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December Comedy:

Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays









By Paul Grawe, Program Director, ITCHS



It is my great pleasure to gather together here Robin Jaeckle Grawe’s conference papers from 1990 to 2007. It has been an exciting period to work in humor, and at least to some extent, Robin’s conference papers chronicle the developing work program of the Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies (ITCHS).


Until 1990, Robin had largely served as advisor and editor to my publications in comedy. She had been a part-time instructor at Winona State University and the College of St. Teresa, always in composition-related programs, had developed a teaching style which blended interest in formal rhetorical structure with very successful techniques for teaching stylistic adjustment and advance. She had studied dark humor under Dr. David Robinson at Winona State, and her stylistic interests had included an emphasis on humor in teaching.


Then in 1990, we received an invitation from Prof. Don Nilsen (Arizona State University) to join the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS). Don’s invitation can probably be viewed as the seminal step in the founding of the Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies (ITCHS) and of its work program.


Robin and I both presented papers that year at the ISHS conference in Sheffield, England. In both cases, we had a backlog of ideas that needed publication, and we chose from those ideas the ones that seemed most pressing. Robin’s choice was to write on the dark humor of Heinrik Ibsen.


My choice was to write a paper insisting as I had always done previously that humor and comedy are separate things, a distinction ISHS needed to make for itself.


These two papers can be seen then as foundational to ITCHS’s program of study. That program from the beginning was divided between the study of humor and the study of comedy.  For many people, humor and comedy are synonymous, and so we have since talked in terms of “formal comedy” to avoid unnecessary contention. Formal comedy and humor are closely related in the sense that horses and carriages are closely related.  No sane person should fail to see the close relationship; no sane person should confuse a horse with a carriage.




Humor deserves its own special study, separate from comedy. We were convinced of that in 1990, and it has been gratifying to see how exponentially the growth in appreciation for academic study of humor has grown in the last decade. Well before 1990, we had been strongly associated with the theory of dark or sombre comedy.  With Robin’s paper on Ibsen, ITCHS would be strongly associated with an assertion of the reality of dark humor diverging from a broader humor mainstream.


The Sheffield conference was a second crucial step for ITCHS in that Robin and I both attended a seminar on humor testing as practiced until that time. That testing typically had no discernable input from people trained in literature, and we felt that there was a definite place for such input.  In particular, as people from literature, we recognized that humor, far from being a simple and singular concept, was more like a Wittgensteinian rope, made of many strands, none of them nearly the length of the rope itself but all of which woven together made up the totality known as humor. As literary people, we were aware of a plethora of terms developed in many cultures over centuries and millennia that made useful, though typically vague distinctions between many contrastive strands of  the humor rope. Among these terms, it is easy to cite ‘wit,’ ‘sarcasm, ‘satire,’ and ‘whimsy’ as random but powerful examples.


We returned from Sheffield then intent on defining some small area of humor which could be further tested for preferences of sub-types within itself. The Sheffield seminar had seemed to emphasize how much work had been done resulting in nothing particular that was statistically proven. ITCHS in its inception was determined to make statistically provable discovery and was committed to the principle that starting small with one sub-area of humor was likely to be essential to such provability.


We quickly moved to limiting our inquiry to what George Meredith had called Humor of the Mind.  From his work, it was fairly clear that such humor had as sub-components Incongruity, Gotcha, and Word Play humor. To that list we added a fourth—Sympathetic Pain humor—which arguably Meredith never focused on and which certainly distinguishes the work of Shakespeare from the work of his favorite, Molière.


And thus, without our particularly intending it, we became involved in quadrilateral analysis.





Rereading Robin’s paper on Ibsen, it is clear that it belongs to a different tradition of study, a fundamentally literary critical, humanistic tradition. Most of the papers collected in this volume represent that tradition.  But the challenge of Sheffield had forced us into empirical science with its need for tight definition, testing apparatus, statistical analysis (including exploration of the statistical peculiarities of quadrilateral analysis), and duplicability criteria.


Robin was primarily responsible both for the practical design of an empirical preference test among these four Humors of the Mind and also for some theoretical framework uniting six pairs of preferences. This too was an initiating assumption for ITCHS.  We posited that discussion of humor personality would typically be a matter of two dominant humor preferences, not one. Four sub-humors allowed for six humor pairs to consider.


It was a memorable weekend when Robin tackled the theoretical problem.  She occasionally reported out on progress or lack thereof on long walks around Lake Winona. And what she eventually arrived at was a set of six rubrics, or names for the six humor preference pairings.  These names taken together had a sense of wholeness and circularity, the sixth leading into the first and around the circle again. It is still  with amazement that we continue to find statistical proofs that are easier to understand given these rubrics, and thus we have never changed our names for the pairs. They are: Crusader (G+I), Advocate (G+W), Bridgebuilder (G+SP), Consoler (SP+W), Reconciler ((SP+I), and Intellectual (I+W).


A few of the articles here collected deal with our testing program, Robin’s rubrics, and the like.  By and large, the articles do not. They do not for two reasons. First, soon after Robin had finished designing the Humor Quotient Test (HQT), we were able to report high confidence results with its use, results that should be seen in light of something like three millennia of humor discussion without the knowledge provided by these empirical discoveries. It was almost immediately apparent that ITCHS needed a way of disseminating such results to humor experts around the world.  And thus The Humor Quotient Newsletter (HQN) was born with Robin as Layout Editor and sometimes author.  To a large extent, the great discoveries in empirical study of humor were put on a fast track of publication outside of conferences.





