I Hate Lucy

Don’t get me wrong. I used to laugh my head off at Lucy Ricardo’s shenanigans on the “I Love Lucy” show. But, let’s face it, that show may be at the roots of the culture of lying that has emerged in this country, especially off late. The humor on that show was based, almost without exception, on the deception and lies that Lucy perpetrated against Ricky. As a result of those lies she had her hilarious comeuppance, and all was well in the end. In any event, so many sit-come that have followed have adopted the same template: tell lies that generate embarrassing, funny situations and make sure the hero or heroine learns a lesson or two but all comes out in the wash at the end.

So what? Well, think about it. The entertainment industry has taken over this country and folks spend the better part of their day and night watching the tube. Sit-coms are extremely popular. If we put two and two together and make sure we don’t come up with five, we might infer that those shows permeate the tiny cells in our brains and plant seeds (if television waves can plant seeds). And those seeds give us the deep impression that lying is OK. We see it time after time on the tube. We know that the used car salesman lies to us. It’s a given. We know that going in and brace ourselves for the tall tales about the car we like driven by an old women and never over 30 miles an hour. And we know the man selling his house will simply not mention that the basement leaks every time it rains.

Politicians lie to us and we know it as well. It’s a given, just like the used car salesman, the house-seller, and whoever else has an item to sell. The politicians in particular are selling themselves and they will tell us what we want to hear in order to get our vote. We say we hate politics; perhaps it is because we all know that it invariably involves lying. One of the two candidates for president in the current race is the Champion of Liars. A recent count by the folks at the New York Times reveals that in a given week he told 87 lies to his opponent’s 8. Clearly, he is the Champion! But the fact remains that his opponent lies on occasion as well. Perhaps it is best to take what they all say with a grain of salt, as they say, and assume that we are being lied to all over the place.

The problem is that we need to know where those folks stand. We need to now if the car we buy will hold up after the warranty runs out and whether or not the leak in the basement can be stopped. We need to know these things and when we are told lies and we believe those lies we are the victims. How do we avoid that trap? Surely, we have some responsibility to learn the truth and separate that from the rest of the verbal detritus that spews forth from the mouths of those we would like to believe.

As I have noted in a previous post, when lies become the norm there is no longer any truth. Truth becomes whatever we choose to believe. I do think we have arrived at that point as a society. How else to explain the thousands of people who buy the swill that is being sold by the Champion of Liars? So many of us have become like the naive fools who bought snake oil from the man on the wagon at the fair years ago. There’s a fool born every day. Sometimes dozens of fools. How do we make sure we are not among them?

To begin with, we need to be suspicious about anything a politician tells us. We need to insist on corroboration from another source when a claim is made, a reliable source. We need to ask ourselves whether what he or she says is plausible? Does it make sense? Can the president, for example, have the power to accomplish all the things this particular candidate is claiming he or she will accomplish when in office? What evidence do we have that what this person says is true or that they are competent to hold that office?

The rule of thumb in critical thinking is that truth is a residue. If we can find a weakness in a claim, if we can find counter-evidence, that claim is almost certainly not true. A claim is true if, and only if, we cannot find reasons to reject it. This was the Socratic method and it has stood the test of time. But it takes work. It requires that we be suspicious. It takes careful attention to the claims themselves and a willingness to think through what the person says and reject those claims that are clearly false — even if they fit in nicely with our preconceived ideas. And that is tough. We do want to think that those claims are true that make us feel good about ourselves. But a claim is not true simply because we want to believe it. It is only true if it cannot possibly be false.

Ricky believed Lucy because he loved her and he wanted to believe what she said was true. He should have given it a bit more thought. But it wouldn’t have been half as funny. On the political stage these days, however, it is not the least bit funny and we have our work cut out for us.

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Protecting Feelings

Philosophers are fond of making distinctions. For example, I am careful to point out the difference between “need” and “want” in explaining that many of the things we insist we need are simply things we want. Such distinctions can go a long way toward clarifying our thinking and helping us to see our way through a tangle of words, show the fly the way out of the milk bottle in Wittgenstein’s delightful image. Many years ago Bertrand Russell wrote an essay in which he made a distinction between “use” and “mention.” He noted the vast difference between using a word, say an offensive word, and simply mentioning that same word. Thus if I say “Judy is fat” I am using a word that many people find offensive, especially Judy. If I say “Fred said that Judy is fat” I am merely mentioning the offensive term and the difference is important and fundamental. But we have lost sight of this distinction, especially in academia where political correctness demands that we neither use nor mention offensive terms — words that might possibly be found offensive to someone else.

