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Although humorous topics have already been treated in previous articles of the AMERICANA E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary, a thematic issue concentrating on the issue of humor has never been published by this journal before. That is why we decided to send out a call for such papers and were delighted to receive quite a number of texts centered on intriguing topics. As a result, the essays of this thematic e-journal issue shed light on various aspects of American humor with the intent of charting American humor in its diversity, versatility, diachronicity, as well as interdisciplinarity—to the extent this issue can cover. The authors of the articles, as well as the topics presented, all contribute to this attempt for inclusivity and diversity.

Pertaining to this issue, it is also true what Arthur Power Dudden claimed years ago. He stated that “American humor doesn’t follow a formula” (xiv), but nevertheless it still retains its specificity. These articles also attest to Dudden’s other claims involving American humor that “attacks society’s follies” as well as its fool pretentions, while the reader gains “the nation’s true history” in the process of reading (xiv). Dudden himself was struggling with the question of “[w]hat’s so funny about American humor?” (xiv) and, hopefully, these papers will help find answers to this question, too. This thematic issue deals with various case studies focusing also on more recent media, as well as on contemporary authors and many perspectives. However, some hardships also emerged in our context, with E. B. White’s famous lines applicable here which say that “[h]umor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind” (E. B. White 1941 xvii quoted in Dudden 1987, xiv-xv). This means that in spite of all our attempts to preserve the entertaining spark of the jocularity, the study of humor is indeed a serious business which does not discourage us from reading more to find further humor.

However, I always find it amusing to read Dudden’s opinion dating from 1987, where he says that “[t]here is a need to investigate American humor more systematically and intensely in all of its rich variety than literary scholars or American Studies disciplinarians have managed to do so far” (xvii). I hope we managed to comply not only with his wishes but also with ours as well in this issue, as we tried to collect authors from various fields, from various stages of their careers, and from various academic backgrounds. What I especially find hilarious in Dudden’s declaration is that he is open to organic interdisciplinarity as far as humor is concerned when he says that “[i]t is not enough to leave the field to popular culture studies or the enthusiasts of the American Humor Studies Association” (xvii). Indeed, Dudden can rest assured that “the enthusiasts of the American Humor Studies Association” still prevail and do their job, and we hope that we can join their efforts with this thematic issue in yet another endeavor to excavate the riches of American humor alongside the works existing on the pages of Studies in American Humor that has been running for almost half a century now. Moreover, Rebecca Krefting, who is currently the President of the American Humor Studies Association, in her 2014 book on the American humor “laughscape” (1) highlighted that “we are all supposed to be equal, but social, economic, and political forces collude to maintain inequality. Jokesters unmask inequality” (2) and by pointing to this she also argues for a more inclusive American humor landscape where everybody gets a chance to tell jokes and even if many people have this opportunity by now, Krefting still thinks that there are still limits to the possibilities: “[c]ontemporary laugh-makers hail from diverse backgrounds, cultures, nationalities, and race/ethnicities. They are able-bodied and differently-abled; they are men and women; they are heterosexual and queer. Yet national notoriety and success as a comic favors able-bodied heterosexual men” (8). These concerns probably did not often pass Dudden’s mind. Yet after all, Krefting adds that “[a]ll joking aside – they (we) just want to belong” (105), to belong to the big table of American humor—and these articles are each a slice of it. Krefting also asserts that the task of humor researchers is not “to define what is funny to Americans nor chart an “American” sense of humor” but also to find the many social identities within the American comic landscape through intersectional and interdisciplinary research (9). Our thematic issue was created in this spirit, to adhere to this conception.

