“Humor is a rubber sword–it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.” —Mary Hirsch, HumoristFour days ago when I wrote my blog post, “A Eulogy for Dad,” on the day Dad died one thousand miles away in another state, I ended by saying that Dad, if he was still here, would end his own eulogy with a funny joke–probably more likely a funny story.
Later, I got to thinking about the term “funny joke” as I thought maybe it is a bit redundant to use the term “funny” with “joke” as most jokes are supposed to be funny, aren’t they? Of course, that lead to a Google search for an answer as I hate being redundant, and I tend to use too many words as it is. One of the links that came up in my search lead to an article published in 2006 titled, “When the Truth Hurts, Tell a Joke: Why America Needs Its Comedians,” by Roger Cohen and Ryan Richards. The article opens with the quote at the top of this blog post by Mary Hirsch, a humorist. Farther down in the article is found the following:
Most of American comedy has its roots in the stand-up routine. Nearly all of the great comics of television, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, David Letterman, and Jamie Foxx, to name a few, started their careers as stand-up comics. Characteristic of a stand-up act is its fast string of amusing stories, short jokes, one-liners, and the occasion of spontaneous interaction with the audience. Normally, the stage contains nothing more than the microphone, a stool, and perhaps a glass of water.
What makes stand-up comedians worthy of research is that their search for laughter leads them to seek out, explore, and articulate the unspoken taboos of society. Much like Adam Smith’s observation in the eighteenth century that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” it is through the comedian’s selfish pursuit of the laugh that society receives its social critique.
“Comedians don’t start out to change the world, but in the end, that’s what they do,” says Stephen Rosenfield, founder and director of the American Comedy Institute in New York City, where he teaches aspiring comedians the art of writing and performing comedy. “Comedians are aware of the power of jokes to change societies, but they’re not necessarily idealistic about it. A comedian’s first concern is to find funny material. That is his job.”
“A good joke provides tension, and then, release of that tension,” says Greg Giraldo, (1965-2010), a Harvard Law School graduate turned comic who hosted Comedy Central’s Friday Night with Greg Giraldo show. “You build the tension by saying things that are controversial. The release is the laugh. The bigger the surprise or insight in your joke, the bigger the laugh.”
This anatomy of tension and release ensures that the comic is going to discuss material that is at the fringe of what polite society will talk about. There’s plenty of controversy to confront, said Giraldo, enjoying a meal of sushi after a Tuesday night appearance at the Comedy Cellar in New York’s Greenwich Village. “A lot of racially charged [crap*] happens here in New York City. Yet mainstream culture likes to pretend that race issues don’t exist. Ninety-five percent of white people and ninety-five percent of black people live on different planets. They don’t speak the same language. They don’t interact. They’re not comfortable around one another. That’s [screwed*] up. It’s the sad reality of our culture. Unfiltered honest talking on race is rare, but comics are comfortable with race. Comics are honest.” [Note: * indicates expletives in original article were changed] (Quote source here.)
Comedians can “bring down the house” with gales of laughter but also make us squirm in our seats. I think of George Carlin (1937-2008), an American stand-up comedian, actor, author, and social critic, who was a master at making us squirm in our seats. Reality can be hard to face most of time. Comedy makes it palpable.
In an article published on September 20, 2016 in The Chicago Tribute titled, “Policing humor is not funny–keep the offensive humor coming,” by Karith Foster, a bicoastal comedian, speaker and author who is featured in the documentary “Can We Take a Joke?” which “explores the plight of comics in an age of political correctness” (quote is at bottom of the article) she writes:
There are no rules in comedy, save for one: It has to be funny. That has always been the attraction and the challenge.
Until a few years ago, I assumed everyone stuck to this simple standard. Then the “war on comedy” erupted. We’ve seen the battlefield pop up everywhere in the past few years: students protesting visiting comics over perceived sexist or racist sets, the social media storms after a seemingly off-color joke, the explosion of think pieces over the insidious intent behind a thoughtless retort.
