Iam an anthropologist and a folklorist. I teach about identities—cultural, personal,
and everything in between. In my classroom, it is often useful to make references
to cultural touchstones. I used to teach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where
many of my students had some Scandinavian ancestry, and most were at least passingly
familiar with Scandinavian-American culture. When discussing tags of cultural identity,
dropping a reference to the hardanger fiddle, rosemaling, or lutefisk was usually
a pretty safe bet, as these are well-known markers of Scandinavian (specifically Norwegian)
ethnicity in the Upper Midwestern United States. As a folklorist, I sometimes have
the benefit of being able to use jokes as classroom examples because jokes are, among
other things, a genre of folk speech, and one particularly suited to conveying information
(such as identity) efficiently. Jokes about identity are often rife with generalizations
and insulting portrayals of groups of people. Like all forms of folklore, jokes are
powerful vehicles for meaning, and the messages contained within ethnic jokes can
often be dangerous and damaging. However, it is the very power of the joke to convey
meaning that makes it so useful as a pedagogical tool. The disciplines of folklore
and anthropology both dig into the processes that make culture and identity. Neither
culture nor identity is perpetually neat, clean, or pleasant. While there may be some
debate about the appropriateness of telling ethnic jokes in a college classroom, there
ought be no debate about using the best tools in the search to understand culture
and identity. This article will (I hope) demonstrate that jokes are important and
useful tools in that search.
In my University of Wisconsin classrooms, I could tell Ole and Lena jokes with a fair
amount of confidence that at least some of my students would recognize the names,
and that most of my students would be able to situate the stereotyped characters of
Ole and Lena in a Scandinavian-American context with relatively little explanation
from the front of the room. To be sure, there are many ethnicities present in Wisconsin,
but as Jim Leary states, “Scandinavian folk humor is the most vibrant of any ethnic group in the Upper Midwest” (63). For this reason it holds a particularly useful place in classroom discussions of
identity there. Consider the following joke:
This Swede went and got drunk and couldn’t find his way into the house. So he got
down into the hoghouse and opened the door and lay down in the straw and went to sleep.
And he woke up. He thought somebody was sleeping alongside him. It was a big sow.
So he poked it with his elbow and said, Ar du Svensk? And the old sow says, Norsk, norsk. (Quoted from Leary 66)
Such short texts are quite useful to unpack the relationships between various ethnic
groups in Wisconsin, in this case that of Swedes and Norwegians. The Swede plays the
part of the lascivious drunk, which is easy to glean from the joke itself. No special
cultural knowledge needs to exist in order to “get” that part of the joke—drunk people acting foolish are funny. In an Upper Midwestern
context, however, more layers are easily revealed. A Wisconsin classroom is bound
to have a couple students in it who realize that norsk
is the Norwegian word for “Norwegian,” so that the final line, delivered in a pig-like grunt, carries double meaning. Specialized
linguistic knowledge allows a fuller understanding of this joke, and that particular
specialized linguistic knowledge is much more common in the Upper Midwest than in
other parts of the country. Edward T. Hall, in his discussions of “high context” (HC) and “low context” (LC) communication, would classify this joke as an instance of high context communication
because it relies on
“preprogrammed information that is in the receiver and in the setting” (101). The students bring their preprogrammed knowledge to bear in interpreting, and thus
getting, the joke. Hall notes further that
“HC communications are frequently used as art forms” (101), and jokes are certainly an art form. Another high context joke also requires specialized
knowledge, both of ethnicity and of agriculture:
I had one about the two Norwegians running down the railroad track in front of the
freight train. Ole says to Lars, “I think we ought to cut across this plowed field.” Lars says, “Oh no, Ole, if we can’t keep ahead of it up here on the track, we’ll never keep ahead
of it on the plowed field.” (Quoted from Leary 65-66)
This joke obviously sets up Ole and Lars as slightly dim immigrants. Their lack of
familiarity with trains, due to their rural upbringing and lack of understanding of
the modern world, leads Ole to a wrong conclusion about the best way to avoid being
run over. In a Wisconsin classroom, where trains, farm fields, and Norwegians are
familiar tropes, this joke would pretty easily be understood. To be fair, this joke
would probably be understood by any classroom that contained students with a knowledge
of trains, even if they were not familiar with the soft, slow, uneven footing afforded
by a freshly-plowed field. The source of the humour is the “appropriate incongruity” (Oring 2003) constructed by the situation. Ole and Lars are being chased by a train, but they
incongruously (and therefore funnily) assume the train will catch them more quickly
if they try to flee over softer ground. The incongruity is implicitly attached to
their ignorance of rail, which constructs them as foreign to the joke’s setting.
