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Funny HaHa or Funny Hmmm: Humor Conference Spans Disciplines, Spurs Laughter

Making someone laugh is one of the best gifts you can give and Don and Alleen Nilsen have given that and much more. In their desire to leave something to the English department, the emeriti professors created a humor studies scholarship and organized an April Fools’ Day Student Humor Conference around this year’s awards.

The Nilsens’ first humor conferences, held in the 1980s, laid the foundation for the International Society for Humor Studies, which has enjoyed national and interntional success. Humor studies includes all features of literature and writing such as irony, paradox, surprise, contradiction, and satire, and now with the rise of technology students are researching topics such as cell phone humor, why videos go viral, pop language, and other digital humor, dark and light.

“As a linguist, I observed that humor is the most sophisticated language people use,” says Don Nilsen. “When we learn a foreign language, catching onto the humor of a culture is one of the last aspects to be mastered.”  

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Now retired two years, the Nilsens have come full circle and that’s no joke! Organized in conjunction with the ASU April Fools’ Day Conference (sponsored by ASU Project Humanities, New Frontiers, and ASU Emeritus College), the English department’s April Fools’ Day Student Humor Conference, held the morning of April 1, 2013, drew a crowd, including high school students from the ASU Academy.  

The student conference consisted of eight 20-minute, digitally-enhanced talks by undergraduate and graduate students across campus that taught some aspect of humor scholarship. The judges, Professors Simon Ortiz, James Blasingame, and guest speaker John Morreall (College of William and Mary), rated each presentation for educational value, accuracy, relevancy, presentation skills, and last but not least, the entertainment factor.

The graduate award of $500 went to doctoral student Steven Hopkins (Rhetoric, Composition, and Linguistics) for his presentation “The White Stuff: Rhetorically Listening to Lander’s Stuff White People Like.” Christina Puglisi (Psychology) received the undergraduate award of $500 for her presentation, “Funny is as Funny Remembers: Humor Increases the Retention of Concepts.” Honorable mentions of $100 each were given to master’s student Nicholas Zautra (Applied Ethics and Professions) who spoke on “Resentment in Satire” and junior Marin Beagley (Psychology) for her talk titled “Humor in the Military.”

The Nilsens’ generous scholarship donation and the festive April Fools’ Day Student Humor Conference encourage faculty and students in all disciplines to think about how influential humor is in our daily lives. 

They say laughter is the best medicine, and doctors are even exploring the field and using humor as a healing technique. “Although we don’t want to overpromise, our attitude is that humor is like changing a baby’s diaper—it makes things better for a while,” says Alleen Nilsen, with a wink and a smile.

Sheila Luna

Pictured L to R: Steven Hopkins, John Morreall, Christina Puglisi, Marin Beagley, Alleen Nilsen, Don Nilsen, and James Blasingame. Photo by Bruce Matsunaga.

Fossil image at top is Archaefructus liaoningensis, the earliest known flowering plant.