Humor and Religion: An Interview with David Feltmate, Pt. 2

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* This is part two of a two-part interview with David Feltmate. Part one can be found here.

Matt Sheedy: Could you say something about your general approach to the study of humor as a sociological category in relation to the study of religion (e.g., your influences, methods and theories)? How do you  see your work developing on these questions into the future?

David Feltmate: First off, the most profound influence on my scholarship thus far has been my doctoral supervisor, Douglas E. Cowan from the University of Waterloo. He is the one who turned me on to Peter Berger’s sociologies of knowledge and religion and then kept at me to integrate theories and be as thorough as possible. If there is one reason why this answer is so long, it is because Cowan is the kind of supervisor who would tell me to solve the problem instead of saying “Why don’t you apply X’s theory to Y and see what you get?” I could have just stopped at one or two major theorists in my doctoral work and gotten by, but I wouldn’t have felt it worthy of Cowan’s standards.

My general sociological approach to humor is something that I have been piecing together for six years now. It is a mutt—it has to be, there is an insufficient body of theorizing on the phenomenon to just copy from one or two representative scholars—but there is a lot of useful work and potential for further research there.

In terms of influences—especially theoretical influences—anybody who has had the unfortunate experience of being around me when I wax theoretically knows of my unabashed love of Peter Berger’s sociology of knowledge and the way that influences his sociology of religion. Without a doubt, The Social Construction of Reality, which he published with Thomas Luckmann in 1966, and The Sacred Canopy (1967) are the two books that continue to inspire my research. It also helps that Berger has been working with religion and humor off and on for most of his career. While I generally disagree with his theory of humor, he has given me and countless other sociologists a rich corpus from which to draw and I continue to plumb those two books from the mid-1960s with fruitful results.

The theoretical concepts of externalization-objectivation-internalization, legitimations, sedimentation, finite provinces of meaning, and the power of everyday life have become like breathing every time I go to write. They are foundational for my theory of humor because they provide the explanatory apparatus through which I can explain how jokes mobilize knowledge quickly. That has been the most rewarding and fascinating part of my work thus far; thus coming to terms with just how powerful humor is for disseminating knowledge about the world. Berger and Luckmann’s work has been indispensable in theorizing that.

Berger aside, I have recently been revisiting Emile Durkheim’s work in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). His theories of sacralization are picking up steam again in the sociology of religion and I find that with Durkheim you get a way of explaining the drive to spread sacredness throughout society. In other words, it is not enough for people to think they have a great insight into the nature of reality, they have to share it with the world.

I have been reading a lot of work from the Yale School of Cultural Sociology (YCS) and the people who are building upon Durkheim—Jeffrey Alexander, Philip Smith, Ronald Jacobs, and Gordon Lynch especially. Their work has been particularly helpful in understanding how ideas and their categorization circulate throughout societies according to their own particular momentum. It has helped me clarify some of the arguments about jokes, namely that they make sense to the groups of people writing/telling them without requiring them to have a long, drawn out explanation for why they do what they do.

In short, how ideas circulate is not always entirely clear in Berger and Luckmann’s work. Sometimes they are institutionalized and other times they are learned through socialization, but there are ideas that flow throughout societies that cross institutions and that people repeat. Their spreading is not something for which I’ve ever found a satisfactory answer from the actor-centered body of sociological theory. The YCS arguments about culture being an engine based on sacred/profane binaries is something I am currently working through and testing as my theories of humor continue to develop.

In terms of humor itself, that has been one of the most rewarding wild goose chases of my young career. It really has been a sense of discovering something that is almost completely forgotten in the study of religion and to add a sociological angle—as opposed to a “phenomenological” approach of a Conrad Hyers’ or the philosophical/textual/historical work of a John Morreall or Ingvlid Sælid Gilhus—is to invite yourself to even less conversations. It really starts to look like a “Did you hear the one about the academic talking to himself?” scenario where I am speaking across a variety of conversations, but not wedging myself into any one of them. That said, humor has become a serious topic of study among a small, interdisciplinary group of scholars in the last 25 years or so and finding the work of the International Society for Humor Studies and their journal Humor was key for me. Otherwise you end up with a list of standard classic theorists in humor—most prominently Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson—and then a discussion of relief-superiority-incongruity theory, but the dynamics of the way these three approaches to humor have been integrated with sound research is missing.

So many people step up to the plate where John Morreall was in the early 1980s with his book Taking Laughter Seriously and present themselves as the new brilliant mind with an “introduction to humor studies” book. Meanwhile, the people that I’ve been reading have blazed a trail well into the social scientific and humanistic studies of humor that is rich, detailed, and relevant to a wide variety of academic and professional interests.

