WARNING: High Levels of Scurrilous Laughter
by bart plantenga
“L’humour est le plus court chemin d’un homme à un autre.” (Humor is the shortest road from one person to another.) • Georges Wolinski, satirical cartoonist at CH [RIP]
The nervous laugh, the golfer’s clap of hilarity, is applied in situations involving severely uncomfortable moments of consciousness, when one realizes that a humorist is suddenly talking about you or your type or talking about something you have no clue about, but you laugh anyway just in case – so as not to appear clueless or unhip.
These unsettling ah-ha moments occur in connection with the most scurrilous, upsetting of art forms – mockery, satire, burlesque, parody – which breed unease because here is where we undergo dramatic renovations of our comfort zone. But that’s the extent of our arsenal. They have our health benefits, we have heightened derision. They have the generals & the priests, we have the cartoonist & the stand-up comedian.
That the art of laughing at – & then getting others to laugh at – the absurd cruelty of the entitled, those who possess the power to make but mostly break is something we should not under estimate. The ultimate target of satire & comedy is hypocrisy, big hypocrisy as perpetrated upon us by those we entrust with our vote, our hard-earned wages, our lives, our rental agreements, our subscriptions, our souls.
I am not saying I’m always very funny or not even that often but I do GET it & I do try to spread the weaponry: the satiric assault on hypocrisy that is at the essence of acerbic humor that torches the sacred, turns the tables, flips the wigs of power, burns the right bridges & is called iconoclasm, the destruction of sacred images. I could reel off my starting team: the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, George Carlin, WC … but I won’t because you have your own starting team & they are all in the same Hall of Fame.
I’ve saved this Time photo since it was published in 1972 because I found it important, inspiring, instructional although the mocker is anonymous & far from heralded. & I have engaged in this type of mocking.
Questions arise: Why do religious fundamentalists seem so devoid of humor? Why are so many people irony-averse? Why are there so few rightwing comedians? Is the best humor that which tackles the basic issue of social inequities? I think so & taking the piss out of normals, out of the elite dwarfs of power, perpetrating hoaxes, falsification, & forgeries, which undermine authority & its ability to dictate value & authenticity or sanction atrocities in the name of the normal-median-average-ordinary is an essential part of the arsenal of humor.
The recent tragedy surrounding the Charlie-Hebdo crew shows once again how purported believers in one faith can so easily shed the critical acumen that humans are endowed with or, shall we say, blessed with. That belief allows humans to so easily slide from perception to faith is alarming.
“One would think,” The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnick observed, “that the power of a simple, grafitti-like scrawl was minimal.” & yet, we must be painfully relieved to know that something so simple as a crude squiggle that vaguely looks like the green grocer in Whoduhfoqville with what looks like two camel’s bollocks balanced atop his turban [the first post-tragedy Charlie-Hebdo cover] can have an effect. That it merely took a few scraggily, somewhat forgotten cartoonists to say they had drawn a cartoon of Mohamm_d for everyone to believe it indeed looked like him is part of the insane mass hysteria that results from overripe minds believing because belief means deleting all of your critical thought software and rationality apps. As Paris artist Noir Sifichi noted: “How does anyone know that the illustration on the cover of Charlie-Hebdo is really Mohamet? He just looks like a guy with a turban ….”
Since no one knows what he looks like, people who felt mocked or victimized could have applied simple human reason & come to the conclusion that they may say it is – or looks like – the prophet, but I know that no one actually knows, so any rendering of him will always be nothing but a fanciful depiction devoid of any true likeness & thus we can say that any drawing of Mohamm_d will never be an accurate depiction of him. & so any devout Muslim could simply say: THAT is not my prophet.
As Paris-area gardener-comedian Bradlay Blanc points out: “People see what they want to see. If Muslim extremists see the illustration on the cover of Charlie-Hebdo as their prophet, it’s they who have the problem [because] by their own rules & definition, they don’t know what he looked like.”
