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Humor and Its Pursued Strategies in "Smoke Signals" (1998)

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2010 18 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Concepts of Humor
2.1. Irony
2.2. Dramatic Irony
2.3. Parody
2.4. Burlesque
2.5. Intertextuality

3. Analysis of Humor and Pursued Strategies in Smoke Signals (1998)
3.1. Humor as a Spoon Full of Sugar
3.2. Humor as Liminal Space
3.3. Humor as Antiseptic Healer for Survival
3.4. Humor as Testing Device for and Promoter of Native Identity

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

From the day when the first settlers landed on the American coast it had been reported back to their people in Europe what the Native population is like and how they create their cultural lives. Since that time, Native Americans have been externally conceptualized in various forms, as for example in form of the ‘noble savage’ or the ‘vicious savage’, and almost never as having a sense of humor (Gruber 142). Humor in connection with Native American characters has among other reasons been avoided by image makers for it would have allowed recipients to identify with such human characteristics (Gruber 7). This would have meant to invalidate a powerful colonial ‘casting mold’ for dehuminazing stereotypical images about Nativeness. This hegemonic tool proves to be the most enduring one of colonization by replacing guns and troops (Gruber 157) with occupied Non-Native minds. Filmic representation perpetuated these distorted ideas about Native Americans further by drawing on those widespread clichés and inventing new ones (Gruber 142; Mihelich 130), as for example the Native American ‘ecologist’ (Cornell 109) or the spiritual ‘shaman’ living in absolute piece with nature. Thus, till today Native Americans are confronted with the task of dealing with biased images of themselves which are externally imposed on them by the surrounding dominance of Non-Native societies and discourses.

In this paper I will discuss how Native filmmakers Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie effectively use just this powerful genre of popular culture to tackle habituated representations of Native Americans and offer Native versions of Nativeness. In Smoke Signals (1998) they rework and transform existing stereotypes by creating a meta level on which the powerful mechanism of image making is exposed. This meta level can be established through the use of humor (Gruber 35). The Western imposition of stereotypes as well as subversive counter-strategies and concepts of Native writing and film making, humor being one of them, have in recent years been a field of interest to Shively (1992), Churchill (1998), Kilpatrick (1999), Cornell (2000), Stam (2000), Singer (2001), Mihesuah (2002), Aleiss (2005), Gruber (2008), Knopf (2009) and Fitz (2009). Smoke Signals is an ethnic film being produced by Native American filmmakers and with a Native American cast. It has attracted a lot of interest in how those concepts and approaches are implemented. Charles (2001), Mihelich (2001), Amanda J.Cobb (2003), Hearne (2005), and Caves (2009) have amongst others taken a look at how humor can function as a tool for the survival of Nativeness.

I will fill a desideratum in this context by breaking the concept of ‘humor’ down into its single aspects and then applying those to humorous material in Smoke Signals whereby distilling various strategies, not only the means for survival, which are used to pursue the subversive aim. In a structural approach I will have a closer look at which aspects of humor are actually used and what kinds of strategies originate from them considering a mixed audience consisting of Native as well as Non-Native viewers.

I will do this by first discussing various forms of humor including irony, dramatic irony, parody, burlesque and intertextuality. In a second step I am going to examine certain scenes from Smoke Signals for those aspects and identify the use of humor as education/mediation, as negotiation, as survival/healer and as promoter for Native identity.

2. Concepts of Humor

2.1. Irony

While irony is a contested and faceted aspect of humor (Gruber 55; Wiegandt), it is generally described as involving an intended meaning on the one hand and a seemingly expressed meaning on the other hand (Gruber 55). The producer of irony addresses the recipient with a certain idea or statement but eventually aims at conveying the total opposite.

A man, for example, who decides to wear his worn out pants and an old t-shirt to his parents-in-law’s golden wedding, might attract his wife’s attention: “You really bedizened yourself today, darling!” Here the expressed statement with its presumable meaning is subverted by the obviousness of the opposite being the case. The wife is using irony to make her husband aware of his inappropriate choice of clothing for the event. She could as well tell him directly by spelling out: “You are dressed very inappropriately for my parents’ wedding and I would like you to go change.” Such a comment, however, might be received by her husband as a degrading and offensive attack on his masculinity and can run the risk of promoting aggression and destructive consequences in the long run of the relationship. The use of irony therefore allows his wife to “camouflage disapproval where open protest or criticism is not an option” (Gruber 57).

However, in order to successfully make her husband see the deficiency by himself, he needs to understand the irony intended by his wife. In order to do that, the recipient of ironic utterances needs to share “situational and sociocultural background, that is, shared experience and knowledge” (Gruber 56). The husband, for example, might know his wife’s demand for well-groomed appearance and he can furthermore access the schema of ‘weddings’ including the festive clothing one wears at such occasions. The wife can point at something which is ‘wrong’, but the husband needs to decode this hint by himself through dissociating from the situation and re-checking it, hopefully with the effect of self-directed smirking. If this interactive effect is established, that is, by “coordination of the speaker’s and the hearer’s actions” (Wiegandt 3), irony can be an educative and “highly integrative … means to trigger a shift in perspective and identification” (Gruber 56).

In the context of representations and images created of Native Americans in film, irony used in just this medium can take on distorted images as sheep’s clothing “mimicking the dominant discourse on the surface” (Gruber 58) while eventually subverting them by showing that contemporary human beings of diverse Native American descents do not fit this colonial straightjacket. Irony in those cases is at once subversive and amusing (58). Internalized, often stereotypical, images of Native Americans are “humorously dislocated” (58) by irritating viewers with a prompt to decode via rethinking, that is, by using all their background knowledge. The audience has to work through habituated, stale understandings of Native American cultures in order to have a share of the joke. Irony, therefore, reaches out to the potential recipient, who is pictured as sharing a certain common ground with the irony’s producer, and compliments him/her on the necessary intelligence to join in (Gruber 56). Laughing about oneself and with the producer of the irony can establish a transformed thinking about Native Americans which, through mediational humor, becomes amenable to negotiation (56).

