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  • The Language of Humor: An Introduction by Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen
  • Joseph Dorinson (bio)
The Language of Humor: An Introduction. By Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 400 pp.

Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don Nilsen have scored another triumph. Their latest book, The Language of Humor: An Introduction, is a valuable addition to humor scholarship. They adroitly combine earlier PowerPoints with illuminating commentary tailored to the needs of researchers, writers, and lecturers in our ever-expanding field of humor, providing a compelling and accessible narrative with encyclopedic scope unencumbered by academic jargon. No bona fide humor maven should leave home or office without it. Lecturers and researchers can benefit from their PowerPoints, which have invariably enriched the lectures of this reviewer. Now fortified with exegetical narrative, they serve as indispensable tools for teachers. Peppered with personal experience to complement voluminous research and salted with folklore, joke lore, and heuristic devices for imparting the joys of humor, this book is a godsend, even to atheists like Bill Maher and me.

The Nilsens apply traditional theories of humor and make frequent references to Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hobbes, and Immanuel Kant. To the frameworks of relief, superiority, and incongruity, they add the more recent studies of Victor Raskin and Salvatore Attardo, which incorporate script theory. Concerned with vision, tragic as well as comic, the authors cite John Morreall's illuminating analysis of this binary. They use multiple sources, preferring synthesis to analysis, and deliver a big-picture forest of information rather than numberless trees.

In their panoramic synthesis of every imaginable type of humor, they provide ample food for thought in delicious morsels for each person's palate. My taste runs to Jewish, African American, and political humor, which the authors serve up elegantly. Specialists in literature and linguistics, the Nilsens devote large portions to their favorite field; yet they do not stint on other subjects. They are equally engrossed in history's zeitgeists as they are with metaphors and tropes. [End Page 236]

Most impressively, they bring political humor up-to-date with satirical references to the malaise in Washington, DC, engendered by the Trump presidency (288-90) (they define and delineate satire on 164-66, 179). They evidently enjoy Bill Maher's satiric thrusts at our current president and applaud Alec Baldwin's takedown of him. As residents of Arizona, they witnessed the impeachment of former governor Evan Meacham, who abolished Martin Luther King Day but succumbed to malfeasance in office, a story well suited to satire. With a keen sense of history, the authors weave the satirical contributions of Horace, Juvenal, Jonathan Swift, George Orwell and that quintessential American, Ben Franklin, into their discussion of contemporary events.

Clearly, the Nilsens stand on the shoulders of more contemporary giants in humor studies, such as Joseph Boskin, John Morreall, Elliot Oring, Victor Raskin, and Salvatore Attardo, whom they readily cite and gratefully acknowledge. Only one prior author, Marvin R. Koller, had attempted such a broad synthesis of humor literature across the academic spectrum. Koller took a giant step forward to be sure in Humor and Society: Explorations in the Sociology of Humor (1988), but the current work may exceed it.

I have some minor quibbles or kvetches. "Swinging on a Star" (208-9) was not an anonymous novelty song. Rather it was a song written by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen for Bing Crosby, who sang it in his signature film Going My Way (1944). The disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner's ex-wife Huma Abedin is incorrectly identified as Jewish; she is a Muslim. Chortles of laughter at the expense of Weiner with repeated riffs on his name and perversion do not deserve four pages of text; nor does the gratuitous violence in the films, however comic, of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers deserve praise. Chacun à son goût. Though the Nilsens offer the best succinct analysis of My Fair Lady and its antecedents in Greek and Shavian literature I have ever read, the mere mention (less than a paragraph's worth) of Tom Lehrer (210) and the omission of "Yip" Harburg in the section on music...