Humor and Mental Illness

Here’s another report from the Humanities Research Seminar on the topic of humor.  In this installment, Kim Ivey, a graduate student in Anthropology, considers the ways in which humor might be used to help better understand and event treat mental illness.

“Good humor is a tonic for mind and body. It is the best antidote for anxiety and depression. It is a business asset. It attracts and keeps friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment.”

– Grenville Kleiser

As participants of the humor seminar have learned this semester, humor is a consistent element of the human condition.  Our everyday exchanges are dotted with joking and laughter.  We can express joy with mirthful smiles or disapproval with sarcastic humor.  It seems to be an invaluable device in the Homo sapiens’ toolbox.  But, how can this instrument be honed to comfort our minds?

For many years, laughter has been known to have a curative effect on health and well-being.  Even in the Book of Proverbs in the Bible, we find the verse, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”  Doctors and philosophers have prescribed humor and laughter throughout history.  For many decades in the United States, however, the psychological treatment of mental illness has been focused almost exclusively on negative symptoms.  Therapies have also centered on traumatic or painful explanations – forcing the patient to relive haunting memories on the long road to recovery.  It seems at some point doctors and psychologists held the notion of “humor being good for health” in a different realm than their serious business of diagnosing the ill mind and its deep-rooted conflicts.

wasted dayIn recent years, however, research and therapist-led change has moved in the direction of positive psychology.  Instead of looking for the bad in every situation, they promote the positive aspects.  Some of the treatments utilize humor or laughter – bringing us back to our topic of interest.  Ways of introducing the humor approach include use of jovial drawings about the patient’s complaints (done cautiously and in a non-threatening way), laughter through joking, and watching comedies.  These techniques, and others, can be applied in individual or group therapy.  Results vary, yet most studies have yielded at least some optimistic results such as reduction in negative psychiatric symptoms, lower anxiety, and a drop in depression.  Other benefits were an enhanced coping ability, increased regulation of thoughts and feelings, and the ability to laugh at oneself.

Humor possesses real power, and it seems imperative that we dedicate more time to its study, benefits, and meaning in in our lives.  For what is a life lived without laughter?  Mark Twain once said, “The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”  Hopefully, we will wield our weapons wisely.

For more information about positive psychology visit these links:

Humor and Assimilation in Vaudeville

Our latest report from the Humanities Research Seminar comes from Machele Miller Dill, Director of the Musical Theatre Program at TU.  Here she considers the way vaudeville helped explore the rapidly changing shape of American culture in the early twentieth century.

Sophie Tucker

I like Sophie Tucker. In fact, I love Sophie Tucker. If you read about her, some accounts may claim that she was a Ukrainian-born entertainer originally named, Sonya Kalish. While the name is true, the rest isn’t. She was actually born on the boat on the way over from the Ukraine – a true immigrant. Her life after landing in the United States embodied the very notion of the American dream: she married young, had a child and then left that all behind to make it big in the big Apple. And boy did she, thanks to her grit and moxie. You see, she was big, she was ugly and she was Jewish. But once she opened her mouth, no one cared. They just yelled for more. I wish I could relate some of her jokes here, but I can’t even tell you the clean ones! Sophie Tucker was the last of the “Red Hot Mamas” and she owned vaudeville and burlesque stages for decades. She used self-deprecating humor, making fun of both her Jewishness and her appearance, to entertain while at the same time putting people at ease with her otherness.

Bert and Friend
Bert Savoy and a Friend

She was in good company. Fanny Brice (the original Funny Girl), Bert Williams (hailed by W.C. Fields as the funniest man in show business…and the saddest), and a host of other entertainers who might not otherwise have fit into the mainstream, helped re-define a rapidly changing American culture . They were immigrants who could never go home again. They were former slaves forced to work in blackface if they wanted to entertain – portraying the white man’s notion of black identity. They were vaudevillians who would later go on to be some of the biggest names in cinema. And all used humor as a tool – a chisel, if you will, to break down barriers to their own American dreams.

My own research isn’t on why something is funny. People find things funny or they don’t. I’m interested in how the disenfranchised, immigrants, and others used humor to fit into, and to eventually, transform American culture. So the next time you crack a joke at your own expense – know you are in exceptional company.

Satire, Friendship, and Masculinity

Our reports from the Humanities Research Seminar continue.  Here, Dayne Riley, a doctoral student in English, reflects on the role of satire in eighteenth-century Britain.

Alexander Pope, by Michael Dahl (circa 1727)

For the famed satirical poets of Augustan Britain (1700-1745), humor and friendship mixed to create a unique and still unsettling kind of humor. In his “An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” Alexander Pope discusses his life as a satirical poet. As he does so, he defends himself, his friends, and his relatives; he explains his censure of those poets whom he deems morally or poetically inferior; and, he releases his pent-up anger about his position and life as a writer. In “Some Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift D.S.P.D,” Jonathan Swift imagines how he will be remembered after his death. Even while painting a morbid picture, he still finds room to praise himself in a melancholy way. Like the classical satirists Horace, Persius, and Juvenal, Pope and Swift defend the value of staire. However, these poets also reveal a very important aspect of the genre in the Augustan age: the importance of masculine friendships to their creative yet often abrasive endeavors.

