- A Short Guide to Survival Laughter
This is a rumination about "Survival Laughter"—part "laughing to keep from crying," to quote Langston Hughes, and part an attempt to escape the inescapable, this toxic dumpster fire we call reality in 2020. That came out a bit darker than I intended. Let's try again.
"If you're going to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh or they will kill you." This truism has been attributed to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Billy Wilder, but it could have just as easily come from Moms Mabley, George Carlin, or Richard Pryor. Comedy's potential for truth-telling is unquestionable but, depending upon a multiplicity of circumstances, we don't always want to laugh knowingly. I believe that in any time of crisis (or multiple crises), laughter can help to keep the ground solid. Your laughter might give you the energy to push off from whatever emotional, ideological, or sociopolitical bottom you have hit. Between the Rona, the threats to democracy as we have known it, and the omnipresent forces of white supremacy, we are trapped in a trifecta of "WTF." (Sorry, still dark.)
Let me be clear: laughter will not right these wrongs, nor will it assuage all of our anxieties and fears. What laughter and, by extension, comedy can do is to enable us to hold on to that piece of ourselves that recognizes the absurdity that in "civilized" societies the obfuscation of truth and codification of lies are always at play and the ability to know whether you are laughing with, laughing at, or being laughed at often marks not only your place on the sociopolitical spectrum but also your ability to see the humanity of others. In short, it can help us to survive. Before going too far into my own current existential crisis, what I am offering is a de facto taxonomy of comedy best suited to elicit different brands of survival laughter for the Fall of 2020. (Your categories may differ depending upon how depressed, furious, numb, or zen you happen to be.)
When feeling completely overwhelmed, you might like to partake in Comfort Comedy. Part escapism and part simple storytelling, it is the generic equivalent of homemade macaroni and cheese. This is comedy that has always made you laugh, continues to get to you every time, and does not necessarily reflect a high degree of sophistication. This is arguably the most subjective of categories. For me, Jack Lemmon's over-the-top performances as Professor Fate and Crown Prince Frederick Hoepnick (and featuring the "world's greatest pie fight") in Blake Edwards's commercial and critical bomb, The Great Race, is a family favorite that holds little attraction for many (most) folks. Another would be the comedies that marked Eddie Murphy ascendency to comic rock star as Reggie Hammond in 48 Hrs., Billy Ray Valentine in Trading Places, [End Page 511] Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop, and, of course, Prince Akeem in Coming to America. All the problematic elements of these films—namely, the taints of sexism, homophobia, ethnic and racial sensitivity, and classism—are elided in service of recapturing the sensibility of laughter that had been largely underexamined or unexamined.
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Feeling incredulous about how scientific findings, data-based conclusions, and other assertions previously recognized as facts have become controversial topics or "fake news" in an alarming number of spaces engaging in political discourse, you need Commiseration Comedy. This is comedy that speaks directly to your own frustrations about this divided nation and revels in our collective sense of "you saw what just happened, too," with those whom we'd like to think of as allies. This is laughter that can sometimes be either a bit maudlin or a bit angry. You could mention the usual spots for comedy-inflected discourse—Pod Save America, which describes itself as "a no-bullshit conversation about politics hosted by former Obama aides...