Once, Just Once (graphite)
Humor is often based on pain and discomfort. How many good jokes have you ever heard about sunshine, picnics and flowers? Bad jokes, of course, are based on silly word play, puns, but the ones that really get me laughing hit on a deep level of hurt.
I heard one of my favorite jokes when I was a teenager and was dealing with daddy issues. It goes something like this: “My father, he was tough, really tough. One day he rowed me out to the middle of Lake Erie to teach me how to swim. He threw me overboard and told me to swim to shore. But that wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was getting out of the bag.”
I could relate to that. My Dad forced me to teach myself how to swim by dunking me every time we went swimming. It became a ritual of dread until I finally learned to dog paddle in the shallows when I was about ten or eleven. Then he and my sister threw me into water over my head. They knew that I didn’t know how to tread water and thought that it was funny when they had to grab and shove me toward shore as I flailed around and choked on muddy lake water.
Pops didn’t really have any homicidal intentions, but there were times when I doubted whether he was truly happy to have me around as another burden costing him money to house and feed. And he was tough, really tough.
The bag joke exaggerated my own situation to the point where it became ridiculous. It defused an emotional bomb that was ticking in my head and let me know that other people had had similar doubts. The joke had power in its truthful, if negative, take on the relationship between fathers and sons.
Some comedic writers such as Richard Russo have a keen sense of human folly, and their best work is based on the interaction of their characters as they stumble through the mishaps of their lives. Anne Tyler’s early work often mixed shrewd observation of human behavior with comic moments that revealed flaws in her characters. In “Celestial Navigation” she wrote a chapter from the viewpoint of an abrasive, domineering woman. The words that this harpy uses to criticize her brother and sister end up exposing her harshness, self-righteousness and blindness to the needs of others. She becomes a comic figure in that she unwittingly indicts herself. Both writers were merciless and unsparing at moments while still showing some compassion and acceptance.
In his weaker, later novels Russo eases up on his protagonists and allows them to mule around, to wallow in their flaws. He doesn’t skewer them, doesn’t deliver adequate comeuppances, and the work seems a bit flabby and sentimental. Tyler’s work shows a similar laxness in her last five or six novels. It seems that the two writers allowed their critical, sometimes cruel observation of human nature to soften into passive resignation. Their claws have been filed down to the nub, and the humorous elements of their work have been caged and tamed.
South Park and Family Guy will probably never lose their cruel streaks, but are often difficult to watch. These shows keep trying to find new levels of meanness, new ways to outrage and shock their viewers. But their humor often lacks realistic observation. It’s often an abrasive attack on their viewers’ sense of decency, a never ending quest to violate another taboo. Testicular cancer, grave robbing grandma’s corpse, and a father doing a lap dance for his daughter at her bachelorette party all become subjects of fun. The two shows are like sharks that can never stop swimming as they search for new victims to tear apart.
But in the end their humor has little power; it shocks but does little else. It no longer connects to realistic observation of the human condition. There are few moments of revelation, and the gratuitous cruelty becomes a pointless, soul deadening experience.