About the Readings
The cartoon strip, Calvin and Hobbes, which ran from daily 1985 to 1995, offered profound yet simple observations about the world at large through the cartoon styling of Bill Watterson’s lovable six-year-old, Calvin, and his anthropomorphic stuffed tiger, Hobbes. They captured the hearts of readers young and old with existential discoveries made through backyard explorations, the passages of grade school, and average suburban family life. Calvin and Hobbes’ friendship provided a medium in which the mysteries of daily being and the universe were navigated with wit and accessibility to which all readers could relate. In simplest terms, Calvin and Hobbes reminded us that the world is what you make of it—adventurous, at times absurd, and not the least of all . . . humorous.
In reading these three selections, consider the following: Why do you think Bill Watterson chose a young child and stuffed tiger as the humorous vehicles to appeal to a wide audience? Why do you suppose Watterson was able to inject so much social commentary into the strip, without public backlash, through Calvin and Hobbes’ misadventures? What did Calvin & Hobbes accomplish with their perspectives that made the comic strip funny and kept it relevant for a decade, and today for that matter?
~Introduction by Keelie Schock, Assistant Director of Event Management
Embarrassment, humiliation. These are emotions that we often try to cover up with humor. Writer David Sedaris is a master at focusing on awkward situations that make us laugh out loud while squirming with discomfort because we can identify with him all too easily. In this essay, Sedaris “goes back to school” in Paris as an adult to learn French. He should be telling stories about chatting over a glass of red wine at a sidewalk café, or feeling butterflies in his stomach while gazing out at the city from the top of the Eiffel Tower. But instead, he spends his vacation in Paris warding off an abusive, dictatorial French teacher. We identify with his terror because not having the vocabulary to express your adult thoughts is deeply unsettling. Being convinced that your classmates understand better than you shakes your confidence. Not understanding the insults being hurled at you induces paranoia. And yet, he makes progress. David Sedaris taps into both our fear and our desire to learn.
While reading, think about the role of stereotypes in Sedaris’s humor. French stereotypes continue to be acceptable in the United States, whether used in fun or anger. Why are we more sensitive about some stereotypes than others? Is the teacher in this passage more representative of our nightmare French person or our nightmare teacher?
Finally, please know that language classes at Susquehanna are nothing like this one! Au contraire! We want to empower you to communicate with a whole new segment of humanity. And to listen to them, as well.
~Introduction by Lynne Palermo, Associate Professor of French
“The Waltz” is the most famous short story by Dorothy Parker, whose humor targeted social conventions of the early 20th century, particularly those that governed the behavior of women. The source of the humor in this story is the contrast between the interior voice of a young woman who is dancing with a young man and her exterior voice responding to him. For example, she resents his asking her to dance when she would prefer to be left alone, but she replies to his invitation enthusiastically: “Why, I’m simply thrilled. I’d love to waltz with you.” Parker also achieves great humorous effect with her exaggerations. Thus she characterizes the way he dances as looking “like something you do on Saint Walpurgis Night.” Saint Walpurgis Night is a spring festival associated with witches, dancing, and bonfires, so Parker is suggesting that her partner’s dancing is diabolic.
What’s particularly significant about Parker’s humor in this story and others is how it satirizes gender relations in the early 20th century. Her young woman in “The Waltz” does not feel that she can decline the invitation to dance, but understands that she needs to fulfill social expectations by being sweet and self-abasing even while her feelings contradict her actions. The ultimate target of Parker’s satire is the prescriptions for female behavior in a patriarchal society. Nearly 100 years after her heyday, Parker continues to be celebrated as a skillful satirist whose short stories and poems published initially in The New Yorker magazine gained a wide following. She also is known as the founder of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers who gathered for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, just down the street from the offices of The New Yorker.
~Introduction by Susan Bowers, Associate Professor of English
Theories of Humor from Inside Jokes: Using humor to reverse-engineer the mind, Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, & Reginald Adams Jr.
Why do we tell one another funny anecdotes, and why is humor such a universal aspect of the human experience? Aside from making us feel good, what purpose does humor serve? These are some of the many questions considered by those interested in the academic study of humor.
Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, the study of humor can be taken quite seriously! In their book Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind, authors Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams Jr. consider the above questions through the lens of an evolutionary-cognitive perspective. The pages that follow organize and summarize the theories of humor that have been put forth over centuries by well-respected thinkers such as Darwin, Hecker, Gervais-Wilson, Hobbes, Aristotle, Spencer, and Freud. Though their theories originate in disciplinary training as diverse as psychology, biology, and religion, these figures are alike in that they have spent a considerable amount of time and brain power trying to decode the mysterious processes that produce a giggle.
While reading, I encourage you to compare and contrast the humor theories outlined in the text. Which theories do you think have the most merit, and why? Can you think of any other ideas to help explain the function of humor?
