Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Comedy, Cruelty, and Control

In the last discussion days of the humor-in-poetry list (HumPo), K. Silem Mohammad made what seemed at the time like an extraordinary statement. "In my case," he said, speaking of the development of his thinking during the course of our conversation, "I have been if anything more firmly persuaded that humor is a form of cruelty." (Read more here.)

At the time, in summation mode, I disagreed, saying "Cruelty is a school of humor, for sure, and when the late-night comics indulge in it -- the gay jokes, the appearance jokes, it always seems to me like a form of laziness, the last refuge of a comedy that’s run out of ideas."

Since then, however, I've been testing instances of humor with my newly patented Cruel-O-Meter, and have discovered that (more often than would make me happy) Kasey has a point.

I started musing on this again yesterday after reading an even more extraordinary statement. "Every comedian’s heart -- the laugh muscle -- conceals a killer, " writes John Latta. "...The thing about comedy is, it brooks little argument, little half-measure, little slow-harsh subtlety of sidelong cancerous wit; it is rarely reveal’d casually, with joyous finesse, by degrees. The comedian’s unwilling to proceed by increments, who ever heard of an incremental laughter? Because comedy, like murder, is about control. And control that is slow to exhibit itself is no control at all."

If one were to accept both premises, agreeing with John that comedy is about control and with Kasey that humor is a form of cruelty, it would be tempting to hypothesize that the comedian, like some predatory spider, first paralyzes its intended victim -- "controls" it -- and then moves swiftly into the theater of cruelty to ingest it whole. MWA-HA-HA-HA-HAA-aaah!

My initial reaction to John's statement was like my initial reaction to Kasey's -- a brief bout with horror, followed by rumination. I remembered Mel Brooks saying that he'd defanged Hitler in his imagination by spoofing him (i.e. controlling him) in The Producers. Another example wasn't hard to come by -- my own comic obsession with Richard Nixon was a way to turn the tables on a figure who'd soaked up all the loose animus of my red diaper babyhood, mastering him (and occasionally making him ridiculous) rather than letting him and his ilk toy with me.

So I think there are elements of truth in John's statement and in Kasey's, although I'll be surprised if I come out exactly where they (separately) do. This is something I want to be thinking about in the coming months and (when I'm no longer going through the eye of the needle as I am through Labor Day) will hope to look at specific funny poems and how they function, or don't function, vis-à-vis control and cruelty.

Even better, reader (since the site meter says you're out there) I'd love to hear now or later, by backchannel or on this site:

Which comic poems and other humorous works appear to slip neatly into these notions and which adamantly resist them? Let me know.


Linh Dinh said...

Humor and embarrassment go hand in hand, since they expose our social and/or linguistic deficiencies, gaps and contradictions, our beneath-the-table existence while sitting at the dinner table, to paraphrase Gombrowicz. Humor is cruel because it undresses its target and turns him/her inside out. (If you don't agree with that, I'll kill you, asswipe!)

Rachel Loden said...

I agree, I agree! Put the poker down!

So humor is often (but not always) functionally cruel. But is that its intent?

Does intent matter, as it does say in a murder charge?

Linh Dinh said...

I humor my wife because I love her, so humor is also a gesture of love. (If you don't agree with that, I'll disembowel you, hypocrite!)

Linh Dinh said...

Humor is also a gesture of love when the comedian undresses himself, turns himself inside out, licks his own gonads, etc. (And if you don't agree with that, I'll torch your SUV and spit on your freedom fries!)

Rachel Loden said...

Well, I do agree with that--my daughter for instance makes me laugh harder than anybody and cruelty has nothing to do with it.