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Andrew Coyne: True political divide is between those who have a sense of humour and those who don’t


Andrew Coyne


 January 14, 2015


“Nothing is sacred. Not even your own mother, not the Jewish martyrs, not even people starving of hunger. Laugh at everything, ferociously, bitterly, to exorcise the old monsters.”

— François Cavanna, founder of Charlie Hebdo, in 1982.


I have been turning over those words in my mind ever since I saw them, shortly after the massacre. Can he really have meant it? Nothing is sacred? Why? Why was he so insistent, so absolute?

 He’s not alone. Many comedians would say the same thing. Perhaps this reflects nothing more than a desire for professional freedom, an intuition that, once a few “sensitive” subjects are declared out of bounds, the list will grow.

But I think it is more than that. I think it stems from an understanding that “offensive” humour is not an aberration, a warped version of the real thing, but rather that offensiveness of one kind or another is an intrinsic part of humour. Virtually all humour is offensive to someone; most humour is hurtful to some sensibility; much humour is rooted in pain and fear and the ugly reality of things.

Within hours of any natural disaster or other tragedy, you may be sure, the jokes will start: after the Challenger space shuttle blew up in 1986, for example, it somehow became common knowledge that NASA stood for Need Another Seven Astronauts. People tell jokes about the dead, and they tell jokes about the grievously afflicted: How did Helen Keller break her arms? Reading the speed signs on the highway.

Part of that is the natural human tendency to crack open taboos. The minute we are told we can’t say something, some element in us insists on doing so. But part of it seems to be a coping mechanism. Humour is almost always rooted in some sort of anxiety — about our bodies, about our place in society, about whatever — or more broadly the disjunction between what we want in life and what we get. As I’ve argued before, all jokes are an echo of the One Big Joke, which is that we are all going to die.

At least, that’s my theory. Nobody really knows why people laugh. They just do. They laugh after being shot at, they laugh after sex, they laugh when they stub their toe. It’s a deeply mysterious instinct (why laugh? why emit this strange barking noise, and not, I don’t know, beat your chest?) and tends to defy attempts at explanation. As E. B. White, the great New Yorker humourist, observed, analyzing humour is a bit like dissecting a frog: “it can be done, but the subject tends to die in the process.”

 What one can say, however, is that it emerges from some fundamentally healthy part of us. And yet it gives rise to its own anxiety. Most of us have probably laughed at an offensive joke at one point or another — racial, sexual or other — then immediately felt guilty for doing so. On the other hand, most of us have probably also been told a similarly offensive joke that caused us to recoil in disgust. What’s the difference? Why do we laugh at the first and not the second?

The obvious answer is: because the first one was funny. But that’s also the moral answer. The first thing to ask about a joke is not, is it offensive, but: is it funny? If it is, if we laugh at it in spite of ourselves, chances are it is because there is something else to it than mere insult or grotesquerie: some larger truth, some point we resist acknowledging, because to do so would make us uncomfortable.

There’s an old saw among comedians, to the effect that there is no such thing as a funny dirty joke, because “if it’s dirty, it’s not funny — and if it’s funny, it’s not dirty.” Part of the appeal of comedy is that it leaves no room for equivocation. There are no personal bests in comedy, no polite euphemisms. You either get the laugh or you don’t.

It’s never entirely clear when an off-colour joke will fly, and when it will merely offend. It depends on context (you can say things in a comedy club you could not say elsewhere, as it does on who is telling the joke (a Jew is more likely to get away with telling Jewish jokes, and so on). But mostly it depends on precision and attention to detail.

 Consider the career of Sarah Silverman, who in the decade and a half since she came to notoriety has gleefully run onto every electric fence of indignation she could find. A sample joke: “I was raped by a doctor.” (Pause.) “Which is, you know, so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” There’s no defence for this joke. It’s just indefensibly funny.

If her routine were only about shock value, I don’t imagine she would have lasted as long as she has. Rather she has thought long and hard about what makes us anxious, what we’re least willing to talk about.

To the traditional comic’s skill at choosing the precise word, the precise syllable that provokes laughter, she’s added an ability to find and drill into our most sensitive nerve endings. To be sure, she’s mostly just trying to get the laugh. But she does so by turning our anxieties and discomforts in on themselves, forcing us to confront them rather than bury them.

There’s a world of meaning in this. When an “offensive” comic says nothing is unsayable, they mean that we do not have to be afraid of words. They are not our masters: we are theirs. Everything can be laughed about, because everything can be discussed. Not everyone agrees with this, but that’s hardly surprising. It’s more or less the same fight that Western societies have been hashing out, in one form or another, for centuries.

This is the true political divide, the only one that matters a damn. Not between left and right, but between Athose who have a sense of humour and those who don’t.




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