as individuals
may undertake.15 Here, Rourke sees the subjects of her analysis, those early
American characters such as the frontiersman and the minstrel character, as artistic
productions that loosely imitate their creators and audiences. These beginnings
allowed scholars to form a foundation for the value of humor as a window into
culture.
Humor study has since evolved in such a way as to examine the
development of humor concurrently with the development of culture. Rourkes
characters have been reconsidered in scholarly texts several times since the
publication of American Humor in order to expand the dialogue with the various
ways that these characters influenced audiences conceptions of the nation and its
14 Jennette Tandy, The Crackerbox Philosophers in American Humor and Satire (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1925); and, Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the
National Character (New York: Doubleday, 1931).
15 Rourke, American Humor, 4.
13


citizens.16 Rourkes discussion of the minstrel character, for instance, gains new
insight when scholar Blyden Jackson shifts the perspective of the investigation to
that of impact of this character on its audiences:
The pressure of color caste affected not only Negroes. It
affected also their representation. And nowhere was their
representation a readier tool for racism than in blackface
minstrelsy. [...] And so the minstrel mode, in its worst
element, invaded American life, in the very process reversing
a relationship, so that, instead of life dictating to art, art
dictated to life.17 18
Jacksons argument is crafted from the perspective that the minstrel character
influenced his audiences as much as, if not more than, they influenced him. The
evolution of the perspective of the humor scholar demonstrated by this comparison
between Rourke and Jackson is equally visible in the texts of other authors. Sculley
Bradley, writing shortly after Rourke, sees these early American characters as the
embodiments of a shared national experience suggesting that the national
characteristics of American humor are plainly rooted in the conditions of American
life. In contrast, a later author like Lawrence E. Mintz considers the many early
comic characters as means for laugh[ing] at the common man for his manifest
failings, while at the same time, his position as a citizen in a democracy makes it
16 For other interesting examples of these texts, see Lawrence E. Mintz, American Humour and the
Spirit of the Times, in Its a Funny Thing, Humour, ed. Antony J. Chapman and Hugh C. Foot
(New York: Pergamon Press, 1987), 17-22; and, Robert Sklar, Humor in America, in A
Celebration of Laughter, ed. Werner M. Mendel (Los Angeles: Mara Books, 1970), 9-30.
17 Blyden Jackson, The Minstrel Mode, in The Comic Imagination in American Literature, ed.
Louis D. Rubin Jr. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1973), 155.
18 Sculley Bradley, Our Native Humor, in The Humor Prism in 20lh-Century America, ed. Joseph
Boskin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997), 48.
14


necessary to consider that his virtues may indeed outweigh his vices.19 20 The
modernity in the texts of humor scholars like Mintz and Jackson reveals itself in the
multi-dimensional treatment of the texts and characters.
Characters such as the frontiersman Davy Crockett or the wise-fool
Artemus Ward are therefore not just reflections of what early Americans already
saw in themselves: their popular presence affected how their American audiences
perceived themselves and others. As a result, the works of modem humor scholars
emphasize the substantial power of humor to influence the development of culture.
Joseph Boskin perhaps best articulates this idea by equating humor study to an
exploration of a particular type of cultural language. He contends that this
language, like all language, organizes and correlates experiences by seeking and
creating order and meaning. And, in doing so, it creates a communal
consciousness, binding the generations while at the same time enabling each person
a singular connection. By adopting this method of analysis, I am seeking out
answers as to how a collection of humorous performances goes about seeking and
creating order and meaning to the ends that Boskin describes and what the
implications are about the appearance of a dominant or mainstream communal
consciousness. This line of investigation also allows us to concurrently look at
how humorous performances express themselves with what they are expressing.
Thus, by moving back and forth between an investigation of trends in humorous
performances in America and the symbolic communication of the humor, I pursue
an explanation of the contribution of the humor on the development of culture.
19 Lawrence E. Mintz, American Humor as Unifying and Divisive, American Humor 12 no.3
(1999): 240.
20 Boskin, History and Humor, 19.
15


Incongruence
Why is something funny? Although all humans, and some animals, have the
capacity for an involuntary response of smiling and laughter, the humor that we
find funny is generally the result of our cultural exposure. Consider, for example,
why Pryors imitations of white Americans and their imagined reactions to Pryors
claims about humans anthropological beginnings (that could be true you know)
are so enjoyable. On one hand, they are reminiscent of ways that many of us may
have seen white Americans behave or heard them sound. He is playing with a
stereotype of a white American whose characteristics are skewed and exaggerated
just enough to produce an image that unmistakably leads us to recognize the
reference. Our recognition here allows us to be in on the joke which is, in itself,
enjoyable. On the other hand, this imitation is produced by an individual who,
according to the racist ideas that are the target of Pryors humor, should not have
the ability to don this character. Racist doctrine relies on the idea that as a black
man Pryor should be the antithesis or other of the white man in terms of his
appearance, genes, and culture. There is an unmistakable expectation here that
these two men are opposites of one another, and yet, Pryor moves effortlessly
between them. Furthermore, the racist belief that white people are somehow more
reliable and perceptive, and thus better sources for the truth, stands in stark contrast
to Pryors ability to portray the white person accurately and insightfully. This belief
is also contrasted with the fact that Pryors white character is ignorant of the
information about Dr. Leakeys anthropological finds and it is the black man who
is providing him with this knowledge. While Dr. Leakey was responsible for the
physical unearthing of the five-million year old African remains, Pryor performs
this role in his anthropological unearthing of black peoples history as the first
people on earth. In doing so, he puts side by side the cultural authority that this
history suggests with a white, European cultural authority. In the last statement of
16


this segment, Pryor shows us the outcome of these contrasting elements: You
know them motherfuckers didnt speak French! Here, black power is imagined
in the historical roots of language which upsets any linguistic and cultural
preeminence of French or other white Europeans.
Within his performance, Pryor uses the seeming incongruity of whiteness
and blackness to imagine a redistribution of cultural power. However, he really just
plays with this incongruity in order to ultimately show the weakness in the
incongruous structure. His humor uses the notion of a binary opposition between
white and black cultures to reveal it as a scam. What begins as contrasting
elements, combine to illustrate their shared history and culture. Pryor expresses
race as a slippery and impermanent act in which prejudicial beliefs that justify the
oppression of a race of people are ludicrous. Not only does he shed light on our
shared gene pool, he does so in a way that reveals his own intellectual skillfulness.
What Pryor says is true, and the way that he says itthe humorous performance
is truer.
Pryors method of forming humor through incongruous ideas is fairly
common amongst humorists and popular amongst many audiences. Scholars
explain our reaction to incongruent humor as the experience of surprise and
enjoyment when there is a disproportion between what one expects to see and the
image that we actually experience.21 22 One humor scholar uses an ingenious
quotation from the German humorist Jean-Paul Richter to provide a more apt and
amusing explanation of this method: Joking is the disguised priest who weds
every couple. Richters analogy is rooted in the idea that humor provides a space
wherein seemingly unsuspecting ideas are united. The priest is described as
21 John Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983),
16.
22 Barry Sanders, Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 6.
17


disguised and the individual ideas might be unsuspecting because this form of
humor does not succeed if the ideas that are being presented seem to belong
logically with one another. If Pryor could not shed his own persona and
convincingly adopt the character of the white American, if we were unable to
recognize his reference, then his humor would have less impact or fail completely.
Furthermore, the power of his humor is produced by the overwhelming
contradiction between the racist ideas that underestimate the intellectual
capabilities of an African American and the highly intellectual performance of an
African American who is addressing this racism. Thus it is not just Pryors
imitation of the white American that is significant here, but his keen insight into the
way racist segments of this population might react to his material. In order for the
humor to be successful according to this particular form, then there must be a
conjoining of opposing or at least significantly dissimilar ideas.
In an example like Pryors, the form of incongruent humor lends itself to
expressing an American experience because incongruence is so much a part of the
form of American democracy. The cultural history of liberal democracy has too
been formed by the wedding of disparate ideas. Our motto, E pluribus, Unum,
indicates a nation built on contradiction where, in a manner reminiscent of
Richters expression, separate entities are joined and enter into a new existence
together through American ideology. Rooted in this national motto, which
translates to from the many, one, is the paradox of the sovereignty of the
individual and the autonomy of the state within the larger unity of the nation.
Alexis de Tocquevilles hyperbolized experience helps to envision the
contradictory state of a nation that defines itself simultaneously through unity and
disunity: No sooner do you set foot upon American ground than you are stunned
by a kind of tumult; a confused clamor is heard on every side, and a thousand
18


simultaneous voices demand the satisfaction of their social wants.23 The
cacophonous political noise described by Tocqueville erupts from the clash of
conflicting voices united in the American ideal of equality.
The paradox of Epluribus, Unum is further exacerbated by the contrast of
fundamental ideals of liberal democracy that are at incongruent odds with the actual
experiences of most Americans.24 The risk of American democracy wherein its
realities cannot live up to its ideals has regularly inspired criticism and concern.
John Adams warned of the limits of democracyit soon wastes, exhausts and
murders itselfand its tendency to fall victim to the same abuses of power as
monarchies and aristocracies.25 One hundred years later, Teddy Roosevelt also
alludes to this warning of the failure of democratic ideals suggesting that this
country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we
make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.26 Offering more detail to
this idea, historian Louis D. Rubin Jr. provides this listing of incongruous elements
that in the midst of their contrasting elements give shape to the paradox in
American experiences:
Out of the incongruity between mundane circumstance and
heroic ideal, material fact and spiritual hunger, democratic,
middle-class society and desire for cultural definition, theory
of equality and fact of social and economic inequality, the
23 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1, trans. Henry Reeve (New York: The
Century, 1898), 318.
24 Since the phrase liberal democracy lends itself to multiple interpretations, my usage will be
limited to referring to the political and social power of the individual in shaping American society
and the free and equal exchange of ideas.
25 John Adams to John Taylor, 15 April, 1814, in The Works of John Adams, vol. 6, ed. Charles
Francis Adams (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), 484.
26 Theodore Roosevelt, Progressive Principles by Theodore Roosevelt: Selections form Addresses
Made During the Presidential Campaign of 1912, ed. Elmer H. Youngman (London: Effingham
Wilson, 1913), 310.
19


Declaration of Independence and the Mann Act, the
Gettysburg Address and the Gross National Product, the Battle
Hymn of the Republic and the Union Trust Company, the
Horatio Alger ideal and the New York Social Register
between what men would be and must be, as acted out in
American experience, has come much pathos, no small
amount of tragedy, and also a great deal of humor.27
The problem that Rubin delineates is that the presence of American ideals, as they
are generally laid out in The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution and
The Bill of Rights, in the early formation and documentation of the United States of
America supply an ever-present reminder of what the nation should resemble.
These ideals inform a genetic code of the nation in the sense that they are an
integral part of our understanding of what constitutes America.28 Both citizens and
non-citizens alike constantly compare these ideals with the realities of American
experiences. The American author Robert Warren Penn eloquently summed up the
problem inherent in this situation by suggesting that,
America was based on a big promisea great big one: the
Declaration of Independence. When you have to live with that
in the house, thats quite a problemparticularly when youve
got to make money and get ahead, open world markets, do all
the things you have to, raise your children, and so forth.
America is stuck with its self-definition put on paper in 1776,
and that was just like putting a burr under the metaphysical
27 Rubin, The Great American Joke, 9.
28 Tom Naim, The Breakup of Britain (London: New Left Books, 1977), 348. Naim coined this term
as it is used here as a means to discuss political and cultural contributors to nation building. His
usage of genetic code is in his rendering of elements that inform the national identity of Britain,
and thereby influence its future actions and evolution. See also the collection of essays in Nation
and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (New York: Routledge, 1991); and Benedict Anderson,
Imagined Communities (New York: Verson, 1983, 1991) for more extended discussions on the
makeup of nations and the complexities of national identity.
20


saddle of Americayou see, that saddles going to jump now
and then and it pricks.29
Penn brings light to the gaping contradiction between American ideals and the
realities of most Americans. His burr is buried beneath the saddle just as the
nations foundational documents and the grand ideals that they tout are
permanently ingrained in the American nation. Americans experiences which
contradict these ideals are painful and, as Penn suggests, inevitable. It is this
contradiction and resulting pain that are expressed in Pryors performance.
Speech Acts
African Americans have felt the prick of the burr particularly painfully and
regularly. However, the potency of Pryors humorous performance does not end at
the point that it expresses this experience. By publicly addressing a topic, such as
racism, which is deeply ingrained in our understanding of America and Americans,
his performance also imagines alternative realities for this situation. The audience
members reactions to the performance affect whether these alternatives become
truths within the real world or if they are ignored, unseen or, otherwise,
disregarded. The impression that humorous material is not serious, that it is just
kidding, provides a safe space to experiment with the potential evolution of
politically charged issues. However, this impression is somewhat misleading
because in cases where the audience members concur, the humorous performance is
granted the power to influence reality. Pryor is not simply relating the current state
of racism in America; his performance disturbs that racism by constantly
undermining and refuting prejudicial beliefs. The observation of the audience
provides the possibility that the performance can become a reality, and conversely,
the performance provides a possible reality for the audience. In effect, the
29 Robert Warren Penn, Interview by Eugene Walter, The Art of Fiction No. 18: Robert Warren
Penn. The Paris Review, no. 16 (Spring-Summer 1957), 6. See also, Rubin, The Great American
Joke.
21


humorous material can alter the observers constitutive understandings of its
subjects.
I am not suggesting that every audience member walks away from a
performance like Pryors with a new conception of race relations in America, or
even that humor necessarily effects change in either a positive or negative
direction. Rather, I am suggesting that the audiences participation in the humorous
performance allows them to temporarily experience changed or different realities.
As the comic voice narrates the world of the performance, the audience members
adopt its imagined truths. Within the expression of this illusionary world are
different possibilities for American experiences. In as much as audiences consent to
the truth and realities beyond the arena of the humorous performance, it can affect
their individual lives, and, thereby, influence the trends and development of the
nation. Pryors material and performance overlap with audiences preferences for
what he says as much as how he says it.
This material does not necessarily need to be performed in the very literal
sense that the standup comic stands on a stage and personally acts out his material.
Instead, we can think of performance as the movement of the humorists suggestive
ideas into the observers process of ideation. From the submissive position of the
audience, the observer follows the narration of the comic voice, imagining what it
imagines. Like the hypnotist and patient, the exchange within this relationship
creates the possibility of the realization of the imaginary into the beliefs and actions
of the observer. One means of contextualizing this process is found in the
etymological history of perform as a term meaning "to carry out in action,
execute, or fulfil; to carry into effect, discharge.30 Humorous material fulfills the
actions described in this definition when it is transferred from its source and
brought to fruition within the mind of the observer. The performance is completed
30 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. perform, http://www.oed.com/perforrn (accessed March 2,
2010).
22


when the humor is integrated into someone elses thought processes. By defining
performance in these terms, the language of the humor can operate in the same
ways regardless of its presentation in a written, spoken, or acted form.
The humorous performance then is not only a non-serious suggestion or
possibility for the audience to consider and enjoy: the performance can actively do
something to its audience. At the base of this claim is the concept that
communication can be an active force. That is, language can cause something to
happen when certain words or phrases are uttered. Something changes as a
consequence of the utterance. Consider, for example, how Pryor realizes that the
use of the word nigger is not merely a simple matter of saying the word; it is
more than just an elocutionary act. His refusal to continue using this term signifies
his recognition that it has very real effects. The language of the racial slur animates,
or rather reanimates, the wretchedness that then defines the individual when
he/she is called by this term. Pryors escape from the word (Ive been here for
three weeks and I havent even said it; I havent even thought it) provides the
occasion for his realization that by using or even considering this word gives it a
reality. In this instance, eliminating the utterance helps to eliminate the reality
which it creates: I aint ever goin call a black man nigger. You know, cause we
never was no niggers.
The philosopher J.L. Austin provides a foundation for this way of thinking
in his discussion of the performative utterance.31 According to Austin, language
is not only a descriptive tool, but that certain types of utterances perform actions.
For Austin, there are some cases whereby in saying something, we are doing
something.32 This phenomenon, which he refers to as a speech act, affects reality:
31 J. L. Austin, How to do Things with Words, ed. J. O. Urmson (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1962), 6-7.
32 Ibid., 12.
23


I forgive you; You cannot enter; Guilty! all do something in the world. They
create a particular reality. While Austin grants this ability to only a particular
kind of language, his philosophy helped form a basis for the various ways that all
language can be understood as performative.* 34
This concept is significant here because it ushers in the discussion of humor
as a variation of the performative utterance. The language of humor can effect
changes in the minds of the observers. That is not to say that, as in Austins
philosophy, it is the literal uttering of words that is the leading incident in the
performance of the act.35 It is more accurate to say that within the humorous
performance the language is comprised of the semiotic details that communicate
the humor to the audience. Here is Langers non-discursive form. In the case of
Pryor, his performance expresses the contradictions between American ideals and
realities, and then facilitates the conclusion that racist perceptions of African
Americans are untrue. He does not need to make this claim outrightalthough he
certainly does so in this selectionin order for it to be realized. Instead, he more
effectively communicates this idea through his skillful combination of
appropriation and subversion.36 By publicly imitating the racist people who seek to
oppress African Americans, Pryor appropriates their thoughts and behavior. He
knows what these people think and how they behave and he turns these details into
j3 Judith Hamera, Performance, Performativity, and Cultural Poiesis in Practices of Everyday
Life, in The SAGE Handbook of Performance Studies, ed. D. Soyini Madison and Judith Hamera
(Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006), xvi.
34 Most notably, see the work of Austins former student, John R. Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in
the Philosophy of Language (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970).
35 Austin, How to do Things, 8.
36 These terms provide a simplified framework for understanding how this particular humor
communicates meaning. Admittedly, the breadth of Pryors performance is far greater and his
method is more complex than this limited interpretation suggests.
24


moments for laughter and ridicule at their expense. In this moment, racism
becomes an ironic means for the African American to gain authority. Pryor is, in
fact, performing the reality of the absurdity of racism.
Making this sort of claim about a performance requires us to recognize
another of Austins speech acts in the constative utterance.37 This kind of
utterance is a statement that calls its subject matter into being. It asserts the state of
a situation which can then be judged as either true or false. Whereas the
performative creates the situation for its action (I do in a wedding ceremony
creates the conditions for the legal joining), the constative makes an assertion (the
water in that pot is boiling). Pryor, for instance, not only creates a situation for re-
imagining race (a performative utterance), but, within the arena of the humorous
performance his re-imaginings are expressed as realities (a constative utterance).
Even though Pryors performance was new and ground-breaking on
multiple levels, we can interpret the language of his performance because it is
familiarweve seen different versions of this language before. The historical and
cultural details that surround and precede a humorous performance help give shape
to the way it communicates. Part of our participation in the performance is to
recognize its semiotic details. We arrive with some concept of humor, of the
humorists, and of their subjects as a result of our previous experiences. Likewise,
humorists must also arrive at the figurative or literal stage with their own concepts
that must be compatible to some extent with members of the audience in order for
the communication to be effective. Our shared familiarity, and that which allows us
to take part in the humorous performance, is part of the illusion of a normative
humor in America. Furthermore, the language communicates an American
experience, but this is not to suggest that there is only one version of the American
experience. We understand the semiotics of a performance depicting one possibility
37 Austin, How to do Things, 3.
25


of an experience of being American. Thus, we recognize both Pryors stereotype of
a white American, and his performance of the experience of whiteness in
Americathe result of the cultural segregation between whites and blacks in
America.
Successive philosophers and critics responded to Austins speech-act theory
by arguing for these cultural and historical dimensions of language as necessary
components for analyzing the impact of the utterance. What is useful to us is a
simplified summary of these varying responses which suggests that words do
something in the world, and they are reiterative in that speech, meaning, intent and
custom have been repeated through time and are therefore communicative and
o o
comprehensible because they are recognizable in their repetition. What we need
to take from this claim is that the impact of the performance, as well as its influence
on the future, grows out of its ability to express itself in a recognizable way.
American Contexts
Pryors performance is built upon the preceding years of development of the
relationships between America, African Americans, and the humorous
performance. These relationships initially became publicly visible on the American
stage in the 1830s in the minstrel show. Echoed in Pryors performance is the
shows formula for humor that relies on the interaction between the three main
characters: Tambo, Bones, and the Interlocutor. In the minstrel show, the black, or
at least black-faced, end men charactersTambo and Bonesembrace racial
stereotypes in order to undermine the authority of the distinguished white
gentleman who serves as the Interlocutor. Their uneducated language and
cartoonish appearances makes them seem so harmless and impotent that it is
acceptable when the two use these details to foil the Interlocutor and turn the 38
38 Hamera, Performance, Performativity, xvi.
26


audiences laughter upon him. An example of this interaction might look something
like this:
interlocutor: Well, Mr. Bones, how are you feeling this
evening?
bones: Very well, Mr. Interlocutor, and how are youhow
are all your folks?
interlocutor: Were all very well, excepting my brother.
You see, a team of horses ran away with him, and hes been
laid up ever since.
Bones: Thats a very strange coincidence, same thing
happened to my brother.
Interlocutor: You dont say.
Bones: The only difference is, it was my brother who ran
away with the team of horses; hes been laid up ever since, but
theyll let him out next month.
Interlocutor: My brother is convalescing, but we have to
watch him very closely. You see, hes a somnambulist, and
hes liable to have a relapse.
Bones: My goodness, a slambulnalisist, whats dat?
Interlocutor: Not a slambulnalisist, a somnambulist, one who
walks in his sleep.
Bones: Oh, you mean a policeman.39
Boness ignorant characterization makes the Interlocutor and the audience
vulnerable to his turns in the humor. By using language that is full of dialect, slang,
mispronunciation, and malapropisms, the end men appear as though they have very
little control of language or its ability to create meaning. In spite of this, Bones
appropriates the Interlocutors language and modifies its meanings in order to
describe his own experiences. He is not familiar with the term somnambulist and
cannot even pronounce it correctly. Nevertheless, his ability to quickly produce a
clever witticism out of the straight mans definition seems to contradict his
suggested ignorance. We are left to wonder if perhaps Bones was consciously
setting up the Interlocutor for this joke. His cleverness, however, seems almost
39 Dailey Paskman, "Gentlemen Be Seated! A Parade of the American Minstrels (New York:
Clarkson N. Potter Inc., 1976), 91.
27


accidental and is ultimately overwhelmed by the prevalence of the racial
stereotypes that make him seem joyfully ignorant.
The incongruent ideas within the formula of the minstrel show humor rely
in part on the contradiction between the portrayal of the competent and perceptive
African American and the opposite portrayal in the racially stereotyped character.
These are the beginnings of an incongruent humor that Pryor draws upon and uses
for greater political effect. Moving in and out of the white and black characters,
Pryor fills the roles of both end man and Interlocutor. He distinguishes between
these roles in a similar way as the minstrel show characters: the Interlocutor is his
serious, white, straight man who takes the brunt of the jokes; and the end man is an
African American who uses profane and vernacular language and is always a step
or two ahead of the white man.
The language that distinguishes Pryors African-American characters,
however, does not have the same kind of negative connotations that it does in the
minstrel show. Within Pryors performance, the speech of the African American,
recognizable by its profanity and dialect, has a significant amount of cultural
authorityit seems tough and cool. Pryors comical portrayal of a white man
attempting to use this speech for these same effects harkens back to the minstrel
show, only here the roles are reversed:
I love when white dudes get mad and cuss, right!? Cause you
all some funny motherfuckers when you cuss, right?! They be
sayin shit like: come onpeckerhead; come on you fuckin
joikoff;' son-of-a-bitch, come on; yeah, you fuckin-a-right
buddy!40
All of this posturing and tough talk is immediately squelched by Pryors African-
American character. On this stage, the language of the end men dominates and the
white character looks foolish when he attempts to adopt it. The Interlocutors
40 Sit Your Ass Down, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, DVD, directed by Jeff Margolis (1979;
CA: Home Box Office Home Video [HBO], 2006).
28


erudite English which distinguishes both his whiteness and his cultural authority
in the minstrel show, has no authority here. The language of whiteness, or rather,
the semiotic details that communicate a Caucasian-American character, is
subordinated by the language of blackness, those details that communicate an
African-American character. The audience laughs again at the Interlocutor-esque
figure, but this time, he does not maintain a position of authority in the
performance. On Pryors stage and within his imaginings, the end man is champion
of the culture that is poorly aped by the straight man.
Both Pryor and the minstrel show use this humor to mitigate the
contradiction between the reality of the African American and the illusory image of
the negative racial stereotype. Furthermore, both of these performances indirectly
address the hypocrisy of the violent oppression of a significant portion of the
American population within the land of the free where all men are created
equal. The absurdity of this hypocrisy, combined with the inability for these
contradictory ideas to maintain the existence of one another, produces the need for
a change. The humorous performance allows the audience to see African
Americans experiences and decide how these experiences will continue to play out
in light of these incongruous possibilities.
Cultural Dialectics and Transformation
A hypocritical situation seems to have an inherent need for change. German
philosopher G.W.F. Flegels philosophies about dialectical thought provide a
diagram for understanding how hypocrisy creates this need for change and how a
transformational process can occur in conjunction with humor.41 Both dialectical
thought and incongruent humor require an element of contradiction between the
41 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Logic of Hegel, 2nd ed., trans. William Wallace (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1963), Originally published as T he Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical
Sciences (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892).
29


ideas or entities that are involved in either realm. There is a tension produced by
contradiction which then generates momentum so that the elements, or rather our
understanding of the elements, change. The shift in the contradiction resulting from
this change ultimately mitigates the tension. Hegel scholar Angelica Nuzzo
explains that contradiction for Hegel is the sign of historical crises; transformation
and change are the development of contradiction, the movement that contradiction
necessarily marshals once it is not taken as absolute, once it is not fixed within
illusory limits.42 The negative tension that accompanies hypocrisy contributes to
the moment of crises to which Nuzzo refers and sets the platform for relief through
humor. It is within this humor that the illusory limits and repression are
diminished and transformation can occur.
The transformative process that begins with contradiction does not have a
definite ending; the process is ongoing and therefore a conclusion in and of itself.
In the case of humor, the reasons why this process is unending are because the
humorous performance can continually express the contradiction and the
transformation occurs in the mind of the observer.
In the case of the minstrel show, the performance presents a means of
working through the hypocritical contradiction of slavery within a democratic
nation. The caricatures of enslaved African Americans are presented as if they are
contented in their enslavement and will happily sing and dance to drive the point
home. Their performance effectively erases the negative aspects of slavery for their
audience. Take for example the previously sampled selection of a minstrel show.
Both of Boness witticisms are tailored to his interaction with the law. In a time
when the relationship between black people and the police was notoriously violent
42 Angelica Nuzzo, Dialectic as Logic of Transformative Processes, Hegel: New Directions, ed.
Katerina Deligiorgi (Ithaca: McGill-Queens University Press, 2006) 92. See also, Michael Allen
Fox, The Accessible Hegel (New York: Humanity Books, 2005).
30


and hostile, Bones speaks publicly about this relationshipsans violence and
hostility. What is left on stage is the representation of this relationship where black
people are at fault (it was my brother who ran away with the team of horses) and
the law responds in a seemingly fair and conventional manner (hes been laid up
ever since, but theyll let him out next month). Even Boness light jab of referring
to police officers as sleepwalkers, makes them sound more harmless than harmful.
In Joseph Boskins extensive study of Sambo, another quintessential
minstrel character, he proposes how this humor affected its audiences given the
cultural and historical contexts:
Whites were obviously buoyed by this particular image
because it assuaged whatever guilt might have burdened them.
Further, it narrowed the contradiction between slavery and the
tenets of democracy, permitted a dialogue devoid of rational
substance, undercut the frightening possibility of the hostile
black male, and created a bond of affection and
sentimentality.43
This line of reasoning suggests that the humor could make slavery seem less
repressive and therefore less contradictory in the face of democracy. Accordingly,
slave owners and other white citizens could use the idea of the minstrel character to
soothe the discomfort they might experience in the face of Americas hypocrisy.
Sambo, Tambo, Bones, and other characters confirmed their stereotypes and
stripped the black male of masculinity, dignity and self-possession.44 The humor
of the minstrel character in this case mitigates the tension between slavery and
democracy by reducing whites conception of the humanity of African Americans
and making them seem unworthy of the tenets of democracy. Boskin also offers the
converse possibility that the minstrel character was a means of the African
43 Joseph Boskin, Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1986), 63.
44 Ibid., 14.
31


American to assert his talents on stage and create a subtle inner spoofing that undid
stereotypes and provided a means for appropriation of power. Yet, Boskin suggests
this possibility only after an historical analysis of the changes in the Sambo
character over time and the trends that eventually allowed this character to undo
some of his oppressive stereotypes. The minstrel show may indeed have provided a
means of undermining the power of the stereotypes thereby encouraging the
strength of democracy. This possibility is visible, however, from our vantage point
in the future where we can appreciate the value of the evolution of the minstrel
show performance. What began as a means of alleviating American hypocrisy and
justifying slavery was later recognized by some audiences as a continuation of that
hypocrisy.
This example helps illustrate the variety of reactions of audience members
to what is essentially the same performance. The humorous performance expresses
a distortion of black people through their unrealistic makeup and costuming (not to
mention that until the 1860s these parts were often played by white people) and the
dominate control of white people over these distorted caricatures that is
exemplified by the role of the Interlocutor. Moreover, the form of the humor
expresses the limited responses that the black characters have to react to their
subordinate position. Although audiences may respond to these details in different
ways, that does not change what is happening within the humorous performance.
With the elimination of the minstrel show as a mode of humorous performance, is
the rejection of what the form expresses. This is no longer a recognizable or
acceptable expression of American life.
The ensuing cultural shift toward a more democratic treatment of black
people coincides with different expressions of humor. Compare, for an example,
Boness representation of his relationship with the law to one of Pryors earlier
32


performances when he takes up the still prevalent issue of the violent, hostile
relationship between the police and African Americans:
Police got a chokehold they use out here though, man. They
choke niggers to death. I mean, you be dead when they
through. Right?! Wait, niggers are goin, yeah, we knew
that. White folks, No, I had no idea. Yeah, two grab your
legs, one grab your head andsnapOh shit. We broke
him. Can you break a nigger? Is it ok? Lets check the
manual. Yep, page 8, you can break a nigger. Right there,
see? Lets drag him downtown.45
Clearly Pryor is not under the same constraints as the minstrel show characters. In
this performance, violence and hostility are the defining features of the relationship
between African Americans and police officers. The protective veils of silence,
secrecy, and ignorance (No, I had no idea!) that could shield racially motivated
oppression are cast aside here. His hyperbole enacts the sense that this violence is
not only acceptable during the time of his performance in the late 1970s, but that it
has been going on for a long time. Not only is Pryor interested in publicly exposing
this relationship, he explicitly points his finger at the police as the source for this
violence and hostility. The minstrel shows method of diffusing tension by erasing
violence and justifying oppression is upended. Instead, Pryors performances
mitigate a similar tension by forcing us to look at the violence and oppression and
see him as a possible target. He is performing a syllogism for us: if police casually
abuse and kill African Americans, and Pryor is clearly an African American, then
he could be subject to this same treatment. Audiences support for him and his
humor draws them toward a democratic resolution of this unfair and unjust
treatment.
The position of African Americans as an oppressed people who are easily
killed and disposed of by the nations police officers stands in stark contrast to
45 Pryor, Live in Concert, Police.
33


Pryors politically charged condemnation of this situation. The relationships
between African Americans, America, and the humorous performance have
evolved to this point where Pryors performance expresses equality. He is a lone
presence on stage exposing his experience, and, in effect, imagining an alternative
experience. His performance communicates the democratic ideals of the free and
equal exchange of ideas and the political and social power of the individual in
shaping American society. The trends in American political development towards
these democratic ideals, alongside the huge success of Pryor, illustrate how this
culture and humor can be seen as overlapping. Thus, he becomes not only a
reflection of the nations support for democracy and civil rights, he is a
continuation of them.
A Public Space
African Americans, who were historically forced into a position contrary to
democracy, have helped to popularize and, now, even dominate the field of the
standup comica field that is well in line with democratic ideals.46 The remarkable
success of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Dave Chappelle, whose humor calls
out hypocrisy in America while championing their democratic right to do so,
exemplifies the cultural shift that began with the minstrel show. In the case of these
African-American comics, but also in reference to other comics who come to the
stage as members of other marginalized groups, such as Jewish or female comics,
standup comedy has provided a space for a multicultural voice. All of these comics
contribute their imaginings of the transformation of America as they bring their
material to the stagea microcosm of the public space.
This mode of the stand up comic is particularly suited for the minority
figure because it operates according to, what Langer defines as, the comic
46 For a thorough history of African Americans and humor, see Mel Watkins, On the Real Side
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).
34


action.47 Touching on Langers work once again here, the comic action is the
upset and recovery of the protagonists equilibrium.48 Although she is using this
definition in reference to comic drama, it works equally well in explaining a form
of the stand up comic act. This mode of the humorous performance expresses the
experience of life through the form of the upset, which, for minority figures, is
usually racism, chauvinism, or stereotyping, and then their recovery, which is
their performance of the undoing of the prejudice. Furthermore, the public aspect of
this performance provides minority comics with the democratic power of
presenting their individual experiences to the public for contemplation.
In his text defending the virtues of liberal democracy, Joel Johnson
proposes that people become fuller individuals through democratic interaction, not
by abandoning their old selves, but by steadily revaluing their beliefs in the context
of free and equal discussion.49 There is an endless list of possible influences that
cause change in individuals and cultures over time, but none are possibly as freeing
and enjoyable as the imagined transformation that occurs within the humorous
performance and in the real life democratic evolution of a society. Both rely on a
free exchange of ideas and the individual as a willing participant in the
transformative process. The humorous performance brings Johnsons democratic
discussion to the public stage where the ultimate influence of the humor remains
couched in the audience members. These individuals, as Johnson rightly points out,
do not discard their past at the prospect of new truths. Instead, the audience, the
humorist, and the performance rely on their pasts to communicate with one another.
Bom from this interaction is opportunity for the revaluing and transformation of
ones beliefs that can go on then to affect the future.
47 Langer, Feeling and Form, 331.
48 Ibid.
49 Joel A. Johnson, Beyond Practical Virtue: A Defense of Liberal Democracy Through Literature
(Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 121.
35


The ability of the humorous performance to influence our notions of reality
and adjust, or even shore up our social, cultural, and political inclinations is the real
magic that Pryor shares with us. Although American experiences of life are often
expressed through the incongruity between the nations ideals and peoples
realities, Pryor demonstrates how this incongruity can also form the humor that
offers solutions to it. The stand up comic and various modes of the humorous
performance may achieve this sort of end in different ways; however, they all share
a common element of play. This commonality is the point at which the humorous
performance departs from other artistic productions. Humor is a non-serious
performance that can make serious statements, but it does this only through its
dance between the serious and non-serious, the true and untrue, and the real and
ideal. As the observers, our laughter and enjoyment of the performance is also our
temporary consent to its solutions, truths, and imagined realities.
Within the relationship between the audience and the comic voice is a space
for us to examine the livingness of the human world and imagine how it can be
different. Pryors comic voice imagines a world where race is a blurry concept.
With regards to Langer, he abstracts, composes and presents for us the livingness
of a world where people are not defined by race. His performance demonstrates the
use of the tools provided by humor that allow the imagining of an alternative
American experience to also function as a criticism of the reality of an American
experience. Pryor not only suggests his de-racialized world as a new possibility, he
uses it to point to the flaws in the America of the 1970s. When, for instance, his
visit to Africa reveals to him the detrimental effects of his use of the word nigger,
and he tells us, I been wrong. I got to regroup my shit, his criticism is not just
aimed inwardly. His denunciation of racist language is presented so that it can
apply to any perpetrators of this harm: And we perpetuate it now cause its dead.
Regrouping his own shit is his way of suggesting the same to others.
36


As a means for both imagining and criticizing, this humor actively
participates in a political dialogue of the shape of the nation. Its performances
propose ideas about how the American should or could look. And, just as Pryor
suggests that you can take it for what its worth we have the opportunity to
integrate those ideas into our realities.50 As growing numbers of audience members
share in the worth of a performance, its ideas and criticisms become stronger
contributors of political dialogue. With this, the humorous imaginings within a
performance can impact our understandings of the American and the future
production of this within humor in America.
50 Pryor, Sunset Strip, N Word.
37


CHAPTER 3
WHAT THEN IS THE AMERICAN, THIS NEW MAN?
The Humor of Tall Tales Gives Form to The American
Where and when did the American in humor emerge? To answer this
question we must also ask if we can search for a historical patterning of expressing
the American in humor that allows some performances to seem as if they present
dominant American ideologies, that they define the term American. We are
asking if there are sources that illustrate early steps in expressing the experiences of
being American through their humorous material and, if so, how these sources
influence those that succeed them. We are seeking the roots where a sense of
nationhood emerges through humorous performances of that nationhood. Looking
for this connection in early texts helps to reveal the value of humors ability to
imagine alternative realities. Without preaching or demanding, humorous
performances can express what American experiences can look like. Furthermore,
they make assumptions about what humor in America should look like.
Humor in America has had political or social concerns about the nation
since sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century. The idea of the
American was developing at least as early as the 1780s when J. Hector St. John
De Crevecoeur posed this question in his epistolary musings: What then is the
American, this new man?51 His move from France to the New World in 1755
found Crevecoeur in a position similar to other immigrants of that time period who
pondered the nature and character of the nation of America and sought explanations
of what it means to live here and be from here. In his own response to his question,
51 Crevecoeur, Letter III, 54.
38


Crevecoeur suggests that the new man is an American, who, leaving behind him
all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of
life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.
Crevecoeurs text strives to establish the authority of the American. The novelty of
the life, government and system of stratification of the nation, combined with a
leaving behind of the ancient forms of these categories, suggests that there will
be new experiences of life. The question he is seeking to answer involves a
delineation of these experiences and how they might differ from others. He is
searching for demarcations of what it means to be American.
The Tall Tale was probably developing at this very same time. As the first
vernacular literary form in American history, Tall Tales probably began as oral
texts and therefore have no exact origin. However, they enter the literary record in
the early nineteenth century. Their function at that time seems strikingly similar to
what it is now: they provide a mixture of myth and history. For instance, a
character such as Davy Crockett was indeed a real man; however, the tales about
the character are entirely fictional. On the other hand, Tall Tales are these
impossibly exaggerated stories that communicate real qualities of American
experiences. They help make the American recognizable.
Crevecoeurs question might be answered by the Tall Tale which also
grows from this new life. The Tall Tale provides a mythologized, yet historical
figure of the American. The characters in Tall Tales were cultivated by peoples
needs to define this place as their own, a need to grow a new hybrid variety of
national identity from the various people and backgrounds that settled in this land.
And, humor provided the fertilizer that nourished these seedlings so that they
became robust and vibrant with deep roots. *
52
Ibid.
39


