First posted December 23, 2013
Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot: Charlie Chaplin
Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot: Groucho Marx
My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world : George Bernard Shaw
“There are,” said Twain, “certain sweet-smelling, sugarcoated lies current in the world which all politic men have apparently tacitly conspired together to support and perpetuate… We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going and then go with the drove. We have two opinions: one private, which we are afraid to express, and another one — the one we use — which we force ourselves to wear to please Mrs. Grundy.”. It is the Mrs. Grundy of the opinion polls from whom President Barack Obama begs the favor of a sunny smile, to whom the poets who write the nation’s advertising copy sing their songs of love, for whom the Aspen Institute sponsors summer and winter festivals of think-tank discussion to reawaken the American spirit and redecorate the front parlor of the American soul…
… (Twain) had in mind the health of the society on which in 1873 he bestowed the honorific “The Gilded Age” in recognition of its great contributions to the technologies of selfishness and greed, a society making itself sick with the consumption of too many sugarcoated lies and one that he understood not to be a society at all but a state of war. We have today a second Gilded Age more magnificent than the first, but our contemporary brigade of satirists doesn’t play with fire. The marketing directors who produce the commodity of humor for prime-time television aim to amuse the sheep, not shoot the elephants in the room. They prepare the sarcasm-lite in the form of freeze-dried sound bites meant to be dropped into boiling water at Gridiron dinners, Academy Award ceremonies, and Saturday Night Live.
“There is a hell of a distance,” said Dorothy Parker, “between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it.” George Bernard Shaw seconded the motion: “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world.”
The Solid Nonpareil: Why No Mark Twain for Our Second Gilded Age?
[This essay will appear in “Comedy,” the Winter 2014 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]
Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all. — Mark Twain
Twain for as long as I’ve known him has been true to his word, and so I’m careful never to find myself too far out of his reach. The Library of America volumes of his Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1852–1910) stand behind my desk on a shelf with the dictionaries and the atlas. On days when the news both foreign and domestic is moving briskly from bad to worse, I look to one or another of Twain’s jests to spring the trap or lower a rope, to summon, as he is in the habit of doing, a blast of laughter to blow away the “peacock shams”of the world’s “colossal humbug.”
Laughter was Twain’s stock in trade, and for 30 years as bestselling author and star attraction on America’s late-nineteenth-century lecture stage, he produced it in sufficient quantity to make bearable the acquaintance with grief that he knew to be generously distributed among all present in the Boston Lyceum or a Tennessee saloon, in a Newport drawing room as in a Nevada brothel. Whether the audience was sober or drunk, topped with top hats or snared in snakebitten boots, Twain understood it likely in need of a remedy to cover its losses.
No other writer of his generation had seen as much of the young nation’s early sorrow, or become as familiar with its commonplace scenes of human depravity and squalor. As a boy on the Missouri frontier in the 1830s he attended the flogging and lynching of fugitive slaves; in the California gold fields in the 1860s he kept company with underage murderers and overage whores; in New York City in the 1870s he supped at the Gilded Age banquets of financial swindle and political fraud, learning from his travels that “the hard and sordid things of life are too hard and too sordid and too cruel for us to know and touch them year after year without some mitigating influence.” Twain bottled the influence under whatever label drummed up a crowd — as comedy, burlesque, satire, parody, sarcasm, ridicule, wit — any or all of it presented as “the solid nonpareil,” guaranteed to fortify the blood and restore the spirit. Humor for Twain was the hero with a thousand faces.
With Groucho Marx I share the opinion that comedians “are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world,” but the assaying of that commodity — of what does it consist in its coats of many colors, among them cocksure pink, shithouse brown, and dead-end black — is a question that I gladly leave to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, Twain’s contemporary who in 1900 took note of its primary components: “The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human… Laughter has no greater foe than emotion… Its appeal is to the intelligence, pure and simple… Our laughter is always the laughter of a group.”
Which is to say that all jokes are inside jokes and the butts of them are us, the only animal that laughs, but also the only one that is laughed at. The weather isn’t amusing, neither is the sea. Wombats don’t do metaphor or stand-up. What is funny is man’s situation as a scrap of mortal flesh entertaining intimations of immortality, President Richard Nixon believing himself the avatar of William the Conqueror, President George W. Bush in the persona of a medieval pope preaching holy crusade against all the world’s evil.
Venting One’s Spleen
The confusion of realms is the substance of Shakespeare’s comedies — as a romantic exchange of mistaken identities in As You Like It, in Measure for Measure as an argument for the forgiveness of sin:
But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.
Spleens in the Elizabethan anatomy give rise to mirth because they also produce the melancholy springing from the bowels to remind us that although unaccountably invested with the power to conceive of ourselves as vessels of pure and everlasting light, we were made, as were toads, of foul and perishable stuff. Apes play games in zoos and baobab trees, but, not knowing that they’re bound to die, they don’t discover ludicrous incongruities between the physical and the metaphysical, don’t invent, as does François Rabelais’ Gargantua, “the most lordly, the most excellent” way to remove the smell and fear of death from the palace of his “jolly asshole,” by wiping it first with silk and velvet, lastly and most gloriously, with the neck of a “well-downed goose.”
All humor is situational, but the forms of it that survive the traveling in time – Shakespeare’s romance and Rabelais’ bawdy as well as Juvenal’s satire and Molière’s ridicule – speak to the fundamental truth of the human predicament, which is that men die from time to time and worms do eat them. The jokes dependent upon a specific historical setting don’t have much of a shelf life; the voice between the lines gets lost, and with it the sharing of the knowledge of what is in or out of place… read more: