The Laugher curve

Ian Birnbaum is wondering where his comic mojo went:

For the longest time as a kid, I was known amongst my friends for being very, very funny. I was quick on the draw with an insult, comebacks would snap away like a whip, and I can joke or deadpan like a comedian. Comedy Central was my favorite channel, and Douglas Adams was my favorite author.

I’ve grown up a lot in ways I like. Responsibility, ambition. Spiritually, I feel closer to my center than I have in a long time, and being an adult is actually kind of fun.

But somewhere along the line, I lost the ability to write “funny”. Somewhere between a needless war, a dangerously powerful president, pathetic ass-covering politicians, the mainstream adulation of Paris Hilton as a celebrity to look up to, a war in Lebanon (again), terror warning level Orange, and China becoming an economic superpower — somewhere between “I care about you but this isn’t working” and “I need $100 by Tuesday or I can’t pay bills,” I forgot what it was like to feel a good belly-laugh. And the thought of being able to cause a good chuckle became foreign to the level of impossibility.

I think what Mr Birnbaum is discovering is that one’s sense of humor migrates a bit: its center wanders about as experiences pile up, and the edges get a mite ragged here and there. Especially there [gestures].

Mark Twain figured out a long time ago that the secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow, and the worse things get, the greater the potential for yocks. I can’t imagine anyone of a jocular bent, even a comparatively gentle soul like, say, Garrison Keillor, scratching around for material today. And let’s face it: were it not for pathetic ass-covering politicians, Stephen Colbert would be doing the weather in Dubuque.

The ultimate extension of this premise, of course, is so-called gallows humor. We don’t execute a lot of people these days — at least, none of the ones I want — and their sentences are normally carried out behind very thick walls so it’s impossible to know for sure, but I have always believed that if you don’t actually go insane as your time approaches, the quality of your remarks is bound to go up sharply. And when the Nanny State finally achieves the dominance it desires and I’m sent before a firing squad for extreme disloyalty, seditious remarks and ownership of a George Foreman grill, I plan to ask the riflemen if those things have trigger locks. Because if I have to die, and I assume I do — and if I don’t, I’m wasting a crapload of money on insurance — I intend to die laughing.



  1. Winston »

    6 June 2007 · 7:11 am

    So well put, Charles. It seems as if our entire society has forgotten how to laugh, and most particularly at itself. The smartass sarcastic wit that you and and crank out in our attempts to be funny and laugh at ourselves may be the only thing that keeps us within shouting distance of sanity.

    When I read your remark about Twain, I recalled the line attributed to him that goes something like:

    I could not attend the funeral, but I did send a nice note saying I approved of it.

  2. Don Mecoy »

    6 June 2007 · 8:04 am

    Did you hear the one about the Texas death row inmate? Condemned inmate Patrick Knight is soliciting the public for a good joke he can tell as his final statement before he is put to death.

    From the Associated Press:
    He said he’s already received about 250 wisecracks.

    “Lawyer jokes are real popular,” he said. “Some of them are a little on the edge. I’m not going to use any profanity if I can find the one I want, or any vulgar content. It wouldn’t be bad if it was a little bit on the edge. That would be cool.”

    Read the whole story at

  3. McGehee »

    6 June 2007 · 8:44 am

    Condemned inmate Patrick Knight is soliciting the public for a good joke he can tell as his final statement before he is put to death.

    “I shaved my back for this?”

  4. Mister Snitch! »

    6 June 2007 · 9:36 am

    Twain saw some tragedy in his life, and knew how to laugh at himself. Colbert is a one-trick pony, and was terribly played out even BEFORE he got his own show.

    I appreciate Winston’s earlier comment, while wondering what McGehee would shave HIS back for.

    One of the funniest, most insightful comedians in recent years (to me, anyway) was Richard Jeni. He killed himself recently. Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel. Because Jeni did both, he was a wonderful, moving, highly original and thoughtful comic. He challenged his audience with new ideas presented in a compelling manner. Obviously, he was also in a lot of pain. The world is poorer without him.

    Contrast with George Carlin, who was once wildly inventive, sly, subversive and funny. Now he performs to an extremely loyal but extremely limited audience by reinforcing their existing hatreds and predjudices, and never challenging them. Carlin used to make you think, and had influence and cultural resonance beyond his obvious audience. Now he’s a bitter cheerleader for haters. I find his HBO specials painful to watch. What they should do instead is stage an HBO intervention for Carlin, sort of like the Friar’s Club roasts, with well-known but still-relevant comics prodding Carlin to shape up. Gilbert Gottfried mocking George Carlin – now THAT’s entertainment.

  5. Andrea Harris »

    6 June 2007 · 6:08 pm

    A “needless” war? How the hell does he or anyone know it is needless yet? Who died and made him God of the copybooks? As for “dangerously powerful president” — he can’t even keep his VP’s aid from getting thrown in jail, and I’m still waiting for the camps to be set up for all the newspaper people that have been putting down Bush 24/7 even before he was “selected.” I wonder what he would have thought of FDR, who was much more “dangerously” powerful than Bush is or will ever be.

    It often happens this way: the “funny” kid grows up and he turns sour, fearful, and boring. I have a theory that “funny” people — the class clowns, the cut-ups, the guy in the back with the cutting wit — most turn out badly in the end due to some sort of inherent instability of personality. I should know — I am still coming down off the consequences of years of not taking enough things seriously.

  6. McGehee »

    6 June 2007 · 7:19 pm

    while wondering what McGehee would shave HIS back for.

    I haven’t so far. What are you bidding?

  7. Mister Snitch! »

    6 June 2007 · 11:38 pm

    I haven’t so far. What are you bidding?

    It’s always about money with you. Where’s your sense of adventure?

  8. McGehee »

    7 June 2007 · 9:37 am

    Who said anything about money? A half-gallon of rocky road ice cream would be a bid.

    Not a good bid, but…

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