The first essay of the humor thematic issue, Lívia Szélpál’s “The Major Influence of Thomas Nast’s Political Cartoons on 19th Century American Politics,” covers Thomas Nast’s oeuvre by focusing on how humor played a major role in Nast’s cartoons as well as how his use of humor proved to be a powerful weapon in mid-19th century American politics influencing even presidential elections. Three of Nast’s political cartoons were selected to represent the many-sided character of Nast’s oeuvre at the zenith of his carrier before the President Hayes Compromise of 1877: (1) Nast as a proto-muckraker journalist, (2) Nast as a fallible human who attacked Victoria Woodhull by drawing a cartoon as a critical response to her support of free love, and finally (3) the role of animal symbols in his political cartoons and his “invention” of the political party animals. Considering the politicized nature of the cartoons, one of the main goals was to reveal how these cartoons managed to expose the corruption of the political machine, serving as social criticism that encouraged critical thinking and responsible decision making while providing entertaining perspectives for readers.

In the essay entitled “In the Service of Indoctrination: Humor in Antebellum American Genre Painting,” Irén Annus discusses the construction of national culture and identity, particularly for a newly established nation, as a complex and multifaceted process of humor. This is an intriguing enterprise that involves the cultural context within which genre painting found its way to the US in the early nineteenth century. However, genre painting—also referred to as morality painting—in Europe often employed humor to provide social criticism, but in the U.S. it was seen as a quintessential style to portray the American nation as unified and democratic through renderings of the daily life of common people while portrait and history painting had provided the metanarratives and the pantheon of national heroes upon which this new phase of cultural production evolved. Annus’ study investigates the key aspects of the ambivalence between genre painting in the old and the new worlds and the ways in which humor was employed in subtle ways in given American genre paintings to illuminate social norms and expectations associated with the up-and-coming middle-class values cemented at the heart of what emerged as the “proper” American nation.

Judith Yaross Lee writes in “Brother Jonathan Runs for President: Spoof Campaigns, the Janus Laugh, and the Rise of Donald Trump” about the 1830s mock-campaigns for President of the United States, which have often featured comic candidates—who were at the same time inadequate and unprepared, yet also ideal ones—and which descended from Brother Jonathan, the eighteenth-century folk figure who characterizes the ordinary American as the quintessential democratic citizen. The point of the joke(s) is typically centered on Jonathan’s rustic innocence and virtue that distinguish him from the corrupt politicians who rose from the elite, and thereby contribute to the two-faced joke—the Janus Laugh—underlying the many spoof campaigns of the past century, especially that of elitism in the form of populism. Yaross Lee also highlights that, via the reverse logic of irony and humor, nominations for unlikely spoof candidates endorsed the status quo of seasoned politicians by implying that the alternative to elite leadership is a joke. In this context thus, more currently Donald Trump’s 2016 candidacy demonstrated that the ideology of spoof campaigns also animates authentic runs for American political office.

András Lénárt states in “Life and Humor According to Seinfeld: Sociocultural Aspects of a Classic Sitcom in the US and Beyond” that Seinfeld series became one of the most important TV shows in the United States, a landmark of American popular culture considered by many critics to be one of the most influential sitcoms of all time. According to Lénárt, this TV show became the best representative of observational comedy due to the concerns, reactions, minor existential crises and life situations of the four main characters being quite familiar to the public. However, Lénárt also points out that the show was criticized for lacking focus and having an excessive simplicity. Still, in Lénárt’s opinion, in the United States the show achieved cult status (being less popular in other countries despite some everyday problems that are of global concern) and he sets out to reveal the sociocultural aspects and factors lying at the heart of the success of this iconic sitcom.

Lili Zách’s “Negotiating the Voices of ‘Otherness’ in South Africa and the USA: The Functions of Humor in Trevor Noah’s Stand-up Comedy on Race,” compares Trevor Noah’s performance for South African and U.S. audiences by exploring the significance of humor when addressing race relations in the USA in regard to the system of institutionalized racial segregation (basically that of the Apartheid in South Africa). Zách applies John Morreall’s model (2009) to Trevor Noah’s stand-up comedy in relation to the critical, cohesive, and coping functions of humor, originally applied within the context of the Holocaust. Zách theorizes Noah’s stand-up comedy by addressing the significance of American and South African audiences in the comedian’s assessment of ‘Otherness’ and racial relations. Morreall’s “positive ethics of humor” is also applied to this paper in the investigation of the functions of humor in response to racism in both South Africa and the USA. Additionally, Zách’s paper traces the uses of laughter in the process of coping with traumatic events that have been associated with politicized racial segregation, hatred and socio-economic discrimination.

