When most Americans imagine subjects worthy of thorough scholarly research, topics like significant global problems and enduring historical mysteries come to mind. The origins and implications of a deep guffaw seem laughably trivial in comparison.
John Morreall, chair and professor of religious studies at William & Mary, begs to differ.
“Humor is considered by most people to be pretty peripheral. It’s seen as light entertainment; it’s seen as not very essential to human life. What I try to argue is that humor is utterly essential to human life,” he said.
Morreall, who has studied humor since the late 1970s, has devoted a substantial part of his career to researching and teaching about humor’s value to society. When the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS), a scholarly and professional organization dedicated to the advancement of humor research, launched in 1989, he joined fellow humor scholars from a variety of fields in attending annual conferences to compare notes, present papers and, of course, laugh together.
Next week, William & Mary will see those scholars from around the world converge on its brick pathways as it hosts the 25th annual ISHS Conference July 2-6.
Participants will hear presentations on a wide range of topics regarding the nature and science of humor as well as its applications in modern society. Professor of Psychology Larry Ventis, who is hosting this year’s conference, promises that an equally broad array of academic disciplines will be represented among the nearly 100 participants already registered to attend.
“Humor is a sufficiently complex topic so that it draws interest from a variety of different disciplines,” Ventis noted. “One appeal of the conference is that it is genuinely interdisciplinary—you don’t just interact with people from your own field.”
Humor research clearly attracts many, but why is humor worth studying? Ventis suggests understanding how humor works is essential in a comedy-saturated society.
“Improved understanding of humor improves our understanding of human nature generally, but also there’s a multibillion-dollar comedy industry worldwide, so understanding this phenomenon is not trivial in that regard. If you look at the menu of programming available on television or other public media, comedy and humor make up a pretty high proportion of that programming. So understanding this kind of thing is important not only just in terms of academic pursuits, but it has financial implication,” Ventis said.
The scholars in attendance will represent universities from across China, Australia, Japan, Russia, Poland, Germany, France, Canada and beyond, giving the conference a unique international flair that is a major draw for many attendees.
“Every other year, the conference meets someplace outside the United States,” Morreall noted, adding that when he was the organization’s president in 2005, the conference took place in Dijon, France. Last year, the humor scholars gathered in Poland.
“There’s lots and lots of visiting of other countries, and there’s usually some kind of exhibit and often papers about humor from that country. For example, when we met in Hong Kong, there were lots of papers about the difference between Chinese humor and American humor,” Morreall said.
While the international aspect of the conference is always a highlight, humor research being conducted at William & Mary will take center stage several times during the week.
Of particular local significance is Professor Emeritus of Psychology Peter Derks’ presentation on colonial humor, which is based on an anthology of colonial humor he gleaned from colonial-era publications. Indeed, the university’s historically rich surroundings will be a highlight of this year’s conference, with time for tours allotted on the conference agenda.
“It’s nice to be able to show people William & Mary, especially its historical aspect,” Morreall said. “Many people in the organization are in the study of history, and of course William & Mary is famous for its American historical background. That’s a big part of why I’m excited to host people here.”
Morreall will have a significant presence during the conference, as he is set to speak on humor as a social lubricant and will also serve on a panel discussion about the end of the world as a humorous subject across cultures.
Morreall’s humor research was recently in the limelight when he delivered the second lecture in the Tack Faculty Lecture Series last fall titled, “What's So Funny? The Nature and Value of Humor.”
Ventis will join other members of the William & Mary community in presenting his research at the conference, but non-academics will give talks as well. Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor at The New Yorker, will give a presentation on their cartoon process from creating and editing to monetizing.
Morreall’s commitment to studying and sharing insights into humor is common at the conference.
“For me, life would be inconceivable without humor,” he said.