I make my children practice telling jokes at dinner. If I can help it, none of my progeny will have bad comedic timing. The girl that married me, lo so many zodiacal rotations ago, hoped to be a comedian when she grew up. The same skills, it turns out, apply to motherhood. (She has a particular conviction that ‘yo’ mama’ jokes with her own children are hilarious. A conviction she has convinced me of.)
Shakespeare is the greatest English writer. He was bad at jokes.1 (Or, more likely, the subtleties of Elizabethan English pass squarely twenty-six inches over our heads, but the effect is the same.) He could be funny, but generally with irony, which is the yarn-weavers humor. But now we—the English speakers of the world—do not think of comedy as art; nor of comedians as artists. But comedy is art. The art of comedy is the control of expectations and the delivery of something unlooked for. Slapstick, puns, discomfort and incongruity, satire, rabelaisian, irony. The audience or reader is led to an expectation and then emancipated from their presumption by the unanticipated. They laugh.
Thus far, the best joke told at dinner was when my four-year-old daughter, a little curly haired blondie, asked, “Why didn’t the tortoise cross the road?” None of us knew of course. The sly imp had written this joke herself. “Because I glued him to the sidewalk.”
Why is comedy on my mind? This week Bill Maher told a deplorable racist joke on his HBO show Real Time. But comedy is an art, and like all arts it flows out of who we are. And so, frankly, it surprises me that people are surprised when Maher tells a deplorably vile joke. He has made a living at being a deplorable person. That is his schtick.
Of course, after his joke, he said, “It’s a joke. Come on. It’s a joke.” But laughter is not a universal cleansing agent. A joke can be iniquitous. And this one was vile. Racism and racial vainglory are sin. They are ugly. For Maher to wink and joke at the sin was degenerate. The general public has been rightfully appalled. But Maher mocked because he is a professional mocker. It ought not surprise. That is what he has always done for money. We are only surprised at it because we are political gnostics.
When reformed types ask how I became a Christian, I usually say, “I was baptized in 1996, but I asked John Calvin into my heart in ’99.”
In all seriousness though, one confused respondent to Maher’s nefarity wrote, “Wait? Didn’t Maher support Obama?” We think that our political system, our partisan position, our bloc membership elevates us. Like my joke about a mini heart-Calvin, we believe that party membership changes our nature; that our country was not just voting for Obama, but was asking a Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning black man into our hearts. And like a sudden religious conversion, racism would become like The Many Faces of Ethyl to a newly minted ex-drunk. But politics make a weak soul-disinfectant.
This political gnosticism has a long and harried past. Karl Marx believed that, through the change of political systems, men could evolve their nature. “[Karl] Marx thus posits that his construct of the process of being (which comprises the historical process) represents reality. He takes the historical evolution of man into socialist man – which is part of his conceptual construct – and . . . he calls upon [men] . . . to enter into the system and undergo the evolution it prescribes” (Voegelin 2000, 274). Marx notwithstanding, there is no gnostic evolutionary ascension resulting from political change. A man’s mind does not suddenly cease its deleterious machination because a majority voted in America’s first black president.
Twitter, of course, erupted with delight, disgust, and defense (and sometimes delighted disgust—a sure sign of lingering bitterness). But the most telling of the many tweets was an actress tweeting to the world about an off-color joke Bill Maher told while partying at the Playboy mansion.
I love satire as much as any Twenty-something-listening-to-EDM-on-his-Beats-by-Dre-standing-in-line-at-the-Apple-Store loves his MacBook Pro, but this is satire-proof. It is a parody of itself.
“Wait.” I thought to myself. “You are telling me that crass jokes are uttered at… the Playboy mansion! What is the world coming to?” Here I am, beat to satire by reality.
Maher quips with bawdy shock-mockery because he is a mocker and a bawd. Bawdy humor is not always bad. There was a knock-knock joke era at the Farley table. And the interrupting cow was all the rage.
The interrupting cow.
My four-year-old son began his jocundity from his sister-inherited teal and pink booster seat.
The interrupting nudist cow.
And he stood on his booster, turned around, and mooned the family.
It was many minutes before anyone recovered.
But shock comedy that casually mocks the plight of slaves is abhorrent. We are called by God to follow Jesus, bearing the burdens of the weak and trodden down, not mock their trouble. Comedy up the chain can help you keep a hold on your humanity. Comedy down the chain dehumanizes both the mocker and the mocked.
There are calls to fire Maher for this bad (as in bursting at the sinful seams) joke. I’m not generally a head-on-a-pike type of guy. HBO can do what it wants. But I would fire him for not being funny. The conformist convention that offense is funny is terribly blasé. It’s boring. Crossing cultural boundaries for laughs is played out, weary, tedious, old fashioned.
We need to be forward thinking. We need fresh comedians. The comedic arts are a worthy end. Kids ought to know that comedian, though an incredibly difficult calling, is a worthy calling. The future of the art depends upon it. If they are leaning that way, I would suggest Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes by Louis Sachar.
But the most important thing that anyone leaning towards comedy needs to know is that your art will flow from who you are. If you want to be a better artist, become a better person. Get a solid education. Absorb industriousness. Learn to put other people first. Put cynicism and all other works of the flesh to death. And leave no rooms for idols. Idols cannot laugh. And those who make them become like them.
1. OK, OK. Shakespeare was funny. His jokes just go over our heads because we lack a grasp of Elizabethan vocabulary. This is really an argument based on our perceptions of Shakespeare not being funny. Which ought to be blamed on the people that have turned Shakespeare into a field of study who all have PhD’s in TooSerious. (My editor made me put in this footnote.)
Voegelin, Eric. 2000. Modernity without Restraint: The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin. Ed. Manfred Henmingsen. Vol. 5. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.