Category Archives: humor

What a joke

One frigid February evening, I arrived home from a long day of dissertation-writing and fellowship-applying at my MIT office, and settled down with some kind of takeout to watch the latest episode of FX’s “Archer.” I thought I was done with the history of metrology for the day. I was so wrong.

For those of you who don’t know “Archer,” it can be a little difficult to describe. It’s an animated spy spoof, set in a quasi-1960s world in which the private espionage contractor of ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service) battles the KGB. But ISIS’s agents have desktop computers and visit moon bases. To call this anachronism would miss the point; it’s intentionally surreal and viciously funny. Think one-third “Get Smart,” one-third “Adult Swim,” and one-third “Arrested Development” (with whom it shares a creative team), and you’ll get an idea.
Among the protagonists (all wild alcoholics) are Mallory Archer, the owner of ISIS; her son Sterling, simultaneously a narcissistic fool and the world’s greatest secret agent; his ex-girlfriend Lana Kane; the ISIS accountant, Cyril Figgis; and the HR manager, Pam Poovey. The best character is a mad scientist named Krieger, who may or may not be a clone of Adolf Hitler. The show’s writers are particularly famous for having these characters make endless witty references, not just to contemporary culture, but to obscure parts of it.
In the latest, fifth season, the showrunners got bored of secret-agent storylines; ISIS got shut down by the Feds and the gang became fugitives, strapped for cash but with a thousand kilograms of cocaine to unload. By the fourth episode, they’ve sold some of it, but Pam has eaten much of the stockpile. The cold open shows Cyril presenting their predicament.
The metric-system jokes begin immediately. But it’s easy to make fun of the United States’s obstinance.

Cyril: From our initial supply of one thousand kilos of cocaine—
Archer: Hold on, dummy, we had a ton of cocaine¡
Cyril: Well, we had a “tonne,” t-o-n-n-e, also known as a metric ton.
Mallory: Pssh! Metric, who uses metric?
Lana: Every single country on the planet except for us, Liberia, and Burma.
Sterling: Wow, really? Because you never think of the other two as having their [censored] together.

My own work is about the links between the measurement of nature and of economic value; in my dissertation, and in a forthcoming article, I write that “the history of capitalism is a history of struggle over the terms by which to evaluate human labor and the products of nature.” It would, possibly, be too much to suggest that’s what the “Archer” writers meant by the following pun:

Cyril: As you can see, we’re already down to 125 kilos of cocaine, which was worth about six million dollars—
Sterling: And, wait, how much is that in pounds?
Cyril: Forget pounds! We’re doing kilos!
Sterling: No, I meant pounds—
Mallory: Sterling!
Sterling: Exactly! As in “Doctor Who” money.

But shortly thereafter—through cartoon logic too convoluted to explain—Mallory comes to a conclusion about what to do with Pam. And this is where the episode just got weird.

Mallory: We throw her a party! With an enormous cake! Cyril, can we spare another five pounds of cocaine?
Lana: Mallory!
Mallory: 2.27 kilograms, then. Who are you, Thomas Corwin Mendenhall?
Sterling: Ha! Right?

This is when I fell off the couch. Who would make a joke about Thomas Corwin Mendenhall? Who would even think to make a joke about him? Who even knew who he was?
Of course, I knew—but it’s my job. In fact, I had spent an entire cold, dark, rainy, fruitless week in Mendenhall’s papers at the American Physical Society in College Park, Maryland, in the winter of 2005/6. Mendenhall was an American physicist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who spent most of his career performing fundamental metrological work, determining ever-more-precise values of such quantities as solar wavelengths and the Earth’s mass. In 1889, he became superintendent of the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey, responsible for maintaining the accuracy and consistency of the government’s weights and measures, a topic addressed in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution (not to mention Deuteronomy 25:13-16). It was during his superintendence that Mendenhall issued the order that officially calibrated all Federal units, even English ones, to the metric system. (If the joke is “about” anything, it’s about this Mendenhall Order.)
Mendenhall circulated his order just a month before the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Alongside the Exposition’s pavilions, canals, and sadistically murderous hoteliers, numerous international scientific congresses met in an attempt to settle once and for all the values of fundamental units, particularly but not only new and disputed ones dealing with electromagnetic phenomena. It is no joke to say that an important part of agreeing on a fundamental unit was to agree on its name; nomenclature, as Evan can tell us much better than I, is a crucial means by which scientists from astronomers to atomic physicists claim priority, credibility, and facticity.
And indeed this is what I, anyway, mostly remembered Mendenhall for. My week spent in his papers was fruitless; there was nothing about the domestic electrical meter, the subject of my undergraduate thesis. But there was this letter, from Mendenhall to Arthur Gordon Webster, a polymathic physicist at Clark University, on May 13, 1893. At stake was not just names, but the orthography of names. “I have not failed to observe, as you suggest,” Mendenhall wrote to Webster, “that the English write ‘metre.'”

