Betsy Shebang - Column for 11/12

Duck 'em If They Can't Get The Joke

First, one word about the election: “Apathocracy”.

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The November 11th issue of The New Yorker, “The Cartoon Issue”, features an article about “why we laugh”. The writer interviews several comedians who say the typical stuff – “Ducks! Ducks are funny! And Jews! And prime numbers! What’s funny? Seventeen ducks doing Passover!”

While the article purports to investigate every corner of humanity’s ability to laugh, the only examples given are lame three-line jokes about guys walking into bars; the end result is akin to a review of international cuisine that focuses on Halloween candy. The author also concentrates on peripheral details and valid but irrelevant mechanics: yes, it’s funnier to end a duck joke on the word duck...just as it’s more dramatic to end a scary sentence on the word shark or ghost or blood, rather than fluffier words like positively or besides. A well-constructed sentence is a well-constructed sentence; whether it’s funny or not is another matter.

The article also ends with the smarmy " the end, nobody really knows why we laugh when we do.”

Aww, come on. Ending a lengthy article on a creative topic without risking a conclusion about how it actually works? What kinda wimpy approach is that? Could a sports writer get away with interviewing five accomplished players and declaring that “nobody truly knows how the game is played”?

So, why do we laugh? We laugh because we submit. We laugh when we momentarily surrender control over our view of the world to an outside force – an event, a character, a story or the person telling it. A skilled comedian can get us to submit and laugh without actually saying anything funny; all that’s important is that the performer somehow takes charge – not of our actions, but of our view of the world – while we remain pretty sure we’re not going to get hurt. (A successful comedian will say he “killed” the audience, yet the crowd will be grateful just to have participated.) Similarly, roller coasters aren’t funny, but many riders laugh from delight, from relief, from surprise, and from surrender to all of the above.

At the end of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, the three prospectors laugh furiously when their hard-won treasure blows away. They have wisely, if reluctantly, chosen to submit and accept their fate rather than allow the loss to destroy them, as such a blow easily could. The scope of their loss, in fact, is reflected in the mania of their laughter. All humor is like this: the force of the “joke” is in the discrepancy between the way we had seen the world and the way we must now see the world, whether for the moment it takes to chuckle at a surprising one-liner or for the lifetime we will spend watching the absurd world through newly trained eyes. Ducks and prime numbers ultimately have little to do with it. They're distractions, important only when the comedian has nothing of substance to work with.

Submitting to a force that we trust to do us no harm is one of the great joys in life, and the gateway to all the others. Religious people find ecstasy in giving themselves over to a nurturing god; lovers find life-sustaining pleasure in making themselves vulnerable to one another, physically and emotionally. Music or theater fans spend hundreds of dollars for tickets, in hopes the performances will “blow them away”.

The trick with submission, of course, is to clearly understand when it will be beneficial and when it will lead to harm. It’s both arrogant and senseless to think we could live in a world in which we submit to no force greater than ourselves; it’s merely stupid, by contrast, to submit to political leaders simply because they’re bold, funny and well advertised. The conservative edges of the media have recently declared liberals to be hateful and without compassion. Aside from the obvious response of naive bewilderment – conservatives are saying this about liberals? AMERICAN conservatives, bottle-feeding corporations while slashing social programs, have the gall to usurp the word compassion? Since when do these people care about anything but themselves? – it’s worth considering why this particular attack has emerged at this particular time. Could it be that we’re giving this impression to some people because we alone get the joke?

Copyright 2002 Betsy Shebang

Columns by Betsy Shebang