Malcolm You’re Wrong – Woe Isn’t Wonderful, Humor Is

Photo of Malcolm Gladwell

Photo of Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell

I’m mad at Malcolm Gladwell.

In his otherwise excellent Masterclass on writing, Malcolm Gladwell dismisses humor in a way that is weird.

He opens his lesson on “Humor and Melancholy” with a bemused observation about how Americans “fetishize laughter.” As an example, he offers up the success of Jerry Seinfeld. Gladwell seems astonished that Seinfeld is “almost a billionaire.” This, for doing something that is “so common.” Putting aside TV’s ability to make stars, and make them rich, let’s look at Gladwell’s underlying assumptions and claims.

Gladwell seems puzzled by Seinfeld’s success because laughter is such an ordinary, “ubiquitous,” thing. He attempts to prove this by challenging us to remember the specific moment they last laughed. Because we probably don’t know, he contends, it follows that laughter is so common as to be cheap, and by extension, relatively unimportant.

Using this same logic, it would be unimportant if you stopped breathing because it’s something you do several times each minute, or, if your heart stopped beating, that would be no big deal either.

In Gladwell’s mind, sorrow is a much more profound emotion. Because we seldom experience deep sadness, we recall it vividly. His examples are drawn from his stories. These are indeed compelling and memorable. But all that he proves, really, is his superior ability to render sorrow, and that his skill in this area is much stronger than his ability to evoke laughter. Gladwell says as much elsewhere in the class. He suggests to readers that they not try to be funny because he has found he can make people laugh when they don’t expect it, but not so easily when they are expecting mirth. Gladwell attributes this, rightly, to the how difficult it is to surprise an audience who has expectations of being surprised. The frame matters, and in this I agree.

But, on the whole, Gladwell’s observations are a bit of a cop out. A more thoroughgoing assessment of humor would explore and discuss the big guns, top humorists from the canons of American and world literature. Gladwell does not do this, in part because he so quickly dismissed humor from serious consideration.

One of the reasons that Gladwell is wrong is that he looks at only at cheap laughs and assumes that all laughter emanates from the same place. I concede that there are low forms of humor. But to lump all laughter together is simplistic, and it blurs important distinctions. Some people laugh out of nervousness, some out of anger, some of the perverse satisfaction of seeing others suffer, some from mild amusement, and others from surprise. Then sometime–in wonderful and memorable moments—we laugh out of pure joy.

So it’s important to remember that some laughter is not related to humor at all. This alone makes it worthy of examination. But more that this, laughter born of humor does play a part an important role in culture, in our lives, and in our literature. It may evoke laughter or just a knowing smile. And humor can be just worthy of study as is dramatic counterpart provide pathways to deep reflection and sudden, important, insights.

Gladwell makes it clear he prefers to explore sorrow, and he does so brilliantly. But joy, too, is a profound emotion, and there are entire works devoted to its study. These works offer deep insights that are realized and shared through humor. For example, the philosophy of the Tao is often taught through funny stories. My favorite work of this type is a book crafted to connect the Tao with a Western audience: The Tao of Pooh. But the truths and insights into the human condition also occur in humor literature, too. The best everyday examples are from the canon of American humorists such as Mark Twain, Will Rodgers, Ring Lardner, and others.

And there is no shortage of worthy contemporary examples.

Consider the profoundly important anti-war and social-justice humor of the Smother’s Brothers. Their work in the 1960s served as a weapon that spoke truth to power. This sort of comedy was a powerful push-back. The humor of Lenny Bruce did the same, although much of that was not to my taste. Anyone who has ever listened to George Carlin, and then returned to hear a second or third time, knows that there are insights in irony. And television shows such as “MASH,” and “All in The Family” ignited powerful discussions at many a dinner table with consequences that reverberated through the culture.

I think all of this points to how consequential humor can be. This does not disprove, of course, of the emotional impact of drama or the power of sorrow. But on this latter point, Gladwell believes that profound sorrow is rare, and by way of proof he mentions how we so clearly remember when we are sad and tearful. This, of course, may speak less to the frequency of this event than to the structures of our brain, adaptation and evolution, that cause us to remember our personal problems so clearly. I would content that there is plenty of evidence that sorrowful experiences are more common that he suggests, and that our desire for humor may be as a palliative and coping mechanism.

When I read Gladwell’s comments about the importance of sorrow, it reminded me of a story told by Grant Tinker, the CEO at NBC from 1980-86. Tinker  related a conversation with producer and actor Michael Landon. Landon was discussing his ideas for the drama, Little House on the Prairie.  During their talk, Landon said that many TV shows could make people laugh, but that few had the ability to make them cry. This, Landon claimed, made him a rare and valuable commodity.

