Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays
“Sometimes laughter is a matter of life and death,”
The film's jokes create a stuttered rhythm, making us uncomfortably aware that though something funny was just said, we aren’t laughing.
Invective peppers Steel Magnolias.
Of the four types of Humor of the Mind, the most predominant is Sympathetic Pain.
Truvy’s beauty shop runs on Sympathetic Pain humor.
Gotcha is a more aggressive, masculine form of humor, and this is a Southern women’s script.
“If you can achieve puberty, you can achieve a past.”
Truvy's shop is where the women can find consolation from one another in their troubles.
Many technically humorous incongruities are structured to create a stuttered rhythm which mutes laughter, deflecting our thoughts to serious underlying realities.
The film’s climax in the cemetery combines Incongruity with Sympathetic Pain, cementing in our minds these two humor impressions, creating a Reconciler personality.
Superficially, the film manifests a Consoler personality, but it is the sense of reconciliation that we take home from the theater.
Vitalism was dramatized by George Bernard Shaw, who saw the élan vital, the life force, embodied mainly in women, as the bearers of children and the motivators of men.
Steel Magnolias shimmers with Langerian Vitalism
The women of Steel Magnolias are “live wires,” adapters, defiers of death, and even more, affirmers of life.
Male vitality is pictured in the “bleeding” armadillo groom’s cake.
Men think mechanically. They aren’t interested unless you can “Shoot it, stuff it, or marry it."
The central Bergsonian clown is Ouiser.
Steel Magnolias takes Tenacity–holding on to life–seriously and celebrates it through humorous embodiments which, unlike its incongruities, are not frustrated or stuttered.
Magnolias is full of symbols of potential: small children and Easter eggs.
At the graveyard it is the Performance of Clairee’s offering up Ouiser as a sacrificial punching bag that turns anger into laughter and despair into hope.
Langerian affirmational humor defines the spirit of the abiding Heroic Nurturers who make the film so memorable.
Humor Structure Interplay in Steel Magnolias
Presented at the 17th Annual Conference of the International Society for Humor Studies
Youngstown, Ohio 2005
Edited for web publication
Steel Magnolias is one of those laugh-and-cry-and-feel-good-all-at-the-same-time movies. It got mixed reviews. Sophisticates see it, despite its all-star cast, as “superficial” (Hicks) and “overly-saccharine yet somewhat satisfying” (Null). Yet it is the sort of film that some people—even intelligent people—even film critics—see again and are glad they did (Davis). And when the pitch line on the DVD cover is “Sometimes laughter is a matter of life and death,” somebody in the Humor Society ought to look at it.
Based on the play of the same name by Robert Harling, Steel Magnolias is the story of six Louisiana women in three generations facing birth and death, abandonment and reunification, who find immense personal strength despite grave personal weaknesses through a fellowship rooted in faithfulness and Truvy’s beauty shop (Truvy played by Dolly Parton). Moving from holiday to holiday—and this is actually important for comedy and humor—we see a young diabetic Shelby (played by Julia Roberts) marry, bear a child, and die; we see her protective mother, M’Lynn (played by Sally Field) fight to keep her daughter alive; and we see a young abandoned wife, Annelle, pick up the shreds of her life, try on several new selves, and eventually marry and head for the delivery room. The four older women mold, support, and grow themselves. Men are quite secondary though absolutely necessary supporting characters.
While Steel Magnolias is definitely a comedy, it is marked by petty running feuds, disappointing relationships, frequent outbursts of mean-spiritedness, and biting despair. Its jokes often create a stuttered rhythm, making us uncomfortably aware that though something funny was just said, we aren’t laughing. Humor structure analysis reveals a complex interplay of various facets of Humor of the Mind and Humor the Spirit and helps us illuminate mixed emotions and mixed reviews.
The humor in Steel Magnolias that most pops out at us is the quick exchange of insult and retort, some of it pure invective. Invective, so’s-your-mother humor is not Humor of the Mind. However, it peppers Steel Magnolias. Much of the invective comes from Drum, M’Lynn’s husband (played by Tom Skerritt), and Ouiser, a self-proclaimed cranky, rich widow (played by Shirley MacLaine). Drum says Ouiser looks “like hammered shit” and Ouiser tells M’Lynn her husband is “a real gentleman. I bet he takes the dishes out of the sink before he pees in it.” Such humorous insults keep the superficial tenor of the film light as it marches toward difficult life and death struggles, and they allow Humor of the Mind to take on darker tones manifest in jokes which are not superficial but rather anchored into the structure of the work.
