Thesis

Socially corrective humor in American literature and popular culture

This thesis argues that, in key nineteenth century texts, humor is a means of fostering group identity and a mode of social critique. The chapter “Boundary Maintenance in Early American Humor” looks at humor as a form of boundary maintenance in both Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s “Character of a Native Georgian” (1835) and Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). In “The Character of a Native Georgian,” humor is primarily an inclusive force, as it is used to promote solidarity within the group and promote assimilation without, while in Pudd’nhead Wilson humor is an exclusive force used to strengthen divides among groups by lending itself to the maintenance of the rigid structures in place that limit social mobility. “Missing the Mark” explores the consequences of humor that fails in some way by looking at two recent, comedic television shows: the Fox News Channel’s news program parody The Half Hour News Hour (2007) and Comedy Central’s sketch comedy program Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006). Both shows had difficulties controlling their audiences’ reaction to their attempts at humor. “‘Inappropriate’ Humor” considers the potential benefits of “inappropriate” humor by looking at an episode of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s South Park entitled “Death” (1997). There appears to be value in offending audiences, as it invites discussion. The chapter also considers the role satirists play in disrupting the status quo and giving voice to marginalized viewpoints.

This thesis argues that, in key nineteenth century texts, humor is a means of fostering group identity and a mode of social critique. The chapter “Boundary Maintenance in Early American Humor” looks at humor as a form of boundary maintenance in both Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s “Character of a Native Georgian” (1835) and Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). In “The Character of a Native Georgian,” humor is primarily an inclusive force, as it is used to promote solidarity within the group and promote assimilation without, while in Pudd’nhead Wilson humor is an exclusive force used to strengthen divides among groups by lending itself to the maintenance of the rigid structures in place that limit social mobility. “Missing the Mark” explores the consequences of humor that fails in some way by looking at two recent, comedic television shows: the Fox News Channel’s news program parody The Half Hour News Hour (2007) and Comedy Central’s sketch comedy program Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006). Both shows had difficulties controlling their audiences’ reaction to their attempts at humor. “‘Inappropriate’ Humor” considers the potential benefits of “inappropriate” humor by looking at an episode of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s South Park entitled “Death” (1997). There appears to be value in offending audiences, as it invites discussion. The chapter also considers the role satirists play in disrupting the status quo and giving voice to marginalized viewpoints.

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