The Absurdist Insurgency

American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt BY John Beckman. Pantheon. Hardcover, 432 pages. $28.

The cover of American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt

Who gets to be funny and who gets made fun of? Americans never get tired of that question. At least, we Americans in the think-piece-writing business don’t. Are women funny? Are fat jokes cruel playground humor or legitimate satire in an increasingly unfit culture? Did that comic you’ve never heard of before go too far on that talk show you never watch? Is that black comic who puts on a dress funny, or a demeaning Jim Crow minstrel? Is there such a thing as a man telling a funny rape joke, and if so, why hasn’t it been written yet?

Judging by most late-night talk shows, sitcoms, and stand-up clubs, we go about distributing the cultural authority to make fun of us in much the same way that we’ve gradually doled out other kinds of authority—to vote, own property, run Fortune 500 companies, or sit in the White House. Mainly, it’s been white men kidding, if not ridiculing, us and defining what’s supposed to be funny and what isn’t.

And among the approved, we’ve tended to favor the ones who keep us comfortable. Comedians may pose as outsiders and critics, but more often than not, they’re entertainers placed before us by the entertainment world’s power elite—and that’s especially the case for comedic figures who end up on the national stage. How far can even mainstream guys go? Lenny Bruce’s ridicule of religion and New York’s archdiocese, and his extraordinarily blue language, brought on obscenity arrests and made him a minor celebrity for most of his career. He became a household name only after he died. Bill Maher lost his nightly ABC show for criticizing American military pride a week after 9/11. Anticapitalist, LSD-loving, sacrilegious Bill Hicks never got close to hosting a show, and an entire appearance of his was cut after he’d taped it for David Letterman’s program in 1993. Yet when Louis C.K. scolds parents for letting their kids play with smartphones—after letting us know he sometimes has to pull off the road to cry when Springsteen songs come on the radio—his maudlin plea to embrace sadness and reject modern materialism (to enjoy less of life, essentially) went instantly viral in our still-quite-puritan pop culture.

Illustration featuring the folktale characters Wolf and Rabbit by Fritz Eichenberg, from Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus (1937).
Illustration featuring the folktale characters Wolf and Rabbit by Fritz Eichenberg, from Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus (1937).

Debating who gets the funny franchise is in our republic’s DNA. According to the weightier tomes on the subject, once the colonial and revolutionary generations of Franklins and Jeffersons aged out of the population, the first Americans—the ones who only knew life as Americans, not as colonials—developed a uniquely rude brand of folk humor that coincided with Andrew Jackson’s ascendance. In Blacking Up (1974), Robert C. Toll describes that “common man’s culture” as “proud, independent, morally strong, brave, and nationalistic.” In American Humor (1931), Constance Rourke writes of these early days:

Laughter produced the illusion of leveling obstacles. . . . Laughter created ease, and even more, a sense of unity, among a people who were not yet a nation and who were seldom joined in stable communities. . . . For a people whose life was still unformed, a searching out of primitive concepts was an inevitable and stirring pursuit, uncovering common purposes and directions.

Waspy, rural, and male, the Jacksonians developed a humor not unlike their politics and economics. It was by and for unlettered yet clever folk—morally correct merchants and farmers rising up in the world. They reveled in comedy that depicted them outwitting urban elites who had more money, cultivation, and education. The Jacksonians gave us the minstrel show, Washington Irving’s antielitist A History of New York and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the tall tales of frontiersman Davy Crockett, and hayseed wits like Seba Smith’s fictional Major Jack Downing. Waspy Yankee men got to toss the punch lines, and everyone else caught them.

Predictably, as soon as that Jacksonian humor appeared in America, so did the first comedy think piece. Traveling throughout the United States of the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville pondered the question of just how funny Americans were before deeming us decidedly unfunny. “People who spend every day in the week making money, and the Sunday in going to Church, have nothing to invite the muse of Comedy.”

