Monthly Archives: July 2013

Laughter, Part I

I’m writing two posts (or more? I don’t know) about the funny. This is the first. The next one will be about gender and the funny, and why you should totally run out and see the new Aubrey Plaza movie “The To Do List” when it comes out this week.

In a recent interview with writer Owen Egerton (whom I would describe as a humane humorist, or a humanorist, please start spreading that word around, it’s going to be big), we talked about humane comedy. This is a discussion that usually revolves around “punching up vs. punching down.” (There are scads of essays about this online, but they all boil down to “pick on the big guy, not the little guy.” Here’s a nice one.)

Comedy, as the word “punching” suggests, can be a strong method for critiquing power. But is that all comedy is good for—punching?

What is it good for anyway?

Nicolas Cage as Sleeping Beauty asks, “What is funny for?”

* * * * *

I didn’t used to care about comedy. Not even a little bit.

I remember 15 years ago, when we were in college together, Shana Merlin, one of Austin’s luminaries of improv, said I was funny and asked why I didn’t do comedy. I was really surprised. Me, funny? No, ma’am. I was a very serious person, interested in feminism and suffering and feelings. Comedy seemed trivial, light, auxiliary. The (awful) novel I wrote for my undergraduate thesis was about loss and loneliness. I had taught myself to write songs on the guitar (I know) and the songs I wrote that I liked best were the angsty ones about traumatic breakups. The funny ones were just me blowing off steam, so they couldn’t be good. I am still kind of disturbed by the probably truth that my comic songs are actually better than my sad ones. (“When I Slept with the Cold-Side Guy” is my breakout single.)

Me pretending to be Mazzy Star at an open mic.

Me pretending to be Mazzy Star at an open mic.

So when my husband Curtis and I started dating, I confess I was a little daunted by his investment in comedy. He is a huge comedy nerd, raised on Monty Python and SNL and SCTV and Comedy Central. At the time when we got together, he was performing in multiple improv and sketch comedy shows a week. After years of knowing each other in a distant way, he and I had reconnected (I think that’s what the kids are calling it these days) when I was visiting Austin over Christmas. We got along so well that just a couple of weeks after I went back to my cold, lonely grad school existence in Chicago, I bought a plane ticket to come back down and spend the weekend with him.

There was one thing, though: he had a show that weekend. A comedy show. That I would have to attend.

Sitting alone in the audience with a six-pack between my feet, waiting for the show to begin, I was so nervous I was actually nauseated. What if I hated it? What if I got emotionally invested in this guy, and then found out I was dooming myself to years and years of comedy that I thought was dumb, boring, or even worse, alienating?

My husband came up on stage, and the Your Terrific Neighbors show commenced, and thank the merciful heavens, it was funny. And smart. (And dumb. But in a good way.) As the show progressed, I remember feeling an immense relief, a warmth spreading through my chest unattributable to the beer I was drinking. I felt, I knew, we could be good together.

And we are. We laugh and we laugh and we laugh.

* * * * *

Owen Egerton told me about two types of laughter. One is about making fun of someone–punching, as it were. That’s the one that gets talked about a lot. But the other, he said, is when you’re laughing with your family.

I grew up in a funny family. We are all very different from one another, but we all have one thing in common (aside from loud voices, hot tempers, and giant, beach-ball-sized heads): we all laugh a lot. Tolstoy once wrote, “Happy families are all alike, but every family is funny in its own way.” (Watch out, I’m on a roll here. Try not to spit orange juice all over your keyboard.)

I mean, probably everyone thinks their family is funny, right? I’m not trying to suggest we were funnier than most families, but we had our moments. A highlight of my youth was the time my father started hurling Cool Whip into our dessert bowls from across the room, taking aim from progressively farther distances until there we all had Cool Whip in our hair. (Which reminds my of my theory that Cool Whip was created by accident in a Vidal Sassoon research lab, when a sleepy scientist, dumped a packet of Sweet-N-Low into a batch of hair mousse by mistake.) My mom used to take great delight in plunging a knife, theatrically, into the perfectly smooth surface of a newly opened peanut butter jar. My sister’s specialty was this one raspy monster voice that nobody else could do without hurting their throat. My brother did funny voices and faces, and quoted Monty Python where necessary.

Most often, though, we would play that most sophisticated of humor games: Stare At My Sister Lara Until She Laughs. It was always fun to play, because she had no resistance at all and would explode into giggles immediately, sometimes until tears came out of her eyes. Sometimes you didn’t even have to look at her; she would start laughing as soon as she could tell that you were about to look at her. That probably should have made it less fun, but then comedy is one arena where nobody likes a challenge. Watching Lara laugh until she cries is still a pastime I enjoy when we’re together.