The Tall Tale is a mode of humorous performance that forms the American
through cycles of normalization and displacement. Operating from an implicit
assumption that the American experience is in itself strange, the Tall Tale works to
normalize some its characters and their specific characteristics. While all of the
characters in these stories have unusual, exaggerated, and somewhat grotesque
characteristics, the humorous performance makes definite distinctions between
those characters and characteristics that are desirable and those that are undesirable.
In doing so, this mode of the humorous performance normalizes and
Americanizes the good characters/characteristics while displacing its strangeness,
or otherness, onto the bad characters/characteristics.
Humor is a mechanism that allowed, and continues to allow people to
imagine and then re-imagine American experiences. Tall Tales communicate their
portrayal of the American by imaging the connections between the land and the
peoplea blossoming Americanization of both the soil and the people who live
upon it. The humor of these tales provides a creative space to visualize what it
might mean to be an American. If, as folklorist Benjamin Botkin fittingly suggests,
heroes embody the qualities that we most admire or desire in ourselves, then
the heroes that were conjured up in Tall Tales offer interesting insight into the
populations that created them and continue to maintain their popularity. Tall Tale
heroes are comprised of human flaws and epic heroism, a combination of the
ordinary and practical with the extraordinary and impossible. This mixture
produces a strange brew of characters who comically straddle their contradictory
worlds.
Take for consideration the characterization of the Crocketts in this excerpt:
From the way Davy Crocketts father and mother lived, you
might guess they were just ordinary people. They had a log 53
53 B.A. Botkin, introduction to A Treasury of American Folklore, ed. B.A. Botkin (New York:
Crown Publishers, 1944), 3.
40


cabin like any other log cabin. The roof was oak staves held in
place by slabs that were laid across them at right angles. The
windows, of course, were made out of oiled paper. In the fall,
Mr. and Mrs. Crockett would put chinks between the logs, to
keep the cabin warm. In the spring, when the dogwood came
out, theyd knock away the chinks so that light and air could
come into the cabin [...]
All this, you might say, was as common as an old shoe.
But as a matter of fact the Crocketts werent ordinary
peoplefar from it. They had great talents and they lived in a
great place. Davy Crocketts father could grin a hailstorm into
sunshine, and could look the sun square in the face without
sneezing. Davy Crocketts mother, even when she was an old
woman and had lost a good part of spryness, could do these
things:
1. Jump a seven-rail fence backwards;
2. Dance a hole through a double oak floor;
3. Spin more wool than a steam mill; and
4. Cut down a gum tree ten feet around, and sail it across
the Nolachucky River, using her apron for a sail.
At the time Davy was bom, his father and mother lived in the
Nolachucky River Valley in the state of Tennessee, not far
from the Cherokee Indians.
Tennessee was a place where the soil went down to the center
of the earth, and the government gave you title to every inch
of it. You could tell that the soil was rich because if you went
and dug a good sized hole, and then threw the dirt back into it,
the dirt didnt fill the hole.
The soil was so rich that you had only to kick a dent in the
ground with your heel, drop a kernel of com into the dent, and
the com would grow without work. Some places the ground
was so covered with wild strawberries that when a boy walked
though them, the squished juice would redden his legs to the
knees. [...]
If Davys father just sniffed the air of the Nolachucky Valley,
it made him snort like a horse.
Well, bom to such a ripsnorting family in such a ringtailed
roarer of a place, Davy Crockett was the biggest baby that
ever was and a little the smartest that ever will be. His Uncle
Roarious said right away that he was the yallerest blossom in
the family, and he looked so fat and healthy that his Aunt
41


Ketinah said that it was as much fun to look at him as it was to
eat a meal with all the trimmings.54
Initially, the narrator grounds the Crocketts in the real world of ordinary people
and the common experiences of early settlers. We are their casual and uninformed
observers, a position that results in our assumption that they are indeed ordinary.
Their cabin, like any other log cabin, is bereft of any extravagant materials or
features and the familiar environment of frontiersmen. (Of course their windows
were made out of oiled paper.) In an extensive history of American geographical
development Donald W. Meinig remarks that simple log cabins and more
elaborate log houses occasioned comment as a distinctive American feature.55
Housing for the Crocketts is no less, yet no more, than that of the distinctively
common American. The details of the cabins structural design, all slabs and right
angles, suggest that it was built by a hand familiar with such work. Furthermore,
the Crocketts seek comfort just like the rest of us ordinary people. They struggle
with the elements of nature and make the necessary seasonal adjustments to keep
the cold out or let the light in. The description of the interior of the cabin reiterates
the utter ordinariness of the Crocketts to us, the casual observers. Their furniture is
sparse and basic, made of the natural materials available in their environment. Their
beds are made of strips of bark and gourds serve as their containers. Not only does
their domestic life appear ordinary, but the Crocketts actually eat the way
everybody else did too. All this, we might say, was as common as an old
shoe.
54 Walter Blair, Davy Crockett, Tennessee Settler in Tall Tale America (Toronto: Coward,
McCann & Geoghegan, 1944), 66-68. Due to the difficulty of finding a complete and clear
collection of the original Crockett Almanacs I have chosen works such as Blairs and Richard
Dorsons that use the Almanacs as their sources.
55 Donald W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, vol. 2, Continental America, 1800-1867 (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 440.
42


This continual reiteration of the dull ordinariness of the Crocketts lives is
clearly setting the stage for a complete reversal of these assumptions. The constant
winking of the narrator, who hedges statements with you might guess or you
might say, suggests that our myopic view of the characters is about to be upturned.
If we only look below the surface we will see that the Crocketts were not ordinary
people, far from it. They are, instead, extraordinary because they had great
talents, and they lived in a great place. Herein is the imagining that both the land
and its inhabitants have internal qualities that bond them in special ways. Because
of their special connection, both the Crocketts and the land are capable of
astonishing feats. The storys transformation of the characters and the land from the
ordinary to the extraordinary is revealed through their internal qualities. Those
qualities that are invisible at first to the casual observer are the things that make
them great. The humor imagines that outsiders need to look closer at America to
discover its value. Doing so will reveal that people like the Crocketts have great
talents that belie their observable lifestyles. Similarly, if you look beneath the
surface of Tennessee you will see that its soil reaches all the way down to the
center of the earth.
The exceptionalness of the relationship between the land and frontiersman
was identified by Thomas Cooper in one of his many observations concerning
America during his visit in 1793: The staple of America at present is land, and the
immediate products of land; and herein seems to me the most pleasant, the most
certain, and the most profitable means of employment for capital to an almost
indefinite extent.56 The power of this sort of connection is imagined here as that
which allows the Crocketts to perform amazing feats such as grin[ning] a
hailstorm into sunshine and cut[ting] down a gum tree ten feet around, and
sailing] it across the Nolachucky River. Some of these great talents seem rather
56 Thomas Cooper, Letters From America to a Friend in England in Some Information Respecting
America, collected by Thomas Cooper (London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1795), 2.
43


useless and fail to evoke intense admiration. Being able to jump a seven-rail fence
backwards or look the sun square in the face without sneezing might leave
readers scratching their heads. These feats seem adopted from Greek mythology
where a character like Anteas exhibits this sort of extraordinary strength. However,
what is significant here is not always what the Crocketts do, but how they do it. The
Crocketts are a bit feral; they are not a species of super humans. Rather, they are
better understood as a super amalgamation of human and wilderness. The place
where they live is a literal part of their makeup: If Davys father just sniffed the air
of the Nolachucky Valley, it made him snort like a horse.
Similarly, the soil is so greatly responsive to its human inhabitants that
you had only to kick a dent in the ground with your heel, drop a kernel of com into
the dent, and the com would grow without work. The lands fruitfulness is
characterized through its interaction with people. For example, the abundance of
wild strawberries is revealed by the amount of juice they produce on a boys knees
after he walked through them. And, the soil is so accommodating to human needs
that it does not even need to be plowed because if you went and dug a good sized
hole, and then threw the dirt back into it, the dirt didnt fill the hole. The land is
characterized by the same sort of wacky power as the Crocketts. They both share in
a slightly off-beat experience of this world. To this extent then, both the
environment and the people are defined through their connections with one another.
The extent of each ones extraordinary abilities is revealed through their
interrelationship: the power of Mr. Crocketts grin is revealed through his contact
with stormy weather, and the fertility of the land is depicted through an almost
offhanded plowing of the soil and planting of seeds. Furthermore, as a result of
their connection, and resulting special abilities, both contain contradictory qualities
that lend themselves to a humorous portrayal of an imagined America.
44


A more serious and realistic version of this connection is solidified in the
passage that makes a reference to land ownership. The government that gave you
title to every inch of [the soil] is the enabler of this connection. What grows out
from the midst of these interconnected entitiesthe land, the people and the
governmentare some of the most basic requirements for identifying the
American. I mean this not only as a reference to the person-citizen, but also as a
reference to the conception of American as a quality or set of qualities that might
become associated with the nation. In the former sense of the American, this
story weaves requirements of citizenship, such as land ownership, into its
formulation of its characters. The Crocketts, and the other Tall Tale characters,57
represent exceptional examples of citizens in this sense because not only do they
know and own the land, but they have a special relationship with their environment
which gives both them and their land superish powers. Considering early settlers
struggle with nature, it is not surprising that their imagined histories and ancestries
would visualize such power. Their struggles to tame the wilderness and coax it into
domestication are reflected clearly in the Tall Tale stories. Likewise, their lack of
traditions of historical ritual and myth seems to result in very real world characters
that might be able to perform extraordinary feats, but they are also concerned with
practical matters such as owning and sowing ones land.58 In the latter sense of
American, the humor of the Tall Tale provides a means for imagining some of
these defining features of the nation alongside the comical features within the
stories. They are inclusive of both the real and the ideal in the American experience
with images that make light of the contradiction between the two.
57 For the stories of other characters such as Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, John Henry and Pecos
Bill, see, Blair, Tall Tale; and Botkin, American Folklore.
58 Botkin, American Folklore, 2.
45


This particular story offers the connection between the land and the people,
with the government as the enabling authority in the background, in its formulation
of America. The combination of these components provides the footing for the
entrance of a new generation of even more exceptional people, represented here by
the arrival of Davy Crockett: Well, bom to such a ripsnorting family in such a
ringtailed roarer of a place, Davy Crockett was the biggest baby that ever was and a
little the smartest that will ever be.59 Baby Davys superior composition allows his
powers to eventually surpass those of his parents. He is the successful outcome of
the contradictory lives of his ripsnorting familyhis powerfully feral, yet land-
owning, parentsand his ringtailed roarer of a placea characterization of his
environment that is mythological, wild, and both animal and human.60 From these
beginnings, Davy Crockett is an embodiment of an imagined and idealized
American. He promises to continue the traditions begun by his parents as he was
the biggest baby that ever was and a little the smartest that ever will be. This
description of his size as an infant becomes indicative of later physical abilities.
Finally, his uncles proclamation that Davy is the yallerest blossom in the family
is most likely a comparison with the yellow-flowered Sweet Clover which was
introduced in the U.S. in the early 1700s and known for its hardiness and ability to
loosen the soil.61 Certainly, Davy is a bit wild, like his family, but the use of this
terminology, which reappears later in his stories, to describe his fierce and
59 Blair, Tall Tale, 66.
60 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. ripsnorting = riproaring: Full of vigour, spirit, or excellence;
first-rate; boisterous; full-blooded; and, s.v. ringtailed roarer: a fanciful name for an imaginary
animal; also applied to persons, http://www.oed.com/ripsnorting (accessed March 2, 2010).
61 For more see, Dwain Meyer, Sweet Clover Production and Management, North Dakota State
University Extension Service (September, 2005) http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/plantsci/hav/r862.pdf
(accessed March, 2010).
46


outlandish character continues the slightly confusing, mostly humorous, and highly
contradictory characterization of the Tall Tale characters.
The surroundings that nurture Davy Crocketts character encourage the
exploration and contemplation of his place: The Nolachucky River Valley was a
fine place to grow up in. For one thing, there was plenty of room, even for Davy.
For another, it wasnt a noisy place: there was plenty of peace and quiet. Davys
development is encouraged by the land that affords him room to grow both
physically and mentally. Furthermore, these surroundings require the qualities of
individual freedom, ingenuity, and self-sufficiency that become emblematic of the
American character: Davys father and mother were busy all the time, and they
had to leave this growing business pretty much up to Davy. [...] Left on his own
with nobody to help, Davy put his mind to growing and the way he got along was
astonishing.62 63
This description of Davys childhood mirrors the development of a nation
that no longer relies on the authority of established hierarchies. Joel Johnson offers
an explanation for understanding the effects of this shift in authority: By giving all
people whether noble or common power over their own lives and responsibility for
their actions equal liberty dramatically restructures the relationship between them
and their surroundings. For Johnson, the individual sovereignty of the democratic
C-2
citizen is a fact that causes her to become capable of being alone in the world.
With this in mind, it is easy to see why early imaginings of the American
are not necessarily inspired by the guidance of parental or other authority figures.
In the midst of their independence and sovereignty, the Tall Tale characters seem to
thrive. According to Johnson, the increased demands of the environment on the
individual in this situation ultimately produce superior human beings in comparison
62 Blair, Tall Tale, 68-69.
63 Johnson, Beyond Practical Virtue, 101.
47


to those who develop within hierarchical societies.64 In Davys case, he is, like his
parents, extremely successful as a result of his relationship with the environment.
And, like his parents, Davys character is comical in his contradictory makeup. He
is a combination of extraordinary powers and utter practicality, backwoodsman and
gentleman, and wildness and domestication. This story where Davy encounters a
raccoon who he is about to shoot is a fitting illustration of his incongruous
character:
Is your name by any chance Ripsnorting Davy Crockett?
Davy told him it was.
Then, says the raccoon, you neednt take any more trouble,
because I may as well come down without another word.
And he walked right down from the tree, as dignified as a
gentleman climbing out of a carriage, because he felt that he
was as good as shot, and he said so.
Davy stooped down, patted the little fellow the head, and said,
I wouldnt hurt a hair on your head, coonie, because youve
said as fine a thing about my shooting as ever was said.
Since you put it like that, says the raccoon, edging off side-
ways, I think Ill just walk off right away. Its not that I doubt
what you say, the raccoon told him, but you might kind of
happen to change your mind.65
Davy is such a famous and accomplished hunter that he does not even need to hunt
any longer; the animals are simply lying down for him. However, this simple and
straightforward compliment from the raccoonwho also is rather gentlemanlyis
all that is necessary to dissolve his intentions to kill. Instead of a gun shot, Davy
endearingly pats coonie on the head. With that said, Davy is still wild and
seemingly much wilder than the raccoon who does well to embrace this rare
moment of passive disarmament.
64 Ibid., 146.
65 Blair, Tall Tale, 72.
48


Davys character amongst the variety of Tall Tale characters is particularly
interesting for our discussion because he represents the intersection of the land, the
people, and the government. This last detail is especially unique for a Tall Tale
character. Davys success as a backwoodsman lends itself to his success as a
politician.66 One of his tales tells that the Honorable, Ripsnorting, Star-spangled
Congressman Davy Crockett was voted into Congress not once, but twice.67 68 *
Included in this description is the characterization of the American as a generally
principled person, imbued equally with qualities of the land (ripsnorting) and the
ideals of the government (star-spangled). For these reasons, Crockett is a
superlative representativeas a congressman and a characterthat participates
both literally and figuratively in the formation of the American.
The American
The search for the historical beginnings of the portrayal of the American
sends the seeker down many roads of inquiry. At some point though, all of these
68
roads will converge in the creative and non-serious stories of early Americans.
This inevitable convergence in these sources is the result of the imaginative
processes involved in the formation of the nation. In order for documents such as
The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and The Bill of Rights to take
hold and have lasting effects, there must exist a community of people to whom
these documents apply. In his own philosophical inquiry into nationhood, Benedict
Anderson defines nation as an imagined political communityand imagined as
66 Although Davy Crockett was a real man, his mythological tales as a comic and heroic
backwoodsman have had a greater impact on the development of America then his true stories or
actions. His position as the central character for study in this text is due, in part, to this situation
where the lines between history and myth are blurred and fiction holds sway over truth.
67 Blair, Tall Tale, 81.
68 The role of Native Americans is not overlooked in this text; however, they were not accepted nor
named as Americans until much later.
49


of these stories and their perseverance into modem day suggest that they provide a
tradition of an idealized and imagined America that is also firmly grounded in real
experiences. They are some of the earliest artistic productions of a story of and for
an American nation and they express identifiable American experiences.
Since much of the intellectual struggle of early Americans involved
detaching themselves from their English and European connections and
legitimizing the new nation, these tales supplied a new ancestry and history. The
stories that communicate experiences of life here bring a thread of traditional
folklore for those who can identify with these talesand alienate or separate those
who cannot. We can envision the Tall Tale as an early partition for determining
what is and what is not American. In this way, it assists in the process of imagining
a community that is limited and sovereign in the sense that Anderson describes.
Considering that English and European political and cultural histories no longer
provide an adequate backdrop for intellectualizing the experiences of the early
settlers, Tall Tales provide something of a surrogate for this background. They
were a means of reconciling early settlers connection to the historical
Beowulfian folklore of Europe and their need for new stories that speak to an
American experience.71
The way that the Tall Tale expresses this experience also evidences a humor
for America imagining itself into being. As the name implies, the Tall Tale is
constructed through exaggeration and fictional story. It openly declares that it is not
meant to be taken seriously. However, the humor that develops within these stories
relies on the performance of America as both a fictionalized concept and as a real
experience. Although these tales perform an exaggerated America, they do so in a
71 The adjective Beowulfian describes the folklore that has its beginnings in the legendary
Geatish warrior of the Old English poem Beowulf. Merriam-Webster, s.v. Beowulfian,
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionarv/beowulfian (accessed March, 2010).
51


way that allows audiences to both compare and contrast their own experiences.
Audiences can relate to those details that match up with their own experiences
while also recognizing the exaggerated or fictionalized details. In this way, the Tall
Tale provides some historical beginnings for the expression of the American in
humor. The audiences ability to find truth and falsity within the tale becomes a
means for them to develop their own ideas of America. Thus, the Tall Tale worked
something like a touchstone for both an imagined and a real American experience.
It also provided ways for successive humorous performances to connect with this
humor that is characterized by its portrayal of the American, and thereby making it
seem as though they are American humor.
One of the defining traits of the Tall Tale that characterizes its humor is the
depiction of the American as the underdog. This depiction grows out of the notion
of the new nation as a provincial, inferior, and derivative version of European
nations which was a familiar view amongst Americas critics.72 The humor in Tall
Tales overturns this notion and transforms it so that it becomes an advantage for its
American characters and the converse for its strangers or outsiders. What the Tall
Tale argues in response to this critique is not that the new America is equal to its
neighbors across the pond, but that its differences are such that it is rather
incomparable. These tales illustrate how a misunderstanding of this place is
detrimental to the success and survival of those characters that are unfamiliar with
it. Those qualities and abilities that characterize Old World nations and serve as
the criteria forjudging this New World are unsuitable here. Rather, the humor
makes light of the uselessness of Old World value systems while concurrently
establishing the merit of the qualities and abilities that these value systems tend to
72 For examples of this criticism see, Syndey Smith, Review of Seyberts Annals of the United
States The Edinburgh Review (January, 1820); and, Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of The
Americans (London: Whittaker, Treacher & Co, 1832). For an interesting response to this criticism
see, Joseph J. Ellis, After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture (New Y ork: Norton,
1979).
52


fail to appreciate. While these stories seldom directly reference a struggle against
the critique of provincialism, an argument against this critique runs deep in the
language of the Tall Tale.
Consider this passage detailing a confrontation between Davy Crockett and
his soon-to-be cohort, Ben Harding:
I dont understand all your stuff, and I spose you are fresh
down this way. But Ill have you understand that Im a snorter
by birth and eddycation, and if you dont go floating along,
and leave me to finish my nap Ill give you a taste of my
breed. Ill begin with the snapping turtle, and after Ive
chawed you up with that, Ill rub you down with a spice of the
alligator.73
Crocketts opening condemnation of Harding and, seemingly, the source of their
misunderstanding, is that his antagonist is fresh down here or an outsider to this
place. Consequently, Crockett aggressively identifies himself using the language of
his environment: he envisions himself as both wild man and indigenous animal.
One folklore scholar rightly suggests that in this sort of portrayal Crockett is half-
varmint and every varmint is half-Crockett.74 Thus, an introduction to Crockett
was an introduction to the lands other beastly inhabitants, and vice versa.
Crocketts appearance, speech and character are embellished in such a way as to
animate the backwoods beauty that allows him to survive in this environment. In
their embellishment, these details mock condescending views of American settlers.
His references to his birth, eddycation and breed snidely comment on the
uselessness of these bourgeois and aristocratic standards in the New World of
America. What emerges in place of these standards is a value system where
Crocketts association with the wilderness as the source of his birth and education
73 Richard Mercer Dorson, Davy Crockett: American Comic Legend (Connecticut: Greenwood
Press, 1935), 65.
74 Botkin, American Folklore, 7.
53


become the marks of his superiority. The hereditary or social prestiges that grant
individuals authority in an aristocracy are mimicked here by Crocketts claims of
je
his background as a snorter. As a result, the language appropriates the authority
of the Old World value system by making it applicable to this America.
The validity of this value system is reinforced when Harding recognizes
Crockett and offers him his friendship. Their bond emerges from their shared
experiences of eddycation and breed:
Give us your flipper then, old chap [...] Hurra! Three cheers
for old Crockett! Id give two weeks allowance if our boson
was here; he used to read your allmynack to us on the
forecastle, for, dye see, I cant read. I got my laming under
the lee of the long boat, and swear my prayers at a lee earing
in a gale o wind. But I can read pikturs to dn, and I could
spell out your crocodiles tails from their heads when I see
em drawed out in your book.
While Hardings sources for learning are nautical, in comparison to Crocketts
terrestrial sources, both share the experience of gaining educations through their
environments. What is more is that Harding gains knowledge of Crocketts land,
not by reading the words of his allmynack, but by reading the pictures. He does
not know how to read written language, but he replaces this skill by reading the
language of the wildernessor rather, images of the wilderness. The details of the
wilderness provide a new lexicon for this nation. Or, in other words, peoples
familiarity with Americas geography offered them a way of communicating the
American in their experiences. 75
75 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. snorter: a. U.S. A dashing, riotous fellow (Barb. A stiff or
strong wind; a gale. c. Anything exceptionally remarkable for size, strength, severity,
etc. Crocketts reference is likely an amalgamation of all of these, http://www.oed.com/snorter
(accessed February 10, 2010).
75 Dorson, Davy Crockett, 66.
54


Even though Crockett and Harding eventually develop a friendship,
Crocketts initial confrontational words simultaneously threaten his perceived foe
while indirectly outlining an argument against critics of America. In effect, this
passage along with Hardings response, demonstrate how the language of the Tall
Tale works to create a sense of the American through its humor. And, with
reference to Anderson, the language in these passages also works to establish the
distinctions that separate what is American from other nations. The language
implicitly argues for the authority of the American experience.
A traditional schooling with lessons that are often theoretical and academic
does not have a place of value in these stories. Instead, schooling occurs through
the characters physical experiences of their environments. The education and the
successes that it produces which are valuable in these stories are usually a matter of
practicality and are always connected to the land/place. Take for consideration the
tales of Johnny Appleseed that speak of a man with a very good and traditional,
possibly Ivy League, education. This character who is rumored to have been of
great intelligence and eloquence, regularly quoting the likes of Emanuel
Swendenborg, abandoned any traditional pursuits at the age of twenty-six in order
to spend the rest of his life traveling the land, planting and growing apple trees.
Johnny is usually pictured wearing nothing more than a coffee sack with a cooking
pot on his head for functionality and simplicity. Alongside this image is the
romanticized story of an individual who has discarded wealth and material goods
for a more fulfilling relationship with the land.77 As his audience, we experience his
love and nurturing of the land as the sources for his fame. Johnny Appleseeds
story not only reiterates the value of an intimate relationship with the land, but
77 For biographies and stories see, W.D. Haley, Johnny Appleseed: A Pioneer Hero in Harpers
Magazine (Vol. XLIII, November, 1871) 830-836; and, Henry A. Pershing, Johnny Appleseed and
His Time (Strasburg, VA.: Shenandoah Publishing House, 1930).
55


again imagines how the extent of this relationship can result in extraordinary
success.
This is not to say that the traditional education and skills such as reading did
not have a place in the New World. To make this claim would not only be a gross
misunderstanding of how Tall Tales operate, but a failure to acknowledge their
humor. As I briefly mentioned earlier, there are some real-life truths in the tales.
Proficiency in traditionally taught skills and high-level degrees from prestigious
universities would be put to little use when settling in this place. Ones knowledge
of the land and ability to tame it enough to live in it were far more necessary for
ones survival. Tall Tales make ready use of these ideas as a way of stressing the
differences of the experience of living here as opposed to that of a place like
Europe. By referencing the unrelenting work and difficulties faced by actual
frontiersmen, the Tall Tale is intimately connected to the actual experiences of
early Americans. However, they work towards these ends in ways that also poke
fun at the image of the backwoodsman. His characterization in tales like Crocketts
is a combination of honorable hero and comic stereotype. While performing great
feats and exhibiting admirable moral fiber, the characters are also generally devoid
of the intellectual and emotional complexity of real people. Even though characters,
including Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed, are loosely related to historical
people, they are not meant to replicate actual Americans. Rather, their stories
provide opportunities to isolate and then amplify particular American experiences.
They are Langers Tivingness of the human world as it is abstracted,
composed, and presented to us; with it the high points of the composition that are
78
illuminated by humor. 78
78 Langer, Feeling and Form, 348.
56


It is not only what the Tall Tale characters say, but how they say it that
lends these stories to the creation of the American. The characters tall talk exists
in the liminal space between the imagined and real language of Americans.
Characterized by grandiloquence, boasting and exaggeration, the colloquial
speech of these characters is limited to the unique voices within their stories.
Recognizable terms and phrases are regularly twisted and reformulated in the
mouths of characters like Crockett. What emerges is a language that is
unmistakably connected with an imagined American. For instance, a term such as
angelic might emerge as anngeliferous or instead of saying that something is
OA
facing in a slanting direction, it might be referred to as slantindicular. The
literary humorists thereby show the common American experience as a discipline
with both language and technique. In an introduction to a collection of Crocketts
tales, the unknown author notifies readers that,
though I have had much intercourse with the West, I have
never met with a man who used such terms unless they were
alluded to, as merely occupying a space in some printed work.
They have, however, thus been made to enter, as a component
81
part, into the character of every backwoodsman.
What this caveat suggests is that although this language is an essential element of a
fictionalized America, it is not a representation of the vernacular speech of actual
Americans. At the same time, however, there are features of this language that have
connections to the regional dialects, political stump speeches, and the public and
oral sharing of stories. As a result, the language of the Tall Tale characters offers a
literary dialect of what Americans might sound like, even though they do not. 79 80 81
79 Botkin, American Folklore, 272-273.
80 Ibid., 273-274.
81 Anonymous, quoted in, Botkin, American Folklore, 273.
57


The Non-American
Tall Tale stories rely on the play between actualities and falsities. The
exaggerated characteristics of the land and the characters make them seem both
ridiculous and endearing. Those audiences who were able to embrace both of these
reactions to the stories were most likely American. I am suggesting that this is
likely because the tales ask their audiences to recognize the incongruity between
peoples actual experiences of living here and the depictions in the Tall Tale. The
humor is the product of this incongruity whereby audiences could see themselves in
contrast and comparison with the stories of the characters. The protagonists are
normalized through their goodness in the stories and their recognizable
Americanized qualities. In this sense then, the Tall Tale also provides a means of
identifying what is not an experience of the Americanan anti-identification of the
American. The strangeness and otherness of the early American experience is
relocated in antagonists which thereby reinforces the normality of the protagonists.
One variety of this character is the aforementioned stranger who is
unfamiliar with the land and is oftentimes portrayed in a non-American light. He is
pictured as a drifter, a swindler, a character with overall dubious moral values. The
stranger is generally taught a lesson, either intentionally by the protagonist or
unintentionally by his own ignorant or amoral behavior, which results in either his
reformation or his quick and permanent exit. The point I am making in
differentiating between these stranger characters and the characters of the
forthcoming examples are that the former are allowed to live on in the stories.
Audience members might identify them as non-Americans and they are punished
for their non-American qualities; however, they are not portrayed as dangers to an
American identity. In contrast, there are other characters that seem threatening to
the American and these characters come with far more obvious origins. The
depictions of these characters both reflect and help shape the chauvinisms of early
58


Americans. Some of the most pervasive of these chauvinisms are racial. The
prejudices that even today continue to plague the nation in its struggle for
democratic equality in many ways find support in these tales.
Caricaturized Indian, Mexican, and Black characters are regularly set in
opposition to the Tall Tale heroes and portrayed as outsiders to the values and
morals of the stories.82 A short list of some of Crocketts tales illustrates this
portrayal: Crockett Pinking an Indian; A Black Affair; Struggle with the
Indian Chief Wild Cat; Colonel Crocketts Trip to Texas and Fight with the
Mexicans; and Crockett Playing Death with Mexican Pirates. Stories such as
these work to separate the characteristics of the American from those of the non-
American. What often results is the portrayal of the non-American as an
unacceptable threat to the American who is then justified in obliterating the source
of the threat. For example, in Struggle with the Indian Chief Wild Cat, the
narrator (i.e., Crockett) describes for us a group of Indians as the sassiest tribe o
sausage colored niggers that ever split the skull or breakfasted on the warm blood
of white-faced human nater.83 Our first introduction to these characters depicts
them in an overwhelmingly undesirable light and condemns them before there is
even any action in the story. And, while the tribes sassiness and cannibalistic
tendencies are sources for their condemnation, it is ultimately skin color which
decides their antithetical position. The description of their skin as sausage
colored is not only grotesquely unflattering, it also makes an obvious association
between the people with this flesh tone and dead meat. Whether or not the use of
the word niggers here is meant with the same amount of racial prejudice that we
associate with it today, the term clearly denotes the inferiority of the sausage
82 The terms I am using for these ethnic groups abide by some of the terminology used during this
time period before they were included as Americans.
83 Dorson, Davy Crockett, 91.
59


colored referents. Finally, combining this description with the claim that this
group feasted on white-faced human nater makes them appear as though they are
both anti-white and anti-humana basic recipe for the non-American. Even though
Indians are native to this land, they are imagined as foreign monsters that threaten
the American. Their native identity is effectively erased and relocated in the
protagonist character.
With this as the initial presentation of the Indian group, it is no surprise
when, at the end of story, Crockett lightly boasts about his brutal killing of the
Chief Wild Cat: When I grabbed him by the neck like any other pussy an
squeezed it into dislocation, kicked his backbone out o jint, and sent him down,
howlin mercy, til bussed a rock about ninety feet below, split his brains, and
knocked out his nine lives beautiful.84 In a seemingly ironic twist, the action that
precipitated this ending was the Chiefs offended response to Crocketts slaughter
of a wildcatan animal the Indian leader felt personally related to. In effect, these
stories might value a relationship with ones environment, but this seems to be
associated only with white characters. In this way, part of a nativist movement of
the early nineteenth century sought to absorb Indians good qualities into whites.
One thing that the Tall Tale does in identifying the non-American is to
acknowledge the existence of groups of people who, by their presence as characters
in the stories, help to identify the American experience. In other words, the stories
that are shaped around protagonists troubles with Indians, Mexicans, and Black
characters are unlike the stories of any other nation because these specific groups
did not present the same perceived threats to any other nations. This logic is
demonstrated in the statements of an early American writer who rightfully
acknowledged that the inclusion of Indian-American details in his novels helped to
84 Ibid., 91.
60


distinguish his writing as American.85 The perception of what constitutes as
foreign, strange, and grotesque is shifted from settlers onto other racially
segmented characters. As a result, the presence of non-American characters
authenticates the identification of American characters in these early literary works.
An ironic twist occurs, however, when the stories that help to imagine the
American have to figure out a way to cope with the very real presence of people
who, by their exclusion, threaten the legitimacy of the American.
In the light of this contradictory situation, there is the compelling question
that if American nationhood found part of its collective spirit in ideas of
democracy, then how did anti-democratic exclusion and ethnic annihilation affect
these notions of political community? One solution to this conundrum that was
prevalent in both the imagined stories and the real experiences of Americans was to
shape ones own and others conceptions of particular groups of people so that the
democratic ideals became inapplicable to them. That is to say, if some people
seemed sub- or inhuman, then they did not have to be treated equally or justly. The
Tall Tales embraced this solution by contributing images of certain peoples who
are portrayed as monsters or imbeciles. Moreover, the impact of these images is
inflated by the details that depict these peoples as actively threatening the lives and
the humanity of the stories heroes. Criminals, animals, and people who did not
own land are just a couple of examples of groups who were outside of the
equalizing umbrella of democracy. The characteristics from groups such as these
combine with characteristics from specific ethnic groups, and storylines that put
these characters in conflict with the protagonists, to produce ethnically specific,
anti-American antagonists.
85 Charles Brockden Brown, preface to Edgar Huntly (New York: Macmillan, 1928. Reprinted from
original 1799), xxiii.
61


In this sense, the Tall Tale is a complex aporia, a term that Timothy
Powell uses to examine the complexities of the creation of American identities in
early American novels. Powells use of this term, and its incorporation here,
draws on its definition as an insoluble conflict between rhetoric and thought... a
lacuna between what a text means to say and what it is constrained to mean. In
this sense, the aporia of a text is its contradictory meaning. The contradictions or
aporias of Powells investigation which also apply here are that America is a
democratic nation and that it is not and that America is a racist nation and it is
not.86 87 88 Additionally, in the case of the Tall Tales, the Indian, Mexican, and Black
characters build up the idea of the American at the same time that they break it
down. Humor helps to mitigate the contradictory nature of America. The humorous
performance in these stories operates in such a way to create the aporias that Powell
refers to; however, it also tries to provide a solution. Through continual and
negative exaggeration, caricatured representatives of ethnic groups appear as evil,
oppositional forces to the Americanized characters. The perspectives, voices, and
experiences of these non-Americanized peoples are completely absent from the
stories and, this way, they are easily beaten and annihilated without any sense of
shame or remorse. In fact, their annihilation promotes the moral rightness and
heroism of the protagonist. This demonstrates the imagining of the American
through the creation and subsequent destruction of the non- and anti-American. The
aporia of democratic equality and racial exclusion in the development of the new
nation finds a comfortable explanation in Tall Tales where both can exist without
significant challenge to each other. There are some obvious signs that Tall Tale
86 Timothy Powell, Ruthless Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 10.
87 Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, ed. J.A. Cuddon (Oxford: Basil Blackwell,
1979), 55.
88 Powell, Ruthless Democracy, 11.
62


America is racist, but then again, if the audience finds truth in the stories and the
portrayal of the characters, it really is not.
Tall Tales and their early endeavor to negotiate comfortable solutions for
the aporias involving racism and democracy is one of the most enduring American
traditions that emerges from these tales. This is especially true in terms of humor in
America. The form of the humorous performance in these tales provides a source
for the continual struggle to provide answers to Crevecoeurs lingering question of
what constitutes the American. Tall Tale characters who exhibit qualities of
individualism and self-sufficiency, along with their unique relationships with the
land and novel ideas about social stratification provide some of our most
foundational beliefs about what the American might look, act, and sound like. They
serve as an initial source for recognizing some sort of national identity; they are a
means of understanding what the imagined American is. However, if theories of
structuralism and post-structuralism have taught us nothing else they have taught us
that everything must have its opposite. With that said, it is clear that Crevecoeurs
question, and its answers, also seek out the non-American. It is this implied portion
of his question that is particularly problematic for the American nation. The
humorous performance in the Tall Tale therefore also provides a means for
understanding what the imagined American is not. In the creative world of fiction
and the non-serious world of humor, it is easy to strip non-American characters of
their humanity. The non-American characters are effortlessly recognizable by their
negative qualities in combination with their non-white skin tones. They are easy
dupes for reinforcing the qualities of the protagonist (read: American) characters.
Where these seemingly straightforward performances of the imagined
American and non-American become endlessly complicated is in their relation to
the actual experiences of Americans. For these tales to have endured as long as they
have there are certainly some truths connecting the experiences of the imagined and
63


real Americans. Where these truths lie and how they participate in creating an
American identity is certainly not set in stone. The non-American, for instance, is a
much different character today then it was two hundred years ago. These humorous
texts answer the search for American identity with a means to navigate between the
American and the non-American, and the actual and the imaginary. The Tall Tale is
a launching point for the humorous performance of these elements in a continual
referencing of Americas aporias in humor. In this sense, this humor advances a
slightly different version of Andersons definition of nationhood where the
humorous performance is a continually re-imagined political community.
In 1796, Henry Adams charged that America was a nation as yet in
swaddling clothes, which had neither literature, arts, sciences nor history; nor even
enough nationality to be sure that it was a nation. Though he adopts a far more
cynical tone than Crevecoeur, he presents a similar challenge. People had to
imagine America as a nation before any particular cultural or political identity
could gain ground. The presence of the Tall Tale and its mode of humorous
performance in the early formation of America provide an easy illustration of the
usefulness, and even the necessity, of humor in this process. In their imaginings,
the early productions of humor in America envision the inclusion and exclusion of
characters that together communicate the American. This division, as it exists in
both a communal consciousness and the real world,89 90 becomes the focus of much
of the performances of humor that follow the Tall Tales. Even so, the humor in
these tales also provides a foundation for the subsequent reworking of this division.
The tools that serve to imagine an early American experience, develop in
succeeding humorous performances to re-imagine alternative American
89 Henry Adams, History of United States of America During the First Administration of Thomas
Jefferson, (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1909), 157.
90 Boskin, History and Humor, 19.
64


experiences. One pattern of humor in America then becomes visible in the
performances that put humor to use in a continual striving to transform our notions
of the American. By revisiting Americas contradictions and offering various
imaginings that solve them, if only temporarily, these performances imply that
there is a tradition for creating humor in America.
65


