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Davis, California

Friday, April 12, 2024

Tragedy plus time equals comedy, but how soon is too soon?

Exploring whether “humor” is still “funny” in midst of pandemic

Over these last two months — excuse me, first two months — of “attending” virtual lectures via Zoom, students have conditioned themselves to always abide by one basic, fundamental, overarching, all-encompassing supreme law of the land in the new planet-spanning, intercontinental virtual classroom: “muting” themselves.

This practice has some readily apparent benefits. Of course, it seems like an obvious common courtesy to prevent every little bit of background noise from disturbing and distracting from the entire virtual class’ virtual classroom experience. For example, it’s probably a good thing that I was “on mute” during my music history class last week as my housemate and I (with my laptop in hand and earbuds still in) frantically heaved my mattress across the room as part of an arduous, harrowing, Herculean, profanity-laden effort to apprehend a quite sizable spider that had fallen beneath my bed.

Muting myself during that incident was no doubt the politest thing I could have done in that situation. But was it the funniest thing I could have done? Most certainly not! For instance, I could have “accidentally” “forgotten” to “mute” myself. That would’ve been pretty damn funny. I would gladly give a million bucks to have been on the other end of that Zoom call. Perhaps even more than that, given the state of the world right now… 

And therein lies my problem with Zoom’s “mute” function. As an unintended consequence of this primary “feature” of Zoom etiquette, we have effectively deprived the classroom of collective laughter. It’s almost as if the function is specially designed to stymie, stifle and smother the laughter resulting from the shared jokes, jests, quips and moments of situational irony that make the in-person classroom experience so special. “Muting” seems like a tailor-made tool for subconsciously reminding us that this pandemic is not an appropriate time to be laughing about anyone or anything. 

And thus, we are often left with a virtual learning environment more comedically sterile than the classroom of a yardstick-wielding Catholic nun. So it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that this makes “muting” more of a bug than a feature. Especially for any recovering Catholics keen on avoiding those memories.

With the classroom robbed of the usual mechanisms that promote collective laughter, we’ve been forced to rewrite the language of humor in the classroom — with mixed results. You can’t hear people laugh, but can you see them laugh? Yes, but only if their video is on. Does anybody in the virtual classroom do that? Nope, virtually nobody. Damn, how impersonal! But that’s understandable for privacy reasons. So can students just use the chat function to say “LOL” then? Yes, they can, and they do, but virtually nothing is more annoying than that. Luckily, if you think like Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” you can at least be happy that they aren’t “verbal texting” by literally saying “LOL” out loud. And at least I only have to “virtually meet” these people!

Nonetheless, virtually nothing can adequately replace the smattering of chuckles that moves across the classroom like an ocean wave whenever the professor makes a clever and topical joke. Or the joy of exchanging a bemused single eyebrow raise with your neighbor when the professor may have just said, “let’s shit gears” instead of “let’s shift gears.”

Speaking of which, I can’t even begin to imagine how awkward and bizarre the virtual classroom must be for the world’s teachers and professors. For starters, if virtually the entire virtual class has deactivated their audio and video, then the act of teaching is reduced to nothing more than lecturing into a blank, empty, lifeless void. I’m sure that before this pandemic, that metaphor has inspired decades of incomplete screenplays from teachers across the globe.

Like the students, teachers can’t hear or participate in collective laughter from any amusing or unexpected situations that arise in the virtual meeting space. And to make matters worse, they can’t tell whether or not any of their jokes are actually landing! I’ve long felt that the best teachers are the ones who have a little bit of stand-up comic in ‘em — the teachers who can guide you to not only consume the course material, but also to appreciate and internalize it to the degree required in order to find sources of humor, amusement and irony. 

Whether bringing that humor to lectures is done through traditional joke structures or via George Carlin-esque, cleverly wordsmithed monologues that call attention to peculiar yet comical details is up to the teacher. Both approaches can work. But on Zoom, there’s no way to tell what works when we’re all muted. Just as comics need time to work out their material in comedy clubs, teachers and professors need to be able to get that same type of feedback, which is virtually impossible when we’re apart. 

I’ve seen slogans like, “together even though we’re apart” making the rounds lately. That’s a great sentiment for boosting quarantine morale for and encouraging positive thinking during these trying times. But it doesn’t exactly work like that for comedy. If it did, then failing stand-up comics who bomb virtually every gig would have the greatest excuse ever: “Even though the audience didn’t find me the slightest bit funny, I could feel so much laughter!” I’ve heard a rumor that one of my former music professors has been inserting laugh tracks into her lectures, which is a pretty brilliant solution for this problem.

