“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” This death bed quote attributed to British actor, Edmund Kean, encapsulates the nature of humour in six short words. Comedy is all about death.
My friend, Hamlet the Clown, tells a story about doing a gig in a Northern Alberta school in late spring. The kids were eager to be outside playing and, on top of everything else, were hyped on sugar treats as 250 were gathered in a gym to watch his show. Things started out shaky but got worse when some 12 year old yelled, Kill the Clown! Pretty soon the entire auditorium was chanting “Kill the Clown!” as the teachers watched in horror.
“Kill the Clown!” It was a wise king who understood the value of the court jester and didn’t fall into the trap of following the advice of his ministers to end his sharp-tongued bantering. Self-important and self-righteous people hate any humour that they don’t create themselves; they especially hate to have their own pompous balloons punctured by wit.
Not everything is funny. Not everything that is funny is funny to everyone. It all depends on what you fear. Four year olds find fart jokes enormously funny – because the horror of toilet training still weighs on their minds. To fart is to exercise control over a wilful body. A fart is not a pant’s full of shit and so it is funny.
Most jokes suffer from over analysis.
But here’s one I find hilarious. A wealthy man – one who made his money honestly, treated his employees and family well and was generous to his community – is dying. An angel appears to tell him his time has come. The man, who lived a modest life, is still proud of his accomplishments – accomplishments that he and others measure by the wealth he has amassed. He begs to be allowed to take some of it to heaven and the angel grants him one suitcase. When he arrives at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter, the archangel, asks to look inside the bag and discovers it filled with gold bars. He asks incredulously, “That’s it? You brought paving stones?”
It sends up the foolishness of wealth and the hypocrisy of religion in a single paragraph.
Comedy is dangerous. Indeed that is why it is so often used as a weapon to attack people of other races, religions, genders. Racism or homophobia or misogyny excused with – hey, it’s just a joke. But it’s not, even if you have a perverse sense of humour. Nothing is just a joke – it is all meant to do something, to say something, to attack something.
Yet, would the world be better if there were no jokers, no jesters? The people who killed the satirists at Charlie Hebdo (and their progressive detractors who suggest that maybe they brought it on themselves) might have us think so. But they are wrong.
Comedy is what we use to laugh in the face of power, to assert our dominance over our fear of death and over those who would use that fear for their own ends. Sometimes, in the darkest of moments, comedy is all we have to say: I’m here. I’m still alive. I’m still laughing.
So go put on your red nose. Because that’s ten minutes.