PUNCHLINES: The Violence of American Humor by William Keough

PUNCHLINES: The Violence of American Humor

Email this review


A lively survey of American humor from Mark Twain to Saturday Night Live, emphasizing its roots in frustration, pain, and violence. Keough's (English/Fitchburg State College) great virtue is the range of comedy he covers: the fiction of Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Ring Lardnor, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr,; the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, W. C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers; the stand-up comedy of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Lily Tomlin; the political satire of contemporary caricaturists and movies like Dr. Strangelove and M*A*S*H. But Keough's leading argument, well known to students of comedy, is only partly successful, He demonstrates convincingly that American humor has only two speeds, defensive and aggressive, although his quotations of jokes and routines usually substitute for any analysis of why violence is funny--or at least why some conflicts are funnier than others. Keough presents himself as a humorist manquÉ: his straight-faced generalizations about particular humorists (""What is interesting about a Pryor performance is how often he moves from the brutal to the vulnerable and back again"") are much less effective than his own one-liners (Bob Hope's ""jokes are as topical and disposable as the years, and he gives people their money's worth as we move from war to war""). A scholarly study set forth in a breezy style that's equally likely to attract or repel readers irrespective of their academic status.

Pub Date: May 21st, 1990
Publisher: Paragon