In Defense of Humor
Why do we create comedy? And why do the powerful so often seek to crush it?
The world of legal writing threw me a curveball yesterday when I stumbled onto a legal brief in the Supreme Court case Novak v. City of Parma, Ohio. I knew I was in for a treat when I read on the title page “Brief of The Onion as Amicus Curiae in Support of Petitioner.”
This was a real brief really submitted to the Supreme Court in a real pending case.1 The brief contains numerous nuggets of comedic gold: introducing The Onion as “the world’s leading news publication, offering highly acclaimed, universally revered coverage” and touting “a daily readership of 4.3 trillion” that “has grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history”; noting that “the Onion’s keen, fact-driven reportage has been cited favorably by one or more local courts, as well as Iran and the Chinese state-run media”; and boasting that “the Onion’s journalists have garnered a sterling reputation for accurately forecasting future events. One such coup was The Onion’s scoop revealing that a former president kept nuclear secrets strewn around his beach home’s basement three years before it even happened.”
As with much great humor, however, when you sift through the jokes to the essence of the piece, you find a substantive message at its core, well-written and thoroughly persuasive. Here, the Onion’s argument is that satire cannot be forced to warn the reader ahead of time that it is indeed satire because doing so ruins the joke—and disarms the inherent power of the medium. The brief is a superb historic exploration and philosophical argument for the existence of satire. It notes:
It really is an old trick. The word “parody” stretches back to the Hellenic world. It originates in the prefix para, meaning an alteration, and the suffix ode, referring to the poetry form known as an ode. One of its earliest practitioners was the first-century B.C. poet Horace, whose Satires would replicate the exact form known as an ode—mimicking its meter, its subject matter, even its self-serious tone—but tweaking it ever so slightly so that the form was able to mock its own idiocies.
In a ballsy dig at the entire legal profession, The Onion’s brief continues:
That leverage of form—the mimicry of a particular idiom in order to heighten dissonance between form and content—is what generates parody’s rhetorical power. Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 580-81 (1994) (“Parody needs to mimic an original to make its point.”). If parody did not deliver that advantage, then no one would use it. Everyone would simply draft straight, logical, uninspiring legal briefs instead.
(A hilarious jab to include in a legal filing to the Supreme Court!)
The Onion’s justification for parody and satire culminates in this brilliantly-worded paragraph, stating better than I ever could that:
Importantly, parody provides functionality and value to a writer or a social commentator that might not be possible by, say, simply stating a critique outright and avoiding all the confusion of readers mistaking it for the real deal. One of parody’s most powerful capacities is rhetorical: It gives people the ability to mimic the voice of a serious authority—whether that’s the dry news-speak of the Associated Press or the legalese of a court’s majority opinion—and thereby kneecap the authority from within. Parodists can take apart an authoritarian’s cult of personality, point out the rhetorical tricks that politicians use to mislead their constituents, and even undercut a government institution’s real-world attempts at propaganda. Farah, 736 F.3d at 536 (noting that the point of parody is to “censure the vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings of an individual or society”) (cleaned up).
The War on Humor
That dictators and tyrants don’t like humor is a well-known and near universal phenomenon. Almost a decade ago, Srdja Popovic and Mladen Joksic noted in Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes2 that:
There is a reason why humor is infusing the arsenal of the 21st-century protestor: It works. For one, humor breaks fear and builds confidence. It also adds a necessary cool factor, which helps movements attract new members. Finally, humor can incite clumsy reactions from a movement’s opponents. The best acts of laughtivism force their targets into lose-lose scenarios, undermining the credibility of a regime no matter how they respond. These acts move beyond mere pranks; they help corrode the very mortar that keeps most dictators in place: Fear.
In the U.S., humor has long played a cat-and-mouse game with attempts at censorship from the powerful. One of the greatest and most influential comedians of all time, Lenny Bruce, was a frequent target of law enforcement during his era. That was a half-century ago. Gone are the days where stand-up could plausibly land you in jail, at least in the United States. The First Amendment and its modern interpretation by the courts stands out as one genuine example of ‘American Exceptionalism.’
But outside the courts, hostility to humor lives on. During my childhood and adolescence, in the 90s and aughts, Republicans were seen as the party opposed to humor. Since at least 2012, that title has begun to shift. Democrats, particularly college educated Democrats, have taken on the anti-comedy mantle. So much so that some well-known comedians have been vocal about the fact that comedy is so poorly received by college students (historically perhaps the most irreverent American demographic) that they are refusing to do shows on college campuses altogether.3
Perhaps not coincidentally, this seems to align with the relative shift in cultural power between the Right and the Left over the past several decades. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Right enjoyed a great deal of latitude to denounce 'unpatriotic' speech. As public support for the War on Terror waned and a new brand of identitarian leftist thought rapidly grew in popularity, the cultural Left gradually became ascendant in virtually every one of our cultural institutions—news media, film and television, higher education, corporate board rooms, and more.