Humor of the Mind
Gravian humor analysis is based originally in the work of theater critic George Meredith of the 19th century, who, focusing largely on the works of Molière and Shakespeare, identified in their work what he called Humor of the Mind. Humor of the Mind can be considered classical humor, in that it is common in dramatic and literary works, especially comedic works as far back as we have literary documents, and it usually provokes a laugh.. Humor of the Mind appeals to our minds rather than to our emotions or hormones. In Meredith's discussion, at least three types of Humor of the Mind can be discerned. My husband and I in our research have labeled those types Gotcha, Incongruity, and Word Play. To those three we have added a fourth, Sympathetic Pain, a laughter which joins with an undeserving victim to laugh at life’s blows. Gravian analysis combines these four classical humor types into six pairs to create a “humor personality.” Our research with over 1,000 participants has found that preference for these mental humor forms by themselves or in combination is correlated with many independent variables, and that, furthermore, participants have identified themselves as related to their humor-derived personality. By extension, Gravian literary analysis identifies the two types of Humor of the Mind which most predominate in a work of literature, and from that identification assigns it a humor-derived personality, which can illuminate aspects of the work well beyond the humorous.
Thus considering which of the four mental humor forms predominate in Steel Magnolias, I would argue that the most predominant type is Sympathetic Pain. Sympathetic Pain humor occurs when we recognize that someone has been victimized by life and we laugh in recognition, fellowship, and sympathy. This type of humor contrasts with Gotcha humor which executes just deserts on some idiot who was just asking for it. So, for example, when Ouiser, startled by a sudden explosion of firecrackers, closes the car trunk on about 20 dozen decorated Easter eggs and thus crushes them, we groan and laugh at the same time in sympathy with the hard-working egg decorators. They did not deserve this defeat. And when M’Lynn’s husband, asked to rid the magnolia trees of flocks of roosting birds threatening to contribute more than anyone wanted to the afternoon’s wedding reception, we laugh in sympathy with the wedding planners (the women) that the birds chose today to gather in the magnolia trees and that Drum chooses to shoo them off with pistols and then firecrackers. We would laugh in sympathy with Ouiser whose dog is having a nervous breakdown over the loud noises, except that Ouiser is such a pain in the rear that it’s very hard to sympathize with her over anything, and we end up laughing in sympathy with Drum who has learned to plug his ears and duck whenever Ouiser comes complaining.
Extending beyond the one-liners of invective, these humorous scenes are like anecdotal jokes. In an even more extended sense, Truvy’s beauty shop runs on Sympathetic Pain humor. It’s a place where the women share their fears, devastations, hopes, pains, and rebukes, and where laughter brings strength and support. As Truvy says, “nobody cries alone in my presence.”
In contrast, the film though well seasoned with invective and humorous insult, is not marked by Gotcha humor, by idiots acting out of a presumed superiority or competence only to get what they deserve. Gotcha is a more aggressive, masculine form of humor, and this is a southern women’s script. Neither is the plot structured to execute poetic justice. In fact, the film defies Gotcha sensibilities. M’Lynn’s anger on learning of Shelby’s pregnancy, when both know that bearing a child could mean the death of the diabetic Shelby, underscores what in another context might be argued as the idiocy of Shelby’s bearing children. But Shelby says she’d rather have “thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special,” and the script forbids us to see her death as poetic justice.
That leaves Word Play or Incongruity as the second most prominent form of Humor of the Mind. The predominance of insult and sarcasm suggests Word Play. While invective in its essence is visceral rather than mental, in Magnolias it often morphs into mental Word Play. Ouiser says that Drum is a “boil on the butt of humanity.” Exhibiting Word Play, M’Lynn remarks that the sanctuary decorated for the wedding “looks like it’s been hosed down with Pepto Bismol.” Truvy is full of aphorisms and gossip, sometimes witty: “If you can achieve puberty, you can achieve a past.” “When it comes to suffering, she’s right up there with Elizabeth Taylor.”
If the two prominent classical humor forms are Sympathetic Pain and Word Play, the film would have a Consoler character. A Consoler is one who joins others in their difficulties and finds appropriate words to lessen the pain. To the extent that the film focuses on Truvy and her shop, the play can be easily seen as Consoler. The shop is where the women can find consolation from one another in their troubles.
However, it is also arguable that at a deeper structural level, the next prominent humor form is Incongruity. It is incongruous that Annelle, the beauty school valedictorian, frequently chooses very unflattering glasses and clothes. It is incongruous that M’Lynn, a practical and educated mental health therapist, has a daughter who makes a fetish out of having the right shade of pink for her wedding nail polish and decorates the church in Pepto Bismol. It is incongruous that when Clairee (played by Olympia Dukakis), a recent widow of a former mayor, buys the local radio station, she assigns herself to covering football from inside the locker room, where among naked athletes she reports on the team’s new colors including their washability. It is incongruous that Truvy is so romantic and the last romantic thing her husband did was to remodel the carport into a beauty parlor so that she could support him. It is incongruous that Ouiser, who married the two worst men on the planet and has been in a bad mood for 40 years and is trying to kill herself with a poor diet, attracts an old beau from high school, who pads after her like a worshipful puppy.
