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  • The Giant & The Child:"Cruel" Humor in American Culture
  • Joseph Boskin (bio)

Reality and humor have a complicated, if not conspiratorial, relationship. Though obviously connected, they often appear to move in contrary directions. The reason, as Sigmund Freud acutely observed, is that humor is the open means by which humans grapple with hidden forces, the object of the strophe being to make merry while the emotions rage. In this sly way, humor confronts reality either by distorting and disguising it, by enlarging and exaggerating its dimensions, or by wrapping it in bows and tinsel.

Of all the aspects of humor, the joke cycle in American culture is perhaps its most intriguing and imponderable expression. Its appearance in the twentieth century has been spontaneous but at irregular intervals; its form has remained traditional yet always related to current happenings; and its transmission has been initially oral yet usually communicated to succeeding generations via the popular small-sized paperback book. In the latter half of the twentieth century six major joke cycles have surfaced, all national in scope, whose subject matter has been quite diverse. They are specifically the longstanding Polish (1950s-80s), Sick or Cruel (1950s-60s), Elephant (1960s), Light Bulb (1970s), JAP (1970s-80), and Disaster (1980s) jokes.

The popular humor of the immediate post-World War II decades—expressed as "black," "sick," and "cruel" and particularly the joke cycle of the pattern that focused on the Child—illustrate the complexities by which humor responds to swift and unsettling changes that have characterized American society throughout its history. The child-oriented cycle that suddenly made its appearance in the latter years of the 1950s and early 60s reflected the deepseated anxieties of the adult world to the socioeconomic changes that were occurring, transformations that were not only affirmed by their actions as upwardly mobile consumers but were perpetuated by their adherence to bourgeois values as well.

Following the triumph of its global victory, the United States embarked on fulfilling the consumer expectations that had been suddenly and brutally [End Page 141] cut short by the Great Depression and then by the requirements of the War itself. Freed from the deprivations of both events, there ensued a frenzied rush to achieve the American Dream: an ensured middle class status buttressed by durable goods and entitled services. Fueled by the needs of a war-torn world and undeterred by competing national economies, the dynamic prosperity did indeed elevate a substantial majority into the middle classes.

The triumph of American technology transcended the continent. No longer isolated, no longer just an important player in the international scene, the United States assumed a global dominance. The result was the rise of the state as a superpower, the nation as a colossus capable of influencing the internal political policies of countries throughout the world.

Expectedly, the nation's language was swiftly altered to redefine its international place. Ideals, institutions and goods were catapulted into higher orbs, the words reflecting a kind of giantism. The prefix super quickly became attached to the American universe, suggestive of the world's most powerful financial, military and technological society. Consequently, grocery stores were expanded into supermarkets; six-lane highways were labelled superhighways that criss-crossed the nation; cities and the surrounding environs swelled into megalopolises; the "Sixty-four Dollar" radio show became the "Sixty-four Thousand Dollar" television program; the average-sized movie screen was enlarged into cinemascope; airplanes traveled at supersonic speeds; oil moved around the globe in supertankers; a football championship became the superbowl played in a superdome; and superweapons and drugs became commonplace announcements. Words synonymous with super were sprinkled liberally throughout consumer culture. Products were labeled "extra large," "giant," "jumbo." Advertisements flashed "super sale" signs and beckoned the multitudes with "super savings." Colloquial expressions, too, fixed on the super: a positive response to almost anything became "that's super," "super-duper," or a spaced out "su--per." A special word highlighting a happy state was "supercalafragilistic - expialidocious" from the child/adult film, Mary Poppins (1964). A highly successful entertainer or athlete was anointed a "superstar." "Simply great" became one of the many hyperbolic phrases that summed up ordinary situations.

At the conscious level, the super...


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