My favorite home movie stars my wife sliding down our snow covered hill on a sled, pursued by our two big-giant puppies. The big yellow one steals the hat from her head at the end of the run and plays keep away, bouncing around in the snow and snorting canine amusement. It reinforces my determined belief that humor resides at the core of our being in that spark of awareness that we share with all living creatures.
The oldest recorded joke yet discovered was found etched into a clay tablet in southern Iraq, and while our threadbare mantle of dignity prohibits us from repeating it here, the joke involves the passing of wind. It begins with “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial,” suggesting that even 4000 years ago we considered humor to be as ancient as our sojourn on this earth. Humor was already old even 100,000 years ago when Throg passed wind too close to the campfire and the ancestor of the Tonight Show was born,
One of my favorite humorists was Johnny Carson. For my money he was far and away the most entertaining of the Tonight Show hosts. I haven’t read his biographers, but to this day I don’t know, nor do I wish to know his political affiliation, or whether he had any at all. It’s simply not evident in his humor, which considered all public figures to be fair game. Carson once said, “When a comic becomes enamored with his own views and foists them off on the public in a polemic way, he loses not only his sense of humor but his value as a humorist.”
Which brings us to, as Frank Zappa intoned, “the crux of the biscuit.” Humor has long been an antidote to politics, but in recent years it has become a vector for that disease. The passing winds of change have blown most foul in the caustic gusts from corporate sponsored humor. You have to stretch the blanket to the point of tearing to even call it “humor.” At best it vacillates between snarky and preachy and at worst, it is pure derision.
In every culture, humor has confronted the philodox, challenged the paradigm and resisted the coercive power of the state. It invites us to pull its finger. It speaks the truth and gives us our medicine as a chewable gummy bear when everyone else offers us suppositories. It challenges us to think outside the box, and it tells us the things we desperately need to hear that no one else is willing to say.
We risk losing that benefit when humor is incorporated as another cattle handling technique, and at a time when the tools for managing the herd are growing more sophisticated, we can benefit from the words of George Carlin, who devoted much of his career to showing us how to jump the fence:
“I often warn people: Somewhere along the way, someone is going to tell you, ‘There is no “I” in team.’ What you should tell them is, ‘Maybe not. But there is an “I” in independence, individuality and integrity.’ Avoid teams at all cost. Keep your circle small. Never join a group that has a name. If they say, ‘We’re the So-and-Sos,’ take a walk. And if, somehow, you must join, if it’s unavoidable, such as a union or a trade association, go ahead and join. But don’t participate; it will be your death. And if they tell you you’re not a team player, congratulate them on being observant.”
The age of information is crowded with “So-and-Sos” urging us to join and share their opinions, and the opinion has become enshrined as a holy entitlement in a culture that is rapidly losing its sense of humor. We take ourselves and our opinions so seriously that they are the enabler of our addiction to stress and anger.
Instinctively we still seek out humor, but we depend too much on the pixel to satisfy that need. Nevertheless, there are healthier alternatives to many modern versions, and if we still have a need for them at the end of a long day, there is a vast archive available online that is devoid of the snark, derision and social engineering which permeates modern corporate offerings. Instead of feeding arrogance and addiction, we might even begin to understand human nature better. Consider the wisdom of Barney Fife, who taught us that “His behavior patterns are a permanent fixture of his behavior. Now when you’ve got patterns that are ingrained, well any conflicting conflicts that you might inflict, well they can cause a traumatic trauma.”
There is an even healthier alternative in the life lived off the couch and in an awareness of the irreplaceable moments of the eternal now. God has the very best sense of humor, and if you don’t believe that, you haven’t been paying attention. After all, he invented puppies, and chickens, and he put the meat on the “wrong” side of our shins. So turn off the television. Close the laptop. Put down the newspaper and grab a tennis ball. Your dog has a great joke for you.