Schmidt, Samuel. Seriously Funny: Mexican Political Jokes as Social Resistance. Translated by Adam Schmidt. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014. xiii + 279 pages. Paperback, $39.95.
Seriously Funny is the first English edition of Mexican political scientist Samuel Schmidt's survey of a neglected form of political participation, the joke. Readers should be aware that the emphasis here is on the "serious" rather than the "funny" (perhaps better reflected in the Spanish title, Humor en serio), and that, though the great many jokes included are often quite funny, Schmidt's is a scholarly work drawing on psychological research on humor--defined, citing another scholar, as "the transference of the moral for the scientific" (p.25)--and historical and political science analyses of Mexican politics. His primary purpose is to reveal the social context of political humor and explain its role in the Mexican political system. And, as any comedian knows, if you have to explain it, it isn't funny.
His explanation, though, is fascinating. Schmidt argues that, although jokes are often dismissed as a frivolous waste of time, they represent an important and revealing dimension of the relations between state and society. His thesis is that jokes are a form of resistance (he calls it "subterranean confrontation" [p. 8]) available to a citizenry that demands to be heard, to express its frustrations with politicians, and to call for change. When people pass along jokes they are not only having a good time but they are in fact launching a minor rebellion, getting even with their targets using a readily available weapon that nonetheless does not threaten the stability of the political system. Political jokes are subversive; they strip away the nearly royal aura of dignity in which politicians like to shroud themselves and expose them as flawed humans. As such, joke-telling has always held special importance in Mexico, which has been subjected to a variety of flagrantly corrupt and authoritarian regimes.
The book offers a broad theoretical treatment of political jokes, examining why jokes predominate as the typical form of political humor (as opposed to caricature, sarcasm and irony, etc.), then more narrowly examines Mexican humor and the role of political jokes in Mexico. Final chapters document the evolution of jokes across Mexican history, focusing on twentieth-century presidents. These years provide fertile ground for humor given the roller coaster ride...