Festival highlights humor in the humanities

The theme of this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival is laughter and includes appearances from Tony Kushner and Matt Groening.

By Jessen O'Brien

Although many people associate the humanities with the relatively sober works of Plato, Homer, and Aristotle, this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival (CHF) focuses on the lighter theme of “Laughter.” Comics, comedians, and clowns are the main topics for performance and discussion in talks whose subjects range from irony to Chicago sports. And, perhaps most enticing of all to cash-strapped U of Cers seeking intellectual stimulation, students and teachers can attend festival events for free starting this Saturday.

The Chicago Humanities Festival begins with Festival Day in Hyde Park on October 17.

“The mission of the Chicago Humanities Festival is to make the humanities available to the widest possible public audience,” said Jara Kern, Associate Director of Marketing and Communications for the Festival.

So what are the humanities, if they are not simply the collected musings of ancient authors discussed in the first-year Hum sequence?

“At CHF we like to think of the humanities as the many lenses through which people make sense of the world,” continued Kern.

These lenses include almost every perspective, from the artistic to the political, from historic to scientific, and from poetic to architectural, and the festival has sought to bring them to anyone and everyone since the first Humanities Open House in 1979.

Approximately 100 events throughout Hyde Park and the Loop will explore “Laughter” through neuroscience, dance, classical music, and more. Twelve of these events will take place Saturday during Festival Day in Hyde Park, including a performance by the U of C’s own Off-Off Campus and a musical parade provided by Mucca Pazza. And, true to the U of C’s reputation for academic analysis, Festival Day in Hyde Park will also feature a lecture by Jonathan Lear, the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought, on the essential comedic technique of irony. Following his Aims of Education Address during O-Week, Professor Lear will discuss the power of irony as he traces its history from the ancient Greeks to modern psychoanalysis.

The Latke-Hamantash debate, a U of C tradition since 1946, gets an early preview and an extra layer of absurdity in “Deconstructing the Latke-Hamantash Debate” with philosophy professor Ted Cohen, Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor of Music Phillip Gossett, and microbiology professor Jim Shapiro.During the actual debate, Daniel Libenson, the executive director of Hillel, will moderate as Shapiro argues with Cohen and Gossett about the mating habits of the hamantashen.

For a complete change of pace in traditional medical practices, Dr. Sparkle Gong, otherwise known as Nurse Grandma from Big Apple Circus’s Clown Care Unit, will demonstrate how morale is healed in pediatric centers with the mime, magic, and music of Clown Doctors. Dr. Barrett Fromme, an assistant professor of pediatrics and associate program director of the Pediatric Residency Training Program, will also assist with the presentation.

Other festival events strive to bring the U of C and Hyde Park community closer together. Kineret Jaffe of the Office of Civic and Cultural Partnerships and Affiliations said that her office “approached some of our neighborhood cultural partners, and as a result, Tim and Tom, the first—and so far, only—black and white comedy team will be telling their story at the DuSable Museum, and Muntu Dance Theatre will be performing at Mandel Hall.”

Ron Rapoport will moderate the discussion between Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen, who met in Chicago in 1968 and proceeded to tour the country together for five years. Muntu Dance Theatre combines West African and contemporary dance styles in “Mujuboo Rock” and will perform an excerpt from their repertory piece “Eveningtime.”

Anyone who will enjoy the festivities this Saturday should also consider attending Humanities Day on October 24 or the 80-plus events occurring November 2-15. Playwright Tony Kushner, winner of the Pulitzer, Emmy, Tony, and too many other awards to list, will receive yet another—the 2009 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize—during the festival. Cartoonists Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, and Lynda Barry, the creator of Ernie Pook’s Comeek and What It Is, will talk about comics in “Cartoonists in Conversation.” Festival Art Director Lawrence Weschler will interrogate author and The Daily Show contributor John Hodgman to test the full extent of Hodgman’s knowledge. Other events will examine such pressing issues as the First Amendment, postmodernism, and the foot.

Although the events vary in subject and form, laughter unites them all. “Laughter” was selected as a conscious step towards levity after serious themes such as “War and Peace” in 2006, “The Climate of Concern” in 2007, and “Thinking Big” in 2008. In addition to providing a contrast with past themes, “Laughter” has proven a relevant choice given the current economic conditions and the resulting doldrums.

According to Kern, “The theme was chosen before the economic turmoil, but ‘Laughter’ has proven to be a really resonant theme for the moment because it seems like many people are looking to laugh right now—maybe to escape stress or bring a little humor into their lives.”