Some years ago I wrote an article for a professional journal in which I defended Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness against the libel of the novelist and critic Chinua Achebe who insisted that people avoid Conrad’s novella altogether because it and its author are both “racist.”  He made that claim on the grounds that in the novella Conrad plays fast and loose with the word “nigger,” which is almost certainly one of the most offensive terms in our language. My defense was based on the point that when a novelist like Conrad used the term he put it in the mouth of a seaman at the turn of the last century who would most assuredly use the term without giving it a second thought. The novel is not “racist” because Conrad is simply telling a story in which the term is used by his narrator. Conrad himself is simply mentioning that fact. Again, the distinction Russell made is key here. Conrad is not a racist, nor is his novella. His narrator may have been, but the charge cannot be laid at the feet of the novelist.

But, as I have said, this distinction is lost on those who would protect victims from words they might find offensive. And while I respect the motivation that has led us to this point — to protect sensitive people and avoid hurting their feelings — it is clear that the situation has become extreme and is now putting a cramp on communication at so many levels. In addition, of course, everyone now claims to be a victim. It is especially problematic in our colleges and universities where this sensitivity to others’ feelings has become excessive.  As a result, according to a recent (9/15) essay in The Atlantic, “the new political correctness is ruining education.” In addition to ignoring the distinction between use and mention and insisting that any and all uses (or mentions) of certain words must desist (or else!), officials and students themselves in a great many institutions of higher education also wave the red flag at what are called “trigger warnings.”

“For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism and domestic violence can choose to avoid those works which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.”

Now, clearly the motivation of those who call for this sort of avoidance cannot be called into question. But this concern is clearly out of control. Those who would teach are denied the opportunity to free young minds and open them up to the world around them which, unfortunately, is a source of a great deal of discomfort. Clearly, the use of  offensive language is different from the mention of those words that might possibly offend. We need to recall that distinction and move past this sort of censorship, remaining sensitive to others’ feelings, but not so concerned that we cannot say or write what needs to be said and written. However, the Atlantic article notes that concern over political correctness and trigger warnings has created a bleak atmosphere on college campuses across the nation.

“The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than [concern over political correctness], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe places’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make them uncomfortable. And more than [P.C.], this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness.”

And this despite the fact that making young adults “uncomfortable” is precisely what they need in order to become educated persons. As Jerry Seinfeld has noted in refusing to perform on college campuses because of the atmosphere of “vindictive protectiveness,” we need to keep our sense of humor. And we also need to keep our sense of balance before we fall off the edge of an increasingly small platform of politically correct terms that doesn’t allow us to say what needs to be said or read what needs to be read in order to provide students with the education they so desperately require in an increasingly confusing world.

Funny Or Comical?

One of the things that has always intrigued me is the nature of comedy. Yes, I am strange. But the thing I find most interesting is that the word “comedy” was originally attached to events that are not necessarily funny. For example, in drama it applies simply to plays that end happily. Comedy is a broader term and can be funny — or not.

Freud has discussed comedy as has Henri Bergson. But the best discussion I have ever read about the subject was written by Arthur Koestler, author of the haunting novel Darkness at Noon. He was also a journalist and an exceptionally deep thinker. His book The Act of Creation is one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. He analyses the act of creation and ties it into such diverse things as music and …. comedy. He takes as his point of departure the “Eureka!” moment when Archimedes discovered how to determine whether Hiero’s crown was solid gold or a mix of gold and silver without destroying the crown itself. He was, as you may remember, stepping into the bath when he realized that in doing so he displaced a certain amount of water whose volume could be measured accurately; by analogy he could now determine the density of the crown. It was a “Eureka!” moment and he reportedly ran down the streets of Syracuse naked shouting with glee. Now, that’s funny!