Over the next thirty years, Jacksonian humor became the norm, and in many ways it still is. John Beckman’s American Fun offers an alternative history of our culture, zeroing in on the many ways in which our country’s fun making was spurred on by subcultures formed in opposition to that Waspy standard. The country’s true comic muse, he suggests, has always resided in rebellious, unacceptable humor and entertainment. He begins this chronicle with the forgotten hedonist pilgrim Thomas Morton and his lively seventeenth-century settlement, Merry Mount. The name alone was a pornographic joke to the locals. In his satirical poetry, Morton referred to Puritan leader Myles Standish as “Captain Shrimpe,” and at Merry Mount he encouraged forbidden Maypole dancing, refused to recognize bonded service, embraced Native American culture aesthetically, and Native American women literally. Within a year, Standish’s and Morton’s followers negotiated at gunpoint for Morton’s expulsion from the New World, after which Standish had the pilgrim playboy’s Maypole chopped down. From there, Beckman offers a narrative history touching on the revolutionary bonhomie of Samuel Adams’s taverns (a barroom insurgency that led, in turn, to the rowdy, whooping Boston Tea Party), the subversive revelry of plantation slave culture, Western prank journalism, P. T. Barnum, jazzmen, flappers, merry pranksters, and riot grrrls.

In American Fun, humor and music catalyze cultural subversion, breaking out spontaneously in response to intolerant majority rule. Sometimes this anarchic spirit gets absorbed into the pop culture, but rarely in the raw original forms that Beckman describes. Southern slaves took the cultural traditions of their African forebears and created an African American fusion that cannily subverted the racist social myths of the white majority in the guise of harmless humor. For instance, the folktales featuring the trickster figure Brother Rabbit had him outwitting more dangerous, dumber predators like Brother Wolf. Beckman writes, “If white ministers told slaves that they were beasts, soulless and doomed to serve their masters, the storyteller, especially through Brother Rabbit’s example, taught them their minds were their best resources and their souls were full of irrepressible joy.”

Eventually, white America discovered that African American culture and began the ongoing, ambiguous practice of appropriating it as minstrelsy. On one level, the development of such plantation humor is not unlike what Rourke and Toll say about the original WASP majority’s use of humor as a badge of self-definition. Indeed, as Beckman’s argument goes, these rebellious subcultures are in some way repeating that initial American identity process:

All the better if a square majority thought they could shut the rebellion down—that was what made it a joke to begin with! That was what made it a laugh riot! Laughter, in these cases, is a powerful metaphor for how such citizens responded to struggle: with ebullience—dancing, capering, cracking jokes. Laughter, as such, is the perfection of citizenship. It is the joy of the one joining the joy of the many in a powerful wave of common purpose.

If you got the joke, you were one of them. If you didn’t, you probably were the joke. Beckman shows this same basic dynamic playing out again and again for a shifting cast of cultural outsiders, who manage to claim their American citizenship by creating their own fun culture. For Beckman, slave-era culture remains the most profound example of an oppressed group’s traditions acquiring unparalleled influence within the mainstream:

Most remarkably, America’s most original culture, America’s most durable culture—now an immeasurable international rhizome of hip-hop, techno, rock, dance, style, slang, humor, sports, whatnot—got its roaring start in the southern slave quarters, among Americans who valued possibly more than anyone the liberty and equality that they were denied. . . . Among people who were witty enough to tell the joke, nimble enough to get the joke, and tough enough to take the joke.

It took the nation’s WASP cultural majority quite a while to toughen up to take some of these jokes. Every era had its Myles Standish and its Thomas Morton. Beckman pinpoints the 1920s—which saw the emergence of the “New Negro” of the Harlem Renaissance and the flapper-era “New Woman”—as a critical moment when nontraditional fun truly entered the mainstream. Prohibition—imposed by rural WASPs on an increasingly diverse America of voting Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and immigrants who loathed the ban on alcohol—is cited by Beckman as signaling the decline of “Protestant ideological power.”

It’s here, one can argue, that another type of mainstream humor begins to take shape. Rourke sees it in the 1922 publication of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, which mercilessly lays into the formerly sacred Yankee businessman who spends the week making money and Sundays in church.

Despite our many think pieces on what counts as funny, any glance at late-night comedy shows and sitcoms makes it clear that the long battle between mainstream and rebellious fun is far from over. The United States has so far entrusted the office of secretary of state to three women, while granting the hallowed institution of the late-night network talk show to one, briefly: Joan Rivers. (Two, if we count Chelsea Handler’s E! channel as a network.) Saturday Night Live recently held emergency auditions to find a black female cast member after the show’s producers were embarrassed into it. In an era when mass-circulation magazines can still publish an “Are Women Funny?” piece, but a “Can a Woman Be President?” article is absurd, our national sense of humor deserves at least as much ridicule as our politics.

Ben Schwartz is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer, and is currently working on a history of American humor between the world wars.