I don't know exactly when it happened, but sometime in the last 10 years all the assistant professors of English in their tweed jackets with the elbow patches decided to stop writing about hummingbird imagery in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and start publishing books about the gay subtext of "Mister Magoo."
Pop culture, low culture and downright sleazy culture that had never been called "culture" anytime in the history of culture suddenly became high academic culture. There were sociology professors at Vanderbilt deconstructing Linda Lovelace, anthropologists at Wellesley excavating Victorian burlesque halls, and comparative literature geniuses at Stanford reinterpreting "How To Pick Up Girls" in the context of Kantian ethics.
Somewhere along the way something called the International Journal of Humor Research appeared, and in retrospect it was inevitable. Edited by Lawrence E. Mintz, an American Studies professor at the University of Maryland, with an editorial board from 22 other institutions including the University of Dusseldorf, the Russian State University of Liberal Arts, Tribhubvan University in Nepal, and Tel Aviv University, it maxes out at 440 pages a year of dense text devoted to "humor as an important and universal human faculty."
In other words, they take the joke, the jest, the pratfall, the standup routine, the vaudeville act, the pun, the bawdy limerick, and the jolly jowls of Saint Nicholas himself, and they subject them to relentless excruciatingly scientific microscopic scholarly jibber-jabber.
Of course, by doing so, they've already forgotten the first rule of comedy: If you can explain exactly why it's funny, then it's not.
Hence, in the particular issue that crossed my desk (Volume 14, No. 2), we have a couple of profs from the University of North Carolina/Charlotte writing on "Perceived personality associations with differences in sense of humor: Stereotypes of hypothetical others with high or low senses of humor." (Translation: they asked a bunch of students whether they trusted and esteemed a person with a sense of humor more than a person who has none. Guess who wins?)
We have five researchers at Georgia Southern University doing an experiment in which stressed-out people are asked to write a humorous essay to see whether that helps mellow them out. (The answer: yes and no.)
We have Jennifer Gamble from the College of William and Mary studying gorillas and chimps and deciding that they have senses of humor similar to children. (A single trip to the zoo would probably confirm this.)
But if you think this is an isolated cubbyhole of academic eccentricity, you haven't been on a campus lately. In 1992 the University of Michigan had an entire "Comedy Semester," with courses offered in the departments of English, history, communication, art history, romance languages, music and film. At the Central Oklahoma College of Liberal Arts, you can study the influence of humor on health. Ohio University in Athens offers humor writing and performing. At the University of Cincinnati, you can specialize in the humor of Jewish women. (Oy vey!)
Leon Rappoport, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University, should get some sort of special citation for daring to teach a course in ethnic humor. (Which reminds me of the one about the Polish plane that crashed into the large cemetery two years ago. They're still removing bodies.)
But if you're truly serious about your lack of seriousness, you'll attend the University of Reading in England, where you can earn a Master of Arts in Humor. (Would that be a MAH? And should it be pronounced with a horsey nasal honk-laugh?)
My favorite of them all is a course at Berkeley called "The History of Offensive Humor: From the Mudheads to Howard Stern," which has been taught by Mel Gordon, a professor of dramatic arts, since the mid-1990s. (A "mudhead" is a kind of clown in Southwest American Indian culture.) I assume Don Rickles has a prominent place in this course. If not, this man Gordon is a fraud, I say, a FRAUD. (The preceding line actually requires a Philadelphia Main Line accent from the 1920s in order to be funny, indicating that drollery can sometimes be diluted by the absence of live performance. Ask any undergraduate who's read the words of Falstaff for the first time and said, "Falstaff BEER is funnier than this.")
Actually I think this is all a good sign for the future of education. It wouldn't be a bad idea for every student, after struggling with questions like "What is justice?" in Plato, to also be required to ponder, "What is funny?" in The Ozark Hillbilly Joke Book.
It's a trick question. There's no longer anything funny in the Ozark Hillbilly Joke Book, although toothless mountaineers were known to laugh at corncob jokes in the early part of the last century. Surely there's a dissertation here: "Whither the Outhouse? The Influence of Indoor Plumbing in and around Eureka Springs, Arkansas, on the Perception of Scatology."
The question of what is funny does have a philosophical dimension, though. Andrew "Dice" Clay, to use just one example, was essentially banned from TV for being "not funny" when he was filling sports arenas with people who were laughing heartily at his jokes. Whose funny was the right funny? When a censor wants to alter a comedy script for television, the most oft-cited reason is "It's just not funny." And the riposte, "Well, let's put it in the show and see if anybody laughs," is rarely accepted as a worthy experiment in social investigation.
There is something in every man's brain called "funny," and he trusts that particular lobe much more than the ones marked "love" or "faith."
Unfortunately, the ability to distinguish relative degrees of funniness is sorely underdeveloped in the classes of society that need it most -- namely, legislators, businessmen and the clergy. They all resort to something else entirely -- the polite dinner-banquet joke -- and as a result humor becomes devalued, laughter turns to a mere titter, and the number of daily guffaws necessary for a healthy nation suffers a long decline reinforced by the mass media.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, imagine if White House spokesman Ari Fleischer were to begin every news conference with, "Good morning. A kangaroo walks into a bar with a weasel on his head and orders a pink beer ... " We would TRUST the guy more, right?
The last guy in office who could REALLY deliver a joke was Ronald Reagan. People wonder why he was so popular. Believe me, it was because you could imagine Ronnie belly-laughing at a particularly well-told elephant joke, even one of the dirty ones. And a man who appreciates a dirty elephant joke registers in the brain as "not likely to destroy mankind."
We should require it on the resume. "What? No comedy classes on the transcript? Sorry, you can't be trusted in a position of responsibility."
I'm all for it. Really. It's a good thing. I'm not even being ironic.
(Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)