Tuesday, December 14, 2004

“Humor in Popular Culture” by Judith Yaross Lee

Dr. Lee publishes this introduction to Studies in American Humor every year as a summary of what has happened in humor scholarship. Leaving aside her very readable (yet scholarly) writing style, the breadth of her knowledge is enough to give one pause. I suppose it wouldn’t be hard to summarize the year in humor scholarship if one paid close attention, particularly if one became well known for having done so and people began to offer updates. But she is about to put the information in a much larger context.

This introduction comes from 2001, a particularly inauspicious year for comedy. Lee says that if there were any “doubts about the centrality of humor to American culture,” we can assume that they “vanished in the terrorist attacks.” She explains that “[s]elf-censorship ruled the day.” But ultimately, the comedians had to go back to work, even Mark Russell, who “recast his political satire as patriotism” when he explained his going back to work as a response to the president’s edict to return to our daily lives. The only joke Russell made about the president was to say that not joking about him would reduce his routine to eight minutes. Lee sums up the delicate problems posed by the national disaster for the comedians: “the biggest challenge regarding humor in popular culture comes from this very centrality and ubiquity.”

Lee goes on to discuss some of the contributors to the issue, including Tom Inge, who wrote about L’il Abner. Lee notes as a point of interest the way Inge shows “the interplay of many media—oral, print, film broadcast—to show how regional images emerge and thrive.

Discussing the work of Victor Navasky, Lee traces the connection of “college humor magazines” such as the Harvard Lampoon to The Onion, Comedy Central, and Saturday Night Live.

Generally speaking, that’s the most important part of her essay, other than to say it is well written and that its’ important to understand that Dr. Lee is an important thinker in the field.

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