History and humor

Sit down and let me pour you a cup!

As you may have noticed if you are a regular reader of this blog, I like teh funny, and even if my sense of humor ain’t exactly your cuppa joe, I like to write to amuse myself, at least.  My problem now is that I can’t find a lot of humor in the book I’m writing.  I wrote a book about guys and guns and warfare in the Northeastern borderlands of what’s now the U.S. and Canada, so although that wasn’t a happy story for most of the people I wrote about, there were a lot of really fatuous English men and women I could mock in that book.  I realize it’s a low trick, but having a mockable bad guy or set of bad guys in your book is one way to leaven the story and add a little humor.  After writing about warfare for the better part of a decade, I looked forward to what I imagined to be a retreat into the relative safety and comfort of the cloister in order to write about a little English girl (Esther Wheelwright, 1696-1780) who was taken captive by the Indians at 7 and wound up in the Ursuline convent in Quebec at the age of 12, where she remained for the rest of her life.  

But, the problem for me right now is that there just isn’t a lot of humor in the story of a little girl whose life was filled with warfare and trauma for her English family, and the starvation, disease, and eventual destrution of her Indian family.  She arrived safely at the monastery and lived to the age of 84, but early modern nuns are just so earnest with their apostolic missions, such do-gooders that I haven’t found a lot of humor or texture in that part of the story, either.  They were not late medieval mystics who wrote long, fantastic narratives or offered descriptions of the various ways in which they mortified their bodies.  They were not aristocratic European nuns who flaunted their wealth and had men jumping in and out of their cells in between secret plots to make another Borgia prince the Pope.  They were teachers!  I’m a teacher, and many of you reading this are teachers–you know how boring and earnest we all are!  Who wants to read about about a bunch of teachers?   

In short, I have a humor problem with this book, and no really obvious bad guys to target for the cheap yuks.  (At least I’m having a hard time making scurvy and smallpox variola take the fall for everything.)

Last week I had lunch with a colleague who writes about one of the most humorless topics in world history:  the African diaspora and New World slavery.  He certainly sympathized with my problem, and suggested that I might look for humor in some of the cross-cultural misunderstandings between French missionaries and Indians.  I thought that was a great suggestion.  I talked to another friend of mine who writes American Indian history, and he told me that maybe I shouldn’t look for humor in a story that’s about warfare, famine, and disease.  I certainly take his point, because if one writes anything besides political or intellectual history, American history is for the most part a very un-funny story about the tragic lives and exploitation and abuse of the many by the few.  Then again, another friend who is a European medievalist suggested that there can nevertheless be humor in widespread suffering and certain death–she said that in the face of the Black Death, Europeans made a brave face with gallows humor. 

What--me funny?

Yesterday, I consulted another historian who recently published a biography of Emilie du Chatelet in which she was able to turn Voltaire–a character who is almost universally loved and admired by modern, secular historians because of his irreverent humor–into the bad guy.  She counseled that I’m just “clogged” right now, and that I should push on and get a draft of the book finished so that I can go back and find the humor, or at least the ironic moments, in my story.  I think that’s what I’ll do, but I’d really like to hear from the rest of you what you historians or cultural studies types think about this problem of finding humor in the history you write.  Do you also look for humor, or do you think that it’s perfectly OK or even preferable not to look for humor when writing about really heavy subjects?  

All I know fer sure is that I need to find a pretty funny subject for my third book, because the history I’ve written so far that that I’m writing right now is, like, totally bumming me out.  (Any suggestions?)  I may need to migrate into nineteenth century U.S. history, because that place was a veritable freak show of wacko religious beliefs, communes, colonies, and filibustering misadventures.  (On top of all of the continuing misery, exploitation, and abuse, that is–but by comparison to colonial history, it was a laugh riot.)

0 thoughts on “History and humor

  1. Find amusement in the misunderstandings and misrepresentations of previous generations of historians, perhaps?

    I can’t say I am often driven by a desire to find the humorous in my subject matter, but then again, I’m pretty “boring and earnest,” I am afraid.


  2. I don’t know that I find humor per se in my work, but I do have great anecdotes and vivid details that made my distant people human, and I’ve written entire paragraphs just to get them in. While I’ve been accused of using too many examples (3 where 1 would suffice), most people have told me my history is readable and not boring.


  3. One of the reasons I started my own blog was that I found it hard to find humor in my professional work. Still, even in some pretty bleak stories, the tragically absurd can provides moments of mockery.


  4. In my new book, I am actually writing about humour and its uses in a particular context, so I find this easy enough. Except sometimes I do wonder whether I am taking it too far- am I taking the piss out of people in the past, or just highlighting the humour in the situation.

    I reckon an entertaining story can be as good as humour- perhaps go for tragedy and pathos…


  5. Coincidentally, I’m talking about Chatelet in class yesterday and today, so it would be nice to check out this book. I think Voltaire can be readily spoofed. Supposedly he once said he would go and lay his bones forever in Pennsylvania but for the fear that he would get seasick! I’ll have to put you in touch with my Catholic historian/19th century colleague who “does nuns.” Ze could doubtless find some humor in your particular convent, to judge from the iconography on ziz door! I’ve also accidentally chased a mobile object of interest forward into the nineteenth century for a third book project, and it does frequently seem bizarre enough to trigger my “gag” reflex. The only thing is, being totally new to all of that century’s parties, you always assume any humorous jibes you get off will be totally inappropriate. At least we don’t tweet, anyway, which seems like a great land mine.

    Thanks for that great picture of Voltaire, which is going straight to the front of my classroom in about an hour! I wonder if he hit “send” on that one?


