May 18, 2013
Posted on Sep 8, 2012
By Mr. Fish
As MOM speaks, the camera slowly pans over STEPDAD and FISH and out of the dining room, coming to rest on a pot of hot dogs on the stove. A FLY buzzes in a manic circle upside down on the surface of the greasy water, hopelessly trapped and struggling hard against drowning.
* * *
The thing about the Truman Capote story that so amazed me when I was 15 was how well it illustrated the ability of a good joke to recalibrate the politics of a dangerous situation and suddenly make it safe. Not only that, it demonstrated how jokes are uniquely capable of temporarily nullifying every prejudice within earshot of its telling in deference to both the high hilarity and camaraderie guaranteed by the levity of the moment. It didn’t matter that Capote was gay, for example, any more than it mattered that a grown man had just exposed himself in a public place. The punch line had given justification to every detail of the story, as if the exposition could be substantiated by the pyrotechnics of the gag. Why was this? Was it because humor was escapism and that a joke provided a welcome interruption for people who felt as if their souls were being continuously ground down by a dastardly and unrelenting reality hellbent on telling it like it was without ceasing? Was comedy a lens through which reality was skewed and ultimately perverted into a fantasy that had no real relevance to what was commonly referred to as the truth?
Or was it the opposite?
Was it more likely that jokes actually provided insight into a reality rendered invisible by mainstream thinking and conventional wisdom? It was generally understood that civility destroyed humor, sure, just as being well mannered crippled candor and often encouraged subterfuge and duplicity. This certainly wasn’t news to anybody. Still, I couldn’t remember ever hearing anybody ask why the insincerity of decorum was prized over the bluntness so crucial to a sense of humor, which it was. Joke making, it seemed to me, was the human equivalent of what animals did when they play wrestled each other in nature. For instance, when tigers tackle each other and roll around pawing and gumming jugulars they are reinforcing their communal bonds and practicing how not to exercise lethal behavior. They are learning about the strengths and limitations of their physical bodies and demonstrating what it feels like to be free and alive in the world. Jokes, likewise, represent the intellectual play that reinforce communal bonds between people and demonstrate how they should not exercise lethal behavior with each other. They reveal what our behavioral limitations are and teach us the importance of dissent from a standard that seeks to indoctrinate us with intolerance and humorlessness and paranoia and prejudice.
Jokes teach us that while a fart may not be at all amusing to a pastor whose job it is to stand at the head of a church and celebrate humankind as the greatest miracle of God’s creation, it is at least a reminder that a pastor and the antediluvian sales pitch that he preaches from the Bible are, minimally, not the whole story.
That’s when it occurred to me that instead of hoisting myself upon the broad shoulders of outrage and announcing that I was gay because I wanted to express my contempt for the priggishness of the dominant culture and the dishonesty that would be the guaranteed result from succumbing to it, I should be like Truman Capote in a bar in the Florida Keys in the 1970s and set about saving the world by inspiring people to want to publicly expose the indecency of truth by beautifying the androgyny of its nudity one yuck at a time.
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