2.2. Dramatic Irony

The term ‘dramatic’ in ‘dramatic irony’ refers to the circumstance that there are not only verbal expressions which can provoke irony, but that there also exist ironic statements concerning structure and plot (Gruber 109). Dramatic irony is at work when the story line ‘diverts’ into happenings which do not fulfil the recipient’s internalized expectations. It either totally reverses those anticipated ‘suitable’ outcomes or presents completely ‘new’ solutions (109). One means of dramatic irony can be the anticlimax which overrides the tension originating from preformed assumptions by deflating it through trivial outcomes (Gruber 110). In a humorous and surprising act, dramatic irony points the recipient at his/her internalized clichés and stereotypical expectations (110).

2.3. Parody

Parody is a humorous means which reuses, that is, imitates “preformed literary or historical textual material” (Gruber 63) in order to lay bare how Non-Natives conceptualize/d the past and are determined by such discourses till today. Parody not only exposes the state of affairs but tries to re-imagine or remodel those discourses and representations by retelling an alternative from the Native perspective, thereby undermining the claim for authority ascribed to realistic representation (Gruber 63). Parodic humor tackles hegemonic ideas and images, but furthermore also aims at exposing underlying epistemologies and ontology (Gruber 63). As with irony, in order to grasp the parodic humor and modify their thinking, recipients need to be familiar with those degrading and false representations of Native cultures addressed by parody.

2.4. Burlesque

As a form of parody, burlesque humor also aims at making recipients aware of the assembling character of discourse which equips its user with power and authority at the expense of the (post -) colonized subject, that is, the colonial ‘other’[1] (Gruber 67). Burlesque, however, chooses to ridicule “serious literary work” (Gruber 65) as a way to call attention to previous inscriptions of hegemony. This can be accomplished by not fulfilling the solemnness of the subject matter via the humorous use of triviality, which hence leads to an irritating “undignified style” (Gruber 65).

2.5. Intertextuality

As with parody, intertextuality relies on previously produced texts and aims at reimagining and rewriting previously contextualized images of Nativeness. Intertextuality, however, takes into account the often “hybrid cultural background” (Gruber 80) of Native artists and their wish to address just this mixed group of recipients. This can be managed by producing intertextual references which are based on Native cultural productions as well as American popular culture, literary texts from the American canon or Western principal works (Gruber 80). Be it in humorous form of derision or homage, intertextuality confronts the recipient with an altered version of known and in a certain way internalized cultural production. The provoked “incongruity” (Gruber 84) between the two strongly encourages the audience to critically question former habituated understandings and modes of interpretation in order to take into account new approaches. A major aspect of intertextuality is the fact that, through its continuous cross references and transformations, the possibility of definite and fixed readings is challenged (Gruber 84), but in return a repetitive self-control of one’s position suggested.

3. Analysis of Humor and Pursued Strategies in Smoke Signals (1998)

3.1. Humor as a Spoon Full of Sugar

Humor functioning as a spoon full of sugar uses irony or dramatic irony for mediational and educational purposes. Instead of simply telling the audience directly in a rather platitudinous and blunt, probably ineffective, way that Native Americans are sick and tired of being confronted over and over again with the same distorted images of and ideas about themselves, humor in this function is used to get a foot in the audience’s door and, as explained in 2.1., get “imaginative subversion” (Gruber 35) going. Laughter is closely linked to learning (Gruber 197), since the audience has to decode the irony by detecting and comprehending the surprisingly emerged incongruity. In this sense, humor is the spoon full of sugar which helps the educational and mediational medicine go down.

In the following dialog it becomes obvious that Thomas is teasing Victor about a supposedly spiritual nature which helped him to receive the news of Arnold Joseph’s death. However, he directly disproves this illusion by grinningly stating the trivial and totally human circumstance of having met Victor’s crying mother earlier.

[Thomas] Hey, Victor! I’m sorry about your dad.

[Victor] How’d you hear about it?

[Thomas] I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds, I felt it in the sunlight. And your mom was just in here cryin’ (grins).

(Smoke Signals 9:35)

Irony is used here in order to demystify the New Age stereotypes of Native Americans as being ‘sage’ or ‘shaman’ (Gruber 150). This image is laughed off and banalized by picturing Thomas as a normal human being who does not have psychic powers but has to rely on his eyes and ears like everybody else. He is a contemporary Native American who cares about his friend Victor.

Thomas offers Victor to financially help him out in getting to Phoenix in order to receive his father’s ashes. Victor’s mother is afraid her son will not come back and wants to hear him promise that he does.

[Victor chuckles] Geez. Want me to sign a paper or somethin’?

[Arlene grins] No way. You know how Indians feel about signing papers.

(Smoke Signals 15:15)


[1] In chapter two, Knopf (2009) elaborates on this term by citing Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin (1998) who distinguish between the ‘other’ and the ‘Other’, the former referring to “the colonized others who are marginalized by imperial discourse, identified by their difference from the center and […] become the focus of anticipated mastery by the imperial ‘ego’.” The ‘Other’ is associated by them with “the imperial centre, imperial discourse, or the empire itself“ (170).


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Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster – Englisches Seminar
humor pursued strategies smoke signals



Titel: Humor and Its Pursued Strategies in "Smoke Signals" (1998)