[This essay will appear in “Comedy,” the Winter 2014 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]
Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all. — Mark Twain
Twain for as long as I’ve known him has been true to his word, and so I’m careful never to find myself too far out of his reach. The Library of America volumes of his Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1852–1910) stand behind my desk on a shelf with the dictionaries and the atlas. On days when the news both foreign and domestic is moving briskly from bad to worse, I look to one or another of Twain’s jests to spring the trap or lower a rope, to summon, as he is in the habit of doing, a blast of laughter to blow away the “peacock shams” of the world’s “colossal humbug.”
Laughter was Twain’s stock in trade, and for 30 years as bestselling author and star attraction on America’s late-nineteenth-century lecture stage, he produced it in sufficient quantity to make bearable the acquaintance with grief that he knew to be generously distributed among all present in the Boston Lyceum or a Tennessee saloon, in a Newport drawing room as in a Nevada brothel. Whether the audience was sober or drunk, topped with top hats or snared in snakebitten boots, Twain understood it likely in need of a remedy to cover its losses.
No other writer of his generation had seen as much of the young nation’s early sorrow, or become as familiar with its commonplace scenes of human depravity and squalor. As a boy on the Missouri frontier in the 1830s he attended the flogging and lynching of fugitive slaves; in the California gold fields in the 1860s he kept company with underage murderers and overage whores; in New York City in the 1870s he supped at the Gilded Age banquets of financial swindle and political fraud, learning from his travels that “the hard and sordid things of life are too hard and too sordid and too cruel for us to know and touch them year after year without some mitigating influence.” Twain bottled the influence under whatever label drummed up a crowd — as comedy, burlesque, satire, parody, sarcasm, ridicule, wit — any or all of it presented as “the solid nonpareil,” guaranteed to fortify the blood and restore the spirit. Humor for Twain was the hero with a thousand faces.
With Groucho Marx I share the opinion that comedians “are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world,” but the assaying of that commodity — of what does it consist in its coats of many colors, among them cocksure pink, shithouse brown, and dead-end black — is a question that I gladly leave to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, Twain’s contemporary who in 1900 took note of its primary components: “The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human… Laughter has no greater foe than emotion… Its appeal is to the intelligence, pure and simple… Our laughter is always the laughter of a group.”
Which is to say that all jokes are inside jokes and the butts of them are us, the only animal that laughs, but also the only one that is laughed at. The weather isn’t amusing, neither is the sea. Wombats don’t do metaphor or stand-up. What is funny is man’s situation as a scrap of mortal flesh entertaining intimations of immortality, President Richard Nixon believing himself the avatar of William the Conqueror, President George W. Bush in the persona of a medieval pope preaching holy crusade against all the world’s evil.
Venting One’s Spleen
The confusion of realms is the substance of Shakespeare’s comedies — as a romantic exchange of mistaken identities in As You Like It, in Measure for Measure as an argument for the forgiveness of sin:
But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.
Spleens in the Elizabethan anatomy give rise to mirth because they also produce the melancholy springing from the bowels to remind us that although unaccountably invested with the power to conceive of ourselves as vessels of pure and everlasting light, we were made, as were toads, of foul and perishable stuff. Apes play games in zoos and baobab trees, but, not knowing that they’re bound to die, they don’t discover ludicrous incongruities between the physical and the metaphysical, don’t invent, as does François Rabelais’ Gargantua, “the most lordly, the most excellent” way to remove the smell and fear of death from the palace of his “jolly asshole,” by wiping it first with silk and velvet, lastly and most gloriously, with the neck of a “well-downed goose.”
All humor is situational, but the forms of it that survive the traveling in time — Shakespeare’s romance and Rabelais’ bawdy as well as Juvenal’s satire and Molière’s ridicule — speak to the fundamental truth of the human predicament, which is that men die from time to time and worms do eat them. The jokes dependent upon a specific historical setting don’t have much of a shelf life; the voice between the lines gets lost, and with it the sharing of the knowledge of what is in or out of place.
To look at the early-seventeenth-century painting Interior with Merry Company or at a mosaic of strolling masked musicians from a wall in second-century-B.C. Pompeii is to understand that a good time is being had by all, to infer that for as long as humans have walked the earth, they have found in the joy of laughter a companion more faithful than the dog. But exactly what prompts the lace-trimmed Dutch girls to their lovely smiling, or whether the Roman drum is tapping out a cadence or a song, I cannot say. I wasn’t in the loop; four or twenty-one centuries out of touch, I don’t know who first said what to whom, or why the merriment is merry.
