Who is allowed to be funny? How are they allowed to amuse us? And where did all the everyday humor go?
The answers at first seem simple, inconsequential.
But they’re not, are they? They are layered. And they have enormous consequences we often ignore.
Lives without humor have more pain in them. Lives full of humor have more grace and joy.
Here’s how the layers stack, shallow to deep, at least the big layers, as I see them.
First, in the passing and everyday way, we are all allowed to offer the “dad jokes” or observational humor.
These are uncritical. We’re all in on the joke. They’re safe, the knock knocks. Some of us do them well and some not so much. They’re the pop-culture references, the cast off humor that comes and goes almost instantly, no real impression or memory. They’re a fluffy way of floating happily through life and are a welcome relief. Jerry Seinfeld has become the richest comedian of all time by mostly playing it safe and making this his bread and butter. It’s got reach and appeals to the middle of the bell curve. Everybody laughs.
Physical humor, the funny faces that Jon Stewart used to bring to the Daily Show, or most classically Groucho Marx, this is also part of the humor vocabulary we’re all allowed to use, dropped into today’s version of public squares, social media and Zoom rooms. We amateurs can live here too, the “goof and gone schtick.” We made some vegetables dance in front of the laptop camera at a “dance party” the other day and that seemed to have folks in stitches.
Then we start to get deeper. The second layer is a playground for your average professional comedian. These areas start to make us uncomfortable. Here Jim Gaffigan walks onto the stage and spends his first 5 minutes deprecating himself for being fat, because for many of us, when we see him, our unspoken inner dialogue is yelling, “look at that fat guy.” Bert Kreischer, with his signature shirt off beer belly move, is the king of this flavor of funny.
This second layer is also the arena of farts and poop and sex talk. The Aristocrats is a quintessential example, a near immortal joke amongst professional entertainers, one they often tell to each other. Its main goal is to freak or gross us out with taboo sex acts and toilet humor. The more shocking the descriptions, the more the punch line lands home, “so what do you call yourselves?”
I won’t ruin it for you, because there’s an entire must see documentary film on this one joke, as told by some of the greatest comedic performers in recent decades. There’s not a ton of philosophical risk here. We all poop and almost all of us know the terrain of sex fantasies and taboos, even if this terrain shifts. The talent on display in this doc is off the charts.
And finally there’s the third layer, the comic philosophers. These “PhCs” — maybe it should be a degree? — carefully craft and polish mirrors, refined through practice, practice, practice, reflecting our discomforts around how we see and treat one another. Their work goes beyond social commentary enough to cause real squirming. They don’t just comment, they evaluate through punchlines.
Iliza Shlesinger is a relatively new PhC, rubbing our faces in our own buffoonish misogyny, in our obsessions with vanity and appearances, our desperate appetites to be loved. She points at all the ways we fall short of the compassion of a fully functional feminist society. Through her humor, she helps us imagine a world where all protections and opportunities are equally available to all genders. I also can’t get enough of her “Ripped Fat Dude” gag, because yeah, that’s me she’s making fun of and I deserve it, hysterical stuff.
Chris Rock wanders into philosophical terrain with his jokes about African American athleticism, surfacing the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States, and the cruel Darwinian gauntlet African people endured coming to and surviving in our nascent country. The weak didn’t make it. And it hurts, in a good way, all of us, to look and to laugh. It’s an alternative or a side door to the guilt of our country’s ill-established foundations of wealth, the racial wounds that are our legacy.
During slavery, they used to take the biggest, strongest slaves and breed them, and try their best to make big, strong super slaves — and there’s evidence of that today, like the NFL for instance. NFL stands for Nigger Fuckin’ Large. They bred the slaves, and this is why black people dominate every physical activity in the United States of America, OK? We’re only 10 percent of the population, [but] we’re 90 percent of the Final Four.
Rock and many others reveal our quintessential American savagery, first inflicted on slaves, but with us today. Its legacy still played out when a white father and son hunted and then murdered Ahmaud Arbery, a crime caught on camera and broadcast on the internet. Give it some time and I’m sure an African American comic will go there, find a way to transform mourning into mirth, maybe satirize the two white suprematists who gunned him down while he was jogging.
To me no comic in recent memory has gone philosophically further than Hannah Gadsby with her Netflix special Nanette.
