August 10, 2009


, In the beginning was the joke: Why cheerfulness is next to godliness. (John Lloyd, August 2009, Ode)

If you look at the universe as a tremendously complex, very amusing practical joke, it suddenly starts to make sense. It also offers a hopeful suggestion as to how to behave. If life is neither a meaningless gene machine nor a cruel and vicious vale of tears but a damn good gag, the only logical solution is to laugh—which is convenient, because that’s what I do for a living.

Good jokes, like good spiritual scriptures, must contain a hidden truth. Take this line from the American comedienne Phyllis Diller, which perfectly expresses society’s paradoxical attitude toward education: "We spend the first 12 months of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk, and the next 12 years telling them to sit down and shut up." Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it, "We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to become stupid."

The best jokes are also wise. Wisdom is different from intelligence because an intelligent person can be seriously bad—and throughout history, many of the brightest people have been seriously bad—but you cannot be wise without being good. Even the bleakest jokes contain a suggestion that the way things are isn’t the way they should be, and that you really ought to do something about that, as in this quip by 20th-century poet W.H. Auden: "We are here on Earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don’t know." Wisdom isn’t only on the side of the angels; it’s also timeless. [...]

So what are we here for? Your modern neo-Darwinist is perfectly certain—for no reason. That just doesn’t cut it for me. I mean, it may be true, but it doesn’t help me get through Thursday. I prefer this take by the composer Aaron Copland (simply replace the word "music" with the word "life"): "The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No.’"

...that all humor is conservative.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 10, 2009 2:53 PM
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