April 30, 2012 § 3 Comments
Although I tried last week to describe how a sense of humor is essential for approaching matters of grave importance, I don’t want to imply it is our only tool for dealing with them. In my experience—or maybe just when wielded by me—humor is an imprecise instrument, great for honing in on an area of importance but rarely of much use for fine discernment or description. For instance, I’m currently working on a semi-satirical erotic thriller and have been letting my sense of humor guide me towards my theme, trusting that the funniest parts will be the ones that best explore the reality of coming of age sexual anxieties. But while my quest for nervous laughs has brought me to scenes about the fragility and volatility of our physical bodies and the dangers of intimacy, it hasn’t given me anything to say about them. Once I’ve found the important subjects, it is something else that guides my writing: sometimes it is what I think is logical, but more often it comes from the felt experiences of my own life and the mechanisms of plot.
Serious logic alone just doesn’t seem like any surer guide than humor; while it feels more precise on the small scale, its details exaggerate its exactness. Without a big, fuzzy sense of the whole, it is possible for this exactitude to lead us down narrowing tunnels further and further from the truth. From the inside, every well-reasoned argument is truthful—but there is probably another sober argument that proves the exact opposite just as indisputably. This is nowhere more evident than when two pundits face-off on TV, both deadly certain about their thin strand of argument; they can fight over the reasoning of each others proofs, but it is always a larger, unspoken given that really divides them, so what is the point of taking it so seriously?
While there are many wonderful examples of humor skewering the supposed strength of seriousness, I don’t think anyone has done it better or more systematically than the Marx brothers. Take for example Duck Soup, where the comedy explores the grave spread of fascism in the 20’s and 30’s, an era of even viler (ands more self-serious) punditry; the Marx brothers, too, ask what is the point of all this seriousness? When Groucho, as the dictator of Freedonia, is asked by his enemy for peace, he replies, “It’s too late: I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield,” and we laugh at the familiar way that political arguments detach from reality to perpetuate themselves. But further, many cultural studiers (such as Jorn K. Bramann in this article) have pointed out, the Marx brothers’ fracturing puns are the narrative equivalent of cubist painting, their dismantled logic making even the simplest communication impossible.
Many see this as an ultimately nihilistic world-view, where even the simple foundations of causality are said to be nothing–but I don’t agree. Their films aren’t a description of reality or a philosophical tract, but an exploration, and by destroying logic in favor of puns, they show how unlivable and pointless an existence governed by humor alone would be. I’d be just as frightened to live in Freedonia as Glen Beck’s America.
Neither humor nor seriousness is enough alone: creation easily contains both and more. To even begin to understand and appreciate life, we must never let the battle between them end.
April 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
It turns out I’m much more in to blogging than I thought I would be. I log on everyday to check if any of you kind people have looked at the page, and I’ve been googling various keywords like my name and the title to see how easy it would be for someone to find or stumble across the page. Unfortunately, there are several Evan Kingstons out there who don’t seem to be as afraid of the internet as me and the blog is pretty far down the list when you google The Oldest Jokes in the World.
On the upside, though, this funny Reuter’s article was at the top of the list. When I decided on the name, it didn’t even occur to me that we might have ancient jokes on record, but it turns out a few years ago Dave TV commissioned a study of the oldest jokes in the world, several of which are included in the article.
Though the Sumerian example–“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”–made me laugh, I’m not sure I totally get it. Nevertheless, I find it very exciting that these jokes, though separated from us by thousands of years, are still easily recognizable as humor to our modern sensibilities. The fact that they’re all about sex surely helps–and reinforces the Chesterton quote I posted earlier in the week: we joke about whatever is most important to us.
“Jokes have varied over the years, with some taking the question and answer format while others are witty proverbs or riddles,” said the report’s writer Dr Paul McDonald, senior lecturer at the university.
“What they all share however, is a willingness to deal with taboos and a degree of rebellion. Modern puns, Essex girl jokes and toilet humour can all be traced back to the very earliest jokes identified in this research.”
Just as they are today, the oldest jokes in the world were a way for their tellers to talk about matters of such import that serious language couldn’t handle them.
Anyhow, thanks again for reading. And if anyone knows how to get the blog to show up at the top of google or what I’m missing in the joke about the young Sumerian woman farting, please comment below.
April 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
One of my main goals in starting this blog is to combat the notion that there are subjects outside the realm of comedy. I don’t believe the world is divided into matters of laughing and no-laughing or that there exist any situations best approached with your sense of humor blindfolded.
Of course, this isn’t the gravest misconception in our society, which is why I’m blogging about it in my spare time instead of occupying somewhere. One can imagine a children’s blockbuster in which jokes are outlawed and secret police listen for laughter; a land where one brave boy must place his palm perfectly into the pit of his arm to simulate flatulence, a ripping rumble that travels the world, teaching us all how to smile again.
Thankfully, we don’t live in such a world, and my inclination to take things a little less than seriously most of the time has only ever landed me in minor trouble: in school, I learned which teachers took a good pun as evidence of engagement with the material and engaged a little less with the material of those who didn’t; the mostly-serious, overly-somber, and easily-offended have never lasted long among my close friends; and whenever a boss has asked me to take the job a little bit more seriously, I’ve just waited to continue commiserating with my coworkers until he was gone (and added his name into the punchlines).
