–How many fanatics does it take to screw in a light bulb?
–Fuck you! I’ll sit in the dark!
Humor has always been a very serious thing. People who spend their life trying to make other people laugh often struggle in their personal lives. We can look to the life stories of some of our greatest comedy geniuses, and make not a sound while gaping at the torment they endured throughout their frequently abbreviated times. Others–the vastly successful comedians, often find themselves near the end of their careers increasingly angry–outraged and bitter. They rant about how little the younger generations appreciate what was given to them. They talk about how much those little bastards have stolen from their elders and themselves. They grow old and cranky just like the rest of us, even their most significant accomplishments finally dating, losing value, scorned as a ‘product of their time.’ They become irrelevant as values and tastes change, and history is painted over with the brush of whatever may be suddenly objectionable in the given moment. And this is not about the realities of poor taste, insensitivity, or even outright hatred, those stains we spend our lives trying to overcome. I am talking about what was once called comedy, an art form which takes all our discomforts and displacements and hacks social order apart.
Most comedy is not meant to make you feel good about yourself. Sure, it may cause you to feel superior to others, but in no way should you come away unscathed. Comedy has a tremendously long history of cruelty: cheap shots, overt and personal attacks, stereotypes, mocking family traditions, and undermining the most sacred beliefs. Of course it is going to offend people. That’s what it was always meant to do–any self-righteous prig who can’t look in the mirror and smile over their inevitable flaws is far more dangerous than an asshole who doesn’t like the shape of your face. If we can seriously consider ourselves, and find nothing worthy of laughter, you are not a person anyone else should ever be around. Even if you can laugh at others, if we cannot include ourselves in the joke, we are insane. Most of what we laugh at, ultimately, is either the humiliation of others, or the nervous gasp of something private being exposed about ourselves.
And yet all comedy today seems canned, just as television sitcoms did away with that practice, causing us to realize some of the underlying sadness within the joke. This laughter is any longer already buzzing in our ears, either building us up, or slapping us down, arrogance and rage the cheap shots. Even slapstick–over-the-top silliness not directed at small children–is smugly and self-referenced and condemned. “That’s so stupid,” we chide with a snort. “Even I could do better than that. Even you could,” parents tell their children, and the children say to their peers.
All of this causes me to wonder, when did being offended become more powerful than the ability to actually offend? And what good does it do for the targets of scorn to turn around and use the exact same methods to debase their former oppressors? How is this human progress? Where is the social advancement? In what way, finally, is this different than a genocidal war on the day after the former victims become the new rulers, and are figuring out the best way to extract revenge? Yes, racism and sexism and oppression and crime aren’t funny (except when they are), and the reality of such disgraceful incidents in life can really only be cured with laughter. If we no longer take the pride and stupidity of others seriously, then they have lost all of their power. And try to remember that the original comedic entertainments were once performed and composed by slaves. The targets of their attacks were at first themselves, because that was all they could get away with. And then when they became favored by an emperor or king, they could get a little braver–go after the king’s rivals–Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Attack a distant relative. The rulers of a nation at war. The comedians have always tested the limits of what is acceptable and plenty of them have been pilloried or crucified for simply going too far or hitting the wrong nerve. So many comedians are heroes, no matter how terrible a person they may have been. This does not take away the significance of the moment when someone mocked Henry VIII for being fat, or suggested that at least one of the Pope Pius’s liked little boys. Calling Abraham Lincoln part ape, whispering about FDR being a cripple, talking about JFK’s affairs, or LBJ’s cock, or Richard Nixon’s paranoia or George W. Bush’s malapropism–these individual jokes have defused some of the tension we have all felt in ways not so different, really, than a sleazy, coke-head stand-up comic telling Polish jokes in 1979, or a closeted, newly HIV-positive self-loathing guy prancing around with gay stereotypes on stage in 1985. These often genuinely offensive routines stick a pin into the actual hatred. Everything is deflated. If we can mock everyone equally, then how are we any different? It is only when you lose your ability to laugh–to laugh at ourselves–that we greet the verge of social collapse.