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Home / Books / Spring 2017

If You Don't Laugh You'll Cry
The Occupational Humor of White Wisconsin Prison Workers

Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World

America is fascinated by prisons and prison culture, but few Americans understand what it is like to work in corrections. Claire Schmidt, whose extended family includes three generations of Wisconsin prison workers, introduces readers to penitentiary officers and staff as they share stories, debate the role of corrections in American racial politics and social justice, and talk about the important function of humor in their jobs.

In a state that locks up a disproportionate number of men and women of color, white prison workers occupy a complicated social position as representatives of institutional authority and bearers of social stigma. The job, by turns dangerous, dull, or dehumanizing, is aided by a quick wit, comedic timing, and verbal agility. The men and women who do this work rely on storytelling, practical jokes, and sarcasm to bond with each other, build flexible relationships with inmates, and create personal identities that work in and out of prison. Schmidt shows how this humorous occupational culture both upholds and undermines prisons as social institutions.

Issues of power and race, as well as sex and gender, infuse Schmidt's groundbreaking analysis, and she also engages with current scholarship about identity, occupational folklore, and family narrative. This eye-opening, provocative book reveals the invisible culture, beliefs, and aesthetics embedded in workplace humor.


Claire Schmidt Claire Schmidt is a folklorist and assistant professor of English at Missouri Valley College.





“Drawing on decades of personal experience, a dozen years of sustained field research, and a wealth of pertinent studies across a range of disciplines, Claire Schmidt offers what is at once a deeply humanistic ethnography of prison workers and the finest extant study of any occupation’s folk humor.”
—James P. Leary, author of So Ole Says to Lena: Folk Humor of the Upper Midwest

“A lucid, compelling study of some very funny, compassionate corrections officers. Their intelligence and comic delight shine through on every page.”
—Jackie McGrath, College of DuPage

“An insightful and heartbreaking work. . . . Schmidt successfully negotiates her dual roles of ethnographer and kin through critical analysis of the humor which is considered necessary to navigating a difficult career working in Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections.”
New Directions in Folklore

“A step forward for occupational folklife studies. . . . This work is a useful source for those wanting to expand their understandings of occupational culture, for scholars who want to understand the tensions between those who guard and those who are guarded, and for people seeking to incorporate more personal and localized context into their criminology and sociology research.”
Western Folklore


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Cover: If You Don't Laugh You'll Cry

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July 2017
LC: 2016049010 HV
280 pp.   6 x 9
1 map  

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Cloth $69.95 S
ISBN 9780299313500
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