Dark Humor and the Subversion of PC Culture

Primary Source: Figures 1-5 above: Taken from James N. Tidwell’s American Folklore archive at San Diego State University; transcripts of different styles of insult, morbid, and dark jokes used around the nation.

Secondary Source: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/455713.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ab18dabb438077c747f5b9ccae2110aa9

(Refer to pages 397-401) Journal: Taken from Professor Edna Andrews’ ” CULTURAL SENSITIVITY AND POLITICAL CORRECTNESS: THE LINGUISTIC PROBLEM OF NAMING” (1996)


American comedic culture, more than anything, is a free-flowing counterculture that subverts every single aspect of American society; from race relations to gender issues, comedic culture openly criticizes the subjects that people do not normally discuss or bring about. More specifically, situational relevant “black humor,” otherwise known as dark or hate jokes, have a specific niche in progressive social relations among American citizens throughout history. Rather than a debilitating tool used to humiliate various groups of people, black humor, “skewers convention, looks beyond and through racial and gender identity, and mocks sexuality and death…not [being] concerned with the moral quality of society and instead aims to deconstruct moral certitude” (Standfest). In other words, dark humor has been historically used as a cross-cultural medium, discussing otherwise unwelcome subjects regardless of background or historical period. According to professor Jerry Zolten of Pennsylvania State University, American dark humor is heavily laced with satire, which was mostly about race and ethnicity in the early 1800s, and became more popular in mainstream comedy and media in the mid to late 1950’s (Zimmerman). Around the latter time, literature and language professor James N. Tidwell archived many of these commonly tabooed jokes during his travels throughout the country, and stored them in the American Folklore collection in the Special Collections and University Archives. Figures 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 consist of examples of such archived jokes, ranging from morbid, cannibalistic, violent topics to that of cross-dressing children; such archives epitomize the very nature of this style of humor. Dark humor strays from the politically correct environment that American culture emanates, subverting common racial, ethnic, gender, and customary stereotypes in order to deconstruct the peculiarities of overt and covert discrimination and taboos present in society.

Regarding gender and sexuality stereotypes, dark humor often attacks the constructs of what makes men and women look like and act like their established social identities of the time. Tidwell’s travels throughout 1950’s America allowed him to experience different levels of typical American gender roles and nuclear family households: a stay-at-home mother who cooks and cleans, a daughter playing with dolls, a son with toy soldiers, the bread-winning father, etc. A direct antithesis to this lifestyle would include anything that is not heterosexual and patriarchal. One such example of patriarchal gender stereotyping is the gentleness of a mother, to which Tidwell presents the aggressive joke, “‘Mother, why does Daddy lie so still?’ / ‘Shut up and keep digging!’” (Tidwell), implying the fact that the mother may or may not have killed her husband.

In taking a dark turn, black humor has the cynical tendency to subvert normal behaviors to “address dire social circumstances, but with a specificity of intent that adhered to topicality in a way that [‘correct’] humor does not” (Standfest). At face value, this joke is highly immoral, but carries many social implications: Are mothers always good or can they ever be bad? Do BOTH men and women have violent tendencies? Can the man actually become a victim? With the difference in established power, it was actually atypical in the past to see a man being the helpless victim and the mother acting in a tough or dangerous way, especially when the lens is given through an innocent child’s eye. Moreover, when it came to the difference in male and female interaction, there has even been a submissive expectation regarding intellect.  The following video satirizes the female ability to engage in a “man’s” conversation:


Black humoristics purposefully exaggerate common social constructs and stereotypes for the sake of exposing the peculiar behaviours that result from such harsh societal judgement. The skits and jokes spur conversation, and introduce uncomfortable topics with light-hearted an shocking ease. Figure 1 includes the joke, “Mommy, can I wear a bra?” to which the mother refuses, yelling, “NO! Thomas!” (Tidwell) to her son after much persistence. Homosexuality and cross-dressing during the 1950’s to 1960’s remained a huge taboo in society, often being viewed as an anti-establishment ideal for American men and women; as a result, the government often shut down or did not, until recently, pass laws that would be in the favor of the LGBTQ community (Cohen and Richards). In other words, these topics of conversation were controversial. Comedy Central’s show Saturday Night Live frequently presented skits that included situations of homosexual advances and cross-dressing, to both provide laughable material as well as show the ridiculous extent to which American society taboos the gay community. “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” in season 24 of SNL is a prime example of exaggerating the stereotypes of the gay community that made people question how absurd it was to worry about couples who may or may not be gay, by introducing characters who cross-dressed, overplayed gender stereotypes, and mined for humor in “gay panic,” but were heros (Pierce). Of course, like Tidwell’s cross-dressing joke, the material was accepted with shocking surprise, eventually leading to the question: What is there to really worry about with the LGBTQ community? Dark, satirical humor in American society subverted the common misconceptions of how badly one should actually worry about such issues.