Even in one’s own day and age it’s never a simple matter to catch the drift in the wind or judge the lay of the land. Lenny Bruce remarks on the collapse of his off-color nightclub act in front of a milk-white audience in Milwaukee — “They don’t laugh, they don’t heckle, they just stare at me in disbelief” — and I’m reminded of my own first encounter, at the age of 13, with a silence casting me into an outer darkness in a galaxy far, far away.
In the autumn of 1948 on my first Sunday at a Connecticut boarding school, the headmaster (a pious and confiding man, as grave as he was good) welcomed the returning and newly arriving students with an edifying sermon. Protestant but nondenominational, the chapel had been built to the design of an early-eighteenth-century New England spiritual simplicity — white wood, unstained glass, straight-backed pews set in two sternly disciplined rows before an unobtrusive pulpit. The students were arranged alphabetically by class, seniors to the fore, preps, myself among them, fitted into the choir loft above the doors at the rear. My family having moved east from California only a few weeks prior to my being sent off to school, I’d never before seen a Connecticut landscape.
More to the point, I’d only twice been inside a church, for an uncle’s wedding and a police chief’s funeral. The latter ceremony I’d attended with my grandfather during his tenure as mayor of San Francisco during the Second World War, one of the many occasions on which, between the ages of seven and 11, I listened to him deliver an uplifting political speech.
Out of the loop within the walls of the chapel, I assumed that the headmaster’s sermon was a canvassing for votes, whether for or from God I didn’t know, but either way a call to arms, and as I had been taught to do when an admiral or a parks commissioner completed his remarks, I stood to attention with the tribute of firm and supportive applause. The appalled silence in the chapel was as cold as a winter in Milwaukee. The entire school turned to stare in disbelief, the headmaster nearly missed his step down from the pulpit, the boys to my left and right edged away, as if from a long-dead rat.
Never mind that my intention was civil, my response meant to show respect. During the next four years at school, I never gained admission to the company of the elect. I’d blotted my copybook, been marked down as an offensive humorist from the wrong side of the Hudson River.
In the troubled sea of the world’s ambition, men rise by gravity, sink by levity, and on my first Sunday in Connecticut I had placed myself too far below the salt to indulge the hope of an ascent to the high-minded end of the table — not to be trusted with the singing of the school song, or with the laughing at people who didn’t belong to beach clubs on Long Island. The sense of being off the team accompanied me to Yale College (I never saw the Harvard game) and shaped my perspective as a young newspaper reporter in the 1950s.
A potentially free agent, not under contract to go along with the program — able to find fault with an official press release, put an awkward question to a department-store mogul — I was looked upon with suspicion by the wisdoms in office. The attitude I took for granted on the part of real-estate kingpins and ladies enshrined in boxes at the opera, but I didn’t recognize it as one adjustable to any and all occasions until the winter night in 1958 when the San Francisco chapter of Mensa International (a society composed of persons blessed with IQ test scores above the 98th percentile) staged a symposium meant to plumb to its utmost depths (intellectual, psychological, and physiological) the mystery of human gender.
Wine and cheese to be served, everybody to remove his or her clothes before being admitted to the discussion. Dispatched by the San Francisco Examiner to report on the event, I didn’t make it past the coatracks on which the seekers of the naked truth draped their fig leaves. But even with the embodiments of genius, Mensa wasn’t taking any chances. Confronted with a display of for the most part unlovely and decomposing flesh, the doorkeepers distributed identifying wrist bracelets, blue silk for boys, pink velvet for girls, one of each for gays, lesbians, and transsexuals. What was wonderful was the utter seriousness of the proceeding. Nobody laughed or risked the semblance of a smile; the company of the elect looked with proud disdain upon the fully clothed reporters standing around in unpolished shoes.
Chicolini Really Is an Idiot
Laughter follows from the misalignment of a reality and a virtual reality, and the getting of the joke is the recognition of which is which. The notions of what is true or beautiful or proper held sacred by the other people in the caucus or the clubhouse set up the punch line — the sight of something where it’s not supposed to be, the story going where it’s not supposed to go, Groucho Marx saying, “Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”
Groucho’s appeal is to the faculty named by Bergson as “intelligence, pure and simple,” and I laugh out loud for the reason given by Arthur Schopenhauer: “simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real object.”
Being in or out of the loop is not only a question of separations in space and time, it is also a matter of the distance between different sets or turns of mind. Sudden and happy perceptions of incongruity are not hard to come by in a society that worships its machines, regards the sales pitch and the self-promotion as its noblest forms of literary art. What Twain understood to be the world’s colossal humbug enjoys a high standing among people who define the worth of a thing as the price of a thing and therefore make of money, in and of itself a colossal humbug, the true and proper name for God.