I have noticed, also, that they write ‘annexe’, ‘honour’, ‘jewellery’, and ‘shew’. (The spelling ‘dogge’ has gone out, even there.) They also wear their trousers turned up on the street, and, I am informed, now wear pink shirts at afternoon weddings. I see as good reason for our imitating them in one practice as in another. Like yourself, I am no advocate of an ‘American’ spelling unless a decided advantage can be shown to exist, but I see no reason for doing a thing simply because the English do it.

Such was the spirit of internationalism that surrounded world’s fairs. As Ken Alder has recently argued, the nineteenth century’s scientific congresses were junkets just as today’s are: excuses for  scientists to see colleagues and have a good time in a new city.
What to make of all this? It appears to be humor week on the blog, and like Jenna yesterday I’ve found humor important for understanding the past. I don’t just mean as source, but almost as analytic—it’s important to recognize when a story from the past is absurd, since contemporaries often did.
In any case, the Mendenhall joke raises two lines of historico-philosophico-comedic questions for which I don’t have good answers. One is practical: how is a joke about an obscure figure from the history of American science conceived? (Did the writers start with the Wikipedia page for the metric system, and work outward? Had one of them taken an undergraduate class in the history of American science?) I tried getting in touch with an “Archer” writer in order to talk about how the show’s more obscure jokes get written. After much trawling, I found contact information for just one—an Emerson student who had submitted a particularly good spec script. From her, I learned that the Mendenhall joke was written by none other than Adam Reed, the show’s chief creative brain. But that’s as far as I got. If anyone has an in with the “Archer” team, please let me know in the comments.
Second, and perhaps more troublingly, is the humor equivalent of the question about the tree falling in the forest. If a television show makes a joke that almost nobody except historians of American metrology is able to “get,” is it even a joke at all?

Laughing at Smallpox

Back in July, something pretty serious happened. On July 8, 2014, the CDC made a chilling announcement: six vials containing the smallpox virus were discovered in the back of a freezer in a NIH laboratory in Bethesda, MD. The vials were discovered when a researcher cleaning out the lab pulled them out of a cardboard box. Nobody had any idea that they were there.

Smallpox. It’s serious.
CDC Public Health Image Library
The CDC reacted to this serious discovery in an appropriately serious manner. After the authorities were alerted to the existence of the variola-labelled vials, the CDC immediately took possession of the samples and brought them to a high-security laboratory in Atlanta. After testing the contents of the vials, the CDC invited the World Health Organization (WHO) to witness their destruction. A few weeks later, the CDC confirmed that the vials did indeed contain smallpox, and that the material in at least two of the samples was capable of infecting humans. Disaster was averted, but only narrowly.

And yet, something funny happened when the CDC announced this wildly terrifying discovery. The internet, and in particular the twitterverse, found the whole situation to be rather…hilarious.

July 8 will be remembered on the internet as the day of the smallpox joke. Now, smallpox-related comedy is an odd genre (to say the least), and it will be the topic of my blog post today. Although I won’t always be joking about deadly diseases here at AmericanScience (which should come as a relief to the rest of the team), I will be writing about the cultural and social dimensions of biology and medicine.

Before this summer, my exposure to smallpox humor was limited to the wildly inappropriate “smallpox blanket” card one can play in the irreverent game Cards Against Humanity (If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you can check it out here).  In my experience, the card is usually played to great effect, eliciting a combination of horrified laughter and disapproving gasps. And far as the game goes, this is generally the point.

As English actor Peter Ustinov once observed, “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” Humor is a universal human mechanism for confronting the issues that make us the most uncomfortable. As a historian, I’ve always found jokes to be useful sources for understanding a given culture. In the instance of Cards Against Humanity, the smallpox blanket card invokes the long and violent and history of the European colonization of Native Americans – and that makes most people pretty uncomfortable. And so the academic (read: humorless) side of me can’t help but wonder: What are the anxieties driving this particular wave of smallpox humor? Why is smallpox humor even a thing?

