7. Making and Unmaking Political Mischief: Trickster Influences in the Rhetorical Humor of the 1960s
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221 7 Making and Unmaking Political Mischief: Trickster Influences in the Rhetorical Humor of the 1960s Mari Boor Tonn I n a missive to his brother from a jail cell in 1970, Yippie1 luminary Abbie Hoffman wrote, “Make up a letter for the [news]paper . . . & say it came from me. A revolution needs a few con-artists.”2 Indeed, with his principal Yippie cohort, Jerry Rubin, Hoffman had long practiced the politics of the “put-on,” a fusion of New Left ideology and “huckster” hype.3 Revelers in farce, humor, obscenity, shock, disruption, masquerade, and deception, the Yippies were emblematic of the “theater of the absurd,”4 a stark corollary to the sober justice arguments of Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Cesar Chavez, Jo Freeman, Betty Friedan, Mario Savio, Frank Church, Russell Means, and a bevy of other rhetors prominent during the turbulent political era of the 1960s.5 Even more conspicuously outlandish than the Merry Pranksters or the Diggers, the Yippies favored spectacle and stunts to engender chaos and court media attention: levitating the Pentagon, tossing cash from the spectators’ gallery at the New York Stock Exchange, and floating rumors before the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention of Yippie plans to spike the city’s water supply with LSD, pose as taxi drivers, and drop unsuspecting delegates in Wisconsin.6 As Hoffman put it, “The goal of this nameless art form—part vaudeville, part insurrection, part communal recreation—was to shatter the pretense of objectivity,” to “rouse viewers from their . . . stupor.”7 Humor figured significantly in challenging fossilized social mores during the 1960s. Using humor to disrupt and critique has long-standing popular roots. But whereas ancient rhetorical theorists largely conceived of humor as an adjustive means to woo and charm potential audiences, humor often has functioned as a subversive force, especially for audiences disempowered by social and material circumstance . Scholars have “named” varied types of disruptive symbolic processes related to humor for purposes of social critique or empowerment. As examples, Theodore O. SOCIAL CONTROVERSY AND PUBLIC ADDRESS IN THE 1960S AND EARLY 1970S 222 Windt locates the impertinence of the Yippies within the diatribe of ancient Cynics; Mikhail Bakhtin derives the carnivalesque from mocking medieval rituals; Adrienne Christiansen and Jeremy Hansen, Anne Demos, and Kirk Fuoss explore in separate works irreverent guerrilla theater; John Sloop and Kent Ono point to virtues of “outlaw ” discourse; Karlyn Kohrs Campbell notes the emancipatory force of symbolic reversals and reclaiming; and Kenneth Burke theorizes about the winking wisdom of court jesters and clowns in shattering previous worldviews and creating a fresh perspective by incongruity born of parody, satire, humor, irony, and puns.8 Humor’s enduring force as social critique is evidenced by the contemporary popularity of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, and other venues wherein players challenge and debunk political and cultural norms of various degrees of significance as part of their trade. My aim in what follows is not to explore humor in all of its varied dimensions and goals. Nor is it to treat exhaustively humor’s various uses and permutations throughout history. Rather, my purpose is to explore some rhetorical humor confined to the turbulent 1960s as bearing influences of a vernacular tradition with long-standing roots—trickster mythology—which features the skills of a cunning underling and whose humorous escapades to survive have held appeal for centuries. To no small extent, I argue, the oxymoronic wise fool, bawdy saturnalia rituals reversing hierarchy, the sly but endearing outlaw or con artist, and poaching, masquerading , boundary-crossing, and similar symbolic concepts have an ancestry in the archetypal trickster figure,9 a vernacular fictive mischief-maker who, in Jeanne Rosier Smith’s words, “challenges culture from both within and without, strengthening and renewing it with outrageous laughter.”10 Trickster lore is both widespread and ancient, and its allure in the public imaginary points to the most fundamental need—survival—with entailments of both the intellectual and emotional kind particularly for the struggling. Their vernacular appeal is that they critique the necessary obstacles, while the tales enable a humorous perspective likewise necessary to ford off crippling cynicism and thus aid empowerment . Tricksters are outlaws, to be sure, but of a kind a culture often finds endearing rather than aggravating. Outcasts or underlings, tricksters such as Prometheus, Hermes, Coyote, Raven, Brer Rabbit, Monkey, Krishna, Loki, Hodja, and others, for centuries have populated a vast storehouse of often humorous tales across the globe. Such tales feature a usually wily protagonist...


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