The placing of the Norwegians on the outside, in this case on the outside of cultural
knowledge, is not dependent on their being Norwegian. They are simply constructed
as outsiders, know-nothings, bumpkins. They are on the other side of a cultural boundary
between the old and the new, the urban and the rural. The fact that they are Norwegian
isn’t a necessary part of the joke, but in the Ole and Lena cycle of jokes, the Norwegian
immigrant is a local variant of the stupid and/or canny character so common in much
ethnic humour (Davies 2002 8). Norwegians and other Scandinavians were (and are, as these jokes are still current,
even if the phenomenon of the recent immigrant from Scandinavia is much less common
today) constructed in jokes as rural, unsophisticated, and therefore the object of
humour. They were the local Upper Midwestern version of the earthily wise or backward
hick. Ole’s and Lars’s Norwegian identity being the signal for their bumpkin status
is particularly salient in a Wisconsin context.
When trying to explore identity formation, affirmation, and boundary with students,
it is well to remember Christie Davies’s assertion that often,
jokes are focused on the very boundaries of the joke-teller’s identity, on the ambiguous
peoples who are not quite separate yet not quite members of the joke-teller’s group.
Ethnic jokes about stupidity nearly always arise from a relationship of this kind
and are an almost universal instance of the kind of jokes that are told about groups
on the joke-tellers’ social, geographical, or linguistic boundaries (1990 312-13, a thought echoed in Davies 2002 10)
The perceived nearness of the identities of the joke teller and the butt of the joke
is a necessity for a joke to be fully understood, according to Davies. Likewise, geographic,
ethnic, or linguistic proximity is also necessary if a joke is to be pedagogically
useful as a window into identity. If students are unable to recognize and connect
to the identities being presented in a joke, they cannot unpack that joke to explore
the identities contained therein.
So, while any student can recognize the dimness of Lars and Ole running from the train,
their Norwegian identity becomes particularly salient in the Wisconsin context in
which this variant was told. The prevalence of Scandinavian immigrants and ancestry
in Wisconsin means that my students there would feel Lars and Ole as a proximate identity.
They are familiar characters. As soon as a knowledgeable hearer is told that two Norwegians
named Lars and Ole are doing anything, that hearer is waiting for them to be made the butt of some humorous story.
The very proximity that makes jokes useful as windows into identity also prevents
them from traveling very well. This is not to say that jokes don’t travel—they very
much do. Indeed, it would be ridiculous to discuss jokes as a genre of folk speech
without acknowledging a few basic facts that are true about any type of folklore.
Anything “folk” is localized, a vernacular expression of patterns, motifs, and types. The patterns
may occur in widely different situations, but with particular expressions suitable
to and shaped by the locale in which they appear.
Because those patterns are quite flexible, they do travel very well, being shaped
to a local situation fairly easily. Two jokes collected at points far distant from
one another can easily be recognized as the same joke in two localized variants precisely
because of the common pattern. One would be hard-pressed to find a joke that did not have some corollary example elsewhere, with slight modifications. However, it is
just in those modifications, in the vernacular expression of a joke, that it becomes
a joke of that particular area or group. So, I do not wish to imply that jokes, or
any folkloric form for that matter, does not travel. The bones of a joke are remarkably
mobile. But those bones take on particular flesh whenever they touch down in a specific
spot, flesh that is suited to that specific situation. Thus, while a joke’s structure
may move easily, the particular incarnation of a joke has much less mobility. Jokes,
as high context communications, are “economical, fast, efficient, and satisfying”, and they can “act as unifying, cohesive force” (Hall 101), but only within a specified cultural context. The same joke about two bumpkins running
from a train could easily be told in almost any setting where the audience is familiar
with railroads. However, the specifics of the joke—that it centres around two Norwegians
named Ole and Lars—are not mobile. At the very least, those details become unimportant
and possibly distracting in another geographic or cultural context. The bones of a
joke may serve Hall’s unifying purpose in two different contexts, but in order to
do so, the flesh put on the bones of the joke must conform to that locale, creating
two variants of the joke.