In this regard, for religion scholars John Morreall’s work is excellent. Taking Laughter Seriously was a book I found early on and it helped me shape my understanding of how I could combine the sociology of knowledge with earlier theories of humor. Ingvlid Sælid Gilhus also provides a good overview of religion and humor throughout the ages and her work nicely compliments Morreall’s later book Comedy, Tragedy and Religion. Morreall has also been instrumental in helping to develop the International Society for Humor Studies and he’s always up to date.

I’ve also gravitated towards some of the excellent sociologists and psychologists who have honed their arguments in Humor. First and foremost among them are Christie Davies whose books have dealt with how jokes reflect ethnic stratifications in society and from him I took a basic and foundational observation: People tell jokes that reflect larger social patterns. This, of course, leads to all kinds of sociological questions: Who tells jokes? When can they tell them? Who can they tell them to? What are the jokes about? How do you classify people through humor? When you take that and put it into a sociology of religion paradigm then the circulation of jokes becomes an incredibly useful way of tracking how cultural biases that work to stratify religious organizations and their members. I was also fortunate in that I study The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy—identifiable groups of people with large audiences. They can then use those platforms to transmit their biases. When I saw that similarity, I knew that I had seen a model I could borrow from.

Eliot Oring and his Engaging Humor was another pivotal book. The fourth chapter on the humor of hate was an intellectual catalyst for me. One of the things I was doing in my article was following in Oring’s footsteps. He was challenging the assumption that humor and laughter are good things, that we are only “joking” and that “jokes don’t mean anything.” He then used white supremacist cartoons to illustrate that jokes can be built upon hatred, that they can communicate hatred, and that humorists assume a sympathetic audience. That set up the grounds for me to take on the assumption that something is “funny because it’s true” or, as Seth McFarlane (creator of Family Guy) recently said in a Barbara Walters interview, that something is funny if it gets an “honest laugh.” Finding truth in humor is more of a recognition of what one already assumes than it is a discovery of an irrefutable fact. Symbolic interactionists such as Gary Alan Fine helped me understand that.

For the sake of space I will only mention some other current scholars I’d recommend to people: Gislinde Kuipers, Victor Raskin, Salvatore Attardo, Thomas Ford, Paul Lewis, Donald Nielsen and Murray Davis have all written great books and articles on humor that I continue to find of great use in my own work. Anybody wanting to start down this road should read Raskin’s The Primer of Humor Research. It is the kind of edited compilation that only a leader in a field could round up and the best of the best weigh in on the topic of humor.

Methodologically, I am a qualitative content analyst. I sit down with a recording of every episode and watch it through, writing down every reference to religion. While I recognize that religion is a contentious category (and I use a variation of William James’ definition from the third lecture in the Varieties of Religious Experience as my working definition), at the end of the day I also take a practical route to determining what gets considered religion: I am writing about a group of programs that comment on the United States, so groups with 501(c)(3) status, groups that have actively sought said status, or have been compared to groups with the status tend to be my benchmarks. Once they are down on paper I look for the significant patterns that arise through the humor and analyze how the examples draw upon historical data which is then interpreted through the program’s humorous framework. At the end of the day, I am studying a fixed cultural product that a group of other human beings has assembled with an eye towards understanding how they are interpreting religion and what that means in a contemporary cultural context.

Where do I see this going from here? While my current project on religion in 3 major sitcoms is a study of how religious groups and their place in society are criticized from outside those traditions, my next project is going to be a study of conservative religious standup comedians to see how religious groups use humor from the inside. There is an entire circuit for these performers and while they are still using humor, they are using it in ways that seem counterintuitive to a great many academics who treat humor as something of the political left. It invites us to look at how comedians are engaged in reinforcing their religious social structures, criticizing them, and trying to reach out in an effort to spread their religious message. My plan is to study evangelical and Muslim comedians, but if anybody out there can recommend other good conservative religious comedians, please email me. I would appreciate the help gathering data.

David Feltmate teaches Sociology of Religion at Auburn University at Montgomery. Trained as a sociologist of religion in the University of Waterloo’s Joint-Ph.D. Program in Religious Studies with Wilfrid Laurier University (Ontario, Canada), Dr. Feltmate specializes in the sociology of religion, religion and popular culture, religious diversity, the sociology of humor, and sociological theory. His ongoing research interests lie in the ways that people have used humor to discuss religious issues in the public and private spheres and the politics of controversial representations of different religious groups in North America. His articles have appeared in online and print journals and he is currently revising and expanding his dissertation “Springfield’s Sacred Canopy: Religion and Humour in The Simpsons” for publication.

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