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Arts and Culture

Mr. Fish in Conversation With Paul Krassner: The Politics of Being a Smartass

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Posted on Oct 17, 2012
Mr. Fish

By Mr. Fish

(Page 2)

Krassner: I think Dave Chappelle does more of what you’re talking about.

Fish: Maybe, but [he does it] in an atmosphere much less open to the free expression of ideas. That’s my point. When you’ve got the management at the Laugh Factory [in Hollywood] fining performers for saying the N-word, then the bar is lowered on what qualifies as dissent and what passes for social criticism. When there is nothing but debate surrounding how you should be allowed to say something, then there never comes a time when the content of what you actually say is assessed. That’s when words become meaningless and language becomes a deterrent to knowledge.

Krassner: You’re right. I remember when George Carlin was asked why he didn’t include the word nigger as one of the seven words that you can’t say on TV and he said that there was nothing funny about it. He wanted to maintain what was humorous about the repression of certain words by religious fanatics who believed that bodily functions and sexual activity was taboo. That, he said, is funny as shit.

Fish: Then, I guess, the conversation becomes one about technique and different modes of teaching and sharing information versus just content. Making your ideas interesting enough to make somebody else want to repeat them to somebody else who will then want to repeat them to somebody else, over and over and over again, is how real education and real social change happens. [To] Carlin’s point, jokes are probably repeated more often than dark satire because people prefer laughter over something ugly and depressing that leaves you staring at the wall and feeling hopeless.

Krassner: Of course, to speak to your point about the state of satire today, which I think is where you were going with all this, is that so much of what passes for satire nowadays isn’t real satire, at least not in the traditional sense. For one thing, it isn’t even ironic—it’s Sarcasm 101. Audiences will applaud for name-calling as a replacement for wit.

Fish: I agree—real satire begs a conversation to happen after the joke has been told. Not only that, [it] assumes that a conversation had been going on previous to the telling of the joke. [Satire] assumes that the audience is there to do at least half of the heavy lifting when it comes to getting the punch line and recognizing the irony or the hypocrisy of whatever is being lampooned. 

Krassner: And that’s the subjective side of humor, all that [foreknowledge] that makes satire work. There are a lot of factors to consider when building strong satire. But there’s also the objective side [of humor] that, if you can get it in with the subjective side, it really makes for [a good joke].

Fish: The difference between a clown eating a shit sandwich for no reason and the pope eating a shit sandwich for some reason.

Krassner: Yeah. In 1978 I went with my daughter, Holly, to Ecuador on a shamans and healers expedition and we stayed with primitive Indians and took Ayahuasca—I should say indigenous Indians because they looked at us as if we were the primitive ones. Anyway, we lived for a while with three generations of Chiapas Indians. There were about 15 people in our group and one of them was an anthropologist but after a while it became clear that we were the subjects and [the Chiapas] were the anthropologists. I remember watching a mother who was talking to us and how she was playing with her naked son’s penis and how there was no internalization of inhibited social structures, at least none that I could relate to. [Similarly], they would watch us brushing our teeth or doing tai chi and wonder what the hell we were doing, you know. It was peculiar to them, like we were Martians who had dropped out of the sky. Regardless, I had these bright green sunglasses and I let everybody try them on and they all laughed at each other because [the visual] had elements of incongruity. They didn’t know our language, but they knew what they felt in their gut, which was that it was silly. So, while so much of American humor has a lot to do with taste and so much satire has an agenda that serves either the right or the left, there’s a primal sense of humor that resonates with people because it transcends culture and is universal [to everybody].

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