Every Answer, A Punchline

December 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’ve had difficulties this past week figuring out how to best begin this series of posts I have planned on the dichotomy between composed jokes and spontaneous wit; my original impetus was a desire to definitively prove wit the superior form of humor, but after some careful reflection, I’m not even going to bother trying.

I’ve recently found myself increasingly distrustful of easy answers, even skeptical of answers in general.  I’ve mostly noticed it as a feeling—sometimes a wise sense of patience, at other times a lazy despair—that causes me to always suspect there’s more to the truth than whatever thesis I’m reading can contain.  It’s nowhere more concrete, though, than in my writing for the blog.

Whenever I’ve tried to write the sort of startling and declarative  statement that will grab the blogosphere’s attentions, inspire passionate debate, and rack up the page views, I unfortunately keep writing after I’ve made my point.  Following the writing to fuller description and acknowledgement of exceptions, I complicate the simple thesis I started with until I end up with a subtler, less conclusive truth (see Punning in Circles).  Maybe it is all this humor studying, but it increasingly seems to me that every answer is a punchline when compared with the rich complications of the actual truth.

year2000

As a result, I want to start this discussion with a punchline of sorts for us to work our way backwards from: an image of me in the year 2000, when I was eighteen years old and as close as I’ve ever been to feeling like I had all the answers:  I was so sure I had life figured out that I started wearing a karaoke microphone tied to my belt loop as a fashion accessory.

To find out why and what it all has to do with Jack Kerouac, check back next week!

Rent on the Battlefield

April 30, 2012 § 3 Comments

Lord Julius by Dave Sim

Lord Julius by Dave Sim

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.

Being Married; Being Hanged

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.

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