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The Humor Quotient Newsletter

Vol. 5, No. 2, April, 1999, Winona, MN


A National Sense of Humor—Some Philosophic Considerations


Over the last decade, a considerable debate has raged within the International Society of Humor Studies about the existence of a “national” or “ethnic” humor.  Prof.  Christie Davies of the University of Reading has had a leading part in this discussion with his thorough international research that shows quite conclusively that similar forms of ethnic-butt jokes appear in dissimilar ethnic contexts all over the world with different ethnic butts.  Thus, if you’ve heard the joke, “How many Norwegians does it take to change a light bulb?” Davies can easily quote you the “How many Poles—or Russians, or Albanians—does it take to change a light bulb?” jokes.


Recent experimentation using Canadian and American attendees at the Northwood University International Conference on Creativity in Colleges and Universities (1998), however,  shows that it is possible with a highly homogeneous set of academics at least, to show high confidence differences in humor preference between national groups. (Watch for the next issue of HQN for details of this experiment.)  This suggests the need for rethinking what we mean by nationality differences in humor.






The Prioritized Concern


The often-analyzed reality of Schlemiel humor within Judaism suggests a fairly complex idea of national or ethnic humor.  A society—a national or ethnic group or even a “community of discourse” within a greater society—is largely defined by prioritized ideas.  For example, share enough ideas of freedom, individual responsibility, equality before one’s Creator, and inalienable right among other things to pursue happiness, and it is hard to argue that you are not an American in spirit. 


What if it turns out that the very act of prioritizing a concept or a concern and accepting it as part of one’s social self-definition is enough to potentiate laughter in any discussion of that prioritized item?


In suggesting this social equation, prioritized concern=laughter potentiated, I do not mean that the social group suggests an area of concern and  that thereafter well-recognized generically human forms of humor move in like sharks to feed off the interest.  This certainly does happen, but in itself it does not make for any ethnic or national uniqueness.  Thus, Monica Lewinsky recently became a prioritized item of concern in the United States, and there were eventually half-hour and longer radio shows every morning to run through Monica jokes.  The sharkish nature of the situation was such that someone even proposed a Monica Society for people named Monica to protect themselves.  I’m sure Davies could quote analogous happenings in other societies.


But what I am talking about here is something different, and the Schlemiel is the most publicized version of this difference.  No doubt we could even argue over the definition of the Schlemiel, but for our purposes let us define it this way: the Schlemiel is the man who is kicked from one end of the world to the other, the man of all sorrows, and at the same time, perhaps only dimly perceived, the Beloved of God.


Now it is certainly possible to analyze Schlemiel humor within a number of existing rubrics.  The above definition can be seen  as implying incongruity.  And Schlemiel humor is incongruous.  But it is not incongruous like other humors.  The Schlemiel can normally articulate his pain—see Malamud’s “Jewbird” as an extraordinary example—so word play is part of though not definitive of Schlemiel humor.  From a Bergsonian perspective, you could probably find a “mechanical encrusted on the living” in stock Schlemiel responses, but you could also find a Langerian tenacious hold on life.  A need for some sympathetic response to the Schlemiel’s pain is evident though largely suppressed.






The Anchoring Statement


Instead of forcing Schlemiel humor to fit one of these procrustean beds, we can suggest that it is ultimately its own, “new” form of humor, a humor found by a people with a common prioritized conception.  Such prioritized conceptions normally have to be more than “ambient”—they need a classic, anchor statement so that the concept can’t stray too far from person to person.  Anchored priorities can then be studied not just by academics but by practicing comedians and by “just plain folks.”


In American studies, the Declaration of Independence’s opening phrases are such an anchoring statement of prioritization—so anchored, I would argue, the American people have prioritized the pursuit of happiness and the worth of the Little Guy.  If so, then our theory would be that Little Guy is laughter-potentiated for Americans.


Is there then an anchoring statement for the Schlemiel?  I would argue that there indeed is.  It should be found in a place of high veneration.  I’d suggest for Schlemiel we look to an anchor in the Pentateuch.   Moses was given the Law.  He was given the assurance that the Lord your God is One.  And he was given a perpetual decree concerning his followers. 


The Israelites were instructed to inscribe this decree on Mounts Gerazim and Ebal, one a blessing, one a curse:   a blessing on those who followed the Law exactly, a curse on those who deviated from it (Deuteronomy 27-30).   From this point on in Jewish history—whether we accept an authorial date around 1400 B.C. or a post-exilic alternative nearer to 500 B.C.—the idea of being one of God’s own and yet of being under an unbreakable curse has been easy to identify in all Jewish studies.


I would contend that Schlemiel humor is a developed sense.  It is not something that all human beings inherently understand or that develops like language in every normal child.  It bears solid relationships to incongruity, sympathetic pain, word play, gotcha, and Bergsonian and Langerian humor (probably among others), but it is not just combinative of these others; it is its own cultural self.

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

Tel:  (507) 457-5443; Email:





The Little Guy


As I have already suggested, such a social sense of humor is not necessarily limited to Judaism.  There is nothing in the definition that would place such a limit.  In American studies, the American Dream and the Little Guy have been identified by innumerable independent scholarly investigations.   If our theory is correct, then it should be possible to show that such concepts are laughter-potentiated for Americans.  It would be even more conclusive if we could show that such laughter potentiation is somewhat puzzling to non-Americans, that they fail to “see” the humor.  But as Judaism has introduced the world to Schlemiel sensitivity, it is perhaps also that America has introduced the world to Little Guy sensitivity—as a Taiwanese student of mine said, “I don’t think Taiwanese have ever really thought about Little Guy humor because, you know, until very recently, Taiwanese worked six days a week; they just worked, they didn’t think about it.”


At present, we can not prove that Little Guy is humor-potentiated for Americans in any nationalistic sense.  However, research has begun at Winona State University to try to develop instrumentation that might show  more conclusively that socially defined humor is a reality in the senses we have discussed it above.


At the 4th Annual Winona State Critical Thinking Conference (April 23-24, 1999), students in  American Film Humor displayed a number of poster presentations of their attempts to use the daily comics as the locus of an experimental inquiry into Little Guy humor.  It should be obvious that there are a great many Little Guys prominently displayed on American comic strip pages—from Dennis the Menace  and Charlie Brown (who show America’s overlapping preoccupation with children) to Hagar the Horrible, Beetle Bailey, the King of Id, Blondie and Dagwood, Ziggy, and Cathy who display the range of adult Little Guys recognized in America.


Each student has been trying not only to define Little Guy humor, but more importantly, to recognize sub-divisions within that definition that are effective within American cartooning.  Ultimately, we would hope to be able to develop a Little Guy Humor Test, pitting various sub-categories of Little Guy humor against each other and hopefully showing that different preferences in Little Guy humor correlate with other variables.


Associated student researchers for this project are:  Karen  Berthiaume, Carla

Bode, Christy Gottschalk, Adam Kuehnel, Anne Lundeen, Meredith Martin,

Kristin Mason, James Murray, Patricia Oestreich, Rebecca Schesny, Rebecca

Scrivens, Angela Shugart, Chia-Chun Tsai, and Jessica Yannarelly.




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