For many people, the struggles of Zoom might be yet another unwelcome stressor during times that are already stressful enough. And for others, the gravity of the pandemic and its global consequences may reduce Zoom to just one more irritating, trivial annoyance that provides ample kvetching material. For example: Aren’t you getting a bit exhausted from being forced to listen to virtually everyone say the word “virtually” virtually all the time?!

But for both of these groups of people, Zoom gives one crucial benefit that might make it well worth purchasing the official Zoom license in order to have meetings longer than 40 minutes. Zoom provides us with small and absurd details amid the overwhelming physical and psychological horrors of the pandemic. Details that we will eventually be able to look back on and laugh at, precisely because they are trivial, absurd and amusing. 

This will prove invaluable because laughter can be a highly effective method for healthily processing tragedy. Many celebrities and late-night comedians have been trying their best to make sure we don’t forget that, keeping their shows, acts and brands going from their homes. While this is a positive and valuable trend, there is something weird and off-kilter about watching them putter about their homes as they eagerly scramble to entertain us and make us laugh. 

This has forced us to re-evaluate our relationships with celebrities and question why we devote so much valuable time to living vicariously through them and their “content” (whatever the hell “content” is). Especially when they are often no more interesting or enlightened than we are. All we know is that, for some reason, viewing endless “content” on our countless devices keeps us content. Filmmaker and American treasure David Lynch perhaps best captured this curious phenomenon with an apt metaphor in his magnum opus, “Twin Peaks: The Return” (2017), in the now-infamous subplot about a dude hired for the mysterious job of continuously staring into an empty glass box on the off-chance that something might appear inside it (spoiler alert: Something does, and it murders him, but that’s not important right now).

Meanwhile, the continued presence of comedians to help us break down the day’s coronavirus news makes us think a lot about whether pandemic-themed comedy is appropriate right now. This leads to a larger philosophical question concerning whether joking about serious subjects should be considered appropriate at all. One important consideration in answering that question is whether you narrowly define “joking” as just traditional setups and punchlines, or whether it is defined more holistically to include the complex, multi-layered and irony-saturated Carlin-style riffs. But that is merely an important stylistic consideration regarding how to joke about something, not a strict criterion for evaluating whether or not you should joke about something. And I will provide no such criteria because there should not be any.

I’m of the opinion that no person, group or subject matter should be off limits for joking or being made fun of. That is, as long as the jokes are made in sensitive ways, crafted with care and clear intent. I often fear that our culture is losing the ability to distinguish between making fun of something and making light of it. They are not the same. Mocking, minimizing and making light of serious, sensitive subject matter is where we run into problems with tone deafness, ambiguous targets of jokes and flat out poor taste. Diminishing the seriousness of tragedies simply should not be done.

But in my book, making fun of things is different. It requires a quite refined and self-aware critical lens in order to produce humorous and subversive commentary on serious issues while still making it abundantly clear that you should be taking the seriousness seriously — not the jokes seriously. If there is a “correct” way to joke about something as serious as a global pandemic, then this is the way to go about it.

This is why I think John Oliver has been, by far, the most effective and important comedic voice of the coronavirus era. On his show, “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver spoke about the pandemic and our (mis)management of it with thoroughness and razor-sharp wit while still being respectful, true and real.

Because of the stay-at-home orders, he has been broadcasting his show in quarantine from his “blank white void full of sad facts.” And Oliver’s success right now is because of this “void.” It embodies why his idiosyncratic sense of humor could not be more appropriate in this moment. He is making sure that the show is not about him. He’s not promoting himself or trying to distract us with everything in the background of his home. He has distilled the show down to nothing but the information and the bitter ironies we need to make sense of everything right now. He prioritizes sharing information and his sense of bewilderment. Reacting with laughter seems more like a byproduct than his primary goal.

I have tried to adapt this approach in my own humor writing. Originally, I had planned to write another set of opinion columns this quarter so I could continue my pattern of switching between columns and satire articles every quarter. But once things started to get *interesting* in March, I realized that trying to write good humor pieces during a crisis that could not be any less humorous was a challenge that I needed to take on. 

I’ve tried to approach the art of humor writing from neither a joke writing perspective nor with the primary goal of garnering laughter. Rather, I set out to identify ironies and figure out ways to repackage them and vividly show them, not just tell them. Engaging with current events by highlighting ironies within them has become the method of “reporting” with which I’m most comfortable. I’m now hyperaware of how essential it is to clearly distinguish between my satirical voice and my actual voice and to avoid leaving targets of criticism ambiguous or open to misinterpretation. This has been an invaluable exercise in critical thinking and comedic style.

