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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

Healing America's Humor Divide Is No Laughing Matter

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

We may be closer to stepping on the cosmic banana peel than we think.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

This column originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

If there was ever an unfunnier time in America, it’s hard to remember. Of course, COVID-19 isolation makes it hard enough to keep track of what day it is. Yet you can’t ignore the uproar over whether to reopen, half-open or stay shut and warnings of brewing civil unrest, as the coronavirus continues its dark romp through our cities and towns.

Time to chill just a bit? Enjoy some of that rollicking wit for which Americans are famous?

Good luck. Our vaunted sense of humor, as showcased by Stephen Colbert and other late-night comics, or what passes for laughs on talk radio, has become as poisonous as our right-left politics. It’s so bad not even comedy writers can stand it anymore.

“Many of the jokes from both sides are cruel and lack punchlines,” Blayr Austin wrote last November in The New York Times. “We seem to have forgotten that comedy can play an important role in deflecting from the stressors of life and bringing us together.”

Instead, we fuss over things like who’s funny and who’s not. Conservatives are ideologues, liberal wags insist, and about as funny as a surgical mask. Conservatives are a lot funnier than they get credit for, right-leaning wit-erati push back, if only liberal ideologues who control the media would exercise less control.

Some of humor’s healthiest uses, psychologists suggest, are humanely nonpartisan. Free of anger and aggression, comedy can heal wounded emotions, comfort the afflicted and make rolling our boulders up life’s hill more tolerable. It exerts a form of jujitsu on what frightens us. In a quarantine-themed New Yorker cartoon, a woman talks on the phone while four horned creatures enjoy a game of Jenga on a nearby card table. “Yeah,” she says, “I’m just alone with my demons, but it turns out they’re actually good company.”

“Humor disengages fear because it changes your perspective,” wrote mental health writer and advocate Therese J. Borchard on PsychCentral.

Skewering, smash-mouth political humor has its value, of course. As comic legend Mel Brooks said on NPR: “Get on a soapbox with Hitler, you’re gonna lose — he was a great orator. But if you can make fun of him, if you can have people laugh at him, you win.”

On the other hand, going for some poor schnook’s jugular just because his politics don’t jibe with yours too easily smacks of a hit job.

“There was time when … humor about the human condition was more in vogue,” my friend Andrew Smith told me. A comedy veteran and former head writer for Saturday Night Live, he was thinking of “those gentle comics like Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy.” In contrast to today’s anger-loaded fare, Smith said: “It was better when it was sweet and lovely.”

But there may be light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not an oncoming train. Smith believes our COVID crisis signals a return, however momentary, to a less pugnacious form of humor that bypasses the id-ridden agita modeled by President Donald Trump’s tossing of Twitter grenades.

“This quarantine thing has unleashed tremendous amounts of sweet humor,” Smith told me on the phone last week. “There are all these people sending around (on the internet) very sweet stuff about: Here we are in quarantine and we’re all together, our hair’s growing, we can’t get a haircut.” (One of my favorites: Daniel Emmet on his couch singing a quarantine-inspired rendition of “Nessun Dorma.”)

“There’s a whole genre of comedy now that’s a lot sweeter than it ever was, and by ‘ever’ I mean six months,” Smith said.

I was struck by the power of grassroots humor in an upside-down world when I was reporting from Indonesia in crisis times 20 years ago. The country was up in arms, quite literally in some places, and ordinary people were caught in the middle. Yet many seemed to cope with a sly, subtle irony that would have been at home at a New York deli counter or an Alabama truck stop.

At length, it dawned on me: Humor is a means by which people in hard circumstances, with little control over their lives, ease the pain of a precarious world. You rob that which steals your humanity by turning it into a joke.

As writer and poet Langston Hughes put it: “Humor is laughing at what you haven't got when you ought to have it." That’s easy to forget when we’re sheltered by plenty or just plain luck.

Scholars have argued conservatives and liberals may possess yin-yang traits that shape their approach to humor. Liberals are the plate-breakers while conservatives cling to heirloom values. With his gift for busting up the institutional crockery, though, Trump seems to have tossed that theory out the window.

The most useful kind of humor for our pandemic times, when unity is at such a premium, may simply be to focus on the incongruous moments in everyday life that reflect our common humanity, its absurdities and foibles.

Blayr Austin, again, wrote: “There’s room for both scathing political satire and jokes about a trip to Ikea or a nightmare family gathering at the holidays. To encourage a balance doesn’t undermine the importance and urgency of political issues.”

Agreed. I was living in New York during 9/11 and remember how we deployed humor as a weapon aimed at our attackers. Yet you could be forgiven if you longed for the good old days immediately prior when the city was, on its best days, a comic buffet.

Like the time I visited my favorite candy store on the Lower East Side. Facing a stressful apartment renovation, I wanted to bury my worries in a mountain of sugar. I also happened to be carrying a chunk of black granite, a sample for new countertops.

“So you always carry that piece of rock with you?” asked the woman at the display case. OK, it wasn’t the quip of the century, but it was funny, and we shared a laugh about the absurdity of a big galoot like me walking around the city, a Sisyphus junior, clutching a pet rock as a security blanket.

This may also seem absurd, but do you suppose it’s just possible America isn’t as cataclysmically divided by politics or ideology as late-night TV, radio talk and the news would have us believe? What if we paid a little more attention to our capacity to celebrate some of the sweet ironies and lovely idiosyncrasies daily life churns up?

And speaking of reopening, how about reopening our hearts a little so we can close out our great-divide obsession before it closes us out? You never know: We may be closer to stepping on the cosmic banana peel than we think. As the late humorist Erma Bombeck reminds us: “When humor goes, there goes civilization.”

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