- The Politics of Humour: Laughter, Inclusion, and Exclusion in the Twentieth Century ed. by by Martina Kessel and Patrick Merziger, and: Politik und Ethik der Komik Hrsg. von Susanne Kaul und Oliver Kohns
In the past decade, the number of publications treating the subject of humor in German-speaking countries and/or written by Germans on international humor topics has increased. Recent offerings include Anne D. Peiter’s Komik und Gewalt: Zur literarischen Verarbeitung der beiden Weltkriege und der Shoah (2007); Patrick Merziger’s Nationalsozialistische Satire und ‘Deutscher Humor’. Politische Bedeutung und Öffentlichkeit populärer Unterhaltung 1931-1945 (2010); Sick Humor (2011), edited by Christian Hoffstadt and Stefan Höltgen as the first volume of a new international and multilingual series entitled “Komik und Gewalt” to be produced by the universities of Bochum and Freiburg; and my own anthology Strategies of Humor in Post-Unification German Literature, Film, and Other Media (2011). The two co-edited anthologies reviewed here add to this pool while complementing each other in their diverse subject matter and methodological approaches. The Politics of Humour: Laughter, Inclusion, and Exclusion in the Twentieth Century features a substantial introduction by Martina Kessel and eight chapters that have not been grouped into sections, but instead are organized chronologically by subject from the early to the late twentieth century. Politik und Ethik der Komik contains a brief introduction by Susanne Kaul and Oliver Kohns and twelve chapters divided into three sections, entitled “Philosophische, soziologische und poetologische Grundlagen der Komik,” “Komik und Politik,” and “Komik und Gewalt.” Both volumes unfortunately lack an index, which would have been helpful, because the topics and secondary sources featured in them are quite diverse.
Both anthologies contain a majority of chapters on native German humor or humor produced by minority groups in Germany, but each also integrates several on humor from other nations. The Politics of Humour has one chapter each on U.S. ethnically ambiguous “creole” film cartoons from 1900-1930; Jewish self-hatred in U.S. television sitcoms from the 1990s, in particular The Larry Sanders Show; ethnic humor in the Netherlands from the 1970s to the early 2000s; and feminine, mocking but “compassionate humour” (204) in late twentieth-century British novels by Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner, and Penelope Fitzgerald. Politik und Ethik der Komik displays a similar potpourri, ranging from a reconsideration of Aristotle’s postulate that the [End Page 323] object of humor must be “harmless” in order to produce humor through Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi’s self-fashioning of his public image as an “obscene clown” (71) to the American political activist group The Yes Men, the film Pulp Fiction, and U.S. television cartoons from Tom and Jerry and Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner to The Itchy & Scratchy Show embedded in The Simpsons. In what follows, I will discuss mainly the contributions pertaining to German-language culture.
For the most part, contributors to The Politics of Humour take a cultural-historical approach to their subjects, using humor as a means of historical analysis that “allows us to see not only how humour entertained, but also how it worked as a cultural practice that both organized social order and revealed shared assumptions about society and politics” and to recognize how it “served to produce inclusion and exclusion along the lines of race, ethnicity, and gender” throughout the twentieth century (3, 4). Contributors look at a large set of humorous/comical performances, jokes, and written or audio-visual texts and assess their functions in the specific historical setting(s) in which they appeared, whether it be Imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic, the First or Second World War, or an international context (the U.S., the Netherlands, or the U.K., as described above). The dominant theoretical underpinnings for their conclusions are derived from Sigmund Freud’s...