Humor in History: Laughing Matters of the 1920s and 1930s American Mass Media

This is a website on the humor of the 1920s and 1930s, as revealed in the American mass media. It is the culmination of my Masters in Public History at Cal State University, East Bay, and it began with the answer to a joke.

The joke was, "How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?"

The answer was, "That's not funny."

I thought it was hilarious and so did all of my feminist friends when I told it to them. But, typical academic, I began to think about it. Why do feminists consider it so important not to be funny? Even more broadly, I wondered, what do people think is funny and why?

On this website, I explore these questions using cognitive linguistics to analyze the structure of humor, personal interviews and accounts to understand what humor meant to people who lived in the 1920s and 1930s, and a good deal of history to ground the analysis in the context of the past.

Humor in the mass media was popular humor, which was intrinsically tied into business and advertising. Far from being an independent enterprise, the humor here discussed was sponsored, produced, and bought by people who were trying to make money. On the other hand, it was created by individuals and appreciated by individuals, not only for its profitability, but because it was funny, and it made Americans laugh.

For the movies section, I used box office rentals to measure the profitability of films and thus to discern patterns of popularity. Hollywood as a business was attempting to capture the largest market possible, and the films I look at are the ones that captured the largest market. I focus on emblematic figures of these films: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Eddie Cantor, and Mae West.

The section on radio is still a work in progress, but I have used the networks' rating system to get a sense of the most popular radio shows. As this section is updated, it will include Amos 'n' Andy, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and possibly others.

The comics section is farthest from being completed, but I will probably rely on either the profits or distribution of syndicated comic strips to determine which strips to look at.

The 1920s and 1930s are history to some of us and childhood years to others. They were also the years in which the mass media, as we know it today, began. Politics, culture, and economics were turned on their heads as women gained the vote nationally in 1920 and the stock market crashed in 1929. The rapid changes in technology, politics, and finance made these two decades into one of the most tumultuous periods of American history. It was in these years that American mass culture was created.

And so, what did the mass audiences of the 1920s and 1930s find funny, and why? Chaplin played a misfit who nonetheless craved human affection; Lloyd played an everyman, trying desperately, absurdly, to live up to ideals he could not achieve; Cantor played a clever mouse of a man who stretched and bent to whatever painful circumstances life threw at him; and West played a woman who rose from rags to riches by ignoring every sexual propriety expected of her gender.

These were the characters audiences went to see. If they did not see themselves in the comedy, then they certainly saw values of the world that they lived in. Trying to fit in, trying to be successful, and trying to get ahead were familiar struggles to people of the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps the burden of their effort was lightened by their laughter.