Folklore Furor : UC Berkeley Anthropology Professor Steps on Toes With Reports on Meaning of Jokes, Games in Society
Comedian Mort Sahl sometimes winds up his nightclub act by asking, “Are there any groups in the audience I haven’t offended?"--a question that might also be asked by Prof. Alan Dundes, a folklore expert in the anthropology department at University of California, Berkeley.
Dundes, a 23-year veteran of the Berkeley faculty, believes that the games people play, the jokes and stories they tell, reveal more about nations and ethnic groups than do printed reports.
“Folklore provides a socially sanctioned outlet for the discussion of the forbidden and the tabooed,” Dundes once wrote.
However, the pursuit of this theory in 21 books and more than 150 scholarly articles has antagonized many of the subjects of his studies, including:
- Sports fans, who were incensed when Dundes suggested that football was “an adolescent masculinity initiation ritual in which the winner gets into the loser’s end zone more times than the loser gets into his.”
- Germans, who were offended by a 1984 book in which Dundes described the German predilection for scatology and related it to the slaughter of millions of Jews in the Holocaust.
- Jews, who accused Dundes (who is Jewish) of bad taste for publishing a paper about “Auschwitz jokes” in 1983 and following that up recently with another paper about “Jewish American Mother” and “Jewish American Princess” jokes.
- Latinos, who did not like a 1985 paper in which Dundes and Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco analyzed piropos, sexual remarks that some Latino men make to women on the streets.
- Theologians, who were displeased by a 1980 Dundes paper that described the life of Jesus as “a very special version of the standard Indo-European hero pattern” found in folk tales for thousands of years.
Other Dundes writings--a study of “dead baby” jokes, for instance, and another about the graffiti found on the walls of men’s bathrooms (“Here I Sit: A Study of American Latrinalia”) have offended almost everyone.
But the Berkeley professor also has strong supporters. “Dundes is a first-class research person,” said Wayland D. Hand, founder of the highly rated folklore program at UCLA and now professor emeritus. “He shocks a lot of people, but there can be no question about his status in the field.”
Dundes has written definitively on the “evil eye” superstition and the Cinderella myth, among other topics, Hand said, and he is “excellent at bibliography and taxonomy (classification), things some of the younger folklorists know little about.”
Sometimes Dundes has been the first academic to tackle a tricky subject.
His analysis of latrine graffiti, scoffed at by many when it appeared, has since come to be regarded as a landmark study in a field that has attracted other serious scholars. Nevertheless, Dundes is often in trouble.
When Time magazine printed a story about his belief that football is “a ritualized form of homosexual rape,” he received a death threat, although the professor later joked that “it was in my wife’s handwriting.”
Another Dundes publication drew an outraged response from a California citizen who wrote: “I certainly hope my tax dollars aren’t being used to support your work, you weirdo.”
A magazine article about the “Auschwitz jokes” brought an avalanche of criticism and demands that he be fired.
Perhaps the greatest furor surrounding Dundes’ work came at the 1980 meeting of the American Folklore Society, the country’s largest scholarly organization of folklorists.
Book on Germans
Dundes, president of the society that year, decided to devote his presidential address to a summary of his book about the Germans, “Life Is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder,” in which he hypothesizes that the German interest in scatology and obsession with cleanliness were among national character traits that led eventually to the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews.
“People were absolutely offended,” Dundes recalled.
Some walked out, others threw things at the speaker and a group marched to the podium and draped him in toilet paper.
Worse, from Dundes’ point of view, the society refused to print his speech in its journal, although it had always published presidential addresses before.
“Mine was rejected on the grounds that it was insulting to people of German descent,” the professor said. “That’s no reason to reject anything. That’s most unscholarly.”
Columbia University Press had agreed to publish the book, but after the uproar at the American Folklore Society meeting, Dundes said, “they did their best not to publish it. There were pressures on them not to publish because it might hurt them with some of their German-Jewish (financial) contributors.”
Eventually the book was published but, according to Dundes, “there was no publicity and fewer than 1,000 copies were printed.” Nor have there been many American reviews.
“I consider it my best piece of work,” Dundes said, “but it has received very little attention.”
The book has fared better in West Germany, where the hardback original sold well and a paperback edition has sold more than 4,000 copies in less than a year.
Dundes, 52, has been embroiled in these battles regularly since he developed an interest in folklore as an undergraduate at Yale University, majoring in English literature.
As he studied the poetry and prose of writers like James Joyce and William Butler Yeats, Dundes found that he was more interested in the folk stories on which the books were based than he was in the finished works.
