Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict

Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict

by Paul Lewis


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What do Jon Stewart, Freddy Krueger, Patch Adams, and George W. Bush have in common? As Paul Lewis shows in Cracking Up, they are all among the ranks of joke tellers who aim to do much more than simply amuse. Exploring topics that range from the sadistic mockery of Abu Ghraib prison guards to New Age platitudes about the healing power of laughter, from jokes used to ridicule the possibility of global climate change to the heartwarming performances of hospital clowns, Lewis demonstrates that over the past thirty years American humor has become increasingly purposeful and embattled. 

Navigating this contentious world of controversial, manipulative, and disturbing laughter, Cracking Up argues that the good news about American humor in our time—that it is delightful, relaxing, and distracting—is also the bad news. In a culture that both enjoys and quarrels about jokes, humor expresses our most nurturing and hurtful impulses, informs and misinforms us, and exposes as well as covers up the shortcomings of our leaders. Wondering what’s so funny about a culture determined to laugh at problems it prefers not to face, Lewis reveals connections between such seemingly unrelated jokers as Norman Cousins, Hannibal Lecter, Rush Limbaugh, Garry Trudeau, Jay Leno, Ronald Reagan, Beavis and Butt-Head, and Bill Clinton. The result is a surprising, alarming, and at times hilarious argument that will appeal to anyone interested in the ways humor is changing our cultural and political landscapes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226476995
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/02/2006
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Paul Lewis is professor of English at Boston College. He is also the author of Comic Effects: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Humor in Literature.

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Copyright © 2006

The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-47699-5

Chapter One "One, Two, Freddy's Coming for You"


FIRST TEENAGE GIRL: Freddy, no question.

SECOND TEENAGE GIRL: You're crazy. Jason just chops your head off and it's finished, but Freddy makes you suffer first.

FIRST TEENAGE GIRL: I know. That's the whole point. If I have to be murdered, I'd rather be murdered by a guy with imagination.

SECOND TEENAGE GIRL: You're crazy! Jason or that Halloween guy, they just kill you and you're dead.... Freddy makes you a nervous wreck and then kills you and then turns you into a face sticking out of his chest!

FIRST TEENAGE GIRL: Yeah, but he's so funny. Conversation overheard in a video store, reported in the Youthanasia column of Premiere Magazine, August 1990

In the late summer and fall of 1991-as the story of Jeffrey Dahmer's cannibalistic serial murders ran its course and before much was known about his personality-jokes about Dahmer started to circulate. A typical and much-varied one about a dinner party attended by the killer's mother just prior to her son's arrest constructed Dahmer as a sadistic humorist. "I don't like your friends," his mother says during the meal, and he replies, "Try the vegetables."

On June 18, 1994, following a televised chase on the Los Angeles freeway system, O. J. Simpson was arrested for the double murder of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Within hours the first O. J. jokes began to appear on the Internet, on talk shows, in comedy clubs, and in private conversations across the Unites States. In the context of earlier joke cycles about Dahmer, Polly Klass, Lorena Bobbitt, Michael Jackson, and Tanya Harding-the O. J. jokes were predictable. Indeed, joking about violent crime had become so much a convention of folk culture that sensational stories about child molestation, murder, rape, or kidnapping raised the expectation that humor would follow, as in the question asked across the country on the morning after Simspon was apprehended: "So, have you heard any O. J. jokes yet?" How did these expectations-that violent criminals tend to joke about their victims and that crimes will inspire jokes-develop?

For an answer to this question, we might turn to March of 1981, when, at the dawn of the contemporary horror film, reviewer Roger Ebert had an experience that alarmed him. At a showing of United Artist's I Spit on Your Grave, Ebert was disturbed to find the audience supporting the film's killer, applauding and cheering as one victim after another was tortured and/or murdered. What appalled Ebert most was his sense that "the audience seemed to take [the film's many acts of cruelty] as a comedy," as there were "shouts and loud laughs at the climaxes of violence." In 1983, looking back over recent horror films, Philip Brophy argued that the work of such filmmakers as George Romero, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Tobe Hooper is defined by a repudiation of "social realism, cultural enlightenment or emotional humanism." Audience response to contemporary horror films, Brophy noted, follows a series of shocks in which one moves through a set of emotions including frozen terror and screaming laughter. Far from random or coincidental, the audiences observed by Ebert and Brophy were reacting to early examples of what would become a strain of sadistic humor, of killing jokes, in the American 1980s, the decade of Freddy Krueger, Ronald Reagan, and the Vampire Lestat.

Frequently accompanied by twisted facial expressions and cruel laughter, these jokes invite us to be amused by images of bodily mutilation, vulnerability, and victimization. That a line of such humor can be traced through the 1980s and 1990s in American horror films, comic books, joke anthologies, advertising, cartoons, reality TV, and political discourse-from Freddy Krueger to Hannibal Lecter, from Blanche Knott to Mike Judge, from Ronald Reagan to Abu Ghraib, and from Robert Chambers to Old Joe Camel-must be significant. The apparent intensification of cruel humor over the decade-the increasing popularity and acceptability of killing jokes and jokers-suggests that they constituted an evolving and resonant humor convention, one that both revealed and supported a widely shared desire or need.

Unbridled and extreme cruelty distinguishes these jokes from such milder forms of potentially aggressive humor as tickling and teasing. The tickler, often an overpowering adult, can hover or tower Freddy-like over the person being tickled, often a child; the teaser can use ridicule to reprimand, embarrass, even humiliate the target of derision. In such situations, kidders dance up to and even cross the line between play and seriousness, friendliness and enmity. But only if they charge across this line, combining physical violence and pain with their wit, moving beyond teasing or tickling to torture and attack, do they start to resemble killing jokers. For, with killing jokes, though the attacker adopts a playful pose and often seems to be having fun, the accompanying violence bars the butt/victim from joining in the laughter and puts the viewer in the awkward position of laughing with a monster, refusing to do so, or sustaining an uneasy ambivalence.

Most striking about these jokes are the mixed responses they are meant to evoke. Beyond mere humor but built around it, killing jokes assume socio- and/or psychopathic values and defy standards of decency not only to amuse but to shock, terrify, and appall as well: shock by amusing, amuse by shocking. A reading of these jokes based on established work on humor appreciation and audience disposition toward butts will demonstrate that as a group they provide (and therefore must appeal to a need for) an antisentimental detachment from their human targets and, by extension, from the human race broadly considered. This observation will lead to speculation, based on the work of Anthony Giddens and Joanna Macy, about the rise of the killing joke in a decade of increasing anxiety about (and denial of) global risks and dangers that seemed to threaten the survival not just of nations and groups but also of mankind. But, before this point about the appeal and function of killing jokes can be developed, an overview of their evolution is called for, if only to bring readers who have never seen a Nightmare on Elm Street film, or read a Splatterpunk story, or watched a Bumfights video up to speed.

Insofar as no cultural motif rises full blown, many antecedents of the sadistic humor that rose to prominence in the 1980s can be identified. Shakespeare put killing jokes into the mouths of several villains-including Richard III and Lear's violent relatives-and Poe allows Montresor, the murderous narrator of "The Cask of Amontillado," to enjoy a few. Examples in the pre-1980 American context include the slapstick violence of the Three Stooges, the horror comics of the early 1950s that led to the imposition of the Comics Code, the joking of such romantic film enforcers as James Bond and Dirty Harry, the work of Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick, and the popularity of sick (for instance, "mommy, mommy" and Helen Keller) jokes. Still, the following review of representative killing jokes in a number of 1980s and 1990s pop works and genres is offered as preliminary evidence of the increasing popularity and intensity of this humor through these decades, a progression apparent in the movement from, say, mommy, mommy to dead-baby jokes, from the Joker of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s to the Joker of 1980s, and from the Freddy Krueger of the first Nightmare on Elm Street (NES) film to the Freddy of the sequels.

Nightmares on Elm Street

Englund has been quoted as saying that what Freddy stands for is the idea of killing the future. He elaborates: "This is the first time in the twentieth century that kids will probably not live as well as their parents. You can imagine what it is like to be seventeen or eighteen today and enter a world with a drug culture and hardly any jobs on the horizon, and AIDS and racial unrest.... Freddy represents all of these things that are out of kilter in the world, all the sins of the parents that are being passed on."

A sense of the mainstreaming of sadistic humor in American culture over the past two decades can be gathered from the changing response to Freddy Krueger (fig. 3), the dream stalker of New Line Cinema's NES series. Although the first of these films was widely panned and marginalized as a derivative slasher, Freddy found wider and wider acceptance, a phenomenon on display when Mayor Tom Bradley declared September 13, 1991, Freddy Krueger Day in the city of Los Angeles. Diminutively named from the outset, Krueger became the Fredster, the Fredmeister, the Freddytollah ... making (not copies but) corpses. As it entered its second decade of prominence in 1994, the NES industry could look back at its six commercially successful feature films, a syndicated TV show called Freddy's Nightmares, five LPs, and $15 million in merchandise, including a board game, Halloween costumes, and a Freddy doll, complete with plastic razor fingers.

The most puzzling feature of this horror cult is not the interest in horrific violence to which it appeals. This interest, as the Marquis de Sade observed, has underpinned the popularity of gothic fiction since its first great outpouring following the excesses of the French Revolution. What is most intriguing is the popularity of Freddy himself, a relentless and savage, but also an imaginative and witty, murderer. A cutup in both senses, Freddy set the standard for humorous treatments of violence and sadism in the American 1980s.

Conceived by Wes Craven, who wrote and directed the first NES film, as a laughing sadist, Krueger evolved in sequels into a one-line comic who both figuratively (in the comic's sense of slaying an audience by making it laugh) and then literally kills people. The first of the NES films (1984), established the conventions for the series and characters: a group of teenagers residing on Elm Street in Springwood-that is, in suburban America at the present time-are haunted in their dreams by a boogey man who is able to not only torment them psychologically but also attack them physically. Even though these kids are being brutally murdered one at a time (because what Freddy does to them in their nightmares actually happens to them)-no adults believe their desperate complaints about a disfigured man who wears a red and green sweater, lures them to a boiler room, and attacks them with razor claws. It is worth noting that the very parents who refuse to believe in Krueger's existence are implicated in his crimes by way of their earlier vigilante violence against Krueger: released by a judge on a technicality, Krueger was hunted down and executed by Elm Street parents who now want to forget about the whole business. What Craven developed was a gruesome enough situation for a slasher film, but it was also rather original in its use of sleep and awake states to shift back and forth between a normal and apparently safe world and a deviant and dangerous one.

In spite of the metaphysical and psychological oddities of this situation, Craven's original conception of Freddy's sense of humor was morally conventional insofar as Freddy in the first film is often (perhaps always) amused but rarely amusing. The opening credits are covered by demonic laughter, but we are not allowed to share the gag. This use of humor in establishing the relation between an audience and a villain is familiar to students of Shakespeare's depiction of an Iago or Shylock as villains whose sense of humor defines their deviation from moral norms. But with hindsight it is possible to see that Freddy's few jokes in the first film point toward his later development into a fiendish comedian (as opposed to a laughing fiend). In this way, when one of his potential victims takes a bath and briefly falls asleep, Freddy's claws pop up out of the water and then drop back down when she wakes up. Similarly, in the film's final sequence, the teenagers who think they have beaten Krueger at last are startled to be caught driving in a Freddymobile, a convertible that first traps them inside and then bolts down its own top, which we may be amused to see is striped green and red just like the dreaded sweater. And, in his one verbal quip in this film, Freddy appears as a female hall monitor in the local high school, turns into himself, and advises the terrified Nancy not to run in the hallway.