Laughter is tribal. It establishes and enhances relationships, infuses social bonds with a sense of family and transforms people, however temporarily, into a community. Like anything else that cements feelings of belonging, it has two sides. With apologies to Heidi Klum, it can tell you who’s in, or it can tell you who’s out. (Are you reading this, Heidi? Everything going well? Do you ever miss Seal?)

In the fall of 2002, when I was lonely, broke, jobless, and miserable in Portland, Oregon, my brother flew up to help me pack up my worldly possessions and drive with me back to Austin. We wound up driving 36 hours straight, with no overnight stops. (Did I mention I was in a hurry to get back to Texas?) During the alternating bouts of tedium and delirium, we kept each other entertained with a series of running  jokes that no one else will ever find funny (“Hornswoggled!” and “So good with fruit!” topped the list). It was like home had come to me.

We use lots of other methods to establish in-group connections–gossip and slang, for instance. But laughter is special. Laughter is different. Laughter floods your brain with all kinds of delightful chemicals, but it would be a mistake to say that it feels like a drug; rather, it feels like the thing that drugs are trying to give you. Laughter is social even when you’re alone.

* * * * *

In graduate school I studied structures of power and structures of language, ways of making meaning and ways of taking meaning apart. But I never studied the structure of a joke.

I did, on my own, read the philosopher Henri Bergson’s 1900 essay “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” on the slender pretext that it might be useful for my dissertation. (It wasn’t.) Bergson spends a lot of time talking about how the funniest thing ever is when humans act like machines. In fact, he goes so far as to define all comedy as “something mechanical encrusted upon the living.” (Oh turn-of-the-century, how I love you!) I assume that he’s not so much talking about David Cronenberg-type stuff (although I do think horror and comedy have a lot in common), but rather about characters who act out their particular idiosyncratic modes of being over and over again, machine-like, ignoring the consequences. “At the root of the comic,” he says, “there is a sort of rigidity which compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to follow it straight along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen.”

This is similar in principle to what comics nowadays call “heightening.” Of course, it’s also how some people define insanity. (Maybe that Bergson essay had something to do with my dissertation, after all.)

Bergson also memorably claims that comedy “appeals to the intelligence, pure and simple; laughter is incompatible with emotion.” The first part seems patently true. I have never felt so intellectually engaged as when trying to figure out why something is funny, or why it’s not funny, or why it’s almost funny. As my friend Jon (another funny dude) once pointed out to me, comic acting is harder than dramatic acting because it is highly stylized. It doesn’t work if the timing or the rhythm or the physicality is off. In comedy, you can’t get by on Method; heartfelt doesn’t hack it. The best comedians—the Buster Keatons and Bill Cosbys and Lily Tomlins and Maria Bamfords—are masters of the minute, paragons of precision. They are formalists.

But I don’t agree that laughter is incompatible with emotion.

The short-lived television show “Freaks and Geeks” is, to my mind, one of the most perfect comedies ever created. Like all great wince comedy, “Freaks and Geeks” is about alienation: two different types of outsiders, the burn-outs and the nerds, travel parallel paths of awkwardness and isolation in a Detroit high school in 1980. Examples of comic brilliance on the show are legion, and the then-unknown cast now forms a kind of comedy Justice League: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr. (Sarah Hagan must be Wonder Woman in that analogy, because she’s the only one that hasn’t starred in her own movie, despite her manifest brilliance. But more on gender next week!)

One of the most amazing scenes in the series is a montage of Martin Starr’s character Bill watching a Garry Shandling stand-up special on television after school. In the episode, Bill, an only child, latchkey kid, and perpetual punching bag at school, feels threatened when his mom starts dating his gym teacher. (I mean who wouldn’t.) As he eats his Sandwich of Loneliness on his TV Tray of Isolation, he starts to get absorbed in the stand-up routine. The Who’s “I’m One” is playing over the whole scene, so you can’t hear the routine itself; you just see  his slack, mouth-breathing Bill face dissolve into sandwich-dribbling, tear-squinting laughter. Screen shot 2013-07-22 at 9.35.15 AM

Starr is amazing to look at, and the scene would be hilarious enough if it were just him. But instead, the camera cuts back and forth between Shandling on the TV and Bill on the couch, showing how, as he gets sucked deeper into the routine, Bill begins to respond as if there’s an actual person in his living room. He nods along, raising his milk glass back when Shandling raises his water glass to the audience, and even points to himself, shaking his head as if to say “You got me, Garry.” The shots get tighter and tighter on both of them, Starr’s face framed by the television screen in your living room just as Shandling’s is framed by the television screen in Bill’s living room. As Bill’s laughter contorts his face, making him look progressively more hilarious, it almost seems like Shandling is laughing back at him. Toward the end of the sequence, matched shots almost create an eyeline between the two characters, angling them toward one another even when they look away, as you do when you’re laughing so hard you can’t look the other person in the eye anymore. It’s as if even the averted gaze of laughter–that acknowledgment of alienation and loneliness, our inability to connect–could actually connect you to another human being.