Second, Robin and I had entered the International Society for Humor Studies with a before-mentioned backlog of ideas, all of them from our non-empirical, literary stance. We had long standing expertise in these and large bibliographies to cite and to draw on, encompassing the literary critical and intellectual work of centuries.  Notably among these were the insights of Henri Bergson and Suzanne Langer, a Vitalist tradition of which we were already becoming major exponents in our generation.  Also notable were ideas found in Freud , Shaw, and Harold W. Watts in their own ways just as relevant to a humanistic, Vitalist understanding of humor.  And Freud was also important for having so honestly and cogently painted the dark side of humor, the less than admirable motivations of humor, especially in his analysis of the wit worker, authenticating audience, and butt.  Finally, there were what I called the Christian Critics in my dissertation on sombre comedy.  These critics frequently confused comedy and humor, but in all cases they pointed to metaphysical dimensions of the comedy-humor discussion that practicing comedians were all too likely to ignore and even to lampoon.  Humor and comedy share the shrewd characteristic of seeming to be light, fluffy, insubstantial, even when and perhaps particularly when they are hammering at what is too serious to be seriously discussed.  Shakespeare had always been central to our thinking in such areas, whether in the dark comedy of Winter’s Tale or in the dark humor of Much Ado about Nothing and Tempest.


Robin’s collected papers then are probably most profitably read as focused on substantial literary critical questions of humor and comedy. 


At the same time there was the other, empirical part of her scholarly career, inspired by her first ISHS conference, that was moving at fantastic speed in establishing high-confidence relationships between humor and an almost incredible array of facets of human character, personality, and circumstance. While this second impetus is poorly represented in her collected conference papers, it would be wrong not to mention here as we do in so many other venues all that is owed especially to students, faculty, and administration of Winona State University for their unstinting cooperation in our testing program. Well over 1,000 WSU Warriors have participated in our various humor tests. The English Department at Winona State has allowed me for decades to teach Shakespeare and for almost two decades to teach American Film Comedy, and Robin and I have both been made indescribably richer in humor as well as comedy understanding with the help of the students in these courses.  It also needs to be mentioned that the Bush Foundation through the Minnesota State University System provided catapulting support in two grants for a major assessment of critical thinking at Winona State, and we are forever indebted to Dr. Brian Aldrich of WSU’s Sociology Department for invaluable help on design and analysis of the Bush Grant study results.  We appreciate everyone’s forbearance in allowing us to append the HQT to the critical thinking battery of tests, and we hope that the empirically strong relationship between critical thinking and Incongruity humor preference thus discovered  rewards that forbearance.




In summary then, Robin’s scholarly career has been routinely divided: divided between work as an editor-advisor and as an independent scholar; divided between humor and comedy; divided between light and dark forms of comedy and of humor; divided between  private demands upon wife and mother and public demands of a distinguished critical tradition of which she is a leading voice in her own generation; divided between work on behalf of the Mississippi River as a MN-WI Boundary Area Commissioner and writings in support of great humor and comedy theories of the past; divided between a literary critical approach and an empirical scientific approach; divided between her own interests and insights developed over decades and the demands of empirical humor discoveries coming in such quantity as often to overwhelm ability to integrate.


Second, the conference papers fundamentally lean toward the literary critical side of her work and almost away from the empirical humor side. 


Third each of her conference papers was chosen not just for itself, not just to represent her own achievements, interests, and insights, but also to build a coherent program known as ITCHS. And in building that coherent program, there are certain basic principles of comedy and of humor studies that are consistently being defended and expounded. Almost all of these are controversial, from the distinction between comedy and humor on.


Finally, the conference papers even supplemented with HQN articles and the like are not the totality.  Notably, the success of HQT in establishing empirical proof for so many previously undreamt relationships between humor and the rest of life emboldened us.  As mentioned, we had a long-standing strong relationship to the Vitalist tradition, so it was quite natural that we would begin building a Langer-Bergson Vitalist Humor Test (LBVHT). To the present time, this considerably slighter test (12 questions versus 42 questions in the HQT) has been far less employed than the HQT.  Nevertheless, when we have found opportunity to employ this test, it has routinely revealed high-confidence results, a sample of which is available in this collection. (To date, we have never run a test with 30 or more participants which did not produce a high-confidence result about the relationship between humor preference and some other aspect of life. These discoveries are a legacy based in Robin’s design of the HQT that justifies considering all our respondent participants as workers with us and associates in the ITCHS program.) As December Comedy went to “press,” at the invitation of Chaplain Bill Flesh at Winona Community Hospital, we began assessment studies of humor in nursing home environments. The present collection of essays does not represent workshop presentations and associated research findings in these areas, even though at present that seems to be the key growth area in the ITCHS academic program.





And as long as I am making disclaimers for what isn’t in this collection, there is a funny little story that accounts for the absence of Robin’s paper for the Sorbonne Conference of ISHS in 1992. We had started out from Orly for a WSU-funded medieval study tour through southern France. Outside Bordeaux, we realized that we were the only car on the highway, and by Toulouse, we had a dawning realization that we were trespassing on a national truckers’ strike. The Olympics were just at hand, so we dropped into Spain to reconnoiter Chanson de Roland country—it had been its own interesting challenge to navigate by blind reckoning around Toulouse and across an occasional sidewalk or two. By Avignon, things were  perilous; we loaded up on gas and crossed the Alps into Italy, perhaps using Hannibal’s route. When we got to Turin and called the American Consulate to ask for help, the response at the other end of the line was, “You were in France? how did you get out?” all as one breathless sentence.  We finally sent our papers by fax from the one public fax machine in Fulda, Germany. We never did hear if the papers were received or read. We appreciated WSU’s kindly understanding of the grant report.


So Robin’s scholarly career has also been divided between the routine of scoring test results and the high adventures of crossing the Alps. 


Despite all these divisions and unrepresented interests, we hope that Robin’s papers will provide food for thought for many.




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