The political Right still opposes humor where it retains its last vestiges of power (the Supreme Court case of Novak discussed above is an excellent example of this) but the trend is clear—the factions most opposed to humor are the factions whose power can be challenged by it.
To understand why the powerful hate comedy, and why humor seems so vitally important to the human condition, we must address a simple yet crucial question—what is the purpose of humor? By my estimation, there are at least 3 main purposes, and each is a kind of superpower uniquely available to comedy.
1. The Emperor Has No Clothes
The first and perhaps most widely discussed purpose of humor is to “speak truth to power.” Disarming the hold of a very serious ruling class by showcasing its absurdity and pointing out that “the Emperor has no clothes” is one of comedy’s most unique superpowers. As The Onion so deftly pointed out in the amicus brief above, a short and sweet bit of comedy can accomplish what no amount of dry argumentation could ever dream of. This fact exemplifies Marshall McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message,”4 in that the medium of comedy conveys a kind of content—content which comedy is uniquely good at conveying.
If this were the only purpose of humor, the modern leftist argument against certain kinds of comedy would be quite compelling. The argument goes that comedy designed to “punch up” is tailored to this purpose of speaking truth to power. Comedy that “punches down”, however, misses this aim and instead harms the vulnerable. That kind of comedy, therefore, should be opposed and stamped out.
But this isn’t comedy’s sole purpose. So what other messages are conveyed by the medium and why do they matter?
2. Disarming Tyrannical Ideas
The broader potential of humor can be unpacked once we acknowledge that tyrannical regimes aren’t the only things that hold power over us. As we noted above from Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes, “[t]hese acts move beyond mere pranks; they help corrode the very mortar that keeps most dictators in place: Fear.” So too with tyrannical ideas.
This is, in my estimation, what most edgy humor is aimed at. Jokes about casual sex, for example, disarm the power of slut shaming. Self-deprecating humor ridicules the oppressive critical thoughts we can have about ourselves, weaking their hold. Profane comedy routines reject the social conventions of arbitrarily taboo words. Deliberately offensive comedy is a rebuke of high society’s propensity to demand decorum through self-policed speech. These are all ideas that manifest in our minds to tyrannical effect. Comedy lets us confront these ideas head on and “kneecap the authority from within” in a way that “breaks fear and builds confidence.”
Another example that comes to mind and is always good for a chuckle is the classic joke that something is “gayer than eight dudes blowing nine dudes.” When I was younger, my friends and I loved to use that joke to describe banal things like Rom Coms, cuddling with a girlfriend, or talking about your feelings. This addressed and ridiculed two tyrannical ideas simultaneously: the idea that “real men” were dour and unemotional, and the idea that being gay was a bad or shameful thing.
Critically, many people who experience stigma find power in humor. This is why brilliant black comedians emerged as the modern American reckoning with race began in earnest in the 1960s. In the 70s we had Richard Pryor. In the 80s, Eddie Murphy. Both men brilliantly, comedically, and deftly handled issues of race, disarming the tyranny of racist ideas for all audience members and providing catharsis for black audience members. Stand-up comedian Dave Chappelle began his career in the 90s and rose to become perhaps the most ubiquitous comedian of his time in the early 2000s with the creation and instant popularity of Chappelle’s Show, the inaugural episode of which depicted a fake Dateline episode chronicling the story of a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan who didn’t know he was black because he was also blind.
Many of Pryor’s, Murphy’s, and Chappelle’s most impacting bits played with stereotypes and presented them without the disclaimer that “these stereotypes are being conveyed for satirical purposes and I do not endorse them.” As The Onion noted in its amicus brief, such unsubtle disclaimers “would have spoiled the joke and come off as more than a bit stodgy. But more importantly, it would have disarmed the power that comes with a form devouring itself. For millennia, this has been the rhythm of parody.”
3. Embracing Absurdity—A Hack to Reach Outside of Your Locus of Control
To understand comedy’s last superpower, we have to turn the clock back further than Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce. Buddhism unearthed this immensely powerful psychological insight more than two thousand years ago. In that same era, the stoics discovered their own brand of the same insight. In fact, the idea has been discovered and codified in some way by most successful, longstanding cultural traditions. And so while comedy’s final superpower isn’t unique to the medium, it does put humor in good company.
The idea is simple: you cannot always control what happens to you, but you can always control how you experience it.
Articulating this insight is easy. Doing it in practice is really hard. Meditation offers the promise of controlling your internal, subjective experience with hundreds and thousands of hours of practice.5 Seneca and Marcus Aurelius promise a similar kind of control; you need only devote your entire life to rigid adherence to cardinal virtues. In that vein, humor is a veritable lifehack, giving you microdoses of this power with the utterance of a few well-crafted words.
