Whoopee Cushions in the Memory Palace: On Comedy and the History Curriculum

In 2012, a study of news habits revealed that those who watched the partisan outlets Fox or MSNBC were actually less informed about current events than those who watched no news at all. Those who were well-informed listened to NPR and watched The Daily Show. In other words, a liberal bastion full of fake news was more informative than channels claiming to be actual news. And so was The Daily Show.

I kid, I kid. (But the study is real.)

The point is that somewhere in the recent boom in American political satire, it became possible to learn from comedy. These days, programs like John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight make a deliberate effort to inform their audience about complex subjects, keeping their interest by sprinkling in the laughs. Is it possible to do the same thing when teaching history?

The answer is basically yes. After all, history instructors already make frequent use of political cartoons from the past. Cartoonists exaggerate defining characteristics of individuals and ages, giving insight into the way that people understood the problems and events of their own times. Having students work out their meaning involves high-level interpretation, making them good primary documents to work with. But there’s one problem: in general, political cartoons are not funny.

Fortunately, we also have satire. For those of us teaching twentieth-century U.S. history, there is an essential companion: The Onion’s Our Dumb Century. (Those working with antebellum history should be able to get good mileage out of The Daily Show’s America: The Book, a parody of a high school civics text.) Our Dumb Century was published in 1999, and, to be frank, was the first history book that I loved unreservedly. It imagines that the satirical newspaper The Onion existed in the past, going back to comment on the key events of America’s 20th century. There are some very smart running gags about “the trial of the century” occurring about once a decade, and about constantly shifting official enemies. But, as usual with The Onion, the headlines do most of the work. Why start a discussion of the Titanic with anything other than the headline “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg?” Or on FDR’s inauguration: “New President Assures Nation, ‘The Only Thing We Have to Fear is a Crippling, Decade-Long Depression.’” The headline announcing the outbreak of World War II is so big that only the first two letters “WA-“ fit on the first page—but there is also the mordant Pearl Harbor headline “Dastardly Japs Attack Colonially Occupied U.S. Non-state” or “Ladies, Negroes Momentarily Useful” on social changes during the war. Later in the century, how can you do better than “Drugs Win Drug War”? Or on Bill Clinton: “New President Feels Nation’s Pain, Breasts”? More recent times have been covered by the actually-existing Onion, and can be just as useful. Their headlines on Obama’s inauguration were “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job” and “Nation Finally Shitty Enough to Make Social Progress.” These kinds of things can work as either an introduction to a topic, a closing summary, or a check for understanding. The bad news is that as a check for understanding, you have to have students explain the joke, which leeches it of its humor. But the good news is that understanding satire both requires a fairly supple understanding of the thing that is being mocked and can also contribute to building that understanding. And also, it makes people laugh.

There are other ways to integrate comedy into the curriculum. I don’t think it would work quite as well for U.S. history, but I once taught a class on Latin American history that incorporated a clip from Monty Python into every class. (How better to start a discussion anarchism than the scene from Holy Grail when the peasant Brian lectures King Arthur about anarcho-syndicalism and the violence inherent in the system?) I did manage to work in the Holy Hand Grenade video this semester because it makes a similar argument to Mark Twain’s War Prayer, which I had assigned as a reading on American imperialism and anti-imperialism.

One does have to be careful about comedy that could be misconstrued or insulting. I had my students read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” this semester when discussing housing discrimination in the 1950s and the “affirmative action for whites” of the New Deal and GI Bill. I was tempted to show Dave Chappelle’s sketches on reparations, but decided against it. After all, Chappelle quit his own show because the way he saw a white person laughing at the taping—adopting a superficially racist interpretation of his program rather than the intended higher-level anti-racist one. I decided that the reparations sketch was particularly vulnerable to a racist reading that wound undermine the careful historical work done by Coates, even though that isn’t Chappelle’s point. Similarly, I never wanted to use humor that was politically insulting to my audience. I did show Will Ferrell as George W. Bush “mending his fence,” in the context of talking about Bush’s declining popularity as his presidency advanced. But I also asked my students (who found Ferrell hilarious) to think about the how the sketch would be received by someone who still liked Bush, to make a point about polarization and alienation during the Bush years (setting the stage for Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and so on).

Learning a complex subject like history is not primarily about memorizing, as students sometimes fear. It is much more important to be able to think relationally: how things cause, support, or undermine new processes or directions. I personally have never found the mnemonic technique of the memory palace (an imagined house, with things you wish to remember placed around it) particularly useful, but I can relate to the idea of historical knowledge as a structure. Once we have foundations, it becomes easier to put furnishings and decorations in their proper place. The more we can understand things in relation to each other, the easier they are to remember and use. Jokes and satire may just be whoopee cushions set on the chairs in the rooms of the memory palace, but they do tend to stay with us. I still remember Onion headlines I read years ago, long after I have forgotten contemporaneous news coverage. Besides, humor and satire are important ways that we cope with absurdities and miseries of the present; why not use them to help students cope with the past as well?

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