Not long ago, we hosted a GP Dinner at a friend’s place in Berkeley on the topic of what makes something funny, the shifting cultural terrain of professional joke-telling. Comedian Alicia Dattner was kind enough to tell a few jokes and also speak on this topic. Hannah Gadsby came up over and over as the bellwether in a new shift of humor, a strategy Alicia described as “51% funny and 49% philosophy.”
Gadsby doesn’t just break the 4th wall; she mingles with us. In Gadsby’s humor, she first softens the audience with a tour de force of solid situational jokes. Then she basically shames them. She shares her own pain and discomfort with the convention of self-mockery, the jokes about her weight or gender or sexuality, and then she turns an abrupt corner. “That’s not humility, it’s humiliation,” she offers. Gadsby mourns what professional comedy has become, what it’s done to her, and reflects on the state of roasting, that it can be corrosive, digging at wounds rather than healing them. Finally, she declares her commitment to leave this humor that harms behind.
Whether you agree with her or not, her insights and personal vulnerability by the end of the show land like thunder. If you let her into your heart and head, you now float in a hall of cultural mirrors, receding reflections. I think you are likely to experience a shift in your own understandings. She put just enough sugar on the pill to get it in you before the medicine took effect. You leave her show a changed person.
So notice something that happened above?
We quickly graduated from the realm of our everyday chatter and interactions to a lofty realm of polished or well-improvised “professional funny.” We grant these professionals permission to say almost anything to get us to laugh. And some of us at least are okay if this art form shakes us up.
Full blown comedic genius Dave Chappelle in his recent acceptance monologue for the Mark Twain Prize, summed it up nicely, “I like not knowing what’s going to happen [when he says shit he makes up on the fly].”
Here’s the point of my long wind up. Surprise and delight could be our goal in humor, and it could be the goal for all of us, not just the professionals.
We give ourselves far too few contexts in which we welcome this silliness, this fallibility. We’re a culture obsessed with expected outcomes, with linear problem solving. We need to know ahead of time why we’re even showing up, forgetting that much of the joy in our lives comes from unexpected turns.
We don’t like it when the people around us show up and behave in surprising ways. They’re breaking our internal predictive models of who they are and what we can expect from them. Their improv feels unsafe. And we’re not terribly forgiving of friends and acquaintances when they take a risk, attempt a joke, and fail or fall flat.
This has struck me most of all as I get older. I’m 47 now and more and more of my peers seem to have developed an unspoken set of norms. If we hadn’t already burdened ourselves with an abundance of dignity, we tend to get serious at this phase in life. “Cut it out with the juvenile humor” is the implicit message. And definitely no jokes that might make us uncomfortable. I didn’t pay or sign up for that.
But do we need to be so serious, always project gravitas, in order to be taken seriously?
There’s no intrinsic reason this is true. I actually tend to trust authority figures more when they’re comfortable making fun of themselves and others. And if it’s an enforced social norm, if we get less and less silly or willing to joke about serious stuff as we age, heavy hearts follow. Burdens gain heft. We are weighted by our need to come across as always credible and we lose the ability to generate levity for ourselves and those around us. We forget how small we are. We leave jokes to the professionals and relegate ourselves to a passive laughing audience, rather than co-creators of good conversational humor.
Yes, humor can be a kind of escapism, a way to run from or avoid pain. But dour rumination isn’t always the best strategy either. It can lead to a downward spiral. Carry the weight of the world long enough and drinking yourself to death starts to feel like a viable form of relief. In this way, professional humorists can be like magicians working with their own pain and the societal pain they feel around them. They act like pressure valves releasing the steam of weltschmerz.
Robust humor can also transform fear or pain. At its most talismanic, humor defangs the monster of our own anxieties around death. We can laugh at our demise. The suffering or deaths of those we love become less terrifying. Jokes can surface even in an ICU. I hope someone will be brave enough to crack me up on my deathbed.
We can find grace through humor as we age, suppleness, acceptance. When we keep our silliness alive, joke about what is serious, we are in a sense lightened by the habit. The pattern grows more powerful when we are forgiving with each other, encourage one another to goof around. And aren’t shenanigans, maybe especially those that dance around our identities, our fears and pain, a big part of a good life?