The goal of a dark humorist is to be painfully honest, and observational humor provides just that. As time progressed closer to the 1960’s, around which the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements came about, dark humor became a particular form of “American outrage” that exploded from the social unrest of the time. According to curator Ryan Standfest, “The postwar desire to aggressively shape a singular middle class ‘American Dream’ eventually rested in a brand of comic subversion in the mid to late 1950’s” as a “literary conceit with the occasional nod to stand-up comedy” (Standfest). This American Dream was to be more inclusive, leading to a common pattern in the growing popularity of stand-up comedy in the late 1960’s. Rosenfield from the American Comedy Institute claims that “it starts with certain groups or minorities–immigrants, blacks, women, old people, Jews, Muslims, gays, Arabs, Asians–being the target of stereotypical jokes” (Cohen and Richards). Racial and ethnic stereotypes have a precedence in stand-up and observational comedy, both of which utilize dark humor as a way to advance minority significance when it comes to having a “voice.” This form of dark humor actually deconstructs mainstream American political correctness by confronting the racial stereotypes that political and social groups try to avoid or “sugarcoat” in order to make American society look better than it really is. On the Greg Giraldo show, Giraldo himself admits that “A lot of racially charged shit happens here in New York City…Yet mainstream culture likes to pretend that race issues don’t exist…Unfiltered honest talking on race is rare, but comics are comfortable with race…comics are honest” (Cohen and Richards).

By exaggerating or even accepting stereotypes onstage in front of millions of people, stand-up comics present a more dimensional character to audiences who may know very little of the stereotyped group. Talking about these issues with humor effectively presents awareness while also humanizing a seeming representative of that racial or ethnic group, creating human connections to that person/those people and breaking down any original stereotypes, making them “harder to perpetuate” (Richards and Cohen). Comedian Dave Chappelle is one such comic who takes stereotypes toward the African American community and plays along the uncomfortable line of using racially charged language to prove a point:


Another example of this would be the typical “smart Asian” joke, with strict parents who “live and breathe education and good grades.” Thanks to the advent of Vine and other video-based social medias, slapstick humor with original content by multitudes of minority groups presented similar situations among all racial/ethnic groups. Minority comics eventually destabilize the stereotype, taking away the power of prejudices to actually hurt and offend (Richards and Cohen). Hate jokes, no matter how shocking, create a direct counter-culture to the recognized establishment of mainstream media. They directly criticize and expose discriminatory actions as well as debunk prejudicial thoughts. And rather than being ignored, dark humor allows these criticisms to society to be heard and actually listened to.

Morbid and wrong jokes–albeit, can become the most offensive in certain situations if not timed right–play a vital role in the normalization of tragic events. As comedian and British writer of The Office Rickey Gervais states, “Not everyone will like what I say or find it funny…There are enough comedians who try to please everyone as it is” (Gervais). American society has a tendency to only allow, on media, what is optimistic and comfortable, often staying away from material that can either offend or hurt masses of people (Gervais). This political and social correctness, although comfortable, never addresses a trauma or tragedy at hand. Tidwell’s inclusion of the joke, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln–how was the play?” is an example of pure American satire. After the death of the president, it is almost certain that news about losinga leader would not bode well with American citizens. However, making an ironic joke to laugh at a traumatic situation is a step toward acknowledging that it happened in order to heal rather than pretending it never happened and acting “stronger” as a nation because of it. While it can be very critical of an event and its details, jokes like such are meant to calm the tensions that arise that would otherwise cause mass hysteria or communal anxiety. On a largely recent account, the contribution of comedy that Comedy Central’s Saturday Night Live show shortly after the tragedy of 9/11 is a prime example of comedy’s power to unite over taboo humor.  In fact, SNL was one of the first television shows to air directly after the tragedy of 9/11 and help retain American sanity.

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/cold-opening—homeland-security/n11645?snl=1 (2002)

In the video above, Robert de Niro on SNL is a newscaster being pranked by college and highschool students on national television while reporting alleged terrorist members. This is a direct play on the widespread racial fear that ensued toward the Middle-Eastern community by other Americans. Other skits that SNL produced after the incident included “‘American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie’, Washington hubris ‘U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We’re At War With’, citizen helplessness in ‘Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake,’ and presenting reactive xenophobia in ‘Arab-American Third-Grader Returns From Recess Crying, Saying He Didn’t Kill Anyone’” (Sneed). Each and every skit provided specific insight into American behavior and made it laughable, so as to show the American public that it is aware of how people are reacting to the situation. Rather than giving into hysteria, SNL was trying to give the Americas public a reason to analyze itself; by pointing out these weird hypothetical or ironic situations that are almost ridiculous, people were able to feel as though they could relate to the shock or watch someone else act worse than they ever would. It is a laughable way to gain acceptance for the fact that it happened, and a way to acknowledge that it is not a large enough reason to break down the American morale. Dark humor purposefully subverted the atypical news message of “We will rise again” by providing America the comfort to actually recover.
Dark humor/comedic culture allows for American society to have an outlet to speak about the tabooed topics and issues that need discussion as well as an introspective medium in tough situations. By subverting American political correctness, truth is allowed to be spread and discussed, progressing society through racial, ethnic, gender, customary, and traumatic issues in a light-hearted setting. Comedy not only provides comfort, but insight. As for American culture, it enhances the opportunities for groups of all types to have a voice in a culture that DOES have problems by merely not adhering to the “orthodox” behaviors expected of them.

Works Cited

“American humor.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Feb. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_humor.

“Understanding American Jokes.” Columbia West College, 17 Aug. 2015, www.columbiawestcollege.edu/2015/04/01/understanding-american-jokes/.

Cohen, Rogers and Richards, Ryan. “When the Truth Hurts, Tell a Joke: Why America Needs Its Comedians.” Humanity In Action, www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/174-when-the-truth-hurts-tell-a-joke-why-america-needs-its-comedians.

Gervais, Ricky. “Ricky Gervais: The Difference Between American and British Humour.” Time, Time, time.com/3720218/difference-between-american-british-humour/.

Khazan, Olga. “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 27 Feb. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/02/the-dark-psychology-of-being-a-good-comedian/284104/.

Love, Matthew. “50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time.” Rolling Stone, 14 Feb. 2017, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/lists/50-best-stand-up-comics-of-all-time-w464199.

Sneed, Tierney. “”After 9/11, How we Learned to Laugh Again.” USA Today. 11 Sept. 2013, https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/09/11/after-911-how-we-learned-to-laugh-again.

Standfest, Ryan. “Black Humor and the American Comic.” RYAN STANDFEST, Rotland Press, 2010, www.ryanstandfest.com/writings-/black-humor-and-the-american-comic.

Zimmerman, Bill. “Professor explores American culture through comedy’s history.” Penn State University, news.psu.edu/story/143653/2012/12/18/academics/professor-explores-american-culture-through-comedys-history.


Visual Artifacts Cited

Andrews, Edna. “Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming .” Duke University Press, 1996, doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f.

Tidwell, James N. “Hate Jokes.” American Folklore Collection. (Primary Source)


Theosophy & Educational Culture

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Today, education and the development of youth in the United States is facing a host of challenging issues. Despite outspending a majority of the advanced nations throughout the world on a per-student basis, we lag behind significantly in many key metrics such as math and science literacy, graduation rates, and diversity within school systems.1 That being said, I believe one of the most crucial areas our system is falling behind in is a difficult one to measure: self awareness of our global impact. The US education system stifles our students ability to understand the larger environmental picture through it’s country-first mentality and overemphasis on traditional economic growth. Looking to educational systems throughout US history that have challenged this status quo in some way, such as the theosophical community’s system of education in San Diego, may offer some guidance and insight as we look for ways to address this issue in future generations. Katherine Tingley, the leader of this community, came to Point Loma to establish a cultural center based on the principles of theosophy – a religious philosophy grounded in Christianity, Eastern religions, modern science, spiritualism, and an ethical existence. The theosophists of this time rejected materialism and promoted oneness, the divinity of nature, and the principles of karma. Much of this had to do with the fact that they believed in a system of re-incarnation where each soul is continually evolving towards a higher state of existence and a greater understanding of eternal truths. Because of this belief, theosophists held a unique view on how their actions towards the environment would affect their own lives and the lives of others, and it was reflected in their teaching methods and overall approach towards learning. From the lense of modern educational theory, their Raja Yoga school subverted the role and purpose of educational institutions in American culture through valuing and demonstrating ideals of self-sufficiency. The visual artifacts and primary accounts of this community held in the special collections archive has given me deep insight into their philosophies, while my discussion with Robert Ray, the head of the archive, has provided an additional layer of understanding around their educational impact at a regional and national level.2


