Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why Is Failure So Funny?

One of my favorite books is Stephen Pile's The Book of Heroic Failures which is itself magnificently funny, but made even more so by the fact that this title is the one given by its American publisher who changed the name from the infinitely better British version, The Incomplete Book of Failures. It reminds one that the British definition of irony is when a proposition impies the opposite of its literal meaning, whereas the American definition of irony is the property of being like iron.

What makes this book great is that it chronicles human failures. Some small, some magnificent in their scale, others as the result of arrogance in the face of challenge, and still others that you only see once you turn the corner. But one and all these tales are deeply satisfying. In his introduction, Pile gets it right, to fail is to be human. Everyone once in a while, he says, a Segovia does slip through the cracks and we all make sandwiches and sit and listen to him, but the rest of us are the ones who could never quite get that G chord right and spend our time trying to shake the pick out of that little hole. Humans are wired to optimists. We irrationally believe more positive outcomes to be more likely than they are. And as a result, while this leads to advancements that otherwise would not be made, it also means that we fail, flub, and flounder more often.

And, in a way, we appreciate it. The most memorable softball team I ever played on lost our first game 42-0. It was that last touchdown that really killed us. Losing a close ballgame is a heart-breaker, but losing 42-0 is actually fun in a strange way. Possibly the funniest radio moment ever is this one from This American Life chronicling the way a production of Peter Pan turned into a fiasco. If you've never heard it, do yourself a favor.

But they come in smaller varieties as well. As YKW will refer to, after a Dead show in the mid-80s, we all filtered through the chaos of the parking lot and getting in my car to go home I started it up. But something was wrong. The headlights were much dimmer than they should have been. Was there a problem with my battery? Were we going to get stuck in the line trying to leave the venue, holding up everyone? Would it conk out on the highway leaving us stranded? I had a car full of friends and it was late. This wasn't good. After vocally wringing my hands for a good five minutes about the problem, I realized it wasn't the lights that were dim. We arrived at the show early in the day and had never taken off my sunglasses. Trying to subtly change back into my regular spectacles, I was caught and thoroughly embarrassed.

So, what was your funniest worst moment?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve