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If it was funny then, it's funny now

  • Humor conference
    Humor conference  William & Mary welcomed humor scholars from around the world to the 25th annual International Society for Humor Studies Conference.  Illustration courtesy Larry Ventis
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When colonial humorists wanted to make you laugh, they turned their attention to lawyers and prostitutes, women and men, marriage and morality, and, of course, sex and death.

“Pretty much like contemporary humor,” William & Mary Professor Emeritus of Psychology Peter Derks told his audience at the Sadler Center late Wednesday afternoon. He was part of a distinguished panel of experts who gathered for the 2013 International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS) Conference, July 2-6.

Derks was far from the only W&M connection. Psychology Professor Larry Ventis hosted the event. Others participating were John Morreall, chair and professor of religious studies; Jacob L. Goodson, visiting assistant professor of religious studies; and Jaclyn Kuizon, education and media specialist at William & Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art.

Derks’ presentation was based on an anthology of humor he gleaned from colonial-era publications.

“Looking at broad general corpuses of humorous material is a good way to find out where an author – or even whole civilizations -- come from as far as humor and whether different at all,” he said.

“It turns out there’s nothing really interesting or exciting about the colonial humor corpus. It’s all pretty aggressive with some friendliness occasionally, usually incongruous, with the resolutions not being all that clever – pretty much like contemporary humor.”

Women often were the butt of colonial-era jokes, such as the argument two men were having over which gender could “bear malice” longer.

Women, of course, said the one.

Why so? asked the other.

Well, I had a scuffle with a girl once and she remembered me for it nine months after, came the reply.

That doesn’t mean that women were helpless pawns.

A man riding along in a place where he was unacquainted came upon a young woman carrying a pig in her arms. Hearing it scream violently, he addressed her thus:

Why my dear, your young child cries amazingly.

The young woman turned around and looked him in the face and said with a smile on her countenance, I know it, sir, he always does when he sees his daddy.

An important footnote for all of the humor encompassing sex, Derks pointed out, was the injection of morality and marriage.

A man asked a lady which way to her bedchambers.

She replied: Through the church, sir.

Derks quoted the authors of a book on American humor as saying that the colonists were “skeptical cynics.”

“I have to say that we, too, are skeptical cynics,” he added, “and there is some familiarity in the way we hear these jokes.”

Colonial humor regarding the death of someone was normally found on an epitaph and could be biting. Take the case of North Carolinian Thomas Lowe Thimble, age 50.

(He died) after a long series of drunkenness. It may with truth be said that no one ever died more unregretted. The sound of his last trumpet gave a general joy to all of his friends, as well as those unfortunate enough to be acquaintances.

Finally, there was the oft-quoted inscription Ben Franklin penned for his tombstone, but which never made it.

The body of B Franklin, printer, like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out and stripped of its lettering and gilding, lies here, food for worms. But the work shall not be lost, for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and corrected by the author.