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  • On Second Thought
  • Joanne Gilbert and Kathryn B. McKee


I'll never forget hearing the infamous Camille Paglia speak when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas in the 1990s. Exulting in her status as an intellectual provocateur, Paglia took no small amount of delight in telling the crowd that "Picasso could mow down a line of grandmothers, and he'd still be Picasso." In other words, regardless of an artist's flaws, foibles or felonies, art is art. Flash forward to 2019 when scholars from a wide range of disciplines wrestle with precisely this conundrum in the politically charged zeitgeist of the #MeToo movement. Although the New Critics in the 1950s brought us the dread intentional fallacy, urging us to view art on its own merits, our current cultural milieu complicates the rhetorical entailments of art produced in any medium. Indeed, through daily adjudication in the court of public opinion, icons of cinema, sitcoms, and stand-up comedy once hailed as legendary have fallen out of favor due to public unwillingness to separate artist from art.

In his article "Is Bill Cosby Still Funny?" philosopher Phillip Deen offers a cogent analysis of public response to both Cosby and Louis C. K. in light of behavior ranging from deeply disturbing to clearly criminal. Situating these high-profile examples within the long-standing debate regarding ethical vs. aesthetic critique, Deen discusses Cosby, C. K., and their material from the perspectives of moralism and autonomism. Deftly contrasting Cosby's now classic "wholesome" stand-up with C. K.'s ostensibly autobiographical material featuring the very sexual obsession that precipitated his downfall, Deen argues that audiences feel more betrayed when a comic's onstage and offstage persona seem identical. Concluding that it is permissible to laugh and appreciate even humor created by morally bankrupt individuals as long as the laughter/enjoyment is not harming anyone, Deen lands squarely in Paglia's camp. [End Page 5]

But what of those who boycott Woody Allen films, refuse to watch C. K., or destroy their old Cosby albums? Certainly, they are counterbalanced by adherents to comic immoralism, those who understand that as Bergson taught us long ago, laughter requires "a momentary anesthesia of the heart." It is not moral perhaps to mock and deride—to laugh at another's misfortune. And yet, entire genres of humor are predicated on exactly that. Morality may not be the coin of the realm in the context of critiquing comics. As Deen maintains, "Ethical concerns do not always outweigh aesthetic ones" (308). We can know the dancer from the dance, it seems, and it is up to us whether and to what extent we follow or lead.

Joanne Gilbert

Charles A. Dana Professor of Communication, Alma College Contributing Editor, Studies in American Humor



Ed Piacentino's "English Sport Writing, the Spirit of the Times, and Old Southwest Humor" reminds me of the enormous value of "The Recovery Room" and makes me very glad that it has returned to the pages of this journal. His essay catalogues primary material from the late 1830s and early 1840s, originally appearing in British publications but reprinted by William T. Porter, almost certainly without permission and sometimes within a matter of weeks of the story's debut. In the many hours Piacentino spent poring over microfilm, cross-referencing publications, and organizing his findings into broad categories of affiliation, he has done the hardest work. What is left for us is to interrogate the pieces he has rediscovered.

For example, one question we have cursorily asked about southwestern humor—what happens to it within the context of postbellum America?—has always yielded for me a largely unsatisfactory answer: that is, it was formative in shaping Mark Twain's career, reaching its apogee in the character and voice of Huckleberry Finn. But I wonder if this position has limited the genre's scope and import with our assumptions about who might have been exposed to it. Piacentino summarizes a story reprinted from the London Monthly in 1836, for instance, called "A Tame Pig Mistaken for a Wild Boar" in which a Frenchman dupes a pompous and foolish English officer into believing that...