Koestler thinks such creative moments result from what he calls “bisociation,” the sudden and unexpected intersection of two independent planes of thought which he calls “matrices”:

“The essential point is that at the critical moment both matrices were simultaneously present in Archimedes’ mind — though presumably on different levels of awareness. The creative stress resulting from the blocked situation [Archimedes’ inability to solve his problem] kept the problem on the agenda even while the beam of consciousness was drifting along quite another plane.”

When the two planes intersected at the moment he stepped into the bath, he had solved the problem. Eureka! That was the “creative” moment. But what has this to do with comedy, you might ask? Everything. Take the following joke.

A. I hear there was a fire at the local university yesterday.

B. Seriously?

A. Yes, it totalled the library, destroying both books.

B. Ha!

A. And only one had been colored in!!

B. Again, Ha!

So it goes. B doesn’t expect A’s response: there is the sudden intersection of two independent matrices — one telling the story of the sad fate of the library at the local college, which tends to evoke sympathy in the listener and which is suddenly intersected by another matrix that cuts across the first and results in a laugh, a sudden release of emotion that was built up by B worrying, even for a moment, that the library had been burned down. Koestler calls this an “explosion.” This particular joke has two such moments — one when A says that both books were destroyed and another when he say that only one had been colored in. Neither is expected and both evoke a sudden release of emotion, mild though it may be (a small explosion?). This is not a thigh-slapper, and if it doesn’t tickle your funny bone, perhaps Freud’s joke recounted in his essay on the comic will:

Chamfort tells the story of a Marquis at the court of Louis XIV who, on entering his wife’s boudoir and finding her in the arms of a Bishop, walked calmly to the window and went through the motions of blessing the people in the street.

‘What are you doing?’ cried the anguished wife.

‘Monseigneur is performing my functions,’ replied the Marquis, ‘so I am performing his,’

Or, if you prefer the slightly sacrilegious, there is always the priceless New Yorker cartoon where Joseph and Mary are looking heaven-ward and the caption reads: “But we wanted a girl!”

All in good fun. I leave it to the reader to find the elements of bisociation that Koestler speaks about.

All comedy, according to Koestler, has that essential creative moment. It happens when two completely independent matrices intersect and the surprise we experience results, as a rule, in a laugh.  Sometimes, folks just “don’t get it.” They weren’t paying attention, or don’t see the intersection of the two matrices. Humor is subjective (comedy is not) and, while it does involve emotion, it is surprisingly cerebral. Indeed, the emotions involved in comedy, such as they are, tend to be assertive, aggressive emotions (even sadistic, according to Freud). If the emotions become stronger and change color, as when we laugh at the chair being pulled from beneath the would-be sitter only to realize from the expression on his face that he has hurt himself, then laughter immediately stops and a rush of sympathy or empathy takes its place. But the bisociation between two independent matrices remains essentially the same, though intros case, comedy becomes tragedy. Cervantes was able to exploit this basic relationship by making Don Quixote both comical and tragic — depending on how we feel about him at the moment. In other words, precisely the same bisociations can be comic or terribly sad, according to which emotions are involved and how strong they are. The very same bisociation of independent matrices occurs, according to Koestler, when the artist suddenly realizes how to “solve” the problem of the painting she has been struggling with, picks up the piece of driftwood lying on the sand because she suddenly sees several possibilities that no one else sees, or the scientist suddenly discovers, as did Archimedes, the solution to the problem he was pondering. Creativity occurs by bisociation, Koestler insists, in both science and the fine arts. And in comedy as well.

Some things can be comical without being funny and some things like exaggeration, jokes, and caricature are both comical and funny.  But all are essentially creative. Now I find that interesting.

Chickens and Eggs

One of the most difficult things to establish is the relationship between cause and effect. Which came first? And can we say with certainty that the one that came first is the cause of the second? To establish cause and effect, one would have to show that, say, A comes before B and B would never  have happened without A. Further, it would have to be shown that every time you have an A you have a B. Logicians say B if, and only if, A. The reason the cigarette manufacturers, for example, were so successful for so long in denying that smoking causes lung cancer is that many folks who do not smoke get lung cancer and some folks who smoke do not get lung cancer. For years it was known that there was a correlation, but that alone does not satisfy the strict requirements. Eventually, the correlation was so high and so prevalent, it could no longer be denied — especially when it was revealed that  the tests conducted by the cigarettes companies themselves showed a very high correlation between smoking and lung cancer.

