Master of Arts
Christopher T. White, Ph.D.
Rashidah J. Muhammad, Ph.D.
Rosemary Johnsen, Ph.D.
This thesis sets out to examine a specific function that humor has played in twentieth century American literature and that is reflective of American culture today—that being a constant testing of boundaries of who and what are allowed to be considered funny. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) gives readers a woman whose struggle for a Black female voice lands her on an informal standup comedy stage. Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov walks a tightrope of taboo subject matter, encouraging readers to appropriately—though maybe uncomfortably—laugh at the inappropriate, and this decades before such routines like that of Louis C.K. became the norm in clubs and on television specials. Kurt Vonnegut’s antiwar novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) was not only a bridge between the counterculture comics that attacked sacred cows in the 1960s and those who would take the torch toward century’s end but also a forerunner to the sketch comedy programs like Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show, and Mr. Show that would become cultural TV standard beginning in the 1970s.
Certain comedic taboos and sacred cows exist during any period of history, and it is the job of comedians—American authors included—to challenge them in order to break barriers, force social progress, and sometimes resist against taking ourselves or our institutions too seriously. Once those comedic steps are made, we can look back on them as cultural benchmarks often taken for granted in the humor we are accustomed to today.
American humor does not seem to get the scholarly attention that some of the other aspects of literary analysis do. There is a lot of subtlety and skill to American fictional humor. But literary humor is seen as mere novelty rather than being appreciated for what it is: a cultural and political tool—a particularly necessary one in a tumultuous twentieth century fraught with global wars and domestic sociopolitical struggles. Twentieth century American novelistic humor prior to the last quarter of the century also shows itself to be a precursor to late-century performance comedy that would become the norm. Hurston, Nabokov, and Vonnegut were the counterculture comics and Not Ready for Prime Time Players of their day because status quo America wasn’t ready for them. There has always been a quarrel in this country as to what and who is funny. Hurston, Nabokov, and Vonnegut didn’t shy away from that quarrel but chose to meet it head on instead.
Baffoe, Timothy, "What is Really Funny: Humor Ahead of Its Time in the Twentieth Century American Novel" (2016). All Student Theses. 88.