Sunday, February 19, 2017

A punchline and the truth: some thoughts on political comedy

It is a common view that the chief unifying element of all comedy is truth. Conduct an experiment: think of a comedian’s particular routine that you appreciate, or even any single joke that is in your own quiver of available party tricks, and consider it in terms of its function as a courier of truth. Quite nearly every comedy category, and indeed very nearly every joke you will be able to think of serves in at least partial support of this notion, right down to humor that trades on racial, ethnic and heritage stereotypes.

The underlying “truth” of Polish jokes is that Poles are stupid, the underlying “truth” of Hispanic jokes is that Latinos are lazy, and the underlying “truth” of black jokes is that they are, well, you name it. Flip that ugly coin over and you can instead illuminate a righteous and difficult truth: when Robin Williams was asked on a German radio show by a German radio host why there were no great German comedians, Williams answered, “Because you killed them all.” The underlying truths here are that a disproportionate percentage of Jews are comedians and that Hitler’s Germany perpetrated a Jewish genocide. From its ugliest ascriptions of what is truthful to courageous examples of plainly speaking the truths of history’s greatest crimes, comedy that reaffirms an existing truth in the listener’s mind can for good or ill deliver a powerful strike to the funny bone.

I was having this discussion with a friend, and he offered the hardly debatable observation that the left has always been better at using comedy to promote their view of the truth than the right. And why is that? Is it because more of the truth is on their side? Or, is it merely that progressivism by its very nature is required to illuminate the folly of the status quo? Some elements of both of these explanations are perhaps present, but the larger factor I see is a preference of most audiences for folly to be pointed out on those who aren’t already suffering. Cruel comedy can work, but only if the joke’s butt is perceived as being able to survive the treatment. This is why comedy roasts work. The person in the hot seat is typically a successful celebrity, and whatever public gaffe is going to be rubbed in their face has already been there before and can be processed anew without it appearing to be a gratuitous swipe.

Pretend for a moment to appreciate slapstick and think that a man slipping on a banana peel is funny. Now, which scenario makes it just a bit funnier: if the man slipping on the banana peel is wearing a silk suit and a cravat, or if the man slipping on the banana peel has a seeing-eye dog? The answer is obvious. We much prefer the injury coming to a fellow who has other deep advantages in life.

We don’t take particular delight in the further degradation of the already downtrodden. The right contains industrialists, bankers and men in silk suits and cravats, and the truths that a corporatist comedy orientation would have to take would be against its antagonists: environmental advocates, university professors, scientists, intellectuals, the myriad poor and various legions of the hapless. Not a lot of laughs there. For most people, none of those categories provide quite the satisfaction of our friend in the silk suit making that three-point landing. Now if the seeing-eye dog could slip on the banana peel, you'd have some irony, but with the average person's preference that the recipients of their schadenfreude be able to withstand the storm, along with dogs in general being off limits as a joke's ultimate victim, we will always prefer the pratfalls of the rich and famous.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Your Dog Died and I Liked It.

Popular usage often overturns testing that has occurred over the long history of English prosody's development. It lays to waste with a simple sweep of populism an agreed upon usage, spelling, pronunciation, grammatical convention or even the very definition of what a word means.
On Facebook, it is common to read a tragic account of the death of a soldier, or of the senseless passing of a young relative, or the demise of a beloved family pet, and then to see that many readers have “liked” it. Well, they don’t like it in the conventional way of liking things.

Given the new options, including "love," "angry" and "shocked," the "like" remains the preferred non-comment reaction to Facebook-shared tragedy. My current struggle is a debilitating bout of neck and back pain that has cost me two days of work, canceled playing engagements on the trumpet, and has made for a very lost weekend. I am likely not to work tomorrow, and you would not believe how many people "like" that fact.

We like sushi, we like fireworks, we like puppies. And of course, Facebook “likers” don’t actually like car accidents, dead dogs and backaches. They don’t like them at all. So as far as my fellow language change resistors are concerned, we need to realize that above all else, that this is what they mean; they are hurting for a friend, and that you can’t be mean about it by making the obvious sneering remark. It is a new breed of literalism, and one that I, stodgy grammar nerd that I am, have come to accept and even appreciate.

These are sad times for your supposed friend (another word whose meaning has been poached), and this friend has a friend who is in pain, and he or she loves him or her. What this person actually likes is the poster, and so wishes to express love and support. It can be done with a “like.” If they are clear with their own feelings and in a frame of mind to do so, perhaps they will brace themselves up and post a comment, describing the details of how sorry they are for the agony their friend is bearing. So we seem to have changed the meaning of the word, ‘like.’ Or rather, we have expanded its meaning. We have put a new fork in the road to its definition, one that means “I support you in every way.” And why not? That is what is meant when someone “likes” a friend’s terrible story.

I am usually a stickler for correctness in editorial, and I love the old ways, the ancient tones of grammar, spelling, usage, and nomenclature, and it might surprise you, as it does me, that I accept this change in the word, "like." I do not split infinitives, even though it's now acceptable, and I make every effort absent conspicuous syntactical contortions to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, even though that too has become permissible by contemporary editorial standards. I bucked and writhed as the word ‘enormity’ ceased solely to mean heinous and grew to accommodate size, as ‘nuclear’ became ‘nukyuler’ by repeated accident during the second Bush administration, and as the African-American community with unabashed intent switched the order of the ‘s’ and the ‘k’ in pronouncing the word ‘ask.’ But for whatever reason, I think “liking” something horrific on Facebook is fine.

Most people don’t like to write out their feelings to the world at the end of any post, and if they don’t leave a comment after a sad story, then they just feel bad when they leave. Not healthy, not satisfying, not good. Wholly apart from the fact that a lot of people don’t like to write at all, you have to think that even fewer feel up to the challenge of offering words that would be of any worth to someone deep in grief or pain.

The understandable feeling is that they don’t have words for something so terrible. It is probably the case that any words received will be loved and appreciated. Still, the hesitance to write is understood and not in the least amount begrudged. In such instances, I do not see the harm and I do see the good in adding this new meaning that is contingent upon context precipitated by environment, to the acceptable usage of the word “like.” So it's fine if you "like" my backache. In fact, I really appreciate it.