After the punch line: What jokes tell us
May 27, 2002
When Professor Jim Leary, director of UW-Madison's folklore program, tells jokes in class, he's not trying to make his students laugh. He says jokes are a window to the lives and concerns of the people who first told them. Photo: Jeff Miller
So did you hear the one about the farmer? If you happen to drop in on one of Jim Leary's lectures, you will.
As director of UW-Madison's folklore program, Leary is possibly Wisconsin's best repository of the state's ethnic history and heritage. And he can tell a mean farmer joke. He knows hundreds, gathered from his many travels around the state. Most of them are rare artifacts, plucked from the brains of elderly farmers, tavern owners and townsfolk whom Leary has met over the years. To him, those jokes are to be cherished as much as any fine work of art.
Leary devotes a whole section of his Folklore of Wisconsin course to humor — not just about farmers, but about city folk, hunters, immigrants and all other aspects of Cheesehead living. His lectures on humor play out sort of like "An Evening at the Improv," with Leary working the room like a veteran standup comedian.
The big difference, though, is that Leary isn't playing for laughs. When he finishes telling a joke, his audience, a room full of note-scribbling students, yields merely a few grins. Most consider the tale with quiet contemplation, as Leary asks, "OK, what can we learn from this joke? What's the meaning and social value of this?"
So begins a serious-minded effort to find the "wise" in "wisecrack." Leary teaches students to regard items of folklore as anthropological evidence, from which an understanding of the lives of the tellers can be divined. "I think what [studying jokes] can do," he says, "is give us a portrait of the issues and concerns of farmers over time."
In the case of farmer humor, Leary notes that many jokes deal with incongruity — the juxtaposition of the social and professional aspects of living on a farm. A good example of how those spheres collide is the considerable inventory of time-tested yarns that deal with animal reproduction. In one joke, for example, a farmer's child breaks up a social gathering with a rather colorful announcement about what the farm bull has been up to.
When Leary tells that one in class, a few students wrinkle their noses and shift uncomfortably in their chairs. They're not used to hearing a professor talk to them about fornicating bulls — yet, that's the heart of what makes the joke worthy of academic exploration, Leary says.
The students learn the techniques folklorists use to place jokes and other bits of custom in meaningful context. Often, Leary traces the evolution of jokes across oceans and national boundaries, looking for influences and hints at their deeper meaning. In one instance, he found antecedent versions of a joke told by Wisconsin farmers in pre-industrial regions of Poland and Slovenia.
But sometimes the differences can be as revealing as the similarities. One old European joke that the class discussed, for example, involves a farm hand who agrees to go to church in the place of his employer. Returning from the Sunday services, he cons the farmer into thinking that the priest had told the congregation to celebrate holy days each day that week — giving the farm hand a week full of feasts and time off. Leary points out that in this and other old-country jokes, the landowner ends up getting outfoxed by clever farm hands. But once those jokes made their way to Wisconsin, an interesting evolution took place: In stateside versions of the jokes, the farm hand often became the butt of the joke.
As Leary explains, jokes changed along with the pattern of landownership. In Europe, most people worked on the farms of wealthy owners. Once in America, where land was plentiful, many became landowners themselves — and thus tended to look more gently on the problems of the gentry. For a folklorist, that's like finding a new punch line. "You can find powerful themes in simple things like farmer jokes," Leary says.
Jokes aren't the only raw material in his classes. The native Wisconsinite is co-director of the newly formed Center for the Study of Upper Midwest Cultures, within the College of Letters and Science, which will conduct research and sponsor public programs on everything from euchre to Ojibwa language to polka music. He pulls from centuries of Wisconsin history, beginning with the seasonal practices of the Woodland Indians, continuing through Wisconsin's wave of European immigration in the mid-19th century, and culminating with the ever-evolving mix of cultures of the present day.
"Folklore — the sayings, stories, songs, music, food, customs and crafts of ordinary people — is grounded in the past, but practiced in the present," Leary says. "While there's plenty students can learn about folklore that is long ago and far away, it's also important for them to ponder ice fishing, mock weddings, sheepshead, Hmong New Year's celebrations, fry bread, quilts, and Ole and Lena — to look around at the small, but significant, cultural practices that cumulatively distinguish the diversity and regional character of Wisconsin."