What do the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon (2011), Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s film The Interview (2014), and Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) have in common? All are comic fantasies of American empire that mock U.S. pretensions to improve the world: their plots reverse the European invasion of North America as Americans go abroad to demonstrate U.S. superiority over primitive, corrupt, and menacing comic Others in their homelands. These plots also rely on stock characters, language jokes, and other conventional elements that constitute one of three transnational comic traditions in the analytical rubric that Judith Yaross Lee calls “American Humor and Matters of Empire,” the title of her keynote address for the 2018 American Humor Studies Association-Mark Twain Circle Quadrennial Conference, now revised for the April 2020 issue of Studies in American Humor (4th ser., 6, no.1).
There, in line with recent studies of transnational American culture and scholarship on imperialism and postcolonial theory in many contexts, Lee suggests that imperialism can serve as a key concept to replace not only the outmoded nationalist theories of American humor dating to the 1920s and ’30s, but also the generic international theories too broad to capture its cultural work across many media, genres, and historical eras. In particular, she invites scholars to probe how the unequal transnational political relationships of imperialism have shaped the basic components (plot, character, incident), rhetorical conventions, and comic techniques underlying comic traditions in the United States. Three seem immediately important: colonial continuity with comic traditions drawn from those of previous European imperial powers (Britain, Spain, France, and the Netherlands), postcolonial discontinuity in comic traditions (such as vernacular humor) marked by anti-imperialist and anti-aristocratic ideologies grounded in the American Revolution, and neo-colonial hybridization of native, immigrant, and other national comic traditions through U.S. hegemony across the land and people of North America (and beyond) in the years since the 1787 Northwest Territory Ordinance initiated the thirteen former colonies’ expansion into Thomas Jefferson’s projected “empire of liberty.” After years in which scholarship on American humor splintered into so many distinct traditions of medium and identity that the cultural whole disappeared from view, a paradigm for American humor studies focused on matters of empire in the colonial, postcolonial, and neo-colonial strands of humor in the U.S. promises to braid their diverse themes, stock characters and plots, media, rhetorical conventions, and techniques into what Edward Said called a contrapuntal harmony.
CMTS’s Seventh Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium, organized by Judith Yaross Lee (Ohio University), offered analyses of comic works and practices in film, literature, graphic art, many media genres across the history of American humor with an eye to understanding the rhetorical and cultural significance of comic practices marked by colonial, postcolonial, and neo-colonial relations.
Judith Yaross Lee (SYMPOSIUM CHAIR AND ORGANIZER), Distinguished Professor Emerita of Communication Studies at Ohio University in Athens, OH, studies popular American rhetorics—especially humor—in interdisciplinary contexts. Her 6 books and 60-plus articles and essays include Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture (2012), Defining New Yorker Humor (2000), and Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America (1991)—all pathbreaking treatments of their subjects, as is Seeing Mad: Essays on Mad Magazine’s Humor and Legacy, co-edited with John Bird (forthcoming, 2020). With Tracy Wuster of the University of Texas, she edits the Penn State University Press book series Humor in America.The 2020 QF Symposium “American Humor and Matters of Empire” builds on her research and teaching as 2016 Fulbright Senior Professor of American Culture at Leiden University, The Netherlands.
John Wharton Lowe delivered the keynote address, “Coyote’s Jokebook: Native American Humor and the Dismantlement of Empire.” John Wharton Lowe is the Barbara Lester Methvin Distinguished Professor of Southern Literature at the University of Georgia. He is author or editor of nine books, including Conversations with Ernest Gaines (1995), Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston’s Cosmic Comedy (1997), and Calypso Magnolia: The Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature (2016). He has published widely on the humor of African American, Native American, Italian American, Southern, Asian American, and circumCaribbean literatures.
- Downloadable version of the full program
- Video of John Wharton Lowe’s Keynote Address
- Videos of all presented papers
- Biography of all presenters