Although outrage vigilantes waging these battles claim to be stomping out bigotry, instead they have become hypersensitive to the point where they have gone, hard, after just about anything. The mob rarely suggests starting conversations — instead leaping to cries to cancel sitcoms, boycott comedy shows, or blacklist comedians as unequivocal misogynists or racists.
Take what happened when talk show host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted an edited image of her piggybacking on Olympian sprinter Usain Bolt. The joke was a caption that read “This is how I’m running errands from now on. #Rio2016.” Because he’s the fastest man in the world! Get it?! Well, thousands did not get it, saying the image of a white woman on the back of the black Jamaican runner echoed the old tradition of slaves carrying their masters. They called for DeGeneres’ head on a platter.
As a black woman, I’m attuned to instances of everyday racism that can seep into the lives of African-Americans. This wasn’t one of them. This was a funny image of an adult getting a piggyback ride and making fun of LA traffic. (It really is hell!) The cacophony got to be so much that DeGeneres actually had to reassure the public that she was not a racist.
I would never be so bold as to tell someone how to process humor. It’s as subjective as taste in fashion or food. Based on a complex web of experiences and worldviews, some people are left in stitches, while others are left with a shrug. But in the case of DeGeneres and in so many other examples, the outrage that follows these jokes seems to be more a reflexive hunt for things to take offense at rather than thoughtful critique.
The real problem, however, isn’t the wasted energy of the political correctness patrollers or the hurt careers of comics. The danger of this outrage phenomenon is that, in the process of policing every sensitive subject, we lose comedy itself — one of the only tools we have to grapple with our testiest issues. Humor is an entryway unlike any other for talking out things we’re too afraid, too uncomfortable or too pained to broach head on. If we can’t joke about issues such as ethnicity, sexuality, class, politics, pain and death, we may never get through them or find ways to heal.
I see this power of comedy first-hand when people approach me after my sets. Whether it was a joke about race, size, age or sexuality, people who say something almost always tell me they are grateful that someone is addressing, rather than shying away from, one of these taboo issues. For example, I have a joke, inspired from real life, where I riff on the less-than-strait-laced members of my black family:
“My cousin just got married, had a baby, and names the daughter … Daijanera.
“Someone asked me what that means? What does it mean?! She made it up!
“No, I’ll tell you what it means. It’s apparently African-American for ‘I never want my daughter to have a job in corporate America.'”
When my audience laughs at that—and they do, even if it’s uncomfortable laughter—I follow it up with:
“I’m so glad y’all laughed at that because that joke did not go over so well in Atlanta. I know this because after the show, Ryshaneequa came up to me and she had some choice words.”
Then I’ll proceed to go into a litany of other names given to Caucasian girls that are equally absurd—showing that this name game crosses all color lines and ethnic barriers. It never fails that at least two people come up to me after a show and either share their name or a family member’s name and we all have a laugh. The joke works because beneath the surface, it’s more of a knock on the racism in corporate America—and on the stereotypes we’re all willing to pile on certain names—than it is on my cousin’s first-born. I’ve heard from audience members about how the joke opened up conversations that made them rethink their prejudices or consoled them that they’re not the only ones unfairly judged for their unusual name. Reactions such as this remind me why I fell in love with comedy.
Comedy is an intricate art that often relies on getting a laugh at the things about which we’re most afraid to talk. If we lose our sense of humor about the difficult issues, I’m afraid we may lose our nerve to bring them up at all. (Quote source here.)
A quote from a January 6, 2016 article titled, “Jokes and Social Commentary: Comedians Who Stirred Controversy,“ by Manas Mishra, author on The Quint, states:
Jokes and comedy are very powerful tools of socio-political commentary, and under a layer of humor may be a profound statement on our society. A country’s ability to take a joke is often a reflection on that society’s openness and the actual freedom of speech. (Quote source here.)