  6. I think I get all my snark and sarcasm out in my teaching, and then am fairly serious in my writing. My irreverent teaching style keeps the students awake, although I worry that someone official is going to come after me for teaching literary history as if it were written by the team writing South Park.


  7. My approach is similar to Katherine’s: I seldom strive for humor or mockery (not my style, really) but I do go in for the vivid, revelatory detail in a big way. Also, for an historian I do a lot of work with analyzing language closely, so I love it when I find a quote that is fun to parse closely. And, like her, I often am told my work is readable.


  8. My favorite moments in archives are when I’m reading a letter or memo and the character of the person writing it really comes out–especially if she’s snarky or ranting. At such times, I can’t help but cackle aloud in delight.

    I, too, am drawn to the 19th century for its wackiness. I keep getting drawn into the 20th century, but some days I just need me some Columbian Exposition, you know?


  9. I use humor as way to manage the topics I study (the Klan and white supremacist movements and apocalypticism) because I am not sure how else to manage the bleakness. For me, humor feels like an appropriate way to relieve the tension both when I write and teach. I taught a course on Religious Intolerance in America that the students might not have survived if not for humor and the occasional South Park episode. I also like to point out when my historical actors are being sarcastic, snarky or ironic to show their humanity, even if we don’t particularly like their points of view.

    Also, I dream of writing about the nineteenth century’s spate of utopian movements, after my apocalypse project, because it feels light-hearted. Whether it was or not is an entirely different question.


  10. Well to quote Joan Rivers yelling at an audience member in A Piece of Work, “Oh, you stupid ass, let me tell you what comedy is about…Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything, and deal with things, you idiot.”


  11. YES! Migrate into the early 19thC US if you want to find some (pretty ridiculous) humor.

    I completely sympathize with your desire to find humor in your subjects, but my research is on 19thC popular culture, which is rife with intentional (and unintentional) humor. I am the nut job at the microfilm machines who laughs out loud at the lame one-liners that newspaper publishers printed to fill up excess space between articles. (I’m also an archive crier.) I also relish making my share of snide passes at some of my earnest social reformers — snide passes that come with only the truest affection. Earnest people can be funny!

    However, there’s no question that some subjects feel a lot more humorless, and it might feel sacrilegious to find humor in dark moments. But then there’s the flip side, finding and exploiting those dry, dark ironies. Employing dark humor effectively is a fine art, and I’m all for going for it.


  12. I don’t think I look for humor, but I do enjoy irony and incongruity. And just the ways in which the past is curious: without being inappropriately presentist, you can point to the odd (to us) aspects of the past. They did THAT? They said THAT? What? So yes, dying of starvation is not funny. But there are things that are amusing.


  13. Ditto Susan on the curious. Might I suggest that you find some humor in the exoticism of certain forms eighteenth-century material culture? Lots of inside jokes about puns and other uses of language to describe/refer to/symbolize material life.


  14. My protagonists–scholars, astrologers, historians fromt he fifteenth to the nineteenth century–have always yielded me lots of unexpected jokes–especially when I get to read the marginal notes in which they express their true, unguarded opinions of other peoples’ writing, in wonderfully Kakutaniish language. I too have been the idiot cackling in rare book and manuscript rooms and over microfilm readers. But in the last book I did, which was collaborative, my partner and I found that our Christian scholar hero, though not without a sense of humor, actually moved us when he, frail and aging and soon to die, he saved a Jewish friend from deep trouble and forcible conversion, at considerable personal risk. I’m wondering if your story might also be one of those?


  15. I can find humor in my work — endless radical feminist meetings where no one can go home until they reach consensus about whether a dolphin vibrator is a penis provide plenty of fodder for retrospective yucks. But then I have your problem as well. Lots of personal testimony about rape, incest and pornography is incredibly sad. Furthermore, even though you have to explore the liberatory power of sex work and porn, the fact that it is frequently used to subjugate socially powerless people even further often makes me feel like I am wading through sewage by the end of a writing day.


  16. That’s it! My next book will be a study of 17th-19th Century sex toys in crazy religious communes. Kind of like a non-fiction, earlier period version of T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville?

    Thanks for all of your comments. I guess what I’m looking for is what Susan and others have suggested–not HA-HA funny, but irony or something to lighten up a story filled with so much suffering and death. I like Squadrato’s and Katherine’s suggestions that interesting detail can serve to divert and entertain, even if it doesn’t crack readers up. I think that’s what I’m up to with some of the environmental history and material culture I’m getting into, anyway. Finding cool new facts and putting them together in interesting ways can be a way of leavening the story.

    I have it on expert authority from my mother, who attended Ursuline schools before Vatican II, that nuns don’t fart. Or, at least, the layers of fabric they were wrapped in prevented their students from hearing or smelling them. Then again, my mother reports that nuns also never ate in their presence, and tried to cultivate the effect of gliding down the halls in their full habits (rather than walking or loping or galumphing) so as to enhance the mysteries of religious life.


  17. I have that article! I should go back to read it. . . IIRC, it’s mostly about traditional Anglo-American anti-Catholicism, which ultimately isn’t funny at all.

    My former employer, which I like to complain about so much, was a Catholic university that was bombed by the Klan in the last century when it was still called St. Mary’s College for Men. At that point, the uni changed its name to a municipal-sounding one.

    (See what I mean? Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I have no sense of humor or fun about this project.)


  18. CPP, I don’t believe you’ve seen a nun since one smacked your knuckles with a ruler in grade school. If then! (I think you’re too young to have been of that generation, anyway.)


  19. Late to the party, but I want to put in another vote for Katherine’s anecdotes and detail. If you can convince your reader that the characters you write about are real human beings, with all the quirks, whimsies, and foibles that real humans have, and that they experience the same kinds of special little moments that make each life unique, you’ll engage that reader even without the funny.


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