American humor

American humor

American humor refers collectively to the conventions and common threads that tie together humor in America. It is often defined in comparison to the humor of another country - for example, how it is different from British humour or Canadian humour. It is difficult to say what makes a particular type or subject of humor particularly American.

Humor usually concerns aspects of American culture, and depends on the historical and current development of the country's culture. The extent to which an individual will personally find something humorous obviously depends on a host of absolute and relative variables, including, but not limited to geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, and context. People of different countries will therefore find different situations funny. Just as American culture has many aspects which differ from other nations [Kohut, Andrew (2006) [ "America Against the World"] , Times Books, ISBN-10: 0805077219 (288 pages).] , these cultural differences may be a barrier to how humor translates to other countries.

General features


One leading analysis of American humor, the 1931 book "" by Constance Rourke, identified the character of the “Yankee” as that first American comic figure, the first widely accepted American character that the nation could find funny, make fun of and even export for the amusement of the world - a gangly traveler who told stories, played elaborate practical jokes, was ingenuous, sly, perhaps uneducated. She reports that American comedy sprang forth after the American Revolution, when the country was “freed from the worry of self preservation” and its citizens began to regard themselves as “works of art." Rourke, Constance, (1959 ed.) [ American Humor: A Study of the National Character on the American Studies at Univ. of Virginia website] , (324 pp.), chapter 1; retrieved on 2007-06-20.]

Types of humor

American humor might also be distinguished by its most common type of humor, for example, more slapstick and physical comedy. There is less emphasis on understatement, and so the humor tends to be a little more open; rather than satirizing the social system through exaggeration, American humor prefers more observational techniques.


The United States has many diverse groups from which to draw on for humorous material. The strongest of these influences, during the 20th century at least, has been the influx of Jewish comedians and their corresponding Jewish humor, including some of the most influential: The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, Rodney Dangerfield, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, and Lewis Black, just to name a few. Also significant is African American humor, as it has some differences from Black British humor, developing as it did out of the rather more painful history of blacks in the United States. These differences are likely due to the individual histories and origins of the two communities.

Development of humor in the United States

Humor began to emerge in the United States soon after the American Revolution in written and spoken form , and delivery methods have continued to evolve since then. This article is not strictly chronological in nature, but the mediums are arranged by the approximate date each one began to grow in importance. Literature appears before cartoons although newspaper cartoons in the modern sense began in the 1840s. Radio and film came out roughly at the same time. Film is covered after radio because it led more directly to the television section. Stand-up comedy began to receive renewed attention in the 1970s which is the reason why it was placed directly after television.


A candidate for the 'founding father' of American humor is Mark Twain, the man Ernest Hemingway credits with the invention of American Literature. It should be stated that humorists existed in the United States before Twain, for example Augustus Baldwin Longstreet collection of Southern humor came out when Twain was 5 years old, but Twain is seen as a founding figure in creating an "American voice" to humor. That stated, Twain remained conscious of his humor's relationship with European counterparts, commenting in [ "How to Tell a Story"] that, "The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter."

This early definition puts emphasis on the performance oriention of American humor, and thereby necessarily the performer her/himself. Indeed, in his time on the lecture circuit Twain essentially 'performed' many of his works, most notably "The American Vandal Abroad" lecture he gave via the Lyceum Movement before the publication of his breakthrough work The Innocents Abroad. Thus, at the root of American humor is the very concept of stand-up comedy itself, and the shift from textual means of conveying humor to that of performance and performer.

His value notwithstanding, Twain represents only one strain of humor in the United States. Another famous American humorist of the nineteenth century was Ambrose Bierce, whose most famous work is the cynical Devil's Dictionary. Popular humorists who spanned the late 1800’s and early 1900’s included Samuel Minturn Peck (1854-1938) , who wrote My Sweetheart, and Hayden Carruth (1862-1932), who wrote Uncle Bentley and the Roosters. Early twentieth-century American humorists included members of the Algonquin Round Table (named for the Algonquin Hotel), such as Dorothy Parker, SJ Perelman and Robert Benchley. In more recent times popular writers of American humor include P. J. O'Rourke,Louis (L)Harding, Erma Bombeck, and Dave Barry.

There has also been a history of using humor in Children's Books, sometimes using Rhymed Text. Popular choices include: Dr. Seuss and Ogden Nash

Cartoons, Magazines and Animation

American cartoons and comics have commented, humorously or scathingly, on American life since Thomas Nast or earlier. Humorous print cartoonists of note include Charles Schulz, Scott Adams, Jim Davis, Gary Larson, Walt Kelly, Johnny Hart, Bill Watterson, and others.