Many of these technically humorous incongruities are structured to create a stuttered rhythm which mutes laughter, deflecting our thoughts to serious underlying realities. This sort of muted laugher and stuttered rhythm are characteristic of dark comedy.
The film’s climax in the cemetery combines Incongruity with Sympathetic Pain, cementing in our minds these two humor impressions. In a very intense scene which starts not funny at all, M’Lynn struggles to deal with the incongruity and unfairness of her beautiful, alive daughter preceding her in death. Her friends sensing her struggle have joined her at the grave. Annelle offers, haltingly, her best theological take on the situation, and M’Lynn thanks her. So far we have consolation. But words are insufficient, and finally M’Lynn’s frustration and pain crash through her self-restraint and logic as she cries, “Why, why, why? I just want to hit someone.” And then Clairee grabs Ouiser and says, “Here, hit this,” offering her up, in essence, as a scapegoat. The gesture is absurdly mean and yet before long all but Ouiser are laughing. The women have faced the great incongruity of life, which no words can resolve, and they have turned anger and despair into laughter. They have begun the process of reconciliation with a realty which can not be explained. In terms of humor structure, predominance of Sympathetic Pain and Incongruity create a humor personality of Reconciler, one who joins with others in their difficulties for betterment.
In trying to describe the Gravian Reconciler, we have pointed to the Christian symbol of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, who through the incarnation joined humanity in its wretchedness, recognizing life’s ugly incongruities in compassion rather than judgment. The sacrificial nature of reconciliation is at the heart of Steel Magnolias: M’Lynn sacrifices a kidney to keep her daughter alive. Ouiser, who has condemned herself through the film, is sacrificed at the grave site that life might be regenerated. And shortly after, in order to create reconciliation with the very put-out Ouiser, Clairee provokes a petty feud over a seat on the bench and loses, sacrificially.
Thus I would argue that the classical humor structure the film at one level gives the script a Consoler quality, suggesting that many of life’s rough spots can be gotten over with the right way of talking about it. But Incongruity at a deeper structural level creates an abiding Reconciler quality in the film, and it is this sense of reconciliation that we take home from the theater.
Humor of the Spirit
Classical humor analysis provides a foundation for what mentally is going on in the humor the film. But it does not account for the extraordinary sense of aliveness, of the pulsing of life that permeates Steel Magnolias. For that we need to turn to Humor of the Spirit or Vitalism. Vitalism was first articulated and popularized by French philosopher Henri Bergson at the turn of the last century. Bergson saw the entire universe as a struggle between life and death. Laughter, he said, was a response to the mechanical, the dead, encrusted on the living. When we laugh at people acting like machines, we laugh at death, in defiance of it. And our laughter affirms our own aliveness.
Vitalism was dramatized by George Bernard Shaw, who believed that the élan vital, the life force, was embodied especially in women, as the bearers of children and the motivators of men. This more affirmational sense of Vitalism was further developed by philosopher Suzanne Langer who saw laughter as a response to the vitally alive, a celebration of life breaking forth, of babies and puppies, of spring, of survivors, of a great play in the last seconds of the game, of resurrection. Allied with Northrop Frye, Langer saw comedy as the genre of spring, of the episodic, of the life cycle. Thus between Bergson and Langer, we have two voices of Vitalism, one which defies death and one which celebrates life.
Steel Magnolias shimmers with Langerian Vitalism, of people finding a way around difficulties, of people celebrating the life cycle. All of Magnolias scenes occur on or around holidays—Easter, Christmas, Halloween, and Easter again. Those of us from the north are not likely to recognize much of a natural seasonal cycle in Louisiana, but the use of holidays clues us into the life cycle, and the heavy emphasis on Easter reminds us of the celebration of new life and resurrection.
Steel Magnolias characters are vitalist. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone calls the women “live wires.” They are not quitters. They are adapters, defiers of death, and even more, affirmers of life. Shelby loves babies and her job in the hospital nursery, and what she wants most to bear a child. M’Lynn fights to keep Shelby alive, first in her disapproval of Shelby’s pregnancy, and then in her bedside vigil. Even Ouiser, grouch that she is, is cantankerously alive.
