Dr. Seuss on “conditioned laughter,” racist humor, and why adults are “obsolete children”

In 1952, Dr. Seuss published an essay in which he pointedly critiqued racist humor. True, his own work – both before and after then – did contain stereotypes. In an essay that’s been languishing at American Quarterly since August 2010, I examine the conflict between Seuss’s progressive impulses and a visual imagination steeped in early twentieth-century caricature. But my point today – Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here in the U.S. – is to highlight Seuss’s anti-racism, and his awareness of how humor is implicated in social structures.

So, then, here is Seuss’s  “… But for Grown-Ups Laughing Isn’t Any Fun,” which appeared in the New York Times Book Review, 16 Nov. 1952, p. 2.  (The asterisks are in the original – I presume they’re supposed to be ellipses.)

… But for Grown-Ups Laughing Isn’t Any Fun

Dr. Seuss

There are many reasons why an intelligent man should never ever write for children.  Of all professions for a man, it is the most socially awkward.  You go to a party, and how do they introduce you?  The hostess says, “Dr. Seuss, meet Henry J. Bronkman.  Mr. Bronkman manufactures automobiles, jet planes, battleships and bridges.  Dr. Seuss * * * well, he writes the sweetest dear, darlingest little whimsies for wee kiddies!”

Mr. Bronkman usually tries to be polite.  He admits there is a place in the world for such activities.  He admits he once was a kiddie himself.  He even confesses to having read Peter Rabbit.  Then abruptly he excuses himself and walks away in search of more vital and rugged companionship.

Wherever a juvenile writer goes, he is constantly subjected to humiliating indignities.  When asked to take part in a panel discussion along with other members of the writing fraternity he is given the very end seat at the table * * * always one seat lower than the dusty anthologist who compiled “The Unpublished Letters of Dibble Sneth, Second Assistant Secretary of Something-or-Other under Polk.”

Besides that, since we don’t make much money, our friends are always getting us aside and telling us. “Look, now.  You can do better.  After all, with all your education, there must be some way you could crack the Adult Field!”

The thing that’s so hard to explain to our friends is that most of us who specialize in writing humor for children have cracked the adult field and, having cracked it, have decided definitely that we prefer to un-crack it.  We are writing for the so-called Brat Field by choice.  For, despite the fact that this brands us as pariahs, despite the fact this turns us into literary untouchables, there is something we get when we write for the young that we can never hope to get in writing for you ancients.  To be sure, in some ways you are superior to the young.  You scream less.  You burp less.  You have fewer public tantrums.  You ancients are, generally speaking, slightly more refined.  But when it comes to trying to amuse you * * *!  Have you ever stopped to consider what has happened to your sense of humor?

30 x 30 blank space Seuss, illustration for "But for Grown-Ups, Laughing Isn't Any Fun" (1952)

“Him * * * ? Oh, he’s nobody. They say he writes for children”

When you were a kid named Willy or Mary the one thing you did better than anything else was laugh.  The one thing you got more fun out of than anything else was laughing.  Why, I don’t know.  Maybe it has to do with juices.  And when somebody knew how to stir those juices for you, you really rolled on the floor.  Remember?  Your sides almost really did split.  Remember.  You almost went crazy with the pain of having fun.  You were a terrible blitz to your family.  So what?  Your juices were juicing.  Your lava was seething.  Your humor was spritzing.  You really were living.

At that age you saw life through very clear windows.  Small windows, of course.  But very bright windows.

And, then, what happened?

You know what happened.

The grown-ups began to equip you with shutters.  Your parents, your teachers, your everybody-around-you, your all-of-those-people who loved you and adored you * * * they decided your humor was crude and too primitive.  You were laughing too loud, too often and too happily.  It was time you learned to laugh with a little more restraint.

They began pointing out to you that most of this wonderful giddy nonsense that you laughed at wasn’t, after all, quite as funny as you thought.

“Now why,” they asked, “are you laughing at that?  It’s completely pointless and utterly ridiculous.”

“Nonsense,” they told you, “is all right in its place.  But it’s time you learned how to keep it in its place.  There’s much more in this world than just nonsense.”

Your imagination, they told you, was getting a bit out of hand.  Your young unfettered mind, they told you, was taking you on too many wild flights of fancy.  It was time your imagination got its feet down on the ground.  It was time your version of humor was given a practical, realistic base.  They began to teach you their versions of humor.  And the process of destroying your spontaneous laughter was under way.

A strange thing called conditioned laughter began to take its place.  Now, conditioned laughter doesn’t spring from the juices.  It doesn’t even spring.  Conditioned laughter germinates, like toadstools on a stump.

And, unless you were a very lucky little Willy or Mary, you soon began to laugh at some very odd things.  Your laughs, unfortunately, began to get mixed in with sneers and smirks.

