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On Humor (from 11/8/19)

1          Humor and Bigotry

I chuckled recently at an ethnic joke and quickly regretted it. Certainly, I have no consciously bigoted sentiments towards any “type” of person. Even towards those who we call “evil” I think: “forgive them of their sins, they know not what they do,” and thus oppose extreme acts of “vengeance” such as capital punishment, separating children from their parents along the U.S-Mexico Border, and I oppose any other forms of “cruel and unusual punishment” that one’s sadistic imagination might concoct and/or perpetrate. Regarding how I treat others based on the “type” of person they are, if anything, speaking, at least on a conscious level, as opposed to thinking much about any person’s ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identification, subcultural group, et cetera, I strive, in fact quite ardently, to be a secular, cosmopolitan universalist, to such an extent that I often fail to appreciate niches, social cliques, subcultures, nationalities, et cetera. I wonder if while growing up and through much of my twenties I was guilty of racial-colorblindness in the sense that I really didn’t  think about what color someone’s skin was…at least until a fellow named Jack began expressing to me his deep-felt frustration with his own experiences of being subjected to racism and his own scholarship on the topic. Then I began questioning my own assumptions on the topic.

 In my senior capstone course on liberal studies and Native American culture, which I took back in the spring semester of 2018, our small class, of I think eight students, found our way into a discussion on our views regarding ethnic, national, racial, religious, and cultural heritage and all my classmates spoke with interest in those they identified with while I explained that I couldn’t relate in the least. More recently I also expressed this to my therapist—how, actually, I find such cliquishness divisive and lacking focus on our more general humanness which unifies us all.

            Unity is no mirage. It is a distant shore. I believe we should at least head for that good shore, though most of us will not reach it in this life.

                           -E.B. White[i]

            When they asked Socrates where he came from he did not say ‘From Athens’, but ‘From the world’. He, whose thoughts were fuller and wider, embraced the universal world as his city, scattered his acquaintances, his fellowship and his affections throughout the human race, not as we do who only look at what lies right in front of us.

              -Montaigne[ii]

Ironically, do I not sound like quite the liberal, coastal, elitist, urban American?

To what extent is this by cultural and environmental osmosis and to what extent is it the conviction of my reason? I want to say the latter, since American though I am by inheritance, geographical location, and the politics and culture I’m subjected to, I otherwise don’t think of myself as such. (Not that I am “anti” American or that I oppose our values of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” along with social democracy and such…) (Interestingly, to the extent which some tendencies of a “country” or “nation” do attract me, at least on the basis of culture, I do observe how I am exceptionally smitten by French literature, from Montaigne and Voltaire to Baudelaire and Rimbaud, to Proust and Ponge 1)And I think I would like to eventually begin reading Balzac and Sartre…; additionally I swoon over a few French painters as well: Renoir, Bonnard, Monet,… )…

But back to this specific ethnic joke! Here is how it goes:

“If there were good German jokes within the briefer Nazi era, none has come down to us. But, then, in the joke that lists the world’s five shortest books, the first volume is titled Great German Stand-up Comedians.” [iii]

Germans are perhaps so rarely the butt of jokes in American popular culture (unless making fun of Hitler and Nazis very specifically) that I wonder how many people even understand the joke, or understand it as I think I do. (I don’t even know if I “understand” it correctly as my reaction to it is uninformed, hasty, and just based on a guess.) Moreover, Germans’ being white and associated with World War Two and the Holocaust I wonder if even you think I am somewhat ridiculous in feeling guilty about joking about them. (Not that I would condone a double standard or assume you guilty of it!) So far as racial and ethnic groups are concerned, with so much stigma surrounding the imperial, enslaving and genocidal evils of certain privileged white, male Europeans, maybe there’s a chance for a sort of desensitization or lack of sympathy? So I’m not sure if I get the joke but I’m guessing it’s some play on a stereotype that Germans are absurdly serious and cold, incapable of a good laugh?

2          The Funniest Person I know…

The funniest person I know is Marcel Kroeger. We worked for a few years as cashiers together in the earlier 2010s. I wish I could remember the things Marcel said that made me laugh. Virtually every word of his amused me, despite my lack of laughter. (I rarely laugh even when amused.) Once though, after I made a comment to Marcel complimenting his gift for humor he said (jokingly, I thought) that he attributed this to his severe depression and self-esteem struggles. I thought, since it was not typical of him to share with me his deep probes into his psychology, that he was making fun of a certain stereotype about funny people. Also, he never struck me as even remotely depressed or low in the realm of self-esteem. Indeed, I wondered if Marcel had a rare capacity for constant and deep happiness.

Once, another person I know, Linus Rice, who, like Marcel, jokes very constantly, told me very directly and explicitly that he jokes almost pathologically out of insecurity and desire to be widely liked. (He is widely liked, and likeable either with or without his jokes.) Does Marcel also feel this way? Or did he at the time of his remark? I think back to those cashier days with a tiny bit of fondness when recalling how he made the tedium of those sometimes 12 hour shifts in front of cash registers (which I hyperbolically described to him as feeling like imprisonment) slightly more bearable, almost always carrying a smile with what appeared to be such ease, when in contrast, if I managed to wear a smile of my own, it took a lot of conjuring and force and counting my blessings, et cetera.