The men also exhibit vitalism. The first really humorous scene in the film is of Drum trying to rid the magnolia trees of roosting birds with his pistol. This endeavor culminates in Drum and his sons rummaging exuberantly through the garage to find a crossbow and arrows to carry firecrackers into the tree. Drum is driven to exercise all vital cunning and ingenuity to win in his battle with the birds, and his sons, who heretofore have been lolling around the house threatening to break something with a basketball, have suddenly come to life in celebration of male raison d’etre. We laugh at their extraordinary aliveness, which is rewarded by an explosion of birds taking flight from the trees.
The film closes with a similar explosion of masculine, military resources as Truvy’s formerly somnolent husband rushes Annelle, in labor, to the hospital in his jeep, trailed by the father dressed up as the Easter bunny, with his head on sideways, plopped on the back of a motorcycle driven by Truvy’s rebellious son. Maleness is pictured in the “bleeding”armadillo groom’s cake, deep red cake with gray frosting—unappetizing to look at, recalling military functionality—yet inside the color of blood, the symbol of life. Masculine aliveness creates an ambience for the film and keeps it from relegating men to irrelevance amid strong women.
For a significant part of the film, however, the males are butts of Bergsonian humor. They think mechanically. They aren’t interested unless you can “Shoot it, stuff it, or marry it.” Truvy’s husband is lethargic for most of the film, Shelby’s brothers predictably, mechanically tease their sister and plot to decorate the getaway car with condoms. Jackson, Shelby’s husband is obsessed with firearms and will hunt anything. In fact, most men are seen as mechanically attracted to weapons and hunting. Faced with the birds, Drum automatically thinks weapons. His solution is effective, but he is left temporarily deaf (the encroachment of death) at his own daughter’s wedding and responds mechanically to things spoken to him. The Bergsonian treatment of the males of the film acts as a foil for the Langerian Vitalism of the six strong female characters.
Both Bergson and Langer created visualizations of vitalist humor. For Bergson, the humorous was epitomized by the old man slipping on a banana peel. Though not politically correct in a time of an aging population, the image can point to a clown figure who we indeed laugh at as mechanical and as giving in to death forces rather than defying them. Magnolias has its clown figures. By and large Drum and his sons are Bergsonian clowns.
Yet the central clown is Ouiser. The one everyone loves to hate, Ouiser defies life. Mechanically, she wears ugly clothes and grows vegetables she hates because that’s what southern women of her class do. She can be depended upon to be rude, self-deprecatory, and jaded. In a bad mood for 40 years, she tries not to eat anything healthy if she can help it. And when a mousy high school sweetheart comes back into her life, she resists romance with all she’s got. At the gravesite, she becomes the butt of cosmic humor.
As Gravian analysis has identified four predominant forms of classical Humor of the Mind, similarly it has identified four predominant forms of vitalist humor, Humor of the Spirit. We have labeled those four main forms: Tenacity, Potential, Performance, and Creativity. And as works of literature can be seen as having a classical humor personality, they can also be seen as manifesting a vitalist humor personality depending on their two dominant forms of affirmational (Langerian) vitalist humor. Since Langerian Vitalism is more subtle than other forms of humor and frequently not as overtly funny, we must look for instances where life manifesting itself makes us smile. Whereas Bergson illustrated Vitalism with an old man slipping on a banana peel, Langer pictured a fish whose tail had been nipped by a larger predator fish; the fish has survived but swims with a list. To find Langerian vitalist humor manifesting itself, we must watch for evidences of life asserting itself surprisingly or awkwardly, so as to overcome disabilities and challenges.
I would argue that in Steel Magnolias life asserts itself humorously most frequently in the form of Tenacity. People tenaciously fight through difficulties and disappointments, they hold on, and they develop vitalist mechanisms for doing so. We laugh at Drum’s tenacity in shooing off the birds in the end not because it is mechanical but because it is so full of life. We smile with Truvy hanging onto her marriage for decades with the help of aphorisms and a certain amount of wit. She says laughter through tears is her favorite kind of emotion. We laugh with Clairee who had the nerve not only to buy the radio station to become a sportscaster but then to walk into a locker room full of naked athletes to do the broadcast. And we smile as we watch Annelle evolve from a shy, rejected girl into a hot ticket, then a religious zealot, and finally a maturing expectant mom. Steel Magnolias takes holding on to life seriously and celebrates it through numerous humorous embodiments which, unlike its incongruities, are not frustrated or stuttered.