Landon accurately described the NBC lineup of that age, yet what exactly does this prove? Does it speak to a limited talent pool or to audience demand? If it is the latter, we may draw some conclusions that differ from what Gladwell claims. It seems to me that the reason humor is so prevalent and sought after is that sorrow is all too common in our everyday, “real world.”

If you doubt this, then look at the pages of any newspaper, and the columns rattle with violence, reek with the stench of dried blood, and scorch your fingers with the consequences of rage. The paper’s only relief  is from the sports pages and the funnies. The sheer proportion of sorrow to joy is depressing to experience. Most people I know have to limit the amount of 24/7 news the consume just to keep their wits.

Given the desire people have to seek relief through humor, doesn’t that speak volumes it’s worth? I think it does. If I am reading him correctly, and he thinks it is trivial when compared to the far greater importance of drama, the I respectfully disagree and think he’s really being blind to the big picture on this one topic.  

Humor’s greatest weakness isn’t that it’s trivial. Humor comes up short against drama and pathos because it’s extraordinarily perishable commodity. It’s rare to have even the best of humor survive it’s “time.”

There are several reasons for this.

Unfortunately for humorists, rapid obsolescent is an inherent challenge of the genre. Contrast this with drama. You’ll see the opposite is true with sad stories. Case in point, take the theater of the ancient Greeks. Those fossilized tragedies are still able to make us cry with very little help from scholars. It’s easy to relate to people who are crying and dying, no matter what the language. All those bodies piled on stage usually command your attention.

The same cannot be said for their comedic counterparts. The Greek plays’ references and targets are obscure, and the stylistic tricks make for difficult reads. The primary reason for this disparity is comedy’s overpowering demands for economy and concision. Jokes have to be stripped down to the bare essentials. Even the best of non-joke comedy has many of the same needs. Longer works such as the character-driven narratives demand a lean form, Successful writers often use slang, word play, or references to celebrities such as Michael Jackson. Because a well-known person carries “cultural baggage,” they allow a humorist to rapidly set up a joke. It’s much quicker, then, to trigger a punchline. But this elliptical method can leave readers bewildered if they don’t know the slang and omitted cultural references. So comedy and humor age poorly.

At times, even Shakespeare needs footnotes to be funny.

And there are other aspects to comedy that often add to its banality. Triteness is a key culprit. This may be what really irks Gladwell, who loves to look at writing as an opportunity to promote deep thinking.  On this point I agree with him. Trite humor, the cheap laugh such as slipping on a banana peel or a corny pun, is hardly worth the time of an intelligent adults. Juveniles may eat this stuff up, but most grown-ups endure the knock-knock joke only with blood-kin that they adore. And this is as it should be. Time is precious, and best spent on those things that make a difference. Some comedy reaches this standard, most does not. I believe much of the shallowness of situation comedy humor is unfortunate but predictable. It’s driven by the necessity of producing a commodity that amuses many while offending almost no one. Commercialism makes for low art, if it is art at all. But the failings of sitcoms don’t provide a credible indictment of all humor. Had Gladwell argued that most comedy is lame, I would not be taking him to task. I would, in fact, agree with him. It’s difficult to produce humor and comedy that makes an important point, but it can be done. Look at the work of such thought-leaders as Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. But, sadly, their material has a short shelf-life. Who knows whether it will mean something to subsequent generations unless it’s required reading or viewing in a some distant college curriculum? And the ability of Dave Barry’s fart jokes to endure remains to be seen. Perhaps the less said about that, the better for my argument. And it’s true that any joke you have to explain isn’t funny.

Yes, humor has its limitations.

Yes, humor is hard.

Yes, it can be banal.

But humor is important.

It is often the only weapon that poor folk have. It’s no accident that many counter-movements begin with bawdy jokes or edgy night club acts. This humor can be political in the traditional sense, or it can take a gander at gender issues. It also can land a left hook on the injustices of poverty.

Humor remains a vital and essential part of the human experience. And with all due respect to an author I love and a man who is, no doubt, a lot smarter than I am. I have to say, Malcolm, you are dead wrong. Woe isn’t wonderful—humor is.

But that’s OK. I think if you ever started writing humor regularly, there would be no hope for those of us who aspire to hope to gain fame by being funny.

So, unlike Malcolm, I am proud to belong to that clan of humorists who aspire to excellence and to rend this veil of tears with a bit of sunshine.

And I wouldn’t mind getting rich doing it, either.

Robb Lightfoot

#humor, #malcolm gladwell

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