The Politics Of Humor
Wed, 08/20/2008
Special To The Jewish Week

I was first baffled, then amused, and then finally inspired when I woke up this morning and read “The Daily Show” writer Rob Kutner’s blog entry on The Huffington Post: “My new book, ‘Apocalypse How,’ is about how the world is about to end ... and why we should be psyched! It’s the first-ever work of apocalyptic literature that ‘accentuates the positive’ — and teaches you how to not just survive, but thrive....”

With the front page full of Cold-War Russian imperialist flashbacks, and my Yahoo! account stuffed with reminders of hunger and genocide around the world, I couldn’t initially get my head around the connections between apocalypse and humor so blithely suggested by this young Jewish fellow. But since I see humor as the most seriously important human endeavor, the mysterious key to Jewish survival, I felt compelled to dig a little deeper.

On the one hand, Kutner’s disorienting connections echo the classic definition of humor: two contrasting ideas, held together in a delicate balance. This idea was brilliantly dissected and expanded by Robert Mankoff, cartoonist and cartoon editor at The New Yorker, during a conversation I had with him at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco last month. His key example came from one of his most famous cartoons — a businessman on the phone, pointing to his calendar, saying: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never? Is never good for you?”

The cartoon’s humor, as Mankoff explained, emerges from the contrast between the man’s civilized business manners, and his brutal rejection of an unseen listener. But what happens when the two elements, obvious exaggeration and sharp aggression, are poorly conjoined? This is the charge leveled against The New Yorker, for their now-famous cover “The Politics of Fear,” in which a cascade of fearful images of the Obamas in the White House was seen as a catastrophic satiric failure.

At least among the 300 mostly Jewish audience members that evening at the conversation with Robert Mankoff, the most visceral reactions to this cover when it was shown on the screen came from the unresolved tension between their own desire to laugh at the absurdity of the images, and the fear that some would take the images — and perhaps their own laughter — seriously.

Initially I dismissed this response as selling short America’s “non-New Yorker reading” audiences. Seen purely in a 21st century American political context, one can imagine how the over-the-top imagery of Obama dressed in traditional Muslim garb, with an American flag burning in the fireplace, was amped up to signal beyond a shadow of a doubt that the intent was “satirical.”

But when, out of curiosity, I flipped through some anti-Semitic cartoons from the early 20th century, I was struck by how similar they were in style to the Obama cover. One could easily imagine a hook-nosed Jew in the White House, the Star of David hung over a bust of Washington, giving his partner not the black power salute, but the sign of the Kohen. It was then that I understood the reaction of this obviously sophisticated audience, most of them a generation older than I, and perhaps able to recall both American and European anti-Semitic cartoons from the 1930s.

After all that, I began to wonder whether the quintessence of humor is uncannily close to the quintessence of the Jewish experience — the embodiment of unresolved tensions.

When humor is humorous, these tensions can be unpacked and analyzed, even subconsciously, without violence. A community can laugh at itself, at its neighbors, and the issues that both connect and divide them.

For the Jews throughout history, however, these unresolved tensions were often too much for their Christian neighbors to absorb, even as these neighbors were the ones who developed these ideas:

# The all-powerful Jew, the killer of Christ, who is nonetheless clearly a victim of Christian society;

# The “Chosen People,” who are still forced to wander the earth in search of a home;

# The imagery of sexual promiscuity linked to physical weakness and ugliness, and;

# Enormous wealth hidden under the veneer of tattered overcoats.

In the end, non-Jews could not contain these contradictions, and lashed out in violence. The Jews, having no choice, exploded in laughter rather than in violence. Perhaps it was this saving grace of laughter that allowed them to survive, even thrive, against the background of apocalypse.

Daniel Schifrin is writer in residence and director of public programs at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

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