The Raja yoga school was the educational arm of Tingley’s community, a boarding school created for the intellectual and moral development of young people. Similar to the many western religious educational institutions that came before it, however, unique in its approach to the development of its land and policies relating to sustainability. From a modern perspective, our educational system has always placed tremendous value on the development of specific skills, and how those skills will translate into economic gains – either for the individual or broader US economy. Following the industrial revolution, the primary function of schools and universities was to meet the needs of the expanding industrial machine.3 Consequently, this has led to a rise of individualism and a lack of understanding on how our actions affect our peer communities around the world as well the health of the planet. Western economies flourished under this model of education for decades, however, it has fostered an educational culture that disregards the accelerated depletion of our natural resources in pursuit of economic expansion. The curriculum, subject matter, and conversations taking place on US campuses does not reflect a sustainable approach to economic advancement. The intellectual development of young people is geared towards propelling the economy forward, but it does not inform – or in many cases even discuss – sustainable ways of doing so.


Tingley and her university differed substantially from this model in that they sought to be self-sustainable in all aspects. This was reflected in the infrastructural and agricultural layout of the community, as well as the curriculum. Core subjects, such as the humanities and sciences, were taught to students from a perspective of oneness with the environment. For example, in the first and second visual artifacts attached, students are being taught a lesson on biology while simultaneously seeing how the plant life cycle is physically taking place. In the third artifact, we can see the integration of the environment and nature into the communities imagery and messaging. This model of informing students of their environment and the importance of maintaining it throughout the educational process was a departure from the cultural attitudes and practices in the US up to this point.


Along with promoting intellectual growth, the school aimed to develop students from a moral and spiritual perspective. This wasn’t a practice that differed much from other universities and schools throughout US history, however, is an important aspect of how the cultural subversion came about. The ethical decision-making component of the curriculum at the Raja yoga school had been present in educational environments in US since the very first universities and public schools were developed – even as these institutions shifted away from being dominated by some form of Protestantism.3 What made the Raja school unique and impactful in terms of American educational culture wasn’t its push for moral righteousness, it was its philosophies around environmentalism. The beliefs that guide the majority of western faiths contain valuable lessons about moral decision making in one’s life, but lack empathy towards our environment and the future generations that will inhabit it. From a modern lense, the Raja yoga school was distinct in that it shared this perspective with young people while also preparing them intellectually and economically.


Despite the rise of globalization and increasing interaction among cultures, it appears that educational programs in the US continue to attach little importance to the balance of economic growth and sustainable strategies as students are groomed to shape tomorrow’s economy. Tingley and her school represented a significant subversion of this American cultural philosophy. As shown in the visual artifacts, young people were taught the value of a healthy ecosystem while simultaneously learning the core subjects and hard-skills that would allow them to produce for their community. Schools and universities have long served as a microcosm of society, and our nation’s lack of consideration towards the environment is reflected in the coursework and culture on US campuses. From a modern perspective, the Raja yoga school serves as a valuable example of an interruption of this cultural practice. The philosophical driving forces behind this subversion of culture, such as the belief in reincarnation, can clearly not be diffused into school systems and university campuses in the US, nor should it. However, the community’s approach towards education, and deviation from traditional US educational culture, provides a valuable perspective for today’s students and educators.