            What was his mysterious ability to enjoy life?

                           -Phillip Lopate[iv]

3          Frasier

The TV show Frasier won me over about a year ago (My wife Ashley and I decided to watch it because we’d just finished Cheers, 2)a show I could not help but love for its mix of high and low brow humor, how it serves as one many records of the 1980s 3)(most of which I did not live through, as I was born in 1986), the rather melancholy feel I got every time the show’s theme song played 4)(it reminds me 5)6)still of the early 1990s; I was four or five, when perhaps new episodes still aired and my mother had it on (?), around the time my mother left my father, and we lived in a small apartment and there was just a vague, isolated sense of melancholy in the air; my memory of the melancholy feeling remains so pungent; I hope my mother was more-or-less “okay” in those days. If one could only at least sort of know as a child what one knows in the hindsight of adulthood, how differently one might express one’s love to one’s parents then. There are so many “if only’s” we can do nothing about but perhaps such mindfulness can inform ones’ conscientiousness in the future and can add a special, atoning sort of affection for one’s parents… ); Cheers also featured impeccable actresses and actors. Woody Harrelson in particular I think proved to be a most versatile, from naïve and not so bright, rural Woody in Cheers to the shrewd President Lyndon B. Johnson in Rob Reiner’s LBJ, et cetera…; this is how we were introduced, so to speak, to Frasierand Lilith Crane along with Kelsey Grammar and Bebe Neuwirth who portrayed the doomed duo, and our interest was piqued). Frasier is one of my favorite shows because, among other reasons, to date, no show brought 7)and continues to bring me more tears and stomach pains from laugher. (Schitt’s Creek, Friends, The Office, Cheers, and Third Rock From the Sun were also exceptionally funny but still, for me, nowhere near as much as Frasier).

I relate to Dr. Frasier Crane in certain respects– most of all to his ambition to be scholarly, highbrow, and cultured– pursuits not so virtuous that they ought to be immune to a little roasting; indeed, the erudite can descend as much into snobbishness as the “upper-middle-class” (as if “knowledge” or even “wisdom” or “wealth” 8)all of which I think boils down to luck anyway… somehow equated actual, intrinsic “superiority.” I have also met “poor” snobs spoiled by bitterness and envy, along with emphatically unscholarly or not so well educated snobs corroded by the insecurities they feel concerning their lack of knowledge pertaining to this or that. What I aspire to is a

            Friendliness, disassociated from all snobbishness…

                           -Proust[v]

  • 11/8/2019

[i] E.B White; Essays; Pp. 135-136

[ii] From the essay “On Education Children”; The Complete Essays, Translated by M.A. Screech, p.176

[iii] From Joseph Epstein’s essay “What’s So Funny?”; 2014; The Ideal of Culture, p. 100; 2018; ) 

[iv] From Phillip Lopate’s book Against Joie de Vivre; “Carlos: Evening the City of Friends”; p. 237

[v] From Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust; translated by Lydia Davis, p. 210

References   [ + ]

1. And I think I would like to eventually begin reading Balzac and Sartre…
2. a show I could not help but love for its mix of high and low brow humor, how it serves as one many records of the 1980s (((most of which I did not live through, as I was born in 1986
3. (most of which I did not live through, as I was born in 1986), the rather melancholy feel I got every time the show’s theme song played (((it reminds me ((((still
4. (it reminds me ((((still
5. ((still of the early 1990s; I was four or five, when perhaps new episodes still aired and my mother had it on (?), around the time my mother left my father, and we lived in a small apartment and there was just a vague, isolated sense of melancholy in the air; my memory of the melancholy feeling remains so pungent; I hope my mother was more-or-less “okay” in those days. If one could only at least sort of know as a child what one knows in the hindsight of adulthood, how differently one might express one’s love to one’s parents then. There are so many “if only’s” we can do nothing about but perhaps such mindfulness can inform ones’ conscientiousness in the future and can add a special, atoning sort of affection for one’s parents…
6. still of the early 1990s; I was four or five, when perhaps new episodes still aired and my mother had it on (?), around the time my mother left my father, and we lived in a small apartment and there was just a vague, isolated sense of melancholy in the air; my memory of the melancholy feeling remains so pungent; I hope my mother was more-or-less “okay” in those days. If one could only at least sort of know as a child what one knows in the hindsight of adulthood, how differently one might express one’s love to one’s parents then. There are so many “if only’s” we can do nothing about but perhaps such mindfulness can inform ones’ conscientiousness in the future and can add a special, atoning sort of affection for one’s parents… ); Cheers also featured impeccable actresses and actors. Woody Harrelson in particular I think proved to be a most versatile, from naïve and not so bright, rural Woody in Cheers to the shrewd President Lyndon B. Johnson in Rob Reiner’s LBJ, et cetera…
7. and continues to bring
8. all of which I think boils down to luck anyway…

By Sean O'Connor

Hi, I'm Sean O'Connor, a poet and writer pursuing my MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at William Paterson University, where I also work as a learning generalist and where I received my BA in Liberal Studies.

Currently. I also work as a writing tutor at Raritan Valley Community College and Mercer County Community College.

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