Friday, September 3, 2010

What's Not Funny

Humor. We underestimate the importance of comedy at great peril. It's not just that we all need a therapeutic laugh from time to time (we do) it's that humor is a critical agent of social development. Humor helps us relieve the pressure of social conformity by taking taboo subjects and making us laugh about them. Humor is about the only power in the 'verse capable of making us look directly into our shadow side and not have a break down.

Humor can tear down a tyrant. Humor can destroy a deadly cultural meme. Humor prevents warfare, probably daily. Humor helps us see clearly, to know what is true, and to overcome stubborn internal prejudices.

Of course, that is to spin it positively. Humor can also hurt. In fact, most humor involves pain for someone. As the classic saying goes tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you cut yours. This safety relief valve of laughing at our pain and the pain of others is necessary and valuable, but is it always justifiable? Is there some humor which just goes too far?

Subjectively, each of us will have our own lines. Something I find offensive may still be funny to you, and vice versa, but are there certain lines which no one should cross? Are there certain jokes which should be unacceptable for anyone to tell or laugh at?

From an ideological standpoint I want to say no. Part of the point of comedy is that it is anarchic. It fundamentally refuses to recognize any boundary or authority as legitimate. Nothing is sacred. That is important to how comedy works and why it can fulfill the role it does in society. Because we are always going to want to censor something and usually not for legitimate reasons. By being ungovernable comedy saves us from our own impulse to control and dictate what is appropriate. That very impulse usually comes around to bite you in the back.

However, I know there are jokes I personally will never find appropriate and jokes I've told which I regret. Coming into contact with close friends and family members who have experienced rape, it is hard for me to find any humor in rape-jokes and I recognize strong arguments for why such jokes should be unacceptable. If the power of humor is to take taboo things and make them acceptable for public conversation are there not things which should always remain taboo? Do we ever want to be a society where the violent sexual assault of other human beings is treated lightly? It's tragic that we are in fact such a society right now.

I don't think there is a clear bright line. Even if we could find one and draw it I hope we would never be able to enforce it. Comedy is too essential to what it means to be human and too powerful a force for good to be allowed to be muzzled. Still, take care with what jokes you tell and what you choose to laugh at. Someone next to you may be silently reliving a personal nightmare. To them it may not be funny at all.


Doug Hagler said...

"Springtime for Hitler and Germany" is a good example, to contrast with the Penny Arcade comic that Cygnoir referenced. One could argue that the Mel Brooks song could be a trigger for holocaust survivors. There's no way to compare holocaust survivors to rape survivors one way or another, let's just say that both could have horrific experiences brought up by humor. That song, like the Penny Arcade comic about...'wolves' are *both* offensive *and* funny. Either one could be a trigger.

But do they trivialize their supposed topic? Does the Mel Brooks song contribute to a culture of holocaust? Can we have any humor at all that doesn't potentially contribute to some kind of negative cultural trend?

The image you have on the post - a clown strangled by balloons. Does that trivialize suicide? I can't say it doesn't. Is it funny? *Yes*. Both are true. I have friends, have met people and cared for them, who attempted suicide. The clown cartoon makes me think of them. I still find it funny.

Does this make me a terrible person? Possibly. I don't think so, though. I think that humor is just dangerous, period, full stop. It involves real dangers sometimes, and is sometimes not worth the danger.

Try singing "Springtime for Hitler and Germany" at a holocaust memorial. Now start singing it in front of a bunch of musical-theater nerds.

Comedy is in a lot of ways exactly like fire.

Paul L said...

Another funny and offensive Mel Brooks creation is the movie "Blazing Saddles." I love that the movie brings up so many stereotypes, especially the racial ones, and then lampoons them. If the offensive bits are censored out, the movie loses its entire point, which is what redeems and transforms the offensive bits.

Sarcasm, being intended to wound (the meaning of the original Greek is "tearing the flesh"), must be handled extremely carefully, but "Blazing Saddles" is by no means sarcastic. Even the villains, who are mercilessly mocked, are in a strange sense handled lovingly.

This is not humour used to belittle or to offend; quite the reverse, it empowers us and transforms our thinking (or can, if we let it). The movie is an example of what Tolkien called "eucatastrophe," the reversal of expectations that revises our mental map of the universe (the Resurrection being the prime example of the concept). In the case of "Blazing Saddles," everywhere we see the objects of prejudice, presumed to be weak and helpless, triumphing, overcoming, and being generally essential to the happy working out of the plot.

Aric Clark said...

Paul, I don't know that I've had the pleasure of your acquaintance, but a peak at your profile suggests you are a very interesting guy, and you used the word eucatastrophe, which around here is code for "I'm awesome".

What you describe is definitely humor playing to its noble side. I confess I often laugh at things that are probably much less noble, but I think there is a need for humor to be free to express even the crass and purposeless in order for it to live into its calling of redeeming the taboo.

Doug Hagler said...

Yeah, you say "eucatastrophe" and you're on the team :)

I think that my ideal self would not use sarcasm. The problem is that I find it freaking hilarious, and I think it is possible to use sarcasm to tear at things that deserve to be torn at - not people, but some of the hideous ideas that masquerade as right and good.

I think sarcasm can also be used among friends, the way that in close-knit social groups, you can do things that would normally be threatening, but which in that context are funny and serve bonding. (Peek-a-boo with a baby is a basic form of this)

I also am personally in favor of humor used to offend. Again, probably not the manifestation of my better nature, but offensive comedy can let us brush up against the taboo - and some things are offensive when they should not be (think of the closing argument in A Time to Kill for example)