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. 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.

CMTS partnered with American Humor Studies Association, and a number of the presenters will be featured in a special issue of Studies in American Humor in 2021.

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. 

Keynote Address

John Wharton Lowe, University of Georgia

“Coyote’s Jokebook: Native American Humor and the Dismantlement of Empire”

Session One: Contemporary Humor of American Empire

Kate Morris, Santa Clara University, and Linda Morris, University of California, Davis

“Continental Drift: On Monuments, Memory, and Kent Monkman”

Christopher Gilbert, Assumption University

“The Issue with Empire and a Comic Stretch of the Imagination”

Bambi Haggins, University of California, Irvine

“Stand-Up Comedy & Survival”

Session Two: Antebellum Entanglements with Empire

James E. Caron, University of Hawaiʽi, Mānoa

“Gender Matters: Addison and Steele’s Amiable Satirist as a Regime of Truth”

Todd Nathan Thompson, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

“[W]e could enter into the spirit of his wit and humour’: Lessons from Native Pacific Studies for American Humor Studies”

Session Three: Early 20th Century Comic Confrontations with European Imperialism

Matt Seybold, Elmira College

“The Funny Man vs. the Butcher: Anti-Imperialist Trolling & the International Reception of King Leopold’s Soliloquy”

Maggie Hennefeld, University of Minnesota

“‘Tyranny at Home’: Feminist Slapstick Comedy on the Brink of Global Catastrophe”

Session Four: Matters of Empire in Post-WWII Humor and Satire

Jalylah Burrell, San Jose State University

“‘Strange and Beautiful Country’: Era Bell Thompson’s Boundary-Crossing Humor”

Stanley Orr, Hawai‘i, West O‘ahu

“‘I wonder which of you is real’: John Kneubuhl’s Indigenous Confidence Man”

Darryl Dickson-Carr, Southern Methodist University

“Apocalypse Always: The End of Empire in African American Writing Since World War II”


A diverse group of scholars took up the transnational, historical, rhetorical, and ideological dimensions of American humor at the symposium, including:

Jalylah Burrell is Assistant Professor of African-American Studies at San Jose State University. She holds a PhD in American Studies and African American Studies from Yale University and her scholarship was previously supported by postdoctoral fellowships at DePaul University’s African and Black Diaspora Department and Rice University’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Her current book project is “Capacity for Laughter: Black Women and the American Comedic Tradition.”

James E. Caron retired as Professor of English at the University of Hawaiʽi, Mānoa, where he taught American literature for thirty-six years. He has published articles on satire, the tall tale, antebellum comic writers, laughter and evolution, Mark Twain, George Washington Harris, Frank Norris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, Charlie Chaplin, Hunter S. Thompson, and Bill Watterson. In addition, he has published Mark Twain, Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter (2008) and co-edited a collection of essays on Charlie Chaplin, entitled Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon in Critical Contexts (2013). His new book, The Poetics of Satire: Postmodern Truthiness and the Comic Public Sphere, will appear in 2020. He is the former president of the American Humor Studies Association and senior associate editor of its journal, Studies in American Humor.

Darryl Dickson-Carr is Professor and Chair of English at Southern Methodist University. He has authored Spoofing the Modern: Satire in the Harlem Renaissance (U of South Carolina P, 2015), The Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction (Columbia UP, 2005), and African American Satire: The Sacredly Profane Novel (U of Missouri P, 2001).

Chris Gilbert is Assistant Professor of English in the areas of Communication & Media at Assumption University. His work, which looks at the role of humor in cultural politics and in particularly comic responses to controversy and conflict, appears in a variety of leading journals, including The Quarterly Journal of SpeechRhetoric Society QuarterlyCommunication & Critical/Cultural StudiesPhilosophy & RhetoricStudies in American Humor, and more, as well in numerous edited volumes. He also has a book forthcoming in late 2020 or early 2021, entitled The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Caricature and National Character in U.S. War Cultures. 

Bambi Haggins is Associate Professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine. Her work explores race, class, gender and sexuality in American comedy across media. Her first book, Laughing Mad, was awarded the Katherine Singer Kovács Book Award. Her work has been published in Cinema JournalFrameworkMs., and The New York Times as well as several edited collections. Haggins wrote Showtime’s Why We Laugh: Funny Women and was historical consultant/onscreen talent for HBO’s Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley (both 2013). Haggins is currently editing “TV Memories: Letters to Our Televisual Past,” in which scholars reflect upon their personal experiences as television viewers, and she is beginning a project about comedy, Black culture and reception in these days of the rona and rage.