CHAPTER 4
CRACKER-BARREL PHILOSOPHERS
Comic Masking and Voicing the Rights
of American Citizenship
When making an argument that humorous performances are forms of
political dialogue, the discussion often needs to be abstract and theoretical. To
isolate the ideas at work in a performance we have to delve into the poetics of the
non-discursive form. The very playfulness that makes humor effective is ironically
absent from the scholarly investigation of it. Unavailable to other forms of
argument are a supply of tools that allow humorists to make politically charged
arguments in a non-serious way. Audiences can experience the arguments
contained within a humorous performance without contemplating their agreement
with them. Someone can revel in the hilarity of Richard Pryor, for instance, without
explicating any of its claims about a de-racialized America. Unlike a scholarly
argument or political treatise that has to prove its worthiness in disciplinary terms,
the humorous performance is either funny to us or it is not. As its observers or
audience members, we dont even necessarily need to agree to the language on the
surface of the performance as long as we concur with the experience that it is
expressing. And conversely, we might agree to the surface language without
concurring with the experience.
This chapter focuses on Civil War era texts in which the literal language of
the performance and the symbolic communication that occurs beneath are working
in different directions. There is one type of political dialogue that is readily visible:
one character might favor the Union while another favors the Confederacy. These
characters have no qualms in declaring their political ideologies. Of course, there is
66


more at work here than just what is on the surface of this humor. Another type of
political dialogue occurs through the ironic construction of these characters
whereby the authors argue for the opposite of what the character seems to support.
The politicized character in these texts, who is aptly termed a crackerbox or
cracker-barrel philosopher,91 is an ironic mask that allows for social commentary
and leads to the development of the comic voice. What makes these humorous
performances more than just a series of political boxing matches lies in the
combination of the surface and submerged dialogues. Within the humorous
performance, there is play between what the characters are saying and how they are
saying it. Consequently, the humorous performance of the cracker-barrel
philosophers can express much more than what is available on the surface.
In his study of New England humor, Cameron Nickels offers a fitting
insight to the characters with its namesake by suggesting that the cracker-barrel
itself denotes a feature of a country store where local folks gather to talk over the
issues of the day.92 Likewise, the cracker-barrel philosopher provides a character
for the literary humorists and readers to come together over the text and informally
discuss current events. Also, like the cracker-barrel, the cracker-barrel character is
both an identifying feature of his surroundings and a feature identified by his
surroundings. In a way similar to the creation of a Tall Tale character like Davy
Crockett, the geographical and historical circumstances that surround the creation
of the cracker-barrel philosopher help to construct his character, and vice-versa, the
cracker-barrel philosopher helps construct a character of America during the Civil
War era. In the shape of a common American, the cracker-barrel philosopher
91 Although Tandys seminal work referred to these characters as crackerbox philosophers,
Cameron C. Nickels later justifies using cracker-barrel as a more proper and recognized term in
New England Humor: From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War (Knoxville: University of
Tennessee Press, 1993). (See also, chpt. 2, n. 15).
92 Nickels, New England Humor, 147.
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actively takes part in informing his readers about the influence that his voice can
have. America, still in its formative years and in the midst of being divided by the
Civil War, is searching for a means to unite it as a nation. The cracker-barrel
philosopher offers his readers a means to imagine a collective American figure in
his character.
On the surface, he is an exaggerated image of the common man; however,
he is also very politically biased and, thereby, resists a collective
characterization. For the cracker-barrel philosophers, these incarnations of Uncle
Sam, the unlettered philosopher, the extremeness of their political, common man
identities provides a focus for audiences attention.93 By creating this rather
extreme rhetorical figure, the author can use the character and language of the
cracker-barrel philosopher as a means for communicating other messages. In this
way, his voice is a mechanism for irony. Consider the case of Petroleum V. Nasby,
whose author, David Ross Locke, sets up his character as a vehicle for his
commentary on how a bad citizen sounds and behaves. Nasby is constructed as
such an intensely undesirable characteronce described as a lying braggart, a
loafer, a drunkard, a bigamist, a hypocrite, a racist and a coward94that his role as
a stout Copperhead and a proponent of slavery satirically reveals Lockes
antithetical sympathies. By constantly revealing Nasby as a reprehensible person
and a bad American, Locke gives a backward commentary on what a citizen should
not resemble. In this segment Nasby asserts his staunch support for his political
party:
I hev fought and bled for the coz, hev voted ez often ez three
times at one elekshun, and hev alluz wore moumin around my
eyes for three weeks after each campane. I hev alluz rallid to
93 Tandy, Crackerbox Philosophers, ix.
94 Walter Blair and Raven I. McDavid Jr., introduction to Mirth of a Nation, eds. Blair and McDavid
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), xvii-xviii.
68


the poles early in the momin, and hev spent the entire day a
bringin in the agid and infirm, and in the patryotik biznis uv
knockin down the opposition voters. No man hez drunk more
whisky than I hev for the party-none hez dun it moar
willingly. Twict, in going thro campanes, hev I brot myself to
the very verge uv delirium tremins a drinkin the terrific
elekshun whisky pervided by our candidates, but the coz
demandid the sacrifis [...]. My politikle principles are
sound.95
Nasbys sordid political practices provide antithetical support for Lincoln and the
rest of the Union. His extreme devotional support of his political party having
fought and bled for the coz is also his failing as a citizen having voted ez often
ez three times at one elekshun. His understanding of the democratic process
involves knockin down the opposition voters, and his sacrifis for his party
involves drinking until he is on the very verge uv delirium. All of this sets up the
ultimate moment of irony in this segment when he declares my politikle principles
sound. Clearly, they are not. It is not necessary for the reader to know that Locke
is the real author of the work, nor is it necessary to realize the antithetical aims of
the work in order for the author to inspire his desired response in the reader. This
character is obviously a straw man to be laughed at and tom down in favor of the
opposition. In this case, the cracker-barrel philosopher is the catalyst for eliciting
support against himself and Locke remains invisible.
Similar to the Tall Tales imagining of Americans and non-Americans, the
cracker-barrel texts imagines good and bad citizens. The author creates this
judgment not only through the particular claims and declarations of the character,
as demonstrated in the example of Nasby, but in the type of language that the
character uses. Pitting Standard English against non-Standard English is, again, a
device to distinguish what is American from what is European, and indicate that a
95 David Ross Locke, The Struggles of Petroleum V. Nasby, abridged ed., ed. Joseph Jones (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1963), 10.
69


character is a foreigner, trickster, or an affectationist. A cracker-barrel characters
attempt to adopt a more highfalutin speech often ironically renders him far more
witless than his use of the language he is comfortable with. Using language for
these ends allows the literary humorists to both present their own serious opinions
in a comical and non-threatening manner, and offer critical commentary about
those that they disagree with. Consider Nasby again and his frequent attempts at
educated speech that only reinforce his ignorance. In his speech announcing
himself as a candidate for political office he tries to adopt the formal rhetoric of an
orator in order to make an eloquent case for his election:
To the Dimokrasy uv the county:
I announse myself ez a candidate for ary one uv the offices to
be filled this autum, subgik, uv coarse, to the decishun uv the
Convenshun.
In makin this anouncement, I fell it due my Dimekratik
brethrin, that I stait the reasons for takin this step. They run ez
follows:
1st. I want a offis.
2d. I need a offis.
3d. A offis wood suit me; therfore,
4th. I shood like to hev a offis.96
Nasbys attempts at formal language have the opposite effects than he has intended
because the language that causes suspicion when emitted from the mouths of
politicians or foreigners is glaringly ill-used in the mouths of common folk. Nasby
fails here because he tries to use language as a means of elevating himself above
his audience thereby resisting the ideals of democratic equality. Combined with the
faulty logic that he is a worthy candidate essentially because he has deemed it so,
Nasbys oration fails because of his attempt to deny his commonness.
Users of Standard English commonly appear in these stories, as in Tall
Tales, with some sort of self-serving motive for talking or writing. Likewise, the
96 Locke, Struggles of Petroleum, 9.
70


literary humorists choice of vernacular language creates a comfortable situation for
readers to access their texts and characters. As the characters tell stories and speak
in a conversational tone, the reader is situated as an easy listener. By embracing the
tone of everyday speech, along with colloquial language and regional dialects, this
humor supports the language of a common American.
In order to represent vernacular speech, the humorists freely reinvented the
spelling of the English language. On the surface of this language, the purposely
misspelled words serve to alter Standard English into a distinct American language
defined by the natural ways in which American peoples might speak and thereby
composing this phonetic orthography. Considering that the character is represented
as the author, then misspelling is the characters interpretation of the words
according to his or her own use of the language. Standard English does not stand a
chance in the mouth and hand of a character like Nasby. As this is a newly literate
nation still reliant upon oral traditions, there is a direct connection between the
mouth and the hand, or rather, a connection between orthographical and oral
communication. According to humor scholar Jesse Bier, the delight in spelling or
misspelling was a clear indication of the newly acquired character of mass literacy,
accelerative but unsure of itself yet and needing to laugh at the next lowest level
from which most of the population were just barely lifting themselves. With this
in mind, below the surface level of the misspelling, the texts acknowledge the
literacy of the society. They depend on the common reader to both be able to
recognize words as misspelled and then make the connection to the words
standardized spelling. Literary humorists use of misspelling as a literary technique
puts faith in the literacy of their readers while appreciating the continuance of oral
communication.
Like the cracker-barrel philosopher himself, his language is a caricature of 97
97 Jesse Bier, The Rise and Fall of American Humor (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968),
100.
71


an American dialect in a written form. Readers can identify with the informal
language and recognizable dialects and colloquialisms while at the same time
contrasting their literacy with the characters illiteracy. The spelling is comical
even as it illustrates a phonetic connection that links the oral and written forms of
communication in the society and supporting the peoples ability to communicate
in both of these forms.
The phonetic spelling of words compels the reader to engage with the text
in order to understand the new appearance of formerly recognizable words.
Unrecognizable spelling makes readers sound out words as if they are taking part in
the characters dialectical writing. In turn, the characters voices are resounded in
the readers minds or voices lending the words an audible freedom as they are
being read. Consider the spelling by a character of James Russell Lowell who
sounded out idolatries to be spelled eye-dollar-trys.98 Upon first glance the word
makes no sense until it is re-read and given an audible sounding by the reader.
When the word is verbalized as a means of understanding, the text and the
character literally gain a voice through the reader.
In the case of a character like Artemus Ward, the spelling is a visual device
giving readers access to Wards accent as if he were present and speaking in
person: Buckle on yer armer and go to the Poles. See two it that your naber is
there. See that the kripples air provided with carriages [...]. This is a privilege we
all persess, and it is 1 of the booties of this grate and free land.99 Without exerting
any extra effort, the reader can have intimate access to the sound of Wards voice
by simply reading his lines. Humorists play with spelling provides an easily
accessible humor. By simply realizing the connection between a misspelled word
98 Bier, Rise and Fall, 99.
99 Browne, Complete Works, 177-178.
72


on the page, like naber, and the standardized word, neighbor, the reader has
access to a very obvious comic device. In effect, these humorous texts not only
encourage the readers interaction, but a means of interacting is built into the very
structure of the language.
The device of misspelling also opens a door to creative punning whereby
the surface of the language seems to reflect phonetic spelling, but beneath this
surface is political commentary. When, for instance, a Confederate cracker-barrel
character by the name of Bill Arp refers to President Lincoln as Abe Linkhom
the name can be read as a regional pronunciation and also as a comment on the
Presidents linking horns with the Confederacy. Likewise, Petroleum V. Nasby
constantly spells Democracy as Democrisy in order to suggest hypocrisy.100
Punning is a typical comic device for the humorist that offers the reader a simple
means of accessing humor and meaning in the text. Furthermore, like general
misspelling, punning is dependent on the reader for its effectiveness. The text relies
on the reader to understand the different meanings being played with in the punned
word and, in effect, the reader gains a certain mastery over the success or failure of
the text. With the readers realization of the punned word comes a successful
shared experience of the language in the text between the reader and the author
through the character. As a result, the cracker-barrel philosopher can
unintentionally present the political commentary of the author. This new American,
or rather, Amerikan, language compromises standardized spelling in order to
infuse words with political rhetoric exclaimed from the mouth of the imagined,
common man and dependent on the understanding of the common reader. If each
individual is a fundamental unit of democracy, then his declarations and knowledge
are necessarily political. By this logic, the language of the common man serves
here as the language of democracy.
100 Bier, Rise and Fall, 100.
73


The pun, as a part of a democratic rhetoric, is significant because the word
being punned and its context willingly reveal hidden information about the word
without overt ambiguity. For example, there is little doubt that when the democrat
Petroleum V. Nasby claims to drink whisky ez cherefiilly ez tho [his] stumic hed
been copper-lined he is making reference to his political position as a
Copperhead.101 The pun can be used both lexically and orthographically in the text
as in the name of Robert H. Newells character, Orpheus C. Kerr, or, office
seeker, reinforcing again the connections between the oral and written traditions of
telling stories and relaying information.102 Indulgence in this comical play with
language at one time gives the author a means of inserting information into the text
and the reader a readily accessible means of accessing that information. Compared
with the political rhetoric of politicians and orators during this time period whose
elitist language oftentimes made information inaccessible to the average man, the
pun is a welcome relief. Moreover, the pun, along with the literary humorists use
of common-folk-talk, structures the language of the common American as
democratic rhetoric, and as such, the imagined citizen acquires political authority
through his natural speech.
All of this rhetorical construction creates a humorous fa9ade in the cracker-
barrel philosopher who then facilitates the authors ability to relay social and
political commentary. The author hides behind a guise of a nom de plume to give
authority to the cracker-barrel philosopher to speak directly to the readership.
Additionally, the literary humorists depict their characters with simple dialectic and
base humor as a means of masking their own voices and authenticating the voices
of their characters. With the audiences attention focused on the characters, the
masked authors enjoy a greater freedom to express their personal statements than if
101 Locke, Struggles of Petroleum, 10.
102 Bier, Rise and Fall, 100.
74


they explicitly expressed themselves. In the midst of the Civil War, these
statements were largely used to express the authors political views of the nature
and character of the nation. Consider for instance, Charles Henry Smith, a known
Confederate supporter, who enlists the cracker-barrel character Bill Arp to criticize
Abraham Lincoln and the Union. Arps first text, a letter entitled, Bill Arp to Abe
Linkhorn, illustrates a different method than Lockes of subversively
communicating the sentiments of the author. From the Confederate army lines, Arp
issues his sentiments to Lincoln in response to his demand for the Southern army to
disperse:
Mr. Linkhom-sir,
These are to inform you that we are all well, and hope these
lines may find you in statu quo. We received your
proclamation, and as you have put us on very short notice, a
few of us boys have concluded to write you, and ax for a little
more time. The fact is, we are most obleeged to have a few
more days, for the way things are happening, it is utterly
unpossible for us to disperse in twenty days. Old Virginia and
Tennessee and North Carolina are continually aggravatin us
into tumults and carousements, and a body cant disperse until
you put a stop to such unruly conduct on their part. I tried my
damdest yisterday to disperse and retire, but it was no go. And
besides, your marshal here aint doing a darned thing-he dont
read the riot act, nor remonstrate, not nothing, and ought to be
turned out. If you conclude to do so, I am authorized to
recommend to you Col. Gibbons or Mr. McLung, who would
attend to the business as well as most anybody.
The fact is, the boys round here want watchin, or theyll take
somethin. A few days ago I heard they surrounded two of our
best citizens because they was named Fort and Sumter. Most
of em are so hot that they fairly siz when you pour water on
em, and thats the way they make up their military companies
here now. When a man applies to jine the volunteers, they
sprinkle him, and if he sizzes they take him, and if he dont
they dont.103
103 Charles Henry Smith, Bill Arp to Abe Linkhorn, in The Mirth of a Nation, eds. Walter Blair
and Raven I. McDavid (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 138-139.
75


The letter continues in this slyly comical tone where, under the guise of a
Confederate soldier trying to obey Lincolns orders and offering him his humble
advice, Smith is able to belittle strategically the President, his orders, and the
Union. Like Nasby, Bill Arp exhibits some negative traits such as ignorance and
cowardice; but unlike Nasby, these traits are not used to the ends of turning the
reader against the character. Instead, Smith invites readers to laugh at Arps
misunderstandings, thereby undermining the strength or importance of those
misunderstood people and places. Arps wrongful address of Lincoln and his war
efforts transforms them into a comical joke that encourages the reader to delight in
this humor and, in turn, side with the opposition. Smith transports his political
sentiments by way of the cracker-barrel philosopher.
In creating the cracker-barrel philosopher as a means to deliver political
commentary, these humorists simultaneously produce an anonymous means to
voice their opinions. Regardless of readers reactions to the authors sentiments, the
texts of the individual authors in the hands of readers are statements participating in
the public sphere. Conveyance from the private to the public was not in the form of
books or novels, as these items were still not widely available in the nineteenth
century, rather, the majority of these texts were released into the public by way of
newspapers. Comparatively, the newspaper is the most democratic of publications
as it is generally available and accessible to anyone. There is no coincidence in the
fact that many of the literary humorists had some history working in the printing
trade for newspapers. Experience in this trade would reveal the mass publication of
texts that only a newspaper could offer and this obviously appeals to writers whose
texts are made to reach the public masses.
With the release of the cracker-barrel philosopher into the public comes a
freedom of voice for the character, now separated from the author, to speak to the
community and become an active conversationalist from the viewpoint of a
76


common man. He informs on the identity of what a common man in America might
sound like, as well as informing on his opinions of what America should look like.
With widespread popularity of cracker-barrel philosophers on both sides of the
Mason-Dixon Line, their texts became pertinent, albeit humorous, voices in the
national conversation on the identity of America. The role of the newspaper as a
direct source to the mass of local and public audiences cannot be underestimated.
By the process of publication, the private becomes public and the statement of one
individual becomes a part of the imagining of American identity.
This process of relaying the authors statement into the public by way of the
newspaper can be compared with the process of voting. The power and
accessibility of the individual vote was being established at the same time that these
humorous texts were being produced. The vote, like the humorous text, is an
anonymous personal statement by the individual concerning the development of the
United States. Whereas the humorists create anonymity under the guise of a
cracker-barrel philosopher, the voter is clothed in secrecy under the nom de plume
of The Citizen. The voter details his text-the ballot- with local knowledge and
beliefs about the identity of the United States. When the citizen casts his vote it
becomes a public statement that then participates in the formation of a local and
national identity. The ballot is the citizens text transferring the personal and
private to the public.
As more texts or votes are submitted to the public sphere a more complete
literary or national body arises. Revealing trends and a state of unity develop
through the growing body of works or votes. The individual vote participates in a
conversation about what the nation should or should not be and each carries with it
the abilities to both support other similar votes and counterbalance the weight of an
opposing vote. In comparison, each of the humorous texts speaks to the other texts
concerning the character of America. An example of these texts speaking to one
77


another is exemplified when Bill Arp in the South directly addresses his
counterpart, Artemus Ward in the North, in a letter concerning the defeat of the
South:
Mr. Artemus Ward, Showman,
Sur: The reesun I write to you in pertikler is bekaus you are
about the only man I know in all Gods kountry, so called.
For sum sevrul weeks I have been wantin to say sumthin. For
sum sevrul years we Rebs, so called, but now late of said
kountry deceased, hav been tryin mity hard to do sumthin. We
didnt quite do it, and now it is very paneful, I ashoor you, to
dry up all of a sudden and make out like we wasnt there.104
Through Arps voice, Charles H. Smith is able to declare publicly the sentiments of
a southern Confederate sympathizer after the victory of the North. In light of the
fact that Artemus is a supporter of the triumphant Union and generally a more
amiable character, he could have silenced the voice of a character like Arp.
However, Smith uses this opportunity of addressing Ward to reestablish Arp as an
Amerikan and the fight of the Rebs as an Amerikan fight. Even though
Smith and his Bill Arp end up on the losing side of the war, they still factor into the
makeup of a national voice. They cannot dry up all of a sudden and his voice will
not let the country make out like we wasnt there. The persistence of a text like
Smiths testified the continued existence of supporters for the Confederacy in the
nation even when said kountry deceased. Similarly, the voter on the losing side
of an election is still an American and his declarations are still a part of the public
conversation according to the aims of the democratic society.
The development of the recognizable American literary character in the
cracker-barrel philosopher runs parallel to the development of the recognizable
American citizen in the voter. These two parallel developments intersect in the
comic voice wherein the cracker-barrel philosopher is the imagined embodiment of
104 Smith, Bill Arp Addresses Artemus Ward, in Mirth of a Nation, 113-114.
78


the rights of the citizen. The cracker-barrel philosopher participates in the rights of
citizenship in a democracy as he represents the secret ballot vote delivering the
declarations of the individual to the public. Winston Churchills defense of
parliamentary democracy has apt application here: At the bottom of all the tributes
paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil,
making a little cross on a little bit of paper no amount of rhetoric or voluminous
discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.105
Within the pages of his text and the arena of his performance, the cracker-barrel
philosopher is that little man and his comic voice guides us to experience the
overwhelming importance of that point. In his audience, he allows us to
experience an average American citizen participating in the development of the
nation.
Cultural Significance
On the literary stage with other nineteenth-century American authors such
as Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson who in their steady search for an American
utterance tend to appeal primarily to an eruditely audience, the humorists texts
seem vulgar and crude in comparison. Many of their characters are ignorant, maybe
even detestable. The vernacular spelling, unrefined language, and simple humor are
not commonly admired reading material. Regardless, the humorists produced texts
which were quite popular amongst a wide range of American social, economic, and
political groups. The comic voice creates a situation where the texts can supply
some rather obvious commentary about the authors specific political preferences at
the same time that they express the virtues of democracy and the experience of the
inclusion of the common man. While not undermining the importance of other
American authors, it is significant to recognize that these literary humorists not
only discussed the democratic development of the nation in their material, but they
105 Winston Churchill, Speech to The House of Commons, in The Dawn of Liberation: War
Speeches, compiled by Charles Eade (London: Cassell, 1945), 233.
79


performed democracy through their writing. The many different avenues of
accessibility that these texts offer seek to include as wide of an audience as possible
to imagine listening to the words of common men. Through the cracker-barrel
philosopher, the reader can temporarily experience the sound and appearance, or
otherwise guise, of an American citizen. Even though he is a politicized character,
he is also an ironic character. In this way, the cracker-barrel philosopher contributes
to a non-threatening atmosphere for the reader to interact with the text and loosely
consider this guise of the citizen. Democratically speaking, the figure of the citizen
must necessarily be a common man whose commonness in no way prevents him
from contributing to the political or social fabric of the nation. Rather, his
commonness is the indispensable catalyst for his contribution to these ends.
While the characters have a very limited range of ethnicity and gender, they
do allow the reader the experience of participating in the citizenry regardless of
wealth or education. The cracker-barrel philosophers characterization as common
men imagines the importance of the average man as a fundamental unit of the
democratic society. Accordingly, these lowbrow characters and their humor are
constructed not only as common men, but as common men with the rights of
citizenship. Neither is it necessary for the reader to be highly educated or otherwise
privileged in order to access the characters and texts of the literary humorists
because they are constructed for the common reader. The humorous performance
necessitates the participation of the observer and the characters are incomplete
without the reaction of the reader. For instance, the aims of David Ross Locke
would not be fulfilled if there was not at least a general reaction against the
sentiments of Petroleum V. Nasby. Or, in the case of Charles Henry Smith, his
character Bill Arp would be incomplete without the readers laughter at such
references as Mr. Linkhom or Harpers Ferry (who keeps that darned old ferry
80


now? its giving us a heap of trouble).106 The texts promote their commonness as a
means to include readers in their conversations.
In one sense, the stories of the cracker-barrel philosopher are a reflection of
the social and political situation in America during the Civil War era. He is well
rooted in his specific historical, social, and political circumstances. These details
are conveyed by what the texts say. However, in another sense, the texts express
larger American experiences in their imaginings of the democratic inclusion of the
common man. This is conveyed in how the texts express themselves. Both of these
ends are facilitated through the humor of the texts. The comic mask allowed the
cracker-barrel texts to go places and do things that other more serious texts were
not allowed. Clearly the volatile atmosphere of a nation in the midst of a civil war
was a dangerous place for severe declarationspeoples lives were at stake and
many people staked their lives on their beliefs. Given this, the cracker-barrel
philosophers were still able to make widely publicized declarations about the
development of the nation because they provide enough fiction with their truths
that they can make serious statements in a non-serious manner.
Finding an effective balance between the serious and non-serious is one of
the complexities of this and all other modes of the humorous performance. In order
for the humor to be powerful, it must express a serious (a term that in this moment
can also be substituted with true) claim about an experience of life. However, in
order for the humor to be effective, it must find a non-serious means of
communicating this experience. The balance between these two is a part of the
play of humor that I have been regularly referring to.107 Both the comic mask and
the comic voice are useful tools in creating this play. Through their incorporation
106 Smith, Arp to Linkhom, 137.
1071 have found the term play to be especially useful in trying to articulate the special qualities of
humor because at one time it encompasses fun and enjoyment, along with action and performance.
81


of these tools, the texts of the cracker-barrel philosophers arent limited to their
political ramblings, but rather, they contribute political dialogue concerning the
development of American citizenship. Ironic masking creates the layer of
distraction between author and the audience that is often necessary to relay social
and political commentary. It also leads to the development of the comic voice
which provides this commentary through its narrative. The use of these tools
provides another possibility for linking the performances that both proceed and
cracker-barrel philosophers who exemplify their usefulness in
multi-channel dialogue about the development of the American.
succeed the
providing a
82


CHAPTER 5
LENNY BRUCE
The Healing Effects of a Sick Comic
All right, kids, sit down now, this pictures gonna start. Its not
like Psycho, with a lot of four-letter words, like kill and
maim and hurtbut youre gonna see this film now and
what you see will probably impress you for the rest of your
lives, so we have to be very careful what we show you ... Oh,
its a dirty movie. A couple is coming in now. I dont know if
its gonna be as good as Psycho, where we have the stabbing
in the shower and the blood down the drain ... Oh, the guys
picking up the pillow. Now, hell probably smother her with it,
and thatll be a good opening. Ah, the degenerate, hes putting
it under her ass. Jesus, tsk, tsk, I hate to show this crap to you
kids. All right, now hes lifting up his hand, and hell probably
strike her. No hes caressing her, and kissing herah, this is
disgusting! All right, hes kissing her some more, and shes
saying something. Shell probably scream at him, Get out of
here! No, shes saying, I love you, Im coming. Kids, Im
sorry I showed you anything like this. God knows this will be
on my conscience the rest of my lifetheres a chance that
you may do this when you grow up. Well, just try to forget
what youve seen. Just remember, what this couple did
belongs written on the wall of a mens room. And, in fact, if
10R
you ever want to do it, do it in the mens room.
Imagining the presentation of a dirty movie to a group of children, Lenny
Bruce, much like his successor Richard Pryor, brings to light the importance of
language. By looking closely at the ways that people regularly use certain words
and what the effects are of that usage, he unveils the hypocrisies that are created by 108
108 Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1965), 151.
83


peoples use of language. Here, with an eye toward the performative utterance,
Bruce points out the injurious effects of violent words and phrases. Kill maim
and hurt have the ability to set their actions into motion. These are terms whose
actions are offensive in the literal sense that they are hurtful, harmful [and]
injurious.109 Bruce communicates the profanity of these words by showing how
their actions are obscene. This is the sort of language that should be hidden from
children until they are at an age where they can understand their implications. In
comparison, the actual four letter words, such as shit or fuck, are socially
unacceptable and meant to be hidden from childrens ears, yet they are utterly
harmless. They are words used in place of other words that are perfectly acceptable,
such as defecate and copulate. Why one set of words is okay and the other not
is a question that Bruce regularly visits in his material, and an answer that he
cannot establish. Regardless, he points to the fact that this language and the actions
that it describes are wrongly categorized as obscene in a society where what is
actually deleterious to its well being is acceptable.
Lenny Bruces humor tests the stability of commonly held beliefs and
conventional usage of language and thereby reveals their hypocrisies. Within this
particular bit, Bruces character adopts a parental perspective in order to point
out the duplicitous value judgment inherent in the belief that sexuality is obscene,
while violence is not. He tells us that he has to be careful with these young,
impressionable minds because they will be affected by the images they see.
Pandering to the fear that children might eventually imitate what they see, Bruce
sets into motion the comic momentum that is fulfilled in the exposure of the
hypocrisy in this fear. I dont know if [the pom film] is gonna be as good as
Psycho, where we have the stabbing in the shower and the blood down the drain
His sarcasm is palpable. By comparing the rather horrifying Psycho to a
109 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. offensive, http://www.oed.com/offensive (accessed March 1,
2010).
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pornographic stag film, Bruce compels his audiences to see the double standards
that he found endlessly maddening. He tests the value system that embraces
violence while responding to sex and sexuality with offended disgust by allowing it
to play out in front of an imaginary audience of children. Alas, Hitchcocks famous
scene where we have the stabbing in the shower and the blood down the drain is
perfectly acceptable for their young, impressionable eyes.
Bruces social criticism grows out of Psycho's popularity. Its audiences
broad acceptance of the films brutal violence and bloodshed is the occasion for his
satirical humor. If violence is so enjoyable, then Bruce demands that we make that
clear: Oh, the guys picking up the pillow. Now, hell probably smother her with
it, and thatll be a good opening. Acting disgust that not only does the man in the
movie not smother the woman, but he caresses and kisses her, Bruce shoves in our
faces the implicit messages that me created through popular culture. He acts out
societys passion toward violence, and violence toward passion. At every moment
Bruce, or at least his character here, is looking at the film for some sign of cruelty
or hatred (Shell probably scream at him, Get out of here!) and is sorely
disappointed that there is only love and pleasure (No, shes saying I love you, Im
coming). His humor creates an incongruity that draws attention to a moral
hypocrisy. In doing so, it also performs solutions to alleviate the tensions that are
created within the hypocrisies. Bruces fake commentary on the film looks
laughably ridiculous, but it points to a real world belief that he reveals as being the
truly ridiculous. He imagines for us a world where obscenity is defined by that
which is actually harmful to us.
The comparison of a dirty movie with a popular and critically acclaimed
horror film provide the arena for this instance of Bruces social criticism.110 Within
110 In 1961, Psycho received four Academy Award nominations including Best Director for Alfred
Hitchcock, and Janet Leigh won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress.
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this arena, he attacks the fundamental beliefs lying beneath the tagline FOR
ADULTS ONLY which regularly accompanied advertisements for his show.
According to Bruce, this billing suggests that my point of view, or perhaps the
semantics involved with my point of view, would be a deterrent to the development
of a well-adjusted member of the community.111 As with most of his humor, he
positions himself as a sort of moral compass illustrating how society has convinced
itself that south is north and north is souththat what is acceptable and
unacceptable have been mixed up. In order to make these sort of criticisms, Bruce
abstract[s], compose [s], and present[s] to us the logic that informs hypocritical
beliefs and language.112 113 He then follows the logic to its absurd conclusions. In this
example, children are encouraged to watch movies like Psycho or King of Kings,
where Christ is cruelly murdered, at the same time that they are protectively
113
shielded from a stag film where a couple of adults do little more than have sex.
This testing of social conventions in order to expose their hypocritical and
deceptive logic is indeed the intention of Bruces humor, and what he was
eventually punished for.
The satirical mode of his performance interrogates social conventions,
uncovers the hypocrisies that support them, and then imagines how these American
experiences can be changed. He effectively undoes the conventionality of the
social conventions in his performance. Consider the charge that his material was
obscene. By regularly testing the basic linguistic premises of what constitutes as
obscenity, according to the social standards that support this accusation, he exposes
the absurdity of these standards. Furthermore, he performs the hypocrisies that are
111 Bruce, How to Talk Dirty, 151.
112 Langer, Feeling and Form, 348.
113 Bruce, How to Talk Dirty, 151.
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upheld by the society and institutions that support these standards. My humor is
mostly indictment, a statement to which Bruce later added, I am part of
everything I indict.114 The mode of his humorous performance requires that he
participates in the same hypocrisy and social misconduct that he accuses others of.
In doing so, he is both the target and source of his criticism.
Although his humor is politically charged in the sense that it regularly
challenges social conventions and reigning institutions, it does not necessarily
discuss politics or political issues. He acknowledges this in claiming I dont get
involved with politics as much as Mort Sahl does, because I know that to be a
correct politician and a successful one, you must be what all politicians have
always been: chameleonlike.115 In other words, his material does not respond to a
political debate or support a particular politician, and it does not try to find a
common link with audience members according to their political preferences.116
Bruces material is not aimed at a particular group or issue. Instead, it attacks the
philosophical foundations of hypocritical value systems and anyone associated with
supporting these valuesconservatives and liberals, Jews and Catholics, and men
and women alike. It is the narrative of his humor and its challenges to ideologies
and value systems which make it politically charged.
Poetics
The details of his narratives and his methods of exposing hypocrisies caused
some of his critics and observers to call his humor sick. The terms sickniks and
114 Lenny Bruce, quoted in The Playboy Panel: Hip Comics and the New Humor, Playboy, March,
1961.
115 Bruce, How to Talk Dirty, 185.
116 British critic Kenneth Tynan puts this claim within a clearer context by suggesting that Mort
Saul, brilliant but essentially nonsubversive, had long been [liberals] pet satirist; but the election of
John F. Kennedy robbed Sahl of most of his animus, which had been directed toward Eisenhower
from the lame left wing of the Democratic Party. It became clear that Bruce was tapping a vein of
satire that went much deeper than the puppet warfare of the two-party system. Whichever group was
in power, his criticisms remained valid. Foreword to How to Talk Dirty, xi.
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sick comedy were publicly introduced in a 1959 Times magazine article to
describe a group of standup comedians that included Lenny Bruce, as well as Mort
Sahl and Jonathon Winters. Out of this group, Bruces name became synonymous
with this terminology. Though at times he shunned the sick labeling, he also
embraced it. He even titled his first album, The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce.
What becomes clear in looking at Bruces humor is that although reporters and
critics may have regularly referred to him as a sick comic, he was performing
what he saw as the sicknesses in America, in order to cure them. The recurrent
sickness terminology points to the structure of his humor which operates in such
a way as to actively and intentionally create offense. That is to say that his humor
functions through a process of violating certain beliefs, mores, and ideologies as its
means of invalidating them. Bruces humor is sick because it wants us to be
repulsed by the performance of these beliefs, mores, and ideologies. As a result, we
can then embrace his re-imagining where they are no longer valid.
Bruce more clearly reveals his methodologies in his response to the
accusations that his material was sick and the accompanying questions that often
sounded something like this: What happened to the healthy comedian who just got
there and showed everybody a good time and didnt preach, didnt have to resort to
knocking religion, mocking physical handicaps and telling dirty toilet jokes?:
Yes, what did happen to the wholesome trauma of the 1930s
and 1940sthe honeymoon jokes, concerned not only with
what they did but also with how many times they did it; the
distorted wedding-night tales, supported visually by the trite
vacationland postcards of an elephant with his trunk searching
through the opening of a pup tent, and a womans head
straining out the other end, hysterically screaming,
George!whatever happened to all this wholesomeness?117
117 Bruce, How to Talk Dirty, 98.
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What Bruce does in this response is to locate his own humor in the preceding
traditions while alsoand this is the important partdistinguishing his humor
from that which was earlier or contemporaneous with him. The notable difference
that we can glean from his rebuttal is that the sort of tongue-in-cheek humor that is
being compared with Bruces is guilty of the same charges that were hurled at him.
Another way of saying this is that other humorists made ready use of the same
topics as Bruce, only they did so in less explicit ways and to different ends. The
example of the postcard with the woman and the elephant, their implied contact
covered up by the pup tent, shows how an audience that might be completely
offended by an unambiguous joke about bestiality could laugh at the allusion to this
subject. One of the things this type of humor does is reinforce the value systems
that suggest that these topics are dirty and need to be at least partially hidden. As a
result, this humor can be labeled wholesome or healthy by institutions or
individuals that share in these beliefs.
In comparison, Bruce removes the pup tent and explicitly shows us what we
are laughing at. This had the effect of denying the influence of a tradition of
pretending to be wholesome. His departure from this tradition involved a
challenge to both of the notions that this type of humor was in any way morally
superior to his and that those who made this sort of moral judgment had the
authority to do so. Furthermore, Bruce makes clear that his material is not
necessarily different from much of what has already been around for several years.
The difference lies in the polarity of his humor. Instead of showing us something to
which we may want to assent and allowing us a way to dodge it and say no,
Bruce shows us what we cant accept without offering us the dodge. He thereby
suggests the moral vacancy of the dodge. In his humor, the exposed versions of this
material form the basis for Bruces criticism of the morals and standards that
suggest that it needs to be hidden.
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The rhythm of his performances moves along to a quick beat of imitation
and exposure. Bruce impersonates and imitates his perceptions of the world around
him. These become the sources for his disclosure of what is hidden and private for
public scrutiny. Introducing Bruce in his Carnegie Hall Concert, Jazz pianist Don
Friedman declares that Lenny Bruce is not a sick comedian. What he does he
comments, reflects, holds up the mirror to the sick elements of our society that
should be reflected upon.118 To this I will add that Bruces mirror that Friedman
refers to here is not the kind that provides an exact reproduction of an image.
Bruces mirror is more like an artists rendition of a person or scene that, in his
artistic interpretation, brings to the spectators attention details that they may not
have perceived otherwise. His performance directs the audiences scrutiny to be
seen through his eyes.
However, his humor, wherein exposure is a necessary action in order to
heal social sicknesses, is not always successful. Those who are offended by the
humor at the level of what is being expressed are not receptive to how it is
performed. As this description of offended audience members at a show in London
in 1960 illustrates, a rejection of the basic premises of a performance is the
rejection of the entire structural poetics of the humor:
Scarcely a night passed during his brief sojourn at The
Establishment without vocal protest from offended customers,
sometimes backed up by clenched fists; and this at a members-
only club, is rare in London. The actress Siobhan McKenna
came with a party and noisily rose to leave in the middle of
Bruces act; it seems she was outraged by his attitude toward
the Roman Church. On her way out Peter Cook sought to
remonstrate with her, whereupon she seized his tie while one
of her escorts belted him squarely on the nose. These are
118 Don Friedman. Introduction, The Carnegie Hall Concert by Lenny Bruce. CD. Blue Note
Records, 1995.
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Irish hands, cried Miss McKenna dramatically, and theyre
clean!119
This scene shows how there is no re-imagining for the audience member who
rejects the initial perception on which it is based. What we can think of here as a
subsequent or secondary aspect of the humor is lost if the narrative telling is a
contentious point to its observers. Instead of creating offense within the arena of
the performance, someone like this insulted actress is offended by the performance
itself. This is why Lenny Bruce was arrested for his humor. As a stand up comic
working the stage in the mid-1900s, Bruce acutely understood these poetics. He
understood that his humorous performance explicitly narrates American
hypocrisies. Bruce also knew that what he was performing for his audiences were
new realities or new experiences as alternatives of these hypocrisies. And finally,
he perceived that the public aspect of those narrativesthe open scrutiny of beliefs,
practices, behaviors, and actions that were otherwise accepted, overlooked or
ignoredwould be deeply offensive to the individuals and institutions that
supported them.
Individual Offense
There is perhaps no better situation for contemplating the poetics of the
humorous performance than when one or more audience members do not consent
to a particular performance. People tend to react by walking out, insulting, or
otherwise visibly rejecting the humor and its performance. This is a curious
phenomenon because the performance is not aimed in any sort of personal way at
its audience. Yet, why do they react as though it is? Why is it distinctly offensive to
us when we do not see eye to eye with the performance? The answer is that our
reactions are consequences of the structure of the humorous performance which
situates its observers within the perceptions of its narrative. Humor is not confined
119 Kenneth Tynan, foreword to How to Talk Dirty, xii.
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to books or stages; its execution reaches out to include its observers. Generally,
audience members sit quietly in consent of the reality that is formed in the humor.
Once again, the definition of specific terminology provides insight into its usage
here. The term consent means to agree together, or with another, in opinion or
statement; to be of the same mind.120 121 The audience members do not merely agree
or disagree to the truths within a humorous performance, but are of the same
mind as the comic voice in the midst of the performance.
The audience of a humorous performance, and by audience I mean any
number of persons in the position of observers of the performance, are situated to
experience the humorists narrative. The play that is at work in the humor lures in
the observer as a willing participant to view the narrative through its particular lens.
Each audience member occupies this same passive position in the narrative
characterizing their shared psychological experience. A bit of input from Sigmund
Freud and his fellow psychologists will help focus these claims by placing them
within the context of group psychology. Gustave Le Bon, a French psychologist
and regular presence in Freuds text, analogizes the psychological group to a
provisional being formed of heterogeneous elements, which for a moment are
combined, exactly as the cells which constitute a living body form by their reunion
a new being which displays characteristics very different from those possessed by
each of the cells singly.122 What Le Bons analogy offers here is a way of
envisioning how, in the shared position of the audience member, each individual is
temporarily engaged in the same functionality. The audience consents to the
narrative in the performance and thereby promotes its success in much the same
120 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. consent, http://www.oed.com/consent (accessed March 12,
2010).
121 Freud, Group Psychology, (see chpt. 2, n. 10).
122 Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903),
30.
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way that the collection of cells works toward the success of their shared body.
Given that it is the new being of this hypothetical body that links together
otherwise characteristically different cells in a shared constitution, then it is
likewise that the truths propounded by the protagonist character(s) within the
narrative that create a shared, yet individual experience for the audience members.
Within the confines of this relationship, the comedian becomes a source for
reshaping the morals and ideals of the consenting audience members and realigning
their objectives with that of his or hers. Returning to Freuds concepts, the
humorous performance creates a psychological phenomenon by which the
comedian temporarily reforms the superego and ego of the audience member. As I
discussed in the introductory chapter, Freud uses the relationship between the
patient and hypnotist as a device for explaining how the leader produces these
effects in the group members. In both this relationship and that of the comedian and
audience, one individual becomes a source of power for the groupwhich is
limited to two people within these instancesand, in effect, controls the attention
and objectives of the other. He suggests that what results is that the subject, the
patient/audience member, positions the other, the hypnotist/comedian, in the place
of the superego or ego ideal.123 In the case of Lenny Bruce, his modeling of the
superego through his humor is in defiance of many of the social standards and laws
that are, in all probability, influential in shaping the superego of his audience
members. His humor intentionally hacks into these standards and then tests them in
order to invalidate them. Bruces new or alternate standards and morals have the
upper hand within the performance and shape the audiences experience of it. What
results is the replacement of the socialized superego and the realignment of it and
the aims of the ego, if only temporarily, in line with his humor.
123 Freud, Group Psychology, 58-61.
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Full Text

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THE POWER OF HUMOR: IMAGINING "THE AMERICAN" INTO A REALITY by Melanie Beth Brandt B.A., University of Colorado Denver, 2002 A thesis submitted to the University of Colorado Denver in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Humanities 2010

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'This thesis for the Master of Humanities degree by Melanie Beth Brandt has been approved by Pamela Laird 7'-Z.f-/o Date

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Brandt, Melanie Beth (M.H., Humanities) The Power of Humor: Imagining "The American" Into a Reality Thesis directed by Associate Professor Jake Adam York ABSTRACT Humor is not just a product of culture, it is an active agent in the development of the culture. One particular branch of humor provides ideas and images about American culture, and in doing so, can effect change in its audiences' understandings of "the American." Looking at humor in America as collections of humorous performances with shared social and political concerns about the nation provides a perspective for both detecting "the American" in the humor and analyzing what it is suggesting. By linking together individual performances through the similarities in their imaging of"American" characters and experiences, they reference one another and, together, seem to work towards corresponding versions of a dominant American identity. A selection of performances are connected in this work in the way that they form the American in reaction to contradictions between the nation's ideals, as they are laid out in its founding documents, and the experiences of most Americans. Together, these performances portray the American in humor as both an evolving figure of citizenship and a set of qualities that support this figure. In this way, their humor criticizes the incongruity between America's promises and its realities, and their imaginings offer solutions to this situation. Separate yet united, these

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humorous performances suggest that the American could, should, and must be increasingly inclusive and democratic. By using their humor and its imaginings towards ends that seem to match up with American ideals, these performances make claims for a "true" American. In their cultural imaginings they envision who or what constitutes as American and thereby reflect on the real world of American experiences. The humorists' tools, namely, the comic form, voice, and mask, make it possible tor them to narrate imagined worlds for their audiences that communicate their social or political concerns. The performance allows audience members to "try on" an abstracted and alternative experience of America and consider the truth of its suggestions. In as much as audiences consent to their truths, these performances can influence their constitutive understandings of"the American" as an increasingly inclusive figure of citizenship and democratic experience of the nation. This abstract accurately represents the content ofthe candidate's thesis. I recommend its publication.

