I don’t hear you laughing much lately. I understand that you’re worried and afraid, that everything you’ve been working so hard for now appears to be in jeopardy, that the system you put your faith in produced an unnatural outcome, like a lioness unaccountably giving birth to a toad. I realize that the social and environmental justice you’ve struggled so long to achieve has hit, let’s say, a wall. You’re feeling angry, sad, vulnerable. Listen, I don’t want to talk you out of any of that. But since it isn’t quite closing time, let me buy you a drink, America. Grab this barstool and we’ll pour one bracing chaser for your bitter tears.
Now, I know you’re going to say that our present condition is no laughing matter, that things just aren’t as funny as they were before the night of November 8. You may even be thinking that humor is an ineffective, even an inappropriate, response to the difficult situation we face—that to welcome laughter at this troubled moment is the moral equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns. But hear me out while I sing this short, sweet song of sword and shield (take a big swig, America, and then repeat that three times fast to get yourself in the right spirit).
First of all, America, never forget the immense power of humor to expose misguided values and destructive practices. Satire is as vital and as useful now as it was when Aristophanes ragged on Socrates in The Clouds back in 423 BC. You remember that gut buster, don’t you? Well, we still have plenty to learn from Swift and Johnson, Bierce and Twain, Orwell and Huxley. Satire is not only funny but also enormously forceful and effective—and, human nature being what it is, the comic exposure of vice and folly has the added benefit of offering great job security. America, I know you feel like you’re on the defensive, that even as you try to inspire, persuade, and reform, you secretly fear that you are now a voice crying in the wilderness. The satirist, by contrast, remains on the offensive, challenging established power structures, revealing their absurdity or violence, forcing villains to account for themselves. Orwell was right that “Every joke is a tiny revolution,” because satirical humor is the enemy of established power—especially power that lacks moral leadership. The satirist’s work is the serious business of striking into that troubling gap between what our ideology promises and the often disappointing outcomes our choices actually produce. We don’t call them “punch” lines for nothing.
Consider in this vein the cultural work of innovative comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Joan Rivers, who challenged languages of power and used humor to shine a light on the moral failure to promote racial and gender equality, preserve the natural environment, and protect individual freedoms. Or, America, think of the courage of filmmakers who used humor as the vehicle of piercing social critique: Charlie Chaplin, whose The Great Dictator (1940) bravely satirized Hitler on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II; or Stanley Kubrick, whose Cold War classic, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) used black humor to expose the terrifying absurdities of the nuclear arms race. Because the logical and moral incongruities these comics and filmmakers attacked were painfully real, every laugh they produced in us was a small, important blow to a perilous status quo.
It’s OK to be pissed, America. I don’t blame you. But you can be mad as hell without losing your sense of humor. I’m glad you have so much fight left in you, but you can fight without forgetting how to laugh. As my patron saint Edward Abbey advised, “Be loyal to what you love, be true to the Earth, and fight your enemies with passion and laughter.” Far from imagining humor as mere entertainment, Cactus Ed is part of a venerable tradition of satirists who have successfully deployed laughter as a tool of battle. This is why Wendell Berry, in recognition of the moral force of Abbey’s comedy, gracefully observed that “Humor, in Mr. Abbey’s work, is a function of his outrage, and is therefore always answering to necessity.” And in case you’re worried that satire went to the grave with Aristophanes or Abbey, try tuning in to Alec Baldwin’s send-up of the president-elect on Saturday Night Live. Why does Baldwin’s parody so infuriate The Donald, who watches it each week and then tweets angrily, each week, that it is unwatchable? Not because it is funny (though it is), but because, in its lacerating accuracy, it makes plain the ignorance, hypocrisy, and arrogance that is so richly deserving of comic excoriation.
Look, America, even if you aren’t in the mood yet to brandish humor as a sword, you might at least consider taking it up as a shield—accepting it, humbly, as a small inoculation against the diseases of frustration and fatigue that are epidemic among us these days. Because we love our country and our planet so deeply and yet fear we may be forced to watch them burn—or melt—we find that our love is a bittersweet affection shot through with grief. But humor, in its power and dynamism, can help us to preserve the resilience that enables our creativity and courage—even if, as bluesman Big Bill Broonzy crooned, “When you see me laughing / I’m laughing just to keep from crying.” But don’t you think Bill was right that even when humor is a byproduct of suffering, it is still a healthy response to grief? And I hope I don’t need to remind you that in addition to its emotional and psychological benefits, laughing also raises your heart rate and pulmonary ventilation, increases your brain activity and alertness, stimulates the production of endorphins from your ventromedial prefrontal cortex, reduces your perception of pain, and leads you to relaxation. America, please don’t feel guilty about laughing. It really is OK to want your ventromedial prefrontal cortex to feel better.
Comedy also nurtures empathy, because the appreciation of humor requires flexibility, acceptance, and the capacity to forgive—even to forgive yourself when you’ve fucked up bigly. Humor has the power to bring us together, helping us to reexamine and rebuild our shared identity and sense of common purpose. Doesn’t that sound pretty good right about now, America? Even that most sober of your sages, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose Harvard class of 1821 voted him “Least Likely to Ever Get a Laugh,” wrote an essay called “The Comic,” in which he declared that “The perception of the Comic is a tie of sympathy with other men, a pledge of sanity, and a protection from those perverse tendencies and gloomy insanities in which fine intellects sometimes lose themselves.” And while a sense of humor is impossible to define precisely (after all, “sense” is pretty damned fuzzy), you should be suspicious of folks who lack it, because laughter is essentially a form of self-reflection. Humor, like love and flatulence, is fundamental to our humanity.
Because I’m your Facebook friend I’ve seen how you’re trying to deal with all of this. The disappointment and disillusionment break over you in waves, pushing you back into those old habits of yours, the jeremiad and the elegy—those painful but, at least, familiar forms of expression for your anger and grief. Hey, America, I get it. But in focusing only on what has been wounded you risk forfeiting the regenerative potential of laughter. Remember that comedy is a life-giving force because it helps us to combat despair. As a writer, I believe that the craft of humor is an essential element of the art of survival.
Last call, America. Bottoms up. We’ve both got work in the morning. Important work. I know you’ve had the wind knocked out of you. But, to dig out the old line that desperate stand-up comedians use to challenge desperate audiences: “I know you’re out there; I can hear you breathing.” I can hear you breathing, America. Keep breathing. And then, just as soon as you can, use some of your breath to make the redemptive sound that, even now, is laughter.
Michael P. Branch
Header image of Budweiser bottle at bar by James_Jester, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Michael P. Branch courtesy Michael P. Branch.