Maggie Hennefeld is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature and McKnight Presidential Fellow at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (Columbia UP, 2018), co-editor of the journal Cultural Critique, and co-editor of the two volumes: Unwatchable (Rutgers UP, 2019) and Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence (Duke UP, 2020).

John Wharton Lowe (KEYNOTE SPEAKER) is the Barbara Lester Methvin Distinguished Professor of Southern Literature at the University of Georgia. Previously he was Robert Penn Warren Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and Director of the Program in Louisiana and Caribbean Studies at Louisiana State University. Dr. Lowe has also taught at the University of Munich, Harvard University, Saint Mary’s College (Notre Dame) and Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D. 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. He is the recipient of the MELUS Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Contributions to Ethnic Literary Studies, and has served as President of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature, the Southern American Studies Association, MELUS, and the Louisiana Folklore Society. He is currently writing the authorized biography of Ernest J. Gaines.

Kate Morris is Professor of Art History and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, Santa Clara University.  She is past president of the Native American Art Studies Association, and the author of a number of works on Native American art.  These include:  Shifting Grounds:  Landscape in Contemporary Native American Art, University of Washington Press, 2019 and “Crash:  Specters of Colonialism in Contemporary Indigenous Art,” Art Journal, v. 76 no.2, 2017.  She is co-editor with Veronica Pascalacqua of Native Art Now:  Recent Developments in Contemporary Native American Art, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, 2017; and co-editor with Bill Anthes of Art Journal:  Special Issues on Contemporary Indigenous Art, v. 76. No.2, 2017.  Most recently, she co-authored with Linda Morris “Camping Out with Miss Chief:  Kent Monkman’s Ironic Journey,” Studies in American Humor, Forthcoming.

Linda Morris is Distinguished Professor Emerita, University of California, Davis, Department of English.  She is past president of the Mark Twain Circle of America, and the recipient of the Olivia Langdon Clemens Award, presented by the Mark Twain Circle, and the Charlie Award, from the American Humor Studies Association.  Her published works include Gender Play in Mark Twain:  Cross-Dressing and Transgression, University of Missouri Press, 2007, and Women’s Humor in the Age of Gentility:  The Life and Works of Frances Miriam Whitcher, Syracuse University Press, 1992.  She has published articles about Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Pudd’nhead Wilson, as well as articles on the humor of Marietta Holley, Roz Chast ,and Mary Lasswell.  Most recently, she co-authored with Kate Morris “Camping Out With Miss Chief:  Kent Monkman’s Ironic Journey,” Studies in American Humor, Forthcoming.

Stanley Orr is Professor of English and interim Humanities Division Chair at the University of Hawai‘i, West O‘ahu, where he teaches courses in writing, literature, and screen studies. Orr earned a B.A. in English at U.C. Riverside and a Ph.D. in English at UCLA. He has published a number of essays in critical anthologies as well as articles in journals such as American Quarterly and Jouvert: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies. Orr’s book Darkly Perfect World: Colonial Adventure, Postmodernism, and American Noir was published with The Ohio State University Press in 2010. At present, Orr is conducting research on the teleplays of dramatist John Kneubuhl. In his latest publication – “‘Diving-Dress Gods: Modernism, Cargoism, and the Fale Aitu Tradition in John Kneubuhl’s ‘The Perils of Penrose” (published in New Oceania: Modernisms and Modernities in the Pacific [Routledge, 2019]), Orr analyzes the ways in which Kneubuhl infused his writing for the TV series Adventures in Paradise with techniques drawn from Samoan comic theater.

Matt Seybold is Assistant Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College. He is the resident scholar at the Center for Mark Twain Studies and editor of MarkTwainStudies.org. He co-edited the Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics (2018) and a special issue of American Literary History on “Economics & American Literary Studies in the New Gilded Age” (2019). Other recent publications can be found in Aeon, American Studies, Henry James Review, Leviathan, Los Angeles Reviews of Books, Mark Twain Annual, and T.S. Eliot Studies Annual. His current book project is on the political economy of mass media during Twain’s lifetime.

Todd Nathan Thompson is Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is also Treasurer-Secretary of the American Humor Studies Association. Todd is author of The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). Todd has earned research fellowships through the Center for Mark Twain Studies, the American Antiquarian Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Lilly Library. His work on political satire and pre-1900 American literature has also appeared in American Periodicals, Scholarly Editing, Early American Literature, ESQ, Nineteenth-Century Prose, Studies in American Humor, Teaching American Literature, and elsewhere. He currently is at work on a book project entitled Savage Laughter: Nineteenth-Century American Humor and the Pacific, 1840-1880.