“There are,” said Twain, “certain sweet-smelling, sugarcoated lies current in the world which all politic men have apparently tacitly conspired together to support and perpetuate… We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going and then go with the drove. We have two opinions: one private, which we are afraid to express, and another one — the one we use — which we force ourselves to wear to please Mrs. Grundy.”
It is the Mrs. Grundy of the opinion polls from whom President Barack Obama begs the favor of a sunny smile, to whom the poets who write the nation’s advertising copy sing their songs of love, for whom the Aspen Institute sponsors summer and winter festivals of think-tank discussion to reawaken the American spirit and redecorate the front parlor of the American soul.
The exchanges of platitude at the higher altitudes of moral and social pretension Twain celebrated as festive occasions on which “taffy is being pulled.” Some of the best of it gets pulled at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York when it is being explained to a quorum of the monied elite (contented bankers, corporate lawyers, arms manufacturers) that American foreign policy, rightly understood, is a work of Christian charity and an expression of man’s goodwill to man.
Nobody pulls the taffy better than Dr. Henry Kissinger, the White House National Security Advisor in 1970 who by way of an early Christmas greeting that year to the needy poor in Cambodia secured the delivery of thousands of tons of high explosive, but as often at the council as I’ve heard him say that the nuclear option trumps the China card, that the lines in the Middle Eastern sand connect the Temple of Solomon to the Pentagon, that America under no circumstances is to be caught holding Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella, I seldom find the hint of a sign that the other gentlemen in the room know or care that Chicolini here really is an idiot. Even if the gentlemen had their doubts about Chicolini, where would be the percentage of letting them out of the bag? Chicolini is rich, and therefore Chicolini is wise. To think otherwise is an impiety; to say otherwise is a bad career move.
Mocking the Gilded Age
Twain was careful to mind his manners when speaking from lecture platforms to crowds of Mrs. Grundys in both the western and eastern states. He bottled his ferocious ridicule in the writing (much of it in newspapers) that he likened to “painted fire,” bent to the task of burning down with a torch of words the pestilent hospitality tents of self-glorifying cant. He had in mind the health of the society on which in 1873 he bestowed the honorific “The Gilded Age” in recognition of its great contributions to the technologies of selfishness and greed, a society making itself sick with the consumption of too many sugarcoated lies and one that he understood not to be a society at all but a state of war.
We have today a second Gilded Age more magnificent than the first, but our contemporary brigade of satirists doesn’t play with fire. The marketing directors who produce the commodity of humor for prime-time television aim to amuse the sheep, not shoot the elephants in the room. They prepare the sarcasm-lite in the form of freeze-dried sound bites meant to be dropped into boiling water at Gridiron dinners, Academy Award ceremonies, and Saturday Night Live. “There is a hell of a distance,” said Dorothy Parker, “between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it.” George Bernard Shaw seconded the motion: “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world.”
Twain didn’t expect or intend his satire to correct the conduct of Boss Tweed, improve the morals of Commodore Vanderbilt, or stop the same-day deliveries of Congress from Washington to the banks in New York. Nor did he exclude himself from the distinguished company of angry apes rolling around in the mud of their mortality. He knew himself made, like all other men, as “a poor, cheap, wormy thing… a sarcasm, the Creator’s prime miscarriage in inventions,” easily seduced by the “paltry materialisms and mean vanities” that made both himself and America great.
A man at play with the life of his mind overriding the decay of his matter, his laughter the digging himself out of the dung heap of moralizing cowardice that is the consequence of ingesting too much boardwalk taffy. His purpose is that of a physician attending to the liberties of the people shriveled by the ambitions of the state, his belief that it is the courage of a democracy’s dissenting citizens that defends their commonwealth against the despotism of a plutocracy backed up with platitudes, billy clubs, surveillance cameras, and subprime loans.
Which is why in times of trouble I reach for the saving grace of the nearby Twain. Laughter in all of its conjugations and declensions cannot help but breathe the air of freedom, and in the moment of delight and surprise that is my laughing out loud at his Extracts from Adam’s Diary or “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” I escape, if only briefly, from the muck of my own ignorance, vanity, and fear, bind up the festering wound inflicted on the day I was born with the consolation of the philosophy named by Charlie Chaplin: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot.”
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, slightly adapted for TomDispatch, introduces “Comedy,” the Winter 2014 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, soon to be released at that website.
This article first appeared on TomDispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).