Humor in Iowa

(Note: This originally appeared in 2014 on the defunct Des Mean website, to which I guest contributed anonymously on occasion).

Does Iowa rank number one on Forbes’ list of “Top 10 Most Humorless States in America”?

This is the question that I pondered with the three founding members of The Des Mean Editorial Board late one night last summer at our favorite neighborhood bar in Des Moines — which I am not naming here, because we all dread the thought of the Young Professionals discovering it and yup-yup-yupping the locals away by imposing signature cocktails and trivia nights.

That conversation prompted some other conversations, and then they put on their successful business-people hats to think about whether there was money to be made through exploring (and exploiting) the original silly question in a serious fashion. It didn’t really seem to be a “goer,” as they say in the biz, so they considered a nonprofit model instead — because Iowa is definitely the Number One State in America for Half-Assed Charities, according to any number of click-bait websites and a casual look at where the big philanthropic money flows around the State.

That avenue seemed promising, since they already knew of more than a dozen hucksters in Central Iowa with cushy “Executive Director” (heh heh!) jobs at “nonprofit” (giggle!), “charitable” (snnrrk!) “cultural organizations” (haw haw haw!!) that they founded themselves, filling no discernible needs, for no apparent benefit, and raising big bucks (for themselves) in the process.

Oh, wait, we’re sorry. Did we say “hucksters”? We meant “community engagement entrepreneurs.” (Pffftt!!)

The original Des Mean folks had decided that they’d be happy to declare themselves community engagement entrepreneurs too so they could slop at that bountiful trough, too, so last fall they organized the Des Mean Foundation for Humor in Education as a 501(c)3 charitable corporation and anointed themselves as the founding Board of Directors. (Note: I didn’t join them on the board, since I thought it would conflict with my real nonprofit job, and I didn’t want to bite any hands that fed me in my real job; it’s a small state, y’know?). The trio then collected some seed tax-exempt “gifts” (pfffbbbttttt!!!!) from their friends, hired crazy Swede Konrad Y√ľngermann to be their roving curator and man on the ground in Iowa, and got down to the serious business of being funny, for educational purposes. Which are charitable. Seriously. No smirking this time. All straight faces.

How do they satisfy their charitable mission nearly a year on? By offering five blog posts each week on the Des Mean website (Note: now defunct), Monday to Friday, with no advertising or any other commercial interests, plus regularly populating their popular Twitter feed and then analyzing the ways in which native Iowans interact with the information they present to them. It’s a lot of work, and it takes a lot of time, but they run a tight ship, in keeping with their 501(c)3 status, and I am happy to help out in a volunteer capacity as I am able.

They pay Konrad for his work (Swedes are not charitable, despite being Socialists), but they donate our time to the charity as volunteer board members, only claiming reimbursement for such necessary business expenses as lunch interviews, road trips to look at funny stuff (one of them drives a hybrid car, so that keeps costs down, though it’s a little embarrassing in some parts of the state they visit), phone bills, late night pizza orders, transcription services for their oral history project, and other similar office incidentals.

They’ve been serious and consistent about their output, and they’ve got a higher website update rate that the lion’s share of cultural organizations hereabouts, so I think they’re doing a good job on that front. They’re also carefully and thoroughly monitoring, analyzing, and processing traffic flows, referrals, and other social media buzz-word thingies in real time as they work through our ongoing search to divine the answer to the original formative question: Are Iowa and Iowans inherently funny or humorless?

What have they learned so far?

Executive Committee Meeting.

Executive Committee Meeting.

Since the Foundation Board members are all native Iowans, and Konrad the Swede has lived here long enough to have lost his native accent and to say things like “please put my pop in the sack” to the Hy-Vee bag girls, they have concluded that they collectively embody one key variable in the analytical work: They are all Iowans, trying to be funny. Can they do it?

Their traffic logs and targeted marketing campaigns make it clear that over 90% of their readership lives in the State of Iowa, so their followers embody the other key variable as they explore our their original core hypothesis: Are Iowans capable of laughing at themselves, and their home state?

Using an adaptation of simple Mendelian Inheritance principles, they posit that there are four possible humor interfaces between their Iowa writers and their Iowa readers here:

  1. Des Mean is not funny, and Iowans are humorous enough to know that.
  2. Des Mean is not funny, but Iowans are humor impaired and think that it is.
  3. Des Mean is funny, but Iowans are humor impaired and don’t get it.
  4. Des Mean is funny, and Iowans are humorous enough to laugh along.

They are desperately hoping that Scenario Number Four is the one that will be sustained by their research, but they will probably need a few big federal grants and a some more humor writers and a lot more late night pizza parties at Young Professional-free bars before they can state that confidently.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Let them know what you’re laughing at.

Most of all: let them know if Iowa and Iowans are funny.

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