By Jack Canfora
Talking about the nature of humor or laughter is about as fun as stepping on Legos in bare feet. I get it. But hear me out. For the few of you who can recall essays I have written for this esteemed blog, I tend to try to levin somewhat serious topics with occasional stabs at humor (some hits, some misses, to be sure). Comedy and seriousness can often make for strange bedfellows, as anyone who has tried to sleep with comedy can attest to (an S.J. Perelman homage), but I happen to think they are largely inseperable. Most of life, I contend, makes it so.
Anyway, I was recently asked to write about the nature of humor, despite my conviction that talking about comedy is as useful as swimming about Keynesian economic theory. Like anything else humans are or do, humor is equally equipped to salve or savage, to poison or purify, to nurse wounds or grudges. Please, be assured I will in no way attempt to explainthe nature of comedy, or what makes something “funny.” Dear Lord, nothing is less funny than that. Besides, who the hell am I to think I know?
Want an example of how awful explaining humor is? For that, let us turn to some of the great Western minds. One in particular.
If you’re ever in the mood to find nothing funny ever again, read the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. For a sheer eat-your-angst-ridden- heart-out-Morrissey level of humorlessness, he is tough to beat. He tackles humor with all the sunniness of Sophie’s Choice. Like most philosophers, and some of the rest of us, he makes the critical error of confusing humorlessness for seriousness.
“Observing the imperfections of other men,” he writes, “causes laughter. Much Laughter is at the defects of others.” In other words, humor is sometimes cruel. When I read this, I made a roll of my eyes so strenuous I needed to be rushed to an ophthalmologist. But I challenge you, not so gentle reader, to think of many things that aren’t.
Viewing humor like that is to miss the point entirely. It is like looking at the Sun and focusing entirely on the fact it causes melanoma and provides Florida with so many electoral votes. Hence Hobbes’ nihilistic gem, “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.”
Yes, life can be all those things (imagine what Hobbes would have had to say about life in the 17th Century had he been an Englishwoman). And humor is often cruel. But my God, who’d want to go a day without it? Who could? No one I’d ever trust. I believe that humor binds us because it reassures us that, despite evidence to the contrary, we’re never as alone as we think we are.
The world is indeed sometimes as Hobbes described it. The world is also contains gelato, Side Two of Abbey Road, puppies, and the living poetry of great athletes. The world is home to playgrounds surrounded by green, rolling hills, as well as playgrounds with glass sharded over its asphalt like sprays of diamonds on black cloth. It’s also home to innumerable flowers struggling and blooming through cracks of that asphalt. Most importantly, the world also contains laughter.
Hobbes called laughter “A Sudden Glory,” but he was a philosopher, so I cannot assure you he meant it as a compliment. Maybe the idea of momentary joy – perhaps, in the end, the only kind of joy there is – as a pure good eluded him, as it often eludes most of us. But, every now and then, it catches itself on the ragged edge of a laugh. And that has to be enough. It is enough. We should be unashamedly greedy in our pursuit of it. Let’s try to recognize each other in our laughter. Let’s try to recognize ourselves. Those moments are our best hope of it, I believe. Such moments are indeed “sudden glories.” I wish you, and all of us, many of them.