    1. Desilver, Drew. “U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries” Pew Research Center, (February 2017)
    2. Ray, Robert. “Katherine Tingley and the Theosophical society of Lomaland” SDSU Library Special Collections and University Archives, (March 2017)
    3. Rosenblith, Suzanne. “Religion in Schools in the United States” Clemson University, (June 2017)

Hack #4: “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”


In Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall (1962), his apocalyptic lyrics and tone warn against the fatal future that awaits the world due to governments who continually choose newer, bigger warfare tactics to dominate one another; this was not only a warning against such a destructive process of war, but correlated closely with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. During the Cold War era, nuclear arms became the new and advanced threat that nations would use against each other, specifically between the communist regimes of the USSR and Cuba versus America and its allies. According to researcher Tony Attwood, Dylan’s song is not meant to be about nuclear fallout as much as it is a melancholy song about “fighting the tyranny of the oppressor.”

pres ken


To begin, Bob Dylan excellently reiterates the destructive results of uncontrolled government power when it comes to making wartime decisions. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy placed America in a risky position in order to bluff the communists by sending. Dylan starts each verse with vivid descriptions of an apocalyptic wasteland. In the first verse, the following lyrics set the barren environment of a death and warfare-ridden land:

“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains

I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways

I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests

I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans

I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard”

(AZ Lyrics)

In the next two verses, Dylan outlines the setting of destruction, but with human presence or influence, drawing a more direct and sad connection between the the human race and miserable chaos around it. He mentions, “ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,” “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,” “the song of a poet who died in the gutter,” “the sound of a clown who cried in the alley” (AZ Lyrics). Within his last verse, Dylan mentions, “the pellets of poison are flooding the waters,” pointing out the distortion of reality that governments have the power to do through manipulating mass communication media like newspapers (Attwood). By putting the entirety of his message together, Dylan draws correlations between the government manipulation of the people, disregard for public health and safety, and the apocalyptic effects of their apathy. Within context of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this song guides protests against the American involvement in the nuclear arms race, causing people to fight to retain the quality of life and belief of safety out of fear, and shape a widespread anti-nuclear arms/anti-war attitude.

pre k


This attitude influenced the Cuban Missile Crisis Protest on October 24, 1962 in Portland, Oregon, shortly after the discovery of Soviet warheads off of the coast of Cuba and far after the covert “Bay of Pigs” fiasco in 1961. For the Bay of Pigs operation, information about this mission was exposed after Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces defeated CIA operatives in three days (Wikipedia). This failed invasion prompted American newspapers to try to retain pride in the American military by only reporting the amassing army Building up in Cuba against the US Armed Forces (Dunlap). By omitting the total failure, the government and network media were able to attempt to rally public support for “defensive” military behaviours (Dunlap). According to the Oregon History Project, “demonstrators here urged President Kennedy to take a conciliatory approach to the Soviet Union and to steer the nation away from any nuclear confrontation,” as they saw the situation as “spiraling out of control.” Both Kruschev and Kennedy brought the US and USSR to the brink of nuclear warfare with rash and incomplete decisions, endangering the safety of American and communist citizens alike, drawing closer to the image of destruction that Bob Dylan portrays in his song (Wikipedia). Even without being a direct warning against the American participation in nuclear warfare, Bob Dylan’s song serves as a vivid picture of postwar America where people do no step up to limit the power of those who can decide to enter war and ruin the lives of the many.

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan


“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?

And where have you been, my darling young one?

I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains

I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways

I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests

I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans

I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall


Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?

And what did you see, my darling young one?

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it

I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it

I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’

I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’

I saw a white ladder all covered with water

I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken

I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall


And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?

And what did you hear, my darling young one?

I heard the sound of a thunder, that roared out a warnin’

I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world

I heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’

I heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’

I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’

Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter

Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall


Oh, what did you meet, my blue-eyed son?

Who did you meet, my darling young one?

I met a young child beside a dead pony

I met a white man who walked a black dog

I met a young woman whose body was burning

I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow

I met one man who was wounded in love

I met another man who was wounded in hatred

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall


And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?

And what’ll you do now, my darling young one?

I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’

I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest

Where the people are many and their hands are all empty

Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters

Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison

And the executioner’s face is always well hidden

Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten

Where black is the color, where none is the number

And I’ll tell and speak it and think it and breathe it

And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it

And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’

But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.


“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” AZ Lyrics.

“Bay of Pigs Invasion.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Feb. 2018.

“Bob Dylan “A Hard Rains A Gonna-Fall” (Lyric Video).” YouTube, YouTube, 24 Mar. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8O7heJ5ILvM.

“Cuban Missile Crisis Protest.” Oregon History Project.

Attwood, Tony . “Hard Rain’s a gonna fall: the meaning of the lyrics and the music.” Untold Dylan.

Dunlap, David W. “1961 | The C.I.A. Readies a Cuban Invasion, and The Times Blinks.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Dec. 2018.