"Mad" is an American humor magazine founded in 1952 which offered satire on all aspects of American life and pop culture. With its first issue (October-November, 1952), "Mad" was a comic book, and part of the line of EC Comics. It became a slick magazine in 1954. Throughout the 1950s and continuing until today "Mad" featured parodies focusing on the familiar staples of American culture, exposing the fakery behind the image. The magazine has lent its name to the current television program MadTV.

Other U.S. humor magazines of note include "Humbug", "Trump" and "Help!", as well as the "National Lampoon", and "Spy Magazine".

"National Lampoon" began in 1970 as an offshoot of the "Harvard Lampoon". The magazine regularly skewered pop culture, the counterculture and politics. The magazine was at its height in the 1970s, and its influence spread to films and comedy programs. In the mid 1970s, some of the magazine's contributors left to join the NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live (SNL). The magazine stopped publication in 1998, but films and other programs attributed to "National Lampoon" continue.

In the twentieth-century film allowed for animated cartoons of a humorous nature. The most notable of these perhaps being "Looney Tunes" and "Tom and Jerry". Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Mel Blanc (as a voice) and Friz Freleng playing critical roles in this. Humorous animated shorts like "What's Opera, Doc?", "Duck Amuck", and "One Froggy Evening" garnered critical enough appeal to be inducted into the National Film Registry. The Warner Brothers cartoons often dealt with themes beyond US culture or society, but did involve a great deal of commentary on American life. Although many of the American winners of the Academy Award for Animated Short Film are not examples of American humor a significant percentage would qualify as such. On television, noteworthy American cartoons include "The Flintstones", "The Simpsons", "Futurama", "Beavis and Butthead", "King of the Hill", "Ren and Stimpy", "Family Guy", and "South Park".

Theater and Vaudeville

A popular form of theater during the 19th century was the minstrelsy show, arguably the first uniquely American style of performance. These shows featured white actors dressed in blackface and playing up racial stereotypes.

Burlesque became a popular form of entertainment in the middle of the 19th century. Originally a form of farce in which females in male roles mocked the politics and culture of the day, burlesque was condemned by opinion makers for its sexuality and outspokenness. The form was hounded off the "legitimate stage" and found itself relegated to saloons and barrooms, and its content mostly raunchy jokes.

Vaudeville is a style of variety entertainment predominant in America in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. Developing from many sources including shows in saloons, minstrelsy, British pantomimes, and other popular entertainments, vaudeville became one of the most popular types of entertainment in America. Part of this entertainment was usually one or more comedians. Vaudeville provided generations of American entertainers including George M. Cohan, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Mae West, Fanny Brice, and W.C. Fields, among others. Vaudeville grew less popular as movies replaced live entertainment, but vaudeville performers were able to move into those other fields. Former vaudeville performers who were successful in film, radio and television include: Buster Keaton, Marx Brothers, Edgar Bergen, Three Stooges, and Abbott & Costello.

Radio and recorded

Early radio shows include what is labeled as the first situation comedy, "Sam and Henry", which debuted on WGN radio in 1926. It was partially inspired by Sidney Smith's popular comic strip "The Gumps". "Amos & Andy" began as one of the first radio comedy serials which debuted on CBS in 1928. This was a show written and performed by white actors about black farmhands moving to the big city. The show was successful enough that in 1930 a film was made with the characters and in 1951 it became a television sitcom. The film starred the white actors in blackface. The television show starred African American actors.

Radio in its early years was a showcase for comedy stars from the vaudeville circuit. Jack Benny being among the early comedy stars in this medium. When Jack moved to television in the 1950s, his time slot was filled by Stan Freberg a voice actor, and comedian. Stan began in 1950 to produce records of his comedy routines which involved parodies of popular tunes and spoofs of modern entertainment personalities and on political topics. He was also on radio from 1954-1957.

Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding were an American comedy team who began in radio in 1946 with a daily 15-minute show titled "Matinee With Bob and Ray". Their format was typically to satirize the medium in which they were performing, such as conducting interviews, with off-the-wall dialogue presented in a generally deadpan style as though it were a serious interview. They continued on the air for over four decades on radio and television, ending in 1987.

In more recent times the medium fell out of favor as a source of humor with Garrison Keilor being perhaps a rare modern example.


The very first movie to be produced was Thomas Edison's kinetoscope of his assistant Fred Ott in Record of a Sneeze. This could also be considered the first to show a comedic element.

During the era of silent films in the 1920s, comedic films began to appear in significant numbers. These were mainly focused on visual humor, including slapstick and burlesque. In America, prominent clown-style actors of the silent era include Charlie Chaplin (although he was born in England), Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy) (Stan Laurel being British), Fatty Arbuckle, the Marx Brothers and other names were significant in the first decades of American cinema humor.