And so we see the power of images, illusions, illusionists, persuasion, a kind of willful hypnosis whereby the symbol stupefies: look closely at this ridiculous image. You will now declare it as an accurate depiction of your boss. As a dispensable foot soldier of the faith, you will now become angry. You will refuse to reflect, think rationally & will instead believe what a person who you regard as your enemy says. You are too wrapped up in willfully melding your identity with misunderstandings concerning an established faith & so cannot see the absurdity. You prefer the easy escape route: belief over analysis, which leads to indignation, victimization by whatever. Any deeply religious person would not be fooled or distracted by this attempt at poorly-rendered forgery.
If anything positive can be seen in all of this it is the fact that people have witnessed the power of satire to represent freedom of expression & maybe, just maybe this will lead to a mass movement that was hinted at with the Occupy Movement, because humor + enthusiasm + righteous activism = change may be just the equation that the entitled fear most as we wake up from the hangover of our last dissatisfying shopping trip & the lethargy we have purchased against the better interests of our own souls.
“The Suppression of Mirth” was first published in Wiggling Wishbone: Stories of Pata-Sexual Speculation [1995, Autonomedia]. Another earlier version of “The Suppression of Mirth” appeared in the eminent subversive art zine SANDBOX, spring 1998, edited by Slyvie Myerson & Vid Jain. The book itself received effusive praise but with every positive review came the guarantee of ever-decreasing sales. An inverse correlation the author could only laugh at – & create a 3rd-person self who could absorb blame & ultimately be able to explain how every laugh was just a tear wrapped in a ziploc plastic smiley bag.
I am reprinting it because the Charlie-Hebdo tragedy occurred right along the border between mirth & oppression that I seemed to be mapping out in my story. That & the fact that two totally different readers of my book noticed a relationship between my story and the Charlie-Hebdo tragedy. This is an enhanced version of the original with all new graphics.
Christopher Hitchens had his own skeletons, but when he was on target he was invincible, lucid, right on. In a 2012 BBC interview, Jeremy Paxman asked Hitchens about the value of criticizing the Koran or another person’s faith & Hitchens basically said that it’s important to lampoon the ridiculous parts of any holy book because “one of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority.”
The Suppression of Mirth: No Laughing Matter
by bart plantenga
When the governed laugh, the governors cannot but have an uneasy
feeling that they may be laughing at them.
• Malcolm Muggeridge
here has never been a consensus among nations regarding the nature & effect of laughter on citizens. Many governments have, however, come to regard laughter as subversive & deleterious to social stability & have sought, each in their own way, if not a worldwide condemnation of laughter & its numerous parallel manifestations, then a coordinated multilateral national treaty to severally contain it.
Many “liberal” governments of the West regard much of the general spectrum of mirth as a variably effective form of mass control. As long as it stops shy of the explosive & almost uncontrollable physical upheaval of the person, as Darwin described it, it can be promoted, sold & consumed.
Politicians in conjunction with select think tanks are currently negotiating acceptable levels of mirth. Liberals favor a broad definition of what they’re calling “harmless guffaws & wheezy haw-haws” thus enabling experts to mark specific pernicious non-conformist laughter to ultimately outlaw. But Liberals agree, in principle, with hardline Lamenters that laughter should be employed in moderation; caution & discretion, should define the parameters of laughter. The broad range of categories of acceptable mirth would ideally induce feelings of euphoria [based on established consumption patterns], thereby reinforcing the belief that everything is exactly as it should be.
However, along with the expansion of the Post-WWII middle class came the notion of attainable leisure as a reward for honest work. This class lived & worked not for power or beauty but for the consumption of their deserved comfort. The entertainment conglomerates arose to ply this burgeoning new class with a veritable non-stop laugh track of culture triumphant in leisure. It encouraged innocuous indulgence – banal laughter within socially prescribed parameters of accepted mirth that breaks up trains of thought that might precipitate social change. This lighthearted form of humor arrived embedded in the situation comedy, which promoted the link, ironically, between the universal acceptance of being a part of mankind while simultaneously encouraging the haughty, if petty ostentatious distinctions of a class that could afford leisure – member of the masses & yet able to thrive in the illusion of being aloof from those very masses.
