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Travesty:

A Tragic First Attempt at Definition

 

 

 

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Since its formal organization in the early ‘90’s, the Institute for Travesty, Comedy and Humor Studies (ITCHS) has clearly indicated its mandate to study travesty along with comedy and humor.  And yet, two decades later, we have not produced a single document on the subject.

True, there has been much else to do and many insights from empirical discoveries to follow up upon throughout those decades.  It would be disingenuous, however, to use such an excuse.  The real reason for not publishing in the area has been that there are precious few examples in classical literary sources that are clearly travesty rather than some incidental travesty elements within a greater pattern.  Travesty exists in extended forms much more easily in work that is considered ephemeral and at least a tad disreputable.  One hates to start a publishing career with something of such dubious provenience.

Unfortunately for us, an incontrovertible example of travesty has suddenly become so prominent and so directly related to ourselves as Minnesotans that our excuse of lack of material will no longer fly with anyone, including ourselves.

Within the last week, at least everyone in the United States has become aware of the Junior Senator from Minnesota and, with him, a photograph in which he unmistakably smiles for the camera while “groping” an innocent-looking, paratroop-attired, attractive young woman who is evidently asleep.  The senator himself has argued that this was all in good fun.

As we have for years tentatively defined travesty for the purposes of ITCHS investigation, travesty is at an initial level a humorous-response-generating technique.  At advanced literary levels, it may become its own genre or super-genre like comedy and tragedy, but unlike either of these, travesty originates in the single-joke form.  Sadly, Minnesotans this week are reacting at the most primary level to that single joke. 

However, it is also characteristically true of travesty as a joke form and necessarily true of any genre deriving from that form, that the single joke is much more funny if it is followed up by a second joke of the same form, and much funnier still for each additional repetition of the underlying joke form in yet a new guise.  Again, sadly for Minnesotans, additional revelations constitute additional travesties for them to consider.

The specific joke, of course, varies from one travesty to another, but underlying all of them is a single travesty principle: travesty is something that is fundamentally “over the top” and purely humorous for being over that top.  Typically, that top is something like rationality or reality, and with ITCHS’ categorizing proclivities, we are likely to look for some “quadrilateral” of the main tops that travesty soars beyond.

In the case of the Junior Senator’s smiling photo, we could easily argue that this is over the top of both rationality and reality—“whoa, you’re kidding! No real Senator is ever caught so photographed even with his back turned.”  But there are other over-the-tops involved.  It is, for example, an instance of ungentlemanlike behavior that beggars gutter humor.

In this first attempt at defining travesty, let us emphasize that true travesty is pure humor.  The Junior Senator’s case exemplifies this principle in reverse in that this clearly isn’t pure humor.  A good many may laugh precisely because of the hurt done to an unsuspecting damsel.  Hurt humor is not unusual.  But it is not what we mean by pure humor.  A good many others may laugh because they are not of the Senator’s party and they are pleased to think what they can do in a humor line—purely destructive humor—from there.  They can, for example imagine a number of Word Plays from calling the Senator Al Gropen to shortening that to calling out “Hey, Groper” when they see him in the halls or lengthening it out to a faux campaign slogan, “Let’s win one for the Groper!”

When travesty moves into any of this sort of thing, it is moving into powerful material which is not native to travesty as travesty.  At this point, the Senator, as already mentioned, seems quite anxious that people return to a pure travesty sense in which the ugly reality is “just good fun.”

                                              Written 11/19/2017

(See front-page articles in Minneapolis Star Tribune and Saint Paul Pioneer Press dated 11/18/2017)

 

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