The death of George Carlin a few days ago brought the topic of comedy to my mind, though I wasn’t particularly a fan of Carlin. He was frequently lionized, along with Lenny Bruce and a few others, for being subversive and countercultural, but what he did really wasn’t anything new. Comedy is subversive by nature, and the idea of using humor to figuratively camouflage propaganda with a red nose and squeaky shoes is older than Aristophanes. Some people would argue that it’s a good thing. Comedy is often heralded as the little boy who guilelessly announces that the emperor wears no clothes, or as the witty Shakespearean fool who speaks truth to power. I think it’s simpler than that. Comedy is the little boy, period. My oldest son declared his personal manifesto at about age five, and it’s haunted me for nearly twenty years:
My Son’s Manifesto: “Anything that makes me laugh is good.”
Me: “Why did you do that thing I told you not to do, son?”
Son: “I thought it would be funny.”
Me: That’s an awful movie, son. I told you to stay away from it. Why did you go see it anyway?”
Son: “It was funny.”
Me: “That music is full of curse words and terrible ideas about women. Why do you want to listen to it?”
Son: “It’s hilarious.”
To this day, one of the finest compliments my son can bestow on anything is to say, “That was hilarious.”
Comedy is one of the best ways to transmit propaganda and make it stick. Everything that chafes the comic, authority first and foremost, is unmercifully lampooned. Every negative behavior the comic likes and wants the freedom to perform openly is glossed over with a laugh and a wink. It’s not hateful because “it’s just a joke.” It’s not dangerous because “it’s funny.” It shouldn’t be illegal because “it’s just harmless fun.” The audience’s moral compass slowly becomes demagnetized, and we don’t realize what’s happening because we’re too busy laughing to notice. The ideas we hear are linked with a pleasant sensation that blurs our sensitivity to the consequences of wrong actions–actions we should avoid not primarily because authority says so, but because they’re ultimately destructive.
Is there a place for humor and social satire? Certainly, but it needs to flow from virtuous motivations. Humor should uplift, not tear down. Satire should both identify hypocrisy and illuminate a better way, not simply lounge in the cheap seats, pointing and laughing. Finally, like anything else in life, the messages conveyed via comedy shouldn’t be absorbed without reflection merely because they’re accompanied by a shot of seltzer down somebody’s pants.