Yet, I constantly fear that some people may look at my coronavirus-themed humor as extremely distasteful. To illustrate this point, I return to David. After hosting “SNL” in 2017, he faced significant backlash for a joke he made involving hypotheticals about if and how flirting ever occurred between prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. A very dark and twisted scenario indeed, but David navigates it delicately and brilliantly. By channeling his Jewish history, his unique brand of observational comedy and his distinctive ability to scrutinize the puzzling patterns of how people make conversation, David shines a light on the complicated but very human emotions that were most certainly felt by the prisoners. Nothing about the joke even remotely attempts to make light of concentration camps or the Holocaust. The humor is derived from the incongruity and the situational irony, not from the sick notion that anything about the Holocaust is inherently funny. I think it’s unfortunate and disappointing that even The Washington Post managed to overlook all of these considerations, instead publishing an article titled, “The debate over Larry David’s Holocaust joke on SNL: Bad taste, or just bad comedy?

Commenting on the human condition with a sense of humor and irony should not be considered “bad taste,” no matter how tragic the subject, because it might just happen to ring true and provide solace for some people.

Due to the relevance of this incident, it seems quite fitting that my jumping-off point for trying to come to terms with the pandemic through humor was nothing other than David’s show “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” As an avid Seinfeldian, I began my quarantine by rewatching a few episodes of “Seinfeld,” which has been my go-to “feel-good show” and philosophical guide for over half of my life. I’ve surely watched every episode at least six or seven times now. But because of the unprecedented nature of our new reality, I found myself needing some fresher comedy with a bit more bite and kick to it. So, I decided it was finally time to watch “Curb” — that “weird, improvised show that’s kinda like ‘Seinfeld’ but not really (and way cringier)” that I had long been told I “probably wouldn’t fully appreciate until I got older.” 

Well, the verdict is in, and I have indeed “gotten older.” Within the first month of quarantine, I binge-watched all 10 seasons of the show, shooting up “Curb” every day like a comedy-addicted junkie, trying desperately to keep the high of experiencing David’s genius going just a little longer. Now that I’ve finished what is certain to be my first of many watchings of the show, I’ve cut back on “Curb” (a good street name for a drug). Instead, I frequently end up watching random short clips from the show that pop up on YouTube, like a sophisticated and rational intellectual microdosing on hydroxychloroquine would. 

“Curb” really helped me keep a positive attitude and, more importantly, my sense of humor during the first few weeks of being totally alone under shelter-in-place orders. So much so, in fact, that I began keeping a list of small-but-amusing pandemic-related things that had the makings of classic “Curb Your Enthusiasm” moments. Perhaps we should instead call it, “Cure Your Enthusiasm.”

For instance, one day at the grocery store, an elderly woman jumped behind me in the checkout line, not realizing that she had cut somebody else who was standing six feet behind me. They proceeded to passive-aggressively bicker with each other for at least five minutes regarding who was in more of a hurry.

Someone I know who is nearing retirement age told me that after they accidentally cut the entire line wrapping around Trader Joe’s, an employee informed them that they could return during the store’s “senior hours.” Ouch! Major faux pas! A few hours later, I thought to myself, “Uh oh, did I just commit a major faux pas myself by failing to offer to pick up anything for them next time I was at the store? Or would that offer have just offended them even more?!”

Then, of course, there’s the infuriating person who only wears their mask around their neck. But at least I can sneer, swear and stick out my tongue at them with zero consequences, since I’m actually wearing my mask. Davis would also have to struggle through the intricacies of “the Zoom hello,” “the Zoom goodbye,” “the veiled Zoom restroom visit,” “the accidental unmuted offensive Zoom remark” and the inconvenience of not being able to mute people in real life. And David would now have a better excuse than he’s ever had to avoid doing the dreaded “stop and chat” if he runs into someone he doesn’t like. I could go on…

In week nine, during one of my policy theory classes, the professor supplemented our discussion of the Tragedy of the Commons by showing a hilarious clip from “Curb” of David lecturing Christian Slater about how he had “gone over his caviar allotment” at a party.

Watching that in class absolutely made my day. I just hope that other students who aren’t as obsessed with “Curb” found it funny too. If they didn’t because they don’t think “Curb” and observational comedy are funny in general, then I’d be quite offended. But if they didn’t find it funny because they don’t think that now is an appropriate time to find anything funny, then that would just make me sad.

If we begin feeling guilty whenever we remember funny aspects of life before the  coronavirus, or feel like it would be in poor taste to laugh at anything now given the catastrophic loss of human life, then we should not interpret it as an indication that we should be pessimistic, disheartened and humorless about virtually everything. Rather, we should see it as a sign that we should have been laughing more all along.

Written by: Benjamin Porter — bbporter@ucdavis.edu 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie


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