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DEDICATION I dedicate this work to my dad and mom who have steadfastly encouraged, loved, and supported me no matter what I wanted to do with my life. Thank you for always believing in me. I also dedicate this to my sister who has been an endless source of love and humor, empathy and sarcasm. Thank you Patton, Chloe, and Ally for your comforting presences. To Jake, this has been a long, long time coming and you never quit encouraging and inspiring me. And, of course, I dedicate this to my Philip who remains invaluable to my success and happiness in life. Thank you for your endless amount of the "p word" (i.e. patience) and support no matter how many nights you slept alone while I wrote until the wee hours of the mom'.

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENT My eternal gratefulness to my friend, mentor, and advisor, Jake Adam York, for the many years of encouragement and guidance. Your wisdom has been invaluable to my development as your student and as person in the world. I can only hope that some of it has worn off on me. Thank you also to my committee members Pamela Laird and Brad Mudge for offering their valuable insights, feedback, and attention when they already had too much work on their hands.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION: INVESTIGATING AN "AMERICAN HUMOR" .................................................................. 1 2. THE MAGIC OF RICHARD PRYOR ........................................ 6 The Transformative Effects of Humor. ................................... 6 The "Comic Voice" and "Comic Form" ................................. 9 Humor Scholarship ............................................... 13 "Incongruence" ............................. ; ............................... 16 "Speech Acts" .............................................................. 21 American Contexts ............................................................ 26 "Cultural Dialectics" and Transformation ................................. .29 A Public Space ............................................................. 34 3. '"WHAT THEN IS THE AMERICAN, THIS NEW MAN?'" .................................................................. 38 The Humor of Tall Tales Gives Form to "The American" .......................................... 38 "The American" ............................................................... 49 "The Non-American" ...................................................... 58 4. CRACKER-BARREL PHILOSOPHERS .................................... 66 Vll

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Comic Masking and Voicing the Rights of American Citizenship ................................................... 66 Cultural Significance ...................................................... 79 5. LENNY BRUCE ................................................................. 83 The Healing Effects of a Sick Comic .................................... 83 Poetics ....................................................................... 87 Individual Offense ......................................................... 91 Offending "The System" .................................................. 96 Success ........................................................................... 1 02 6. CONCLUSION: PASSING THE TORCH ................................. 104 An Evolution of Humor in America and Its Bittersweet Demise ...................................................... 1 04 Political History and the "Comic Mask" .............................. 1 06 Evolution to the 21st Century ........................................... 116 Futures ..................................................................... 125 BIBLIOGRAPHY .......................................................................... 128 Vlll

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CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION: INVESTIGATING AN "AMERJCAN HUMOR" The phrase "American humor" suggests that a collection of humorous performances can be defined by their expression of something akin to Americanness. It sets up an expectation that an observation and study of these performances will reveal some insight into the identification of what constitutes as American. However, locating something that can identified as "American" in particular humorous performances is not satisfied by looking at a collection of static qualities or characteristics that coincide with established notions of a singular American nation. This approach is prevalent in early humor study where, for instance, the use of exaggeration in early humor in America is seen as a reflection of settlers' reactions to the immensity ofthe geography. Instead, in my own use of the phrase "American humor" I claim that particular humorous performances create dialogue about a national identity through their imagined American experiences and that this dialogue can then affect audiences' constitutive understandings of the nation. I am not suggesting that there is any one particular type or kind of humor that can be categorized as "American" since making this sort of claim ignores America's complex multiculturalism. Even the collections of samplings from various social, ethnic, and political groups that are found in "American humor" anthologies really only amount to limited selections of performances and possible cultural categories, and therefore, they cannot demonstrate an all-inclusive "American" categorization. A more fruitful claim is that collections of humorous performances imply linkages amongst the varieties of these performances and, in 1

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doing so, make it seem that they portray an "American humor." That is, by referencing one another both directly and indirectly, and even intentionally and unintentionally, these performances make it seem as if they form a normative standard of humor in America. With this in mind, I both engage in and complicate the idea that a collection of humorous performances can be "American" by looking into the performances' assumptions about national identity in combination with their humor and the ways in which they communicate these to one another. This line of investigation that frequently involves looking into the inner workings of humorous performances, does not, however, end here. The relationship between the audience member and the performance allows for the possibility that the humor can change or affect the real world. When the imaginings within the performance become true in the minds of its audiences then it has the power to influence culture. Even granting that there is no single "American humor," some humor can affect audiences' notions of who or what constitutes as "American." Modem humor scholarship provides the methods by which I make and support these claims. This involves drawing from a variety of disciplines in order to seek answers to the question, what does humor do? One branch of humor study provides some possible answers to this question by treating particular humorous performances as rhetorical spaces for locating American culture. The question then becomes, how does humor do this? That is, how can humor portray the "American"? In answering this question the larger question then reemerges as, what does the "American" in humor do? In my responses to these questions, I argue that humor is not only a reflector, but a force in shaping culture which I will illuminate through the critical analyses of select humorous performances. Each of the main performances chosen for this text stands out in its ability to: a) provide a form for delineating specific aspects of my argument; b) exhibit cultural, political, and artistic significance in its 2

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popularity with audiences and influence on the evolution of humor; and, c) imagines an American experience. These selected performances, in effect, give life to my philosophical and theoretical discussion of humor. I begin with Richard Pryor. While he does not supply us with a chronological beginning for a timeline ofthese performances, his humor in the opening chapter of this text is foundational to laying out the schematics for understanding how his or any humorous performance can seek out, present, and change reality. In Pryor's performance, his comic voice narrates the illegitimacy of race and racial prejudice. He imagines a de-racialized American and, in so doing, highlights his usage of the assortment of tools that humor provides in order to achieve this end. Each of the chapters and performances that follow gives a notable demonstration and in-depth explanation of one or two of these tools. Pryor's performance, however, provides a useful demonstration of a multitude of these tools including the comic voice and incongruent comparisons. Although his particular usage of these tools is built upon a long history, his is significant in its public and politically charged criticism of his American experience. Criticism is not, however, an end for Pryor. He uses these tools for the ultimate end of suggesting a democratic solution. The search for any experience that can be identified as "American" finds a chronological beginning in the next chapter on Tall Tales. Crevecoeur's inquisitive meditations on the character of "the American, this new man" provide the backdrop for a response in these vernacular literary texts.1 The Tall Tale tries to imagine what the American might be. Conversely and concurrently, these tales also envision what the American might not be. This humorous mode works by displacing strangeness onto antagonist characters that are also "othered" through their ethnic 1 J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, "Letter III," Letters from an American Farmer (New York: Fox, Duffield and Company, 1904. Reprinted from original, 1782.), 54 3

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differences by normalizing the traits of protagonists. By accepting this incongruity, the Tall Tale illustrates a hypocritical situation that regularly characterizes humor in America. Democratic equality clashes with racial exclusion, yet both of these ideas contribute to an identification of the American in its formative texts. What Louis D. Rubin Jr. refers to as "the great American joke" is the contradiction between America's democratic ideals and the realities of Americans.2 This contradictory situation is the focus of much of humor in America since it is so much a part of American experiences. One of the comic's tools for creating social commentary on this and other troublesome American experiences is the comic mask. The humor of the cracker barrel philosopher, as it is discussed in Chapter 3, provides illustrations of characters that are formulated, in part, to communicate much more than what is available on their surfaces. They are constructed as masks for the actual authors who disguise themselves within the comic figures that they "authorize." The cracker-barrel philosophers are discussed here as extreme rhetorical figures who, in their extremeness, gesture toward other commentaries than the ones that they are expressing on the surface. The author can playfully, yet no less seriously, communicate social, political, and cultural criticism even in the midst of touchy situations. Lenny Bruce's humor for many people seems like the opposite of the comic mask. He encouraged this idea by regularly claiming "I'm not a comedian, I'm 2 Rubin more thoroughly explains that "Out of the incongruity between mundane circumstance and heroic ideal, material fact and spiritual hunger, democratic, middle-class society and desire for cultural definition, theory of equality and fact of social and economic inequality, [ ... ] -between what men would be and must be, as acted out in American experience, has come much pathos, no small amount of tragedy, and also a great deal of humor[ ... ] this, then, has been what has been called 'the great American joke."' Louis D. Rubin Jr., "Introduction: 'The Great American Joke,"' in The Comic Imagination in American Literature, ed. Louis D. Rubin Jr. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1973), 9. 4

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Lenny Bruce." This statement is in itself ironic (whether he meant it to be or not), and within his humorous performance, Bruce also creates an extreme rhetorical figure of himself. In this case, it is his use of the comic voice that is an element in the ironic construction of his humor. This chapter looks at his performance of specific social conventions and moral or legal standards as tests of their legitimacy. He uses these tests to ultimately expose their weaknesses and hypocrisies. His humor is obscene in order to demonstrate the misguided standards of obsceneness, and "sick" in order to show society how to be healed. In other words, his narration of these conventions and standards is their undoing. Bruce's comic voice directs the audiences' experiences so that they are temporarily in line with his and they see the world how he sees it. When this does not happen, and instead his humor leads to the offense of individuals and larger social institutions, it only reinforces his ironic treatment ofhis subject matter. His use of the comic voice sets the stage and removes legal repercussions for successive comedians that use comic tools in a similar way as him, including, of course, Richard Pryor. The impetus for .this collection of humorous performances is the response to the question, what does humor do? By looking at the ways that they connect with one another and present a mythological "American humor," these performances not only supply a response to this question, but to the question of what the "American" in humor can do. That is not to say that the tools that help link these humorous performance are in any way limited to any particular kind of humor; nor are the problems that grow out of grand political ideals and social hypocrisies unique to America. However, these elements, along with other specific details discussed in the chapters, combine in the imaginings ofthe "American" within these performances. As a result, they have the ability to show us different and alternative versions of the American experience, and alter our conceptions of what it means to be "American." 5

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CHAPTER2 THE MAGIC OF RICHARD PRYOR The Transformative Effects of Humor One thing I got out of it was magic I'd like to share with you. I was leaving. I was sittin' in the hotel and a voice said, 'look around and what do you see?' And I said, 'I see all colors of people doing everything.' And the voice said, 'do you see any niggers?' And I said, 'no.' And it said, 'you know why-cause there aren't any.' And it hit me like a shot, man. I started cryin' and shit. I was sittin' there and I said, 'yeah, I've been here for three weeks and I haven't even said it; I haven't even thought it.' And it made me say, 'oh my god, I've been wrong. I been wrong. I got to regroup my shit.' I mean, I said, 'I ain't ever go in' call a black map. 'nigger.' You know, cause we never was no niggers. That's a word to describe our own wretchedness. And we perpetuate it now cause it's dead. That word's dead. We men and women. We come from the first people on the earth. You know?! The first people on the earth were black people, cause anthropologists-white anthropologists, so the white people go [white man voice] 'that could be true you know'Dr. Leakey and them found people remains in Africa five million 1ears ago. You know them motherfuckers didn't speak French! A single man on stage at The Sunset Strip, Richard Pryor re-imagines the history of the African American. He envisions the grip of the oppression and violence-the "wretchedness"-that has defined the relationship between African Americans and America releasing. By observing Africans as the beginning of the human race, Pryor makes an American's African origins a source of pride rather 3 "N Word," Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, DVD, directed by Joe Layton (1982; Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Video, 1999). 6

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than a tool for persecution. In order to engineer the magic of this cultural re imagining, Pryor temporarily suspends the power of American racism by disavowing the relevancy of the language that perpetuates it. Once he left America and its racial tensions for a visit to the "Motherland," i.e. Africa, he realized the detrimental impact of racist language regardless of one's intentions. "Nigger" may be the most potent word in American language.4 A retrospective glance at Pryor's frequent use of the word in his earlier humor seems like a hopeful attempt to wrench it away from its racist history and appropriate it for his own use.5 Pryor's visit to Africa, where this word does not define black people, reveals to him that the American history of this word cannot be destroyed or rewritten; it must be left for dead. 6 Appropriation seeks to invest a word from previous owners and previous usages; but, the residues of this word's history remain. Disabling this oppressive language reestablishes African Americans as people who are not defined by the history ofthis word: "We never was no niggers [ ... ]we men and women." By sharing his epiphany with us, Pryor is also asking us to arrive at some of the same conclusions. If he can show us how language shapes our perceptions of the world, then perhaps we can join him in declaring "I ain't ever goin' call a black man 'nigger."' 4 For an extensive and intriguing account ofthe history of this word, see Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (New York: First Vintage Books, 2003). Though Kennedy readily admits that it is impossible to trace the exact historical moment when "niger," the Latin word for black, became "nigger" with its pejorative meaning, there is evidence that "by the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, nigger had already become a familiar and influential insult" 4. 5 In Pryor's autobiography, he explains that "this one night I decided to make it my own. Nigger. I decided to take the sting out of it. Nigger. As if saying it over and over again would numb me and everybody else to its wretchedness. Nigger. Said it over and over like a preacher singing hallelujah." He maintained this perspective from the early 1970s until his 1979 trip to Africa. Richard Pryor and Todd Gold, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences (New York: Pantheon Books, 1995), 116. 6 Due to the content of Pryor's humor where the terms "black" and "African American," as well as "white" and "Caucasian American" are used interchangeably, they will also follow this pattern within this text. 7

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Not only did Pryor essentially de-racializing his own language by abolishing the use of this word, his performance imagines the de-racialization of human beings by establishing Africans as the ancestors of the entire human race. When he tells us that the "the first people on the earth were black people," he reunites all people by bringing to light our shared African heritage and anthropological origins. This statement makes the next part of his performance particularly ironic. When Pryor feels the need to substantiate this history by clarifying that white anthropologists are responsible for these findings in order to gain the confidence of white audience members (white man voice, "that could be true, you know"), he is acknowledging the continuation of racism beyond the limitations of his performance. Even if early black people in Africa began the human race as we know it, modem black people in America do not have the authority to make this claim powerful. Pryor's use of a "white voice" mocks the need for white people to hear truths from a racially similar source-a source they can identify with and trust. In this identification is the recognition of the "white power" which authorizes the statement. However, to continue white prejudice and acknowledge Africans' privileged position as our shared ancestors, Pryor highlights the irrationality of this prejudice. The human race is homogeneous in Pryor's performance. He wanted us to experience the erasure of racial and racist distinctions through our shared African ancestry, just as he experienced an erasure of racial distinctions through his visit to the African continent. This performance exemplifies the potential power of humor. Within a small segment of one of Richard Pryor's standup acts is a demonstration ofthe power of the humorous performance to seek out, present, and change reality. Clearly not all humor achieves these ends, and much of it does not aim to. A knock-knock joke or naughty limerick about Nantucket is not meant to have the same effects as Pryor's humor. However, when the humorous performance reaches a level of artistic 8

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fulfillment, as Pryor's does, it is as significant as, say, a great painting or a famous piece of literature. In her philosophies on art and symbolism, Susanne K. Langer brings light to artistic fulfillment as a concept that is tantamount to putting "life" into forms that we can recognize and contemplate: Life is incoherent unless we give it form. [ ... ] we 'put into words,' tell it to ourselves, compose it in terms of' scenes,' so that in our minds we can enact all its important moments. The basis of this imaginative work is the poetic art we have known, from the earliest nursery rhymes to the most profound, or sophisticated, or breath-taking drama and fiction. 7 What is a rather elusive concept finds clarity in Langer's explanation. The usefulness of this explanation is that it sets up a method of valuation for determining the artistic significance in a humorous performance. Pryor's performance, for instance, articulates an experience of life through the form of his humor. He performs the human experiences of pain, emotion, and endurance. Furthermore, he makes use of the humorous performance as a means of both establishing vital truths, those moments where we instinctively think "that's funny because it's true," and then creating new realities, those moments when we then think "that's even funnier because it's truer." The "Comic Voice" and "Comic Form" In order to understand how a performance like Pryor's becomes significant in the sense described above, it is necessary to recognize the role of the comic voice. This is the voice, or collection of voices, belonging to the protagonist character(s) which gives shape to the particular experience oflife that is being performed on the stage, page, or screen for its audiences. It focuses and directs our understanding of the unfolding events and commentary within the comic structure. The comic voice narrates the virtual world of the performance. Langer explains that 7 Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953), 400. 9

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within this world "the 'livingness' of the human world is abstracted, composed, and presented to us; with it the high points of the composition that are illuminated by humor."8 It is in our willing compliance to take in the world created by the comic voice that we enter into the narrative, and our recognition of the '"livingness' of the human world" allows the performance the potential to recreate our realities. The relationship between the comic voice and the audience is structurally similar to the relationship between a hypnotist and a patient in the sense that both contain a narrator who directs the imaginings of the passive listener. The source of this comparison is Sigmund Freud who uses the hypnotist/patient relationship as a means of dissecting the phenomenon of group psyche. What was useful to Freud in utilizing this relationship is also useful here in my explanation of the comic voice and audience. Namely, that "out of the complicated fabric of the group it isolates one element for us-the behavior of the individual to the leader."9 In Freud's explanation of this relationship "the hypnotist is the sole object, and no attention is paid to any but him" and "the ego experiences in a dreamlike way whatever he may request or assert."10 This account can also apply to the experience of audience members who focus solely on the comic voice wherein its imaginings also become their imaginings. Just as the control ofthe hypnotist is only active during the hypnotizing session, the influence of the comic voice is only operative during the performance. And while both of these relationships are temporary, they can have lasting effects in a sense that both memory and rethinking the experiences can prolong their effects. One's exposure to the suggestions of the hypnotist, or the truths expressed by the comic voice, makes possible alterations in one's thinking 8 Ibid., 348. 9 Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1960; New York: Bantam Books, 1965), 58. 10 Ibid. 10

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and behavior. 11 This explanation outlines the schematic of the humorous performance wherein our participation momentarily allows the truths of the comic voice to be our own truths which then have the possibility of extending into our living worlds. Our use of"sense" or "instinct" in comprehending the truth(s) in a humorous performance such as Pryor's, allows us to delineate the "form" that Langer references. What we may initially sense as the significance in art-as opposed to being able to directly and logically point to it-is the result of art's expression in "non-discursive form."12 This form is akin to a symbolic language that re-fixes the meanings of its references. 13 The particular structure or design of an artistic work "imports" and maintains its own symbolic significance and expresses this to its public. The challenge, then, of attempting to uncover the meaning in an artistically significant work is in deciphering the inner-workings of its particular "non-discursive form." Langer's explanations help make explicit some key concepts that I will use then within my own arguments. I argue that humor is culturally, politically and artistically significant, that, in particular instances the humorous performance has the power to show us a particular version of the experience of life and thereby add to or alter oirr perception of it. The "non-discursive form," is a schematic for 11 My later chapter on the humor of Lenny Bruce more thoroughly lays out the details of this structure and considers the audience member who does not consent to the narration within the performance. 12 Langer, Feeling and Form, 32. For a far more extensive and comprehensive explanation of this concept read all of Langer's Philosophy in a New Key (1942; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957). Give specific attention to Chapter 4, "Discursive Forms and Presentational Forms," 79-102. 13 An example of Langer's own defmition should also be read in order for it to maintain its cogency: "The concept is the articulate but non-discursive form having import without conventional reference, and therefore presenting itself not as a symbol in the ordinary sense, but as a 'significant form' in which the factor of significance is not logically discriminated, but is felt as a quality rather than recognized as a function." Feeling and Form, 32. 11

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understanding how this end is achieved in each of the various examples that I look into. By accepting that each of these humorous performances contains its own symbolic language-its own means for communicating-it opens the door for discussing in the present tense what the humor is doing and how it is doing it. In other words, I am examining these humorous performances from the perspective that each continually and consistently expresses itself in its own specific way. Within the exegesis of each of my examples is the argument that the humor expresses not only an experience of life, but an American experience of life. As readers, observers, or audience members, we do not need to have had identical experiences as those being expressed within the humor in order to recognize them as both human and American. If the humor is successful, these qualities will be effectively communicated to the majority of its audiences. Humorous performances that operate in the aforementioned ways create political dialogue about what it means to be American. In expressing an American experience of life, the individual humorous performance participates in a familiar way of presenting the "American" in humor, thereby linking it to other humorous performances. At the same time, it also imparts something new about this quality. As it stands, this argument allows for such a wide variety of performances and experiences in creating political dialogue that it seems impossible to assess any shape of the dialogue. My strategy to deal with this is to assess some humorous performances that rise above others, both in their enduring popularity within the public sphere and their impact on successive work within the artistic sphere, in order to draw some conclusions about the political work that they do. These performances stand out in the way that they connect with one another by handing off their tools and purposes to successive humorous performances. And, in this way, they make it seem that their humor is a standard and dominant "American humor." 12

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Humor Scholarship The idea that humor can be culturally, politically, and artistically significant is not a new concept. However, arguing that humor achieves its significance through dual roles as both a reflecting and a shaping agent of political culture is a fairly modem strategy of American humor scholarship. What began in the early twentieth century in the works of pioneering humor scholars such as Jennette Tandy and Constance Rourke was the pursuit of illustrating the attributes of a humor as a unique product of American culture.14 According to these texts, the work of humorists reflects the cultural experience of Americans within their particular time periods. Rourke illustrates this method of analysis in her search for the historical beginnings of a recognizably American character in humor by suggesting that "by 1815 the American seemed to regard himself as a work of art, and began that embellished self-portraiture which nations as well as individuals may undertake."15 Here, Rourke sees the subjects of her analysis, those early American characters such as the frontiersman and the minstrel character, as artistic productions that loosely imitate their creators and audiences. These beginnings allowed scholars to form a foundation for the value of humor as a window into culture. Humor study has since evolved in such a way as to examine the development of humor concurrently with the development of culture. Rourke's characters have been reconsidered in scholarly texts several times since the publication of American Humor in order to expand the dialogue with the various ways that these characters influenced audiences' conceptions of the nation and its 14 Jennette Tandy, The Crackerbox Philosophers in American Humor and Satire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1925); and, Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character (New York: Doubleday, 1931 ). 15 Rourke, American Humor, 4. 13

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citizens.16 Rourke's discussion of the minstrel character, for instance, gains new insight when scholar Blyden Jackson shifts the perspective of the investigation to that of impact of this character on its audiences: The pressure of color caste affected not only Negroes. It affected also their representation. And nowhere was their representation a readier tool for racism than in blackface minstrelsy. [ ... ] And so the minstrel mode, in its worst element, invaded American life, in the very process reversing a relationship, so that, instead of life dictating to art, art dictated to life. 17 Jackson's argument is crafted from the perspective that the minstrel character influenced his audiences as much as, if not more than, they influenced him. The evolution ofthe perspective of the humor scholar demonstrated by this comparison between Rourke and Jackson is equally visible in the texts of other authors. Sculley Bradley, writing shortly after Rourke, sees these early American characters as the embodiments of a shared national experience suggesting that "the national characteristics of American humor are plainly rooted in the conditions of American life." 18 In contrast, a later author like Lawrence E. Mintz considers the many early comic characters as means for "laugh[ing] at the common man for his manifest failings, while at the same time, his position as a citizen in a democracy makes it 16 For other interesting examples of these texts, see Lawrence E. Mintz, "American Humour and the Spirit of the Times," in It's a Funny Thing, Humour, ed. Antony J. Chapman and Hugh C. Foot (New York: Pergamon Press, 1987), 17-22; and, Robert Sklar, "Humor in America," in A Celebration of Laughter, ed. Werner M. Mendel (Los Angeles: Mara Books, 1970), 9-30. 17 Blyden Jackson, "The Minstrel Mode," in The Comic Imagination in American Literature, ed. Louis D. Rubin Jr. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1973), 155. 18 Sculley Bradley, "Our Native Humor," in The Humor Prism in 2dh-Century America, ed. Joseph Soskin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997), 48. 14

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necessary to consider that his virtues may indeed outweigh his vices."19 The modernity in the texts of humor scholars like Mintz and Jackson reveals itself in the multi-dimensional treatment of the texts and characters. Characters such as the frontiersman Davy Crockett or the wise-fool Artemus Ward are therefore not just reflections of what early Americans already saw in themselves: their popular presence affected how their American audiences perceived themselves and others. As a result, the works of modem humor scholars emphasize the substantial power of humor to influence the development of culture. Joseph Boskin perhaps best articulates this idea by equating humor study to "an exploration of a particular type of cultural language." He contends that this language, like all language, "organizes and correlates experiences by seeking and creating order and meaning." And, in doing so, it "creates a communal consciousness, binding the generations while at the same time enabling each person a singular connection."20 By adopting this method of analysis, I am seeking out answers as to how a collection of humorous performances goes about "seeking and creating order and meaning" to the ends that Boskin describes and what the implications are about the appearance of a dominant or mainstream "communal consciousness." This line of investigation also allows us to concurrently look at how humorous performances express themselves with what they are expressing. Thus, by moving back and forth between an investigation of trends in humorous performances in America and the symbolic communication of the humor, I pursue an explanation of the contribution of the humor on the development of culture. 19 Lawrence E. Mintz, "American Humor as Unifying and Divisive," American Humor 12 no.3 (1999): 240. 20 Soskin, "History and Humor, 19. 15

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"Incongruence" Why is something funny? Although all humans, and some animals, have the capacity for an involuntary response of smiling and laughter, the humor that we find funny is generally the result of our cultural exposure. Consider, for example, why Pryor's imitations of white Americans and their imagined reactions to Pryor's claims about humans' anthropological beginnings ("that could be true you know") are so enjoyable. On one hand, they are reminiscent of ways that many ofus may have seen white Americans behave or heard them sound. He is playing with a stereotype of a white American whose characteristics are skewed and exaggerated just enough to produce an image that unmistakably leads us to recognize the reference. Our recognition here allows us to be in on the joke which is, in itself, enjoyable. On the other hand, this imitation is produced by an individual who, according to the racist ideas that are the target of Pryor's humor, should not have the ability to don this character. Racist doctrine relies on the idea that as a black man Pryor should be the antithesis or "other" of the white man in terms of his appearance, genes, and culture. There is an unmistakable expectation here that these two men are opposites of one another, and yet, Pryor moves effortlessly between them. Furthermore, the racist beliefthat white people are somehow more reliable and perceptive, and thus better sources for the truth, stands in stark contrast to Pryor's ability to portray the white person accurately and insightfully. This belief is also contrasted with the fact that Pryor's white character is ignorant of the information about Dr. Leakey's anthropological finds and it is the black man who is providing him with this knowledge. While Dr. Leakey was responsible for the physical unearthing of the five-million year old African remains, Pryor performs this role in his anthropological "unearthing" of black people's history as the "first people on earth." In doing so, he puts side by side the cultural authority that this history suggests with a white, European cultural authority. In the last statement of 16

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this segment, Pryor shows us the outcome of these contrasting elements: "You know them motherfuckers didn't speak French!" Here, "black power" is imagined in the historical roots of language which upsets any linguistic and cultural preeminence of French or other white Europeans. Within his performance, Pryor uses the seeming incongruity of whiteness and blackness to imagine a redistribution of cultural power. However, he really just plays with this incongruity in order to ultimately show the weakness in the incongruous structure. His humor uses the notion of a binary opposition between white and black cultures to reveal it as a scam. What begins as contrasting elements, combine to illustrate their shared history and culture. Pryor expresses race as a slippery and impermanent act in which prejudicial beliefs that justify the oppression of a race of people are ludicrous. Not only does he shed light on our shared gene pool, he does so in a way that reveals his own intellectual skillfulness. What Pryor says is true, and the way that he says it-the humorous performanceis truer. Pryor's method of forming humor through incongruous ideas is fairly common amongst humorists and popular amongst many audiences. Scholars explain our reaction to incongruent humor as the experience of surprise and enjoyment when there is a disproportion between what one expects to see and the image that we actually experience.21 One humor scholar uses an ingenious quotation from the German humorist Jean-Paul Richter to provide a more apt and amusing explanation of this method: "Joking is the disguised priest who weds every couple."22 Richter's analogy is rooted in the idea that humor provides a space wherein seemingly unsuspecting ideas are united. The priest is described as 21 John Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), 16. 22 Barry Sanders, Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 6. 17

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"disguised" and the individual ideas might be "unsuspecting" because this form of humor does not succeed if the ideas that are being presented seem to belong logically with one another. If Pryor could not shed his own persona and convincingly adopt the character of the white American, if we were unable to recognize his reference, then his humor would have less impact or fail completely. Furthermore, the power of his humor is produced by the overwhelming contradiction between the racist ideas that underestimate the intellectual capabilities of an African American and the highly intellectual performance of an African American who is addressing this racism. Thus it is not just Pryor's imitation of the white American that is significant here, but his keen insight into the way racist segments of this population might react to his material. In order for the humor to be successful according to this particular form, then there must be a conjoining of opposing or at least significantly dissimilar ideas. In an example like Pryor's, the form of incongruent humor lends itself to expressing an American experience because incongruence is so much a part of the form of American democracy. The cultural history of liberal democracy has too been formed by the wedding of disparate ideas. Our motto, E pluribus, Unum, indicates a nation built on contradiction where, in a manner reminiscent of Richter's expression, separate entities are joined and enter into a new existence together through American ideology. Rooted in this national motto, which translates to "from the many, one," is the paradox of the sovereignty of the individual and the autonomy of the state within the larger unity ofthe nation. Alexis de Tocqueville's hyperbolized experience helps to envision the contradictory state of a nation that defines itself simultaneously through unity and disunity: "No sooner do you set foot upon American ground than you are stunned by a kind of tumult; a confused clamor is heard on every side, and a thousand 18

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simultaneous voices demand the satisfaction of their social wants."23 The cacophonous political noise described by Tocqueville erupts from the clash of conflicting voices united in the American ideal of equality. The paradox of E pluribus, Unum is further exacerbated by the contrast of fundamental ideals of liberal democracy that are at incongruent odds with the actual experiences of most Americans. 24 The risk of American democracy wherein its realities cannot live up to its ideals has regularly inspired criticism and concern. John Adams warned of the limits of democracy-"it soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself'-and its tendency to fall victim to the same abuses of power as monarchies and aristocracies?5 One hundred years later, Teddy Roosevelt also alludes to this warning of the failure of democratic ideals suggesting that "this country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in."26 Offering more detail to this idea, historian Louis D. Rubin Jr. provides this listing of incongruous elements that in the midst of their contrasting elements give shape to the paradox in American experiences: Out of the incongruity between mundane circumstance and heroic ideal, material fact and spiritual hunger, democratic, middle-class society and desire for cultural definition, theory of equality and fact of social and economic inequality, the 23 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. I, trans. Henry Reeve (New York: The Century, 1898), 318. 24 Since the phrase "liberal democracy" lends itself to multiple interpretations, my usage will be limited to referring to the political and social power of the individual in shaping American society and the free and equal exchange of ideas. 25 John Adams to John Taylor, 15 April, 1814, in The Works of John Adams, vol. 6, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851 ), 484. 26 Theodore Roosevelt, Progressive Principles by Theodore Roosevelt: Selections form Addresses Made During the Presidential Campaign of 1912, ed. Elmer H. Youngman (London: Effingham Wilson, 1913), 310. 19

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Declaration of Independence and the Mann Act, the Gettysburg Address and the Gross National Product, the Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Union Trust Company, the Horatio Alger ideal and the New York Social Registerbetween what men would be and must be, as acted out in American experience, has come much pathos, no small amount of tragedy, and also a great deal ofhurnor.27 The problem that Rubin delineates is that the presence of American ideals, as they are generally laid out in The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution and The Bill of Rights, in the early formation and documentation of the United States of America supply an ever-present reminder of what the nation should resemble. These ideals inform a "genetic code" of the nation in the sense that they are an integral part of our understanding of what constitutes America.28 Both citizens and non-citizens alike constantly compare these ideals with the realities of American experiences. The American author Robert Warren Penn eloquently summed up the problem inherent in this situation by suggesting that, America was based on a big promise-a great big one: the Declaration of Independence. When you have to live with that in the house, that's quite a problem-particularly when you've got to make money and get ahead, open world markets, do all the things you have to, raise your children, and so forth. America is stuck with its self-definition put on paper in 1776, and that was just like putting a burr under the metaphysical 27 Rubin, "'The Great American Joke,"' 9. 28 Tom Nairn, The Breakup of Britain (London: New Left Books, 1977), 348. Nairn coined this term as it is used here as a means to discuss political and cultural contributors to nation building. His usage of "genetic code" is in his rendering of elements that inform the national identity of Britain, and thereby influence its future actions and evolution. See also the collection of essays in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (New York: Routledge, 1991); and Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verson, 1983, 1991) for more extended discussions on the makeup of nations and the complexities of national identity. 20

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saddle of America-you see, that saddle's going to jump now and then and it pricks.29 Penn brings light to the gaping contradiction between American ideals and the realities of most Americans. His "burr" is buried beneath the saddle just as the nation's foundational documents and the grand ideals that they tout are permanently ingrained in the American nation. Americans' experiences which contradict these ideals are painful and, as Penn suggests, inevitable. It is this contradiction and resulting pain that are expressed in Pryor's performance. "Speech Acts" African Americans have felt the prick of the burr particularly painfully and regularly. However, the potency of Pryor's humorous performance does not end at the point that it expresses this experience. By publicly addressing a topic, such as racism, which is deeply ingrained in our understanding of America and Americans, his performance also imagines alternative realities for this situation. The audience members' reactions to the performance affect whether these alternatives become truths within the real world or if they are ignored, unseen or, otherwise, disregarded. The impression that humorous material is not serious, that it is "just kidding," provides a safe space to experiment with the potential evolution of politically charged issues. However, this impression is somewhat misleading because in cases where the audience members concur, the humorous performance is granted the power to influence reality. Pryor is not simply relating the current state of racism in America; his performance disturbs that racism by constantly undermining and refuting prejudicial beliefs. The observation of the audience provides the possibility that the performance can become a reality, and conversely, the performance provides a possible reality for the audience. In effect, the 29 Robert Warren Penn, Interview by Eugene Walter, "The Art of Fiction No. 18: Robert Warren Penn." The Paris Review, no. 16 (Spring-Summer 1957), 6. See also, Rubin, '"The "Great American Joke."' 21