That’s the thing about comedy. When it feels best, it also kind of knocks the wind out of you. Like a punch, yes, but one that leaves us all gasping for air together.
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To Answer Your Question, Sir

During all the hubbub surrounding the passage of HB2 and the suppressing of women’s constitutional rights here in Texas, I was asked a very reasonable question by a very kind friend. He’s a guy I like a lot. I have been pondering his question since he asked it, and I hope he takes this post in the spirit it was intended.

Anyway, his question is not exactly what spurred me to write this post. I’m writing it now because I’ve seen the same question asked several times following the Trayvon Martin verdict Saturday night. It’s a question people ask a lot during weeks as horrifying as this one. After a particularly violent round of racism or misogyny or homophobia plays out on a national stage–after a teenager has been shot and killed and his killer absolved, or a woman has been sentenced to 20 years for protecting herself against an abusive partner, or the rights of 13 million women have been systematically bullied out of existence–it surfaces again and again:

What can we [non-marginalized allies] do? What can we [men] do to fight sexism? What can we [white people] do to combat racism? 

It may surprise you, if you have asked this question recently, to find out that not everybody wants to hear it. Depending on who you are and whom you’re asking, you might get your head bitten off. You may be told to back off, be quiet, and stop making it all about you. Or you may be given an icy rejoinder instead of the folder full of anti-racism or anti-sexism instructions you were expecting.

This can lead to hurt feelings, which is a shame, because nobody wants to hurt your feelings. In my experience, during shitty times like these, most of us just want to talk about what it feels like to be the target of institutional violence among other people who know the feeling, and with the people who are closest to us. We may want to express our outrage and grief in public, or we may want to sit in silence for a while and hug our knees.

Just to be clear, I’m a white cis woman living in a patriarchal, racist, heterosexist country. I’ve had plenty of advantages in life. My privilege is considerable. As someone who is both an oppressor and oppressed, I can’t claim to be speaking for victims of racism or other types of discrimination. I am working off my own experience as a member of a marginalized group. So if you read this and feel I’m not speaking for you, please feel free to let me know. I have tried where possible to listen and defer to those who are experts in their own oppression. (And I know there are other posts like this one out there, so if you know of a good one, link to it in the comments.)

So first I want to explain why some of us get so mad when people who do not share our particular oppression ask the question, and then I want to honor the good intentions behind the question itself and do my best to answer it. First off, it’s not really the question itself that’s the problem. It’s WHEN you ask, and WHOM you ask.

I’m angry because you only asked it today. To me, that implies that you never noticed this type of thing (racism, misogyny, etc.) going down before, or you didn’t pay attention to or believe the people who told you about it. It implies that you are only asking now because it has become so obvious you can’t possibly ignore it. It implies that you only asked because it made you sad. Tragedy begets empathy, and empathy is important; but why should I have to get kicked right in front of you for you to believe me when I say people want to kick me?

We all have bystander disorder when it comes to social justice; we look the other way until we are forced, by someone or something too big and bold and upsetting to ignore, to stop. But imagine how it feels to be the person shouting for help the whole time, or giving up on shouting for help because they’re tired of being dismissed or ignored or even attacked for it. Now something made the national news, and now you are finally paying attention.

I’m angry because you asked me. To me, this implies that I am your only or best source of information about this stuff, which is not true; and besides, we’re tired right now. We’re tired of educating you on your terms. We talk and talk and talk about this stuff, and you stifle a yawn or ask why every single thing has to be seen through that lens. (Because I can’t wake up and not be a woman, that’s why.) By the time you ask us to talk, our jaws hurt and we have a headache, and we’ve just been smacked in the face so hard that you are finally taking notice. We are tired right now from being oppressed, and we should not have to have this conversation with you on demand, when there are other resources out there. Think about waiting at least until the initial trauma is over and using the time to do a little research on your own.

So what CAN you do? 

Listen, believe, and defer. Listen to us when we talk about these issues. Believe us when we say something in our world is happening because of racism, sexism, ablism, homophobia, etc. Listen and believe not just the first time, but the hundredth. Racism is still there the hundredth time. Defer to our expert knowledge of our own oppression. We have lived it, through no choice of our own.