Beginning with the second film, NES 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), this line of joking becomes central to the character, contributing richly to audience interest in and even identification with Krueger by inviting a gleeful participation in his otherwise obscene crimes. In trying to account for audience enthusiasm for the villains of cruel horror films, Roger Ebert pointed to the odd camera work, which follows the attacker's point of view, displacing the "lust to kill" from a "depraved character" (where it is located in older horror films) onto the audience. The NES series gives us a depraved enough character, to be sure, but it also intensifies this process of displaced vision by plunging us at regular intervals into the thrilling, vulgar, menacing, and hilarious fantasy landscape Freddy controls. Once in that landscape, if we are amused it is because Freddy is amusing us with the perversely witty allusions, puns, and visual (special effect) gags that serve as both foreplay to and climax of his sensational violence.

Freddy's lethal, wicked, and playful sense of humor expresses itself in three notable ways: (1) in one-line jokes that intimidate his victims by ironically reminding them that they are at his mercy, (2) in clever manifestations of his form or presence, and (3) in assaults and murders that have a twisted relevance to the interests and/or problems of his victims. A few examples will both capture the tone and spirit of these comic moves and reveal how they give Freddy his special charm. In NES 3: Dream Warriors (1987), Freddy attacks the last of the old Elm Street kids while they are being treated at an asylum for, among other things, sleep disorders. Assuming the form of a gorgeous nurse, Freddy lures one of the kids, a mute named Joey, away from the others and starts to seduce him. This adolescent male fantasy darkens when the nurse's tongue elongates into a hideous cord that binds the terrified boy to the four corners of the bed. Reverting to his true form, Krueger taunts his captive, saying, "What's wrong, Joey, feeling tongue-tied"?

Although Joey survives this film, he is murdered in NES 4: The Dream Gate (1988) through a similar sexual assault in which his mattress suddenly fills with water and drowns him, as Freddy jokes "How's this for a wet dream?" In the same film, Freddy sits down next to his chief antagonist, Alice, in a nightmare restaurant and orders a pizza, saying, "If the food don't kill you, the service will." When his pizza arrives it is topped with the tiny, tormented human heads of his past victims. As he picks up the meatball-shaped heads and swallows them, he cracks, "I love soul food, bring me more." And in NES 5: Dream Child (1989), Freddy attacks Alice's boyfriend Dan by taking control of his truck. As Dan drives off to save Alice, an unusual talk show comes over the air:

CALLER (Dan's mother's voice): I'm calling about my wayward ex-son Daniel who's been acting like an ungrateful, unmanageable dickweed ever since he was seduced by that bimbo, whore, slut Alice.

FREDDY (as host): If I were you, lady, I'd kill the ungrateful piggy.

Freddy indulges a sense of whimsy in his clever appearances. Typically he assumes his human shape with a burned face, wearing his famous sweater, his brown hat, and his right claw glove. But before taking this shape, he can appear in any number of potentially comic forms. In NES 3, for instance, he first animates a bathroom faucet, turning its prongs into attacking claws, and later manifests himself by appearing in a small doll hanging on a wall. In NES 4, when Kristin tries to imagine herself on a calm tropical beach, Freddy appears as shark-fin claws in the water. In NES 5, when a boy named Mark resists Freddy by turning into a superhero, Freddy also appears in a costume and says "Faster than a bastard maniac, it's Super Freddy." And, after he kills Mark, he says, "I told you comics were bad for you" and laughs. In these characteristic instances, Freddy uses humor both to change the mood of the dreamer/victim and to assert his murderous will.


Excerpted from CRACKING UP by PAUL LEWIS Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. "One, Two, Freddy's Coming for You"
Killing Jokes of the 1980s and 1990s
2. Red Noses at the Ready!
The Positive Humor Movement
3. Shut Up! No, You Shut Up!
Fighting With and About Humor
4. Ridicule to Rule
The Strange Case of George W. Bush

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