It Only Hurts When I Laugh
There’s a light switch in my garage that doesn’t work. Actually, the entire circuit doesn’t work, although I have another light and fixing the problem isn’t high on my list of priorities. For one thing, it would involve an electrician, and possibly an electrician who has to go into my attic. I’d rather not disturb the raccoons.
But, as we humans tend to do, I flip that switch from time to time. Nothing ever happens, of course, but trying telling that to the hand. Muscle memory or some other unconscious imperative seems to be in the driver’s seat here, and so my hand insists on doing the same thing, over and over again, expecting a different result.
I was tempted to flip that switch on Monday morning. I’d wait until our near-total eclipse of the sun had begun, then I’d turn it on and laugh and laugh.
OK, so I wasn’t really going to do it. I was going to say I did, and make an elaborate joke that, obviously, I’m incapable of making.
I noticed an odd compulsion to make jokes about the eclipse, which I suspect came from my lack of enthusiasm. I appreciated the rarity, the natural-wonder aspect, the anticipation; I just couldn’t get all that excited. I’ve seen it get dark before.
And of course we now have social media, so I can observe the excitement of friends, some of whom made elaborate plans to travel to cities in the totality path. I don’t begrudge them some excitement, and I guess I’ll be curious to learn of their reactions. It just struck me as a lot of trouble for something that can be accomplished, again, with a light switch.
I’m perfectly willing to accept the idea that I’m somehow lacking in imagination about this. I just couldn’t seem to get all that excited about an event that we’ve known was coming for over 1000 years (and that was plenty of time to buy those special glasses, people). The dull part of my brain got activated, somehow, so I just decided to make jokes. Then I decided against it.
Good jokes are hard, and filtered through human beings who see the world in slightly different ways, some of them not particularly funny ways. I have friends who make relentless puns, for example, a form of humor that baffles me. I appreciate the cleverness but miss the funny, although that doesn’t seem to deter them.
We lost a couple of comedy legends last week, people who knew what made most of us laugh. Jerry Lewis and Dick Gregory had wildly different viewpoints and lives, but they knew the value of humor.
Gregory understood well the absurdity of growing up black in a segregated America, and used comedy as a tool for activism. Jerry Lewis apparently had more personal demons to contend with, but if humor was his coping mechanism then millions of us are grateful for the laughs.
And as these two comic icons passed from this world, it’s worth noting that their chosen method of dealing with a complicated life has not gotten any easier. My failed attempts at humor are an example, and now Tina Fey is another.
I saw the clip of Fey’s SNL segment the morning after it aired. I don’t recall laughing but I smiled quite a bit, as if recognizing an old friend. Bouncing off both her personal relationship to the events in Charlottesville (where she attended the University of Virginia), and her most famous character, the stress-eating, terminally-neurotic Liz Lemon on her hit meta-comedy, “30 Rock,” Tina Fey dipped her comic toes into dangerous waters.
I won’t elaborate too much, considering that this was big news for the standard length of time in our current world (24 hours is pushing it). For those unaware, Fey delivered a fake editorial about Charlottesville in which she seemed to be urging viewers to resist the urge to engage with civil unrest and instead eat cake, a risk in a country that has long been known to have a serious irony deficiency.
Satire is dangerous in this environment, as anyone who’s glimpsed a headline from The Onion, and the shocked reaction from any number of literal-minded friends, is well aware. It requires shared perspective and some people are less likely to share than others.
Molly Roberts appears to be one of these. Roberts, apparently an editorial writer for the Washington Post, wrote a remarkably tone-deaf piece about the Fey bit, taking a literal interpretation and running with it for several hundred words.
And I, having not yet learned my lesson, made a comment about that editorial on Facebook, grumbling about humorless people with access to a keyboard and inadvertently encouraging them. The comments by some of my acquaintances weren’t funny at all.
I didn’t expect everyone to enjoy the segment; again, humor is personal. I just found it remarkable that so many people seemed oblivious to satire, and a bit depressing. From Jonathan Swift to Monty Python to, in some cases, Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis, satire is a high dive into sometimes shallow water. Risky, as I said. But it’s depressing to think it needs to come with a warning label.
I think humor is essential, and I think it’s going to be only more essential for the foreseeable future. Being open to absurdity might be our only hope. Keep flipping that switch, in other words, and hang on to those glasses.