It’s been a long time since I picked up anything in the formal realm of “Humor Studies” – although it was the topic of my Masters Thesis at Purdue University (Official Home of the “If you’re not educated in 90 days we give you your learning back” guarantee).
But the truth is you learn a lot about people by the jokes they tell. Not necessarily, as Freud so overstate, their innermost hopes and fears. But definitely what’s on their minds.
Thus it is a damning indictment in Rudolph Herzog’s study of humor in Nazi Germany, “Dead Funny,” that so many jokes about concentration camps were told from the very beginning. Not of the “How many Jews does it take to fill an oven” variety – indeed there is a ghastly lack of acknowledgement of the existence of the Jewish people in most of these jokes, as though laws hadn’t been publicly passed against them and a whole segment of the population hadn’t just been uprooted – but a clear indication that they knew they were camps, that people got sent to them, that the propaganda about them being humane was a farce, and that people didn’t come back.
That’s not all people joked about, of course: they joked about how absurd the “Nazi salute” was, and how opportunistic new members of the Nazi party were. They joked about Hitler’s ambition, and they joked about rationing, and they joked about the Nazi justice system, and they joked about the war when it was going badly. There was no shortage of targets.
Many Germans have said that this joking amounts to a resistance movement, suggesting “I told jokes about Hitler, therefore I fought against him.” But Herzog does not accept this logic, correctly noting that a joke can just as easily be the equivalent of letting off steam, or connecting with friends, as it is a form of protest. Comedians can make excellent dissidents, but not every comedian is a dissident. Jay Leno telling jokes about Barak Obama on what’s left of The Tonight Show doesn’t make him a member of any protest movement. The same standard applies to better jokes told around water coolers to smaller audiences. To tell a joke about the high rents in New York is not to be a housing activist.
Herzog has usefully punctured the pretensions of those who confuse irritation at a situation for doing something about it – and confirmed that, in fact, humor could obscure the greatest evil of our time every bit as much as it could reveal it.
Is that why so many present day activists make their causes so humorless?
Herzog never suggests as much, and perhaps the activists in Germany have better dispositions than the ones in San Francisco. But it is interesting to think that humor is instinctively distrusted by so many would-be change agents and revolutionaries today because they grasp what most of us don’t: effective humor often requires a sense of detachment (“comedy equals tragedy + time” being not entirely true, but a useful shorthand), and detachment is the enemy of activism.
So while humor can more effectively topple tyrants than bullets can, it can also paper over the cracks in civil society, and the people who are falling through them. A “joke” is an agnostic form, not to be confused with whatever fills it. It is that agnosticism that makes it so useful in social protest – humor never privilidges power – but even the Nazis, as Herzog so ably demonstrates, could tell jokes.