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Cracking Up

American Humor in a Time of Conflict

What do Jon Stewart, Freddy Krueger, Patch Adams, and George W. Bush have in common? As Paul Lewis shows in Cracking Up, they are all among the ranks of joke tellers who aim to do much more than simply amuse. Exploring topics that range from the sadistic mockery of Abu Ghraib prison guards to New Age platitudes about the healing power of laughter, from jokes used to ridicule the possibility of global climate change to the heartwarming performances of hospital clowns, Lewis demonstrates that over the past thirty years American humor has become increasingly purposeful and embattled. 

Navigating this contentious world of controversial, manipulative, and disturbing laughter, Cracking Up argues that the good news about American humor in our time—that it is delightful, relaxing, and distracting—is also the bad news. In a culture that both enjoys and quarrels about jokes, humor expresses our most nurturing and hurtful impulses, informs and misinforms us, and exposes as well as covers up the shortcomings of our leaders. Wondering what’s so funny about a culture determined to laugh at problems it prefers not to face, Lewis reveals connections between such seemingly unrelated jokers as Norman Cousins, Hannibal Lecter, Rush Limbaugh, Garry Trudeau, Jay Leno, Ronald Reagan, Beavis and Butt-Head, and Bill Clinton. The result is a surprising, alarming, and at times hilarious argument that will appeal to anyone interested in the ways humor is changing our cultural and political landscapes.

224 pages | 27 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Culture Studies

History: American History

Media Studies

Political Science: Political Behavior and Public Opinion

Sociology: Collective Behavior, Mass Communication


"The recognition that humor can reflect horror or hope makes Cracking Up a worthy exploration of the consequences of a joke. Whether saving lives or humiliating the helpless, humor culture is human culture."

Gary Alan Fine | Common Review

"Lewis develops his analysis and arguments with specific references and examples enough to empower the reader to move out of the passive consumption of this humor and at least begin to understand critically one of the most baffling and important elements in American mass culture."

Dennis Hall | Journal of American Culture

"Lewis provides a guide for thinking about humor with the seriousness it deserves."


Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. "One, Two, Freddy’s Coming for You"
Killing Jokes of the 1980s and 1990s
2. Red Noses at the Ready!
The Positive Humor Movement
3. Shut Up! No, You Shut Up!
Fighting With and About Humor
4. Ridicule to Rule
The Strange Case of George W. Bush

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