Dissecting, analyzing, and generally talking about humor can be surprisingly unfunny. However, students laughed as the panel of three professors dsicussed humor in Monday’s “Writing with and about Humor,” part of the Writer’s Series.
Professor and Chair of English Ben Click began the discussion with an excerpt from American humorist O. Henry’s essay, “Confessions of a Humorist.” O. Henry related that he spent much of his time stealing humor from his family, friends, and even by “stalking” his children. One particularly funny incident involved his hiding out in a pile of leaves while his son played, only to realize that his son had set the pile of leaves on fire (presumably unaware of O. Henry’s presence).
According to Click, the panel on humor was necessary because of a dearth of humor-related events on campus. Many of the lectures, movies, and other speakers which St. Mary’s hosts lack humor, and the Twain lecture doesn’t necessarily fulfill that role entirely. Additionally, Click announced that soon, a contest will be announced for humor writing, with fairly steep cash prizes for first through third places. And, according to Click, the winner of the contest will be announced or otherwise recognized by the Twain lecturer. (No decision has been made on the speaker yet, but the lecture will be held either the 27 or the 28 of April, convocation weekend).
Associate Professor of English Kate Chandler spoke about the relationship between humor and environmentalism. She explained that often, humor makes people feel more connected to the subject and with that bond, they are more deeply invested in the outcomes. Chandler read a brief humorous excerpt written as a fable about a sea squirt and related her own experiences with environmental humor. Chandler wrote “Nature Notes” in the River Gazette, and explained that she really didn’t know all that much about environmental studies when she began so she relied on self-deprecating humor to connect with her audience.
Next, Assistant Professor of English Brian O’Sullivan discussed the difficulty in deciding when humor has gone too far or crossed the line. He presented an article which The Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten wrote in 2007 about the small percentage of Americans who strongly approved of the Bush presidency. Much of the article drew laughs from both the panelists and the audience. O’Sullivan explained that one of his students wrote to Weingarten for an assignment and received a response in which Weingarten actually said he regrets writing parts of the article, because it could be construed as offensively generalizing lower classes as uneducated rednecks. O’Sullivan discussed the idea of boundaries and what the difference is between using a stereotype and satirizing it.
Chandler also advocated humor as a way to get an audience to understand or accept an idea. “Humor may get [readers] to accept the issue, or at least listen to it.” When an audience is put at ease, they’re more likely to be receptive to an idea or issue. “[Humor] makes you like me more, listen more, and trust me more,” said Chandler. Click agreed saying, “Humor puts people in the frame of mind to be persuaded.”
Junior Kelsey Kuszmaul was pleased at the reception and enjoyed the talk overall, “I was really excited to have this type of talk … I really think the professors chose interesting things to talk about and everybody laughed.” Junior Tobias Franzen agreed, saying, “I thought it sucked. I hated being here.” And panelist Kate Chandler summed the talk up nicely, commenting, “Nice layout! The couches were very comfortable!”