“Proper laughter” has, since ancient times, been thought of as “nature’s anxiety maintenance system.” Herbert Spenser described it as an “overflow of nervous energy.” Laughter is thus, a prime socio-psychic curative in the maintenance of personal buoyancy & the management of the extreme absurdity of the modern world’s complexities. “Laughter,” for Emmanuel Kant, was “an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” Even more to the point, William Hazlitt declared that “man is the only animal that laughs … for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are & what they ought to be.”
According to a recent OECD study, it is precisely in this distinguishing between “positive” [civic/Vegas] & “negative” [subversive/Mirth Guerrilla] laughter that governments are beginning to discover valuable common ground. Positive laughter is beneficial laughter, laughter that reflects the society positively, affirms its values; family, work, religion, freedom within the parameters of relatively responsible consumerism that incurs at most soft debts. In other words, a propulsive factor in creating a society drugged on well being & encouraged soft debt.
Thus, mirth beyond the officially sanctioned, the sort that might howl the house down, a laughter “of the whole man from head to heels,” as Carlyle described, was viewed as a laughter of subversion, as glee with negligible economic value. We speak here of the Dadaist’s “Mad laughter,” as a “reaction against rigidity,” a tool with which to resist & deconstruct the general regulated character of everyday life.
A NATO treaty will force the West to re-hone its definition of “positive laughter as socially uplifting,” including instructive light rebuke, infirmities, social amenities & manners or the “lounge-style” of comedy & would include the cultural exchange of failed situation comedies that have the redeeming value of being good value for low outlays & based on laugh-track theory, a coercive form that trains people to laugh at certain junctures & quips via effective laugh-track implementation. Like advertising, it has been shown to keep the funny bone sufficiently activated leaving little room for actual rumination. Another example is the characteristic New Yorker cartoon known for its “gentle mocking corrective nature.”
“A wonderful thing about true laughter is that it just destroys any kind of system of dividing people.” • John Cleese
Syndication agreements would send select sit-coms – My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, The Jeffersons, Three Is Company, Father Knows Best, Home Improvement, According to Jim & countless others [often disparagingly referred to by Mirth Guerrillas as the “junk bonds of laughter”] to the Eastern Bloc. The irony is that the former East views the totally inconsequential as an attack on perpetual gray, somber, bureaucracy-burdened melancholy – mindless fluff as protest. The West will host Embassy-marketed mixed-card tours featuring the East’s court jesters, café comics, circus clowns & pop yodelers in Moscow’s spectacular Kremlinoptix, Atlantic City’s Christian Clean Casino, Sun City, Burbank, the Catskills, the Cote d’Azur, Beirut, Skopje, Zagreb & other emerging entertainment meccas.
Agreements have established protocols for cross-border, cooperative surveillance to monitor & squelch the proliferation of laughter deemed anti-social in enclaves of volatile mirth-making; Laugh-o-Meter installation target areas include: Greenwich Village, Whitney Houston Texas, New Orleans’s Confederacy of Dunces Strip, Amsterdam’s Dutch Humorstraat, Paris’s Pastille Bastille, San Francisco’s GayeT-Mobile Center, Rome’s 8 & 3/4, Minneapolis’s Cold Humor Strip, Barcelona’s Rambling Ramblas, Berlin’s Gemüsed District …
The OECD estimate of 2 million+ global Bohemian Mirth Guerrillas are united by a loosely accepted notion of where the funny-bone is located. According to the powerful Lament Lobby [LL], they strive “to Anarchist & Proto-Communal Euphoria schemes, exacerbating economic mayhem by circumventing government-sanctioned laughter, undermining the Mood Regulation Industry, hoping to ultimately toss Free Enterprise into utter disarray” – & who can argue with that?
