Giving Offense: Humor and Stereotype in Political Cartoons

TG Dinner-FBFrom April 8-9, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at the University of Tulsa will host a public symposium on the role of stereotype and humor in American political cartoons.  This event kicks off with a keynote talk by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mike Luckovich (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) on Friday April 8, followed by a day-long series of panels featuring nationally recognized political cartoonists Clay Bennett (Chattanooga Times) Bruce Plante (Tulsa World), and Scott Stantis (Chicago Tribune) as well as local civil rights leaders, law professors, and free speech scholars.

Just over a year ago, a terrorist attack was launched on the Paris offices of the cartoon-laden magazine Charlie Hebdo, setting off a series of debates about the boundary between offensiveness and free speech in a democratic society.  This symposium will seek to expand these debates amid the passions of the American presidential race by asking some difficult questions about the role of humor in politics.  Should a cartoonist employ images that some groups might find deeply offensive? What role do such images play in creating and sustaining racial, gender, or religious stereotypes? Where do we draw the line between satire and offensiveness? Finally, what place does humor itself have in the political process, especially if such humor singles out groups or individuals for ridicule?

The symposium will begin with a keynote address by Mike Luckovich on Friday April 8th at 8:00 in Tyrrell Hall on TU’s campus.  It will then continue on Saturday April 9th from 9:00am-3:30pm at Gilcrease Museum with a series of talks and roundtable discussions that will match cartoonists with local community leaders like Adam Soltani (CAIR Oklahoma), Jocelyn Payne (John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation), and Marlin Lavanhar (All Souls Unitarian Church) as well as Tamara Piety, a First Amendment expert from the University of Tulsa’s College of Law.  During the lunch break, Bruce Plante and Mike Luckovich will sketch informally and talk about their techniques. Refreshments will be served throughout the day at Gilcrease.  This event is free and open to everyone.

Here’s a complete schedule of the events:

Friday, April 8, 2016  at Tyrrell Hall

8:00pm     An Evening with Mike Luckovich

Saturday, April 9, 2016 at Gilcrease Museum

9:00am     Politial Cartoons: The Art of Giving Offense

  • Clay Bennett
  • Mike Luckovich
  • Scott Stantis
  • Bruce Plante (chair)


10:30am Coffee Break

11:00am     Free Speech, Pluralism, and Political Correctness

  • Marlin Lavanhar
  • Adam Soltani
  • Jocelyn Payne
  • Tamara Piety
  • Mark Brewin (chair)


12:30pm Lunch Break and Sketching Session

2:00pm A Roundtable Discussion of Humor and Politics

  • Marlin Lavanhar
  • Adam Soltani
  • Jocelyn Payne
  • Scott Stantis
  • Clay Bennett
  • Bruce Plante
  • Mike Luckovich
  • Tamara Piety
  • Sean Latham (moderator)

Humor and Pain


In our latest report from the humanities research seminar on humor, David Blakely explore the surprising connections between laughter and suffering.

I recently saw an evening of stand-up comedy. One young comic, a lanky youth with hands like nervous birds, told roundabout – albeit very funny – jokes with a quirky delivery. He seemed uncomfortable on stage. After a particularly awkward joke he quickly followed up with, “So. I’m single.” Everyone laughed. Why did everyone laugh? Well, as I analyze the “joke,” the comic was simply delivering an obvious, if painful truth: he’s a nervous, quirky young man, uncomfortable and with a strange sense of humor; of course he’s single. We are laughing at his pain. Continue reading “Humor and Pain”

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”

In on the Joke? Female Viewers of Renaissance Erotica

Each week this semester, our Humanities Research Fellows will publish short pieces here about their work in our seminar on humor.  We kick things off with this fascinating piece from Professor Maria Maurer about erotic art in the Renaissance.

Raphael, Mercury, Loggia of Psyche, ca. 1511-13. Villa Farnesina, Rome. Photo by author.

In the sixteenth century, Paolo Giovio described a female visitor to Raphael’s Loggia at the Villa Farnesina. The unnamed lady praised the figures, but wished that Raphael “had painted a nice rose or a figleaf over the shame of Mercury.” Raphael then teased her, asking “But why did you not suggest that I should do the same thing for Polyphemus, whom you praised so much, and whose shame is so much larger?” While this passage is full of errors (Raphael did not paint the Polyphemus, for example), Giovio nonetheless suggests that women were incapable of the wit necessary to appreciate Renaissance sexual humor. Mercury’s genitals are quite unassuming, and thus not in need of a figleaf, but he does gesture broadly to an engorged and suggestively shaped cucumber which is aimed toward an overripe, swollen fig. The phallus masquerading as a cucumber is the source of visual wit, a source the lady apparently missed.

We generally assume that women were not the intended audience of erotica, and that if they did see it, like Giovio’s lady, they didn’t get it or were scandalized. However, I want to consider a plate manufactured in the Umbrian town of Deruta during the early sixteenth century that seems to address a female audience.

Plate with a Woman and a Basket of Phallic Fruits, Deruta, first quarter of 16th century. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/Beck-Coppola.

The plate depicts a seated woman and a basket filled with “fruits.” The phallic nature of the wriggling fruits is clearly revealed as she grasps one and holds it up for our inspection. Sixteenth-century art often pairs beautiful women or handsome youths with fruits and vegetables, playing on the availability of the produce as a metaphor for sexual availability or, as in Raphael’s Mercury, using suggestively shaped vegetables as barely-disguised references to sexual intercourse.

Here, the metaphoric “fruits” of painting and poetry have become the phalluses they often represent. The plate also plays upon Renaissance conceptions of women’s voracious sexual appetites, which must be tamed by their more rational male family members. For a male audience, the dish ridicules and dismisses female sexual desire making it the butt of a lewd joke.

