That’s Not Funny

That’s Not Funny August 7, 2018

Afraid to say I got sucked in reading all those tweets by that person who was just hired by the New York Times in some kind of editorial capacity. Didn’t have time to read them, and wasn’t in any way edified by the endless scroll, and certainly wished I could have that hour of my life back. And truly, have nothing to say about the substance of them—the whole question of racism and wether it’s ok in one context but not in another doesn’t seem like a discussion worth having, especially on Twitter.

What interested me was how the tweets changed over the years (also interesting…how someone had time to go and gather them and put them in order, wish I had that kind of time, wish I had any time). Remember that funny blog from so long ago, like 2013 or something—Stuff White People Like. It was a gentle sort of mocking of the cultural mores that made up a particular segment of American life that overlapped with the hipster phenomenon and was sort of middle class, probably college education, maybe even suburban. Can’t remember any of the things they liked, but the initial round of tweets seemed like a vaguely humous extension of that idea.

But at some point the tweeting lost its humorous edge and just became mean and angry. Indeed, it sounded like a lot of other tweeting storms I’ve read over the years, and finally came to embrace what I don’t love about Twitter now—ponderous earnestness. Twitter isn’t funny anymore. It is earnest. It is deeply sincere. The jokes are flatter and safer and more obvious…and hard to find between all the preaching tweets of everybody in every corner.

At some point, American life stopped being funny. The fail blog went away, the memes became more obvious, the cat videos became old hat, that porcupine eating a pumpkin lost its luster, and it became radically unsafe for one group of people to poke fun at another group of people. Sincere earnest preaching replaced funny, good natured jest. Which it had to, because in order to poke fun, you have to have some common bread to share, some sense that we’re both in it together, and that commonality has evaporated like the fog on a sultry 90 degree day.

This must be racial, to some degree, of course, but it is economic as well, social certainly, and daily even religious. The bitterness of people dividing from each other ideologically, and in terms of identity, has moved in to the evermore insecure psyche that is the American experience and shoved humor out.

Which is sad, because never have the gifts of humor been so abundant. Mr. Trump all by himself is worth all the jokes there are in the world. But so is the fact that a very young white man living in a fancy house in California (which is literally burning down by way*) somehow managed to have his platform hacked by the Russians of all people, and had to go to congress to account for himself, when all he wants to do is “make the world more connected” or whatever the mission statement of Facebook is. And then there’s goop. Truly, this is a ridiculous and funny time to be alive.

But to be funny you have to be willing to laugh at yourself. And I think perhaps the stakes are too high. The brittle fragility of the American person shatters instantly under the weight of emotional and psychological anxiety. There is no warm, gracious, hospitable humility that refuses to take offense, that covers over the failings of another, that laughs at the day to come instead of backing away and crying. To laugh is to hold oneself lightly, to be willing to die in a thousand small ways, a thousand funny tweets, a thousand self-effacing memes.

The best things for the New York Times would be to find themselves suddenly interrupted in some dull and terrible editorial meeting and to laugh, at themselves, for five whole minutes. And then to do it again the next day. A little laughter lightens the heart, makes glad the weary soul, and puts right the head for a few whole minutes. After all, we’re all going to die, every single one of us, so the stakes can’t be that catastrophic.

*I’m not making fun of the horror of the fires. See, no jokes allowed, unless you explain them, and then they’re not funny any more.


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