“Do you like lemonade?”
“Then you like pee!” [Ha ha ha.]
“Do you like steak?”
“Then you …”
I’ll leave you to imagine what the punchline to the second joke was, but I remember classmates of mine finding this “joke” the height of hilarity in the first or second grade.
Of course, our sense of humor gets more nuanced as we get a little older. A paradigmatic example would be the old joke about the chicken crossing the road. It is (or at least once was) funny because “Why did the chicken cross the road?” would seem at first to solicit some kind of interesting psychological or even philosophical explanation. For the answer to be merely that it wanted to get to the other side goes against expectation. It is on a higher level than the comparison of lemonade to urine.
But in our times, an even subtler kind of counterexpectation infuses much of American humor. This is the idea that people who haven’t gotten the memo on our advances in social relations are the “unexpected” element, and that they are to be ridiculed. An example would be Peter Griffin, the paterfamilias of the animated comedy “Family Guy.” The show’s general ethos is one in which open sexism, homophobia and numbness to violence — all characteristics frequently manifested by Peter — are treated as barbarisms to feel superior to. I think of this kind of humor, requiring a layered approach to what is being proposed, as humor 3.0, compared to the humor 2.0 of the chicken joke and the 1.0 of the one about lemonade.
However, there are more than a few people who are disinclined to adopt the 3.0 model of humor. To them, even laughing at the person who hasn’t gotten the memo means you still have not gotten the memo. “Family Guy” to me is a joy; I’ve seen every episode. Yet I was once surprised to hear someone describe it as off-puttingly homophobic. I hadn’t thought of it that way.
In a similar vein, long ago I knew someone who couldn’t take “Seinfeld.” He was put off by how mean the characters were, rather than seeing that the central joke of the show is an amusedly appalled take on the characters’ meanness. In Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” animated film, women in the background are shown swooning over the muscly moron Gaston. I once heard someone say that these women were sexist caricatures, whereas I thought they were included as ridiculous contrasts to the protagonist Belle’s immunity to Gaston’s supposed charms.
To be sure, troglodyte characters intended as figures of fun can bring out the lesser in audiences in the opposite direction as well. Archie Bunker from the television classic “All in the Family,” with his casual bigotry, was intended to be a comical figure by his left-leaning, socially conscious creators. However, when the show was running, some worried that a certain subset of Americans was actually identifying with Archie’s views. (Buttons touting him for president once circulated as novelty items.) In later years, it was hard not to notice that a portion of the comedian Andrew Dice Clay’s audiences were less laughing at his bigotry and sexism than connecting with them.
But gray zones don’t justify dismissal. The fact remains that for some people, where 3.0 humor is concerned, the issue is less that they are uncomfortable with its possibility for misinterpretation than that they really aren’t amused by it at all. It seems as if humor has drifted into a form that strains what a great many are up for, regardless of their intelligence or enlightenment.
It reminds me of what happened centuries ago in classical music. The harmonic density of Beethoven and then Romantic composers such as Brahms challenged audiences in the 19th century who were accustomed to the 1.0 demands of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” Beethoven and Brahms could be considered the rough equivalent of the “Why did the chicken …” 2.0 style of humor. Contemporary listeners often had a hard time with this kind of music, including Beethoven’s, though a critical mass gradually caught up. But the subsequent atonal and serial compositions of Schoenberg, for example, were perhaps too hard on the ears to ever appeal to more than a few. Leonard Bernstein argued, along with others, that music that doesn’t resolve to a home key grates against our basic cognitive expectations.
I thought of this when “The Colbert Report” ridiculed resistance to changing the name of the Washington Redskins football team by proposing a hypothetical equivalent issue regarding an old, ironic Colbert caricature of Asians that included a silly mock-Chinese name. Many wanted Colbert’s show canceled, and I was struck by the idea, leveled by Colbert’s detractors, that mocking the caricature was the same as espousing it, a view they appeared to hold in all sincerity. Is it that the difference between leveling an insult and depicting someone leveling the insult in mockery is pushing the spontaneity and inherent emotionalism of human cognition beyond a reasonable point?
The current idea that referring to the N-word is as offensive as using it seems related. The people promoting this idea seem to consider it progress over the use/reference distinction that until recently prevailed. A part of me tries to imagine that this really is a higher form of reasoning, although I can’t say my effort bears much fruit.
These days I see all conflicts of this kind as variations on, well, Schoenberg’s “Variations for Orchestra,” a serial piece that hovers and slithers bizarrely in what can be processed as a kind of beauty, or at least majesty. At least, if one is inclined to put in the time and effort to hear it that way — and also prepared perhaps not to get it at all. (I never did myself until I read Allen Shawn’s invaluable “Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey.”)
American humor seems to have drifted, like some classical music as well as much jazz from bebop on, into a form that bypasses the intuitive to a degree that will never entirely catch on. Part of the challenge of understanding one another across today’s partisan divides will be to understand that, as funny as 3.0 humor may be to some of us, for others, it still comes across as merely offensive.
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”
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