Alan Dundes, 70; Folklorist Drew Laughs and Hostility

Times Staff Writer

Alan Dundes, the UC Berkeley anthropology professor who gleefully applied Freudian analysis to his version of folklore -- which included fairy tales, football, the Bible and photocopier jokes -- and amused and angered readers as he went, has died. He was 70.

Dundes died of an apparent heart attack Wednesday after collapsing in Berkeley’s Giannini Hall while teaching a graduate seminar. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

“As a psychoanalytic folklorist,” Dundes once said, “my professional goals are to make sense of nonsense, find a rationale for the irrational, and seek to make the unconscious conscious.”


Spewing out publications almost as fast as he could rattle off ethnic and knock-knock jokes in the classroom, Dundes wrote some 250 scholarly papers and a dozen books and co-wrote or edited 20 more. They covered such topics as the evil eye, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, cockfights, vampires, castes and sick jokes. All of them found readers, and hardly any were without controversy.

Half a dozen of the books, written with Carl R. Pagter from 1975 through 2000, dealt with, as their subtitles described, “Urban Folklore From the Paperwork Empire.” Among the titles were “When You’re Up to Your Ass in Alligators,” “Never Try to Teach a Pig to Sing,” “Sometimes the Dragon Wins” and “Why Don’t Sheep Shrink When It Rains?”

Dundes described “paperwork empire folklore” for The Times in 1975 as the proliferating contemporary jokes, cartoons and fake office memos about racism, politics, women’s liberation, automation, alienation, student riots, welfare excesses, bureaucracy, sex and other subjects. Because the items were politically incorrect and usually in bad taste, it took him 10 years to get his first book published.

“It’s the autobiography of a people,” he said. “Through humor, the most serious issues of the day are being aired.”

Dundes irked theologians with his 1980 paper describing the life of Jesus as “a very special version of the standard Indo-European hero pattern” found in folk tales for thousands of years. He miffed a few more when he edited “Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore” in 1999, claiming the variations on scriptural stories demonstrated that the Old Testament began as oral tales told around campfires.

He angered Germans with his 1984 book “Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder: A Portrait of German Culture through Folklore,” in which he described the German predilection for scatology and related it to the slaughters of millions of Jews in the Holocaust.


When he presented a summary of the book to the American Folklore Society as its president in 1980, some colleagues walked out, others threw things at him, and still others marched to the podium and draped him in toilet paper. Columbia University Press tried to get out of publishing the book, and when it finally published it, printed fewer than 1,000 copies.

His response was, in 1989, to have Wayne State University Press publish his updated “Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder: A Study of the German National Character through Folklore.”

Although Dundes was Jewish, he offended Jews when he published a 1983 paper about Auschwitz jokes, which prompted demands that he be fired. He angered Jews further with papers on Jewish mother jokes and Jewish American princess jokes.

Another of his papers that raised eyebrows examined bathroom graffiti: “Here I Sit: A Study in American Latrinalia.”

But Dundes may have sparked the greatest mainstream outrage with his 1978 paper in the Western Folklore academic journal titled “Into the Endzone for a Touchdown: A Psychoanalytic Consideration of American Football.”

When Time magazine ran a story on his paper, noting that Dundes considered football “a ritualized form of homosexual rape,” enraged football fans sent the professor death threats.


In its essence, Dundes, an avid fan of the UC Berkeley football team, concluded in his study, “American football is an adolescent masculinity initiation ritual in which the winner gets into the loser’s end zone more times than the loser gets into his.”

Dundes presumably could have avoided controversy if he had stuck to collecting, classifying and describing jokes, folk tales and superstitions. It was the analysis that always got him into hot water.

“Folklorists are not without dullness,” he told The Times in 1986. “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.”

Dundes conceded that he loved the controversy that lifted him out of the obscurity of academe.

“The beauty of folklore is that it isn’t typical academic work,” he told The Times. “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.”

Dundes’ Introduction to Folklore class packed a 400-seat classroom and had a waiting list. He could have students rolling in the aisles with rapid-fire dead baby or yo’ mama jokes, and then hold their attention as he explained why they were laughing.


He won the campus’ Distinguished Teaching Award in 1994 and was asked to address a Commencement Convocation in 2002, imparting such advice to the graduates as: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism”; “If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried”; and “It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.”

By requiring each of his students to submit 50 bits of folklore -- jokes, proverbs, myths, riddles, games, customs, pranks, limericks, parodies, puns, yells, dances, gestures, graffiti -- Dundes supplemented his own research to provide the Berkeley anthropology department an archive of more than 500,000 items of folklore.

He was instrumental in creating the school’s master’s program in folklore.

“To call Alan Dundes a giant in his field is a great understatement,” George Breslauer, dean of the UC Berkeley division of social sciences, said in a written statement after Dundes’ death. “He virtually constructed the field of modern folklore studies.... “

In 2000, one of Dundes’ grateful students from the 1960s sent a check for $1 million to endow an anthropology professorship in his name.

“His reaction was incredulity,” Dundes’ wife, Carolyn, told the Contra Costa Times at the time. “He ran around the house, squawking like a chicken and barking like a dog.”

Born Sept. 8, 1934, in New York City to a lawyer father and musician mother, Dundes earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. But he found himself more intrigued by the folk stories lurking behind the writing of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats than by their finished literature. So he switched to folklore, earning a doctorate from Indiana University, the only school in the country providing the degree at that time.


He taught English for a year at the University of Kansas before joining the UC Berkeley faculty.

Dundes is survived by his wife of 47 years; a son, David, of Walnut Creek; two daughters, Lauren Dundes Streiff of Owings Mills, Md., and Alison Dundes Renteln of Altadena; and six grandchildren.

The family has asked that memorial contributions be sent to any UC Berkeley library.