So I’ve never felt like my comedic stylings were outlawed—just censored or circumscribed. What makes it feel so stifling is that I I’ve most always wanted to learn much, be friendly, and work hard—those things just feel both easier and more complete with a little humor. Since I feel humor is a way of lightening our situation without denying it, stopping laughter has always seemed like a double silencing to me: “Shut up so we can all pretend we’re not here.”
As a result, I’ve felt this silencing most concretely in the realm of my life where I have no aim besides making our lives more joyously bearable and honestly clear: my writing. Time and time again, in seminars and workshops (though never outweighing my positive experiences), I struggled against the opinion that humor and true “serious” art are in opposition. I agree that humor is surely seriousness’ opposite, but couldn’t understand why seriousness got sole claim to the truth. It was the rawest, truest parts of my work that always seemed to demand—and provide—the most humor, but I was never sure quite how to explain this to my more sober professors and peers.
Thankfully G.K. Chesterton explains it all in Heretics:
A critic once remonstrated with me saying, with an air of indignant reasonableness, “If you must make jokes, at least you need not make them on such serious subjects.” I replied with a natural simplicity and wonder, “About what other subjects can one make jokes except serious subjects?” It is quite useless to talk about profane jesting. All jesting is in its nature profane, in the sense that it must be the sudden realization that something which thinks itself solemn is not so very solemn after all. If a joke is not a joke about religion or morals, it is a joke about police-magistrates or scientific professors or undergraduates dressed up as Queen Victoria. […] men are always speaking gravely and earnestly and with the utmost possible care about the things that are not important, but always talking frivolously about the things that are. Men talk for hours with the faces of a college of cardinals about things like golf, or tobacco, or waistcoats, or party politics. But all the most grave and dreadful things in the world are the oldest jokes in the world–-being married; being hanged.
You can see that I’ve taken the blog’s title from the quote and hopefully, someday soon, you’ll be able to see that it’s sentiment is the driving logic behind much of my writing. A joke is nothing frivolous; when a subject makes us laugh, it must be of grave importance.
April 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
Here’s a link to a New Yorker piece by Avi Steinberg joking on the Pulitzer Prize failing to choose a fiction winner this year. I hope it’s a decent example of what I was trying to say earlier in the week about humor not being a diversion but an immersion: if you don’t care much about modern literary fiction, this won’t be at all funny to you; but if you already do care, it will probably deepen your confusion with the committee while simultaneously helping you vent your frustration through laughter.
April 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
A: To gain enough of an audience to get the attention of a literary agent who can sell his manuscript to a major publishing house with a big enough promotional budget to ensure his literary debut will be the first stoner comedy to ever win a Pulitzer.
This answer works as a punchline because it is both true (agents can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org) and absurd (Is the best way to get someone to look at the concentrated result of three years of studious craftsmanship, searching thought, and careful revision really blanketing the internet with every half-assed theory I get while watching Trailer Park Boys with a bong in my lap?).
The shorter, less pathetic (and therefore less funny) answer is that I keep on having half-decent insights into the nature of humor and don’t know what else to do with them. I’d love to write an academic essay or a book-length meditation on the funny but, thankfully, day after day I find enough inspiration to keep me busy on my fiction. After 8 hours working grocery at Whole Foods and 3 more working on a novel at the library, serious critical writing sounds impossible: I just want to relax on the couch and be entertained.
Interestingly, as I’ve grown into an adult, I’ve found my taste in entertainment growing more juvenile. As a teenager and mid-twenties man-child, I loved self-serious art films and cerebral dramas–but as I’ve become more intimate with physical falterings, the responsibilities of romance, and dead-ended dreams, I find I’d much rather watch someone fall off a chair and/or fart.
I am certain, though, this trend is not simply a desire for diversion from increasingly-unavoidable problems: two of the TV shows I’ve most enjoyed over the past year, Party Down and Bored to Death, have been about struggling artists coming to terms with fading chances at success, and I think I find them most satisfying because I feel like they are making fun of me. Or better: making light of my situation, forcing me to realize my burdens aren’t as heavy as they seem.
The first step in any twelve-step is admitting the problem; the diagnosis precedes the cure: humor makes us acknowledge our pains in a way that makes them instantly more bearable, healing our lives by bring us deeper into them.
This is one of the insights I want to share and explore with this blog because, without anywhere to record it, it will surely be accidentally exhaled tomorrow, making room for the next big bong-rip revelation.
The Oldest Jokes in the World, then, will be my attempt to collect my ideas on the nature of humor, it’s relation to seriousness and to the truth, and it’s ability to heal and enrich our lives. I plan to post at least once a week, on Mondays, with some sketchy thought such as this, hopefully adding a fun example of the theories in practice for a second post later in the week. While most of my examples will probably come from literary fiction—since this is my area of practice (and, in my opinion, an endeavor in need of more humor)—I also hope to look at humorous moments in TV shows, movies, comics, and rap music to build towards some sort of universal theory or ethic of humor.