Here #itchysilk writer #LornaMay takes a back seat to laugh about us and them. What is humor? Where does it come from? Are there lines that can’t be crossed? And why it’s important to cross them – these are the questions on the table. Fascinated by all things Woody Allenesque, she focuses on Jewish humor, as an inspiration to past and future comedy.
IF YOU DO NOT HAVE TIME TO READ THE PIECE CLICK FOR THE DULCET TONES OF LORNA MAY NARRATING HER FEATURE.
“Hitler and Goring are standing atop the Berlin Radio Tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on Berliners’ faces. So, Goring says: ‘Why don’t you jump?’”
Okay, don’t laugh too hard. A German factory worker was executed for telling this one. And don’t tell me you’re laughing about this too, you twisted reader! You want to really laugh? Look at yourself in the mirror. It’s called self-deprecating humor. Something that Jews have mastered throughout the years. Why do Christians not indulge in self-mockery too? Answer that one yourself or keep staring at your empty fridge.
Scientists have come up with a rather simple formula to unveil what makes us giggle. Humor = tragedy + time or distance. For something to be funny, there must be something “wrong”. On the other hand, humor surfaces when mockery is made of a serious tragic event after a period of time. The night President Lincoln was shot, you couldn’t make a joke about it. But is that always the case? I remember my creative writing teacher telling me; “It’s all in the presentation, and for God’s sake, don’t be correct!”
If the friend standing next to you happens to slip on a banana peel, you’ll inevitably laugh your heart out. To quote Mark Twain; “the secret of humor is not joy, but pain”. It’s a sort of coping mechanism that humans developed in order to deal with life’s constant adversities. If you can laugh about it, how bad can it really be?
We are the only species (apparently) that laughs. Isn’t laughing the greatest gift we’ve been given? But are there any limits to laughter? Well, I guess not if you’re about to discover the infinite wonders of Mary Jane in your teens.
There are as many kinds of humor as cereal brands. But there is a certain kind, for example, that shapes the way we think. In ancient Greece, the public opinion of voters was influenced by the political satire performed by comedians at the amphitheaters. In many cases, comedy puts light into darkness. It’s rather fundamental to put light on taboos, otherwise they stay in this dark place. To laugh, is to survive.
Jews. Let’s talk about Jews. You know, those funny people with noses big like direction signs to the promised land. Sexy curls and impressive CVs. Witty, intelligent, socially awkward, miserable. Their misery ultimately being their art. They probably are the people that have suffered the most. Yes reader, I hear you. And what about all the others? You say. All those other people who have gone through bloody battles, genocides, pandemics and decades of fashion fails? You have a point there. So why are the Jews and not the Buddhists, the ones who have learned to laugh about themselves? Honestly, I don’t know. But I hear reincarnation is making a comeback.
But were Jews always funny? Perhaps at some point, they cried so much because of the Holocaust, that laughing was the only thing left to do. In a way, so horrible, that you just must laugh. In other words, being human.
So…anyone know any good jokes?
Let’s go back to the man who inspired future generations of mustached hipsters: Adolf Hitler. Holocaust survivors have a gallows sense of humor, and maybe, but just maybe, they are the only ones allowed to have it. Think about it, Jews are the most fascinating and prolific comedy writers (according to Time Magazine 1978 at the time, 80% of American humorists were Jews). “Humor is the only thing that Nazis couldn’t understand” said a camp survivor. To deal with the unbearable reality, it’s a way of protesting. It’s revenge. It’s intelligence. Perhaps, the greatest defense mechanism ever invented.
There used to be cabarets in concentration camps. Did you just raise your eyebrows? Jews were forced to put up shows for the sheer pleasure of Nazis. Even they needed to be entertained. But they didn’t know they were being mocked. Oblivious, they were laughing about themselves. “Humor healed us. Entertainment saved our lives.” Said another camp survivor. To mock Hitler, is to ridicule him. Is to take his power away. Thank God, we have a sense of humor. Can we make fun of everything? Jews, gays, cancer, black people, feminists, suicide. I mean, why not? Life itself is a tragedy masked as a comedy.
“My next project will be a comedy about suicide.” Stardust Memories (1980), Woody Allen
But then again, humor = tragedy + time or distance. Is it really about time? It’s true that when you think about it, nobody cares about Inquisition jokes. Five centuries have gone by, who cares? Live and let die. Perhaps as a qualifying appendix to ‘comedy = tragedy + time’ we should add ‘location, location, location’!
Mommy, mommy, the guy that is trying to kill us looks a lot like Charlie Chaplin. Take the satirical film, The Great Dictator (1940) as an example. The movie was released when Hitler (and Mussolini) were forging their maniacal paths. Chaplin made maybe a lot of mistakes in his life, but this film is a real masterpiece of humanity and a real demonstration of courage. Even during the war there were movies using Nazis as punchlines. The line (one can argue) is crossed when the Holocaust becomes material for humor. That’s a completely different matter. Making fun of bad people? Easy. How far are we allowed to go? Taste and cultural sensitivity are paramount with the acceptance of humor, of course.
The taboo joke allows for catharsis. You’re laughing at him, as well as you’re laughing with him as the audience. A sophisticated audience understands and accepts mockery. But then again everyone has their own limitations regardless of “sophistication” or not.
To mock everything WW2 related things can also keep “alive” the memory of the holocaust, for a lack of a better word. People are afraid we will forget, even though there are genocides happening right now in the world, and not just to Jews. And I admit, it’s something to think about.
In 1967, Mel Brooks turned things upside-down with The Producers. How on earth could you possibly think that a musical about Hitler would be acceptable? Many at that time didn’t think that the “Springtime for Hitler” musical number was funny. The film had a mixed response by the audience and harsh reviews by the critics. They called it grotesque and tasteless. But when it became a Broadway hit, enough time had passed for it to be funny and over the years, the film had gained in stature. It’s as if I tell you a joke that doesn’t make you laugh. But after a week or so, out of the blue, while you’re brushing your teeth before bed-time, you suddenly burst out laughing. That’s the other side of the coin. You never know how retarded people are.
Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1999), is an example of superb tragi-comedy that manages to walk the extremely thin line between humor, fantasy and tragedy. The Holocaust, it’s a material you’ll have to be sublimely careful with. But if you try to be serious about it, it’s as dangerous as being funny about it. If it’s not the comedians who put a light on darkness, then who will? Can only Jews make Jews jokes, can only Jesus make Jesus jokes, can only gays make jokes about gays? Who’s going to get offended by what?
Surely it is a mark of a grown-up society that we can tell jokes about each other and judge them purely by how funny they are. Yes, everything is a suitable subject for humor for humor is a function not of the subject itself, but of mechanisms that can be applied to all situations: incongruity, absurdity, satire, distortions of the familiar (“Work is the curse of the drinking classes”). According to South Park, it takes 25 years for something horrible to be funny, but one can argue, “There is nothing funny about seeing a woman fall down the stairs…unless it’s a really old woman”.
Expression without the fear of persecution is a human right. Je suis Charlie Hebdo? Or simply; I am, therefore, I laugh. Everything should be open to being the subject of humor – except of course, me and my accomplishments.
I read God’s answers, I read Spinoza’s answers…but they’re both dead! There are no answers. The only way to deal with the reality of existence is to laugh about it.