Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Ambiguity of Humor: The Joke’s on You

From the King Trump Bible. Real Time with Bill Maher
September 18, 2015
This Bible parody from Bill Maher’s show is intended to be humorous. I think it is. It uses the wonderful camel/needle eye, rich man/heaven comparison, which appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, and uses it to satirize a man whose primary claim to fame is that he is a rich man as he tries to gain the support of Christians. It also throws in a shot at Trump’s exaggerated promises and his Mexican wall proposal. 
However, the humor depends on what the reader or viewer brings to the transaction.

Maher introduces the segment including this and other Trump Bible passages by referring to Trump’s ranking his The Art of the Deal as the second-greatest book of all time. Anyone’s response to this joke and the others will depend on what the reader/viewer thinks about Trump and the bible. A Trump supporter might see this as an attack on his values, an effort to ridicule his beliefs; he is unlikely to notice the point about the incongruity between the avaricious Trump and the poverty espoused by Jesus. A Christian Trump supporter may see this as mocking the inconsistency between the teachings of Christianity and the wealth in religion. Some people could see it as an insult to the bible. Humor is all about frame of reference. Part of what makes the Trump campaign so frightening for some people is that given their values, the Trump campaign is a joke; those people are terrified and astonished to realize that so many people actually have values that are so outlandish that Trump is a serious real option.

Let’s look at someone who is the opposite of Donald Trump: Henry David Thoreau. Here he is talking about taking a walk. After referring to the Crusades, Thoreau advises,

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk. “Walking” The Atlantic (June 1862).

He is exaggerating, using hyperbole, for humorous and rhetorical effect. I always smile at the end, when his list crescendos. For me, he is not making fun of taking walks seriously; he is pointing out that a walk in the natural landscape is an opportunity for adventure, and though he is exaggerating, his description endows the simple walk with an air of grandeur. Later in the essay he compares the landscape of Italy, rich in Roman ruins, to the landscape of the U.S. and concludes that we are actually living in the kind of golden age that those ruins commemorate.
Henry David Thoreau
There he is arguing seriously; in the case of the walk, he must overload the comparison using irony to make the point and not make the point at the same time.

Not everybody got Thoreau’s ironic humor. Based on Thoreau’s writing, in 1865 in the North American Review, James Russell Lowell concluded that, “Thoreau had no humor, and this implies that he was a sorry logician” (338). Though Lowell did have some reputation as a humorist, as well as a poet and an essayist when he wrote that, he has little reputation left to speak of today.

Perhaps even Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson may have not always gotten the joke:

The tendency to magnify the moment, to read all the laws of Nature in the one object or one combination under your eye, is of course comic to those who do not share the philosopher's perception of identity. To him there was no such thing as size. The pond was a small ocean; the Atlantic, a large Walden Pond. He referred every minute fact to cosmical laws. (Emerson’s Eulogy)

Many, more modern critics, including E. B. White, have found humor in his writing, but how can we tell whether Thoreau was serious about preparing for a walk by preparing for death? Surely if he was, he would be Lowell’s “sorry logician.”

We can’t know for sure, but Thoreau was a great admirer of Thomas Carlyle and of Carlyle’s brilliant and wierdly ironic Sartor Resartus. In his essay “Thomas Carlyle and His Works,” Thoreau observes,

Sartor Resartus is, perhaps, the sunniest and most philosophical, as it is the most autobiographical of his works, in which he drew most largely on the experience of his youth. But we miss everywhere a calm depth, like a lake, even stagnant, and must submit to rapidity and whirl, as on skates, with all kinds of skillful and antic motions, sculling, sliding, cutting punch-bowls and rings, forward and backward. The talent is very nearly equal to the genius. Sometimes it would be preferable to wade slowly through a Serbonian bog, and feel the juices of the meadow.

Here Thoreau uses ice skating images to describe the “antic motions” of the work. According to Sophia Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, Thoreau was “an experienced skater” who executed “dithyrambic dances and Bacchic leaps on the ice.” Thoreau contrasts two extreme states—the swift, precise movement of the skater and the slow, deliberate movement of one wading through a bog—both of which his life and writing suggest he was capable of and capable of appreciating.

Whether a passage like his prescription for walking is humorous or not will depend on what each of us thinks of the context and the author. The difference between Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report version) and Bill O’Reilly was essentially the audience. Lowell thought Thoreau was a humorless mediocrity; I think Thoreau was brilliant. Although what the author intended to say does not determine the outcome (many who intend to be funny are not), in the case of humor, we would like to know whether we are laughing at or with the author. Sometimes we will never be sure, especially when authors sail close to the wind, the most exciting point of sail, but ultimately humor depends on an agreement, real or illusory, between an author and an audience.

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