Academic journal article MELUS

Only When I Laugh: Textual Dynamics of Ethnic Humor

Academic journal article MELUS

Only When I Laugh: Textual Dynamics of Ethnic Humor

Article excerpt

I must confess: I have been doing something one is not supposed to do in polite circles -- I have been trading ethnic jokes. Not nasty, mean-spirited attacks, I hasten to add, but ethnic jokes nonetheless, jokes dependent to some extent on assumptions and stereotypes about a wide variety of ethnic groups. This activity might seem fairly suspect among my socially and politically progressive colleagues and friends, yet my confession is not nearly as shocking as my discovery: ethnic jokes can not only be not offensive or bigoted, they can serve as an important strategy for defining ethnicity positively. They can provide a welcome means for asserting pride in one's ethnic identity, rather than serving merely to demean those who are marked as ethnically Other. While writing this article, I found that almost anyone to whom I mentioned the topic freely offered a joke or two for my "research." On one occasion, an entire dinner party engaged in a joke cycle.(1) Each person contributed the answer specific to their ethnic group to the joking question of what constitutes sexual foreplay:

"You're writing on ethnic jokes? Like, what's the Italian form of foreplay?'" an Italian-American friend inquired.


In a dialect more Flatbush than Florence, she replied, "Yo, Baby, get ovah heah!"

Not to be outdone, her Irish-American boyfriend chimed in, "Well, you know the Irish form of foreplay -- a six-pack."

Never having heard these versions, I told the only foreplay joke I knew, the one about my own group. "And then there's the Jewish form of foreplay -- two hours of begging."

The jokes themselves provided a discourse within, yet disparate from, the rest of the conversation, as the single act of joke telling spontaneously grew into a joking discourse. Each ethnic speaker told a decidedly American ethnic joke. The Brooklyn accent indicated an Italian-American; a true Dubliner would be drinking a pint of Guinness, not a six-pack; the stereotype of frigid Jewish women is linked to the caricature of the Jewish-American Princess. Thus, each participant in the joking discourse identified with an ethnic heritage that was inseparable from her/his American nationality. The fact that each participant was eager to have her/his group represented in the joke cycle indicates that these jokes, although founded on seemingly derogatory stereotypes, served as an expression of pride in one's ethnicity and an example of the desire to share that ethnic pride with individuals from other backgrounds.

This article explores the impulse to use ethnic humor as a vehicle for the assertion of a positive ethnic identity. In "Theories of Ethnic Humor: How to Enter, Laughing," John Lowe argues that literary scholars dealing with ethnic humor in American literature look outside their discipline to find important tools and strategies for their analyses. By incorporating the work of folklorists, anthropologists, linguists, sociologists, and psychologists into literary studies, critics can achieve a greater understanding of how the dynamics of ethnic humor shape literature (Lowe 451-56). Although this essay is intended to contribute to the "interdisciplinary, cross-cultural theory of ethnic humor" which Lowe suggests is needed (455) and includes several sources from outside literary studies, my approach here will largely invert the process he outlines. Rather than exploring literary representations of ethnic humor through interdisciplinary analysis, I will use literary theory to explore individual "joke texts" in order to trace a broader phenomenon: the strategy through which ethnic speakers celebrate identity by telling jokes about their own ethnic group. While I am not addressing humor within specific literary texts, I hope that my work here will serve as a building block for future projects that deal more specifically with "literature" in the traditional sense.

The question of what constitutes a literary text has dominated twentieth century literary criticism. …

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