This conditioned laughter the grown-ups taught you depended entirely upon their conditions.  Financial conditions.  Political conditions.  Racial, religious and social conditions.  You began to laugh at people your family feared or despised — people they felt inferior to, or people they felt better than.

If your father said a man named Herbert Hoover was an ass, and asses should be laughed at, you laughed at Herbert Hoover.  Or, if you were born across the street, you laughed at Franklin Roosevelt.  Who they were, you didn’t know.  But the local ground rules said you were to laugh at them.  In the same way, you were supposed to guffaw when someone told a story which proved that Swedes are stupid, Scots are tight, Englishmen are stuffy and the Mexicans never wash.

Your laughs were beginning to sound a little tinny.  Then you learned it was socially advantageous to laugh at Protestants and/or Catholics.  You readily learned, according to your conditions, that you could become the bright boy of the party by harpooning a hook into Jews (or Christians), labor (or capital), or the Turnverein or the Strawberry Festival.

You still laughed for fun, but the fun was getting hemmed in by a world of regulations.  You were laughing at subjects according to their listing in the ledger.  Every year, as you grew older, the laughs that used to split your sides diminished.  The ledger furnished more sophisticated humor.  You discovered a new form of humor based on sex.  Sex, a taboo subject, called for very specialized laughter.  It was a subject that was never considered funny in large gatherings.  It was a form of humor you never indulged in at Sunday school.  It was a form of humor that was subtle and smart and you learned to restrict it for special friends.

And, by the time you had added that accomplishment to your repertoire, you know what had happened to you, Willy or Mary?  Your capacity for healthy, silly, friendly laughter was smothered.  You’d really grown up.  You’d become adults * * * adults, which is a word that means obsolete children.

As adults, before you laugh, you ask yourselves questions:

“Do I dare laugh at that in the presence of the boss?  Sort of dangerous, when you consider how he feels about Taft-Hartley.”

“How loud shall I laugh at that one?  Mrs. Cuthbertson, my hostess, is only laughing fifteen decibels.”

“Shall I come right out and say I thought the book was funny?  The reviewer in THE TIMES said the humor was downright silly.”

These are the questions that children never ask.  THE TIMES reviewer and Mrs. Cuthbertson to the contrary notwithstanding, children never let their laughs out on a string.  On their laughter there is no political or social pressure gauge.

That, I think, is why we maverick humorists prefer to write exclusively for children.

Someday, I hope someone will publish a collection of Seuss’s non-fiction. (Some years ago, I proposed such a collection to Random House. This is one of my many failed book ideas – they turned it down.)  Until that day, Seuss scholars and fans will have to seek out these pieces. If you happen to be seeking them, I give full bibliographic citations in Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004) – borrow it from your local library.


  1. Jackie Curtis


    Dear Phil, Reading Nine kinds of Pie and your blog was
    wonderful and painful. In Norwalk the local paper has big
    headlines…Head Start under NEON in jeopardy..$400,000
    misused. I have been reading Dr. Seuss and Crockett J and
    all the goods things for going on 10 years. I will send
    you a photo of the hall with the mural of Harold and the
    Purple crayon..present from people at Pepperidge farm as
    they closed Norwalk headquarters. Don’t know how they hit
    upon this special gift. Best always, Jackie

  2. Daniel Sircar


    Ahhh, that’s brilliant. Suess is dead on.

    I watched a young boy yesterday with his mother. He wanted to jump onto a wall not a foot off the ground. And she said “No, let’s not do that, we might fall.”

    I thought, well there goes a chunk of his imagination.

  3. Reply

    Thank you for sharing. I am the founder of Global Belly Laugh Day, January 24.
    January 24, 2012 is the seventh celebration of the great gift of laughter.
    The celebration is playful, easy and fun. On January 24 at 1:24 p.m. (local time) smile, throw your arms in the air and laugh out loud.
    Join the Belly Laugh Bounce Around the World.
    I consider Dr. Seuss one of the Global Belly Laugh Day, January 24 honorary board of directors.
    Dr. Seuss taught me how to become playful as an adult.
    Cheers to you and Dr. Seuss,
    Elaine Helle

  4. Dee Mulvenna


    How true…
    …so sad…
    but thank god for Seuss and The Muppets!
    Dee Mulvenna.

  5. Char Simser


    Great article.

    Seuss’ non-fiction would be a wonderful addition to scholarship. Have you considered the self-publishing or open access routes? K-State’s provost recently signed the Berlin Declaration, http://ksulib.typepad.com/talking/openaccess/ and we have our open access press (New Prairie Press) here on campus. We haven’t published a monograph yet, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t interested.

  6. Vish


    been reading dr seuss and i enjoy his books as much as my 5 yr old does. But trhis article is beautiful …sort of an eye opner i would say…and so true in observation.

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  11. Reply

    This seems to be something a lot of children’s book authors understand that the rest of us would do well to remember. This article could just as easily express the sentiments of Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

    Bravo for ferreting it out.

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