A sympathetic professor guided him to Indiana University, which then offered the only folklore doctorate in the country. After earning his doctorate, Dundes taught briefly at the University of Kansas before moving to the UC Berkeley anthropology department in 1963.
‘They Leave Me Alone’
“Some of my colleagues were nervous at first,” Dundes said with a laugh. “I suppose some of them still are. They don’t quite understand what I do, but since I do a lot of it, they leave me alone.”
Dundes often has trouble finding a publisher for his work.
It took 10 years to persuade someone to publish a collection of photocopied jokes, cartoons and fake memoes and letters from corporate and government bureaucracies titled “Urban Folklore From the Paperwork Empire.”
Finally, the book was published by the University of Texas Press, but, Dundes said, “they were so embarrassed that they took their name off after the first edition.”
Later editions note that they were published in Austin, Tex., but there is no mention of the University of Texas Press.
“I always have seven or eight things in the works, half of which will probably never be published,” Dundes said. “But I’m tenacious. I don’t give up easily.”
One reason Dundes gets into trouble is that he often deals with folklore, especially jokes, that pass orally from one person to another but are never written down.
“The oral tradition has no censorship,” he said. “That’s what makes it so valuable to study. It brings you very close to the cutting edge of what people are thinking. . . . People will say a lot of things to each other that they won’t commit to paper.”
Prof. Hand agreed. “I don’t think there’s any question that he’s right about that,” he said.” That is why you find people who live under tyranny expressing their opposition through jokes and elliptical humor.”
But at the same time, Dundes noted, “you can get into trouble with this kind of material. Folklore, by its very nature, deals with materials which are sensitive. Sometimes it deals with offensive material, and when you bring this out into print, you run the risk of people being terribly offended by it.”
Intrigued by Jokes
Dundes is especially intrigued by jokes, which he described as “loaded, terribly condensed versions of the whole society.”
Trying to answer the question, “why does a joke cycle come when it does and what does it mean?” Dundes has concluded that a joke cycle “has got to be a response to some psychological or sociological need. . . . It has to touch some kind of collective nerve.”
Thus, gruesome jokes about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and about the fatal disease AIDS are making the rounds.
“How do you face a tragedy that we all saw on television?” Dundes asked. “You do it with jokes. The Challenger jokes, even though they’re horrible, show that people are concerned.”
Germans tell Auschwitz jokes, Dundes wrote in 1983, not only because “German anti-Semitism is alive and well” but also as “an admission that the horrors of the death camps are a reality that has to be faced.”
“As long as such jokes are told, the evil of Auschwitz will remain in the consciousness of Germans,” he wrote. “They may seem a sorry and inadequate memorial for all the poor wretched souls who perished at Auschwitz, but when one realizes that comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin, we can perhaps understand why some contemporary Germans might need to resort to the mechanism of humor, albeit sick humor, to try to come to terms with the unimaginable and unthinkable horrors that did occur at Auschwitz.”
Light bulb jokes (“How many Californians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Ten. One to screw it in, and nine others to share the experience. How many New Yorkers? Three. One to do it and two to criticize”) swept through the country in the late 1970s, according to Dundes, in part because of the sharp rise in oil prices and the resulting energy crisis.
“The simple necessities such as cheap gasoline and electricity, once taken for granted, are now in some jeopardy,” he wrote in the journal Western Folklore. “Without electricity, we will all be unable to screw in light bulbs to any useful purpose.”
‘Male Backlash’ Cited
Jokes about “Jewish American Princesses” (Q: What does a Jewish American Princess make for dinner? A: Reservations) became widespread in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Dundes wrote recently, partly because of male backlash against the feminist movement.
“From the male point of view, women want to have it both ways,” he said. “They want equality, but they also want to be treated as something special. So the Jewish American Princess represents the modern woman (Jewish or non-Jewish) who wants to be taken care of--to be given unlimited credit cards and taken on glamorous trips--but who doesn’t want to cook or participate willingly in sexual intercourse.”
If Dundes were willing simply to describe and classify these jokes, folk tales, beliefs and superstitions, he probably would not arouse much controversy. However, unlike many colleagues, he also analyzes the material, often from a Freudian point of view, and this frequently gets the Berkeley professor into trouble.
“Folklorists are not without dullness,” he said. “Some of them have huge card files, with great masses of data, but they make no judgments. I want to get beyond description. . . . I want to figure out what this stuff means.” Besides, Dundes rather enjoys controversy.
“I love it,” he admitted with a chuckle. “The beauty of folklore is that it isn’t typical academic work. You aren’t chronicling the life and times of some obscure fish in the waters off Baja California. You’re dealing with real people in everyday life.”