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What’s So Funny?

by on August 16, 2017

                                                                           What’s So Funny?

                                                                           by Marco M. Pardi


 “Humor: The ability to laugh at any mistake you survive.” Jerry Tucker. (1941 – ) The Experience of Politics: You and American Government. 1974


All comments welcome


When I was learning the American language I took interest in why certain words were chosen to represent certain ideas, etc.  I still wonder about that.  An interesting example is the term punch line. Was this the signal to punch the speaker?  The listener?

Somewhere I heard or read that most humor is based in tragedy. And then I discovered an area of inquiry into what, to me, is a far more interesting undercurrent: Why certain events, such as told in jokes, are considered funny.  Even in something as basic as a cartoon we are expected to find it funny when someone, for example, slips on a banana peel. No, don’t think of spinal injury or fractured elbows. Laugh.

Why laugh? Is it relief it didn’t happen to you?  I’ve heard people laugh after near escapes from what could have been a fatal incident. So we write that off as “comic relief”, or venting the stress.  But is that a reason to laugh when something bad happens to someone else?  To this day I cringe when having to watch a person present a public speech under what, to them, appears to be terrifying stress.  I don’t like to watch well meaning people struggle.

As a young, first time parent I took great interest in the varieties of ideas and events to which my daughter would be increasingly exposed as she grew.  I read several chilling psychoanalytic analyses of nursery rhymes and children’s stories.  And, remembering my own childhood of reading the newspaper comic strips, in my case as an aid to learning the American language, I looked again at these cultural icons.

It did not take long to form the opinion that in those comics which were supposed to be funny – as opposed to ongoing serial dramas – the male characters were almost invariably portrayed in a very negative light.  At the same time I happened to find myself in conversation with a retired, nationally recognized cartoonist. At first, he found my assertion puzzling. But, once we thought it through he agreed. Some of the examples I will cite go back further than some readers. And, readers in different locales will find comic strips not mentioned here.  But, just a few, brief examples were:

Lazy: Snuffy Smith; Lil’ Abner and male friends; Beetle Bailey; Sluggo – in the Nancy strip; Hagar; and Mr. Lockhorn;  

Drunkard: Snuffy Smith; Hagar; General Halftrack – in Beetle Bailey; and Mr. Lockhorn.

Dimwit: Dagwood; Snuffy Smith; Jon – in Garfield; Zero – in Beetle Bailey; Hagar’s sidekick;

Lecherous: General Halftrack; Mr Lockhorn; Killer – in Beetle Bailey

Dishonest/thief: Hagar; Snuffy Smith; the pirate crew – in Overboard; Cosmo – in Beetle Bailey.

Ineffective: Dagwood; Lute – in Hagar; Jon – in Garfield; Charlie Brown; General Halftrack.

In all of these examples the females were portrayed as more competent (but sometimes “ditzy”), but restrained in their opportunities to show competence, call out bad behavior, and put offensive men in their place.  Was this the adult world my daughter should come to expect?

Over the years I’ve watched the change in mass media portrayals of humor.  Even decades ago comedians were pushing the boundaries with material that could get them in prison. Lenny Bruce and George Carlin led the way, but each seemed consumed by their own private devils. What they were saying made people laugh.  But Lenny and George knew it wasn’t funny.

When I took a full time teaching post in 1970 a fellow faculty member asked if I watched All In The Family. He enjoyed it immensely.  I tried to watch one episode and had to turn it off.  Having, by that time, lived and worked in places where the bigotry we were to laugh at on screen was all too real on the street and in the homes, I could only sense outrage while others laughed.  My colleague had never once been exposed to any of that in real life.

My daughter and I watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street. I can still sing some of the learning jingles.  Of course, the dark Republican voices were already calling for the defunding of PBS, singling out Sesame Street as insidious Socialism. But they were stuck in a quandary: William Buckley was on PBS. They eventually elected Reagan but their real voice has emerged in this last election.  Hatred has replaced even “ethnic jokes”. Maybe that’s because hatred is no joke.

Once my daughter was in bed, I watched BBC programs.  Some of the best comedies were Fawlty Towers and To The Manor Born. There were others as well, though not serialized for long.  On American network tv Mork & Mindy was a great show, though there were characters with tragic circumstances. For my own reasons I enjoyed Get Smart.

Since then my life has not provided much time for television.  But I feel I am aware that some of the better and more thoughtful programs, those which challenge the “Conservative” views, do not seem to last long. With the current efforts to consolidate networks and providers it seems we will, in effect, be told what to watch.  And I assume that means we will be told what is funny and what is tragic. 

But I have recently found myself actually laughing out loud – without being told – in one area.  Every time the incompetent buffoon occupying the White House appears on television I laugh. And when he speaks I roar in laughter.  Could it be I’m sensing the tragedy at the heart of our current world? Could there be better proof that most comedy is based in tragedy?

But I must be clear.  Laughing at the symptoms of our demise does not mean accepting our demise.  I call out tragedy when I see it, and I join with others in challenging people to re-think what they take joy in. Perhaps an update of that old saying, Be careful what you wish for is needed: Be careful what you find funny.   

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  1. I’m glad you point out how in cartoons men are often portrayed negatively. I just had this discussion yesterday with my husband. I said I’m tired of ads that show men as dimwitted and the woman always saves the day. He said he felt it was for two reasons. 1. Men don’t care. 2. Advertisers are marketing to women, who are the primary shoppers. I take offense to these ads and will do my best to not purchase products where there is a need to put down anyone. As to tv, I certainly miss the days of “The Great American Dream Machine” and “The Smothers Brothers”.


  2. Thank you, Mary. I suspect your husband is correct. Of course, I was looking at it from the perspective of a man raising a daughter. I’m glad you reject those advertisers. I missed both of the programs you cite, but heard the Smothers Brothers were so good they were taken off the air. That should have told us something.


  3. What’s so funny, indeed. I’ve long heard the expression, “some day we’ll look back at this and laugh”, but I can find nothing comical about the world in which we find ourselves living. “W” was an incompetent buffoon, but this new guy is that kind of clown which sends us all screaming in terror. He opens his mouth and stupid falls out, but also (from my point of view) evil. It frightens me that so many people still support him so vehemently, but it also reminds me of the theory that an abused child will defend his abuser in hopes that it will cause the abuse to stop. Let’s hope this ends soon; although the damage that has been done is unlikely to ever be repaired, maybe we can see it over before someone puts a finger in the hole that has been torn in our moral fiber and tears us completely apart.


    • Thank you, Rose. Yes, if anything should cause us to look at the logic beneath our laughter it is this. Your reference to an abused child is quite insightful; his base seems to be those who, for whatever reason, have felt themselves to have been abused by “the system”. Little did they know “the cure is worse than the disease.”


  4. I agree that laughter and tragedy are often linked. Laughter can help us survive this crazy and often disappointing world!


    • Thank you, UW. I agree. In fact I find myself bursting out in laughter every time I see Trump or his minions on television. That’s got to be sad, but it keeps me going.


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