If Tenacity is the primary form of vitalist humor, is there a form we can exclude from being a lead vitalist element? I would argue that of the other three forms of vitalist humor, Creativity is the least manifest or central in Steel Magnolias. This is a traditional society where gender roles change slowly and class matters. Even shooting firecrackers with a crossbow, while perhaps clever, is well within the hunting mentality of the southern male. Truvy is not a creative artist but a self-proclaimed “glamour technician” who stays “abreast of the latest styles.” So that leaves Potential—laughing in celebration of life’s potential—and Performance—laughing in celebration of an amazing feat--as the second dominant vitalist humor form.
Arguing for Potential, Magnolias is full of symbols of potential: small children and Easter eggs. Shelby loves babies. Truvy is a great celebrator of potential: impressed that Annelle is “the valedictorian of her hair-do class,” Truvy repeatedly assures her nervous new hire that she will do just fine. Shelby recognizes the potential in Owen Jenkins, Ouiser’s old sweetheart, and forces a reacquaintance.
If we combine vitalist Tenacity and Potential, we get Nurturer, one who recognizes potential and tenaciously works to realize that potential. It would be hard to argue that Steel Magnolias is not full of Nurturers: mothers, encouragers, surrogate relatives. By the end of the film, little Jackson has lost his own mother but found numerous other women anxious to take on the nurturing role.
At the same time, it is not their nurturing qualities that these strong women are most remembered for. So it becomes useful to ask about Performance Vitalism: are there extraordinary feats—like the extraordinary athletic or artistic performance—that leave us so impressed that we must laugh? Drum’s firework display can easily be argued to be Performance vitalism as well as tenacity. But more important is the performance in the cemetery. It was not mere tenacity that got M’Lynn through Shelby’s marriage, childbirth, and finally death. She gave up a kidney. At the graveyard it is not her friend’s faithfulness but the Performance of Clairee’s offering up Ouiser as a sacrificial punching bag that turns anger into laughter and despair into hope. And the performance goes on, as Clairee tries to make amends with the affronted Ouiser, both acting out a battle so that a spirit of life can be claimed from death. And in terms of the film’s plot line, even prior to Easter eggs we see and hear Drum’s vitalist performance with a pistol, and at the end, the Easter Egg hunt is superseded by a humorous military expedition to the maternity ward—more Performance humor.
The combination of Tenacity and Performance yields Hero, one who tenaciously carries out an extraordinary performance. It is heroism that we most remember these six strong women for. In fact, I would argue that the vitalist structure of the plays suggests that these strong women are Heroic Nurturers. Primarily they nurture, but when the occasion demands it, they rise to heroism, giving up dignity and kidneys in order that life continues. In the final scene, we have returned to Easter, to children hunting Easter eggs, to women mothering children, and a women going into labor, the ultimate act of female heroism and vitalism.
Thus, considering Humor of the Mind and Humor of the Spirit together, the mental humor of Steel Magnolias gives it superficially a Consoler character and at a deeper level a Reconciler quality, tinged with the darkness of stuttered rhythms typical of modern dark comedy. Over this intellectual foundation, the film shimmers with vitalism. Pulsing though the film is a complex of vitalist humor interactions, contrasting Bergsonian defiant humor in the film’s central clown characters with Langerian affirmational humor, in the abiding Heroic Nurturers who make the film so memorable.
Critical Works Cited
Bergson, Henri. “Le Rire.” Tr. Fred Rothwell. Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1956: 61-192.
Davis, Nick. Nick’s Flick Picks. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/steel_magnolias/ 11/20/2008.
Frye, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.
Grawe, Paul H. Comedy in Space, Time and the Imagination. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1983.
---. “Gentle Will and the Humor Structure of Comedy of Errors and Midsummer Night’s Dream.” 2001 Conference of the International Society of Humor Studies, College Park, MD, 2001.
Grawe, Robin. “Congregational Preferences for Vitalist Humor.” Humor Quotient Newsletter. Winona, MN: Vol. 7, No. 2, November, 2001.
---. “Significant Relationship Found Between Critical Thinking and Preference for Incongruity Humor.” Humor Quotient Newsletter. Winona, MN: Vol. 3, No. 2, June, 1997.
Hicks, Chris. Deseret News, Salt Lake City. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/steel_magnolias/ 11/20/2008.
Langer, Suzanne. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953.
Meredith, George. “An Essay on Comedy.” Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956: 1-60.
Null, Christopher. Filmcritic.com. http://www.filmcritic.com/misc/emporium.nsf/reviews/Steel-Magnolias 11/20/2008.
Travers, Peter. Rolling Stone. Steel Magnolias video jacket.
Related ITCHS works: Four Seasons: Variations in American Vitalist Film Comedy: “Vitalist Techniques in Practice.”
Steel Magnolias. A Rastar Production.Based on a play by Robert Harling. 1989.