Pope uses a fictitious conversation with his friend and fellow writer, Dr. Arbuthnot, as a rhetorical device in his poem. By developing this fictive voice, Pope is able to show how well he understands his own satirical goals. Through Arbuthnot’s cautionary voice, Pope underscores his own zealous pursuit of poetic honesty, while also making his close friend look somewhat meek. Swift’s ironic use of his friends is even more radical. He uses them to examine the fleeting aspects of human friendship, stating that none of his friends will think of him longer than a month: “Poor Pope will grieve a month, and [John] Gay / A week, and Arbuthnot a day” (ll. 207-08). Swift, pointing out even his friends’ transient thoughts of other people, establishes how we are truly remembered after death, as opposed to what we might like to believe.

In both works, the poets use personal friendships to achieve deliberate satirical ends. In the urban environment of London and the poetry it spawned, masculinity was fluctuating in response to the changes within the culture. In this period of literature, when irony had become such a prevalent part of society, even the authors’ friendships were treated satirically. Furthermore, in these poems, both Pope and Swift illustrate how friendships between male writers in this time period fluctuated between close friendship and professional rivalry. As British culture began to shift away from affectionate—and oftentimes homoerotic—male friendships, it is important to note how both Pope and Swift posit their personal friendships as appropriately masculine by mocking their closest male friends.

Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers

awards19_croppedHave you ever sat down and dissected all of the ways that the University of Tulsa is considered a top university? From its engineering programs to its work in the humanities, the University of Tulsa has been placed amongst the top tier of universities. One thing that has helped boost TU’s reputation is its thriving literary journal: Nimrod. Throughout the years, all top universities have maintained literary journals of quality, yet now, with increasing costs, fewer and fewer such publications can survive. For nearly sixty years now, however, TU and the larger community in the city have helped make this into one of the nation’s premier literary publications.  

Nimrod International Journal was founded at the University of Tulsa in 1956 and initially served as an outlet for student creative writing and art; over the next two decades it developed into a nationally and internationally acclaimed literary journal. After a move to the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa in 1978, then Dean Thomas Horne of the Henry Kendall College of Arts & Sciences invited Nimrod back to TU in 1996.  Its offices are now ensconced in Zink Hall, sharing quarters not only the university’s English department but with its other distinguished journals, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature and the James Joyce Quarterly.

Nimrod’s signature event each year is an all-day conference for writers and readers of all ages—from high schools students to senior citizens—that reaches deeply into the campus and city communities. Participants work with world-class writers in classes on poetry, fiction, memoir, playwriting, and biography. This year’s conference is being held on October 17th and will feature master classes, readings, panel discussions, and one-on-one editing sessions. Each workshop and panel is designed to stimulate ideas and discussion and to inspire and improve participants’ writing. Not only will participants be able to attend classes with award-winning authors, but they also will be able to interact with them during coffee breaks, lunch, and informal talk sessions. The one-on-one editing sessions are designed to allow participants to have their work critiqued in a session with a Nimrod editor or other visiting writer. Just a few of the unique class titles:

  • “Diversified: Incorporating Real-World Diversity into Young Adult Fiction”
  • “Down a Dark Alley: Atmosphere in Crime Fiction”
  • “Write About a Box: Taking the Fear out of Writing Your Memoir”
  • “The Fantasy Writer’s Cupboard: Fairy Tales, Folklore, and Myth”
  • “Writing with Questions: Empathy, Intimacy, and Interviewing in Nonfiction.”


All are designed to encourage dialogue, share experience and expertise, and leave space for discovery. For more on this event, visit Nimrod’s wesbite.

–Mikayla Pevac

Art, Politics, or Entertainment?

Our series of reports by the Humanities Research Fellows at the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities continues with this piece by Joli Jensen, Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication.  Here, Professor Jensen reflects on whether or not the rise of mass entertainments are ruining our ability to take art and politics seriously.

monalisaselfieAre entertainment values ruining our culture? Both political philosopher Hannah Arendt (writing in 1961) and communication scholar Neil Postman (writing in 1985) thought so, but for very different reasons. If they are right, then the damage has already been done. But maybe they were wrong. Should we really be trying to maintain art or politics as an “entertainment-free zone?”

Intellectuals have long worried about the impact of the entertainment-centered mass media, particular television. In the 1950s they spent lots of energy trying to categorize television fare as high, medium or low culture. Arendt thought this kind of hierarchy was elitist, and argued in her essay “Society and Culture” that all societies need both entertainment and art, so-called low and high cultural forms. In her estimation, entertainment is necessary for enjoyment–it is biological, but designed to be used up. Art forms, like classical music and renaissance art and Greek sculpture, however, are expressions of aspiration and beauty, and need to be protected in their original form so that they can continue to speak to us across the ages.

