Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wham Bam

The list of things that aren't quite as good as they should be is soul-numbingly long. Glee would be near the top of the list right now, but as the anti-Glee bandwagon is getting more crowded than the Glee bandwagon, I can't really find anywhere to jump, so I've skulked away to pretend it doesn't exist. Community deserves a spot on the list, despite also being better than it could have been, and The [US] Office has long tarried there. The novels of Louis de Bernières, recent Scorsese films, Lou Reed's hairstyles, New York pizza, any father who isn't a 'tit singer' ... the list of disappointing things is a very long one, and it extends quickly towards the horizon when you start to add things that were once amazing but now, in retrospect, aren't quite as good as we once thought (Seth Rogan, 1980s sitcoms, Lou Reed's hairstyles)

Of course, what is really prominently positioned at the very pinnacle of the list, standing a lanky, greying head and shoulder above the disappointing throng, is the presidency of Barack Obama. I know, I know. But it's true. One of Jay Leno's writers stated the painfully obvious through the ham-jawed, stage-pacing ventriloquist's dummy: "President Obama said he plans on running for reelection against the Republicans. After the tax-cuts for the rich, the bailouts for Wall Street, and the bombing in Libya, I already thought he was the Republican candidate." Glenn Greenwald over at (which is my main competition for readers, though I think I've siphoned off about 45% of their traffic) is charting a much more painstakingly detailed course through the oil-polluted waters lapping across the deck of Obama's sinking presidency.

I was curious to find out what sort of jokes are being told about Obama, outside of the slightly-scared laughter emanating from The Daily Show audience, who can see the wounded disenchantment in Jon Stewart's eyes. So, I typed in a search-term of some sort and found a bunch of sites, which I perused. It's always strange to seek out comedy and jokes where even from the (presumed) privacy of your home you don't expect to be part of the audience; it's strange to be alone and to know there are kindred souls out there chuckling at the same time, but not as strange as the weird solitude of listening in on a conversation other people are enjoying from the silence of one's own room and finding in that conversation nothing to share.

This list of jokes is strikingly barren. I cannot say that I even forced the corners of my mouth into a formal smile of recognition, although I accepted that a number of the jokes had various features that would place them in the category of comedy. The comments, despite one lonely plea in the middle to steer clear of racist material, hone in on racist jokes, the hallmark of which is that they say nothing about Obama except by way of how they are racially designating him and then slurring those who share the racial designation. And I would be ashamed to have come up with the poor quality jokes the editors of another, purportedly comprehensive, list include, and this is coming from somebody whose blog is full of such poor quality jokes, his readers don't even notice them. (Hey, what's Sarah's only qualification for running against Barack? She's Palin comparison. What's the difference between Obama and Osama? Osama has plundered plutocrats' wealth to fund his wars.)

One of the most peculiar things about comedy is that an act of comedy - a joke, a pun, an impersonation - may have all the necessary formal qualities but there can be absolute disagreement about its essence, its effect, its core aesthetic virtue: whether or not it is funny. Of course, out on the edges of any aesthetic movement, one may be compelled to ask "Is it art?" but, crucially, that question can be answered, and, even more crucially, the question may even be a productive, instructive way to begin a conversation. "Is it funny?" is far less likely to lead to a conversation about a comic act that renders it funny, and it is possible to ask the question with deadly earnestness as myriad people around you are busting their guts.

One reason for this potent divide is that an entire Weltanschauung can be packaged into a joke of only a few words: the tiny fragments of scaffolding that make up a joke -- a few pieces of rusted pole and an odd-looking twisty device that holds sections of pole together -- can also house nearly endless boxes of information, whole libraries of sentimental and political-philosophical books, lengthy corridors lined with portraits, picture galleries and treasuries of old videos and film clips, and Grandma in her rocking chair by a roaring fire. If you approach a joke without similar furnishings and gimcracks, you're left with a useless, empty, and terribly small frame.

Another reason is a less positivist version of the first (or really, more positivist, because it relies not on Danielewskian architecture, but on visible or reproducible or nameable ploys to evoke the negative): the joke expands into commentary and comedy not just out of what we have but what we pretend or think we don't have. The defensive functions, for example, of denial, so usefully employed by so many of the birthers who insist, sincerely, that they are not racists; their sincerity is not a function of integrity but a product of total submission to denial, and so their jokes are ones they can share with their (imaginary, or otherwise depressed and frustrated) "black friends". If the psychology of defensive functions, of denial and reaction formation and repression, of compromise and displacement. which can construct out of a few snippets of words a system of the world and an appreciation of that world by infiltrating the spaces between the words and in the words with the materials of the unconscious without even necessarily being aware that you are doing this, are not your cups of tea, then the joke still hinges at the unspoken and the unspeakable, the actively-forgotten; and if this isn't your cup of tea either, then take your thirst somewhere else.

I know you're asking: how is any of this different from the response to any art or any "text"? I really wish you wouldn't ask that, you bastards. To come up with an answer would be to come up with a final definition of comedy. I can offer two (non)answers. The first is that there is no quantitative difference, just a qualitative one, to which you are guided by the structure and the paradigms (or, really, the repertoire of paradigms) in comedy: surprise, reference and quotation, incongruity, etc., which designate the aesthetic experience a comedic one. The second is that comedy, unlike other forms, sustains an ambiguity within the resolution, where the dynamics of the ambiguities are not fully explained by the end result and yet remain decisive, whereas with other arts or other "texts" there is a completion which is suspended where the joke is decisive, and finalised where the joke presents only a blank stare.

Which is the same type of stare you're giving the screen right now, right?


Jeff Strabone said...

Obama is not funny. He may make jokes, but he cannot be the object of jokes. We (as in our posse) exalt in his triumphs and crumple at his failings. Triumphalism and disappointment are not the stuff of humour.

Laughing at Obama would be like laughing at Mr. Spock or Derek Jeter: they do their jobs and keep their emotions in check. Perhaps there is a connection to explore between emotional demonstrability and being a fit object for jokes.

sw said...

Yes, there is, and it is worth exploring! (But Jeter is a better example than Spock, who is definitely a subject of comedy because he takes emotional constriction to extraordinary, Vulcan lengths - although I can't remember any specific lines or scenes, I can easily conjure up in my my mind's eye images of Bones and Kirk laughing at Spock?)