And please, please, do not discount us when we occasionally sound (to you, to ourselves) like crazy people. Being a woman in a patriarchy, or what have you, can make you feel crazy, and then that craziness can be used to disenfranchise you; that’s called “gaslighting,” and it’s a tool of the oppressor. But members of marginalized groups aren’t crazy; they’re sensitive. (Have you ever noticed how quickly the connotation of the word “sensitive” shifts from positive to negative when it’s thrown at someone else? “I think I’m a pretty sensitive guy” vs. “I think you’re just really sensitive.” Think about the payoff of that shift for a moment, and then think about gaslighting again.)

Oppression does make a person sensitive, in the same way that dogs have sensitive noses and cats have sensitive hearing. Just as one instrument is more sensitive than another to the thing it is meant to measure, so most women are more sensitive to misogyny, black people to anti-black racism, Asian-Americans to anti-Asian racism, etc. Walking around in a female body is the best crash course in sexism any man can have; just ask Dustin Hoffman, or this guy. But as long as a man can take off his lady clothes or add a Mr. to his name and be accepted as a man, it doesn’t make him an expert. Sensitivity is a survival skill. The fact that we are sensitive is only a problem for people who don’t want to feel implicated by problems they have the privilege of being able to ignore.

Try not to say “I feel bad” over and over. Watching people get oppressed does feel bad, but it feels worse to be oppressed–just like watching someone get treated for cancer is extremely painful, but not as painful as actually having cancer. It’s fine to have bad feelings, but be judicious about where and how you express them. Bringing your sadness about it to the person who is most directly affected by it may feel like solidarity to you, but to us it may feel like a request for comfort–or, worse, absolution. “Don’t worry, you’re not the problem,” we feel compelled to say. “I’m not talking about you.” But sometimes you really are the problem, or at least you’re not part of the solution, and we just don’t want to hurt your feelings, so we squash our own.

Susan Silk and Barry Goldman have a great piece about the right way to structure intimate interactions around trauma and grief. It’s called the “ring theory of kvetching.” I think it was originally written about relationships with sick people, but it works very well for oppressed and marginalized groups as well, particularly in these heightened moments. The idea is to picture any traumatic situation as a bull’s-eye, with concentric circles coming out from the person most directly affected. The person at the center of the trauma (i.e. the one with cancer) should always be exactly that: at the center. The circle of people who interact directly with the central person are experiencing secondary trauma, too. But whenever possible they should be taking their sadness about the central trauma to the next circle out, to their friends who are less directly affected, not inward, to the primary person. We do not ask the person who is more directly affected by the trauma than we are to absolve or take care of us. That is not their job. We have cats and therapists and other friends for that.

Do not apologize for being in a position of privilege. Your being a man/white/cisgender/financially stable is not the problem. Somebody is going to be those things. The problem is the social, political, and economic structures within which those characteristics make your life worth more than others’ lives. The energy you waste apologizing could better be spent helping. Privilege is not a sin to atone for. It’s a tool you can use to help. Atoning implies you’re helping in order to make up for being who you are; but helping is what all of us should be doing, to the extent that we can. In religious terms, it’s the difference between penance (atonement) and mitzvah (duty).

Do apologize for doing something that hurts others—even if you didn’t mean to. Apologizing IS the right thing to do when it’s you who made the mistake. If you’re not willing to apologize for a real harm that you caused, even if you didn’t mean to, your other apologies are going to seem kind of disingenuous. So, wrong way to apologize: “I’m sorry, on behalf of men, about misogyny.” Right way to apologize: “I’m sorry I linked to that article; I thought it was funny and I didn’t see how problematic it was, thanks for taking the time to explain it to me.” Resist the urge to dwell on your feelings of shame over having made the mistake. It’s harder to be oppressed than to have the embarrassing realization that you’ve contributed to oppressing someone else.

CALL SHIT OUT. You’re in a bar, and your friend makes a nasty slut-shaming joke. Call it out. You saw a movie with a bunch of friends who liked it. You liked it too, except for that one awful character who was a creepy Asian stereotype. Call it out. Say it out loud: “Fuck that shit.” Somebody makes a rape joke. It’s a comic you like. Call it out: “Fuck that shit.” (You can even call yourself out. You find yourself starting to talk smack about your body as a way of bonding with other women, the kind of talk that can start off a round of competitive body-shaming, which is triggering. Call it out: “My bad. Fuck that shit.” See, it’s fun!)

