11.22.2006

On Jokes

Now that my readership has dwindled to zero in response to my sudden and long-term departure from the blogosphere, it seems appropriate to rekindle the raging fire of joe-mania with some simple observations about making jokes.

Organized religion has more or less failed to provide me with enough emotional energy to sustain my lust for life in the face of all the crap that life entails. Other things, thankfully, have done better, but I'm sure many other things will let me down too before I die. Throughout my life, and in my life still, though, laughter has provided me with light in dark times. It, more than anything else, is my religion now. I like to make jokes. I like to make people laugh, I like to make myself laugh, and I like for other people to make me laugh. As other sources of sustenance fade, laughter loses more and more of its constraints for me. There is almost nothing in my personal life that I would not subject to the gentle renderings of comedic analysis.

Now, much has been said lately about the ethical desirability of certain types of humor, thanks in large part to the popularity of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat movie. When it comes to understanding the rationale behind tasteless, offensive, iconoclastic, politically incorrect, and infantile humor, I hazard to assume that I am able to speak with some authority. For this is precisely that type of thing that has most appealed to my funny bone over the better part of my life. I will now attempt to explain why this type of humor appeals to me and why I think it's ok.
I am not a particularly dumb person. I am relatively well-read, informed, and engaged with wider world. Nor am I particularly callous. I consider myself pretty sensitive to the plights of other human beings. Nevertheless, from the time I first laughed at the sound and smell of flatulence, I was hooked on low-brow humor. Here's why, I think.

Humor is about truth. Things are funny because they cut through all the layers of bullshit and express what everybody knows, or thinks, deep down. Humor is the opposite of political correctness.

First, farts are funny because they smell bad, sound funny, and come out of people's butts...everybody's butt. They are the great equalizer. Plato farted. Angelina Jolie farts. George Bush farts. The body and its functions are funny because they point out a simple, overwhelming truth that we try our damndest to obfuscate...that we are mortal beings doomed to die (yes, that's a line from lord of the rings). Sex is funny for the same reason. We are stupid little creatures trying to eat, sleep, shit, and fuck. Next time you watch the Oscars, or a french art movie, or a poltical speech, or go to a museum, or engage in a long and emotional kiss with your lover...remember and laugh.

Second, shock humor is funny because it can let us explore the dark aspects of life without having to endure them or see other people endure them. Shock humor is a lot like horror movies in that way (no wonder that I like horror movies). In this way, we can acclamate ourselves to the darkness that we will inevitably have to face in this life. We can be ready for it, having stripped it of some of its power.

This is probably the most delicate and controversial of the opinions I'll express here. Third, shock humor often occurs in the context of the comedian adopting a persona. If I say something offensive as a joke, particularly something that deals with race or sex or sexual orientation, then I'm trying to point out the ridiculousness, the laughability, of having those opinions. Borat is funny because the stereotypes of jews as mystical monsters who love money, and the stereotypes of eastern europeans/central asians as anti-semitic and backwards, etc, etc, ....these notions are ridiculous! A racist joke is not funny...the stereotypes that underlie the joke ARE funny, because they are so irrational and ridiculous.

Fourth, shock humor is way to channel creativity. Why? Because it's hard to shock people these days. It really becomes an art form. Poets are constrained by their forms. Offensive comedians are constrained by the number of dirty words they can think of. Coming up with a really visceral, innovative, emotionally potent insult, or sexual act, or something like that, is really a form of art...the one that appeals most to me, for better or worse.

The real questions is this: do ethics and comedy have any business being discussed together? Is there anything that we "shouldn't" laugh at, or is comedy simply a factual phenomenon...either it's funny or it's not. There certainly seem to be things that just aren't funny to me...mostly anything that involves real people getting really hurt (by real people I mean concrete individuals who actually lived here on earth). But that isn't really normative. It's factual. I don't find that funny. Borat, on the other hand, is fucking hilarious TO ME.

I would like to close by saying that I understand that not everyone gets the joke, and not everyone knows that I'm not an idiot, and not everyone automatically sees my secretly sensitive heart. Not everyone will make the distinction between persona and racist. Not all who get the joke will find it funny. I also realize that these kinds of jokes certainly could be offensive, depending on a person's background, because people have a variety of experiences. Therefore, it's good to be careful about these things and to cultivate more "genteel" types of humor for the general public....because the worst thing of all if for people not to laugh. That's just awkward and embarassing.
(also on my personal blog)

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I think you're dead-on in your classifications of humor and why it's okay to find each funny. Nothing can cut through pretension better than a good joke. We let ourselves believe we’re better than others but at the end of the day we are all humbled by these ridiculously messy bodily functions. Evolution clearly hasn’t yet consulted with Michael Graves or Jonathan Ive.