I had a conversation recently with my dad about when him and my mom first started dating; he told me about how my grandma hated him and made little to no effort to disguise that fact. My dad, a man who had previously in his life been sent to his elementary school principal for putting a tack on his teacher’s chair (something I respectfully refuse to believe actually happened in the old days), saw her feelings towards him as an opportunity or incentive rather than a deterrent. He used her own hostility to his advantage by actively poking fun at her distaste for him, much to bystanders’ delight, and her dismay. He used these jokes as a leverage of sorts to, however briefly, implicate my grandma for her unfounded and biased opinions of him and question the soundness of the system of parental approval. In this way, my dad took the liberties Turner claims are afforded to THE CLOWN when he “scoffs, lampoons, and judges people’s foibles, crimes, sins, and folly” without negative repercussions [Turner, 260]. “As much as they may want to, they can’t attack you if you’re just making a joke,” my Dad said as he was finishing up his story, “humor is an important tool to have at your disposal.”
I’m sure there’s no way my Dad could have recognized how what he said fit in with the anthropological, philosophical, and sociological theories of humor we have encountered in this class, but the connections certainly didn’t elude me. This was a perfect example of the power dynamic being altered and questioned (as the superiority theory presents as a possibility) as well as a form of a sort of Freudian release of my dad’s own animosity. He took up the mantle of the archetypal clown in order to criticize what he saw as injustice towards him (from a safe distance of course). As Douglass says in Jokes, “humour chastises insincerity, pomposity, stupidity” and a joke is “seen as an attack on control” [Douglass, 148-149].
I think my dad, along with many others including myself, at some point in time came to the conclusion that humor is sometimes the only viable resort in situations where you feel powerless or confronted with something that is beyond your control is some manner. This sentiment is echoed in Anne Lamott’s piece, Ham of God, as the narrator struggles to make sense of the chaotic and violent world that she is living in. She is overwhelmed by the stories of the death and destruction in Iraq that she is bombarded with by every news outlet and despairs at the state of humanity. Her story is purposefully exaggerated and light-hearted, but her question to her ‘Jesuit friend Father Tom’ is not meant in jest and resonates with readers who may have felt the same sort of dread: “How are we going to get through this craziness” [Lamott, 5]? Lamott makes use of a playful, almost sacrilegious, tone to bring up her very serious doubts concerning a higher power or greater purpose to life. It may be funny when she says that “the problem with God—or at any rate, one of the top five most annoying things about God—is that He or She rarely answers right away,” but, it also raises questions that are too large for any individual to approach [Lamott, 9]. Where is this God when horrible things are happening in the world? This is a question that we can never truly grapple with and so, what better to do than use humor to try to make light of what we can?
As I am beginning to piece together from our studies of the various uses of humor- a clown, joke, or laugh are so much more than just manifestations of our amusement. They are also tools that we must use to face the inexplicable and unsettling aspects in our lives.