One side effect of male privilege, white privilege, etc., is that people listen to you and take you seriously when you talk. The fear you feel that keeps you from calling shit out is the fear of losing that privilege, being lumped with the boring old oppressed people, and feeling for a single moment what people feel who don’t have a choice in the matter. Examine that feeling! And in general . . .

Examine your privilege. Contrary to many of our (for me, Protestant) instincts, privilege is NOT a sin for which you have to atone. It is a tool that you have been given and others haven’t. That’s not fair, obviously, but throwing away privilege isn’t usually an option even if you think you want to. For instance, throwing away male privilege or white privilege is literally impossible, and throwing away class privilege doesn’t make you a saint unless you gave it to someone else. Far more useful: get used to seeing it, noticing that it’s there. It’s natural and comfortable for your own privilege to be invisible to you; fight nature, fight comfort. Handle your privilege with care, because it’s dangerous. Use it to help others, because it’s powerful. Above all, don’t ever deny it. That is the most insulting thing you can do. 

And yes, if you are successful at leveraging your privilege for others, it might eventually, one day, disappear. That’s something you have to look in the face and see for what it is. Equality means you might lose some of your edge. Decide whether you’re okay with that and act accordingly.

Talk amongst yourselves. This would be a great time for you to reach out to other men/white people/straight people etc. who want to be allies and brainstorm ways to make a difference as an above-mentioned with like-minded above-mentioneds. Remember, I don’t know what it’s like to be a man any more than you know what it’s like to be a woman, so I don’t know all your available options. Listen to this dude about men’s leadership role in ending sexism for inspiration, and share it with dudes you know.

Be prepared to be wrong, even when you’re trying. Let go of your ego for a minute. Be embarrassed in private, then let it go and resume trying. That’s how we cope with mistakes.

Do your research. Believe it or not, there are whole institutions devoted to the study of these problems, and courses, many of them free, which you can take to learn more about them. If you live in Austin, I highly, highly, highly recommend the Safeplace Volunteer Training for a complex introduction to issues of violence against women. Yes it’s 40 hours; consider it a free course, even if you don’t go on to volunteer, though hopefully you will want to. There is no way you can sit through that training and not come out the other side with a better understanding of institutionalized violence against women, and the intersectionalities of race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality that contribute to it. There are resources like that in your town. Look them up.

Ask more specific questions. Instead of “What can I do?” ask, “Where can I donate?” Instead of “What book should I read?” ask, “What’s a better place to start, bell hooks or Judith Butler?” In other words, do your homework, and ask questions that imply you are actually ready to do something.

Follow up. This is the hardest part, for everyone, including me. Don’t sit around flagellating yourself, but keep paying attention and trying to find ways to help. Sign up for the Safeplace training course and attend every session you can. And when you find you’ve slacked off or lapsed in paying attention or let time pass without doing what you meant to do, don’t waste time beating yourself up. Just try again.

Forgive us when we’re bitchy. Nobody’s perfect. We’re not either. Sometimes we snap and snipe, sometimes we say things that sound over-the-top or vengeful or ungenerous. Please understand why and give us space for our anger. Your continued empathy is a balm to us, especially over time. My husband’s continuing efforts to understand misogyny have made me a stronger and better feminist, because he supports and loves me and forgives me when I let my anger get the best of me, and that has made me trust him and given me hope. Be that person for someone in your life. You have that power.

Once more with feeling, these things are not useful: ATONING, SELF-FLAGELLATING,  APOLOGIZING FOR HAVING PRIVILEGE.


Thanks for reading.

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Our Bodies, Our Voices

I have a new essay up at The Rumpus called “Bodies That Mattered,” where I talk about the use of the word “choice,” the silencing of Texas women, and other stuff.

I never thought I’d end up writing so publicly about abortion – it’s a scary issue to become involved with because of the violence, both rhetorical and physical, that has surrounded it for decades in this country. But women my age are waking up to the fact that options our mothers (and grandmothers) fought for and won are being taken away from us. The pro-life position, however sincere, is fundamentally at odds with women being able to have the same degree of physical autonomy and the same types of life choices as men. It isn’t the only issue we have to fight for, but it is pretty critical. And I am beginning to realize that women who make this choice have been demonized and demeaned by the silence of women like me on this issue as much as by the words of the opposition.

So anyway, check out my essay, and if you have your own personal and direct experience with abortion and you’re brave enough to tell it, I hope you find a way to do so.

*Yesterday I was interviewed live about this issue, and about rape culture, for an ACLU radio show  called “Give Me Liberty” on KPFT Houston. You can find and listen to the episode here – scroll down to June 30, 7:00 pm – and tell me whether I sound as terrified as I felt.

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