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humorous material can alter the observers' constitutive understandings of its subjects. I am not suggesting that every audience member walks away from a performance like Pryor's with a new conception of race relations in America, or even that humor necessarily effects change in either a positive or negative direction. Rather, I am suggesting that the audiences' participation in the humorous performance allows them to temporarily experience changed or different realities. As the comic voice narrates the world of the performance, the audience members adopt its imagined truths. Within the expression of this illusionary world are different possibilities for American experiences. In as much as audiences consent to the truth and realities beyond the arena of the humorous performance, it can affect their individual lives, and, thereby, influence the trends and development of the nation. Pryor's material and performance overlap with audiences' preferences for what he says as much as how he says it. This material does not necessarily need to be "performed" in the very literal sense that the standup comic stands on a stage and personally acts out his material. Instead, we can think of performance as the movement ofthe humorist's suggestive ideas into the observer's process of ideation. From the submissive position of the audience, the observer follows the narration of the comic voice, imagining what it imagines. Like the hypnotist and patient, the exchange within this relationship creates the possibility of the realization of the imaginary into the beliefs and actions of the observer. One means of contextualizing this process is found in the etymological history of "perform" as a term meaning "to carry out in action, execute, or fulfil; to carry into effect, discharge."30 Humorous material fulfills the actions described in this definition when it is transferred from its source and brought to fruition within the mind of the observer. The performance is completed 30 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "perform," http://www.oed.com/perfonn (accessed March 2, 2010). 22

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when the humor is integrated into someone else's thought processes. By defining performance in these terms, the language of the humor can operate in the same ways regardless of its presentation in a written, spoken, or acted form. The humorous performance then is not only a non-serious suggestion or possibility for the audience to consider and enjoy: the performance can actively do something to its audience. At the base of this claim is the concept that communication can be an active force. That is, language can cause something to happen when certain words or phrases are uttered. Something changes as a consequence of the utterance. Consider, for example, how Pryor realizes that the use of the word "nigger" is not merely a simple matter of saying the word; it is more than just an elocutionary act. His refusal to continue using this term signifies his recognition that it has very real effects. The language ofthe racial slur animates, or rather reanimates, the "wretchedness" that then defines the individual when he/she is called by this term. Pryor's escape from the word ("I've been here for three weeks and I haven't even said it; I haven't even thought it") provides the occasion for his realization that by using or even considering this word gives it a reality. In this instance, eliminating the utterance helps to eliminate the reality which it creates: "I ain't ever goin' call a black man 'nigger.' You know, 'cause we never was no niggers." The philosopher J.L. Austin provides a foundation for this way of thinking in his discussion of the "performative utterance."31 According to Austin, language is not only a descriptive tool, but that certain types of utterances perform actions. For Austin, there are some cases whereby in saying something, we are doing something.32 This phenomenon, which he refers to as a "speech act," affects reality: 31 J. L. Austin, How to do Things with Words, ed. J. 0. Urmson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 6-7. 32 Ibid., 12. 23

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"'I forgive you; 'You cannot enter;' 'Guilty!' all do something in the world. They create a particular reality."33 While Austin grants this ability to only a particular kind of language, his philosophy helped form a basis for the various ways that all language can be understood as performative.34 This concept is significant here because it ushers in the discussion of humor as a variation of the performative utterance. The language of humor can effect changes in the minds of the observers. That is not to say that, as in Austin's philosophy, it is the literal uttering of words that is "the leading incident in the performance of the act."35 It is more accurate to say that within the humorous performance the language is comprised of the semiotic details that communicate the humor to the audience. Here is Langer's "non-discursive form." In the case of Pryor, his performance expresses the contradictions between American ideals and realities, and then facilitates the conclusion that racist perceptions of African Americans are untrue. He does not need to make this claim outright-although he certainly does so in this selection-in order for it to be realized. Instead, he more effectively communicates this idea through his skillful combination of appropriation and subversion.36 By publicly imitating the racist people who seek to oppress African Americans, Pryor appropriates their thoughts and behavior. He knows what these people think and how they behave and he turns these details into 33 Judith Hamera, "Performance, Performativity, and Cultural Poiesis in Practices of Everyday Life," in The SAGE Handbook of Performance Studies, ed. D. Soyini Madison and Judith Hamera (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006), xvi. 34 Most notably, see the work of Austin's former student, John R. Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970). 35 Austin, "How to do Things," 8. 36 These terms provide a simplified framework for understanding how this particular humor communicates meaning. Admittedly, the breadth of Pryor's performance is far greater and his method is more complex than this limited interpretation suggests. 24

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moments for laughter and ridicule at their expense. In this moment, racism becomes an ironic means for the African American to gain authority. Pryor is, in fact, performing the reality of the absurdity of racism. Making this sort of claim about a performance requires us to recognize another of Austin's speech acts in the "constative utterance."37 This kind of utterance is a statement that calls its subject matter into being. It asserts the state of a situation which can then be judged as either true or false. Whereas the performative creates the situation for its action ("I do" in a wedding ceremony creates the conditions for the legal joining), the constative makes an assertion ("the water in that pot is boiling"). Pryor, for instance, not only creates a situation for re imagining race (a performative utterance), but, within the arena of the humorous performance his re-imaginings are expressed as realities (a constative utterance). Even though Pryor's performance was new and ground-breaking on multiple levels, we can interpret the language of his performance because it is familiar-we've seen different versions of this language before. The historical and cultural details that surround and precede a humorous performance help give shape to the way it communicates. Part of our participation in the performance is to recognize its semiotic details. We arrive with some concept of humor, of the humorists, and of their subjects as a result of our previous experiences. Likewise, humorists must also arrive at the figurative or literal stage with their own concepts that must be compatible to some extent with members of the audience in order for the communication to be effective. Our shared familiarity, and that which allows us to take part in the humorous performance, is part of the illusion of a normative humor in America. Furthermore, the language communicates an American experience, but this is not to suggest that there is only one version of the American experience. We understand the semiotics of a performance depicting one possibility 37 Austin, "How to do Things," 3. 25

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of an experience of being American. Thus, we recognize both Pryor's stereotype of a white American, and his performance of the experience of "whiteness" in America-the result of the cultural segregation between whites and blacks in America. Successive philosophers and critics responded to Austin's speech-act theory by arguing for these cultural and historical dimensions of language as necessary components for analyzing the impact of the utterance. What is useful to us is a simplified summary of these varying responses which suggests that "words do something in the world, and they are reiterative in that speech, meaning, intent and custom have been repeated through time and are therefore communicative and comprehensible because they are recognizable in their repetition."38 What we need to take from this claim is that the impact of the performance, as well as its influence on the future, grows out of its ability to express itself in a recognizable way. American Contexts Pryor's performance is built upon the preceding years of development of the relationships between America, African Americans, and the humorous performance. These relationships initially became publicly visible on the American stage in the 1830s in the minstrel show. Echoed in Pryor's performance is the show's formula for humor that relies on the interaction between the three main characters: Tambo, Bones, and the Interlocutor. In the minstrel show, the black, or at least black-faced, end men characters-Tambo and Bones-embrace racial stereotypes in order to undermine the authority of the distinguished white gentleman who serves as the Interlocutor. Their uneducated language and cartoonish appearances makes them seem so harmless and impotent that it is acceptable when the two use these details to foil the Interlocutor and turn the 38 Hamera, "Performance, Performativity," xvi. 26

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audience's laughter upon him. An example of this interaction might look something like this: INTERLOCUTOR: Well, Mr. Bones, how are you feeling this evening? BONES: Very well, Mr. Interlocutor, and how are you-how are all your folks? INTERLOCUTOR: We're all very well, excepting my brother. You see, a team of horses ran away with him, and he's been laid up ever since. BONES: That's a very strange coincidence, same thing happened to my brother. INTERLOCUTOR: You don't say. BONES: The only difference is, it was my brother who ran away with the team of horses; he's been laid up ever since, but they'll let him out next month. INTERLOCUTOR: My brother is convalescing, but we have to watch him very closely. You see, he's a somnambulist, and he's liable to have a relapse. BONES: My goodness, a slambulnalisist, what's dat? Interlocutor: Not a slambulnalisist, a somnambulist, one who walks in his sleep. BONES: Oh, you mean a policeman.39 Bones's ignorant characterization makes the Interlocutor and the audience vulnerable to his turns in the humor. By using language that is full of dialect, slang, mispronunciation, and malapropisms, the end men appear as though they have very little control of language or its ability to create meaning. In spite of this, Bones appropriates the Interlocutor's language and modifies its meanings in order to describe his own experiences. He is not familiar with the term "somnambulist" and cannot even pronounce it correctly. Nevertheless, his ability to quickly produce a clever witticism out of the straight man's definition seems to contradict his suggested ignorance. We are left to wonder if perhaps Bones was consciously setting up the Interlocutor for this joke. His cleverness, however, seems almost 39 Dailey Paskman, "Gentlemen Be Seated!" A Parade of the American Minstrels (New York: Clarkson N. Potter Inc., 1976), 91. 27

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accidental and is ultimately overwhelmed by the prevalence of the racial stereotypes that make him seem joyfully ignorant. The incongruent ideas within the formula of the minstrel show humor rely in part on the contradiction between the portrayal of the competent and perceptive African American and the opposite portrayal in the racially stereotyped character. These are the beginnings of an incongruent humor that Pryor draws upon and uses for greater political effect. Moving in and out of the white and black characters, Pryor fills the roles of both end man and Interlocutor. He distinguishes between these roles in a similar way as the minstrel show characters: the Interlocutor is his serious, white, straight man who takes the brunt of the jokes; and the end man is an African American who uses profane and vernacular language and is always a step or two ahead of the white man. The language that distinguishes Pryor's African-American characters, however, does not have the same kind of negative connotations that it does in the minstrel show. Within Pryor's performance, the speech of the African American, recognizable by its profanity and dialect, has a significant amount of cultural authority-it seems tough and cool. Pryor's comical portrayal of a white man attempting to use this speech for these same effects harkens back to the minstrel show, only here the roles are reversed: I love when white dudes get mad and cuss, right!? 'Cause you all some funny motherfuckers when you cuss, right?! They be sayin' shit like: 'come onpeckerhead;' 'come on youfuckin' joikoff;' 'son-of-a-bitch, come on;' 'yeah, youfuckin-a-right buddy!'40 All of this posturing and tough talk is immediately squelched by Pryor's African American character. On this stage, the language of the end men dominates and the white character looks foolish when he attempts to adopt it. The Interlocutor's 40 "Sit Your Ass Down," Richard Pryor Live in Concert, DVD, directed by Jeff Margolis (1979; CA: Home Box Office Home Video [HBO], 2006). 28

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erudite English which distinguishes both his "whiteness" and his cultural authority in the minstrel show, has no authority here. The language of"whiteness," or rather, the semiotic details that communicate a Caucasian-American character, is subordinated by the language of"blackness," those details that communicate an African-American character. The audience laughs again at the Interlocutor-esque figure, but this time, he does not maintain a position of authority in the performance. On Pryor's stage and within his imaginings, the end man is champion of the culture that is poorly aped by the straight man. Both Pryor and the minstrel show use this humor to mitigate the contradiction between the reality of the African American and the illusory image of the negative racial stereotype. Furthermore, both ofthese performances indirectly address the hypocrisy of the violent oppression of a significant portion of the American population within "the land of the free" where "all men are created equal." The absurdity of this hypocrisy, combined with the inability for these contradictory ideas to maintain the existence of one another, produces the need for a change. The humorous performance allows the audience to see African Americans' experiences and decide how these experiences will continue to play out in light of these incongruous possibilities. "Cultural Dialectics" and Transformation A hypocritical situation seems to have an inherent need for change. German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel's philosophies about dialectical thought provide a diagram for understanding how hypocrisy creates this need for change and how a transformational process can occur in conjunction with humor.41 Both dialectical thought and incongruent humor require an element of contradiction between the 41 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Logic of Hegel, 2nd ed., trans. William Wallace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), Originally published as The Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892). 29

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ideas or entities that are involved in either realm. There is a tension produced by contradiction which then generates momentum so that the elements, or rather our understanding of the elements, change. The shift in the contradiction resulting from this change ultimately mitigates the tension. Hegel scholar Angelica Nuzzo explains that contradiction for Hegel is ''the sign of historical crises; transformation and change are the development of contradiction, the movement that contradiction necessarily marshals once it is not taken as absolute, once it is not fixed within illusory limits."42 The negative tension that accompanies hypocrisy contributes to the moment of crises to which Nuzzo refers and sets the platform for relief through humor. It is within this humor that the "illusory limits" and repression are diminished and transformation can occur. The transformative process that begins with contradiction does not have a definite ending; the process is ongoing and therefore a conclusion in and of itself. In the case of humor, the reasons why this process is unending are because the humorous performance can continually express the contradiction and the transformation occurs in the mind of the observer. In the case of the minstrel show, the performance presents a means of working through the hypocritical contradiction of slavery within a democratic nation. The caricatures of enslaved African Americans are presented as if they are contented in their enslavement and will happily sing and dance to drive the point home. Their performance effectively erases the negative aspects of slavery for their audience. Take for example the previously sampled selection of a minstrel show. Both of Bones's witticisms are tailored to his interaction with the law. In a time when the relationship between black people and the police was notoriously violent 42 Angelica Nuzzo, "Dialectic as Logic ofTransfonnative Processes," Hegel: New Directions, ed. Katerina Deligiorgi (Ithaca: MeGill-Queen's University Press, 2006) 92. See also, Michael Allen Fox, The Accessible Hegel (New York: Humanity Books, 2005). 30

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and hostile, Bones speaks publicly about this relationship--sans violence and hostility. What is left on stage is the representation of this relationship where black people are at fault ("it was my brother who ran away with the team of horses") and the law responds in a seemingly fair and conventional manner ("he's been laid up ever since, but they'll let him out next month"). Even Bones's light jab of referring to police officers as sleepwalkers, makes them sound more harmless than harmful. In Joseph Soskin's extensive study of Sambo, another quintessential minstrel character, he proposes how this humor affected its audiences given the cultural and historical contexts: Whites were obviously buoyed by this particular image because it assuaged whatever guilt might have burdened them. Further, it narrowed the contradiction between slavery and the tenets of democracy, permitted a dialogue devoid of rational substance, undercut the frightening possibility of the hostile black male, and created a 'bond' of affection and sentimentality. 43 This line of reasoning suggests that the humor could make slavery seem less repressive and therefore less contradictory in the face of democracy. Accordingly, slave owners and other white citizens could use the idea of the minstrel character to soothe the discomfort they might experience in the face of America's hypocrisy. Sambo, Tambo, Bones, and other characters confirmed their stereotypes and stripped the black male of"masculinity, dignity and self-possession."44 The humor of the minstrel character in this case mitigates the tension between slavery and democracy by reducing whites' conception of the humanity of African Americans and making them seem unworthy of the tenets of democracy. Soskin also offers the converse possibility that the minstrel character was a means of the African 43 Joseph Boskin, Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 63. 44 Ibid., 14. 31

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American to assert his talents on stage and create a subtle inner spoofing that undid stereotypes and provided a means for appropriation of power. Yet, Boskin suggests this possibility only after an historical analysis ofthe changes in the Sambo character over time and the trends that eventually allowed this character to undo some of his oppressive stereotypes. The minstrel show may indeed have provided a means of undermining the power of the stereotypes thereby encouraging the strength of democracy. This possibility is visible, however, from our vantage point in the future where we can appreciate the value of the evolution ofthe minstrel show performance. What began as a means of alleviating American hypocrisy and justifying slavery was later recognized by some audiences as a continuation of that hypocrisy. This example helps illustrate the variety of reactions of audience members to what is essentially the same performance. The humorous performance expresses a distortion of black people through their unrealistic makeup and costuming (not to mention that until the 1860s these parts were often played by white people) and the dominate control of white people over these distorted caricatures that is exemplified by the role of the Interlocutor. Moreover, the form of the humor expresses the limited responses that the black characters have to react to their subordinate position. Although audiences may respond to these details in different ways, that does not change what is happening within the humorous performance. With the elimination of the minstrel show as a mode of humorous performance, is the rejection of what the form expresses. This is no longer a recognizable or acceptable expression of American life. The ensuing cultural shift toward a more democratic treatment of black people coincides with different expressions of humor. Compare, for an example, Bones's representation of his relationship with the law to one of Pryor's earlier 32

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performances when he takes up the still prevalent issue of the violent, hostile relationship between the police and African Americans: Police got a chokehold they use out here though, man. They choke niggers to death. I mean, you be dead when they through. Right?! Wait, niggers are goin', "yeah, we knew that." White folks, "No, I had no idea." Yeah, two grab your legs, one grab your head and-snap-"Oh shit. We broke him." "Can you break a nigger? Is it ok?" "Let's check the manual. Yep, page 8, you can break a nigger. Right there, see?" "Let's drag him downtown."45 Clearly Pryor is not under the same constraints as the minstrel show characters. In this performance, violence and hostility are the defining features of the relationship between African Americans and police officers. The protective veils of silence, secrecy, and ignorance ("No, I had no idea!") that could shield racially motivated oppression are cast aside here. His hyperbole enacts the sense that this violence is not only acceptable during the time of his performance in the late 1970s, but that it has been going on for a long time. Not only is Pryor interested in publicly exposing this relationship, he explicitly points his finger at the police as the source for this violence and hostility. The minstrel show's method of diffusing tension by erasing violence and justifying oppression is upended. Instead, Pryor's performances mitigate a similar tension by forcing us to look at the violence and oppression and see him as a possible target. He is performing a syllogism for us: if police casually abuse and kill African Americans, and Pryor is clearly an African American, then he could be subject to this same treatment. Audiences' support for him and his hwnor draws them toward a democratic resolution of this unfair and unjust treatment. The position of African Americans as an oppressed people who are easily killed and disposed of by the nation's police officers stands in stark contrast to 45 Pryor, Live in Concert, "Police." 33

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Pryor's politically charged condemnation of this situation. The relationships between African Americans, America, and the humorous performance have evolved to this point where Pryor's performance expresses equality. He is a lone presence on stage exposing his experience, and, in effect, imagining an alternative experience. His performance communicates the democratic ideals of the free and equal exchange of ideas and the political and social power of the individual in shaping American society. The trends in American political development towards these democratic ideals, alongside the huge success of Pryor, illustrate how this culture and humor can be seen as overlapping. Thus, he becomes not only a reflection of the nation's support for democracy and civil rights, he is a continuation of them. A Public Space African Americans, who were historically forced into a position contrary to democracy, have helped to popularize and, now, even dominate the field of the standup comic-a field that is well in line with democratic ideals.46 The remarkable success of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Dave Chappelle, whose humor calls out hypocrisy in America while championing their democratic right to do so, exemplifies the cultural shift that began with the minstrel show. In the case of these African-American comics, but also in reference to other comics who come to the stage as members of other marginalized groups, such as Jewish or female comics, stand up comedy has provided a space for a multicultural voice. All of these comics contribute their imaginings of the transformation of America as they bring their material to the stage-a microcosm of the public space. This mode of the stand up comic is particularly suited for the minority figure because it operates according to, what Langer defines as, the "comic 46 For a thorough history of African Americans and humor, see Mel Watkins, On the Real Side (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994). 34

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action."47 Touching on Langer's work once again here, the comic action is "the upset and recovery of the protagonist's equilibrium.'.48 Although she is using this definition in reference to comic drama, it works equally well in explaining a form of the stand up comic act. This mode of the humorous performance expresses the experience of life through the form of the "upset," which, for minority figures, is usually racism, chauvinism, or stereotyping, and then their "recovery," which is their performance of the undoing of the prejudice. Furthermore, the public aspect of this performance provides minority comics with the democratic power of presenting their individual experiences to the public for contemplation. In his text defending the virtues ofliberal democracy, Joel Johnson proposes that people "become fuller individuals through democratic interaction, not by abandoning their old selves, but by steadily revaluing their beliefs in the context of free and equal discussion."49 There is an endless list of possible influences that cause change in individuals and cultures over time, but none are possibly as freeing and enjoyable as the imagined transformation that occurs within the humorous performance and in the real life democratic evolution of a society. Both rely on a free exchange of ideas and the individual as a willing participant in the transformative process. The humorous performance brings Johnson's democratic "discussion" to the public stage where the ultimate influence of the humor remains couched in the audience members. These individuals, as Johnson rightly points out, do not discard their past at the prospect of new truths. Instead, the audience, the humorist, and the performance rely on their pasts to communicate with one another. Born from this interaction is opportunity for the "revaluing" and transformation of one's beliefs that can go on then to affect the future. 47 Langer, Feeling and Fonn, 331. 48 Ibid. 49 Joel A. Johnson, Beyond Practical Virtue: A Defense of Liberal Democracy Through Literature (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 121. 35

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The ability of the humorous performance to influence our notions of reality and adjust, or even shore up our social, cultural, and political inclinations is the real magic that Pryor shares with us. Although American experiences of life are often expressed through the incongruity between the nation's ideals and people's realities, Pryor demonstrates how this incongruity can also form the humor that offers solutions to it. The stand up comic and various modes of the humorous performance may achieve this sort of end in different ways; however, they all share a common element of play. This commonality is the point at which the humorous performance departs from other artistic productions. Humor is a non-serious performance that can make serious statements, but it does this only through its dance between the serious and non-serious, the true and untrue, and the real and ideal. As the observers, our laughter and enjoyment of the performance is also our temporary consent to its solutions, truths, and imagined realities. Within the relationship between the audience and the comic voice is a space for us to examine "the livingness of the human world" and imagine how it can be different. Pryor's comic voice imagines a world where race is a blurry concept. With regards to Langer, he abstracts, composes and presents for us the "livingness" of a world where people are not defined by race. His performance demonstrates the use of the tools provided by humor that allow the imagining of an alternative American experience to also function as a criticism of the reality of an American experience. Pryor not only suggests his de-racialized world as a new possibility, he uses it to point to the flaws in the America of the 1970s. When, for instance, his visit to Africa reveals to him the detrimental effects ofhis use of the word "nigger," and he tells us, "I been wrong. I got to regroup my shit," his criticism is not just aimed inwardly. His denunciation of racist language is presented so that it can apply to any perpetrators of this harm: "And we perpetuate it now 'cause it's dead." Regrouping his own "shit" is his way of suggesting the same to others. 36

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As a means for both imagining and criticizing, this humor actively participates in a political dialogue of the shape of the nation. Its performances propose ideas about how the American should or could look. And, just as Pryor suggests that "you can take it for what it's worth" we have the opportunity to integrate those ideas into our realities. 50 As growing numbers of audience members share in the "worth" of a performance, its ideas and criticisms become stronger contributors of political dialogue. With this, the humorous imaginings within a performance can impact our understandings of the American and the future production of this within humor in America. 50 Pryor, Sunset Strip, "N Word." 37

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CHAPTER3 "WHAT THEN IS THE AMERICAN, THIS NEW MAN?" The Humor of Tall Tales Gives Form to "The American" Where and when did the "American" in humor emerge? To answer this question we must also ask if we can search for a historical patterning of expressing the "American" in humor that allows some performances to seem as if they present dominant American ideologies, that they define the term "American." We are asking if there are sources that illustrate early steps in expressing the experiences of being American through their humorous material and, if so, how these sources influence those that succeed them. We are seeking the roots where a sense of nationhood emerges through humorous performances of that nationhood. Looking for this connection in early texts helps to reveal the value of humor's ability to imagine alternative realities. Without preaching or demanding, humorous performances can express what American experiences can look like. Furthermore, they make assumptions about what humor in America should look like. Humor in America has had political or social concerns about the nation since sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century. The idea of"the American" was developing at least as early as the 1780s when J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur posed this question in his epistolary musings: "What then is the American, this new man?"51 His move from France to the "New World" in 1755 found Crevecoeur in a position similar to other immigrants of that time period who pondered the nature and character of the nation of America and sought explanations of what it means to live here and be from here. In his own response to his question, 51 Crevecoeur, "Letter III," 54. 38

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Crevecoeur suggests that the new man "is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. "52 Crevecoeur's text strives to establish the authority of the American. The novelty of the life, government and system of stratification of the nation, combined with a "leaving behind" of the "ancient" forms of these categories, suggests that there will be new experiences of life. The question he is seeking to answer involves a delineation of these experiences and how they might differ from others. He is searching for demarcations of what it means to be American. The Tall Tale was probably developing at this very same time. As the first vernacular literary form in American history, Tall Tales probably began as oral texts and therefore have no exact origin. However, they enter the literary record in the early nineteenth century. Their function at that time seems strikingly similar to what it is now: they provide a mixture of myth and history. For instance, a character such as Davy Crockett was indeed a real man; however, the tales about the character are entirely fictional. On the other hand, Tall Tales are these impossibly exaggerated stories that communicate real qualities of American experiences. They help make the American recognizable. Crevecoeur's question might be answered by the Tall Tale which also grows from this new life. The Tall Tale provides a mythologized, yet historical figure ofthe American. The characters in Tall Tales were cultivated by people's needs to define this place as their own, a need to grow a new hybrid variety of national identity from the various people and backgrounds that settled in this land. And, humor provided the fertilizer that nourished these seedlings so that they became robust and vibrant with deep roots. 52 Ibid. 39

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The Tall Tale is a mode of humorous performance that forms the American through cycles of normalization and displacement. Operating from an implicit assumption that the American experience is in itself strange, the Tall Tale works to normalize some its characters and their specific characteristics. While all of the characters in these stories have unusual, exaggerated, and somewhat grotesque characteristics, the humorous performance makes definite distinctions between those characters and characteristics that are desirable and those that are undesirable. In doing so, this mode of the humorous performance normalizes and "Americanizes" the good characters/characteristics while displacing its strangeness, or "otherness," onto the bad characters/characteristics. Humor is a mechanism that allowed, and continues to allow people to imagine and then re-imagine American experiences. Tall Tales communicate their portrayal of the American by imaging the connections between the land and the people-a blossoming Americanization of both the soil and the people who live upon it. The humor of these tales provides a creative space to visualize what it might mean to be an American. If, as folklorist Benjamin Botkin fittingly suggests, "heroes embody the qualities that we most admire or desire in ourselves,"53 then the heroes that were conjured up in Tall Tales offer interesting insight into the populations that created them and continue to maintain their popularity. Tall Tale heroes are comprised of human flaws and epic heroism, a combination of the ordinary and practical with the extraordinary and impossible. This mixture produces a strange brew of characters who comically straddle their contradictory worlds. Take for consideration the characterization of the Crocketts in this excerpt: From the way Davy Crockett's father and mother lived, you might guess they were just ordinary people. They had a log 53 B.A. Botkin, introduction to A Treasury of American Folklore, ed. B.A. Botkin (New York: Crown Publishers, 1944), 3. 40

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cabin like any other log cabin. The roof was oak staves held in place by slabs that were laid across them at right angles. The windows, of course, were made out of oiled paper. In the fall, Mr. and Mrs. Crockett would put chinks between the logs, to keep the cabin warm. In the spring, when the dogwood came out, they'd knock away the chinks so that light and air could come into the cabin [ ... ] All this, you might say, was as common as an old shoe. But as a matter of fact the Crocketts weren't ordinary people-far from it. They had great talents and they lived in a great place. Davy Crockett's father could grin a hailstorm into sunshine, and could look the sun square in the face without sneezing. Davy Crockett's mother, even when she was an old woman and had lost a good part of spryness, could do these things: 1. Jump a seven-rail fence backwards; 2. Dance a hole through a double oak floor; 3. Spin more wool than a steam mill; and 4. Cut down a gum tree ten feet around, and sail it across the Nolachucky River, using her apron for a sail. At the time Davy was born, his father and mother lived in the Nolachucky River Valley in the state ofTennessee, not far from the Cherokee Indians. Tennessee was a place where the soil went down to the center of the earth, and the government gave you title to every inch of it. You could tell that the soil was rich because if you went and dug a good sized hole, and then threw the dirt back into it, the dirt didn't fill the hole. The soil was so rich that you had only to kick a dent in the ground with your heel, drop a kernel of corn into the dent, and the corn would grow without work. Some places the ground was so covered with wild strawberries that when a boy walked though them, the squished juice would redden his legs to the knees. [ ... ] If Davy's father just sniffed the air of the Nolachucky Valley, it made him snort like a horse. Well, born to such a ripsnorting family in such a ringtailed roarer of a place, Davy Crockett was the biggest baby that ever was and a little the smartest that ever will be. His Uncle Roarious said right away that he was the yallerest blossom in the family, and he looked so fat and healthy that his Aunt 41

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Ketinah said that it was as much fun to look at him as it was to eat a meal with all the trimmings. 54 Initially, the narrator grounds the Crocketts in the real world of"ordinary people" and the common experiences of early settlers. We are their casual and uninformed observers, a position that results in our assumption that they are indeed ordinary. Their cabin, "like any other log cabin," is bereft of any extravagant materials or features and the familiar environment of frontiersmen. (Of course their windows were made out of oiled paper.) In an extensive history of American geographical development Donald W. Meinig remarks that "simple log cabins and more elaborate log houses occasioned comment as a distinctive American feature."55 Housing for the Crocketts is no less, yet no more, than that of the distinctively common American. The details ofthe cabin's structural design, all slabs and right angles, suggest that it was built by a hand familiar with such work. Furthermore, the Crocketts seek comfort just like the rest ofus ordinary people. They struggle with the elements of nature and make the necessary seasonal adjustments to keep the cold out or let the light in. The description of the interior of the cabin reiterates the utter ordinariness of the Crocketts to us, the casual observers. Their furniture is sparse and basic, made of the natural materials available in their environment. Their beds are made of strips of bark and gourds serve as their containers. Not only does their domestic life appear ordinary, but the Crocketts actually eat "the way everybody else did" too. "All this," we might say, "was as common as an old shoe." 54 Walter Blair, "Davy Crockett, Tennessee Settler" in Tall Tale America (Toronto: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1944 ), 66-68. Due to the difficulty of finding a complete and clear collection of the original Crockett Almanacs I have chosen works such as Blair's and Richard Dorson's that use the Almanacs as their sources. 55 Donald W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, vol. 2, Continental America, 1800-/867 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 440. 42

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This continual reiteration of the dull ordinariness of the Crocketts lives is clearly setting the stage for a complete reversal of these assumptions. The constant winking of the narrator, who hedges statements with "you might or "you might say," suggests that our myopic view of the characters is about to be upturned. If we only look below the surface we will see that the Crocketts were not ordinary people, "far from it." They are, instead, extraordinary because "they had great talents, and they lived in a great place." Herein is the imagining that both the land and its inhabitants have internal qualities that bond them in special ways. Because of their special connection, both the Crocketts and the land are capable of astonishing feats. The story's transformation of the characters and the land from the ordinary to the extraordinary is revealed through their internal qualities. Those qualities that are invisible at first to the casual observer are the things that make them great. The humor imagines that outsiders need to look closer at America to discover its value. Doing so will reveal that people like the Crocketts have "great talents" that belie their observable lifestyles. Similarly, if you look beneath the surface of Tennessee you will see that its soil reaches all the way down to the center of the earth. The exceptionalness of the relationship between the land and frontiersman was identified by Thomas Cooper in one of his many observations concerning America during his visit in 1793: "The staple of America at present is land, and the immediate products of land; and herein seems to me the most pleasant, the most certain, and the most profitable means of employment for capital to an almost indefinite extent."56 The power of this sort of connection is imagined here as that which allows the Crocketts to perform amazing feats such as "grin[ ning] a hailstorm into sunshine" and "cut[ting] down a gum tree ten feet around, and sail[ing] it across the Nolachucky River." Some of these "great talents" seem rather 56 Thomas Cooper, "Letters From America to a Friend in England" in Some Information Respecting America, collected by Thomas Cooper (London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1795), 2. 43

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useless and fail to evoke intense admiration. Being able to "jump a seven-rail fence backwards" or "look the sun square in the face without sneezing" might leave readers scratching their heads. These feats seem adopted from Greek mythology where a character like Anteas exhibits this sort of extraordinary strength. However, what is signific.ant here is not always what the Crocketts do, but how they do it. The Crocketts are a bit feral; they are not a species of super humans. Rather, they are better understood as a super amalgamation of human and wilderness. The place where they live is a literal part of their makeup: "If Davy's father just sniffed the air of the Nolachucky Valley, it made him snort like a horse." Similarly, the soil is so greatly responsive to its human inhabitants "that you had only to kick a dent in the ground with your heel, drop a kernel of corn into the dent, and the corn would grow without work." The land's fruitfulness is characterized through its interaction with people. For example, the abundance of wild strawberries is revealed by the amount of juice they produce on a boy's knees after he walked through them. And, the soil is so accommodating to human needs that it does not even need to be plowed because "if you went and dug a good sized hole, and then threw the dirt back into it, the dirt didn't fill the hole." The land is characterized by the same sort of wacky power as the Crocketts. They both share in a slightly off-beat experience ofthis world. To this extent then, both the environment and the people are defined through their connections with one another. The extent of each one's extraordinary abilities is revealed through their interrelationship: the power of Mr. Crockett's grin is revealed through his contact with stormy weather, and the fertility ofthe land is depicted through an almost offhanded plowing of the soil and planting of seeds. Furthermore, as a result of their connection, and resulting special abilities, both contain contradictory qualities that lend themselves to a humorous portrayal of an imagined America. 44

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A more serious and realistic version of this connection is solidified in the passage that makes a reference to land ownership. The government that "gave you title to every inch of [the soil]" is the enabler of this connection. What grows out from the midst of these interconnected entities-the land, the people and the government-are some of the most basic requirements for identifying the American. I mean this not only as a reference to the person-citizen, but also as a reference to the conception of "American" as a quality or set of qualities that might become associated with the nation. In the former sense of the "American," this story weaves requirements of citizenship, such as land ownership, into its formulation of its characters. The Crocketts, and the other Tall Tale characters, 5 7 represent exceptional examples of citizens in this sense because not only do they know and own the land, but they have a special relationship with their environment which gives both them and their land superish powers. Considering early settlers' struggle with nature, it is not surprising that their imagined histories and ancestries would visualize such power. Their struggles to tame the wilderness and coax it into domestication are reflected clearly in the Tall Tale stories. Likewise, their lack of traditions of historical ritual and myth seems to result in very real world characters that might be able to perform extraordinary feats, but they are also concerned with practical matters such as owning and sowing one's land. 58 In the latter sense of "American," the humor of the Tall Tale provides a means for imagining some of these defining features of the nation alongside the comical features within the stories. They are inclusive of both the real and the ideal in the American experience with images that make light of the contradiction between the two. For the stories of other characters such as Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, John Henry and Pecos Bill, see, Blair, Tall Tale; and Botkin, American Folklore. 58 Botkin, American Folklore, 2. 45

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This particular story offers the connection between the land and the people, with the government as the enabling authority in the background, in its formulation of America. The combination of these components provides the footing for the entrance of a new generation of even more exceptional people, represented here by the arrival of Davy Crockett: "Well, born to such a ripsnorting family in such a ringtailed roarer of a place, Davy Crockett was the biggest baby that ever was and a little the smartest that will ever be."59 Baby Davy's superior composition allows his powers to eventually surpass those ofhis parents. He is the successful outcome of the contradictory lives of his "ripsnorting family"-his powerfully feral, yet land owning, parents-and his "ringtailed roarer of a place"-a characterization of his environment that is mythological, wild, and both animal and hurnan.60 From these beginnings, Davy Crockett is an embodiment of an imagined and idealized American. He promises to continue the traditions begun by his parents as "he was the biggest baby that ever was and a little the smartest that ever will be." This description of his size as an infant becomes indicative of later physical abilities. Finally, his uncle's proclamation that Davy is "the yallerest blossom in the family" is most likely a comparison with the yellow-flowered Sweet Clover which was introduced in the U.S. in the early 1700s and known for its hardiness and ability to loosen the soil.61 Certainly, Davy is a bit wild, like his family, but the use of this terminology, which reappears later in his stories, to describe his fierce and 59 Blair, Tall Tale, 66. 60 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "ripsnorting = riproaring: Full of vigour, spirit, or excellence; first-rate; boisterous; full-blooded;" and, s.v. "ringtailed roarer: a fanciful name for an imaginary animal; also applied to persons," http://www.oed.com/ripsnorting (accessed March 2, 2010). 61 For more see, Dwain Meyer, "Sweet Clover Production and Management," North Dakota State University Extension Service (September, 2005) http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/plantsci!hay/r862.pdf (accessed March, 2010). 46

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outlandish character continues the slightly confusing, mostly humorous, and highly contradictory characterization of the Tall Tale characters. The surroundings that nurture Davy Crockett's character encourage the exploration and contemplation of his place: "The Nolachucky River Valley was a fine place to grow up in. For one thing, there was plenty of room, even for Davy. For another, it wasn't a noisy place: there was plenty of peace and quiet." Davy's development is encouraged by the land that affords him room to grow both physically and mentally. Furthermore, these surroundings require the qualities of individual freedom, ingenuity, and self-sufficiency that become emblematic of the American character: "Davy's father and mother were busy all the time, and they had to leave this growing business pretty much up to Davy. [ ... ] Left on his own with nobody to help, Davy put his mind to growing and the way he got along was astonishing. "62 This description of Davy's childhood mirrors the development of a nation that no longer relies on the authority of established hierarchies. Joel Johnson offers an explanation for understanding the effects of this shift in authority: "By giving all people whether noble or common power over their own lives and responsibility for their actions equal liberty dramatically restructures the relationship between them and their surroundings." For Johnson, the individual sovereignty ofthe democratic citizen is "a fact that causes her to become capable of being alone in the world."63 With this in mind, it is easy to see why early imaginings of the American are not necessarily inspired by the guidance of parental or other authority figures. In the midst of their independence and sovereignty, the Tall Tale characters seem to thrive. According to Johnson, the increased demands of the environment on the individual in this situation ultimately produce superior human beings in comparison 62 Blair, Tall Tale, 68-69. 63 Johnson, Beyond Practical Virtue, I 0 I. 47

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to those who develop within hierarchical societies.64 In Davy's case, he is, like his parents, extremely successful as a result of his relationship with the environment. And, like his parents, Davy's character is comical in his contradictory makeup. He is a combination of extraordinary powers and utter practicality, backwoodsman and gentleman, and wildness and domestication. This story where Davy encounters a raccoon who he is about to shoot is a fitting illustration of his incongruous character: "Is your name by any chance Ripsnorting Davy Crockett?" Davy told him it was. "Then," says the raccoon, "you needn't take any more trouble, because I may as well come down without another word." And he walked right down from the tree, as dignified as a gentleman climbing out of a carriage, because he felt that he was as good as shot, and he said so. Davy stooped down, patted the little fellow the head, and said, "I wouldn't hurt a hair on your head, coonie, because you've said as fine a thing about my shooting as ever was said." "Since you put it like that," says the raccoon, edging off side ways, "I think I'll just walk off right away. It's not that I doubt what you say," the raccoon told him, "but you might kind of happen to change your mind. "65 Davy is such a famous and accomplished hunter that he does not even need to hunt any longer; the animals are simply lying down for him. However, this simple and straightforward compliment from the raccoon-who also is rather gentlemanly-is all that is necessary to dissolve his intentions to kill. Instead of a gun shot, Davy endearingly pats "coonie" on the head. With that said, Davy is still wild and seemingly much wilder than the raccoon who does well to embrace this rare moment of passive disarmament. 64 Ibid., 146. 65 Blair, Tall Tale, 72. 48

