29 July 2012

I Hate Provocateurs

I hate provocateurs. There is some measure of irony in this, as I have at times been one myself - particularly in my youth. My life experiences have taught me a greater humility before many topics, and with that humility has come a heightened empathy and sensitivity. I can scarcely slog through most contemporary stand-up routines, obsessed as our culture has become with shock humor. I'm the guy at the comedy club who is often self-conscious, looking around for the face of the one person who came for a reprieve from something troubling in their life, only to have it rubbed in their face by the comic on stage.

One of my chief problems with provocateurs is that they shirk any responsibility for the consequences of what they provoke. Anyone who isn't a laughing sycophant is greeted with either a dismissive, "Lighten up!" or worse yet, hostility. Provocateurs are incapable of saying, "I'm sorry, that was insensitive of me." Rather, they spoil for the fight that goes with being confronted for their insensitivity, as though they alone are possessed of the enlightenment that the rest of the world needs in order to function more properly, devoid of our immature notions of hurt feelings. I cannot abide this arrogance.

There is, of course, a proper place for a socially-conscious provocateur. History has often recognized the place of such individuals in all fields from the scholarly to the scientific. Where would we be if not for Plato, Galileo or Upton Sinclair? There is a tremendous difference, though, between their work and that of today's provocateurs. They knew what they wanted to accomplish, and their aspirations were much higher than simply upsetting people and testing their comfort zones.

I can certainly be the spoilsport and I make no bones about it. That said, my own sense of humor is not wanting. Even at my lowest point during my Year of Hell, when I finally acquiesced and checked into Our Lady of Peace, my humor was intact. I made the intake nurses laugh, and it was through humor that I primarily engaged the other patients. I'm a Southerner, so I'm already predisposed to a specific kind of wry humor. At times, I've had to clarify to outsiders that just because I joke about something doesn't mean I don't take it as seriously as it deserves. On the contrary, sometimes one can only see the humor in something by understanding it thoroughly.

This leads me to the endless debate: is there, in fact, humor to be found in every subject? Philosophically, I think there is. I've often been the one to find it, so I know it can be done even in delicate situations. But there is a striking difference between the kind of humor that one learns from experience with a subject and the kind that comes from standing at a distance, trying to rise above the fray. Just offhand, anyone could make light of Crohn's disease. In the hands of the average person, it would be primarily toilet humor. Someone who has actually experienced Crohn's disease, however, understands plenty of other sub-topics that could be mined for laughs. This isn't to say that Crohnies don't engage in scatological humor as well, but somehow it's a bit sharper, perhaps somewhat more authentic in a way?

I do, therefore, believe that there can be humor in every situation. I do not, however, believe that merely cracking a joke constitutes finding that humor nor do I believe everyone is up to the task.

That all said, I've come to realize this blog is surprisingly light on humor. I don't come across half as humorous as I actually am and I'm not sure what to do about that. Should I make a more conscious effort to be funny here, or simply write as I have been writing, and allow humor to surface whenever it may on its own?


  1. I am one of those people who laughs at all the bad things that happens to her. (Well, frequently I cry first, but THEN I laugh.) But I believe that that kind of humor only really works if there's a sense of compassion going along with it. If you're going to make jokes about somebody else's genuine suffering, you better make me believe that if I sat down with you and said, "Yes, but you do understand that that's also a really sad thing?" that you'd agree, "Oh, yes, of course it is." Otherwise it's just mean-spirited.

    Whenever something slapstick-y happens in the real world - someone falls down, gets hit with something, and generally ends up potentially - my initial instinct is to ask if they're all right, and if they are, *then* I can laugh about it. And that's kind of how I approach humor in general. I laugh at my own pain because that's how I reassure myself I'm all right, it's not the end of the world. Yes, stuff sucks now, but it's not going to break my soul forever. (Well, and also sometimes I laugh at my own pain because it's kind of hilarious.)

    That being said, I respect the people who are hesitant to laugh at my pain with me. I once tried to get a group of friends to play Rheumatoid Arthritis Bingo with me. The idea was that I'd give them each bingo-esque cards with various body parts on them, and every day I'd update them on what was hurting, and they'd cross them off, and then eventually somebody would win. (I suspected some days, three people might win on the very first day...) Nobody else thought this was funny. Heh. And although I still think that would've been awesome, I appreciated that they cared enough about me that they worried about laughing at my pain.

    So there is a long comment with a lot of random thoughts.

    1. I think you've hit on a key part of all this for me. In the last several years, I've come to value building people up a lot more than tearing them down. As an extension of this, I'm also often on guard against anything that reinforces dissonance between people. Too often, the provocateur reduces human life and human experience to an abstract concept, as though the thoughts and feelings of others exist in a vacuum somewhere removed from their inflammatory remarks and jokes.

      Again, though, I am compelled to note that there can be a very positive role for that kind of perspective on life. There are issues that warrant, and at times demand, that someone rattle the cage fiercely enough to force us to pay attention. Just for kicks, though, is an inadequate use of that attention.

  2. I think one problem is that people today are taught that if they are too sensitive, they are some kind of lame homebody who gets to bed by 8 o'clock every night. Even if that IS an accurate way to describe them, most people like to fancy themselves as having very good senses of humor, both able to take a wicked joke and dish one out themselves. Only by showing how little you are perturbed by someone's jokes can you prove yourself to some imaginary arbiter of cool.

    I deal with a couple provocateurs in my life, who sometimes provoke me to allow me to demonstrate how little it bothers me. Unfortunately, it does bother me on some level -- either the joke pisses me off, or I play along in a way not casual enough, where I'm accidentally upping the ante in a way that starts to make ME feel mean-spirited. It's a tough balance. I agree that the best solution can be to just decide you are a positive person, not a negative one, and live with the perceived consequences that choice has on how other people view you.

    1. There definitely is a pronounced pressure to not be the thin-skinned "windsock" (to use a term recently thrown at me). One point I've espoused for the majority of the last decade is that the present generation of comics have misunderstood the success of their predecessors. Too often, they've taken satire at face value, failing to understand that it wasn't the outrageous element but rather the scathing cleverness that audiences loved. It doesn't help that today's audience is often disinclined to "think" about comedy, just wanting to reflexively laugh at buzzwords or inflections rather than actually processing what's being said.

      The best shorthand I have for this is to watch the endless, mindless parroting of Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Dunham. I can't stand the routines of either, but that's secondary. Observe the fixation their fans have with repeating (ad infinitum) their various catch phrases. It resonates on a very superficial level, beyond which their fans don't even want to discuss the material, its implications, thematic undertones, etc. They just want to run around saying "Git-r-done!" and "Silence! I keel you!" because, like toddlers, they want to keep recreating the moment.

      This is why my favorite stand-up is Steven Wright. There's almost always a pause after his punch line before the laughter, because it takes a moment for us to actually get what has just been said. His humor is absurd in nature, but his delivery is very literary.