Oct. 5, 2006 • Volume 15 Number 3

Paul Lewis

That's Funny - Or Is It? Asks Humor Scholar Lewis

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Do real and fictional personalities like Norman Cousins, Hannibal Lecter, Rush Limbaugh, Beavis and Butt-Head, and Bill Clinton have anything in common? Yes they do, says Prof. Paul Lewis (English).

As Lewis explains in his latest book Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict, they are all joke tellers who use humor to do much more than simply amuse.

And that's the punch line, says Lewis: In a culture that both enjoys and quarrels about jokes, humor expresses the most nurturing and hurtful impulses, informs and misinforms, and exposes as well as covers up the shortcomings of political leaders.

"Insofar as jokes can convey information, provide entertainment, and offer relief from stress, so they can highlight areas of anxiety or concern," he said.

Cracking Up calls attention to and raises questions about humor that seems fraught, explains Lewis, as reflected in the popularity of fictional killer-jokers like Freddy Krueger ("Nightmare on Elm Street") and Hannibal Lecter ("Silence of the Lambs").

"Is humor," he asks, "really the 'best medicine'?"

Lewis will read selections from Cracking Up on Wednesday, Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. in Devlin 101 as part of the "Writers Among Us" series spotlighting faculty authors.

Exploring topics that range from the mockery of Abu Ghraib prison guards to jokes ridiculing the possibility of global climate change to the activities of hospital clowns, Lewis demonstrates that over the past three decades American humor has become increasingly purposeful and provocative.

"The strains of intentional humor I follow - including sadistic humor in popular culture and the positive humor movement - are not uniquely modern or American, though they gathered momentum here over the past 30 years," said Lewis.

He said his motivation for the book dawned after finishing an earlier study of literary humor, Comic Effects: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Humor in Literature. Seeking to move beyond the ethical frames under dispute in debates about political correctness, Lewis began to follow controversial and edgy jokes, joke cycles, and parodies.

"I began to identify specific strains of humor used deliberately to do more than amuse: to cure, terrify, educate, motivate, persuade, inform and misinform," said Lewis, who recently wrote an op-ed on the use of humor by politicians in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

While scrutinizing forms of humor can sometimes lead to over analysis, Lewis says, it is important to study a joker's intent.

"Because some jokes, improvs, sitcoms, political speeches, and radio broadcasts use humor to do something to, or for us, becoming aware of this helps strengthen the ethical sensibility we should not abandon just because someone implies that he or she is 'only kidding.'"

"Writers Among Us" is sponsored by the Office of the Provost, Boston College Magazine and the BC Bookstore. For more information, call ext.2-4820.

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