How does a classroom of students at the University of Kansas respond when their English instructor plays Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died"?
"Well, you see, most of the people in my class, their idea of punk is that SoCal '90s thing," Iain Ellis says. "It's kind of a strange world to them, and I think they think it's kind of cheap and badly produced."
Those sounds are a world away from the American punk culture of the '80s that Ellis wrote about in his doctoral dissertation, and which he lectures about in KU English courses like "Expressions in Youth Rebellion." Rock and punk are topics of deep interest to Ellis; he has written numerous articles for the online magazine PopMatters and two books on the role of humor in rock music: 2008's Rebels Wit Attitude and, now, Brit Wits, which was recently published by Intellect Ltd. Ellis explains that Brit Wits aims a little higher.
"I'm more happy with it [this book] than the first," he says. "The first started out dealing just with subversive humorists. It didn't have the national context, and it wasn't until later on, when it was too long, that I actually took all of the British stuff out and it became an American book."
Using music as a through-line in Brit Wits, Ellis traces the history of British rebellion through humor. Whereas Rebels Wit Attitude focuses on concepts such as humor in the music of Chuck Berry (whom Ellis ties to the tradition of the trickster in African folklore), Brit Wits looks to present sly, undercutting drollness as part of the British national identity.
"I went into this wanting it to be a cultural-studies book, rather than just a book about music, so I connect the music a lot more intimately with British history in all of the sections," Ellis explains. "Particularly, the humor that is going on in all of these different periods in Britain, and how intimately tied a lot of the humor in the music is to the humorous expression, especially the rebel humor that's going on in the history of Britain in general."
Those ideas take many different forms. While humor in music is traditionally thought of in more of a novelty or parody sense — think Dr. Demento — Ellis' concept of humor is more far-ranging. Whether it's the influence of the The Goon Show on the Beatles' sense of whimsy or the anarchic pranks of the KLF (which once burned 1 million British pounds as an art-protest project), Ellis sees subversive humor as more than just jokes. It is, as Ellis states in the introduction to Brit Wits, "an outlet for venting" and "an alternative means to protest."
"It may sound really ambitious," Ellis says, "but I really think humorists are the truth-tellers in society. I think, historically, they've always been."
It's a theory that holds real merit in the age of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. But even going back to the Middle Ages, the court jesters were the only ones who could speak freely with the king or queen about the quality of their decisions. Being told you're a genocidal maniac with a penchant for incest is always easier to take when the person telling you wears greasepaint and bells.
"You can trace an alternative vision of British history through not only its humorists but its youth culture," Ellis says. "Most history is great-men theory and adult theory — lots of big political figures. And I was thinking, 'What about culture at the level of rebellion? of resistance?' "
Ellis' book certainly is ambitious, but it also has quite a bit of broad appeal. It may be the only book ever published to establish the Spice Girls and the Sex Pistols as part of one canon. For those wishing to get a taste of what Brit Wits has to offer, the author appears Friday at the Raven Book Store in Lawrence. At 7 p.m., Ellis not only reads excerpts from the book but also performs acoustic renditions of some of the musicians featured within. Are you into the Macc Lads? This is the show for you.