Whether You Would Laugh If The Wrongness Wasn't There

Ryan responds to my rib entry: “There are three reasons why I love the release. Number one, it shows why lots of people love this president. He can fuck up on policy all he wants, but when he's in his element he can turn on the Texan charm. And he, really, really likes ribs. Number two: someone at the White House had to draw up this press release. They had to type a transcript of this event, and put it on the whitehouse.gov website. I think that's pretty funny. Number three: everyone I know who has read this thing has expressed a desire to eat ribs. I mean, at the end of this release all I could think was "I really need to go to Redbones in Davis Square and get some pulled pork and some ribs." It's uncanny how hungry I get after reading this.”

I concede all those points.

Then he says: “It's a great little peek into the daily life of a U.S. president. The man just wanted to have some ribs, and these reporters were trying to fuck with him. So he has some fun at their expense. It's brilliant.”

I fully acknowledge that my wording ("falling over themselves in horror") was not very eloquently phrased. I did mean it to suggest that some bloggers are aghast that the President would do such a thing (it's a little strange that people can be so horrified by what he says when he's been saying it for three years now: it doesn't make it right, but it's as if they don't expect it by now), but failed to include and distinguish between those who just plain thought it was funny.

I was going to do this at some point, and it might as well be now while I'm tired. (Being tired means the brain shuts off, for good or ill. But usually for good.) Y'see, I've been having trouble laughing lately because of the book I most recently read, Stranger In a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. This part goes on for a few pages, so quoting one paragraph does not do the pivotal moment in the book justice (and it very much is the pivotal moment where both the principal character and the book change in tone dramatically), but this gives a flavour of what I hope to highlight. Mike, a Martian in a human body, had just been to the zoo, which by this point in the book was not an unusual event. It is the first point at which Mike laughs, and he has an extended argument with Jill, but at this point she is definitely a friend as well as other things—the relationship Jill has with Mike is as simple as it is complex—as to why what he thought was funny—that a monkey had stolen another's food, and the first monkey looked on in dejection—was indeed funny.

Perhaps I don't grok its fullness yet. But find me something that makes you laugh, sweetheart . . . a joke, anything—but something that gives you a belly laugh, not a smile. Then we'll see if there isn't a wrongness somewhere—and whether you would laugh if the wrongness wasn't there." He thought. "I grok that when apes learn to laugh, they'll be people."

Jill then searches her memory for something the things she thought were funny, and can only remember stories of physical injury, clumsiness, stupidity and racism.

A little later. The first speaker here is Mike, and then Jill.

I had thought—I had been told—that a 'funny' thing is a thing of goodness. It isn't. Not ever is it funny to the person it happens to. [...] The goodness is in the laughing. I grok it is bravery . . . and a sharing . . . against pain and sorrow and defeat."
"But—Mike, it is not a goodness to laugh at people."
"No. But I was not laughing at the little monkey. I was laughing at us. People. And suddenly I knew I was people and could not stop laughing." He paused. "This is hard to explain, because you have never lived as a Martian, for all that I've told you about it. On Mars there is never anything to laugh at. All the things that are funny to us humans either cannot happen on Mars or are not permitted to happen—sweetheart, what you call 'freedom' doesn't exist on Mars; everything is planned by the Old Ones—or the things that do happen on Mars which we laugh at here on Earth aren't funny because there is no wrongness about them. Death, for example."
"Death isn't funny."
"Then why are there so many jokes about death? Jill, with us—us humans—they contradict each other on every other point but each one is filled with ways to help people be brave enough to laugh even though they know they are dying."

That last paragraph is not quoted in full, because it goes on about religion, and it's worth it for you to read the entire book to read the leadup to that pivotal moment and the moment in its entirety. After reading that bit, I tested it out. I watched the episode of The Simpsons where they are stranded on an island (it's sometimes referred to by fans as "The Lord of the Flies Episode" even though it's properly titled "Das Bus"). It's an episode during the height of the series, so its comedic value is high. Very unscientifically, I tried to determine whether, when I laughed, it was because of something plain silly or because human suffering was involved. Human suffering in terms of making fun of a certain nation (the extended bit where the class is pretending they're ambassadors of nations in the Model U.N., especially where Martin is doing the Norwegian dance and Principal Skinner asks for "more pelvis") or the scene where Milhouse is being tried for eating the rations and—the funniest part—Nelson punches him repeatedly, and over the objections of Milhouse's attorney (Lisa), Bart (the judge) declares that he will "allow this". The only parts that weren't mocking human suffering were historical and literary allusions—and perhaps Bart's fantasy of monkey-butlers.

I've also been watching for what happens when I laugh during, say, sporting events such as hockey. Invariably it's when players are about to fight or there's a big hit. See? Violence is funny! Anytime one of my friends makes fun of another friend, laughter. Belittling people it funny! Anything related to genetalia? Funny!

There's an article about Larry David—creator of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm—that totally misses the point of his second, less popular, but often funnier show. James Kaplan says it's “a basic triangle: Larry; Jeff, his manager, who helps get him into trouble (usually in the form of telling lies and keeping secrets, Larry being spectacularly bad at the latter); and Cheryl, his wife, who calls him to account.” All true, but the thing that makes Curb Your Enthusiasm funny is Larry's constant over-analysis of the situation at hand and his overwrought efforts to make things better when there was no problem in the first place. I go through over-analysis often too (this weblog should be evidence enough of that). So identification with the main character, even if that identification is negative, makes the show funny. To me at least. Seinfeld was funny not because we thought it would be cool to be like them, but because we are like them. Every one of the main characters is a compulsive liar and, if that weren't enough, a complete asshole. They're all miserable too—except possibly Kramer, who never seems to care—and this went on to be one the most popular comedies ever!

Hopefully this passes. Or hopefully it's just unscientific. But right now, it sucks for someone who prides himself on his sense of humour to have to question every joke he makes because of the unconscious harm or because the reason it's funny is less than salutary.

That the rib vignette is funny is not a point of debate: that is most likely universally accepted. But Bush's political opponents are using it to score political points because they see him as a "miserable failure" (remember, Ryan said, accurately, “these reporters were trying to fuck with him”). But importantly, even Bush's supporters have something to laugh at: “So he has some fun at their expense.” Sure, it's "all in fun", but, if we're to believe Heinlein's critique of humour, "funny" is just our being brave in the face human misery without our solving that misery.