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Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict. By Paul Lewis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2006.

In Cracking Up, Paul Lewis attempts to characterize American humor in the last two decades of the twentieth century. In this respect, the work resembles Joseph Boskin's 1997 work Rebellious Laughter. Boskin's work, however, presented a more historical perspective. Lewis's book is focused on particular issues which are laid out in the book's four major chapters. The first of these is "Killing Jokes"—jokes that "invite us to be amused by images of bodily mutilation, vulnerability, and victimization" (24). The archetypical examples are those made by Freddy Kruger in The Nightmare on Elm Street series of films. The second chapter deals with the "positive humor movement"—the antithesis of killing jokes—that promotes laughter and comedy as a means of physical and spiritual healing as well as a benefit in everyday workplace interaction. The third chapter examines joking in public culture and addresses the issue of humor and political correctness. The fourth chapter is concerned with humor in political discourse, and the extent to which humor is capable of establishing, enhancing, or subverting a serious political message.

Cracking Up is written in a lively style, and Lewis leads readers to a consideration of some topics not previously examined by humor scholars (e.g., horror films developed as a comic genre; the change in George W. Bush jokes after 9/11). Nevertheless, Lewis begins with the question of whether humor is good or bad, and proceeds to investigate each of the above topics with an eye for humor's destructive, or at least negative, potential. Lewis sees the killing jokes of Freddy Kruger and Batman's Joker as emerging from nihilistic defeatism and ontological insecurity (40, 47). The jokes allow audiences to distance themselves from humanity and to reduce their anxieties about the future. [End Page 142]

Since Lewis weaves the cinematic humor into concerns about current social problems, it is no surprise that the Columbine high school massacre or the behavior of prison guards at Abu Ghraib are brought into connection with killing jokes. I need stronger evidence, however, to convince me that Freddy Kruger's humorous asides are implicated in—or even index—criminal assault, torture, or serial murder in the late twentieth century. Brutality and cruelty are age-old, and they do not demand a cinematic fashion to account for them. Cruel laughter is equally old, and one need only read the Bible or Icelandic sagas to glimpse the grim situations in which laughter is elicited. One is at a loss to know why these killing jokes emerge in the 1980's at the point when threats of world disaster were probably ebbing (as opposed to the height of the nuclear arms race), or what one should make of Harry Graham's Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes (1898) in the absence, presumably, of such a sense of impending world disaster. Lewis might have interviewed some teen audience members about the horror films that they consumed and at which they laughed. Fieldwork is not something that professors of literature normally undertake, but Lewis did attend several humor conferences in his effort to understand the positive humor movement, so he might have made a similar effort in gauging the reception of these films.

Lewis is also suspicious—and rightly so—of the positive humor movement, because it is predicated on therapeutic functions for which there is no substantial scientific evidence, and because introducing comedy into desperate situations—clowning in hospitals, for example—may employ rote humor strategies that are indifferent to the sensibilities of people in desperate situations.

When it comes to the role of political and cultural discourse, Lewis is a bit more equivocal in his evaluation. Perhaps, he concedes, Cornell University was too harsh in its response to those students who circulated "75 Reasons Women (Bitches) Should Not Have Freedom of Speech" on the Internet, but might not that tasteless joke list still engender genuine sexist opinion and encourage anti-female behavior (125)? Don't humorous images in advertising encourage all kinds of negative behaviors: drinking, smoking, overeating (146)? When Jay Leno eschews principled satire and goes merely for the joke, does he not divert attention from critical social and political issues (201)? Might not humor designed to reduce stress in the workplace mask the structural causes of that very same stress (100)? When George Bush makes fun of himself, doesn't he hide his disastrous policy decisions behind a guise of amiability and good will (170)? Doesn't Rush Limbaugh conceal illogic and misinformation beneath a veneer of humorous banter (168)?

Of course humor can have negative effects. Anything can, including the best of intentions. Asking whether humor is basically good or bad, however, seems like asking whether language, or music, or art are basically good or bad. What can one say? Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's bad, sometimes it's neither. Often the question is simply irrelevant. Furthermore such evaluations beg the frame of reference within which one is operating. Lewis is certainly aware that some of his own positive assessments of particular humorous expressions are at odds with the assessments of others who are more sensitive about the subjects of the jests.

Lewis is concerned with morality, responsibility, and justice—which probably makes him a better colleague than investment advisor. He worries about the direction this country is taking, but he focuses on the wrong issue. Humor is the least of our problems. A "racist" joke (by no means a clearly-defined category) told by someone who is not a racist is less problematical in the overall scheme of things than a perfectly innocent joke told by a genuine racist. And when a racist joke is told by a genuine racist, there are more things [End Page 143] to worry about than the joke itself. It is the serious opinions and the actions informed by these opinions that should be the objects of concern.

Elliott Oring
California State University, Los Angeles