Arendt worried that, in the mass media’s relentless search for content, culture producers were “ransacking the past” in search of art forms to turn into entertainment. She believed that art forms could survive centuries of neglect, but not an entertaining version of what they have to say. She believe that when art is turned into something entertaining, it loses its ability to “mean” to us—art’s ability to communicate deep human values is destroyed. Examples of this might be the ways that we turn artists into celebrities, and paintings into canvas tote bags, and play simplified versions of classical music in restaurants. Can the original really speak to us, once it’s been turned into a commodity?

Neil Postman worried about politics, not art, and made his case in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Entertainment. He argues that politics was becoming ever less logical and rational, ever more “shriveled and absurd” because it was adopting the values of show business, and selling us politicians and ideas in superficial, easy to enjoy forms. Politics was turning into entertainment, he believed, and thus losing its ability to help us understand what we need to know in order to self-govern wisely.

Both Arendt and Postman argue for keeping entertainment values separated, but the history of both art and of politics suggests that the boundaries between them were never fully there. After all, Shakespeare intended to entertain as well as inspire, as did classical music. And American politics has long been rowdy and playful, as my colleague Mark Brewin documents in his book on the history of election days.

So maybe there has never been “pure” entertainment, kept carefully separated from art or politics. And maybe this is all to the good. Maybe the permeation of entertainment values is what demystifies public discourse, allowing it to be truly democratic. Maybe art becomes more creative and accessible when it is designed to please an audience. Maybe the whole idea of separate spheres for art, politics and entertainment should be questioned.

Preston Sturges’ 1941 movie Sullivan’s Travels is an example of how an entertainment form can challenge perceived distinctions. It relates the story of a successful Hollywood director, Sullivan, who longs to make a politically serious message movie, instead of the lighthearted comedies he is famous for. But because he hasn’t experienced the suffering he hopes to document, he decides to go undercover as a hobo, only to have the studio turn his earnest quest into a publicity stunt, which leads to many screwball comedy moments. Eventually he gives up, but then is unintentionally imprisoned for his own murder. The movie shifts and darkens as it documents poverty, hopelessness, the cruelty of the prison system. The crucial moment is when a chained group of exhausted prisoners are given the rare chance to join a black church congregation to watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon, where laughter offers a momentary (but not unproblematic) escape from their suffering. The movie ends with Sullivan restored to his Hollywood life, now convinced that making comedies can be of real social value.

So the movie itself is a mix of genres, but it also challenges Postman’s assumption that effective political discourse must always be serious, and Arendt’s assumption that ephemeral entertainment cannot move us across time. Watching the movie many decades later allows us to explore human suffering, through political and social and economic inequality, even as we wince at the time-bound racism and sexism of some of the portrayals. Sturges has made the movie Sullivan might want to make, after his harrowing experiences—a comedy that offers serious political content as a form of entertainment that can, at least by some, be considered art.

Faculty Spotlight: Kristen Oertel

TubmanThe Oklahoma Center for the Humanities will periodically feature the work done by TU’s distinguished faculty.  We begin this new blog series with a look at a new book on Harriet Tubman by Dr. Kristen Oertel.

“I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say—I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” Harriet Tubman was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and a Union spy during the American Civil War; her name, however, is often lost in the pile of other historical figures from that tumultuous era. In fact, when Dr. Kristen Oertel, Mary Frances Barnard Associate Professor of History, was approached Routledge to contribute to the series, “Historical Americans,” she initially planned to write about Susan B. Anthony. But when Oertel looked at the list of Americans slated for the series, she did not find a single black woman. That’s when she thought of Tubman, the subject of many children’s books, but few serious scholarly studies. Dr. Oertel then knew she had to write a book for college students and adults about Tubman’s extraordinary life.

Taking advantage of a sabbatical in 2012, Dr. Oertel set to work on the recently published, Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the Nineteenth Century. She traveled to upstate New York and Maryland to visit archives and acquired the primary documents needed to supplement the narrative of Tubman’s life. Between 2013 and 2015, Oertel also participated in a writing group at the Henneke Center for Academic Fulfillment, a unique campus resources that offered collaborative support as she drafted and edited the book.

The biography itself focuses upon Tubman’s long and active life: from her daring work in leading enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad to her life-long campaign for civil rights and women’s suffrage. Oertel also reminds us that while “yes, [Tubman] was a heroic figure in American history, … she was also part of a network of black and white abolitionists and reformers who worked together to defeat slavery and advocate for black and women’s rights.” Tubman’s contributions peg her as an American hero, but most people know little about her personal life. Oertel brings to light Tubman’s trauma from a childhood spent in slavery to her civil rights activism in the late nineteenth century. The book is aimed at a broad audience and offers a lively narrative that helps readers make sense of this distinctive American life.

–Mikayla Pevac

Risky Business: Bruce Plante on the Art of Political Satire

Plante_cartoonWe continue our regular reports from the Humanities Research Seminar with a piece by one of public fellows, Bruce Plante, who is the staff editorial cartoonist at The Tulsa World:

I had just started my job as the editorial cartoonist / staff artist at The Fayetteville (N.C) Times. It was my second job in the newspaper industry. I admit it. I was cocky. I wanted to be a tough, kick-ass cartoonist. I wanted everyone to know that Bruce Plante was in town!

Continue reading “Risky Business: Bruce Plante on the Art of Political Satire”