In an article published on August 21, 2014 in Christianity.com titled, “Why We Need Comedy,” by Daniel Darling, Vice President for Communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC), author, contributing editor to Christianity Today’s CT Pastors, and a contributor to The Worldview Study Bible, he writes:
“Are you sure about that?”
This was the remark a very conservative professor made to me, over lunch, during my freshman year of college. He was responding to a flippant and hyper-spiritualized comment I made, something I was want to do in those heady days when I knew everything there was to know about the Bible and about the world. These were the days before I got married, before I had children, before I pastored. In other words, I thought I knew everything, but I really knew nothing.
The comment I made was about the death of a comedian. I said something callous like, “Can you imagine a life spent making people laugh? What a waste!”
Yeah, I really said that.
Thankfully my conservative professor at my conservative Bible college offered this subtle, but pointed rebuke.
I thought about this conversation afresh as I considered the recent death of comedy great, Robin Williams. What struck me about the response to his death was how comedy unites the social classes. As tributes poured in about Williams, they came from Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, religious and non-religious. Much of this can be attributed; I think, to the kind of raw, real-world comedy that Williams employed. But mostly, I think, it reveals to us just the importance of laughing in a flourishing civil society.
The Scriptures tell us that laughter is a kind of medicine for the soul (Proverbs 17:22). The very fact that God made us as creatures who have the capacity for laughter, who instilled in us the very desire for joy should tell us that laughter matters and matters more than we might think it does. This is why, I think, the writer of Ecclesiastes, perhaps Solomon, reminded us that there is indeed a time to laugh.
Of course there are darker types of laughter or laughing at things God hates or laughing so as to mock and disrespect someone. Comedy at the expense of someone’s dignity isn’t really comedy at all. It’s a kind of rhetorical assault.
But I’m talking about genuine, hilarious, soul-refreshing laughter. This is good for us, good for our well-being. It helps us get through difficult days and it, often, humbles us enough to be vulnerable to let someone see us as human. I think back on the days after 9/11, when comedians gingerly stepped back into the fray. I remember seeing David Letterman cry, but I was really glad when our country had the strength to laugh again.
I’ve often thought that my best friendships were built by two things: enduring hardships with someone and enjoying laughter. Laughter breaks down barriers. It penetrates walls of pride and prejudice and distrust.
I like to think, in my sanctified imagination, that Jesus was someone who was unafraid to laugh. The gospels don’t record it, so I can’t be dogmatic about this, but my guess is that if you spend three years with 12 guys from different walks of life, you are going to have moments of sheer laughter and joy. Imagine the stories we might hear in Heaven about the things Peter said that didn’t get published in the gospel narratives. We know little about what their conversations were like in those three years, but if they were like normal, human conversations among close friends, we have to imagine there was much laughter. (Quote source here.)
An old Yiddish proverb says, “What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.” Everyone knows that laughter makes you feel good and puts you in high spirits, but did you also know that laughter actually causes physiological responses that protect the body from disease and help your vital organs repair themselves? A good laugh can be compared to a mild workout, as it exercises the muscles, gets the blood flowing, decreases blood pressure and stress hormones, improves sleep patterns and boosts the immune system. Furthermore, a study by the John Hopkins University Medical School showed that humor and laughter can also improve memory and mental performance. Yet despite the fact that laughter has so many benefits, far too many of us forget to even crack a smile every once in a while, let alone laugh. (Quote source here.)
If laughter be an aid to health,
Then logic of the strongest
Impels us to the cheerful thought
That he who laughs lasts longest.
Dad lived almost 96 years, and he enjoyed comedy and laughter and “kidding around” all of his life. He is a testament to that poem that “he who laughs lasts longest.”
I’ll end this post with a quote from Mark Twain—Against the assault of laughter…
Nothing . . .
Can . . .
Stand . . . .
YouTube Video: “Celebrate” by Kool and the Gang: