Laughter Through Tears, Laughter Through Fears

My face still tight and salty with tears, trying to negotiate nearby luggage and an airport dinner of tacos and rice, I clumsily fired off a text:

I just cried on a plane. Are we ever going to be funny again?

It was Thursday, November 10th, and I was flying to California for a conference- a day after learning the results of the US presidential election in a crowded room from Between the World and Me author Ta-Nehisi Coates. From Wednesday morning up until that flight, I hadn’t felt much of anything. My body hadn’t yet decided if it wanted to cry or throw up (and it made its erratic uncertainty quite public while I was at another conference), but finally settled on crying as I journaled over the Mountain Time Zone, prompted by Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.

Even as I talked out my worries with this friend, my mind raced to think of the jokes yet to be written, the hot takes waiting to be served to an at times bewildered, at times emboldened citizenry. And as a child whose family spent late Saturdays playing Scrabble and listening for Don Pardo’s signature “Live from New York…” I was of course curious about how Saturday Night Live would handle this reality, one they didn’t seem fully prepared for. Their approach delayed a ruling, which prompted me to share this question the following week:

The “tweetstorm” that followed this entry into the debate revealed some complicated feelings I have about humor in this specific instance but also humor as a whole, and I warn you that this post holds no solutions about the conflict.

Now. On the one hand, you will find few greater proponents of humor as a coping mechanism when things get tough. I’ve spoken on this publicly, and few who know me would deny it. I regularly joke about difficult things to get through them- anxiety, fear, heartbreak, and other dark moments all need to be infused with humor to make them manageable. Without this type of comedy, I’m not sure where I’d be. Surely somewhere far darker and less productive, as these hard things threatened my peace of mind and perspective. And for that reason, as a political climate emerges that unquestionably provokes many of these same feelings (anxiety and fear for sure, and also even a sense of grief), I think that this type of comedy needs to exist. It allows the marginalized to maintain some sense of power in a situation that renders them otherwise disempowered, in some cases even powerless.

However, I’m struggling to consume it. 

It hasn’t always been this way. You will find few bigger fans of Donald Trump’s SNL 2004 parody ad, “Donald Trump’s House of Wings.” I wish I could link you to it, but the powers that be have erased its existence from the Internet. It was a really catchy takeoff of The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love),” and I still remember the slight mimicked dance my mom did around the house in the days after it aired. The very second I find it, I promise to share. What’s the difference between this 2004 turn, and the one he made as a presidential candidate, some might ask? Fair question. My honest answer: 2004 was benign. 2015 wasn’t.

This next bit involves theory. You’ve been warned, so here we go.

FastCompany recently did a rundown of comedy theory from past to present, providing a number of frameworks by which to evaluate comedy and its effectiveness, a way to decide objectively if something is funny. Their most current metric, one that I use often when explaining comedy to colleagues and students, is the Benign Violation Theory. To sum up:

Broadly, benign violations theory asserts that all humor derives from three necessary conditions:

  1. The presence of some sort of norm violation, be it a moral norm violation (robbing a retirement home), social norm violation (breaking up with a long-term boyfriend via text message), or physical norm violation (purposefully sneezing directly on a child).

  2. A “benign” or “safe” context in which the violation takes place (this can take many forms).

  3. The interpretation of the first two points simultaneously. In other words, one must view, read, or otherwise interpret a violation as relatively harmless.

As someone with an extraordinarily high burden of offense, I’ve been able to fit most things into this framework; that is to say, I find a lot of things funny. Far more than most people, and often more than is professionally advisable. I like being able to find humor in hard things; again, it’s a coping mechanism and one that I believe in strongly.

So it feels odd to be this person that consciously, willfully, turns away from jokes.  I haven’t watched an SNL cold open since the second presidential debate. I’ve seen Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation maybe twice. I have seen other successful approximations of Trump that do the difficult work of making this public figure funny (most notably UCB’s Anthony Atamanuik). But I can’t find the laugh. I’m finding myself in a wholly different territory from where I normally live – not only can I not find the joke, and not find funny the jokes that are out there…but I’m seriously questioning whether those jokes should exist at all. And the overly analytical part of me – the part that can generally be quieted by comedy when needed – is starting to see why.

We have a norm violation. In a big way. We’re about to see a presidency that defies convention in innumerable ways. Sometimes groundbreaking ways. And as an advocate for creativity, that’d be exciting…if the norm deviation weren’t so dangerous. Therein lies the problem: we have violations, but they’re not benign. They’re past malignant, into the realm of toxic. Those who can laugh are likely in a position to frame some of these violations as benign. And I envy them for it, because I can’t yet. Yes, some of that is based in identities that I hold (Black, female, immigrant), and the perceived threat to them. For the first four days, I didn’t laugh because I was too afraid. But much of it is also grounded in identities that I don’t hold but don’t believe should be treated as dismissively or wrongly as they are (Muslim, LGBTQ, undocumented, Latinx). 2004 Trump is laughable because he’s not a threat. 2016 Trump demands gravity because the consequences of his actions are grave.

In that regard, I’m genuinely having a hard time believing (a) that the scenario in which we find ourselves can be funny, and (b) that any attempts should be made to lighten it. This post has no answers, and I truly welcome your feedback on which side you take. Can we joke about this? Should we? What do you think?

So back to that question I posed, taco in hand, tears still drying: are we ever going to be funny again?

To quote associate professor of education Tom Miller, “it depends.”

I talked to a friend several months ago who was having a hard time writing a joke about a difficult relationship. I told him that things can be hard to write about when you’re in them, but the laugh will come when the open wound has healed. Joking from the proverbial eye of a storm is possible, but incredibly hard to do. The jokes can come later, when the threat has passed. I’d like to think this counsel applies here too. In the event that we move past this threat unscathed, the current state of affairs will be easier to laugh about. If we don’t…well, this post will require a follow-up.

This mindset requires a few things, though. Most importantly, in my estimation, it requires allowing those with complicated and unpleasant feelings about all that’s happening to feel them fully and recover from them in their own time. This may be longer than some might expect, and provoke calls to “move on,” “get over it,” or accept the fact that a side “won” or “lost.” This notion is already being challenged in conversations I’ve been a part of, and at times loudly and rudely in my presence. Such a mindset is coded in so many challenging elements – who gets to mourn, for how long, and who gets to decide – but ultimately delays the process of healing to the point of humor.

It requires the understanding that there are circumstances that will definitively keep people from laughing. The jokes we tell can’t please everyone. They’re not puppies, Nutella, or shirtless photos of Idris Elba. (Incidentally, I’ll take any/all of those as I continue to heal). And there is a difference between the joke critic who “has something to add,” and the one whose life story doesn’t allow them to laugh. One of those demands considerably more respect than the other; as we cope with humor, keeping that difference in mind is essential to the community that comedy can build.

And finally, it requires the desire to bring people to a place of brightness again. As I fumbled toward jokes, any jokes, after the election, I had to hold tightly the idea that it was worth it to laugh. I know how much I need it, and I know how hard life can be when I don’t create space to. So if you’re funny, keep doing it. We need you. If you like to laugh, support the folks who make that their life’s work.

Where do you find laughs in difficult times? How do you decide what’s okay to laugh at?

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