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Davy's character amongst the variety of Tall Tale characters is particularly interesting for our discussion because he represents the intersection of the land, the people, and the government. This last detail is especially unique for a Tall Tale character. Davy's success as a backwoodsman lends itself to his success as a politician.66 One of his tales tells that "the Honorable, Ripsnorting, Star-spangled Congressman Davy Crockett" was voted into Congress not once, but twice. 67 Included in this description is the characterization ofthe American as a generally principled person, imbued equally with qualities of the land ("ripsnorting") and the ideals of the government ("star-spangled"). For these reasons, Crockett is a superlative representative-as a congressman and a character-that participates both literally and figuratively in the formation of the American. "The American" The search for the historical beginnings of the portrayal of "the American" sends the seeker down many roads of inquiry. At some point though, all of these roads will converge in the creative and non-serious stories of early Arnericans.68 This inevitable convergence in these sources is the result of the imaginative processes involved in the formation of the nation. In order for documents such as The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and The Bill of Rights to take hold and have lasting effects, there must exist a community of people to whom these docwnents apply. In his own philosophical inquiry into nationhood, Benedict Anderson defines nation as "an imagined political community-and imagined as 66 Although Davy Crockett was a real man, his mythological tales as a comic and heroic backwoodsman have had a greater impact on the development of America then his true stories or actions. His position as the central character for study in this text is due, in part, to this situation where the lines between history and myth are blurred and "fiction" holds sway over "truth." 67 Blair, Tall Tale, 81. 68 The role ofNative Americans is not overlooked in this text; however, they were not accepted nor named as "Americans" until much later. 49

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of these stories and their perseverance into modem day suggest that they provide a tradition of an idealized and imagined America that is also firmly grounded in real experiences. They are some of the earliest artistic productions of a story of and for an American nation and they express identifiable American experiences. Since much of the intellectual struggle of early Americans involved detaching themselves from their English and European connections and legitimizing the new nation, these tales supplied a new ancestry and history. The stories that communicate experiences of life here bring a thread of traditional folklore for those who can identify with these tales-and alienate or separate those who cannot. We can envision the Tall Tale as an early partition for determining what is and what is not American. In this way, it assists in the process of imagining a community that is limited and sovereign in the sense that Anderson describes. Considering that English and European political and cultural-histories no longer provide an adequate backdrop for intellectualizing the experiences of the early settlers, Tall Tales provide something of a surrogate for this background. They were a means of reconciling early settlers' connection to the historical "Beowulfian" folklore of Europe and their need for new stories that speak to an Am . 71 encan expenence. The way that the Tall Tale expresses this experience also evidences a humor for America imagining itself into being. As the name implies, the Tall Tale is constructed through exaggeration and fictional story. It openly declares that it is not meant to be taken seriously. However, the humor that develops within these stories relies on the performance of America as both a fictionalized concept and as a real experience. Although these tales perform an exaggerated America, they do so in a 71 The adjective "Beowulfian" describes the folklore that has its beginnings in the "legendary Geatish warrior of the Old English poem Beowulf" Merriam-Webster, s.v. "Beowulfian," http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/beowulfian (accessed March, 201 0). 51

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way that allows audiences to both compare and contrast their own experiences. Audiences can relate to those details that match up with their own experiences while also recognizing the exaggerated or fictionalized details. In this way, the Tall Tale provides some historical beginnings for the expression of the American in humor. The audiences' ability to find truth and falsity within the tale becomes a means for them to develop their own ideas of America. Thus, the Tall Tale worked something like a touchstone for both an imagined and a real American experience. It also provided ways for successive humorous performances to connect with this humor that is characterized by its portrayal of the American, and thereby making it seem as though they are "American humor." One of the defining traits of the Tall Tale that characterizes its humor is the depiction of the American as the underdog. This depiction grows out of the notion of the new nation as a provincial, inferior, and derivative version of European nations which was a familiar view amongst America's critics.72 The humor in Tall Tales overturns this notion and transforms it so that it becomes an advantage for its American characters and the converse for its "strangers" or outsiders. What the Tall Tale argues in response to this critique is not that the new America is equal to its neighbors across the pond, but that its differences are such that it is rather incomparable. These tales illustrate how a misunderstanding of this place is detrimental to the success and survival ofthose characters that are unfamiliar with it. Those qualities and abilities that characterize "Old World" nations and serve as the criteria for judging this "New World" are unsuitable here. Rather, the humor makes light ofthe uselessness of Old World value systems while concurrently establishing the merit of the qualities and abilities that these value systems tend to 72 For examples ofthis criticism see, Syndey Smith, "Review of Seybert's Annals ofthe United States" The Edinburgh Review (January, 1820); and, Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of The Americans (London: Whittaker, Treacher & Co, 1832). For an interesting response to this criticism see, Joseph J. Ellis, After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture (New York: Norton, 1979). 52

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fail to appreciate. While these stories seldom directly reference a struggle against the critique of provincialism, an argument against this critique runs deep in the language of the Tall Tale. Consider this passage detailing a confrontation between Davy Crockett and his soon-to-be cohort, Ben Harding: I don't understand all your stuff, and I spose you are fresh down this way. But I'll have you understand that I'm a snorter by birth and eddycation, and if you don't go floating along, and leave me to finish my nap I'll give you a taste of my breed. I'll begin with the snapping turtle, and after I've chawed you up with that, I'll rub you down with a spice of the alligator. 73 Crockett's opening condemnation of Harding and, seemingly, the source oftheir misunderstanding, is that his antagonist is "fresh down here" or an outsider to this place. Consequently, Crockett aggressively identifies himself using the language of his environment: he envisions himself as both wild man and indigenous animal. One folklore scholar rightly suggests that in this sort of portrayal "Crockett is half varmint and every varmint is half-Crockett."74 Thus, an introduction to Crockett was an introduction to the land's other beastly inhabitants, and vice versa. Crockett's appearance, speech and character are embellished in such a way as to animate the "backwoods beauty" that allows him to survive in this environment. In their embellishment, these details mock condescending views of American settlers. His references to his "birth," "eddycation" and "breed" snidely comment on the uselessness of these bourgeois and aristocratic standards in the New World of America. What emerges in place of these standards is a value system where Crockett's association with the wilderness as the source of his birth and education 73 Richard Mercer Dorson, Davy Crockett: American Comic Legend (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1935), 65. 74 Botkin, American Folklore, 7. 53

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become the marks of his superiority. The hereditary or social prestiges that grant individuals authority in an aristocracy are mimicked here by Crockett's claims of his background as "a snorter."75 As a result, the language appropriates the authority of the Old World value system by making it applicable to this America. The validity of this value system is reinforced when Harding recognizes Crockett and offers him his friendship. Their bond emerges from their shared experiences of "eddycation" and "breed": Give us your flipper then, old chap( ... ] Hurra! Three cheers for old Crockett! I'd give two weeks allowance if our boson was here; he used to read your allmynack to us on the forecastle, for, d'ye see, I can't read. I got my laming under the lee of the long boat, and swear my prayers at a lee earing in a gale o' wind. But I can read pikturs to d----n, and I could spell out your crocodile's tails from their heads when I see 'em drawed out in your book. 76 While Harding's sources for learning are nautical, in comparison to Crockett's terrestrial sources, both share the experience of gaining educations through their environments. What is more is that Harding gains knowledge of Crockett's land, not by reading the words of his "allmynack," but by reading the pictures. He does not know how to read written language, but he replaces this skill by reading the language ofthe wilderness--Qr rather, images of the wilderness. The details of the wilderness provide a new lexicon for this nation. Or, in other words, people's familiarity with America's geography offered them a way of communicating the American in their experiences. 75 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "snorter: a. U.S. 'A dashing, riotous fellow' (Barb. A stiff or strong wind; a gale. c. Anything exceptionally remarkable for size, strength, severity, etc." Crockett's reference is likely an amalgamation of all of these. http://www.oed.com/snorter (accessed February 10, 2010). 76 Dorson, Davy Crockett, 66. 54

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Even though Crockett and Harding eventually develop a friendship, Crockett's initial confrontational words simultaneously threaten his perceived foe while indirectly outlining an argument against critics of America. In effect, this passage along with Harding's response, demonstrate how the language of the Tall Tale works to create a sense of the American through its humor. And, with reference to Anderson, the language in these passages also works to establish the distinctions that separate what is American from other nations. The language implicitly argues for the authority of the American experience. A traditional schooling with lessons that are often theoretical and academic does not have a place of value in these stories. Instead, schooling occurs through the characters' physical experiences of their environments. The education and the successes that it produces which are valuable in these stories are usually a matter of practicality and are always connected to the land/place. Take for consideration the tales of Johnny Appleseed that speak of a man with a very good and traditional, possibly Ivy League, education. This character who is rumored to have been of great intelligence and eloquence, regularly quoting the likes of Emanuel Swendenborg, abandoned any traditional pursuits at the age of twenty-six in order to spend the rest of his life traveling the land, planting and growing apple trees. Johnny is usually pictured wearing nothing more than a coffee sack with a cooking pot on his head for functionality and simplicity. Alongside this image is the romanticized story of an individual who has discarded wealth and material goods for a more fulfilling relationship with the land.77 As his audience, we experience his love and nurturing of the land as the sources for his fame. Johnny Appleseed's story not only reiterates the value of an intimate relationship with the land, but 77 For biographies and stories see, W.D. Haley, "Johnny Appleseed: A Pioneer Hero" in Harper's Magazine (Vol. XLIII, November, 1871) 830-836; and, Henry A. Pershing, Johnny Appleseed and His Time (Strasburg, VA.: Shenandoah Publishing House, 1930). 55

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again imagines how the extent of this relationship can result in extraordinary success. This is not to say that the traditional education and skills such as reading did not have a place in the New World. To make this claim would not only be a gross misunderstanding of how Tall Tales operate, but a failure to acknowledge their humor. As I briefly mentioned earlier, there are some real-life truths in the tales. Proficiency in traditionally taught skills and high-level degrees from prestigious universities would be put to little use when settling in this place. One's knowledge of the land and ability to tame it enough to live in it were far more necessary for one's survival. Tall Tales make ready use of these ideas as a way of stressing the differences of the experience of living here as opposed to that of a place like Europe. By referencing the unrelenting work and difficulties faced by actual frontiersmen, the Tall Tale is intimately connected to the actual experiences of early Americans. However, they work towards these ends in ways that also poke fun at the image of the backwoodsman. His characterization in tales like Crockett's is a combination of honorable hero and comic stereotype. While performing great feats and exhibiting admirable moral fiber, the characters are also generally devoid of the intellectual and emotional complexity of real people. Even though characters, including Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed, are loosely related to historical people, they are not meant to replicate actual Americans. Rather, their stories provide opportunities to isolate and then amplify particular American experiences. They are Langer's '"livingness' of the human world" as it is "abstracted, composed, and presented to us; with it the high points of the composition that are illuminated by humor."78 78 Langer, Feeling and Form, 348. 56

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It is not only what the Tall Tale characters say, but how they say it that lends these stories to the creation of the American. The characters' "tall talk" exists in the liminal space between the imagined and real language of Americans. Characterized by "grandiloquence, boasting and exaggeration," the colloquial speech of these characters is limited to the unique voices within their stories. 79 Recognizable terms and phrases are regularly twisted and reformulated in the mouths of characters like Crockett. What emerges is a language that is unmistakably connected with an imagined American. For instance, a term such as "angelic" might emerge as "anngeliferous" or instead of saying that something is facing "in a slanting direction," it might be referred to as "slantindicular."80 The literary humorists thereby show the common American experience as a discipline with both language and technique. In an introduction to a collection of Crockett's tales, the unknown author notifies readers that, though I have had much intercourse with the West, I have never met with a man who used such terms unless they were alluded to, as merely occupying a space in some printed work. They have, however, thus been made to enter, as a component part, into the character of every back woodsman. 81 What this caveat suggests is that although this language is an essential element of a fictionalized America, it is not a representation of the vernacular speech of actual Americans. At the same time, however, there are features of this language that have connections to the regional dialects, political stump speeches, and the public and oral sharing of stories. As a result, the language ofthe Tall Tale characters offers a literary dialect of what Americans might sound like, even though they do not. 79 Botkin, American Folklore, 272-273. 80 Ibid., 273-274. 81 Anonymous, quoted in, Botkin, American Folklore, 273. 57

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"The Non-American" Tall Tale stories rely on the play between actualities and falsities. The exaggerated characteristics of the land and the characters make them seem both ridiculous and endearing. Those audiences who were able to embrace both of these reactions to the stories were most likely American. I am suggesting that this is "likely" because the tales ask their audiences to recognize the incongruity between people's actual experiences ofliving here and the depictions in the Tall Tale. The humor is the product of this incongruity whereby audiences could see themselves in contrast and comparison with the stories of the characters. The protagonists are normalized through their goodness in the stories and their recognizable "Americanized" qualities. In this sense then, the Tall Tale also provides a means of identifying what is not an experience of the American-an anti-identification of the American. The strangeness and otherness of the early American experience is relocated in antagonists which thereby reinforces the normality of the protagonists. One variety of this character is the aforementioned "stranger" who is unfamiliar with the land and is oftentimes portrayed in a non-American light. He is pictured as a drifter, a swindler, a character with overall dubious moral values. The stranger is generally taught a lesson, either intentionally by the protagonist or unintentionally by his own ignorant or amoral behavior, which results in either his reformation or his quick and permanent exit. The point I am making in differentiating between these "stranger" characters and the characters of the forthcoming examples are that the former are allowed to live on in the stories. Audience members might identify them as non-Americans and they are punished for their non-American qualities; however, they are not portrayed as dangers to an American identity. In contrast, there are other characters that seem threatening to the American and these characters come with far more obvious origins. The depictions of these characters both reflect and help shape the chauvinisms of early 58

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Americans. Some of the most pervasive of these chauvinisms are racial. The prejudices that even today continue to plague the nation in its struggle for democratic equality in many ways find support in these tales. Caricaturized Indian, Mexican, and Black characters are regularly set in opposition to the Tall Tale heroes and portrayed as outsiders to the values and morals of the stories. 82 A short list of some of Crockett's tales illustrates this portrayal: "Crockett 'Pinking' an Indian"; "A Black Affair"; "Struggle with the Indian Chief'Wild Cat"'; "Colonel Crockett's Trip to Texas and Fight with the Mexicans"; and "Crockett Playing Death with Mexican Pirates." Stories such as these work to separate the characteristics of the American from those of the non American. What often results is the portrayal of the non-American as an unacceptable threat to the American who is then justified in obliterating the source of the threat. For example, in "Struggle with the Indian Chief' Wild Cat,"' the narrator (i.e., Crockett) describes for us a group of Indians as "the sassiest tribe o' sausage colored niggers that ever split the skull or breakfasted on the warm blood of white-faced human nater."83 Our first introduction to these characters depicts them in an overwhelmingly undesirable light and condemns them before there is even any action in the story. And, while the tribe's sassiness and cannibalistic tendencies are sources for their condemnation, it is ultimately skin color which decides their antithetical position. The description of their skin as "sausage colored" is not only grotesquely unflattering, it also makes an obvious association between the people with this flesh tone and dead meat. Whether or not the use of the word "niggers" here is meant with the same amount of racial prejudice that we associate with it today, the term clearly denotes the inferiority of the "sausage 82 The terms I am using for these ethnic groups abide by some of the terminology used during this time period before they were included as "Americans." 83 Dorson, Davy Crockett, 91 59

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colored" referents. Finally, combining this description with the claim that this group feasted on "whitefaced human nater" makes them appear as though they are both anti-white and anti-human-a basic recipe for the non-American. Even though Indians are native to this land, they are imagined as foreign monsters that threaten the American. Their native identity is effectively erased and relocated in the protagonist character. With this as the initial presentation of the Indian group, it is no surprise when, at the end of story, Crockett lightly boasts about his brutal killing of the Chief"Wild Cat": "When I grabbed him by the neck like any other pussy an' squeezed it into dislocation, kicked his backbone out o' jint, and sent him down, howlin' mercy, til bussed a rock about ninety feet below, split his brains, and knocked out his nine lives beautiful."84 In a seemingly ironic twist, the action that precipitated this ending was the Chiefs offended response to Crockett's slaughter of a wildcat-an animal the Indian leader felt personally related to. In effect, these stories might value a relationship with one's but this seems to be associated only with white characters. In this way, part of a nativist movement of the early nineteenth century sought to absorb Indians' good qualities into whites. One thing that the Tall Tale does in identifying the non-American is to acknowledge the existence of groups of people who, by their presence as characters in the stories, help to identify the American experience. In other words, the stories that are shaped around protagonists' troubles with Indians, Mexicans, and Black characters are unlike the stories of any other nation because these specific groups did not present the same perceived threats to any other nations. This logic is demonstrated in the statements of an early American writer who rightfully acknowledged that the inclusion oflndian-American details in his novels helped to 84 Ibid., 91. 60

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distinguish his writing as "American."85 The perception of what constitutes as foreign, strange, and grotesque is shifted from settlers onto other racially segmented characters. As a result, the presence of non-American characters authenticates the identification of American characters in these early literary works. An ironic twist occurs, however, when the stories that help to imagine the American have to figure out a way to cope with the very real presence of people who, by their exclusion, threaten the legitimacy of the American. In the light of this contradictory situation, there is the compelling question that if American nationhood found part of its collective spirit in ideas of democracy, then how did anti-democratic exclusion and ethnic annihilation affect these notions of political community? One solution to this conundrum that was prevalent in both the imagined stories and the real experiences of Americans was to shape one's own and others' conceptions of particular groups of people so that the democratic ideals became inapplicable to them. That is to say, if some people seemed subor inhuman, then they did not have to be treated equally or justly. The Tall Tales embraced this solution by contributing images of certain peoples who are portrayed as monsters or imbeciles. Moreover, the impact of these images is inflated by the details that depict these peoples as actively threatening the lives and the humanity of the stories' heroes. Criminals, animals, and people who did not own land are just a couple of examples of groups who were outside of the equalizing umbrella of democracy. The characteristics from groups such as these combine with characteristics from specific ethnic groups, and storylines that put these characters in conflict with the protagonists, to produce ethnically specific, anti-American antagonists. 85 Charles Brockden Brown, preface to Edgar Huntly (New York: Macmillan, 1928. Reprinted from original 1799), xxiii. 61

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In this sense, the Tall Tale is a complex "aporia," a term that Timothy Powell uses to examine the complexities of the creation of American identities in early American novels.86 Powell's use of this term, and its incorporation here, draws on its definition as an "insoluble conflict between rhetoric and thought ... a lacuna between what a text means to say and what it is constrained to mean."87 In this sense, the aporia of a text is its contradictory meaning. The contradictions or aporias of Powell's investigation which also apply here are that "America is a democratic nation and that it is not" and that "America is a racist nation and it is not."88 Additionally, in the case ofthe Tall Tales, the Indian, Mexican, and Black characters build up the idea of the American at the same time that they break it down. Humor helps to mitigate the contradictory nature of America. The humorous performance in these stories operates in such a way to create the aporias that Powell refers to; however, it also tries to provide a solution. Through continual and negative exaggeration, caricatured representatives of ethnic groups appear as evil, oppositional forces to the Americanized characters. The perspectives, voices, and experiences of these non-Americanized peoples are completely absent from the stories and, this way, they are easily beaten and annihilated without any sense of shame or remorse. In fact, their annihilation promotes the moral rightness and heroism of the protagonist. This demonstrates the imagining of the American through the creation and subsequent destruction of the nonand anti-American. The aporia of democratic equality and racial exclusion in the development of the new nation finds a comfortable explanation in Tall Tales where both can exist without significant challenge to each other. There are some obvious signs that Tall Tale 86 Timothy Powell, Ruthless Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), I 0. 87 Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, ed. J .A. Cuddon (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979), 55 .. 88 Powell, Ruthless Democracy, II. 62

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America is racist, but then again, if the audience finds truth in the stories and the portrayal of the characters, it really is not. Tall Tales and their early endeavor to negotiate comfortable solutions for the aporias involving racism and democracy is one of the most enduring American traditions that emerges from these tales. This is especially true in terms of humor in America. The form of the humorous performance in these tales provides a source for the continual struggle to provide answers to Crevecoeur's lingering question of what constitutes the American. Tall Tale characters who exhibit qualities of individualism and self-sufficiency, along with their unique relationships with the land and novel ideas about social stratification provide some of our most foundational beliefs about what the American might look, act, and sound like. They serve as an initial source for recognizing some sort of national identity; they are a means of understanding what the imagined American is. However, if theories of structuralism and post-structuralism have taught us nothing else they have taught us that everything must have its opposite. With that said, it is clear that Crevecoeur's question, and its answers, also seek out the non-American. It is this implied portion of his question that is particularly problematic for the American nation. The humorous performance in the Tall Tale therefore also provides a means for understanding what the imagined American is not. In the creative world of fiction and the non-serious world of humor, it is easy to strip non-American characters of their humanity. The non-American characters are effortlessly recognizable by their negative qualities in combination with their non-white skin tones. They are easy dupes for reinforcing the qualities of the protagonist (read: American) characters. Where these seemingly straightforward performances of the imagined American and non-American become endlessly complicated is in their relation to the actual experiences of Americans. For these tales to have endured as long as they have there are certainly some truths connecting the experiences of the imagined and 63

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real Americans. Where these truths lie and how they participate in creating an American identity is certainly not set in stone. The non-American, for instance, is a much different character today then it was two hundred years ago. These humorous texts answer the search for American identity with a means to navigate between the American and the non-American, and the actual and the imaginary. The Tall Tale is a launching point for the humorous performance of these elements in a continual referencing of America's aporias in humor. In this sense, this humor advances a slightly different version of Anderson's definition of nationhood where the humorous performance is a continually re-imagined political community. In 1796, Henry Adams charged that America was "a nation as yet in swaddling clothes, which had neither literature, arts, sciences nor history; nor even enough nationality to be sure that it was a nation."89 Though he adopts a far more cynical tone than Crevecoeur, he presents a similar challenge. People had to imagine America as a nation before any particular cultural or political identity could gain ground. The presence ofthe Tall Tale and its mode of humorous performance in the early formation of America provide an easy illustration of the usefulness, and even the necessity, of humor in this process. In their imaginings, the early productions of humor in America envision the inclusion and exclusion of characters that together communicate the American. This division, as it exists in both a "communal consciousness" and the real world,90 becomes the focus of much of the performances of humor that follow the Tall Tales. Even so, the humor in these tales also provides a foundation for the subsequent reworking of this division. The tools that serve to imagine an early American experience, develop in succeeding humorous performances tore-imagine alternative American 89 Henry Adams, History of United States of America During the First Administration ofThomas Jefferson, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909), 157. 90 Boskin, "History and Humor, 19. 64

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experiences. One pattern of humor in America then becomes visible in the performances that put humor to use in a continual striving to transform our notions of the American. By revisiting America's contradictions and offering various imaginings that solve them, if only temporarily, these performances imply that there is a tradition for creating humor in America. 65

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CHAPTER4 CRACKER-BARREL PHILOSOPHERS Comic Masking and Voicing the Rights of American Citizenship When making an argument that humorous performances are forms of political dialogue, the discussion often needs to be abstract and theoretical. To isolate the ideas at work in a performance we have to delve into the poetics of the non-discursive form. The very playfulness that makes humor effective is ironically absent from the scholarly investigation of it. Unavailable to other forms of argument are a supply of tools that allow humorists to make politically charged arguments in a non-serious way. Audiences can experience the arguments contained within a humorous performance without contemplating their agreement with them. Someone can revel in the hilarity of Richard Pryor, for instance, without explicating any of its claims about a de-racialized America. Unlike a scholarly argument or political treatise that has to prove its worthiness in disciplinary terms, the humorous performance is either funny to us or it is not. As its observers or audience members, we don't even necessarily need to agree to the language on the surface of the performance as long as we concur with the experience that it is expressing. And conversely, we might agree to the surface language without concurring with the experience. This chapter focuses on Civil War era texts in which the literal language of the performance and the symbolic communication that occurs beneath are working in different directions. There is one type of political dialogue that is readily visible: one character might favor the Union while another favors the Confederacy. These characters have no qualms in declaring their political ideologies. Of course, there is 66

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more at work here than just what is on the surface ofthis humor. Another type of political dialogue occurs through the ironic construction of these characters whereby the authors argue for the opposite of what the character seems to support. The politicized character in these texts, who is aptly termed a crackerbox or cracker-barrel philosopher, 91 is an ironic mask that allows for social commentary and leads to the development of the comic voice. What makes these humorous performances more than just a series of political boxing matches lies in the combination of the surface and submerged dialogues. Within the humorous performance, there is play between what the characters are saying and how they are saying it. Consequently, the humorous performance of the cracker-barrel philosophers can express much more than what is available on the surface. In his study ofNew England humor, Cameron Nickels offers a fitting insight to the characters with its namesake by suggesting that the cracker-barrel itself denotes "a feature of a country store where local folks gather to talk over the issues of the day."92 Likewise, the cracker-barrel philosopher provides a character for the literary humorists and readers to come together over the text and informally discuss current events. Also, like the cracker-barrel, the cracker-barrel character is both an identifying feature of his surroundings and a feature identified by his surroundings. In a way similar to the creation of a Tall Tale character like Davy Crockett, the geographical and historical circumstances that surround the creation of the cracker-barrel philosopher help to construct his character, and vice-versa, the cracker-barrel philosopher helps construct a character of America during the Civil War era. In the shape of a common American, the cracker-barrel philosopher 91 Although Tandy's seminal work referred to these characters as "crackerbox" philosophers, Cameron C. Nickels later justifies using "cracker-barrel" as a more proper and recognized term in New England Humor: From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993). (See also, chpt. 2, n. 15). 92 Nickels, New England Humor, 147. 67

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actively takes part in informing his readers about the influence that his voice can have. America, still in its formative years and in the midst ofbeing divided by the Civil War, is searching for a means to unite it as a nation. The cracker-barrel philosopher offers his readers a means to imagine a collective American figure in his character. On the surface, he is an exaggerated image of the common man; however, he is also very politically biased and, thereby, resists a "collective" characterization. For the cracker-barrel philosophers, these "incarnations of Uncle Sam, the unlettered philosopher," the extremeness of their political, common man identities provides a focus for audiences' attention.93 By creating this rather extreme rhetorical figure, the author can use the character and language of the cracker-barrel philosopher as a means for communicating other messages. In this way, his voice is a mechanism for irony. Consider the case of Petroleum V. Nasby, whose author, David Ross Locke, sets up his character as a vehicle for his commentary on how a bad citizen sounds and behaves. Nasby is constructed as such an intensely undesirable character-once described as "a lying braggart, a loafer, a drunkard, a bigamist, a hypocrite, a racist and a coward"94-that his role as a stout Copperhead and a proponent of slavery satirically reveals Locke's antithetical sympathies. By constantly revealing Nasby as a reprehensible person and a bad American, Locke gives a backward commentary on what a citizen should not resemble. In this segment Nasby asserts his staunch support for his political party: I hev fought and bled for the coz, hev voted ez often ez three times at one elekshun, and hev alluz wore mournin around my eyes for three weeks after each campane. I hev alluz rallid to 93 Tandy, Crackerbox Philosophers, ix. 94 Walter Blair and Raven I. McDavid Jr., introduction to Mirth of a Nation, eds. Blair and McDavid (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), xvii-xviii. 68

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the poles early in the momin, and hev spent the entire day a bringin in the agid and infirm, and in the patryotik biznis uv knockin down the opposition voters. No man hez drunk more whisky than I hev for the party-none hez dun it moar willingly. Twict, in going thro campanes, hev I brot myselfto the very verge uv delirium tremins a drinkin the terrific elekshun whisky pervided by our candidates, but the coz demandid the sacrifis [ ... ]. My politikle principles are sound.95 Nasby's sordid political practices provide antithetical support for Lincoln and the rest of the Union. His extreme devotional support of his political party having "fought and bled for the coz" is also his failing as a citizen having "voted ez often ez three times at one elekshun." His understanding of the democratic process involves "knockin down the opposition voters," and his "sacrifis" for his party involves drinking until he is on "the very verge uv delirium." All of this sets up the ultimate moment of irony in this segment when he declares "my politikle principles sound." Clearly, they are not. It is not necessary for the reader to know that Locke is the real author of the work, nor is it necessary to realize the antithetical aims of the work in order for the author to inspire his desired response in the reader. This character is obviously a straw man to be laughed at and tom down in favor of the opposition. In this case, the cracker-barrel philosopher is the catalyst for eliciting support against himself and Locke remains invisible. Similar to the Tall Tale's imagining of Americans and non-Americans, the cracker-barrel texts imagines good and bad citizens. The author creates this judgment not only through the particular claims and declarations of the character, as demonstrated in the example ofNasby, but in the type oflanguage that the character uses. Pitting Standard English against non-Standard English is, again, a device to distinguish what is American from what is European, and indicate that a 95 David Ross Locke, The Struggles of Petroleum V. Nasby, abridged ed., ed. Joseph Jones (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), 10. 69

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character is a foreigner, trickster, or an affectationist. A cracker-barrel character's attempt to adopt a more highfalutin speech often ironically renders him far more witless than his use of the language he is comfortable with. Using language for these ends allows the literary humorists to both present their own serious opinions in a comical and non-threatening manner, and offer critical commentary about those that they disagree with. Consider Nasby again and his frequent attempts at educated speech that only reinforce his ignorance. In his speech announcing himself as a candidate for political office he tries to adopt the formal rhetoric of an orator in order to make an eloquent case for his election: To the Dimokrasy uv the county: I announse myself ez a candidate for ary one uv the offices to be filled this autum, subgik, uv coarse, to the decishun uv the Convenshun. In makin this anouncement, I fell it due my Dimekratik brethrin, that I stait the reasons for takin this step. They run ez follows: 151 I want a offis. 2d. I need a offis. 3d. A offis wood suit me; therfore, 4th. I shood like to hev a offis.96 Nasby's attempts at formal language have the opposite effects than he has intended because the language that causes suspicion when emitted from the mouths of politicians or foreigners is glaringly ill-used in the mouths of common folk. Nasby fails here because he tries to use language as a means of elevating himself above his audience thereby resisting the ideals of democratic equality. Combined with the faulty logic that he is a worthy candidate essentially because he has deemed it so, Nasby's oration fails because of his attempt to deny his commonness. Users of Staridard English commonly appear in these stories, as in Tall Tales, with some sort of self-serving motive for talking or writing. Likewise, the 96 Locke, Struggles of Petroleum, 9. 70

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literary humorists' choice of vernacular language creates a comfortable situation for readers to access their texts and characters. As the characters tell stories and speak in a conversational tone, the reader is situated as an easy listener. By embracing the tone of everyday speech, along with colloquial language and regional dialects, this humor supports the language of a common American. In order to represent vernacular speech, the humorists freely reinvented the spelling of the English language. On the surface of this language, the purposely misspelled words serve to alter Standard English into a distinct American language defined by the natural ways in which American peoples might speak and thereby composing this phonetic orthography. Considering that the character is represented as the author, then misspelling is the character's interpretation of the words according to his or her own use of the language. Standard English does not stand a chance in the mouth and hand of a character like Nasby. As this is a newly literate nation still reliant upon oral traditions, there is a direct connection between the mouth and the hand, or rather, a connection between orthographical and oral communication. According to humor scholar Jesse Bier, "the delight in spelling or misspelling was a clear indication of the newly acquired character of mass literacy, accelerative but unsure of itself yet and needing to laugh at the next lowest level from which most ofthe population were just barely lifting themselves."97 With this in mind, below the surface level of the misspelling, the texts acknowledge the literacy of the society. They depend on the common reader to both be able to recognize words as misspelled and then make the connection to the words' standardized spelling. Literary humorists' use of misspelling as a literary technique puts faith in the literacy of their readers while appreciating the continuance of oral communication. Like the cracker-barrel philosopher himself, his language is a caricature of 97 Jesse Bier, The Rise and Fall of American Humor (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968), 100. 71

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an American dialect in a written form. Readers can identify with the informal language and recognizable dialects and colloquialisms while at the same time contrasting their literacy with the characters' illiteracy. The spelling is comical even as it illustrates a phonetic connection that links the oral and written forms of communication in the society and supporting the people's ability to communicate in both of these forms. The phonetic spelling of words compels the reader to engage with the text in order to understand the new appearance of formerly recognizable words. Unrecognizable spelling makes readers sound out words as if they are taking part in the characters' dialectical writing. In turn, the characters' voices are resounded in the readers' minds or voices lending the words an audible freedom as they are being read. Consider the spelling by a character of James Russell Lowell who sounded out idolatries to be spelled "eye-dollar-try's."98 Upon first glance the word makes no sense until it is re-read and given an audible sounding by the reader. When the word is verbalized as a means of understanding, the text and the character literally gain a voice through the reader. In the case of a character like Artemus Ward, the spelling is a visual device giving readers access to Ward's accent as if he were present and speaking in person: "Buckle on yer armer and go to the Poles. See two it that your naber is there. See that the kripples air provided with carriages [ ... ]. This is a privilege we all persess, and it is I of the booties of this grate and free land."99 Without exerting any extra effort, the reader can have intimate access to the sound of Ward's voice by simply reading his lines. Humorists' play with spelling provides an easily accessible humor. By simply realizing the connection between a misspelled word 98 Bier, Rise and Fall, 99. 99 Browne, Complete Works, 177-178. 72

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on the page, like "naber," and the standardized word, "neighbor," the reader has access to a very obvious comic device. In effect, these humorous texts not only encourage the reader's interaction, but a means of interacting is built into the very structure of the language. The device of misspelling also opens a door to creative punning whereby the surface of the language seems to reflect phonetic spelling, but beneath this surface is political commentary. When, for instance, a Confederate cracker-barrel character by the name of Bill Arp refers to President Lincoln as Abe "Linkhom" the name can be read as a regional pronunciation and also as a comment on the President's linking horns with the Confederacy. Likewise, Petroleum V. Nasby constantly spells Democracy as "Democrisy" in order to suggest hypocrisy.100 Punning is a typical comic device for the humorist that offers the reader a simple means of accessing humor and meaning in the text. Furthermore, like general misspelling, punning is dependent on the reader for its effectiveness. The text relies on the reader to understand the different meanings being played with in the punned word and, in effect, the reader gains a certain mastery over the success or failure of the text. With the reader's realization of the punned word comes a successful shared experience of the language in the text between the reader and the author through the character. As a result, the cracker-barrel philosopher can unintentionally present the political commentary of the author. This new American, or rather, "Amerikan," language compromises standardized spelling in order to infuse words with political rhetoric exclaimed from the mouth of the imagined, common man and dependent on the understanding of the common reader. If each individual is a fundamental unit of democracy, then his declarations and knowledge are necessarily political. By this logic, the language of the common man serves here as the language of democracy. 100 Bier, Rise and Fall, IOO. 73

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The pun, as a part of a democratic rhetoric, is significant because the word being punned and its context willingly reveal hidden information about the word without overt ambiguity. For example, there is little doubt that when the democrat Petroleum V. Nasby claims to drink whisky "ez cherefully ez tho [his] stumic hed been copper-lined" he is making reference to his political position as a Copperhead.101 The pun can be used both lexically and orthographically in the text as in the name of Robert H. Newell's character, "Orpheus C. Kerr," or, "office seeker," reinforcing again the connections between the oral and written traditions of telling stories and relaying information.102 Indulgence in this comical play with language at one time gives the author a means of inserting information into the text and the reader a readily accessible means of accessing that information. Compared with the political rhetoric of politicians and orators during this time period whose elitist language oftentimes made information inaccessible to the average man, the pun is a welcome relief. Moreover, the pun, along with the literary humorists' use of common-folk-talk, structures the language of the common American as democratic rhetoric, and as such, the imagined citizen acquires political authority through his natural speech. All of this rhetorical construction creates a humorous fayade in the cracker barrel philosopher who then facilitates the author's ability to relay social and political commentary. The author hides behind a guise of a nom de plume to give authority to the cracker-barrel philosopher to speak directly to the readership. Additionally, the literary humorists depict their characters with simple dialectic and base humor as a means of masking their own voices and authenticating the voices of their characters. With the audiences' attention focused on the characters, the masked authors enjoy a greater freedom to express their personal statements than if 101 Locke, Struggles of Petroleum, l 0. 102 Bier, Rise and Fall, 100. 74

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they explicitly expressed themselves. In the midst of the Civil War, these statements were largely used to express the authors' political views of the nature and character of the nation. Consider for instance, Charles Henry Smith, a known Confederate supporter, who enlists the cracker-barrel character Bill Arp to criticize Abraham Lincoln and the Union. Arp's first text, a letter entitled, Bill Arp to Abe Linkhorn, illustrates a different method than Locke's of subversively communicating the sentiments of the author. From the Confederate army lines, Arp issues his sentiments to Lincoln in response to his demand for the Southern army to disperse: Mr. Linkhorn-sir, These are to inform you that we are all well, and hope these lines may find you in statu quo. We received your proclamation, and as you have put us on very short notice, a few of us boys have concluded to write you, and ax for a little more time. The fact is, we are most obleeged to have a few more days, for the way things are happening, it is utterly unpossible for us to disperse in twenty days. Old Virginia and Tennessee and North Carolina are continually aggravatin us into tumults and carousements, and a body can't disperse until you put a stop to such unruly conduct on their part. I tried my damdest yisterday to disperse and retire, but it was no go. And besides, your marshal here ain't doing a darned thing-he don't read the riot act, nor remonstrate, not nothing, and ought to be turned out. If you conclude to do so, I am authorized to recommend to you Col. Gibbons or Mr. McLung, who would attend to the business as well as most anybody. The fact is, the boys round here want watchin, or they' 11 take somethin. A few days ago I heard they surrounded two of our best citizens because they was named Fort and Sumter. Most of 'em are so hot that they fairly siz when you pour water on 'em, and that's the way they make up their military companies here now. When a man applies to j 'ine the volunteers, they sprinkle him, and ifhe sizzes they take him, and if he don't they don't.103 103 Charles Henry Smith, "Bill Arp to Abe Linkhom," in The Mirth of a Nation, eds. Walter Blair and Raven I. McDavid (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 138-139. 75

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The letter continues in this slyly comical tone where, under the guise of a Confederate soldier trying to obey Lincoln's orders and offering him his "humble advice," Smith is able to belittle strategically the President, his orders, and the Union. Like Nasby, Bill Arp exhibits some negative traits such as ignorance and cowardice; but unlike Nasby, these traits are not used to the ends of turning the reader against the character. Instead, Smith invites readers to laugh at Arp's misunderstandings, thereby undermining the strength or importance of those misunderstood people and places. Arp's wrongful address of Lincoln and his war efforts transforms them into a comical joke that encourages the reader to delight in this humor and, in turn, side with the opposition. Smith transports his political sentiments by way of the cracker-barrel philosopher. In creating the cracker-barrel philosopher as a means to deliver political commentary, these humorists simultaneously produce an anonymous means to voice their opinions. Regardless of readers' reactions to the authors' sentiments, the texts ofthe individual authors in the hands of readers are statements participating in the public sphere. Conveyance from the private to the public was not in the form of books or novels, as these items were still not widely available in the nineteenth century, rather, the majority ofthese texts were released into the public by way of newspapers. Comparatively, the newspaper is the most democratic of publications as it is generally available and accessible to anyone. There is no coincidence in the fact that many of the literary humorists had some history working in the printing trade for newspapers. Experience in this trade would reveal the mass publication of texts that only a newspaper could offer and this obviously appeals to writers whose texts are made to reach the public masses. With the release of the cracker-barrel philosopher into the public comes a freedom of voice for the character, now separated from the author, to speak to the community and become an active conversationalist from the viewpoint of a 76

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common man. He informs on the identity of what a common man in America might sound like, as well as informing on his opinions of what America should look like. With widespread popularity of cracker-barrel philosophers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, their texts became pertinent, albeit humorous, voices in the national conversation on the identity of America. The role of the newspaper as a direct source to the mass of local and public audiences cannot be underestimated. By the process of publication, the private becomes public and the statement of one individual becomes a part of the imagining of American identity. This process of relaying the author's statement into the public by way of the newspaper can be compared with the process of voting. The power and accessibility of the individual vote was being established at the same time that these humorous texts were being produced. The vote, like the humorous text, is an anonymous personal statement by the individual concerning the development of the United States. Whereas the humorists create anonymity under the guise of a cracker-barrel philosopher, the voter is clothed in secrecy under the nom de plume of "The Citizen." The voter details his text-the ballotwith local knowledge and beliefs about the identity of the United States. When the citizen casts his vote it becomes a public statement that then participates in the formation of a local and national identity. The ballot is the citizens' text transferring the personal and private to the public. As more texts or votes are submitted to the public sphere a more complete literary or national body arises. Revealing trends and a state of unity develop through the growing body of works or votes. The individual vote participates in a conversation about what the nation should or should not be and each carries with it the abilities to both support other similar votes and counterbalance the weight of an opposing vote. In comparison, each of the humorous texts speaks to the other texts concerning the character of America. An example ofthese texts speaking to one 77

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another is exemplified when Bill Arp in the South directly addresses his counterpart, Artemus Ward in the North, in a letter concerning the defeat of the South: Mr. Artemus Ward, Showman, Sur: The reesun I write to you in pertikler is bekaus you are about the only man I know in all "God's kountry," so called. For sum sevrul weeks I have been wantin to say sumthin. For sum sevrul years we Rebs, so called, but now late of said kountry deceased, hav been tryin mity hard to do sumthin. We didn't quite do it, and now it is very paneful, I ashoor you, to dry up all of a sudden and make out like we wasn't there. 104 Through Arp's voice, Charles H. Smith is able to declare publicly the sentiments of a southern Confederate sympathizer after the victory ofthe North. In light ofthe fact that Artemus is a supporter of the triumphant Union and generally a more amiable character, he could have silenced the voice of a character like Arp. However, Smith uses this opportunity of addressing Ward to reestablish Arp as an "Amerikan" and the fight of the "Rebs" as an "Amerikan" fight. Even though Smith and his Bill Arp end up on the losing side of the war, they still factor into the makeup of a national voice. They cannot "dry up all of a sudden" and his voice will not let the country "make out like we wasn't there." The persistence of a text like Smith's testified the continued existence of supporters for the Confederacy in the nation even when "said kountry deceased." Similarly, the voter on the losing side of an election is still an American and his declarations are still a part of the public conversation according to the aims of the democratic society. The development of the recognizable American literary character in the cracker-barrel philosopher runs parallel to the development of the recognizable American citizen in the voter. These two parallel developments intersect in the comic voice wherein the cracker-barrel philosopher is the imagined embodiment of 104 Smith, "Bill Arp Addresses Artemus Ward," in Mirth of a Nation, 113-114. 78

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the rights of the citizen. The cracker-barrel philosopher participates in the rights of citizenship in a democracy as he represents the secret ballot vote delivering the declarations of the individual to the public. Winston Churchill's defense of parliamentary democracy has apt application here: "At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper-no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point."105 Within the pages of his text and the arena of his performance, the cracker-barrel philosopher is that little man and his comic voice guides us to experience the "overwhelming importance of that point." In his audience, he allows us to experience an average American citizen participating in the development of the nation. Cultural Significance On the literary stage with other nineteenth-century American authors such as Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson who in their steady search for an American utterance tend to appeal primarily to an eruditely audience, the humorists' texts seem vulgar and crude in comparison. Many of their characters are ignorant, maybe even detestable. The vernacular spelling, unrefined language, and simple humor are not commonly admired reading material. Regardless, the humorists produced texts which were quite popular amongst a wide range of American social, economic, and political groups. The comic voice creates a situation where the texts can supply some rather obvious commentary about the authors' specific political preferences at the same time that they express the virtues of democracy and the experience of the inclusion of the common man. While not undermining the importance of other American authors, it is significant to recognize that these literary humorists not only discussed the democratic development of the nation in their material, but they 105 Winston Churchill, "Speech to The House of Commons," in The Dawn of Liberation: War Speeches, compiled by Charles Eade (London: Cassell, 1945), 233. 79

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performed democracy through their writing. The many different avenues of accessibility that these texts offer seek to include as wide of an audience as possible to imagine listening to the words of common men. Through the cracker-barrel philosopher, the reader can temporarily experience the sound and appearance, or otherwise guise, of an American citizen. Even though he is a politicized character, he is also an ironic character. In this way, the cracker-barrel philosopher contributes to a non-threatening atmosphere for the reader to interact with the text and loosely consider this guise of the citizen. Democratically speaking, the figure of the citizen must necessarily be a common man whose commonness in no way prevents him from contributing to the political or social fabric of the nation. Rather, his commonness is the indispensable catalyst for his contribution to these ends. While the characters have a very limited range of ethnicity and gender, they do allow the reader the experience of participating in the citizenry regardless of wealth or education. The cracker-barrel philosophers' characterization as common men imagines the importance ofthe average man as a fundamental unit of the democratic society. Accordingly, these lowbrow characters and their humor are constructed not only as common men, but as common men with the rights of citizenship. Neither is it necessary for the reader to be highly educated or otherwise privileged in order to access the characters and texts of the literary humorists because they are constructed for the common reader. The humorous performance necessitates the participation of the observer and the characters are incomplete without the reaction ofthe reader. For instance, the aims of David Ross Locke would not be fulfilled if there was not at least a general reaction against the sentiments of Petroleum V. Nasby. Or, in the case of Charles Henry Smith, his character Bill Arp would be incomplete without the reader's laughter at such references as "Mr. Linkhom" or "Harper's Ferry (who keeps that darned old ferry 80

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now? its giving us a heap oftrouble)."106 The texts promote their commonness as a means to include readers in their conversations. In one sense, the stories of the cracker-barrel philosopher are a reflection of the social and political situation in America during the Civil War era. He is well rooted in his specific historical, social, and political circumstances. These details are conveyed by what the texts say. However, in another sense, the texts express larger American experiences in their imaginings of the democratic inclusion of the common man. This is conveyed in how the texts express themselves. Both of these ends are facilitated through the hwnor of the texts. The comic mask allowed the cracker-barrel texts to go places and do things that other more serious texts were not allowed. Clearly the volatile atmosphere of a nation in the midst of a civil war was a dangerous place for severe declarations-people's lives were at stake and many people staked their lives on their beliefs. Given this, the cracker-barrel philosophers were still able to make widely publicized declarations about the development of the nation because they provide enough fiction with their truths that they can make serious statements in a non-serious manner. Finding an effective balance between the serious and non-serious is one of the complexities of this and all other modes of the hwnorous performance. In order for the hwnor to be powerful, it must express a serious (a term that in this moment can also be substituted with "true") claim about an experience of life. However, in order for the humor to be effective, it must find a non-serious means of communicating this experience. The balance between these two is a part of the "play" of hwnor that I have been regularly referring to. 107 Both the comic mask and the comic voice are useful tools in creating this play. Through their incorporation 106 Smith, "Arp to Linkhom," 137. 107 I have found the term "play" to be especially useful in trying to articulate the special qualities of humor because at one time it encompasses fun and enjoyment, along with action and performance. 81

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of these tools, the texts of the cracker-barrel philosophers aren't limited to their political ramblings, but rather, they contribute political dialogue concerning the development of American citizenship. Ironic masking creates the layer of distraction between author and the audience that is often necessary to relay social and political commentary. It also leads to the development of the comic voice which provides this commentary through its narrative. The use of these tools provides another possibility for linking the performances that both proceed and succeed the cracker-barrel philosophers who exemplify their usefulness in providing a multi-channel dialogue about the development of the American. 82

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CHAPTERS LENNY BRUCE The Healing Effects of a Sick Comic All right, kids, sit down now, this picture's gonna start. It's not like Psycho, with a lot of four-letter words, like "kill" and "maim" and "hurt"-but you're gonna see this film now and what you see will probably impress you for the rest of your lives, so we have to be very careful what we show you ... Oh, it's a dirty movie. A couple is coming in now. I don't know if it's gonna be as good as Psycho, where we have the stabbing in the shower and the blood down the drain ... Oh, the guy's picking up the pillow. Now, he'll probably smother her with it, and that' II be a good opening. Ah, the degenerate, he's putting it under her ass. Jesus, tsk, tsk, I hate to show this crap to you kids. All right, now he's lifting up his hand, and he'll probably strike her. No he's caressing her, and kissing her-ah, this is disgusting! All right, he's kissing her some more, and she's saying something. She'll probably scream at him, "Get out of here!" No, she's saying, "I love you, I'm coming." Kids, I'm sorry I showed you anything like this. God knows this will be on my conscience the rest of my life-there's a chance that you may do this when you grow up. Well, just try to forget what you've seen. Just remember, what this couple did belongs written on the wall of a men's room. And, in fact, if you ever want to do it, do it in the men's room. 108 Imagining the presentation of a "dirty" movie to a group of children, Lenny Bruce, much like his successor Richard Pryor, brings to light the importance of language. By looking closely at the ways that people regularly use certain words and what the effects are of that usage, he unveils the hypocrisies that are created by 108 Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1965), 151. 83

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people's use oflanguage. Here, with an eye toward the performative utterance, Bruce points out the injurious effects of violent words and phrases. "Kill" "maim" and "hurt" have the ability to set their actions into motion. These are terms whose actions are offensive in the literal sense that they are "hurtful, harmful [and] injurious."109 Bruce communicates the profanity of these words by showing how their actions are obscene. This is the sort of language that should be hidden from children until they are at an age where they can understand their implications. In comparison, the actual "four letter words," such as "shit" or "fuck," are socially unacceptable and meant to be hidden from children's ears, yet they are utterly harmless. They are words used in place of other words that are perfectly acceptable, such as "defecate" and "copulate." Why one set of words is okay and the other not is a question that Bruce regularly visits in his material, and an answer that he cannot establish. Regardless, he points to the fact that this language and the actions that it describes are wrongly categorized as obscene in a society where what is actually deleterious to its well being is acceptable. Lenny Bruce's humor tests the stability of commonly held beliefs and conventional usage of language and thereby reveals their hypocrisies. Within this particular "bit," Bruce's character adopts a parental perspective in order to point out the duplicitous value judgment inherent in the belief that sexuality is obscene, while violence is not. He tells us that he has to "be careful" with these young, impressionable minds because they will be affected by the images they see. Pandering to the fear that children might eventually imitate what they see, Bruce sets into motion the comic momentum that is fulfilled in the exposure of the hypocrisy in this fear. "I don't know if [the porn film] is gonna be as good as Psycho, where we have the stabbing in the shower and the blood down the drain" His sarcasm is palpable. By comparing the rather horrifying Psycho to a 109 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "offensive," http://www.oed.com/offensive (accessed March 1, 2010). 84

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pornographic "stag film," Bruce compels his audiences to see the double standards that he found endlessly maddening. He tests the value system that embraces violence while responding to sex and sexuality with offended disgust by allowing it to play out in front of an imaginary audience of children. Alas, Hitchcock's famous scene "where we have the stabbing in the shower and the blood down the drain" is perfectly acceptable for their young, impressionable eyes. Bruce's social criticism grows out of Psycho's popularity. Its audiences' broad acceptance of the film's brutal violence and bloodshed is the occasion for his satirical humor. If violence is so enjoyable, then Bruce demands that we make that clear: "Oh, the guy's picking up the pillow. Now, he'll probably smother her with it, and that'll be a good opening." Acting disgust that not only does the man in the movie not smother the woman, but he caresses and kisses her, Bruce shoves in our faces the implicit messages that are created through popular culture. He acts out society's passion toward violence, and violence toward passion. At every moment Bruce, or at least his character here, is looking at the film for some sign of cruelty or hatred ("She'll probably scream at him, 'Get out of here!') and is sorely disappointed that there is only love and pleasure ("No, she's saying 'I love you, I'm coming"'). His humor creates an incongruity that draws attention to a moral hypocrisy. In doing so, it also performs solutions to alleviate the tensions that are created within the hypocrisies. Bruce's fake commentary on the film looks laughably ridiculous, but it points to a real world belief that he reveals as being the truly ridiculous. He imagines for us a world where obscenity is defined by that which is actually harmful to us. The comparison of a "dirty movie" with a popular and critically acclaimed horror film provide the arena for this instance of Bruce's social criticism. 110 Within 110 In 1961, Psycho received four Academy Award nominations including "Best Director" for Alfred Hitchcock, and Janet Leigh won a Golden Globe Award for "Best Supporting Actress." 85

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this arena, he attacks the fundamental beliefs lying beneath the tagline "FOR ADULTS ONLY" which regularly accompanied advertisements for his show. According to Bruce, this billing suggests "that my point of view, or perhaps the semantics involved with my point of view, would be a deterrent to the development of a well-adjusted member ofthe community."111 As with most ofhis humor, he positions himself as a sort of moral compass illustrating how society has convinced itself that south is north and north is south-that what is acceptable and unacceptable have been mixed up. In order to make these sort of criticisms, Bruce "abstract[ s ], compose[ s ], and present[ s] to us" the logic that informs hypocritical beliefs and language.112 He then follows the logic to its absurd conclusions. In this example, children are encouraged to watch movies like Psycho or King of Kings, where Christ is cruelly murdered, at the same time that they are protectively shielded from a stag film where a couple of adults do little more than have sex.113 This "testing" of social conventions in order to expose their hypocritical and deceptive logic is indeed the intention of Bruce's humor, and what he was eventually punished for. The satirical mode ofhis performance interrogates social conventions, uncovers the hypocrisies that support them, and then imagines how these American experiences can be changed. He effectively undoes the "conventionality" of the social conventions in his performance. Consider the charge that his material was "obscene." By regularly testing the basic linguistic premises of what constitutes as obscenity, according to the social standards that support this accusation, he exposes the absurdity of these standards. Furthermore, he performs the hypocrisies that are 111 Bruce, How to Talk Dirty, 151. 112 Langer, Feeling and Form, 348. 113 Bruce, How to Talk Dirty, 151. 86

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upheld by the society and institutions that support these standards. "My humor is mostly indictment," a statement to which Bruce later added, "I am part of everything I indict."114 The mode of his humorous performance requires that he participates in the same hypocrisy and social misconduct that he accuses others of. In doing so, he is both the target and source of his criticism. Although his humor is politically charged in the sense that it regularly challenges social conventions and reigning institutions, it does not necessarily discuss politics or political issues. He acknowledges this in claiming "I don't get involved with politics as much as Mort Sahl does, because I know that to be a correct politician and a successful one, you must be what all politicians have always been: chameleonlike."115 In other words, his material does not respond to a political debate or support a particular politician, and it does not try to find a common link with audience members according to their political preferences.116 Bruce's material is not aimed at a particular group or issue. Instead, it attacks the philosophical foundations of hypocritical value systems and anyone associated with supporting these values-conservatives and liberals, Jews and Catholics, and men and women alike. It is the narrative of his humor and its challenges to ideologies and value systems which make it politically charged. Poetics The details of his narratives and his methods of exposing hypocrisies caused some of his critics and observers to call his humor "sick." The terms "sickniks" and 114 Lenny Bruce, quoted in "The Playboy Panel: Hip Comics and the New Humor," Playboy, March, 1961. 115 Bruce, How to Talk Dirty, 185. 116 British critic Kenneth Tynan puts this claim within a clearer context by suggesting that "Mort Saul, brilliant but essentially nonsubversive, had long been [liberals'] pet satirist; but the election of John F. Kennedy robbed Sahl of most ofhis animus, which had been directed toward Eisenhower from the lame left wing of the Democratic Party. It became clear that Bruce was tapping a vein of satire that went much deeper than the puppet warfare of the two-party system. Whichever group was in power, his criticisms remained valid." Foreword to How to Talk Dirty, xi. 87

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"sick comedy" were publicly introduced in a 1959 Times magazine article to describe a group of standup comedians that included Lenny Bruce, as well as Mort Sahl and Jonathon Winters. Out of this group, Bruce's name became synonymous with this terminology. Though at times he shunned the "sick" labeling, he also embraced it. He even titled his first album, "The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce." What becomes clear in looking at Bruce's humor is that although reporters and critics may have regularly referred to him as a "sick comic," he was performing what he saw as the sicknesses in America, in order to cure them. The recurrent "sickness" terminology points to the structure of his humor which operates in such a way as to actively and intentionally create offense. That is to say that his humor functions through a process of violating certain beliefs, mores, and ideologies as its means of invalidating them. Bruce's humor is "sick" because it wants us to be repulsed by the performance of these beliefs, mores, and ideologies. As a result, we can then embrace his re-imagining where they are no longer valid. Bruce more clearly reveals his methodologies in his response to the accusations that his material was sick and the accompanying questions that often sounded something like this: "What happened to the healthy comedian who just got there and showed everybody a good time and didn't preach, didn't have to resort to knocking religion, mocking physical handicaps and telling dirty toilet jokes?": Yes, what did happen to the wholesome trauma of the 1930s and 1940s-the honeymoon jokes, concerned not only with what they did but also with how many times they did it; the distorted wedding-night tales, supported visually by the trite vacationland postcards of an elephant with his trunk searching through the opening of a pup tent, and a woman's head straining out the other end, hysterically screaming, "George!"-whatever happened to all this wholesomeness?117 117 Bruce, How to Talk Dirty, 98. 88

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What Bruce does in this response is to locate his own humor in the preceding traditions while also--and this is the important part--distinguishing his humor from that which was earlier or contemporaneous with him. The notable difference that we can glean from his rebuttal is that the sort of tongue-in-cheek humor that is being compared with Bruce's is guilty of the same charges that were hurled at him. Another way of saying this is that other humorists made ready use of the same topics as Bruce, only they did so in less explicit ways and to different ends. The example of the postcard with the woman and the elephant, their implied contact covered up by the pup tent, shows how an audience that might be completely offended by an unambiguous joke about bestiality could laugh at the allusion to this subject. One of the things this type of humor does is reinforce the value systems that suggest that these topics are dirty and need to be at least partially hidden. As a result, this humor can be labeled "wholesome" or "healthy" by institutions or individuals that share in these beliefs. In comparison, Bruce removes the pup tent and explicitly shows us what we are laughing at. This had the effect of denying the influence of a tradition of pretending to be "wholesome." His departure from this tradition involved a challenge to both of the notions that this type ofhumor was in any way morally superior to his and that those who made this sort of moral judgment had the authority to do so. Furthermore, Bruce makes clear that his material is not necessarily different from much of what has already been around for several years. The difference lies in the polarity of his humor. Instead of showing us something to which we may want to assent and allowing us a way to dodge it and say "no," Bruce shows us what we can't accept without offering us the dodge. He thereby suggests the moral vacancy ofthe dodge. In his humor, the exposed versions of this material form the basis for Bruce's criticism of the morals and standards that suggest that it needs to be hidden. 89

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The rhythm ofhis performances moves along to a quick beat of imitation and exposure. Bruce impersonates and imitates his perceptions of the world around him. These become the sources for his disclosure of what is hidden and private for public scrutiny. Introducing Bruce in his Carnegie Hall Concert, Jazz pianist Don Friedman declares that "Lenny Bruce is not a sick comedian. What he does he comments, reflects, holds up the mirror to the sick elements of our society that should be reflected upon."118 To this I will add that Bruce's "mirror" that Friedman refers to here is not the kind that provides an exact reproduction of an image. Bruce's mirror is more like an artist's rendition of a person or scene that, in his artistic interpretation, brings to the spectators' attention details that they may not have perceived otherwise. His performance directs the audiences' scrutiny to be seen through his eyes. However, his humor, wherein exposure is a necessary action in order to heal social sicknesses, is not always successful. Those who are offended by the humor at the level of what is being expressed are not receptive to how it is performed. As this description of offended audience members at a show in London in 1960 illustrates, a rejection of the basic premises of a performance is the rejection of the entire structural poetics of the humor: Scarcely a night passed during his brief sojourn at The Establishment without vocal protest from offended customers, sometimes backed up by clenched fists; and this at a members only club, is rare in London. The actress Siobhan McKenna came with a party and noisily rose to leave in the middle of Bruce's act; it seems she was outraged by his attitude toward the Roman Church. On her way out Peter Cook sought to remonstrate with her, whereupon she seized his tie while one of her escorts belted him squarely on the nose. "These are 118 Don Friedman. "Introduction," The Carnegie Hall Concert by Lenny Bruce. CD. Blue Note Records, 1995. 90

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Irish hands," cried Miss McKenna dramatically, "and they're clean!"''9 This scene shows how there is no re-imagining for the audience member who rejects the initial perception on which it is based. What we can think of here as a subsequent or secondary aspect of the humor is lost ifthe narrative telling is a contentious point to its observers. Instead of creating offense within the arena of the performance, someone like this insulted actress is offended by the performance itself. This is why Lenny Bruce was arrested for his humor. As a stand up comic working the stage in the mid-1900s, Bruce acutely understood these poetics. He understood that his humorous performance explicitly narrates American hypocrisies. Bruce also knew that what he was performing for his audiences were new realities or new experiences as alternatives of these hypocrisies. And finally, he perceived that the public aspect of those narratives-the open scrutiny ofbeliefs, practices, behaviors, and actions that were otherwise accepted, overlooked or ignored-would be deeply offensive to the individuals and institutions that supported them. Individual Offense There is perhaps no better situation for contemplating the poetics of the humorous performance than when one or more audience members do not consent to a particular performance. People tend to react by walking out, insulting, or otherwise visibly rejecting the humor and its performance. This is a curious phenomenon because the performance is not aimed in any sort of personal way at its audience. Yet, why do they react as though it is? Why is it distinctly offensive to us when we do not see eye to eye with the performance? The answer is that our reactions are consequences of the structure of the humorous performance which situates its observers within the perceptions of its narrative. Humor is not confined 119 Kenneth Tynan, foreword to How to Talk Dirty, xii. 91

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to books or stages; its execution reaches out to include its observers. Generally, audience members sit quietly in consent of the reality that is formed in the humor. Once again, the definition of specific terminology provides insight into its usage here. The term "consent" means "to agree together, or with another, in opinion or statement; to be ofthe same mind."120 The audience members do not merely agree or disagree to the truths within a humorous performance, but are "of the same mind" as the comic voice in the midst of the performance. The audience of a humorous performance, and by "audience" I mean any number of persons in the position of observers of the performance, are situated to experience the humorist's narrative. The play that is at work in the humor lures in the observer as a willing participant to view the narrative through its particular lens. Each audience member occupies this same passive position in the narrative characterizing their shared psychological experience. A bit of input from Sigmund Freud and his fellow psychologists will help focus these claims by placing them within the context of group psychology.121 Gustave LeBon, a French psychologist and regular presence in Freud's text, analogizes the "psychological group" to "a provisional being formed of heterogeneous elements, which for a moment are combined, exactly as the cells which constitute a living body form by their reunion a new being which displays characteristics very different from those possessed by each of the cells singly."122 What LeBon's analogy offers here is a way of envisioning how, in the shared position of the audience member, each individual is temporarily engaged in the same functionality. The audience consents to the narrative in the performance and thereby promotes its success in much the same 120 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "consent," http://www.oed.com/consent (accessed March 12, 2010). 121 Freud, Group Psychology, (see chpt. 2, n. 10). 122 Gustave LeBon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903), 30. 92

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way that the collection of cells works toward the success of their shared body. Given that it is the "new being" of this hypothetical "body" that links together otherwise characteristically different cells in a shared "constitution," then it is likewise that the truths propounded by the protagonist character( s) within the narrative that create a shared, yet individual experience for the audience members. Within the confines of this relationship, the comedian becomes a source for reshaping the morals and ideals of the consenting audience members and realigning their objectives with that of his or hers. Returning to Freud's concepts, the humorous performance creates a psychological phenomenon by which the comedian temporarily reforms the superego and ego of the audience member. As I discussed in the introductory chapter, Freud uses the relationship between the patient and hypnotist as a device for explaining how the leader produces these effects in the group members. In both this relationship and that ofthe comedian and audience, one individual becomes a source of power for the group--which is limited to two people within these instances-and, in effect, controls the attention and objectives of the other. He suggests that what results is that the subject, the patient/audience member, positions the other, the hypnotist/comedian, in the place of the superego or ego ideal. 123 In the case of Lenny Bruce, his modeling of the superego through his humor is in defiance of many of the social standards and laws that are, in all probability, influential in shaping the superego of his audience members. His humor intentionally hacks into these standards and then tests them in order to invalidate them. Bruce's new or alternate standards and morals have the upper hand within the performance and shape the audiences' experience of it. What results is the replacement of the socialized superego and the realignment of it and the aims of the ego, if only temporarily, in line with his humor. 123 Freud, Group Psychology, 58-61. 93

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While Freud delves into the specifics of idealization, compliance, and submission in order to detail the development of this kind of relationship, what I will employ here is the notion that the leader of a group connects those individuals in the way that they incorporate the values, standards, ideas, etc. of the leader as their own. Within the structure of the humorous performance, it is the comic or protagonist character-the source of the narrative-which occupies this leadership position and the audience occupies that ofthe group. The imaginings within the humor express the values, standards, and ideas that give shape to the new super ego for us as its consenting audience. As we watch Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, or read some Mark Twain or Artemus Ward, they are laying down narrative paths for us to follow. The segment that opens this chapter shows Bruce realigning the audiences' notions of obscenity from a common standard to his own. His particular humor accomplishes this by allowing us to imagine sexual "obsceneness" as it plays out in direct comparison to violent "obsceneness." Showing children a pornographic film breaks a rather standard moral law. By imagining this scenario, Bruce allows us the possibility that his performance could reinforce that moral law. Instead, he asks us to abandon it through his imagining where the logic that informs the law is exposed as flawed. At the same time, our morals are realigned with Bruce's as he reveals the real harm in an example that escapes social condemnation. Bruce's position as the leader/comedian allows him to create the moral codes within the arena of his performance. Bruce and his comic voice supplant other versions of the superego for the audience member who is "of the same mind" as him and follows him down the path of the narrative. The audience is directed to see the narrative through the perspective of the protagonist characters. Whether these are personalities adopted by comics or characters created on pages or screens, they shape the perspectives of the performance. Their objective is to then express the truths or realities that are 94

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performed within the humor. Humor scholar Leo Rosten writes in his explication of the didactic capabilities of Jewish humor that "[a] joke is a structured, compact narrative that makes a point with power, generally by surprise."124 What Rosten offers in his analysis here is not limited to a Jewish type of humor, or any other particular type of humor for that matter. That is, Rosten is making specific reference to the anecdotes and storytelling that are traditional approaches for Jewish humorists, but all humor seems to do these things to a greater or lesser degree. Some humor is just more "compact" than others. Consider for instance the narrative contained within this one line joke: "Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God."125 The humor directs our perception of the material within it. The joke begins luring us in by making an interior complaint that directs us to align ourselves with the church ("everyday people are straying away from the church"). It then asks us to abandon our empathetic perspective with the church and realign ourselves with an exterior complaint about the church ("and going back to God"). This shift in the alignment of our experience within the humor is where Rosten's "point" ofthe narrative is revealed. We are compelled to see a particular claim here, namely, that religious institutions are bereft of the connection with God which they purport to possess. By consenting to the humorous performance, we imagine and even experience temporarily the assessment that is being made by the comedian. The narrative directs our perception and the humor allows it to "make a point with power, generally by surprise." From this, we can see how humor, even in its most compact form, directs our experience in its telling. Rosten's succinct explanation of a joke as a narrative with a "point" or objective is a microcosmic sampling of the larger humorous performance. Our 124 Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish (New York: McGraw Hill, 1968), xxiii. 125 Lenny Bruce, The Essential Lenny Bruce, compiled and edited by John Michael Cohen (New York: Ballantine Books, 1967), 57. 95

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position as audience members in relation to comedians, allows them to conduct the narrative and our experiences within the humor. Any alternative realities that the comedian imagines become true temporarily for us. This is why when we do not consent to its realities, our participation in the narrative is uncomfortable and we want to destroy the performance, or at the very least, discontinue our part in it. Herein are Bruce's audience members who "would shake their heads in dismay, pay their checks, and depart muttering."126 They had to disassociate themselves from the shared mind of the comic voice. Offending "The System" Though an audience member's consent to a humorous performance and the resulting realignment of the superego and ego are essentially individual experiences, there are also broader social effects that occur in similar ways. Just as audience members are directed to adopt the comedian as their superego, the society whose morals and standards have been supplanted by those of the comedian, may also be challenged to make this move. That is to say, when humor performs a new reality, it often does this in conjunction with a spoken or unspoken critique of the realities that exist outside of the performance. The new truths or realities can thereby destabilize the seeming permanence of an established order and the authority of existing political and social ideologies. This may occur both inside and outside of the arena of the performance, as it does in this example where Bruce compares liberals with bigots: "The liberals are so liberal that they can't understand the bigots: 'I'm so understanding. I can't understand anyone not understanding me, as understanding as I am.'"127 Bruce challenges liberal's political ideology by exposing their view of complete tolerance as an excuse for intolerance. Liberals, who would most likely see themselves on the opposite end of an ideological 126 Gerald Kloss, "Lenny Bruce, 'Sickest of the Comedians,' Got Heartbreak Start Here 10 Years Afo," The Milwaukee Journal. Oct. 28, 1960. p. 32. 12 Bruce, Essential Lenny Bruce, 79. 96

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spectrum, are ideologically synonymous with bigots in this imagining. This criticism creates offense in those who identify themselves as liberals, as well as the larger political group, in order to prove its validity. More specifically, the humor is structured so that disagreeing with its perspective is equal to being intolerant of it. The offense emerges from within the structure of the humor and an offended response is located in the audience member within the performance. Without supportive audiences, this humor, like all other kinds, fades away without much ado. However, with a little support, the humorous performance can be offensive to larger social and political institutions in much the same way that it can offend the individual. In this example, audiences' support for this joke implies their consent to Bruce's imagining of the bigoted liberal. His critique expands beyond the arena of the performance when his invalidation of liberal ideology influences the audience member's real world view. The imagined experience within the hwnorous performance allows audience members the possibility of recognizing this same experience in reality. When this happens, the superego modeled by the comedian has displaced, or at least disturbed, the societal ideologies. The audience member becomes something of an extension of the comedian and larger social, political, cultural, or religious institutions are positioned as the non-consenting audience member. And, the reactions are predictably similar. This is the force of the hwnorous performance to express alternative experiences of life. A performance allows the audience member the opportunity to then see or seek out these same experiences in the real world. Bruce's humor presents a particularly visible example of this work because it regularly challenges the legitimacy of social standards and morals by pitting them against his own modeling of ego ideals. There is certainly other earlier and contemporaneous humor that does important and, in some instances, similar work as Bruce's. The seventy five years that span between the production and dissemination of the cracker-barrel 97

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philosophers discussed in the previous chapter and the time of Bruce's performances are essential in the development of humor in America. It is impossible and quite unnecessary to deny that burlesque, vaudeville, and early television and radio shows greatly contributed to the continually developing body of features and modes that perform American experiences through their humor. However, all of these have been purposely left out of this work. My choice in bypassing these other possibilities and focusing on Bruce are twofold. Firstly, Bruce demonstrates the power of humor in directly and explicitly challenging existing ideologies. Secondly, Bruce's humor illustrates the structure of the humorous performance in accomplishing these ends. In the same way that his humor tests the validity of particular beliefs, standards, and morals by pitting them against his ego ideals, it also tests their validity by pitting them against American ideals. The fight over his "obsceneness" and his many arrests and trials were, in essence, the fight over the First Amendment right to the freedom of speech as it is dictated in The Constitution versus those morals and standards that were not aligned with this right. Bruce's humor sets in opposition an ego ideal of America with those of some Americans and their institutions. By using language and subject matter that some audiences might find offensive, Bruce creates specific tests of his right to this speech. His real life challenge to the American legal system was in allowing it to perform its own hypocrisy and thereby invalidate itself by denying him his freedom of speech. The contours of his humorous performance and his life equally give shape to one another. It is in this illustration of the interwoven relationship between the performance and real life that Bruce's humor becomes useful to our discussion in a way that other humor may not, or maybe not as clearly. The rather extreme effort to stifle Bruce and put an end to his humor magnifies the poetics of the humorous performance at work. Although his legal 98

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opponents would claim otherwise, it is not the individual words that he says on stage that caused so much controversy. Instead, it is the language of his performance and the agreement of his audiences that caused such a radical reaction. A look at the particular section from a performance for which he was arrested, and then a part ofthe transcript of the subsequent trial, will help point to the significance of the non-discursive form of the performance rather than his spoken words in the formation of the conflict. The following is one part of his 1961 performance in San Francisco's The Jazz Workshop: (Lenny imagines a telephone exchange with his agent who is trying to convince him to perform at a nightclub) LENNY: What kindava show is it, man? AGENT: Well, ya know. LENNY: Well, no, I don't know, man ... AGENT: Well, it's not a show. They're a bunch of cocksuckers, that's all. A damned fag show. LENNY: Oh. Well, that is a pretty bizarre show. I don't know what I can do in that kind of show. AGENT: Well, no. It's ... we want you to change all that. LENNY: Weil-l don't-that's a big gig. I can just tell them d . 128 to stop omg It. Bruce's use of the word "cocksucker" here led to his first arrest and trial for obscenity. This next segment took place in the trial of The People of the State of California v. Lenny Bruce in March of 1962: DEFENSE ATTORNEY, ALBERT BENICH: Officer Ryan, you're quite familiar with the term "cocksucker" are you not? ARRESTING OFFICER, JAMES RYAN: I have heard it used, yes. Q: As a matter of fact, Officer Ryan, it was used in the police station on the night that Lenny Bruce was booked there, was it not? A: No, not to my knowledge. Q: As a matter of fact, it is frequently used in the police station, is it not? 128 Lenny Bruce, "9. Ann's 440 I A Pretty Bizarre Show," recording in The Trials of Lenny Bruce included CD. (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2002). 99

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DEPUTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY, ALBERT WOLLENBERG JR.: That's irrelevant and immaterial, if your Honor please. What's used in a police station or in private conversation between two people is completely different from what's used on a stage in the theater. JUDGE CLAYTON HORN: Well, a police station, of course, is a public place. WOLLENBERG: That's correct, your Honor. JUDGE HORN: As to the police station, the objection is overruled. BENDICH: You may answer, Officer. A: Yes, I have heard it used. Q: Yes, you have heard the term used in a public place known as the police station. Now, Officer Ryan, there is nothing obscene in and of itself about the word "cock," is there? WOLLENBERG: I'm going to object to this as being irrelevant and immaterial, what this man feels. JUDGE HORN: Sustained. BENDICH: Just two last questions, Officer Ryan. You laughed at Lenny Bruce's performance the night that you watched, did you not? A: No, I didn't. Q: You didn't have occasion to laugh? A: No I didn't. Q: Did you observe whether the audience was laughing? A: Yes, I did. Q: And they were laughing, were they not? A: At times, yes. Q: And no one in the audience made any complaint to you, though you were in uniform standing in the club? A: No one, no. BENDICH: No further questions.129 (Another arresting officer, Sergeant James Solden, was later questioned about a conversation wherein he asked Bruce why he felt it necessary "to use the word 'cocksucker' to entertain people in a public night spot?" Bruce's response was 129 People v. Bruce, Trial Transcripts (San Francisco City Municipal Court: Dept. No. 11: County of San Francisco) (March 5-8, 1962). 100

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"Well, there are a lot of cocksuckers around, aren't there? What's wrong with talking about them?"130 ) What we can garner from these excerpts from both the offending performance and the following courtroom exchange is that there is nothing inherently offensive about the terminology for which Bruce was arrested. A term like "cocksucker" could be openly used in a public place, a police station no less, without repercussion. The personal sensibilities of the testifying police officer are not even considered relevant in determining the offensiveness of Bruce's humor ("I'm going to object to this as being irrelevant and immaterial, what this man feels"). This is a rather ironic moment because the trial is the struggle over "what this man feels." That is, the prosecution in this and Bruce's subsequent trials relied upon a formula for determining obscenity, since obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment, that was devised by Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. in a landmark trial: "Whether to the average person, applying community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest."131 This vague and subjective test of obscenity has as its dominant theme the feelings of the average individual. On the night that Bruce was arrested, there were no openly offended audience members who approached the deputy to set his arrest into motion. Their laughter suggests the converse that they were of the same mind as the narrative within his performance. So where is the obscenity that was so dangerous or offensive that it required the arrest of Bruce? The danger is that Bruce was condemning the standards that were being used to judge him and his material. There was an obvious danger for Bruce because he could be convicted. But, there was also an obvious danger on the side which upheld these standards: acquitting the accused was equal to admitting the wrongness or at least the weakness of the standards that were used to indict him. In 130 Ibid. 131 Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957). 101

