Thursday, April 12, 2007

Slipping on One's Inner Banana Peel

We are all of us funny, if not to ourselves, at least to some of the others who see us during the warp and weft of our day.

It helps to have those night-vision glasses that allow us to see ourself as funny. Many of the great humorists of all times had access to such glasses, frequently appearing in public while wearing them.

Humorists are essentially travel writers, moving from place to place, situation to situation, sending dispatches back to the loyal readers at home. When one of them--such as the most recently departed Kurt Vonnegut--dies, we are quick to immortalize them by drawing attention away from their humor and plunking the attention, as though it were a large funeral wreath, at the foot of Seriousness of Purpose.

Humorists are, in fact, deadly serious, as different from comics as night is from day.

Humorists are propelled by a combination of impatience, anger, and morality. Comics tend to be more physical, relying on schtick, Yiddish for gimmick, on punch lines--"That was no lady; that was my masseuer."

Humorists and comics may repeat routines before different audiences, but one quick way to spot the difference between them is that the laughter--if it comes at all--from the comic arrives at the same place in the routine. The humorist's audiences will laugh in different places.

This is, of course, more a dissection than a practical examination, a sense that the subject is dead.

I have learned much of this from a man who in many ways reminds me of the private detective protagonist of the Raymond Chandler mysteries, Philip Marlowe, of whom its creator once wrote:

"...down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid...the detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man...he is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks -- that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The teacher in this case not only invented but supervised as head writer all hundred forty episodes of Laugh-In,an iconic presence on the cusp of American humor and comedy. Digby Wolfe. By degrees angry, impatient, and moral, he is every bit a humorist and his connection with Philip Marlowe profound. The block quote above comes from a piece Raymond Chandler published in The Atlantic Monthly in its November,1945 issue, "The Simple Art of Murder."

In it, Chandler also said:

The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.

Yes, yes; I know: By placing such a weighty metaphorical burden on Wolfe's shoulders, I walk the cusp of inflating the seriousness of the humorist's intent and become in my seriousness a prime target for the humorist's heat-seeking missiles. But it is to me an apt comparison and so I venture it in this public forum, making myself vulnerable.

Vulnerability is another great tool for the humorist and for other artists; vulnerability leaves one open to accountability and to consequences, two things the pompous and self-inflated dare not risk.

Accountability and consequences now, in this early Arpil of 2007, bear heavily on a man in our midst who professes himself as a humorist and, to translate from that impressive-sounding German word, meneschkenner, an understander of the Human Condition. The man is Mr. Don Imus. And there, I have already shot a barb in the service of the universal condition of Humor. Mister Don Imus. How inflated that makes him appear to be, the simple act of calling him by his name and attaching the honorific accorded to many American males over the age of thirteen.

Imus could have gotten away with his most recent trespass over the boundaries of civility and good taste by using only one epithet, either the racial or the gender. He used both and got caught and in the process embarrassed us to the point where we had to speak up. Fortunately, there were those who were offended by each transgression separately, and said, in effect, no more, standing up in protest.

I believe fully in such concepts as apology and the philosophy of immunization against self-incrimination as expressed in the Fifth Amendment to The Constitution of the United States. Mr. Don Imus has as of this date wrapped himself in apology and the equivalent of The Fifth Amendment, I was just trying to make a joke.

Look at the flap John Kerry generated with his bungled joke explanation, a flap paid for not with the financial support of his Swift-Boat detractors but rather with the emotional and intellectual support of those very, dare I say Republican, sources.

Humor means to topple intransigence, self-importance, established rule, hypocrisy. Humor means to soak the shoes of all who attempt to walk on water. Humor means we get to laugh at them because they freaking deserve it.

Raymond Chandler, who once shot a hole in the ceiling of his stall shower while trying to commit suicide, was right sixty-two years ago when he crystallized his observation that the streets are meaner.

The streets of the Moral High Ground, whether they are in Jerusalem, the parking lot of Rev. Rick Warren's purpose-driven church, where purpose-driven BMWs clamor for parking spaces; or W.C. Fields' favorite target, Lompoc, are just as mean as Howard Street south of The Slot in San Francisco or Santee Street in downtown L.A. The humorist recognizes this and reports on it. The social conservative rushes to forgive Mr. Don Imus and sign up to be a guest on his show. The Conservative talk show host, never a standout in mathematics, rushes to construct a formula in which the blame may be attributed to Bill Clinton.

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