When we’re all laughing, humor is nice. And when we make fun of those in power. It’s pretty sad humor when we laugh at the weak and at others. In some ways, humor is similar to gossip in that it serves a strangely liberating function, and we all gossip. We are all sinners, whether we are small or large. It all depends on who is doing the measuring.
Humor is also a matter of comfort. When you tell jokes, you usually do so in the presence of people with whom you have some degree of intimacy. This fosters communication and understanding. When a friend laughs at me, even if it’s a mean laugh, I know it’s an act of appreciation and friendship, and whatever they say is said out of sympathy. But if they laughed at me in public, that’d be something entirely different. A sense of humor is more than just words and jokes. It all comes down to social context and reception. I don’t mind when my good friend refers to me as a “precious sylph.” We can make fun of each other because we have a good relationship. If someone said something like that to me in public, I’d consider it an insult.
Things change when humor becomes a public issue. My friend Vasile Ernu, a popular Romanian publicist, has written extensively about the function of the jetster and public humor.
When the press becomes a mass phenomenon, everything changes. We now have a tool for making public not only the jester’s humor, but also the intimate humor, the jokes between friends. The outcome is not always pleasant.
Because humor can also be about power. It can be used to challenge or strengthen power dynamics.
John Heartfield’s satire1 of Hermann Göring was both bottom-up and brave. Göring was a high official in the Nazi Party at the time, and Heartfiled mocks his words in one of his posters. This is a satirical humor directed at those in positions of power. Top-down satire directed at Jews in cartoons is a form of public discourse that dehumanizes and legitimizes hatred and violence.
Similarly, there is a lot of sarcasm directed at Roma in many Eastern European countries these days. For example, in a 19th century progressive Romanian magazine called The Contemporary (1881-1891), I was surprised to find a slew of racist and violence-instigating jokes directed at Roma people.
By the way, I’m sure the Roma have jokes about Romanians as well. Theirs, however, do not make it into the press. The dominant group’s humor seeps into the media arena.
Humor has been privatized in a capitalist society. We pay comedians and humorists to make us laugh. They are, however, tragic figures. In addition to the prostitutes who satisfy your sexual desires for a fee, the comedian makes you laugh for a fee. Freely telling jokes and cheering up your friends is an unplanned act of generosity. Playing the joker for money seems like a very sad role to me. Because it introduces humor into the capitalist profit-making circuit, an activity that is so deeply human and fundamentally about community and how people feel in it. Humor is a part of the gift economy, and the fact that we’ve come to privatize it says a lot about the human condition today, as well as how difficult it is to laugh at each other without being mean.
The hatred generated by comedians, particularly in the United States, exemplifies this tragic dimension in which they must cater to an increasingly polarized public that is incapable of laughing together. It is difficult to laugh together in a divided society where political power and, especially, social media algorithms feed and nurture this polarization. It’s nearly impossible!
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