2020 Quarry Farm Symposium: “American Humor and Matters of Empire”

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. promise 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), will offer 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.  John Wharton Lowe (University of Georgia) will deliver the keynote address.

The symposium will begin on Friday, October 2, 2020 with a dinner in Cowles Hall, less than 100 yards away from the historic Mark Twain Study, followed by the keynote address.  The symposium will continue throughout the next day with presentations and discussions in the tranquil atmosphere of Quarry Farm, where breakfast, lunch, a cocktail hour, and dinner will also be served.  Registrants will be invited back to Quarry Farm on Sunday morning to enjoy the autumnal breakfast and casual discussions. 

  • DATES: Friday, October 2, 2020 to Sunday, October 6, 2020
  • HOUSING: Special rates at the Elmira Riverside Holiday Inn
  • COST: $175 – Price includes five full meals, with beer/wine at dinners, and a conference program
  • NOTE: Due to the fragile nature of Quarry Farm, the symposium will be limited to 40 attendees

Attention Graduate Students: CMTS will waive all registrations fees and provide free lodging for a select number of graduate students.  If you are interested in this opportunity, contact Joseph Lemak ([email protected])