Many years ago, during an appearance on the Dick Cavett Show, Alfred Hitchcock said a thin line separates comedy and tragedy. He offered the example of the old Vaudville routine where a guy is walking down the street with a top hat, reading a newspaper, and approaching an open man-hole. Everyone laughs when he falls into the sewer. But in real life, he’d suffer serious injuries, but nobody thinks of that. Humor is closely akin to tragedy.
Sometimes the passage of time separates tragedy from humor. The assassination of Lincoln was catastrophic, threatening to reignite the Civil War. But today we can joke, “Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” The passage of time not only offers new inflections to our language, even some grossly inappropriate humor becomes benign.
The appropriateness of ethnic jokes depends, for one thing, on how long the target has held underdog status. When Poles and other eastern Europeans immigrated, their inability to speak English brought out the worst in American nativists. They delivered their disparaging ethnic jokes with cruelty. But time softened the impact of tragedy with humor, perhaps because the Poles started to laugh at the same jokes, or used them to joke about one another.
There are many funny and harmless ethnic jokes today that were ugly and cruel in previous generations. When I asked a Polish-born parishioner about how he received Polish jokes when he came to America, he replied that the humor was very distressing. In Poland, he added with a smile, the same jokes were about the Russians.
Anyone familiar with the Old Testament will recognize its influence on contemporary Jewish humor. The trademark histrionics and sarcasm of the Israelites throughout the Bible, are encapsulated in this caustic complaint to Moses in the desert wandering: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt?” (Ex. 14:11)
Years ago, I placed a few Jewish mother jokes as a filler in the Parish bulletin. My favorite goes like this: “A Jewish mother telegraphs her daughter, writing: Bad news coming tomorrow. Begin worrying today.” I received an angry letter from a Catholic parishioner who objected to my “insensitivity.” When I asked a Jewish friend if he, too, objected to the jokes, he responded, “Yes. They’re too old.” So the next week, I put the same collection of humor in the bulletin as Norwegian mother jokes. There were no complaints.
Alas, good-natured teasing – typical in large families – helps us to become good sports and undermines our self-centered tendencies. The jocular banter hones our verbal skills and inoculates us against narcissism. The decline in the number of large and extended families helps explain the cultural increase in thin-skinned, humorless hypersensitivity.
For many years, nobody made fun of Midwesterners, and I found the neglect offensive. Even a main character on the Milwaukee TV sitcom, “Laverne and Shirley,” had an unfortunate Brooklyn accent. Why does the Brooklyn accent get all the comedic attention? It’s disproportionate and insensitive to fly-over country. The Midwest dialect is very funny if you think about it.
Fortunately, Midwestern foibles finally made it into the big time, courtesy of the Coen brothers in the Academy Award-winning movie, “Fargo.” The brothers amusingly captured several of our idiosyncrasies: “Oh, geez.” “Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me! I’m just doing my job here.” “Thanks a bunch.” “Ya!” “Well, heck, if you wanna, if you wanna play games here! I’m workin’ with ya on this thing….” Like Flannery O’Connor, who influenced them, the Coen brothers have a keen eye for local color and exaggerate it.
Humor is often a coping mechanism during times of oppression. Here are a couple of examples from the Soviet Union days: “1) Q: Is it true that there is freedom of speech in the USSR, just like in the USA? A: Yes. In the USA, you can stand in front of the White House in Washington, DC, and yell, “Down with Ronald Reagan”, and you will not be punished. Equally, you can also stand in Red Square in Moscow and yell, “Down with Ronald Reagan,” and you will not be punished.” 2) “Q: Is it true that the Soviet Union is the most progressive country in the world? A: Of course! Life was already better yesterday than it’s going to be tomorrow!”
Our favorite edgy jokes have their (quarantined) place, usually outside the confines of polite company. Humor involving sex should be used sparingly, mostly for moral reasons, but also because dirty jokes are often not very clever. Even in an obscene culture, the career span of comedians shrinks as their sexual obsessions increase. The genius of George Carlin included his ability to expand his humor beyond his unfortunate obscenities. Appropriately censured, he provides excellent parish bulletin fodder: “Why do we park on driveways and drive on parkways? Just to be silly!”
The contemporary politically-correct attempt to eliminate humor – especially ethnic humor – because some of it is vicious, would redirect our attention to the inadequacies and tragedies of life. Our burdens and complaints would be humorless because we would not even be permitted to laugh at ourselves. If you like the comedy of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Castro, you’ll love life under today’s so-called progressives.
The stereotype of nineteenth-century Victorianism might be reduced to a single phrase: “There, by God, goes a sinner!” The sentiment, of course, appeals to the Pharisee in all of us and never completely goes away. In our day, ethnic humor has fallen on hard times for a similar reason: “There, by God, goes a racist!”
Will this new Victorianism prevail? I don’t think so. Even if politically-correct elites sentence us – and our children – to “That’s NOT funny!” re-education camps, the mysterious relationship between comedy and tragedy will remain. I don’t pretend to understand it. But somehow, humor is a coping mechanism for the tragedies of life, and not even totalitarians can suppress it.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!