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The Last Laugh

Folk Humor, Celebrity Culture, and Mass-Mediated Disasters in the Digital Age

Trevor J. Blank

Publication Year: 2013

Widely publicized in mass media worldwide, high-profile tragedies and celebrity scandals—the untimely deaths of Michael Jackson and Princess Diana, the embarrassing affairs of Tiger Woods and President Clinton, the 9/11 attacks or the Challenger space shuttle explosion—often provoke nervous laughter and black humor. If in the past this snarky folklore may have been shared among friends and uttered behind closed doors, today the Internet's ubiquity and instant interactivity propels such humor across a much more extensive and digitally mediated discursive space. New media not only let more people "in on the joke," but they have also become the "go-to" formats for engaging in symbolic interaction, especially in times of anxiety or emotional suppression, by providing users an expansive forum for humorous, combative, or intellectual communication, including jokes that cross the line of propriety and good taste. Moving through engaging case studies of Internet-derived humor about momentous disasters in recent American popular culture and history, The Last Laugh chronicles how and why new media have become a predominant means of vernacular expression. Trevor J. Blank argues that computer-mediated communication has helped to compensate for users' sense of physical detachment in the "real" world, while generating newly meaningful and dynamic opportunities for the creation and dissemination of folklore. Drawing together recent developments in new media studies with the analytical tools of folklore studies, he makes a strong case for the significance to contemporary folklore of technologically driven trends in folk and mass culture.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xxvi

This book aims to demonstrate that the global reach of new media, particularly the Internet, has now irrevocably extended itself into the ways that modern society expresses itself. To illustrate this, I examine the evolution of the humorous visual and especially narrative folk responses to death, disaster, and scandal ...

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pp. xxvii-xxx

Writer and humorist Robert Benchley once quipped that “defining and analyzing humor is a pastime of humorless people.” While the study of disaster may not be the most cheery subject on the surface, this project has been a real labor of love. Between the many hours of solitude that I spent in the dark corners of libraries ...

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Introduction: Cyberspace, Technology, and Mass Media in the Twenty-First Century

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pp. 3-14

June 25, 2009, began as a normal day. I was in Bloomington, Indiana, teaching an introductory folklore class (cleverly disguised as a sociology course) for the local community college. About an hour into our discussion, one of my students’ phones began to vibrate loudly. ...

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Chapter 1. Searching for Connections: How And Why We Use New Media For Vernacular Expression

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pp. 15-25

For the first few years of my life I struggled to contort my lips into the shapes that would allow me to pronounce the official name for one of the first “toys” that I came to know and understand as a human being. Despite my developmental limitations, I would point to the bulky machine in my father’s office while repeatedly uttering ...

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Chapter 2. Changing Technologies, Changing Tastes: The Evolution Of Humor And Mass-Mediated Disasters In The Late Twentieth Century

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pp. 26-37

The Three Mile Island accident and NASA’s Challenger space shuttle disaster are among the two most notable catastrophes to occur in the United States between the end of the media-saturated Vietnam era and the emergence and popular adoption of Internet technology. ...

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Chapter 3. From 9/11 To The Death Of Bin Laden: Vernacular Expression And The Emergence Of Web 2.0

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pp. 38-56

Unquestionably, the early 1990s were a crucial time in the Internet’s development as a communications powerhouse. This was the Web 1.0 era, where connections to the Internet were typically made through a dial-up service with 56k bandwidth (versus today’s broadband Internet accessibility and the current global average Internet speed of 1.7 megabytes per second).1 ...

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Chapter 4. "Intimate Strangers" The Folk Response To Celebrity Death And Falls From Grace

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pp. 57-69

Until this point, I have discussed at great length the mass-mediated disasters, the human need for connectivity, and the historical contexts through which vernacular expression has been facilitated by mass media in the response to tragedy. So how, then, does celebrity and folk culture meaningfully intersect within society, and why does it matter? ...

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Chapter 5. From Sports Hero to Supervillain Or, How Tiger Woods Wrecked His Car(eer)

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pp. 70-82

There was a time when professional golfer Eldrick “Tiger” Woods could do no wrong. In the minds of many adoring fans and respected sports commentators he was an exemplary professional with sound moral credentials. From his early career through 2009, the charming and handsome athlete was recruited to endorse such high-profile products as Nike shoes ...

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Chapter 6. Dethroning the King of Pop: Michael Jackson And The Humor Of Death

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pp. 83-98

By any measure, Michael Jackson—“the King of Pop,” “the Gloved One,” “Wacko Jacko,” whatever you want to call him—was a cultural icon. As the best-selling artist of all time, the complex musical and pop culture phenomenon left a tremendous legacy and a wealth of cultural reverberations from his career and sensationalized personal life after his passing in June 2009. ...

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Chapter 7. Laughing to Death: Tradition, Vernacular Expression and American Culture In The Digital Age

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pp. 99-110

In the United States, the notion of the “good old days” has prevailed in the popular imagination for some time. Many Americans look to the past and envision close-knit communities and neighborhood barbeques; others remark upon the moral superiority of the long-abandoned “traditional values” from days of yore, ...

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Afterword: Predictions on Future Trajectories of Vernacular Expression and New Media

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pp. 111-114

Throughout the twentieth century, scholars have observed that social networks are supposedly weakest after age forty (see Brandes 1985). At this time in one’s life, meaningful friendships are often diminished or dwindling, and interpersonal discord is often reported. ...


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pp. 115-118


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pp. 119-134


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pp. 135-152


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pp. 153-156

E-ISBN-13: 9780299292034
E-ISBN-10: 0299292037
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299292041
Print-ISBN-10: 0299292045

Page Count: 176
Illustrations: 12 b/w illus.
Publication Year: 2013