Based on my observations, here are a few ways you can laugh at smallpox:

1. A Disease of History
I admit that my own reaction to the SmallpoxVialsFiasco2014 was generally sarcastic. Sometime between hearing the news (while in very close proximity to Bethesda, I might add) and picking my jaw up off the floor, I turned to social media to express my incredulity:

My sarcastic reaction was not uncommon. Twitter filled up with comments that were some variation on “Oh, no big deal, I JUST FOUND SMALLPOX IN A FREEZER”:

These flippant comments were a reaction to the dissonance created when you juxtapose an act as mundane as cleaning out one’s freezer and with the horror of discovering samples of a deadly human virus that is not supposed to exist (according to the incongruity theory of comedy). No way around it: the scenario in which one opens up a cardboard box and finds smallpox in it seems inherently ridiculous.

But this is only because we live in a post-1980 smallpox eradication world. I can’t imagine anyone having the same reaction to a story in which a scientist stumbles upon a box of diphtheria samples, for example. And there is evidence to support this – in the month of July, the CDC had two other serious incidents in which samples of anthrax and H1N5 avian flu were left unsecured. It was also confirmed that the box that contained the vials of smallpox also contained 300 other vials holding dangerous infectious agents. None of these incidents inspired the same incredulity, or fear, that the smallpox discovery did.

Smallpox wields special power not only because it is so deadly, but because it feels so out of place in our modern world. Smallpox is a disease of history. Its story has been relegated to textbooks and fading vaccination scars (and the John Adams miniseries on HBO). It may have dramatically shaped our past, but it has no place in our future. To be so sure that humans have banished smallpox from the face of the earth, only to find it carelessly stuffed into the back of the freezer, is humbling and horrifying at the same time.

Cue the nervous laughter.

2. Oh The Incompetence!
Some jokes were aimed at the supreme incompetence of the NIH/FDA/CDC/IRS/the White House/Obama, take your pick. To be fair, the discovery of decades old samples of smallpox in an unsecured federal laboratory does not exactly inspire confidence. It was a perfect opportunity to get in a dig at inefficient bureaucracies:

I highly recommend this piece in The New Yorker that imagines a memo sent to NIH maintenance staff after the incident. After reassuring staff that there (probably) aren’t any other deadly pathogens “lying around the facility, tucked behind hedges on the grounds or stacked like cordwood in the common areas,” the supervisor suggests a few precautions that should be taken (Just in case! Probably unnecessary!) What follows is an inane list of bureaucratic instructions, ranging from using a wet floor sign to signal the discovery of deadly neurotoxin to leaving the Ark of Covenant untouched if one happens to come across it.

Beyond poking fun at bureaucracy, the piece is also reacting to complaints made by NIH workers that they were not notified when the vials were found. Fortunately, no workers were harmed during the incident. But one can imagine workers being evacuated for much less than the discovery of a Tier 1 infectious agent.

Lastly, this comic appeared in the Chicago Tribune on August 5, after the CDC announced that two physicians infected with ebola would be transported back to the United States for treatment. Fear of this new deadly scourge collided with outrage over the smallpox incident and claims of incompetence on the part of the CDC. If the CDC can’t keep track of diseases we’ve eradicated, how can we trust them with new biological threats?

3. Vaccination Wars
A gem to emerge from this wave of smallpox humor was the parody twitter account, @NIH_Smallpox, created in honor of the vials themselves. Turns out that tweeting from the POV of long-lost vials of smallpox is a goldmine of comedic material:

Only 24 hours after its creation, however, the NIH_Smallpox account was temporarily suspended for making disparaging comments about celebrity anti-vaccination crusader Jenny McCarthy. But the vials (and others) managed to get in a few good shots at the anti-vaccination camp first:

I found this one to be a tad peculiar, because a) we no longer vaccinate against smallpox b) strategic vaccination against smallpox (in the military, for example) is highly controversial. Smallpox is one of the few cases in which the risk of accidental infection through vaccination potentially outstrips the risk of contracting the disease in another situation. More than anything, these jokes show the intensity with which the vaccine debate is still raging in the United States.

4. Saving The Best For Last
What is my very favorite smallpox joke, you might ask? Without a doubt:

I do love a good pun.

If you’re interested in more smallpox jokes (because, who isn’t?), check out this great compilation (which I can’t take any credit for) by @tarahaelle .