on April 11, 2007
Notes from My Bed of Gloom
Why the Joking Had to Stop
For whatever reason, American humorists or satirists or whatever you want to call them, those who choose to laugh rather than weep about demoralizing information, become intolerably unfunny pessimists if they live past a certain age. If Lloyds of London offered policies promising to compensate comical writers for losses of senses of humor, its actuaries could count on such a loss occurring, on average, at age 63 for men, and for women at 29, say.
My generalization is happily or unhappily confirmed by scholarship: in a book called ''Punchlines'' (Paragon House, 1990) by William Keough of the English department of Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts. The subtitle is ''The Violence of American Humor.'' Mr. Keough, by means of essays on Mark Twain, Ring Lardner, Ambrose Bierce, myself, comedians in the movies (both silents and talkies) and radio and TV and nightclub comics right up to the present, persuades me that the most memorable jokes by Americans are responses to the economic and physical violence of this society. ''How often does it seem that the American humorist, having set out daringly and lightly as an amused observer of the American spectacle of violence and corruption, ends up mouthing sardonic fables in a bed of gloom,'' he writes.
So guess what: my next novel, ''Hocus Pocus,'' to be published next September, is a sardonic fable in a bed of gloom. Inevitable. ''Violence, the inspiration of much American humor, outlives it,'' says Mr. Keough. ''When the jokes grow cold, the guns - unfortunately -are still hot.''
Mark Twain finally stopped laughing at his own agony and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a crock. He died. He hadn't lived long enough to hear about nuclear weapons. He was dead as a doornail before he could even hear about World War I. Jokes work this way: the jokester frightens the listener just a little bit, by mentioning something challenging, such as sex or physical danger, or suggesting that the listener is having his or her intelligence tested or whatever. Step two: the jokester makes clear that no intelligent response is required of the listener. This leaves the listener stuck with useless fight-or-flee chemicals in his or her bloodstream, which must be got rid of somehow, unless he or she wants to slug the jokester or do jumping jacks or whatever.
What he or she most likely will do is expel those chemicals through the lungs with quick expansions and contractions of the chest cavity, accompanied by grotesque facial expressions and barking sounds.
Intelligence test: ''Why did the chicken cross the road?'' Sex: ''A traveling salesman's car broke down on a country road on a stormy night. He knocked on a farmer's door, and the farmer said, 'You can spend the night, but you'll have to sleep with my daughter.' '' Physical danger: ''A man fell off a cliff. Halfway down he grabbed a sapling. So there he was, hanging by his hands, with certain death a thousand feet below him.''
But jokesters are all through when they find themselves talking about challenges so real and immediate and appalling to their listeners that no amount of laughter can make the listeners feel safe and perfectly well again. I found myself doing that on a speaking tour of campuses in the spring of 1989, and canceled all future engagements. That wasn't at all what I enjoyed doing to audiences, and yet there I was doing it. I wondered out loud onstage, for instance, what I and my brother and sister and our parents might have done if we had been German citizens when Hitler came to power. Any reply would be moot, but almost certainly depressing. And then I said that the whole world faced a problem far worse than the rise of another Hitler, which was our destruction of the planet as a life-supporting apparatus of delicate and beautiful complexity.
I said that one day fairly soon we would all go belly up like guppies in a neglected fishbowl. I suggested an epitaph for the whole planet, which was: ''We could have saved it, but we were too darn cheap and lazy.'' It really was time to quit. My Lord, I think I even said - in fact I know I said - that humanity itself had become an unstoppable glacier made of hot meat, which ate up everything in sight and then made love, and then doubled in size again. I topped that off with a stage aside to the effect that the Pope in Rome was sure of no help when it came to slowing down the meat. Enough! It seemed possible to me, though, that I might still be amusing on paper, hooking people with little barbless hooks, and then letting them off again. Writing a book, after all, is a slow and deliberate activity, like making flowered wallpaper for a ballroom by hand. Since I knew how jokes worked, hooking and releasing, I could still make them, even though I no longer felt like making them. I remembered that my father got sick of being an architect, when he was about 10 years younger than I am, actually, but he went on doing architecture.
As a good friend pointed out to me one time, my ideas have everything but originality. That was my fate. So I came up with the wholly unoriginal idea of writing a ''Don Quixote'' set in modern times. There might be a certain amount of freshness to my tale, I hoped, if I gave an affectionate razzing to what had long been my dream of an ideal citizen. Although Mr. Keough doesn't say so, I think all American humorists, when saying how flawed American citizens really are, would not be interested in doing that if they did not have clear images in their heads of what American citizens ought to be. Dreams of ideal citizens are as essential to our humorists, in my opinion, as they were to Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson.
But it didn't come out very funny. There wasn't any way to let readers off the hook, off the Montauk Umbrella of modern times.
A Montauk umbrella is a fishing rig favored by sports fishermen putting out to sea in motor yachts from the easternmost town on the South Fork of Long Island. It is like the spread ribs of an umbrella stripped of its cloth and handle. At the tip of each rib is a steel wire leader. At the end of each leader is a counterfeit squid made of off-white surgical tubing. Sticking out through a slit in each tube is a hook with a barb so big and sharp that any bluefish or bass that strikes at it or any other lure in the fast-moving galaxy of seeming tasty tidbits can never get off again.
There is no contemporary equivalent to the unhooking device Mark Twain was able to use with success before World War I and World War II and all the rest of it, at the end of possibly the blackest of all well-known American comic novels, ''Huckleberry Finn.'' This, of course, was the unhooking: Huck, resourceful and tough and adorable, and with most of his life still ahead of him, says he is going to ''light out for the Territory.''
Rocky Flats, Colo., maybe? Or how about Hanford, Wash., or the shores of Prince William Sound in Alaska? Or how about lighting out for Twain's own intended destination when he himself lit out from Hannibal - the virgin wilderness of the Amazon?