Most people who have endured disadvantaged lives and retain a positive attitude instinctively understand what I’m getting at. The world (and the lives we live within it) is full of misery, turmoil, and suffering much of which is so cosmically unjustified that being the subject of that misery, turmoil, and suffering rises to the level of pure absurdity. Often, especially in the short-term, there is absolutely nothing the afflicted can do to fix their situation. To maintain sanity (and some semblance of hope) we turn to humor. Laughing at the terrible circumstances that weigh us down can’t change those circumstances, but much like years of disciplined meditation or a life of virtue free from passion, they can take the sting out of it and help us cope internally.
I grew up poor. I raised myself from the age of 15. I love humor that makes fun of the experience of living in poverty. When I was struggling the most financially, in my teens and early twenties, I listened to a brilliant Louis C.K. bit dozens of times that was all about being broke. Listening to this bit, dubbed "The Bank," did nothing to help my financial situation, which I slowly, gradually, eventually climbed out of by getting a college degree, working as a programmer, going to law school, and now practicing law. In the intervening years, though, humor like C.K.’s “The Bank” bit elevated my subjective experience, allowed me to find amusement in the absurdity of my situation, and laugh it off instead of wallowing in the misery that I would have been entirely justified in feeling (but utterly unserved by).6
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No Comedy is Off Limits—It’s Just Not For You
All three superpowers are part of a broader prescription for better lives and a better society: take life seriously, but not too seriously. Take tyranny seriously because it is real, but not too seriously lest you feed it and it grows. Take your insecurities seriously because they signal areas for growth, but not too seriously or they will bury you. Take your strengths seriously because competence serves you (and others) well, but not so seriously that ego consumes you. Take your identity seriously to stay true to yourself, but not too seriously or you will hold fast to it like scripture and cease to grow.
All of these superpowers embedded in the medium of comedy lead to a crucial insight—no comedy expressed in the spirit of genuine humor should be off limits. If you hear a bit of comedy and the only subjective response you can muster is being offended, then that comedy simply isn’t for you.
To go further, to demand that the offending comedy not exist, is to proclaim that the superpowers of disarming tyrannical ideas and coping with the absurd be forcibly taken away from those people who would benefit from them. Indeed, in trying to snuff out comedy we are meddling with primordial forces. The human faculty of humor goes back quite far:
Using two pieces of available evidence, a minimum figure for the age of humor can be proposed. First, humorous conversation has been observed by the pioneering anthropologists in first contact with Australian aboriginals (Chewings, 1936; Schulze, 1891). Second, it appears that Australian aboriginals have been essentially genetically isolated for at least 35,000 years (O'Connell and Allen, 1998). If genetic factors dictate the fundamental ability to perceive or produce humor (and barring convergent evolution), then 35,000 years may reflect a minimum age for humor in Homo sapiens.7
The inference, then, is that humor is an evolutionary adaptation for humans, something deeply encoded into our nature. The idea of Chesterton’s Fence comes to mind—something ancient, something with a powerful and lasting presence, shouldn’t be discarded without understanding it merely because it stands in the way of some new, shiny, salient objective. Not to mention, a fence that so many people seem to intuitively seek out and use.
People intuitively understand this—this is why nobody wants to be seen as the enemy of humor. We live in highly polarized, politically partisan times. On every issue imaginable, each side desperately wants to claim the moral high ground in this terribly destructive culture war. With humor, as with free speech, both sides are lying through their teeth. They seek to protect the speech they like, and to support the comedy that conveys a message they approve of. This is untenable, and must be opposed.
Because of my unique life path, I know a lot of people from many different walks of life. The vast majority of people I know who advocate for shutting down certain kinds of comedy as “offensive” have lived notably privileged lives. The vast majority of people I know who have lived disadvantaged and difficult lives, on the other hand, do not share this impulse. There is good reason for this disparity in attitude.
I think about my own life experience. I think about the friends I’ve had who lived through their own kinds of adversity, and who have wrestled with their own kinds of stigma. And now, reading through The Onion’s amicus brief in the Novak case, I feel compelled to say: if you are advocating for silencing certain humor that you don’t find funny, you are on the wrong side of history. Stop. Don’t seek to destroy what you can’t understand. Ignore it, and let that humor help the people who will find joy in it.
For the uninitiated, an amicus curiae is a third party not involved as a party to a lawsuit that nonetheless has a particular interest in the outcome and wants to argue in support of a side.
Notable examples include Chris Rock, Pete Davidson, Jerry Seinfeld, and Dave Chappelle.
This isn’t to say that meditation isn’t worth the trouble. Meditation has helped me tremendously, and there’s no shortage of smart people who sing its praise. In fact, I suspect a good meditative practice could help some people escape the tyranny of ideas that makes them take offense to comedy, thereby allowing them to open their minds to it a bit.
Similarly, I remember during one of my stints of homelessness, in the middle of the night during the Chicago winter, my body woke me up shaking violently from the cold. When I had generated enough heat to start bringing my body temperature up, my body still wouldn’t stop shaking. Rather than dwell in despair, which would not have been an irrational thing to do, I started laughing at the absurdity of it all. Who knows, maybe the mechanical process of laughter generated a bit more heat. But it certainly helped me to keep from breaking.