In this regard, I have always wondered about the correlation between entertainment and the development of a taste for violence in this country. In a word, does watching television increase the desire for violence in the young, or do the kids already crave violence and television simply “gives the kids what they want?” Can television, for example, actually manufacture “wants.” I suspect it can. Further, I do think we all have a hidden desire for violence. Freud thought it showed itself in humor: we laugh to release unconscious violent, even sadistic, impulses (think of the pie in the face or the chair pulled from beneath the unsuspecting sitter). It’s possible that watching violence over and over increases this desire. Quite possible. After all, were all learn by imitation.

If we take the case of football in this country as an example, we can see some interesting factors that may help us decide the question one way or the other. Professional football has now surpassed baseball as the nation’s favorite sport. As we know, football is filled with violence, whereas baseball is not. That may be part of the appeal of football, though it is difficult to say. But, then television networks such as ESPN discuss football year around, even during the off-season. When there are no games, they discuss the draft, outstanding college players who might “declare” for the draft, free-agency, the latest instance of domestic violence involving yet another football player. And so forth. To be sure, there are other athletes in other sports who engage in domestic violence, but I am talking about the amount of air time that is given to discussions about football and football players and the undeniable fact that the sport has grown by leaps and bounds — as have the incidents of violence in our country. There certainly appears to be a correlation.

The number of fans in football has grown drastically in the past few years. That’s a given. There is more time on television devoted to football in the past few years. That’s also a given. The question is whether the networks are simply giving the fans what they want or whether the industry is indeed manufacturing a desire for more football. Which comes first? And which causes the other? To help answer this question, I turn to a related sport, namely, soccer.

Soccer has never been as popular in this country as it is the world over. Soccer season overlaps with football, for one thing. For another, there seems to be a lot of time when nothing much is happening, and there really isn’t much violence. But I note that in the past few years ESPN has given more and more time to soccer, covering Olympic soccer (amidst much jingoistic hype) and lending increasing amounts of air time to showing highlights (especially moments of violence on the field) to international soccer and the professional soccer league in this country; they are clearly promoting the sport. Recently, 60,000 fans showed up for the inaugural match between two professional teams in this country. That number of fans for a game of soccer is astonishing. Is it just possible that the desire to watch a soccer match has been manufactured by the television networks?? I suspect the answer is “yes.”

But, the cause/effect relationship is very hard to establish, as I noted at the beginning. So I can’t say with assurance that the networks are manufacturing desires in their audience. But the correlation is interesting and worth watching. If the networks start showing more and more women’s basketball and the interest in that sport starts to grow, we might have even more reason to suspect a causal relationship. But, then the women who play basketball aren’t nearly as violent as the men and that might detract from the interest the typical fan might otherwise have in these sports. Perhaps, the folks at ESPN need to encourage a bit more bashing and thrashing to help things along –as in, say, cage fighting. Clearly American audiences want to see violence. The only question is whether the networks have nurtured and encouraged this desire and made it stronger.

Twain On Cooper

Book Cover for a Child's version of the Leatherstocking Tales (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Book Cover for a Child’s version of the Leatherstocking Tales
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

I think everyone who ever wrote a book of any sort wants a review. I have had a number of them, mostly mixed — including a couple that seemed to have been written by a person who never opened the book! But what the author fears worse than anything is the scathing review. One can only imagine how James.F. Cooper might have felt had he read Mark Twain’s review of his “Leatherstocking Tales.”  As it happens, Twain wrote it long after Cooper’s death, largely in response to such exaggerated praise as that of Wilkie Collins who called Cooper “the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.” Twain’s review essay is  not only scathing, it is hilarious! Cooper’s tales were read and enjoyed by young and old alike, all over the world. Hawkeye was the Indiana Jones of Cooper’s day.  Not only Collins but many other reviewers praised the author to the skies and couldn’t find enough compliments to heap on the books themselves. But not so Mark Twain who couldn’t find anything good to say about Cooper or his books. In this famous (infamous?) essay review that focuses on Deerslayer, Twain begins by chastising several reviewers (including Collins) for praising the books without having read them (!) and then tells us that “in two-thirds of a page Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” He then goes on to list twenty-two “rules governing the art of romantic fiction. Cooper violated eighteen of them.” (Actually, all twenty-two, as it turns out.) But then Twain gets rolling and the results are very funny. One portion of the review is especially delightful and I copy it here for your enjoyment. It focuses on one suspenseful episode in Deerslayer that Twain thought especially objectionable. Of special concern to Twain is Cooper’s “flawed inventive faculty” — which had been highly praised by one reviewer. The scene is a river flowing from a lake on which the Hutter family is fleeing in their floating home to escape angry Indians who are in hot pursuit.

Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a “sapling” to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are “laying” for a settler’s scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions “it was little more than a modern canal boat.” Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of “greater breadth than common.” Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies “two-thirds of the ark’s length” — a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say — a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms — each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa’s bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream’s exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians — say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper’s Indian’s never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations filed down to exactly the right shade, as he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did — you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat — for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as observer.

Cooper was fortunate not to have lived long enough to read this essay, which Twain wrote to get some pocket money and in response to learned critics who, he was convinced, totally lacked critical acumen.  His essay was itself criticized by other readers as a “deliberate misreading” of the tales that was “devastating.” To be honest, the essay used Cooper as a foil and Twain turned his comic genius loose against a writer who was defenseless (given that he was on the other side of the grass). In the end Twain had written what his critics called a “satirical but shrewdly observant essay” on Cooper’s romantic, sometimes flowery style which Twain simply didn’t like: he preferred his own more economical and straight-forward style. It is hilarious and worth reading, but it certainly does not stand as an example of a fair and honest appraisal of an author’s writing — which is what a review ought to be, one would think. Still….

The Nature of Evil

A good friend of mine, Paul Schlehr, made an interesting comment on a recent blog I wrote about the “banality” of evil. That word is Hannah Arendt’s and it is used by her to describe the evil she witnessed in covering the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Paul suggested that her analysis does not cover every possible case of evil and he has suggested in the past an interesting model — a human “bell curve” from good to evil with most of us in the middle somewhere and folks at either end either thoroughly evil or inherently good, even saintly.

Now, to begin with, we live in an age that denies the legitimacy of such words as “evil,” insisting the “good” and “evil” are merely words we attach to personal perspectives of our own private worlds. “It’s all relative,” we hear on every street corner. I suggest that this view is simplistic and am convinced on philosophical and psychological grounds that there is evil and that humans are quite capable of performing evil deeds as well as extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion. I find my friend’s model, the bell curve, quite appealing. Most of us do seem to be somewhere in the middle and there are those — like the man mentioned by Paul in his comment who beat up a homeless person on the street because the latter witnessed him stealing from a second homeless man — or like the men who tied up a young Frenchman and beat him with a crowbar and made him watch as they gang-raped his girl friend on a public transport in Rio de Janeiro recently, as reported by Yahoo News.

These strike me as examples of unmitigated evil, a sign that these people are without conscience and quite capable of inflicting pain on others and quite possibly enjoying it. This clearly goes beyond the notion of “banality” that Arendt speaks about. This is not mere thoughtlessness, as Paul correctly points out. Sigmund Freud seems to have been closer to the truth. You may recall that he was convinced we all repress sadistic impulses — which come out when we laugh at the clown who gets hit with a pie in the face, for example — or when the chair is removed from under the man about to sit down at the table. In fact, laughter is one of the main ways we release these sadistic impulses according to Freud. The impulses themselves are not socially acceptable and we are brought up to suppress them as much as possible. We do so, according to Freud, by means of the formation of our conscience  (the “Super Ego”) which keeps those impulses at bay long after we learn to repress them as children. Humor is socially acceptable, as is the vicarious delight we take in viewing an accident, or violent games on TV. Whether we like to admit it or not, these sadistic impulses are there and some people don’t bother to suppress them but rather take delight in expressing them in violent acts toward others — like those actions mentioned above.

I do think we have to allow that Arendt’s analysis of the evil committed by people like Adolf Eichmann can be called “banal,” in the sense that he simply never stopped to think about what he was doing. He was a mindless bureaucrat who fretted about keeping the trains on time. A great many people in Germany at the time mindlessly fell in line with the Nazi propaganda and, given centuries of hatred toward the Jews, they were perfectly willing to look the other way during the “final solution.” Most of these people were not directly involved in the gassing of the Jews — even Eichmann himself never witnessed such an event, we are told. Those that were directly involved in the torture and death of those untold millions of people clearly must be regarded as in a different class altogether from those who oversaw the operation and scheduled the trains. These folks resemble more closely those who today direct drone flights into crowds of people, never witnessing the events and finding solace in the notion that they are not killing human beings, they are killing the “enemy.” The real enemy, however, may indeed be within — as Paul suggests.