In 2007, I got a job as an assistant professor at Champlain College in Burlington,
Vermont. This new position was in an integrated, interdisciplinary general education
curriculum, at a school without any course offerings in anthropology or folklore.
However, the first-year courses I teach are titled
“Concepts of the Self” and “Concepts of Community.” In these courses, I draw on different
disciplines to explore issues of what makes an individual’s and a group’s identity.
In doing so, I continue to draw on my folkloric and anthropological backgrounds, and
I use examples in similar ways to get my students to understand identity. Jokes are
still a part of my classroom, but I have had to be aware of the change in locale,
and how that change impacts the jokes I can tell. There have been many changes, of
course, but the most important change for the current discussion is that Ole and Lars
did not accompany me to Vermont. I had to leave them running from that train in Wisconsin.
I could bring the bones of the joke, but I would need to understand the vernacular
cultures of Vermont and New England before I could put flesh on those bones and make
the joke relevant to my new students. It was easier to simply learn the jokes of the
region, in order to have a repertoire more suited to the geographic environment.
The train joke above relies on the audience’s familiarity with Lars and Ole as Scandinavian
names, with the stereotype of Norwegians as the most rural of the Scandinavian immigrants,
and with the broad joke type containing the humorous clashing of rural and urban knowledge.
One purpose of the joke, to laugh at the not-too-distant Other, is a useful thing
to examine in any classroom dealing with the topic of identity. Finding localized
examples of proximate otherness would allow me to have the same discussions in my
Vermont classrooms as I had in my Wisconsin ones. My students in New England had specialized
knowledge with which to make pedagogically useful meaning from folk speech; I just
had to figure out what that knowledge was.
The role played by Lars and Ole in the joke, the proximate Other, is played by various
figures all over the world. Poles, Newfoundlanders, Ukrainians, Gujaratis, Belgians,
Karelians, Armenians, Swabians …
the list is as long as the people who tell jokes (Davies 2002 9). The proximity of these people to the joke-telling groups in some way—geographically,
culturally, linguistically—allows them to serve as the butt of the joke. Some specialized,
localized knowledge allows a joke hearer to fully interpret the cultural meanings
of the joke. Norwegians and Swedes fulfill the role of rural, less sophisticated,
foolish proximate Other in Wisconsin. Who do Vermonters tell jokes about?
A Cajun, a Texan, and a Vermonter were standing around at a Midwestern country fair,
watching as a prize heifer was awarded a blue ribbon. “Hell,” said the Texan, “that ain’t big. Why, back in Texas, we’ve got armadillos that big. We’ve got armadillos
the size of pickup trucks.”
The Cajun bristled. “Big,” he spat. “I’ll tell you what’s big. Big is the alligators back in the bayou country. Back there
in the Louisiana bayou, we grow gators long as jet airplanes.” The Vermonter grinned and shook his head. “Well, you both don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to big,” he said. “Up in Vermont, we know big. Come on up, and you’ll see: We’ve got frogs big enough
to hang sheetrock!” (Erik Esckilsen, personal communication 17 May 2010)
This joke follows several familiar formulas, including the bragging contest and the
three people of different identities meeting in a bar (or in this case, a county fair).
Often in this latter structure, one or more of the three identities that meet in the
bar is the butt of the joke. Simply giving someone a regional or ethnic identity often
sets them up as the joke’s butt, e.g. “I had one about the two Norwegians …
” or “This Swede went and got drunk …
” However, in this case, none of the Vermonter, the Texan, and the Cajun is the butt
of the joke, at least not in a larger sense. The Texan and the Cajun can be said to
lose the bragging contest and therefore be victimized by the Vermonter’s greater cleverness,
but that laugh is secondary to the greater punch line of the joke, that there are
frogs big enough to hang sheetrock in Vermont. Clearly, the “frogs” in the punch line are the more direct and more acute source of humour in this joke.
“Frog” is a well-known appellation for the French, and in Vermont it is easy enough to understand
that the “frogs” being referred to in the joke are French speakers from Quebec, the Canadian province
directly to the north of Vermont. The teller of this joke, Erik Esckilsen, is a native
Vermonter. As such, he grew up steeped in the cultural mix of Vermont: Yankee, Abenaki,
Quebecois, and more. Although Erik is of Scandinavian ancestry, and he is familiar
with the characters of Ole and Lena, he tells this joke from the perspective of the
Vermonter, whose proximate Other speaks French, not Norwegian.
There is geographic proximity between Vermont and Quebec, but the connections between
these two places are deeper than simply sharing a border. Vermont, especially northern
Vermont, is heavily influenced culturally by the Quebecois, as evidenced by place
and personal names. A quick glance at a map of Vermont shows Vergennes, Montpelier,
Calais, Orleans, and a flip through the telephone book reveals many more names derived
from French. Clearly, there is commerce of culture across the border. In northwest
Vermont, where Champlain College is located, there is a small town called Winooski,
which has a particular connection to Quebecois immigrants.
Due to hard times in Quebec in the 1850s, there had been a steady stream of French
Canadians to the falls [in Winooski], all looking for work … Now French Canadian and Irish men and women and children—at times whole families—went
to work at the mills at reduced wages and without the benefit of company-maintained
lodgings (Feeney 56)
Winooski, a small town within the Burlington metropolitan area (if such a thing can
be said to exist) is historically a mill town. Workers from many places were attracted
to the boom of the wool industry, and many of those immigrants were French-speaking,
white, blue-collar, and Catholic. These immigrants serve neatly as a proximate Other
in Vermont’s history. They were geographically close, both in terms of Vermont/Quebec
and Burlington/Winooski. Being white, they were ethnically close as well, but linguistically
and religiously they were Other.
These French speakers were occupational immigrants to northwest Vermont, just as many
of the Scandinavians who traveled to Wisconsin. Filling low-skill jobs with few benefits
and low wages, being familiar yet just a bit foreign, and having a strong and easily
recognized identity, Scandinavians and Quebecois fit the same cultural mould within
their respective immigrant contexts.
Students in Vermont may not immediately know the history of Winooski, or that many
Quebecois came to Vermont for work. However, just as the concept of Norwegian immigration
can be folded into a classroom discussion in Wisconsin more easily than it can in
other places, the idea of French Canadians as an immigrant group makes sense more
easily to New England students.
Some specialized knowledge peels away layers of this joke as well. Knowing that “frog” is a pejorative term for a French speaker and that many of the Quebecois were employed
in manual labor (hanging sheetrock, for example) gives the punch line its punch. Those
details don’t travel very well. I could not tell this joke in Wisconsin and expect
a similar recognition or reaction from my students. It would not be pedagogically
useful to tell this joke in Wisconsin, just as it would not be terribly helpful to
tell the joke about a Swede cuddling up to a sow in Vermont. “Frog” or norsk, Swede or Quebecois, there are parts of each joke that root it firmly in a place
and a cultural context.
In my classrooms, I explore issues of identity, especially the processes by which
different identities come into contact with one another and what results from such
contacts. In anthropology and folklore classrooms at the University of Wisconsin,
these explorations were in the service of teaching various cultural theories to my
students. At Champlain College in Vermont, the same discussions serve a slightly different
purpose, trying to get students to explore notions of individual and group identity
to spark critical thinking. In both cases, using ethnic jokes is a handy pedagogical
tool. Ethnic jokes rely on some standardized structures and common motifs, but they
also rely on vernacular understandings. Because ethnicity is simply one type of identity,
and because both the general and the specific are necessary to get the full flavour
of ethnic humour, ethnic jokes are particularly useful in a classroom that explores
identities. Both Scandinavian and Canadian identities have been helpful to me as I
have used this particular type of folk speech to get my students to explore some of
the murky depths of identity construction and negotiation.