Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:
Humor in American Film Comedy
Seventeen years ago, we began a series of empirical humor experiments at Winona State University, Winona, Minnesota, a series which continues today. In the years since 1991, we have been very grateful to be able to report many strong relationships between oneís sense of humor and social, political, religious, and lifestyle variables, some of them quite incredible except for the verification of empirical testing and statistical analysis. These results were typically reported in the Humor Quotient Newsletter to experts in humor studies around the world and at conferences sponsored by the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS) both in North America and Europe.
At many of these conferences, we were scheduled for presentation on psychology and psychiatry panels, an awkward venue for English professors. And for many years, our humor colleagues expressed bewilderment that we had so far deserted the field of literary criticism and especially the criticism of comedy with which we had entered into ISHS discussion.
In the present volume, it is hoped that these bewilderments can be put to rest beyond Shakespeare papers dependent on empirical evidence presented through ISHS, a hands-on plenary session on empirical evidence related to creative problem solving presented at the Midland, Michigan International Conference on Creativity in Colleges and Universities, and rhetorical insights, particularly on the relationship between humor and negotiation success presented at Midlands Conferences on Language and Literature in Omaha, Nebraska.
Two other papers along with ISHS presentations in Shakespeare became the prototypes for the present study. The first, co-authored by Elizabeth Grawe, found a double humor structure in Don Quixote, a double structure which largely explains a bifurcated critical tradition for Cervantesí masterpiece. The second, presented at the University of Nebraska, found contrastive humors in Catherís portrayal of the pioneer and second generation of settlement in Nebraska.
All these were immeasurably enhanced by the inclusion of humor testing in a major assessment of critical thinking across the disciplines at Winona State funded by two grants from the Bush Foundation and many smaller grants within the Winona area. The institution-wide critical thinking insights which provide context for the specific humor-and-critical thinking evidence shared in later chapters of this volume were highlighted as thrusts of the Assessment Movement in presentations before the North Central Association in Chicago, at American Association of Higher Education
Conferences on Assessment and Quality in Boston and Washington, D.C., and at the Annual Lilly Conference on College Teaching in Oxford, Ohio, as well as in five critical thinking conferences sponsored by Winona State.
But our purpose in undertaking humor empirical testing was from the beginning to bring the benefits of empiricism to literary critical study. We of course could have no certain idea of what we would find in undertaking empirical humor investigations, but that was precisely why we felt that literary critical study needed an empirical counterpart. Literary criticism should not build castles in air. Literary discussion of humor has a very long ancestry, dating back easily 2,300 years, and has often been blessed with remarkable insight. At the same time, literary study without empirical backing has often come round to rediscussing the same quandaries without any additional tools for making further headway. One of those quandaries is the steady literary propensity to equate humor and comedy to the denigration of both.
It is our hope that the wonderful cooperation we have been given at Winona State and indeed throughout the United States in this testing program can now come to fruition in a discussion of the comedy-humor quandary which can indeed move forward on the basis of new evidence.
The key to that forward movement, we believe, is the recognition that authorial humor choices create a texture, a humor texture, for comedy. Two comedies with identical comedic plot and comedic meaning can have strikingly different humor textures. Once such contrastive humor textures have been convincingly demonstrated, both the study of comedy and the study of humor, we believe, can move to much higher levels of sophistication.