~Introduction by Lauren Beck, Neuroscience Major, Class of 2016
According to University of Chicago philosopher, Ted Cohen, jokes are “complicated transactions in which communities are forged, intimacy is offered and otherwise offensive stereotypes and clichés lose their sting—at least sometimes.” It is this last use of jokes that Cohen, a lover and collector of jokes, analyzes in the final chapter of his book, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters.
When, if ever, is joke-telling out of place, in bad taste, or worse still, morally objectionable? Are there any rules we could and should follow? What is the moral defect in a joke that ought not be told? Can jokes that are in bad taste still be funny? When a joke offends or disturbs, is this just a personal matter or can this discomfort be generalized, made objective, so that a negative assessment can be made of the joke itself? These are not easy questions. Cohen faces them head on, with a clear eye and with great honesty. His answers may surprise you.
Good philosophy is good philosophy not because of the answers it gives to the questions it asks, but because of the reasons it musters in support of those answers. It is up to you to judge the adequacy of Cohen’s reasons and the cogency and soundness of his arguments.
Although Cohen’s analysis may seem abstract, my hope is that it will spur you to think about the nature of your attempts at humor and how they will be received and affect our diverse university community.
~Introduction by Ted Chappen, Lecturer of Philosophy
In his essay on “Humor in the Holocaust: Its Critical, Cohesive, and Coping Functions,” John Morreall draws attention to the use of humor during the Holocaust to allow those victimized by the Nazis to resist and cope with their suffering. He also points out that it allowed people to take a critical stance toward the Nazi regime and so resist their own ideological manipulation. Lastly, he claims that anti-Nazi jokes fostered a sense of solidarity among victims. Morreall informs us that humor was so threatening to the Nazi regime that thousands of people were arrested and killed for mocking political officials. In this sense Morreall’s essay serves to remind us of the political dimension of humor and its connection to critical thought and resistance against oppression. He points out that during the Holocaust humor allowed individuals to mock and reject rather than passively accept a fascist regime, and to laugh at the very figures responsible for their misery. Thus it was also a way to protest the regime and expose the ludicrous and irrational nature of its policies, which were no less horrifying and atrocious as a result.
Though Morreall focuses on the function of humor during the Holocaust, we should also ask about the function of Holocaust humor in the aftermath of the genocide. Can it still provide some critical, cohesive, or coping function?
~Introduction by Lissa Skitolsky, Associate Professor of Philosophy
As an adult, I came to understand the comedy of the black comedians I was forbidden to listen to as a child. As described by Carpio, I came to see how black comedians have historically presented two different personas to the public—one for a black audience and a less threatening persona for a mixed audience. The references to race by black comedians today are much more overt. In 2000, the wildly successful movie, The Original Kings of Comedy showcased a sold-out concert featuring four black comedians (Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac) who riffed on a range of topics including racism at work and in sports, police brutality, politics, and R & B music. The comedians completely relied on the insider nature of their jokes to connect with the almost all black audience. Subsequently, all of comedians from The Original Kings of Comedy have gone on to very mainstream careers.
The boundaries of race in mainstream comedy are sometimes difficult to navigate. Dave Chapelle walked away from a multi-million dollar contract to continue his edgy and highly rated skit comedy—which pushed the parodies of race into uncharted territory—because of an incident at rehearsal. Chapelle later said in an interview with Oprah, “I know the difference of people laughing with me and people laughing at me—and it was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with.” As you read this selection, consider the ways in which comedy provides a platform for the painful, yet rarely discussed, ever present incidents of racism, daily microagressions and other acts of discrimination and bias.
~Introduction by Lisa Scott, Vice President for Student Engagement and Success
CIA Realizes its Been Using Black Highlighter All These Years & Study Finds College Education Leaves Majority Of Graduates Unprepared To Carry Entire American Economic Recovery, The Onion
Founded as a print publication in 1988 but now available strictly online, The Onion has the look and feel of a traditional news source. But peel back the layers (ahem), and The Onion reveals itself to be something quite different—a parody of the modern-day media. Through a combination of satire, fabricated quotes, and other humorous devices, The Onion pokes fun at current events and the way that the media reports on them.
In the first of the articles that follows here, The Onion goes for laughs by suggesting that the CIA’s longstanding use of black marker to block our view of classified information on official documents is not an intentional practice after all, but an example of gross government incompetence—the government thought it was highlighting the juicy tidbits for us all these years, but by using black instead of yellow, they ended up blocking out the good parts!
In the second article, The Onion gins up fake outrage in wondering how in the world colleges are unable to produce graduates who can magically repair the broken economy. The article is a backhanded swipe at the media establishment’s tendency to disparage colleges and young people while ignoring how corporate America and older citizens have had a hand in contributing to the pickle we’re all in.
~Introduction by Dave Kaszuba, Associate Professor of Communications, and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning
For Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), humor could be a deadly weapon. Swift ‘s trenchant social and political satires continue to be read, imitated, and admired three centuries on.