Gentle Humor

My wife and I have started watching re-runs of “As Time Goes By” on PBS. They are many years old, but we find them delightful. The humor is generated by clever dialogue and complexities arising from the fact that two people who were in love as young people have come together after years with other spouses and other lives and discovered that they are still soul mates. It is beautifully done and the writing is not only superb, the acting is top drawer as well with Judi Dench as the leading female character and Geoffrey Palmer as the leading male character. The relationship between the two is believable and very touching.

Contrast this with what I take to be “typical” American sit-coms (though I have not viewed that many and have not compiled a catalogue). But the ones I have seen draw their humor from cutting and hurtful remarks between the main characters. It may have started with Archie Bunker’s constant cuts at his son-in-law “Meathead” who could do nothing right. Though they were not “sit-coms” I don’t recall that the sketches on “I Love Lucy” or “The Carol Burnett Show” relied on cutting remarks and humor designed to put people down.  But my list of shows that do this includes “Friends” where such characters as Phoebe repeatedly cuts those close to her, especially Ross, the guy who seems a bit out of step with the other pleasure-seekers around him as his interests are so much broader than theirs. And I can also recall Raymond’s parents who were always downright mean to their daughter-in-law Deborah, the constant brunt of nasty and at times cruel remarks — all designed to be laughed at, judging by the annoying laugh-track that prompts the audience at home when to laugh.

But there is also the group of nerds, especially Sheldon Cooper, who make fun of Howard Wolowitz who “only” has a Master’s degree (from M/I.T. of all places). And there is always Charlie Harper who was relentless in his cutting remarks to his brother Alan who moved into Charlie’s house after his wife “threw him out.” Alan was down on his luck and the brunt of countless remarks not only from his brother but also from his brother’s housekeeper who joins in “all in fun.” And Alan’s son, Jake, is the brunt of countless jokes at his expense as the “dumb” son. Apparently the message is you can hurt someone if you call it teasing: this sort of thing is regarded as funny and, again, our laughter is prompted by the constant intrusion of the damned laugh-track.

I confess that this sort of cutting humor leaves me cold and eventually forces me to look elsewhere. But I wonder what to make of this? The British comedies are not always as gentle as “As Time Goes By,” to be sure. Doc Martin certainly became a bit nasty after the first season.  But I can think of no American comedies since Lucy and Carol left TV that draws on that sort of gentle humor in which no one is hurt. I hesitate to generalize because I have not seen that many American or British comedies lately. But I can certainly take note of the differences I am aware of. Again, what to make of those differences?

Freud tells us that humor is a displacement of sadistic impulses — a release of “cathexis” that allows us to experience the sadistic impulses we all have without actually harming anyone else. (And he insists that we all have them, whether we admit it or not.) The prototype of this sort of thing is the pie in the face of the clown, or the chair pulled from beneath the sitting person at the dinner table. As long as no one gets actually hurt, we laugh and the laughter releases the sadistic impulses. The hurtful sit-coms I mentioned all have this element present — some in large measure. If this is so then ironically the American TV shows I mentioned may be psychologically healthy. It is certainly better to laugh at someone on the TV who is not really hurt by the verbal cuts and bruises than to load up the shotgun and take out our neighbor’s dog whose barking annoys us. I do wonder, however.

It is interesting that people we call “insane” and institutionalize don’t seem to laugh at all. I recall seeing “Titicut Follies” years ago which took place inside a mental institution in Massachusetts and the thing that jumps out is the complete absence of laughter of any sort. So perhaps even the mean and nasty humor of the American sit-coms has its use in a nation stressed out from a frantic pace of life, a weak economy, and almost constant war. It helps us release pent-up frustration and animus toward our fellows. But I would prefer if the humor were derived from the clever words and complex situations the protagonists find themselves in rather than the verbal lacerations that seem so constant. I don’t know about you, but would prefer that our humor were not so nasty.