However, what if we, like Raphael’s female interlocutor, miss the joke? Taken at face value the inscription “Come get your good fruit, women,” invites women to initiate sexual activity, a sort of Renaissance “come and get it.” In that regard, the dish opens up a space for female sexual agency by depicting women as beings with sexual appetites that can and should be satiated.

I don’t mean to posit any easy answers here, nor to suggest that the plate has one meaning. Rather, I think its bawdy humor allows for multiple, even contradictory interpretations. Sexual humor in the Renaissance is often seen as reinforcing norms, as in this case where the plate appears to mock the sexual desires of women who were supposed to remain chaste. Yet, in representing female sexuality, the plate also makes it visible, and creates a space for female activity.

Further Reading:

  • Pietro Aretino, Dialogues, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).
  • Linda Wolk-Simon, “‘Rapture to the Greedy Eyes’: Profane Love in the Renaissance,” in Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, ed. Andrea Bayer, 43-58 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008).
  • Patricia Simons, The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe: A Cultural History (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

The 2015 Humor Seminar

humor2Curious about what the nine fellows at the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities are doing in the spring research seminar?  Here’s a look at our syllabus that includes detailed study of topics like satire, nonsense, pain, internet trolls, and vaudeville.  The seminar is closed to the public, but in the coming weeks we’ll feature blog and Facebook posts about our work.


Seminar Schedule

Week 1 (8/26)

What’s Funny?

Read:  Simon Critchley, On Humor

Watch:  Chaplin, Modern Times (1936)


Week 2 (9/2)

Humor, Comedy, Zaniness, and Laughter

Read:  Sianne Ngai, “The Zany Science,” from Our Aesthetic Categories

Watch: I Love Lucy  (“The Marriage License,” “The Ballet,” “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” )

Week 3 (9/9)


Read: Selections from Edward Lear’s Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, ed. Vivien Noakes (Penguin)

Read:  Susan Stewart’s Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature

Read:  Jean-Jacques LeCercle, The Philosophy of Nonsense.


Week 4 (9/16)

Satire and Sex 

View: Marcantonio Raimondi after Giulio Romano, I Modi [The Positions], originally engraved c. 1524.

View:  Monogrammist CLF after Francesco Salviati, The Triumph of the Phallus, original design from the 16th century.

View:  Giacomo Franco, Da questa sorte sono i buon salami [This is the good kind of salami], 1580-90.

View:  Philippe Thomassin, after Giovanni Giacomo de’ Rossi, O Zanolina mia, è meglio la fava che il fiore [Oh Zanolina my beautiful girl, the bean is better than the flower], c. 1595

View:  Plate with a Woman and a Basket of Phallic Fruits, first quarter of the 16th century Francesco Urbini (attributed to), Phallic-head plate, 1536

Read:  Paul Barolsky, “Mannerist Bizzarrie” in Infinite Jest: Wit and Humor in Italian Renaissance Art, pp. 101-138.

Read:  Catalog entries on I Modi from Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, ed. Andrea Bayer. Cat. num.: 99, 100 

Read: Selections from Pietro Aretino’s Sonnetti lussorosi 

Read:  Sara Matthews-Grieco “Satyrs and sausages: erotic strategies and the print market in Cinquecento Italy” in Erotic Cultures of Renaissance Italy, pp. 19-60.

Read:  Catalog entries on lascivious prints and ceramics from Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, ed. Andrea Bayer. Cat. num.: 102, 106, 109, 110, 111

Week 5 (9/23)

Satire and Enlightenment 

Read:  Introduction to Satire by Leonard Feinberg, pp. 3-19

Read:  A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729)

Read:  The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope (1714)

Week 6 (9/30)

Satire: Why Don’t They Get It?

Read: Selections from Nieman Reports 58.4

Background:  Gulliver’s Travels

Week 7 (10/7)

Mistrusting Humor

Read:  Postman, from Amusing Ourselves to Death

Read:  Gans, from Popular Culture and High Culture

Read: Arendt, “Society and Culture”

Watch:  Sturgis, Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Week 8 (10/14)

Special Event

Attend: Literary Death Match

Week 9 (10/21)

Humor and the Everyday 

Read:  Detweiler, Eric. ““I Was Just Doing A Little Joke There”: Irony And The Paradoxes Of The Sitcom In The Office.” Journal Of Popular Culture 45.4 (2012): 727-748.

Watch:  The Office (U.S.), Episode 1.1 “Pilot”

Watch:  Parks and Recreation, Episode 1.1 “Pilot”

Watch:  Last Week Tonight With John Oliver: Net Neutrality

Week 10 (10/28)

Humor and Digital Life

Read:  Whitney Phillips, from This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Special Guest: Whitney Phillips

Week 11 (11/4)


View: Vaudeville

View: Nicholas Brothers, Stormy Weather (YouTube)

View:  Tommy Tiernan (TBD)

Read: Writing for Vaudeville (excerpts)

Week 12 (11/11)

Humor and Pain

Watch: Seinfeld, “The Yada Yada”

Watch: Bill Irwin, “The Clown Bagatelles”

Read: CJS Hayward, “Humor Delivers Pain”

Read: Trevor Griffiths, The Comedians

Week 13 (11/18)

Humor and Mental Illness

Read:  Gelkopf, M. 2011. The use of humor in serious mental illness: a review. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Vol 2011, pp. 1-8.

Read:  Kuiper, N. 2012. Humor and Resiliency:  Towards a Process Model of Coping and Growth. Europe’s Journal of Psychology. Vol. 8(3), pp. 475-491.

Read:  Corrigan, P., et al. 2014. Does Humor Influence the Stigma of Mental Illnesses? Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease. Vol. 202(5), pp. 397-401.