Many early film directors in the US were born elsewhere. This is true of one of the most noted early comedy directors in Hollywood, Billy Wilder. That said, American born directors like Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges and George Cukor also were major film comedy directors in the 1940s. In the 1960s to 1970s Woody Allen and Mel Brooks gained note becoming two of the most appreciated of American film comedy directors. In the 1980s Christopher Guest, Carl Reiner, and the Coen brothers emerged as significant directors or writers in American film comedy. Added to this several "brother duos" have been of significance in American film like The Zucker brothers, the Coen brothers, and The Farrelly brothers. In the last ten years Kevin Smith, Jay Roach, Tom Shadyac, and Alexander Payne have garnered notice as film directors whose work is often humorous; if at times darkly so in the case of Payne. Although some of the names mentioned above, particularly Woody Allen and the Coen brothers, also do other genres of film besides comedy.



The situation comedy (sitcom) is a format that first developed in radio and later became the primary form of comedy on television. The first sitcom to be number one in US ratings overall was "I Love Lucy". A typical "I Love Lucy" episode involved one of Lucy's ambitious but hare-brained schemes, whether it be sneaking into Ricky's nightclub act, finding a way to hobnob with celebrities, showing up her fellow women's club members, or simply trying to improve the quality of her life. Usually she ends up in some comedic mess, a form of slapstick comedy. The I Love Lucy show grew out of a radio program in which Lucille Ball was featured. Another popular sitcom of the 50s to cross over from radio was "Amos & Andy".

In the decades since, several sitcoms have been tops in the ratings. In the 1960s "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Andy Griffith Show" show held that distinction. Both of these programs were based on the country bumpkin - the Clampetts bringing their hillbilly ways to Beverly Hills, and the slow talking sheriff in the small rural town. In the 1970s "All in the Family" was the top rated show while dealing with serious issues it was based on the loudmouth bigot usually getting his come-uppance.

The most successful sitcoms of the 1980s were "The Cosby Show", "Roseanne", and "Cheers". "The Cosby Show" is noteworth because is was a family comedy about an African American family based on the gentle comedy of Bill Cosby. "Roseanne" was also a family sitcom, but based on loud and large blue-collar parents. "Cheers" on the other hand was about a neighborhood bar frequented by a mix of working-class and professional drinkers.

In the 1990s the increasing popularity of cable changed the popularity of the sitcom. Cable provided more viewing options and made it more difficult for any one show to dominate in the manner that The "Cosby Show" or "Cheers" did in their eras. That said, "Seinfeld" and "Friends" managed to be among the most-watched shows of the decade. The 2000s has seen a further erosion in the sitcom with "Friends" being the only one to be the top watched show in any year of this decade, thus far, and the cancellation of the Emmy winning "Arrested Development". "Arrested Development" had been one of the few critically successful comedies to have started in the 2000s, but recent comedies like "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl" have garnered some praise.

While many sitcoms were based on families or family situations, another common thread in sitcoms is "workplace comedies." "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Arrested Development" had elements of both workplace and family comedy. For more on this see US sitcom.

Although often derided by the critics, a few sitcoms have managed to be successful with both critics and audiences alike. Amongst these are "Frasier", "Seinfeld", "All in the Family", and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show".

The television sitcom provides an opportunity to compare British and American humor. Many British sitcoms have been re-made for American audiences. For example, "Till Death Us Do Part" became "All in the Family"; "Man About the House" became "Three's Company"; and, the immensely popular "Steptoe and Son" became "Sanford and Son". "The Office" was originally a British sitcom that has been successfully remade remade for an American audience using the same title (and in the case of the pilot episode, the same script). However, most British sitcoms usually fare better in their original forms. Re-makes of other British comedies have failed.

ketch comedy and Variety shows

A variety show is a show with a variety of acts, often including music and comedy skits, especially on television. The first successful comedy-variety show might be Milton Berle's, followed by Ernie Kovacs and Sid Caesar. Jack Benny moved to television in the mid 1950s. Variety shows also featured Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope and Dean Martin mixing stand-up comedy, sketches and musical numbers for true variety. Later successes include The Carol Burnett Show and Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. See Variety television series for more examples.

"Saturday Night Live" (SNL) first aired on October 11, 1975, with George Carlin as its host. It was created by Canadian Lorne Michaels. The original concept was for a comedy-variety show featuring young comedians, live musical performances, and short films. Rather than have one permanent host there was a different guest host each week. The first cast members were The Second City alumni Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner and "National Lampoon" "Lemmings" alumni Chevy Chase (whose trademark became his usual falls and opening spiel that ushered in the show's opening), Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, and Garrett Morris. The original head writer was Michael O'Donoghue, a writer at "National Lampoon" who had worked alongside several cast members while directing "The National Lampoon Radio Hour". The cast has periodically changed over the years, serving as a springboard for many of its performers to success in other television programs or films. SNL continues to air weekly.