In “Humor in Contemporary Native American Art,” Hend Ayari declares that humor is a central feature of Native American culture as it manifests itself in various facets of tribal life. Ayari also contends that in the past humor ensured the survival of tribes as it facilitated communication and built a stronger sense of kinship. However, the “Stoic Indians” stereotype gradually took over hence the supposedly Stoic Indians have been denied the right to access to today’s American “laughscape” (as defined by Rebecca Krefting). According to Ayari, humor is typically examined as being aligned with literature (that is, satirical writings) or performance (especially comic plays) but rarely with visual arts; that is why Ayari focuses on the contributions of contemporary Native American visual artists to reveal how (1) to introduce and highlight the humor in visual arts and (2) to manipulate this strategy as a tool for cultural transmission and identity reclamation. In so doing, Native American artists such as Jim Denomie, Wendy Red Star and Tom Farris—like any other ethnic/racial group—recognize the power of humor as a tool that brings people, regardless of their ethnic background, “to a militant edge,” to use Vine Deloria’s terms. The aim of these examinations is also a humorous artistic attempt to break down the negative cultural stereotypes and to participate in the re-invention of a resilient American Indian identity through humor.

Ankita Dolai’s “Conflicted Identity and Ambivalent Motherhood Through Humor in Never Have I Ever” addresses the relationship between humor and Indian American identity through the TV series Never Have I Ever (2020-2023), which is examined through the lens of dramedy focusing on its tragicomic fifteen-year-old Indian American teenager named Devi Vishwakumar having ambivalent relationship with her mother, Nalini, in the context of Indian American diaspora. Devi is portrayed in a complex way by presenting her as extremely intelligent, yet also as insecure, rebellious and awkward, which all point toward a multi-faceted but conflicted brown teenage character far beyond the common caricature of an Indian immigrant. According to Dolai, the TV show highlights that Devi’s inclination towards Western and specifically American lifestyle does not emerge because she rejects her cultural background but mostly because she is confused about how to navigate her multi-layered identity and carve out her own sense of self. The humor of the TV show reveals the absurdity of perceived stereotypes associated with Indian culture abroad, while questioning and resisting these through complex character features. The essay showcases how the show’s comic take on its complex characters and on the issues of the mother-daughter-relationship subvert generational stereotypes surrounding diasporic identities and Indian motherhood.

The last article of the thematic issue is Zsófia Anna Tóth’s introspection into the use of humor in Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) in “Sisu(datu), the Funny Female Dragon of the Disney Universe.” The protagonist is a unique character (as she is a merger of both the West and the East, constituting a bridge and playing a major role in cultural diplomacy) and is also one of the first female Disney characters who is actively producing humor. The paper reveals certain critical standpoints on the humor use of Disney productions in general as opposed to this new attempt at funny women in various forms. Even though Sisu is not the first positive dragon character in a Western animated film, she stands out as a complex figure, who is sacred with her dragon abilities and magical status but also sacrilegious with her humor and occasional clumsiness. Additionally, at the height of the tension between the USA and China (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), the release of this film was a regenerative gesture of cultural diplomacy and a positive point of reference for Asian Americans, especially since Sisu was also voiced by Awkwafina, the Asian American Nora Lum. In that respect, Tóth’s article examines humor also from the vantage point of Asian-American identity, as well as Asian and American cultural differences and women’s humor, revealing how the Disney Company is currently rethinking its humor strategies in an age of global exchanges.


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