Rebellious Laughter


Rebellious Laughter: People’s Humor in American Culture By Joseph Boskin


Bringing together everyday language, social interaction and cultural warfare, this work forms a social history of humour in American culture. It argues that jokes provide a cultural barometer of concerns and anxieties, and that laughter is transformative.


This book is about people’s humor. All too frequently this behavior is expressed as “jokes.” Jokes, though, circumscribe what people do; rather, there is joking, omnipresent and inventive, as people in their daily routines cope with changes, grapple with issues, and endeavor to attain perspective. In contrast with the practitioners of humor, people’s joking is spontaneous and anonymous.

This work is further about the interaction of time and place in people’s joking. Explored is how issues and events have triggered humorous response and how the comedic responses by their very presence have defined and defused the historic situation. The time frame here is the second half of the twentieth century, selected because the tumultuous social, political, and technological episodes produced several vigorous and unusual expressions of humor in people’s repertoire: the joke cycles and joke wars.

The term “people” is not meant monolithically. Humor in the United States reflects an idiosyncratic array of ethnic and gender groups, social interests, and political concerns. But at the same time there is a high degree of coherence in the comedic narrative that arises from the bottom rungs of society and eventually surfaces in the larger public arena. There are, in short, common reference points in the humor that enable people of differing stripes and classes to plug into the scene and to derive meaning from it.

Other forms of humor emanating from institutional arrangements–stand-up performers, radio and television sitcoms, cartoons and comic strips, and filmic comedy–clearly illuminate attitudes and enlarge people’s repertoire. For my purposes, however, such forms are utilized minimally and brought into the larger . . .

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