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The Humor Quotient Newsletter

Vol. 5, No. 1, Winona, Minnesota, February, 1999


4th WSU Critical Thinking Conference Features Humor


A 4th Annual Critical Thinking Conference at Winona State University has been announced with a primary focus on relationships between critical thinking and humor.  The conference is scheduled for April 23-24 and has been announced internationally thanks to ISHS Executive Secretary Don Nilsen.  Preliminary proposals indicate that the humor sections will draw on humor expertise throughout North America.


The idea of a relationship—any relationship—between humor and serious thought is to many an oxymoron.  It was Aristotle, after all, who laid down the idea in the Poetics that trivial minds turned to comedy and satire.  Perhaps in Athenian society of the 5th and 4th centuries before Christ, he was right.  Tragedy according to Aristotle purged men of their emotions of pity and fear.  There was certainly a great deal fearful in ancient life and just as much pitiable.  But the state seemed primarily interested in producing soldiers without pity or fear. (See Plato, The Republic, Book X.)  In this setting, the serious business of recruiting incessant armies clearly required a concentration on tragedy, and perhaps in such a contest, any attention to comedy or humor had to be trivial.






Today’s society, of course, has almost diametrically opposed goals.  While most recognize that we need military defense, our goal is clearly not to recruit incessant armies and even in the military, we find an enormous benefit in the development of compassionate sense.  Meanwhile in civilian society, much of what was pitiable and fearful about ancient life has been addressed, but the current generally recognized challenge has become the humanizing of bureaucratic and large-scale business structures.  In such an environment, the classical argument against humor loses force, and a decided emphasis on humor may be needed to address serious concerns.


So however oxymoronic to some, the WSU 4th Critical Thinking Conference is directly asserting a relationship between humor and critical thought, an assertion in part based on empirical evidence previously published in HQN.  For example, Robin Jaeckle Grawe recently reported  in these pages strong evidence that of four humor types—Incongruity, Word Play, Gotcha, and Sympathetic Pain—Incongruity is far more related to collegians’ frequency of critical thinking over a wide range of such dimensions.  A relationship between  humor and literary criticism can be found below.


The 4th WSU Conference invites proposals for any papers dealing with the relationship between humor and critical thinking, but it has proposed seven areas in particular as prompts for ideas.  These emphases are:


·         Humor as Vehicle for Critical Thought

·         Modern Language Humor as Vehicle for Social and Political Criticism

·         Biblical/Classical Humor and Critical Thought

·         Creativity, Humor, and Pedagogy in Higher Education

·         Medieval/Renaissance Thoughtful Humor

·         The Serious Humor of Women’s Studies.


Other conference emphases will include critical tools for literature/communications and for women’s studies. Conference registration is $30.  Abstracts (300-word maximum) should be submitted by March 15 to or hard copy to:


Paul Grawe, English

Winona State University

Winona, MN 55987


HQN Editor: Paul Grawe, Department of English, Winona State University, Winona, MN 55987

Tel:  (507) 457-5443; E-mail:





The Split Humor Personality of Don Quijote


[The following is a synopsis of a paper delivered in October at the Luso-Hispanic Humor Conference in Sudbury, Canada.]


If Cervantes’ Don Quijote, Part 1, was an immediate international success, its subsequent criticism has been difficult and full of contradiction.  Riley, for example, notes that Cervantes’ methods can look “at times like a waggish, bewildering, and complicated game or a protracted private joke.” (35)  Spitzer sees the oddity that Europeans approach the book as children’s literature whereas Americans see it in ideological terms. (113) Erich Auerbach delineates the difficulty of determining the novel’s position “on the scale of levels between tragic and comic.” (106)  (References to Cervantes:  A Collection of Critical Essays, Ed. Lowry Nelson, Jr., Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1969)


Perhaps many of these feelings of difficulty can be resolved by examining what may be called the “humor structure” of Don Quijote.  The idea of humor structure is that an artistic work does not go about things hit-or-miss, that certain things are appropriate to the artistic achievement and therefore are patterned and repeated throughout the work.  Such patterning is equally apparent in the neglect of elements common enough in real life but extrinsic to the pattern being perfected.


If we think simply about a piece of patterned cloth, the pattern may choose to work in red and white.  By this choice, red and white lines will be repeatedly chosen perhaps in an intricate mathematical relationship to one another.  But precisely because it is a pattern of red and white, there will be no threads of green or black anywhere present in the cloth.  Patterning thus implies repetition, but it also implies omission.


Empirical testing at Winona State, St. Olaf College, and a number of other sites has focused on a sub-set of humor variables which can be called, in George Meredith’s phrase, “Humor of the Mind.”  Four types of Humor of the Mind have been distinguished in the Humor Quotient Test—Incongruity, Gotcha, Word Play, and Sympathetic Pain. Moreover, Robin Jaeckle Grawe has demonstrated that these four types of humor can be combined in six “humor personalities,” each a combination of two of the four joke types.


Now let us assume that an author can choose a “humor personality” for a work.  That humor personality could be a simple pattern, critically translatable something as follows:  While there are many kinds of humor, the work in question will refrain from all but two kinds of humor within the subset of four types of Humor of the Mind.






This simple critical assertion is probably an oversimplification for almost any piece of literature.  First of all, jokes hardly ever are purely one form of humor.  In devising the Humor Quotient Test, Robin Jaeckle Grawe in fact went through literally thousands of jokes and cartoons to find even 84 jokes that were dominantly one type of humor or another in pure enough form to be useful in empirical testing.  Second, it is doubtful that any work of literature relies on only a single set of joke types, so that even if only two kinds of Humor of the Mind jokes were present, this would not preclude, for example, physical humor, political humor, or ethnic humor, to name only a few alternatives.


Nevertheless, if we can talk about red-and-white patterning of cloth, we can also talk about Incongruity-and-Gotcha patterning of a work of literature.  And in fact, as children’s literature, this is probably how people subconsciously approach the humor structure of Don Quijote.   In this interpretation, the work as a whole is dominated by two master jokes.  The first joke is the vast Incongruity between the real world and the idealized world of chivalry to which Don Quijote is addicted (along with most of high society and even a number of notable saints of the Church in Cervantes’ era).  The second master joke is the Gotcha joke that people who live in a superior world of ideas that don’t match reality are constantly endangering themselves and in fact will be met with an infinity of blows.  The problem is that, as we as readers mature and still appreciate the work we read as a child, we are less and less settled in that simple interpretation.


Instead, we increasingly sense that something else is at work, that despite the incessant Gotchas, we are more and more in love with the gaunt knight, more and more won to his idealized world even as our minds approve the real-world objections of Sancho Panza.  In short, we find that man does not live by bread alone and that the ideal has a claim on us along with the real and tangible. It’s perhaps a lesson, embedded in a split humor personality for the work, which materialistic 20th century humanity needs to relearn.


In short, we start to see Sympathetic Pain jokes in place of Gotchas.  If Don Quijote is an Incongruity-and-Gotcha pattern, it is Crusader humor.  But if it is Incongruity-and-Sympathetic Pain, then it is Reconciler.  The same words create a double structure, a double reading, and constant literary confusion.  Cervantes the literal Crusader wrote a story that finally called for reconciliation of the natural and supernatural orders.


Elizabeth Ann Grawe, St. Olaf College

Paul H. Grawe, Winona State University


Hear, Ye!  Hear, Ye !                                 


The Humor Quotient Newsletter is  now   being published  under the  auspices  of ITCHS  (the Institute  for  Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies) headquartered in Winona, Minnesota,  under  Executive Director  Robin  Jaeckle Grawe and Program Director Paul Grawe.                             




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