That's Funny - Or Is It? Asks Humor Scholar Lewis
By Stephen Gawlik
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
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
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
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
"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,
"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.