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this very real sense, Bruce was a part of everything he indicted. His performance and ensuing arrest and trial illustrate how his First Amendment rights were limited and not by the feelings of the "average person," since their were only two people who testified on behalf of the prosecution, both police officers, and one person, Bruce, testified on behalf of his defense. Furthermore, the material was not "taken as a whole" as this discussion of the term "cocksucker" illustrates. Rather, individuals who make up part of the legal system at this particular time and place had positioned their moral standards in place of other American rights. Granting that these moral standards were not in line with those of the Constitution-even as it is limited by Justice Brennan-Bruce's arrests, trials and eventual conviction show the American legal system at odds with itself. The incongruous elements that are pitted against each other, both within Bruce's humor and then between his humor and the real life struggle over the First Amendment, are so contradictory that they cannot exist simultaneously. Either Bruce's humor or the value system that condemned it had to go. In New York City in April of 1964, Bruce was convicted of obscenity. His untimely death in August of 1966 cut short his fight to overturn his conviction and prevented him from basking in his victory when in December of 2003, Governor George E. Pataki overturned Bruce's conviction as "a declaration of New York's commitment to upholding the First Amendment."132 In this light, it is impossible to distinguish where the humor ends and real life begins. Success The impact of Lenny Bruce's humor is visible by looking at the negative uproar and legal backlashes that it caused within its historical time period. The importance of this humor though, is visible by looking at the future that it makes possible. After Bruce, no other performer has been criminally charged with 132 George A. Pataki, qtd. in The New York Times, by Kirk Semple, December 23,2003. 102

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obscenity. A comedian such as George Carlin and his show the "7 Dirty Words" might have been censored and even faced civil penalties; however, his legal freedom was never at stake. One of Bruce's former defendants sums up this situation by suggesting that "performers can work, most of the time, without fearing that an undercover cop, sitting in the dark, will be taking notes on their acts," and furthermore, "they don't have to fear that the hidden cop will then stumblingly read from those blurred notes in court as evidence that an obscene performance has been given."133 These clear references to the antics used to persecute and prosecute Bruce seem to suggest that it was necessary for someone to bear this legal struggle in order that others did not have to. Bruce's humor tested the limits ofthe First Amendment right to the freedom of speech and then forced the American legal system to either enforce its limitations or its freedoms. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the imaginings of the humorous performance affecting real life then in the case of Lenny Bruce. What is illustrated here is how the structure of the humorous performance allows what is expressed within it to become operable. The narrative of the performance allows its experiences to become temporarily those of the audience. When the humor is at its most powerful, the experiences become the truths of its observers when they envision or seek out these same experiences in the real world. Conversely, an unreceptive audience usually wants to escape the confines of this structure by leaving or destroying the unfolding narrative. As the example of Lenny Bruce demonstrates, both of these reactions to the humorous performance can speak to its power to effect, change, and disturb the experiences in real life. 133 Nat Hentoff, "The Onliest Lenny Bruce," Village Voice, February 15, 1991, 22. 103

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CHAPTER6 CONCLUSION: PASSING THE TORCH An Evolution of Humor in America and Its Bittersweet Demise Racism is a bitch. White people, you gotta know. It fucks you up, but what it does to black people is a bitch because no matter what it is-it's hard enough being a human being. It's really fuckin' hard enough just to be that, right?! Just to go through everyday life without murdering a motherfucka'. It's hard enough just to walk through life decent as a person, but herein another element added to it when you're black.[ ... ] It's enough to make ya crazy! 'Cause if you in an argument with another man. He may be white, but it's man on man for a minute, and the shit gets rough and he end up callin' you "nigger" and you gotta go "oh, shit." "Fuck. Now I ain't no man no mo'. I'm a nigger. I got to argue with that shit."134 Racism is indeed "a bitch." There are no distancing techniques in Pryor's rendering of the damaging effects of hatred. What begins as a structure formed through the differences between black and white people's experiences ("White people, you gotta know. It fucks you up, but what it does to black people is a bitch") is destructed by the suggestion that these experiences are actually not separate from one another. Pryor connects them by removing the aspect of race from his language, and linking all people through his focus on the human experience ("it's hard enough being a human being"). He grants that humans may occasionally loathe and despise one another-"It's hard enough to walk through life without murdering a motherfucka"-but this fact, in and of itself, in no way 134 Pryor, Sunset Strip, "Racism." 104

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undermines Pryor's vision. Instead, this sort of statement provides us with a familiar experience of reality. Most people can agree that "it's hard enough just to walk through life decent as a person." Pryor's narration allows his audience members, regardless of their races, to experience what may be an unfamiliar experience of being on the receiving end of racist attacks. The imaging of two men in an argument illustrates how racism transforms a rather human encounter, into an inhumane experience. The beginning of this scenario dismisses race as a factor, that even though one person may be white and one black, they are just two humans arguing with one another: "it's man on man for a minute." This equality is destroyed, however, when the derogatory word "nigger" becomes part of their imagined exchange ("Now I ain't no man no mo'. I'm a nigger."). What Pryor observes both here and in the earlier segment discussed in Chapter 2 is that this word is a constative utterance. It calls into being a racial division and the inferiority of black people. Pryor treats this word and its effects as the converse of his vision of shared humanity ("I ain't a man no mo '), and as such, it not only damages black people, it hurts humans. What then comes to light is an incongruity where the existence of racism and its accompanying racist language are incompatible with the audience members' sharing in this experience. Another way of looking at this is if we consent to Pryor's performance and imagine what he imagines, then we have shared in the humanity which racism denies. Pryor's comic voice creates a world where racial hate is the denial of our shared humanity. Racism in this world is not limited to a portion of the population, it harms everyone. In this movement from two racially divided experiences of life, to the incongruity of this division alongside a shared, human experience of life, Pryor realigns the audience members' superegos with the one which he models for them. Like Bruce, he sets up a scenario to test the legitimacy of specific beliefs. His performance through the comic voice-a 105

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narrative of our shared humanity-exposes racism's anti-humanity. By regularly reminding us that we are all human, and that racism therefore harms all of us, he invalidates racism as a justifiable ideology for any human. Within the arena of his performance, he becomes the purveyor of ego ideals by demonstrating how they benefit us. He wants to make it possible for us to incorporate these ideals within our real lives. Political History and the "Comic Mask" Can humor neutralize hatred? The answer to this question is certainly not entirely comprehensive or conclusive. It's likely that we've all been privy to humor that is offensive, racist, and hateful. Conversely, this investigation has illustrated how humor can operate as a means of undoing these negativities. In his acceptance of the first award of the Mark Twain prize for American Humor, Pryor affirms this potential: "Seriously though, two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humor. I'm proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people's hatred."135 What has become apparent through this investigation, and the implications of Pryor's words here, is that humor provides a set of tools whose functions are shaped through performance. Some performances reference each other's use of these tools and carry them on through time and, as a result, seem to suggest that their humor not only imagines the American, but is an American humor. That is to say, my illustration of one possible history of humor in America is characterized by the assumption that there is a growing preference for humor that systematically works towards American ideals of equality-and against hatred. How appropriate that Pryor found a common ground with Twain in their shared work towards these ends. The humor of both of these humorists is a means 135 Richard Pryor. Written statement in "Richard Pryor Honored With First Mark Twain Prize For American Humor," Jet, November 9, I 998. 106

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of re-visioning inequality and discrimination within the American experience. An early pioneer of this humor, Twain's approach is rather subtle. He employs characters such as Huck Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson to escort us to the conclusion that slavery is harmful and illogical, but only to the extent that we are able to go there with him. By embedding his vision in irony, Twain allows his audiences to overlook his humor. This method is exemplified in an introductory moment from Pudd'nhead Wilson when upon arriving in a new small town in Missouri, the main character, Dave Wilson, is ironically nicknamed by the townspeople. Wilson is intelligent and educated, but his reputation is immediately tarnished by the townspeople's inability to understand his ironic humor: [Dave Wilson] had just made the acquaintance of a group of citizens when an invisible dog began to yelp and snarl and howl and make himself very comprehensively disagreeable, whereupon young Wilson said, much as one who is thinking aloud: "I wish I owned half of that dog." "Why?" somebody asked. "Because I would kill my half." The group searched his face with curiosity, with anxiety even, but found no light there, no expression that they could read. They fell away from him as from something uncanny, and went into privacy to discuss him. One said: "Pears to be a fool." "Pears?" said another. "Is, I reckon you better say." "Said he wished he owned half of the dog, the idiot," said a third. "What did he reckon would become ofthe other half if he killed his half? Do you reckon he thought it would live?" "Why, he must have thought it unless he IS the downrightest fool in the world; because if he hadn't thought it, he would have wanted to own the whole dog, knowing that if he killed his half and the other half died, he would be responsible that half just the same as if he had killed that half instead of his own. Don't it look that way to you gents?" "Yes, it does. If he owned one half of the general, it would be so; if he owned one end of the dog and another person owned the other end, it would be so, just the same; particularly in the 107

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first case, because if you kill one half of a general dog, there ain't any man that can tell whose half it was; but ifhe owned one end of the dog, maybe he could kill his end of it and-" "No, he couldn't either; he couldn't and not be responsible if the other end died, which it would. In my opinion that man ain't in his right mind." "In my opinion he hain't got any mind." No.3 said: "Well, he's a lummox, anyway." "That's what he is;" said No. 4. "He's a labrick-just a Simon-pure labrick, if there was one." "Yes, sir, he's a dam fool. That's the way I put him up," said No.5. "Anybody can think different that want to, but those are my sentiments." "I'm with you, gentlemen," said No. 6. "perfect jackass-yes, and it ain't going too far to say he is a pudd'nhead. If he ain't a pudd'nhead, I ain't no judge, that's all."136 The line ofbackwards logic and complete misunderstanding of Wilson's comment ends with this group of nameless commentators dubbing him "Pudd'nhead Wilson." The townspeople's discussion of Wilson's statement concerning the killing of one half of the offending dog is a concentrated and serious deliberation over an intentionally ridiculous statement. They do not attempt to understand the intentions of his comment, and instead, expend their limited mental energies trying to work out the logistics of its seriousness. Each of their observations continually reinforces the faulty premise and lends itself to supporting their shared groupthink ("I'm with you gentlemen"). By accepting the situation that Wilson purposes in his comment as un-ironic, they cannot appreciate a smarter, wittier outcome. As a result, they cannot see their own ignorance and their judgment is flawed; they ain't no judges, that's all. Concluding the conversation in this ironic manner ("lfhe ain't a pudd'nhead, I ain't no judge"), Twain reveals the components of his humorous 136 Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1923), 5-7. 108

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performance. He is insinuating here that his humor will be delivered without a wink or a nod; we cannot look for an obvious expression to read on the face of his material. Just as Wilson delivered his irony-laced criticism of the "comprehensively disagreeable" dog, Twain delivers a similar type of criticism of a "comprehensively disagreeable" situation in his observation of the continued support for slavery and discrimination in the post-Civil War America. Furthermore, both Wilson and Twain want the same end result-they just do not, or will not, say this straightforwardly. Any "curiosity" and "anxiety" that readers may feel as a result of a humorless reading of his text are answered with the same response as Wilson's: they will find no light here, no expression that they can read. This introductory segment is thematic ofthe rest of Twain's novel in its demonstration of the serious treatment of a ridiculous concept, and the ignorance and flawed judgment that make it so. As the story unfolds, the switching of two babies becomes the vehicle for Twain's criticism of the (il)logic that supports slavery and racism. One of these babies is the son of white wealthy parents and the other, the son of their slave. Both appear white, however, Valet de Chambre, i.e. "Chambers," is considered black by way of his mother, Roxy, who is enslaved both mentally and physically by a minute amount of black ancestory: Only one-sixteenth of her was black and that sixteenth did not show ... To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one-sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a Negro. She was a slave and salable as such. Her child was thirty one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom, a Negro. 137 137 Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson, 12. 109

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The "fiction of law and custom" to which this refers, otherwise known as the "one drop rule," is illogical and unfair.138 Yet, it is treated seriously by both the people in this fictional story and the real people in the Jim Crow south. The townspeople's humorless reaction to Wilson's comment in the introductory segment is not exactly the same as their serious treatment of this rule, and surely not as harmful. Nonetheless, the same sort of flawed logic and ignorance informs both reactions. Fearing that her son may be "sold down the river," Roxy switches the clothing of the babies and, in doing so, switches their racial identities.139 This begins the narrative's dismantling of the logic that supports slavery and racism. Tom becomes the enslaved "black" Chambers, and Chambers becomes the free "white" Tom, and no one can tell the difference. Chambers' (Tom's) father unknowingly treats his own son as a slave and Roxy becomes "a dupe ofher own deceptions" by allowing her child to become her master.140 Each child develops in accordance with his upbringing. Tom (Chambers) is a spoiled, undisciplined brat and Chambers (Tom) is a meek and docile slave. Later, it is discovered that Tom (Chambers) has grown into such a deplorable person that, not only does he gamble, lie, and steal, but he has murdered his assumed uncle. In the preceding trial to determine the identity of the murderer, it is Wilson who solves the case and uncovers Tom as both the murderer and the real Chambers. Wilson's cleverness and his fascination with fingerprints-an identifying feature that, unlike race, cannot be changed and manipulated-leads to 138 This rule was based on the notion that an individual was considered black if any part of his or her ancestry was African or African American. For more on this history and further discussion, see F. James Davis, "Who is Black? One Nation's Definition." http://www.pbs.orglwgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/onedrop.html 139 Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson, 18. "Sold down the river" was a euphemistic phrase that referred to the harsher and more violent treatment of slaves that was prevalent in more southern states. 140 Ibid., 29. 110

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his identification of the murderer andre-identification of Tom and Chambers. The real Tom is freed, the real Chambers is convicted, and the title of"Pudd'nhead" is removed from Wilson and accepted by its rightful owners: "And this is the man the likes of us have called a pudd'nhead for more than twenty years. He has resigned from that position friends." "Yes, but it isn't vacant-we're elected."141 With this, Twain hints that perhaps within this story there is a fair or, at the very least, acceptable outcome to all of this harm inflicted through the system of slavery. However, this is more faulty logic. The damage and hurt is so deep it cannot be undone, repaired, or made acceptable. Roxy is overwhelmed by the guilt that she, the enslaved, became the enslaver of Tom. After Wilson's discovery, and her implication in the switching of the babies, "the spirit in her eye was quenched, her martial bearing departed with it, and the voice of her laughter ceased in the land."142 For Tom, he cannot escape his upbringing regardless of his genetic "blood" origins. He has the manners, speech, and attitude of a slave. He feels comfortable only in the kitchen and "nigger gallery" and he "could not endure the terrors of the white man's parlor."143 And finally, Chambers, who is supposed to be imprisoned for life for his crime, instead enters into the slavery system which then becomes a trigger for the reintroduction the same ignorance and (il)logic that set all of this into motion: Everybody granted that if 'Tom' [Chambers] were white and free it would be unquestionably right to punish him-it would be no loss to anybody; but to shut up a valuable slave for life-that was quite another matter. As soon as the Governor understood the case, he pardoned Tom at once, and the creditors sold him down the river.144 141 Ibid., 20 I. 142 Ibid., 202. 143 Ibid. 111

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The townspeople ultimately learned nothing. This conclusion shows that as long as slavery is allowed, it will perpetuate the harm, hate, and ignorance that are imaged in this story. Twain's novel destructs the logic that justifies slavery, but at no point does he directly point out the ridiculousness of racism. This move would not only violate Twain's notions of humor and storytelling, but it would also be rather confrontational for the time period when the Civil War, ended almost thirty years before, still played out in the nation's struggle over how to treat black people. Instead, he creates situations which are ludicrous enough that by missing his suggestions, we ain't no judges, we are the pudd'nheads. Twain preemptively sets up boomerang mechanisms whereby failing to see the humor of his irony or the logic ofhis criticism and accusing him of being racist, then these audiences become the foolish commentators. Like Twain's townspeople, these audiences perform some of that very ignorance that Twain is criticizing. Oh, the irony. Twain's comic mask is created through his unshakably serious delivery. He is addressing a touchy situation, but doing so in such a way that he can profoundly criticize both supporters of racism and those who misread his criticism. His irony is a tool for his presentation of hidden messages right out in the open. It is not an unreasonably large step to see how this method branches out of early black folklore in America where similar messages about slavery and discrimination are hidden behind the masks of anthropomorphic animal characters. These stories take on another level of disguise through characters and storylines that do not obviously resemble recognizable references. Consider "The Wonderful Tar Baby Story" where Brer Rabbit outwits Brer Fox in a way that is highly satisfying to those who 144 Ibid. 112

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secretly identify themselves with the underdog. In this segment, Brer Fox has recently captured Brer Rabbit and delights in the possibility of killing him: "Well, speck I got you dis time, Brer Rabbit," sezee; "maybe I ain't, but I speck I is. You been runnin' roun' here sassin' atter me a mighty long time, but I speck you done come to ter de een' er de row[ ... ] en dar you is, en dar you'll stay twel I fixes up a bresh-pile and fires her up, kaze I'm gwineter bobbycue you dis day, sho," sez Brer Fox, sezee. Den Brer Rabbit talk mighty 'umble. "I don't keer w'at you do wid me, Brer Fox" sezee, "but don't fling me in dat brier-patch. Roas' me, Brer Fox" sezee, "but don't fling me in dat brier-patch," sezee. "Hit's so much trouble fer ter kindle a fier," sez Brer Fox, sezee, "datI speck I'll hatter hang you," sezee.145 The momentum of this story continues in a similar fashion until the fox predictably throws the rabbit in the brier patch and the conclusion sees the victorious rabbit "skip out des ez lively ez a cricket in de embers."146 The innocuous disguise of talking animal critters allows for a storyline that favors the enslaved and seemingly powerless characters who are always far more clever than their enslavers. Their stories speak in code to relay their imagined victories. An additional layer of masking is created through the whiteness of the author of many of these stories, including the one above, Joel Chandler Harris. As a free white man, Harris provided a protective layer to his stories because he did not have an obvious motivation in creating subversive scenarios for black slaves. Furthermore, he often wrote through his character Uncle Remus, an elderly slave that spoke in a southern slave dialect. Encoded within these many layers are stories of imagined rebellion. 145 This version ofthe story authored by Joel Chandler Harris is only one of many variations emerging from several oral and written sources. For a more extensive discussion see, Aurelio M. Espinosa, "A new classification of the fundamental elements of the tar-baby story on the basis of two hundred and sixty-seven versions" Journal of American Folklore, 56, 1943, 31-37. 146 Joel Chandler Harris, "The Wonderful Tar Baby Story," in Treasury of American Folklore, ed. Botkin, 653-655. 113

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Just as Twain's humor is coded in the sense that one has to generally agree with him in order to appreciate his irony, these folktales speak to an audience that identifies with a clever underdog. Masking allows the subversive imaginings to reveal their jokes only to their responsive audiences. These early examples of humor in America deliver clandestine attacks on hatred. The covertness of the comic mask allowed those opposed to its message to be part of its audience without feeling the force of its attack. In a time in America when addressing issues such as racism and slavery was a volatile risk, and serious texts such as Uncle Tom's Cabin or legal texts such as the Emancipation Proclamation resulted in strong and violent resistance, masked humor provided a safer space for humorists and audiences to criticize reality and imagine alternative American experiences. In order to do this, the actual experiences of the victims of racial hatred, and the intentions of the humor, had to be deeply hidden behind the comic mask. White authors, including Twain, Harris and George Cable Washington, not only deflected suspicion through their whiteness, but it also created an unavoidable distance from the experiences of black people. The very facts that these authors were white and writing during the nineteenth century limited their ability to comprehend and translate the experience of being black in a racially divided America. Humorists' use of such devices as subtle irony, representational characters, and third person narratives also added to the abstracting of the African American experience. In order to make politically charged criticisms in a highly uncertain nation, early American humorists erased much of the reality ofthe human experience. The humor provided the tools for re-imagining an end to hatred; however, the humorous performance had to make stealthy use of them. Pryor inherits all of this that came before him. In his continuation of the use ofhumor to combat hatred and criticize racism, the comic mask leads to his comic voice. He does not still need a disguise for his criticisms and experiences; however, 114

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he does need to narrate them. Using many of the same tools as his predecessors, Pryor's comic voice creates worlds for his audiences to experience his imagined realities. He does this, in part, by displaying the intimate details of his own life-a sort of removal of the comic mask. Whereas his predecessors masked the experience of the African American, Pryor publicly unveils this experience. He combats the notion that his African American ethnicity diminishes his humanity by exposing the profound depths ofhis experience of being human. Not only does he achieve this end by plainly addressing his experience of racism as is exemplified in the opening excerpt, but he also does this by discussing issues such as relationships, sex, death, and drugs which link our common struggle. As an African American sharing the intimate details of his life by making his internal monologues public he invites us to see our own human experience within his. In fact, Pryor's humanity spills over into all of his material. His anthropomorphic portrayal not only of animals, but also of car engines, tires, guns and even crack pipes, seems to give us a temporary insight into the experience of these objects.147 Consider for instance Pryor's delightfully fitting portrayal of animals. He gives voice to an animal like a police dog so that we can imagine its experiences of life such as this one where its intended criminal catch gets away: "Sheeeeeeeeet, motherfuck that nigger man, shit, ain't gonna' kill me out here. Gimme a biscuit, shit."148 In this example, the human becomes a vehicle for understanding the experience of the animal. From the domestic dog to wild African lionesses, Pryor anthropomorphizes animals, not to hide the human as the folkloric tale did, but to point to our humanness as our primary means of understanding the 147 For some examples, see "Police," Pryor, Live in Concert. 148 Pryor, Live in Concert, "Dobennans." 115

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world around us.149 His performance constantly reiterates that who we are and how we understand each other and the rest of the world is through our shared humanity. Pryor breaks ground as the first African American comic to combat hatred in this particular way. The fact that he is an African American is neither disguised nor avoided in his performance. Rather, he shows how our perceptions of whiteness, blackness, animalness, or, for lack of a better word, objectness are all centrally connected in our humanness. Evolution to the 21st Century Pryor's influence on succeeding humorists is expressed amongst those who continue his battle against hatred. A 2003 sketch from Dave Chappelle's series Chappelle's Show, entitled "Frontline: Blind Hatred," illustrates the progression of Pryor's humorous performance.150 As a blind black, white supremacist, the main character ofthis sketch, Clayton Bigsby, is the incarnation of racist irrationality brought to fruition. He is an African American as far as the Frontline reporter, the other characters, and his audiences can see; yet, he leads the white supremacist movement in America and is the author of several racist books. Upon meeting Bigsby for the first time, the reporter asks the question necessitated by Bigsby's appearance, "How could this have happened?" What is made clear in this moment is also what is so perplexing. Bigsby's racism lacks the most basic component that informs racial prejudice: judging others by the color of their skin. In his misreading ofthe reporter's confusion ("What, you don't think I can write them books?! Just 'cause I'm blind, don't mean I'm dumb"), Bigsby reveals that he literally cannot see the color of his own skin. 149 For an example, see "The Motherland," Pryor, Sunset Strip. 15 Chappelle's Show, "Frontline: Blind Hatred," Episode # 1.1. Directed by Rusty Cundieff (Original airing: January 22, 2003. Comedy Centra[). 116

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Bigsby's beliefthat he is white is the product of the lies that were told to him at his school for the blind. In an ironic attempt to shield the young Bigsby from the prejudice ofhis white schoolmates, his teachers told "him and all the other blind kids that he was white." And, he never questioned this, "why would he??" Here, as in Pudd'nhead Wilson, the need to define and judge people according to their skin color sets off the series of damaging outcomes. When Bigsby's well intentioned teachers tell him that he is white, they introduce him to the concept of identification through skin color. Furthermore, they set into motion Bigsby's denial of his African American ethnicity. This denial is reinforced by those in his community who refuse to tell Bigsby the truth because "he is too important to the movement." His perception of his own whiteness is so ingrained in his identification of himself that even when his interviewer attempts to reveal his misperception, Bigsby responds with indignant denial: REPORTER: What ifl were to tell you that you are an African American? BIGSBY: Sir! Listen! I'm gonna make this clear, I am in no way, shape, or form involved in any niggerdom! You understand?! Bigsby's character is the product of ignorance, lies, and blindness. While the details of his very limited experience ofthe world-"You've never left this property have you Mr. Bigsby?" "No sir, not in many years"-and the lies that allowed for Bigsby's erroneous notions of his skin color contribute to this perplexing situation, it is ultimately blindness that perpetuates his bigotry and hatred. It is the characterizing feature that enables Bigsby's hatred because he cannot see what or who he hates. He has no logical explanation for the directions or intensity of his hate. Rather, he follows and preaches the philosophy that "if you have hate in your heart, let it out!" For Bigsby, love is replaced by hate as a blind force that randomly chooses its recipients. 117

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Bigsby is a figure of the ultimate unity of the self with the other. However, this unity is formed in a sort of repulsive hate rather than love which is why he is constant source of confusion to the other characters in the sketch. Surrounded by people who cannot understand how to connect this man's words with his appearance, Bigsby requires everyone he comes in contact with to stop and ponder him. He unknowingly contributes to the very racial intimidation and slurs that are aimed at him. In this way though, he deflects racist attacks by contributing to them. Seeing both the victim and the offender contained in one man, the other characters are either stunned into silent bewilderment or so besieged by his irony that they throw up or blow up. A lack of sight and also a lack of insight enable Bigsby's followers to blindly follow the black, white supremacist. Without the pertinent information that their leader is black, they are the blind being led by the blind. Bigsby's KKK robe and hood act as both a symbol of his hatred and as an artificial white skin which deceives his followers. As long as the source of racial hatred remains hidden behind an anonymous white shroud, his supporters remain as blind as their leader. The crowd's clamoring demand to see Bigsby's face is, in essence, a request for sight, a desire to see the human who they so closely identify themselves with. Bigsby's hood removal is the moment of truth. Unveiled is the man who they all, including Bigsby, love and hate. Alas, an African American is their inspiration, "the man who made [them] proud to be white" and a man whom they call "brother" in a shared comradeship. The "irreparable damage to Bigsby's reputation" and the white power movement is, on the surface, the result of the exposure of his skin color. Clearly, a black man cannot lead a white brotherhood. On a deeper level though, Bigsby's unveiling exposes the elements of blindness, ignorance, and lies that fuel the movement's hatred. This moment discloses the lies of race and racial bigotry. 118

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Bigsby proves that skin color does not define an individual beyond other people's subjective fabrications. Nonetheless, Bigsby cannot escape his own blindness. Even though he comes to accept that he is a black man, this fact does not affect his empathy, judgment, or tolerance. His exposure to the truth brings about the inward tum of his hate. After leaving his wife for being a "nigger lover," he is left in the literal and figurative darkness of his own self-loathing. Bigsby is the epitome of the damaging effects of hatred. His intolerance towards all others-"My message is simple: niggers, Jews, homosexuals, Mexicans, Arabs and all kinds of different chinks STINK and I hate 'em!"-also results in a rejection and destruction of the self. The incongruity of Chappelle's black, white supremacist is so powerful and exposed that it cannot help but propel the audiences' reactions to the humor in the opposite direction of the hatred that inspires this character. Boskin provides a convenient explanation of how this humor operates to undo the antagonistic relationship between the bigot and his target: "The ultimate satire is that which reverses the roles of antagonist and perpetrator. Reduction to absurdity means not only the demolition of an opponent's arguments but also the placement of the opponent in the position of the victim."151 Chappelle takes Boskin's explanation one step further by the offender and victim within the same character. This step heightens the intensity ofthe absurdness of the situation and more completely destroys the opponent's arguments. Thus, this humor imagines the defeat of bigotry and hatred by forcing the perpetrator into the shoes of his victim. Human empathy is imposed on its antithesis. Chapelle' s portrayal of Clayton Bigsby illustrates the continuation of a humor in America seems connected through a narrowing of the gaps between the targets of hatred and its perpetrators, as well as the experience of hatred and its portrayal. In other words, reality and performance more closely resemble one 151 Boskin, Sambo, (see chpt. 2, n. 44) 214. 119

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another as we follow this historical development of this humor. The alternative realities that are imagined in the performance are less abstracted from the real world. Richard Pryor's decoding of race paves the way for a comic like Chappelle. No longer hiding behind a mask, nor speaking out for someone else's cause, Pryor demonstrates how the comic voice can de-racialize the world within the performance. The distancing techniques of earlier humorists are reversed in Pryor's performance where he depends on our ability to recognize his references. The development of this humor continues onward in time with Pryor's influence clearly visible in the humor of his successors. The impact of Pryor's humorous performance is most obvious with those humorists, like Chappelle, who also use their marginalized statuses as the means of performing a shared humanity. They use his method of offering themselves as targets of racism to present a twist on the American motto, E pluribus Unum. The humorous performance herein illustrates how hatred denies our ability to establish a common unity. If, as Pryor implies, the realization of our shared humanity makes us human, then hatred and the denial of another's humanity has the opposite effect. This humor shows us how the severance of our human connection through hate hurts both the target and the perpetrator of hatred. Thus, the American credo becomes a means of em pathetically seeing the self within the other. If Pryor's humor, and its explicit presentation of humanity, linked the self with the other, then Chappelle's humor is the evolution of these same methods with an increased forcefulness. Essentially, if Pryor asks us to empathize with him as a means of connecting with African Americans, Americans, and humans in general, then Chappelle tells us to experience this empathy. A testament to Chappelle's ability to advance this humor came in the form of the admiration of Pryor who 120

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claimed that he had "passed the torch" on to Chappelle. 152 This claim makes visible the linkage amongst these performances implying that they share similar comic tools to similar ends, and moreover, that these ends should be continued. Pryor, however, was also the recipient of "the torch" of those humorists who came before him. The imagining and re-imagining of the American experience is the constant and defining feature of any humor that might be considered "American," even if these imaginings conflict with one another. Crevecoeur's question continues to echo in the suggestions of who or what constitutes as American. However, the "passing of the torch" suggests that there is a particular type of humor and imagining that is somehow more dominant in America than others. Humorists make this visible in the ways that they use their tools to create these imaginings. For instance, the comic mask as a tool in the cracker-barrel philosopher texts for implicit commentary develops into a tool for explicit commentary in the humor of Lenny Bruce. And, Bruce's use of the mask for explicitness leads the way for Pryor's apparent removal of the mask. The humorist inherits what has come before and adds to the supply and use of the tools for those that follow. Using these tools to continually work toward a more inclusive imagining ofthe American also implies that the humor is a more inclusive categorization of"American." Looking at the development of humor in America in this way shows an increasing use of these tools to diminish the distance between the victims and the perpetrators ofhatred within the performance. This evolution also implies a connection with the historical evolution of civil rights and liberal democracy in America. Humor scholar Daniel Wickburg visualizes how humor and liberal democracy can be seen in relation to another in the development of America. He argues that by the twentieth century "the values that the sense of humor had come 152 Leung, Rebecca, "Chappelle: 'An Act Of Freedom"'. 60 Minutes II, CNBC News. (December 29, 2004). 121

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to signify-tolerance, sympathy, perspective, balance, freedom-were so closely allied with the meaning of liberal democracy that the idea of humor served as a kind of easily understood shorthand or signpost for democracy itself."153 While Wickburg focuses on a more general conception of a "sense of humor" in America, his logic is a way to envision some humor becoming associated with American ideologies. More specifically, the collection of humorous performances of our discussion associates itself with American ideologies through its increasingly outright demands for "tolerance, sympathy, perspective" etc. While there is a wide range of humorists belonging to various groups who participate in humor that works toward these ends, the history of African American humor and humorists who devote material to the rights of African Americans best maps out a complete timeline of the development of this humor. The veiled performances that are demonstrated in minstrel shows, folktales and Twain's texts become increasingly uncovered over time through the evolution of humorists' various uses of humor and its tools. In an intellectual investigation of the history of African-American humor, Mel Watkins suggests that "much of black humor had to be simplified and decoded for non-black audiences." Furthermore, "the maze of double or reverse meanings, code words and gestures, stealth, and intentional obfuscation that since slavery had shaped and informed the discourse and humor of most African-Americans had to be translated into literal terms and symbols that were recognizable to outsiders."154 Watkins is suggesting a timeline for understanding the development of this humor as a matter of coding and then decoding the experience of African Americans within humorous material. With this in mind, we can see Pryor's insistence on our shared humanity as his decoding 153 Daniel Wickburg, The Senses of Humor (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 204. 154 Watkins, On the Real Side (see chpt.l, n. 44), 494. 122

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mechanism. His humor decodes the experiences of the African American by making them human. Humorists that include Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Jamie Foxx, illustrate Pryor's methods as they are reconfigured in conjunction with the assumption of national trends toward a more democratic dispersion of rights and equality. Their humor, each in its own way, perpetuates the exposure of the guise of race and the reality of the human experience. And each of these humorists, as well as many who are not mentioned here but use similar methods, becomes both cause and spokesperson for the end to hatred and discrimination. This is due to the fact that when we support them and their humor we support their alternative experiences of American life. We are extensions ofthe humorist when we see the truths of the performance within the real world. This evolution of humor corresponds with a progressively changing interaction between humorist and audience. I am referring to both the relationship between humorist and audience, as well as the medium by which the humor is transmitted. These relationships transform in much the same way that the humorous performance changes. Early stage acts such as the minstrel, burlesque and vaudeville shows, diffused politically charged humor through the costumes, characters and variety of activities, such as musical and dance numbers, which also accompanied them. The move to radio and early television was, for the most part, a continuation of this sort of diffused delivery. Here, humor served as a detail of a larger plan and the audience was an incidental part of the performance. Somewhere in the midst of the proliferation of nightclubs and live musical acts of the 1940s the role of the emcee, who entertained the audience between sets, grew into an 123

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independent entity and the standup comic emerged. He resituated humor as the main focus of his show and eliminated any other performers, props or activities. 155 The significance of the stand up comic in the evolution of humor is his function to engage the audience within his humorous performance. He becomes, in essence, the embodiment of his humor and his success is dependent upon his ability to make a connection between himself, his humor, and his audience. This connection provided a vital structure for the progression of humor and a nurturing environment for a comic like Pryor. In a similar way that the evolution of the humorous performance can be seen as an advancement of connections between the self and the other, the evolution of the platform for the performance is the progression of the connection between the audience and the performer. The standup comic stage gives the humorist the liberty to personally engage groups of people in his visions of the world. 156 As the episode from Chappelle 's Show illustrates, the television show also developed as a more supportive platform for humor, perhaps as a consequence of the comic stage. Television became a space for the humorist to present his ideas and visions for an audience instead of creating them within an imaginary space. The effect of this visual component is that it provides the humor with another level of actuality. Clayton Bigsby, for instance, shows us the imagery involved in Chappelle's imaginings ofthe irony of racial hatred. The characters and situations in television shows or sketches have a certain amount of autonomy in comparison to those of the standup comic. Even though we know Dave Chappelle is Bigsby, he does not break character during the sketch and we can follow the character of 155 The use of the male pronouns "he" and "his" to refer to standup comics during this time period are intentional due to the fact that this profession was relatively inaccessible to women until the 1970s. 156 For an interesting discussion see Stephanie Koziski "The Standup Comedian as Anthropologist: Intentional Culture Critic," in Soskin, The Humor Prism in 2dh-Century America, 86-114. 124

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Bigsby to the comic conclusion. In comparison, Pryor must move between his character portrayals and his narrative of the explanations of them and their situations in order for us to follow him to his conclusions. This is not to suggest that one is somehow superior to the other, but that television provides an alternative mode of the humorous performance that can achieve similar ends. Regardless that the television platform requires a return to the costumes, props and multiple performers, which the comic stage rejects, these details assist the humor when it is the central component of the show. Television has also served as a supportive platform for the evolution of humor because it is so accessible to audiences. As a result, national trends can spread quickly and are fairly detectable. This is beneficial not only for shows created for television, but also for comics whose standup performances are aired on television and for comics who, like Chappelle, straddle the stage and television. The progression of platforms for humor has allowed humor a more central position in American popular culture and a more direct impact on its audiences. Futures The current popularity of a comics like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock and the continual references to Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce by these comics assume that a large segment of Americans embrace the ego ideals that are performed in their humor. If, as I am suggesting, the political dialog that is formed in this humor is the increasing demand for democratic equality, what happens to this humor if equality is established? What happens when the ego and superego that are modeled by the comedian are the same as those in the larger society? Surely the best evidence of a connection between this humor and liberal democracy would be the dissolution of the former in the face ofthe solid formation of the latter. For this point, consider a recent episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which although its material is certainly a product of political and cultural development 125

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beyond my control, it seems as though it was produced specifically for my argument.157 This segment of the episode brings to bear the bittersweet consequences of democracy on humor. The sentiments of the show's senior black correspondent, Larry Wilmore, aptly sum up this situation: "Now that Obama is president, this game is obsolete." In Wilmore's imagining, the election ofBarack Obama signals an end to the marginalized status of African Americans in the U.S. As a democratically elected figure of representation, the post of the American presidency is not a position for "the other." People do not generally vote for someone that they cannot identify with. This point, along with the absorption of black culture into the mainstream culture-shown here by the use of vernacular language by some very white CNN news pundits-allow us to experience a world where the goals of the humor of Twain, Pryor, Chappelle, and others have been realized. Wilmore claims that he can no longer perform the humor that relies on the conventions of separate black and white races. The election of a black president is a sign that being black in America no longer necessitates an "outsider perspective." John Stewart's feeble attempt to reassure Wilmore-"lt's still exotic. Black is exotic, it still has a hint of the other"-suggests that these components of exoticism and otherness are necessary for the success of this humor. Since, as Wilmore argues, this is no the longer the situation in America, the structure of the humor falls apart. There is not enough incongruent or contradictory tension to create the conditions for Hegel's "sign of historical crisis" when the change that can be provided by this humor is necessary.158 For a comic like Wilmore, whose "bread and butter is mining the seething unease between the races," the relative harmony 157 "Grading Obama," The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 4/29/2009. http://www. thedai lyshow .corn/video/index.j htm l?videol d=225907 &title=grading -obama (accessed April, 2009). 158 Nuzzo, "Dialectic as Logic," (see chpt. 2, n. 40), 92. 126

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of race relations makes this kind of humor seem "obsolete" and "outdated." And although this development is undoubtedly "good for the country," it is "not for a black comedian." What we are shown at the end of this segment is the two men shaking hands in a way that is unhampered by racial divisions. Stewart's initial attempt to fist bump Wilmore is a more racially charged, physical salutation. The awkwardness in this moment is a recurring joke in the show when, at end of their reports, the black news correspondents and Stewart struggle with how to connect with one another. They have a clumsy and uncomfortable moment where neither seems to know what to do with the other and they usually just end the show without really agreeing on how to rectify things. Wilmore's insistence on the conventional handshake is another symbol of the integration of his "blackness" into the mainstream culture. The humorous performance here imagines the breakdown of racial divisions and an end to the need for this particular humor in America. John Stewart's question, "Where do we go from here?" lingers and we are left to wonder how the torch is passed from this point onward. Or, is the flame of this humor extinguished by the waters of democracy? Clearly, the need for this humor will continue with those groups who still remain in the minority. As long as Wilmore's contention that "there will never be a gay Jewish president" remains valid, there will be a call for humor to create an alternative reality where this is not the case. The larger implications of this situation are indeed bittersweet as the country continues to move towards more democratic inclusion of "othered" people. The meeting of American ideals with Americans' realities could be a euphoric development for the nation, and a sad demise for this type of humor. If this humor is no longer necessary to lessen our hatred, this argument will have conclusive proof of its truthfulness and my work here will be done. 127

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