Swift was born in Ireland and spent much of his career as a clergyman there. He wrote prolifically on Irish political and economic topics; the passage on “expedients” (“Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients. . . .”) enumerates Swift’s previous written proposals for reform in his native land. Those in power largely ignored these serious proposals, so Swift devised his “modest proposal,” a savagely ironic solution to Ireland’s political and economic ills: baby-eating.
First published in 1729, “A Modest Proposal” targets both England’s exploitation of Ireland and Ireland’s failure to help itself. Even in the age of the Internet, Swift’s “Proposal” retains its power to shock. It’s important to distinguish the “unreliable narrator” from Swift himself, yet noting this distinction does not wholly allay our unease as readers. Here are some questions to consider: why does Swift propose cannibalism? At which points does Swift peek out from behind his unreliable narrator to voice his own opinions? To what extent does Swift aim at Englishmen and -women in his satire, and to what extent does he aim at Irishmen and -women?
A good text with helpful annotations can be found at the following web address:
~Introduction by Randy Robertson, Associate Professor of English
Religious Satire in Hollywood: How Borat and Saved! utilize the offensive art to foster interreligious dialogue, Paul Neal Jordan
Religion. Popular Culture. If you are anything like me, you’re probably wondering right about now how these two seemingly antithetical categories fit together. Religion is sacred; traditional; reverent. Pop culture is vulgar; ephemeral; profane. Religion is Jesus; Vishnu; Muhammad. Pop culture is Madonna. Or so I thought when I first took a seat in Professor Dowland’s “Religion and Popular Culture” class. Soon I realized that although religion and popular culture may appear to be unrelated fields of inquiry, the two are richly and complexly interwoven. I found myself interested in this relationship and began asking questions: What aspects of religion are present in pop culture? Even more intriguing, what aspects of pop culture are included in religion? What can popular culture teach us about religion or contribute to a religious dialogue?
As the semester progressed, I narrowed my interest to a particular aspect of pop culture—satire. It occurred to me that this particular form of cultural commentary possessed a unique ability to address taboo religious topics, precisely because it’s offensive. South Park provided a space for certain religious dialogues which, ironically, couldn’t even take place in a church or temple. Yes, you heard it here first; I learned things about religion from the gang from South Park, Colorado. And ultimately I learned things about religion from Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat, too. And so the inspiration for this paper about religion sprang from the head of irreverent comedy (not exactly the head of Zeus . . . but close).
~Introduction by the Author
If Not an Apology, at Least a “My Bad” from I’d Rather We Got Casinos: And other black thoughts, Larry Wilmore
Larry Wilmore, actor, comic, writer, and television producer, has worked on shows, such as In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Jamie Foxx Show, and is currently the “Senior Black Correspondent” on The Daily Show. In this essay, “If Not an Apology, at Least a ‘My Bad’” Wilmore advocates for the federal government apologizing for the institution of slavery.
Wilmore contemplates various types of apologies the government could make. For instance, he jokes about an apology that “can let everybody off the hook without all the messy emotional stuff.” Wilmore uses humor to make a serious point about the need to heal “the rift that has been a part of this country for way too long.” He observes that while all those directly involved as slaves and masters are dead, the negative consequences of slavery did not immediately cease upon the end of the institution of slavery. In many ways the effects are still felt today.
Wilmore claims, “Black people won’t believe it. Nevertheless we still want to hear you say it anyway.” Why do you think an apology from the government would be hard to believe? Some have argued that a permanent racial caste system was initiated by slavery and maintained during the Jim Crow era. Which aspects of society today could be interpreted as extensions of this racial caste system? Wilmore successfully uses humor to uncover covert racism. In your own life, have you experimented with using humor to address serious, emotionally charged, difficult topics? Do you think humor is an appropriate way to address serious topics?
~Introduction by Christopher Clinton, Associate Director of Admissions, and Coleen Zoller, Associate Professor of Philosophy
What does it mean to be educated at SU? Several years ago, the faculty and staff of Susquehanna attempted to answer this question. Each faculty and staff member was asked, “When students cross the stage at graduation, what do you most hope stays with them from their experience at SU?” This conversation was followed by a year-long discussion and debate, and through this process the SU Learning Goals (SULG) were created.
The SULG form the foundation of all that we hope to accomplish with students. The Central Curriculum, each major and minor program, and everything that happens in classrooms, studios and labs flow out of these Goals. But their influence does not end at the classroom door. The SULG also animate the structure of residential life, the activities of clubs and organizations, and the work and play within athletics. Indeed, each administrative office has found ways to use these Goals in their work with students.
Will all SU graduates achieve the SULG? That is our commitment and the yardstick against which we measure our success. However, we can only guarantee that all students will have the opportunity to achieve these Goals. Education is not a one way process. We cannot open up students’ heads and pore in the content. Education is an invitation—will you make these goals your own?
~Introduction by Linda A. McMillin, Provost and Dean of the Faculty, Professor of History