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Exploring Folklore Jokes through Spiro Agnew

The following is a guest post from Joshua Koepke (MA Candidate in Folklore and Ethnomusicology/MLS Candidate in the Luddy School of Informatics) as part of the 2022 spring course ILS-Z604/FOLK-F804 Folklore Archives in the Digital Age.

I’ve sat in archives to read all sorts of materials: from newspapers detailing important events, to letters addressing dignitaries with bad penmanship, and even some thick binders of technical building specifications (that is, if caffeine is aplenty). Political jokes recorded by college students about Nixon and Vice President Agnew never crossed my mind. That is until I got to sit down with the political jokes section of the IU Folklore Institute jokes collection at Indiana University Archives. It was here, yes thanks to Sprio Agnew, where the differences between archives and folklore archives draw such distinction. 

Traditional archives are repositories for preserving the legacy and mission of large institutions and preeminent individuals.1 Archives are common for governments and large educational institutions. Indiana University is no exception, having a large University Archives to store blueprints of buildings, the papers of chancellors, and official governing documents. Famous families and wealthy individuals also often create archives to preserve their successes in business, politics, or social status. Regardless of subject, paper records dominate holdings, but generally do not give an understanding of the daily life and traditions of the common people.

Cover of The Alternative Magazine from November 1970 showing a cartoon drawing of Spiro Agnew playing a drum alongside two hippies.
Cover of the Alternative, Vol. 4, No. 1 (November 1970). Collection C618.

In contrast, folklore is fundamentally of the people. Richard Dorson, a prominent folklorist and the creator of the collection under exploration, explained folklore as the traditions of the people, and defined four areas of collection: oral literature, material culture, social folk custom, and performing folk arts.2 Folklore material has a strong oral tradition to pass along information, related to any area of collection, while strongly influencing folklore archival holdings. Major differences in holdings between archival entities exist, with folklore archives amassing unpublished fieldwork from trained folklorists, as they record informants on paper or mediated through technology for future research use.3 

How do jokes fit into folklore? While the arrangements of names and classification schemes that make up folklore vary, to take Dorson’s four categories mapping, jokes reside within oral literature. Jokes exhibit the characteristics of oral tradition as they are mostly unwritten, unfettered by institutions, and circulated through oral recounting.4 It is common for jokes to only keep a punchline consistent and, like oral traditions, to have variances within other areas of the joke. The greater the frequency of joke circulation, the higher the chance for differences to appear, as joke tellers tailor jokes to specific audiences or to please their own views on an issue. The subject matter of jokes often changes to reflect the topics considered important to the people of the day, yet often include motifs or sayings with traditional origin. Christie Davies, a prominent joke researcher, described the importance of studying joke folklore:

It is precisely because jokes in circulation are unfiltered that we can use them as a true indication of what a people laugh at. The jokes told on radio or television tell us mainly what particular writers, performers, producers, broadcasting officials, sponsors, and buyers of programs have decided; jokes in oral circulation reflect the tastes and perceptions of ordinary individuals.5

Thus studying the jokes in oral circulation at a given time is important, but people will rarely tell authentic jokes to outsiders. Knowing this, folklore researchers, like Richard Dorson, utilized students in folklore classes for joke collection, as they could tap into already established friend networks for research purposes.6

This collections supplies examples of how jokes exhibit the oral tradition of adaptation while keeping the same message even over a relatively short span of time. Each joke’s point centers around Spiro Agnew’s apparent difficulties with speaking to the American people, by playing on the popular phrase “putting one’s foot in their mouth”.7 The first joke chronologically recorded in the collection reads, “‘Did you hear about the conspiracy to shoot Agnew’s foot off? They are hoping that by shooting his foot off he would starve to death because he would not have anything to put in his mouth’”.8 The next version of the joke, recorded four days later states, “‘Do you know the only time Agnew opens his mouth is to change shoes’”.9 Note that this time the punchline is implied. Finally, a third, undated rendition of the joke is documented as, “‘When is the only time Spiro Agnew opens his mouth? To change his socks.’” All three joke variants were told around the Bloomington campus, thanks to joke metadata collection required by the instructors, highlighting the ability of oral literature to modify even over small distances.

1George List, “Archiving,” in Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, ed. Richard Dorson (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972), 455-463

2Richard Dorson, “Introduction: Concepts of Folklore and Folklife Studies,” in Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, ed. Richard Dorson (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972), 1-7.

3List, 456-458.

4Christie Davies, Jokes and Targets (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 2.

5 Davies, 4.

 6List, 459.

7Jokes: Political: 71: 61-70 Instructor Adams:  Item 71:65. C735 Folklore Institute jokes, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

8Jokes: Political: 71: 51-60 Instructor Adams:  Item 71:57. C735 Folklore Institute jokes, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

9Jokes: Political: 71: 11-20 Instructor Adams:  Item 71:18. C735 Folklore Institute jokes, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

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