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Archivist’s Angle: Humor at NYU

June 15, 2018

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Amara Green (GSAS '18)

Universities are generally thought of as serious places; but New York University has a long history of humor as an essential part of campus life. This month we take a look at a few ways NYU has incorporated humor into its legacy.

NYU’s humor magazine The Plague, described as “NYU’s only intentionally funny publication,” infuses comedic relief into daily life at the university. The first issue of The Plague, titled “The Plague of New York University,” was published winter of 1977. It included a news brief titled “Brooklyn Blows Up,” which described the sudden disappearance of the borough of Brooklyn.

The brief states, “Brooklyn, known as the fourth largest city in the United States, was reported missing late yesterday afternoon by one Sophia Mendlebaum.”

As a point of focus, The Plague captures ridiculous moments of life at New York University and New York City in general. A September 1981 issue of the magazine includes a supplemental bulletin with listings of fictitious courses and course descriptions. Advertised under the Department of History, students could find a course titled The History of Gruel, with the following description: The History of Gruel, “attempts to evaluate the role thin, watery porridge has played or is still playing in solving and creating the fundamental problems confronting the North Atlantic States.” Course listings also include “Unemployment for the Anthropology Major” and “Philosophy of Mud Skiing.”

The Plague has undoubtedly played a key role in lightening the moods of students across campus for decades and continues to be an active publication on campus.

New York University yearbooks also have a tradition of humor within their pages. Among those is the School of Medicine’s yearbook The Medical Violet. The Medical Violet historically included a humor section, reaching back to its early publications. The 1926 publication included a collage of various professors of the medical school whose faces had been scrambled apart and stitched back together. The caption for the collage states:

“They stood divided. The majority wanted to abolish senior exams. The remaining, more radical, wished all exams abolished. In rage they tore each other up. They are together again.”

The 1928 Medical Violet listed its graduating class celebrities, with categories including: most often late, laziest, least appreciated, luckiest, and unluckiest. The luckiest and unluckiest awards were given to the same student. These early yearbooks included a tongue-in-cheek class history featuring comedic takes on the students and activities at the medical school. Much like the internet memes of today, the photos in The Medical Violet included funny relatable captions.

NYU has a long legacy of humor, which has allowed a space to ease the rigor of academia. This legacy will undoubtedly continue for many years to come.