Saturday, November 15, 2008

Humor and Power

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend I want to discuss a wonderful essay by Bernard Chazelle entitled The Humorology of Power, over at a Tiny Revolution which was pointed out to me by good brother Ron. It is thoughtful, well argued, and well-stocked with plenty of good jokes. Well worth the read.

His argument proceeds in three steps. First, humor is a manifestation of power. The act of joking is an act that declares the joker's superiority. Even self-deprecating humor is a play on irony because by putting oneself down, one is really saying, Chazelle's line goes, that I am so far superior that I can pretend to be inferior without insecurity.

The second point, playing off of this, is that humor cannot be a force for liberation. "If humor could have a driving political purpose (and I doubt that it can), it would have to reflect a certain totalitarian temptation. Laughter is a reactionary impulse and humor is, at its root, a call for order. Crudely put, the humorist is a nag—or, to be technical about it, a law enforcement officer." Humor cannot liberate because "humor must knock down empathy in order to kill fantasy."

His final point is that humor often uses reflexivity, self-reference to create absurdities. These absurdities then play upon distribution of power.

Chazelle provides some provocative theses here, but there seem to be some places where it could use some tightening. First of all, surely the general claim that joking is a declaration of superiority is far too broad, even if we consider humor about power. Consider, for example, Colin Quinn's bit on why the Irish were the only country in Europe not to have colonies, a bit that I seem not to be able to find (free entrance into Comedy heaven if anyone can find it and provide a link) in which he portrays the last minutes preparations before the Irish army is about to board the boats and a voice from the back asks "So when we get there, will we be bringin' the beer or will they be providing it?... Oh. Well, you can count me out, I'll tell you that right now." This is reflection on a lack of political power through imploring negative stereotypes of ones own group, not sure this one can be spun to back up the thesis. In the case of the Holocaust jokes, one could always make the move that being able to laugh at it showed that it failed, but here you cannot make that move because it is not, say, playing off the British.

I'd also take issue with the second claim that humor cannot be liberating. I think this is utterly false because it misses the power inherent in the very structure of the act of joking. A joke has two parts, a set-up and a punchline. The set up leads the listener to create a possible world through interpreting the words in the natural way. The punchline is funny because it forces us to realize that we need to radically reinterpret what we understood in the set-up in a very different fashion. The humor resides in the space in between when our mind is trying its hardest to square these incommensurable interpretations and failing every way it twists them. That's what "getting the joke" is, that's why someone who telegraphs a joke is not funny.

In other words, the entire structure of a joke relies on being able to see the world in two ways, one primary and one secondary. The primary interpretation is the one we naturally leap to and that is why we need it in the set-up for the joke to work. but the power of the secondary interpretation is that we now see the butt of the joke in a way we had not before, there has been a shifting of the categories we use to make sense of the world and we now have an enlarged perspective. This enlarging is the key to humor's ability to liberate.

Groups are placed into cultural bondage largely by being pigeon-holed,by being shrunk down to caricatures which are then reinforced by carefully selected examples that we are able to find. But when we joke about these groups, especially when those groups joke about themselves, they are able to rehumanize themselves in the eyes of those outside the group, they are able to reinflate their image making them as a group multi-dimensional. Think of the social power of television shows like "Good Times" or "The Jeffersons" in creating complex images of the African American family in the 1970's. The jokes were indeed vehicles of liberation.

A few other categories of power humor that Chazell did not mention that is worth considering:

The political pun -- Anyone who supported the Khmer Rouge must have been smoking Pol Pot.

The false analogy absurdism -- If Obama wants to be President of all Americans, he'd have to be President of first graders, too. "O.k. kids, can you spell 'Arugala'?"

The false history that embeds with a tragic reality -- I don't know if you know this, but originally Hitler didn't exclude the Jews and homosexuals. It's just that they kept making trouble at the early National Socialist meetings.

"Excuse me, but vat's vit the brown shoyts? Ve vear black pents and the black and the brown don't vork so vell together."

"You know, I've just got to say my two cents here also, because while I'm not put off by earth tones, especially in Autumn, the brown shirts definitely need a collar and maybe a pair of khakis, something with a pleat. It is looking so "thug" right now and that went out with the Kaiser."

"Hey, what's this about a Beer Hall putsch...more like a Beer Hall putz if you ask me."

"Instead of a beer hall, there's this other bar down the street..."

"Hey, hey, hey, what's with the hate here calling us 'sheckel grabbers' and 'schmeckle grabbers', that's pretty funny coming from a Schickelgruber!"

"Well, maybe we don't want to be part of your group!"


It seems to me that humor is a multifaceted thing, something that forces us to see the world in many different ways and anything that stretches us can be a force for good.

Favorite political jokes?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve