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November 29, 2010 The Catcher in the Rye — Thoughtful Laughter vs. "Bathroom" Humor By Nancy Barile
Grades 9–12

     Popular culture today all too often embraces a type of crass humor commonly referred to as "bathroom humor" or "scatological humor." Movies, TV shows, cartoons, and popular comedians all seem to capitalize on this type of humor in order to get a laugh from an audience.


    References to any sort of off-color bodily function, in fact, seem to be the only way the media works to elicit a laugh from a teenage audience. Certainly young adults have a more sophisticated sense of humor and don't need to be pandered to in this way. What's wrong with a little "thoughtful laughter"? 

    George Meredith said that "The true test of comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter." But what exactly does this mean?  A great starting point for explaining the difference between thoughtful laughter and bathroom humor can be found in Patrick House's article in Slate, an online magazine that combines humor and insight in analyses of current events and political news. House's article "How to Win the New Yorker Carton Caption Contest" points out that it is "advanced joke theory" that aims for what is called "a 'theory of mind' caption on a New Yorker cartoon, which requires the reader to project intents or beliefs into the minds of the cartoon's characters." The example House gives is The New Yorker cartoon that shows a police officer ticketing a caveman with a large wheel. "'Yeah, yeah — and I invented the ticket," the caption reads.

    "The humor here," House explains, "requires inference about the caveman's beliefs and intentions as he (presumably) explains to the cop that he invented the wheel. Theory of mind captions make for better higher-order jokes (thoughtful laughter) easily distinguished from the simian puns and visual gags (frequently bathroom humor) that litter the likes of Mad Magazine. To date, 136 out of 145 caption contest winners (94 percent) fall into the 'theory of mind' category." Sharing other cartoons from The New Yorker with your students will help get this point across. You might even want to have your students try their hand at writing a New Yorker style cartoon (and submitting it to the magazine if it's truly good!).

    Steven Wright is a comedian who has made a living out of his intellectual brand of humor, which awakens thoughtful laughter. His snippets of humor almost always cause an audience to stop and ponder their reactions. My favorite: "I was walking in the forest alone, and a tree fell right in front of me, and I didn't hear it. Are there any questions?" or "Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of that song? The guy who wrote that song wrote everything." Sharing a few clips of Wright's performances will certainly illustrate to students the higher-level comedy that causes the viewer to pause and think about why s/he is laughing.

    Many of the greatest writers and poets in the world have, throughout history, used humor to convey truth about the human condition. Everyone from Shakespeare to Dickens to Twain has frequently used humor in their craft. Frequently, irony — verbal, dramatic, and of situation — has functioned to produce laughter and to enhance the emotional impact of literature. J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye also provides a great source for identifying and analyzing thoughtful laughter and contrasting it with bathroom humor.

    There are so many scenes in The Catcher in the Rye that awaken thoughtful laughter, and an examination of the novel helps students understand why these scenes are funny and, most importantly, why they are also thoughtful. In fact, a few years ago, the Advanced Placement Literature and Composition Test asked students to find a scene that "awakens thoughtful laughter," and The Catcher in the Rye was a popular selection for answering this question.

    For example, the scene where Holden meets classmate Ernest Morrow's mother on the train is initially quite hysterical. Holden is clearly attracted to the older woman, but he proceeds to tell her outrageous lies, not the least of which is that his name is Rudolf Schmidt ("Rudolf Schmidt was the name of the janitor of our dorm"). Holden's alias allows him to spew forth a litany of lies without consequence. His gestures of offering Mrs. Morrow a cigarette and a cocktail provoke a laugh, but they are also incongruous and phony, revealing both Holden's desire to be an adult, as well as his reluctance to participate in the conformity of the adult world. Holden goes on to tell Mrs. Morrow what a "sensitive boy" her son Ernest is, when actually "that guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a goddamn toilet seat." He continues: "'Old Ernie,' I said. 'He's one of the most popular boys at Pencey,'" — a clear lie. While the scene is, indeed, funny, the laughter is thoughtful because it reveals so much about who Holden is. It becomes apparent to the reader that Holden lies because he wants to protect other people's feelings, warding off feelings of loneliness. Freud, after all, did say that humor was a window into the unconscious.

    Students can go on to examine other humorous scenes in The Catcher in the Rye, seeking to uncover WHY the laughter the scenes provoke is "thoughtful." The lesson can be done with any Shakespearean play and other great classics such as Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. Teachers can then use Scholastic's humor writing workshop to help students develop their own thoughtfully humorous stories. Understanding the difference between thoughtful laughter and bathroom humor takes students up onto the next rung of intellectual development. And while a good "poo joke" may provoke a giggle, thoughtful laughter resonates and lingers with an audience long after the book has been read or the movie is over.

    Here's to lots of laughs this holiday season (all thoughtful)!

    ~ Nancy



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