In the early 1990s there started to be more sketch comedy shows that concerned racial issues or intentionally had a diverse cast. An early example of this being "In Living Color", initially produced by Keenen Ivory Wayans. Despite the original cast being majority African American the show is most remembered for introducing the Caucasian Jim Carrey and Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez to a wider audience. In the 2000s "Chappelle's Show" began and became a popular, if controversial, variety series. It became noted for dealing with issues like racism, sexual perversity, and drug use.

Currently "The Daily Show", "Mad TV", and "Saturday Night Live" are leading comedy-variety shows.


American stand-up comedians deal with a variety of forms and issues. Among forms popular or popularized in the US is observational comedy about everyday life and Improvisational comedy. Modern improvisational comedy in general is largely linked to Chicago and especially The Second City troupe. The 1950s saw the rise of this troupe's significance in modern improvisational comedy.

That decade also witnessed a rise in stand-up comedy dealing with more provocative or politically charged subject matter. Among the best known comedians from the 1950s to the 1980s to work in this fashion are Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Sam Kinnison. They dealt with subject manner like race, religion, and sex in a manner that was generally not allowed on television or film. Hence The Richard Pryor Show ended after four episodes due in part to controversy, although poor ratings was a strong factor. In other cases the reactions were more severe as both Lenny Bruce and George Carlin were both arrested on obscenity charges.

That said, other stand-ups in the US chose an opposite approach that involves avoiding angering or offending elements of the audience. They may also try to work "clean" either because they prefer doing so or because they wish to reach audiences that disdain raunchy material. Amongst those who do so as a preference are Brian Regan, Bob Newhart, and Bill Cosby. Ray Romano is capable or even willing to work "blue", see Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and commentary tracks on the DVD, but has tended to avoid doing so out of deference to his current audience.

Notable names

*Steve Allen-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards. []
*James L. Brooks-Academy Award nominee for several comedy films [] and won two Emmies for comedy writing. (also did dramas) []
*Christopher Buckley-Thurber Prize for American Humor.
*Art Buchwald-Pulitzer Prize winning humorist.
*Allan Burns-Three Emmies for Comedy writing. []
*George Burns-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards. []
*Art Carney-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards. []
*Johnny Carson-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards. []
*Imogene Coca-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards. []
*Rodney Dangerfield-Number 7 on 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time.
*Phyllis Diller-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards. []
*Diane English-One of the few women to win an unshared Emmy for comedy writing. []
*Tina Fey-First female head-writer for Saturday Night Live.
*Ian Frazier-Thurber Prize for American Humor. []
*Whoopi Goldberg-2001 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
*David Javerbaum--Eight Emmys, two Peabody Awards, and only two-time winner of Thurber Prize for American Humor.
*Robert Klein-Number 22 on 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time.
*Norman Lear-Television Hall of Fame, mostly wrote and produced for comedies.
*Jerry Lewis-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards. []
*Penny Marshall-Director of a comedy film in the top fifty of AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs and comedic actress.
*Steve Martin-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards [] and 2005 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
*Walter Matthau-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards []
*Dennis Miller-Number 21 on 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time.
*Lorne Michaels-2004 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
*Eddie Murphy-Number 10 on 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time.
*Carl Reiner-Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
*Debbie Reynolds-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards []
*Don Rickles-Number 17 on 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time.
*Chris Rock-Number five on Comedy Central's100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time. []
*David Sedaris-Thurber Prize for American Humor. []
*Neil Simon-2006 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
*Red Skelton-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards. []
*Lily Tomlin-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards [] and 2003 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
*Betty White-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards. []
*Robin Williams-Number 13 on 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time and won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Comedy Album.
*Jonathan Winters-Lifetime Achievement from the American Comedy Awards [] and 2000 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
*Steven Wright-Number 23 on 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time.
*"Weird Al" Yankovic-Multiple winner of the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album.Note: An attempt has been made to avoid repeating names already mentioned, but some repetition might still exist. This list is partial and mostly deals with American comedians or humorists who won Lifetime Achievement awards in their fields or were placed in lists of history's great comedians.

ee also

*List of Comedians
*Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
*American Comedy Awards
*100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time-A list by an American channel so primarily includes Americans.
*The Comedian's Comedian-British list that includes 18 Americans.
*Stand-up comedy
*Canadian humour
*British humour


External links

* [ American]
* [ Article on Constance Rourke's book on American humor]
* [ My Sweetheart, Uncle Bentley and the Roosters] – page with both of these short stories.

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