Laughter for the LL is inherently prurient & “virtually attached to the reproductive organs.” Restraint, abstinence, self-control are the acceptable routes to one’s accumulation of spiritual energy, according to the LL. They believe the source of laughter is pan-demos – of the vulgar mob, root of pandemonium, sacrilegious tool of anarchy. For them, laughter’s source is Greek comedy that delved into “pagan rites of spring, copulation, wooden penises, pornographic sing-a-longs, Bacchanalian excess & unrepentant flatulence.” All of this jeopardizes the soul’s progress beyond the “conditions of its lower nature, which is ignorant & defective” [Bahai Baptists Congress] without proper guidance.
Mega-Mood Conglomerates have developed various medications that promise to enhance feelings of patriotic euphoria [aka “red, white & blue X-tasy”], that appears to leave the work ethic intact. The caplets reportedly incorporate positive constituents of certain hallucinogens & amphetamines & is being referred to as “The Miracle Drug,” “Puritan Opium” & “P-OP.”
Mirth Guerrillas insist that government-sanctioned levels of laughter doom mankind to glum circumscribed moral, religious & aesthetic codes that only leads to the desperate consumption of high-end luxury goods. They have counter-proposed their “mad laughter,” which incorporates the anarchistic zest of early Dadaists; it is, as they describe it, a “Harpo bouquet of squirting blossoms in the fields of fanatical functionaries,” thus firmly repositioning laughter as spiritual combat.
The Mirth Guerrillas are encountering a vast mobilization of institutional resources to establish methods & install laugh-o-meters that will monitor laughter at sensitive locations. Governments and churches alike have proposed the imposition of “decibel limits,” the licensing of mirth emporiums & monitoring of their proliferation through the development of ultra-sensitive, microwave monitoring devices. Coupled with its R&D of P-OP, the Mega-Mood giants have also developed an anti-febrile, counter-guffaw inoculation medication for the masses. This reported anti-giddiness vaccine consists of dopamine-blocker Prochlorperazine. Dopamine transmits chemical signals to control arousal, memory, alertness, emotions & perception of pain & pleasure. The suppression of “excess” dopamine can lead to a life free of giddiness & illicit, asymmetric excesses of laughter.
The Moral Militia, a Lament Lobby-funded research group, has presented “incontrovertible evidence that Jesus never laughed.” What ennobled him, as the Son of God, they claim, was that he was capable of laughing but CHOSE not to. The Moral Militia Media Center [3M] in Hooeyville, West Virginia, argues that the Bible reveals “inexorable connections between glee, psychopathic behavior, abuses of freedom & the decay of our most cherished values.”
3M recently released a study of computer-enhanced news photos, which is quickly spreading across various media platforms, & can, they believe, serve as a litmus test for the socially-acceptable limits of mirth. It is a controversial condemnation of laughter that attempts to show incontrovertible links between avid smiling & some of this century’s most notorious personages. Four key sociopaths they studied were  Charles Manson,  “Squeaky” Fromme of the Charles Manson clan & purported unrepentant laughter [even after her assassination attempt on then-President Ford],  Arthur “Savage Smile” Bremer &  David “Smirk of Sam” Berkowitz. In fact, Bremer’s quasi-euphoric smile has ironically been likened, by the Mirth Guerrillas, to the heavenly god-inspired smiles of the various  Popes, whose holy smiles are, of course, exempt from regulation. Herein, the Moral Militia claims, lies the imminent danger: an effort on the part of Mirth Guerrillas in concert with renowned sociopaths seeking to obliterate the distinctions between good & “mad laughter,” which only “hoodwinks the masses & leads to the destruction of the moral fiber & our inalienable rights to consume.”
Hitler, the Moral Militia has pointed out, was also a fanatical smirker, enabling him to beguile a whole continent with his infectious smirk. But Mirth Guerrillas, point out, that Hitler, like kings, presidents & CEOs before him, employed a ruthlessly accountable method for squelching all ridiculing laughter. The cruel facts of his secret persecution & ultimate extermination of all those deemed guilty of “offensichtlich gefährlich Gelächter” [obviously dangerous laughter] has only recently come to light.
The Moral Militia, along with U.S. Government agencies, has ironically joined its former Cold War adversaries, the agents of Perpetual Sullenness at the Kremlin in this bilateral pursuit. The foot soldiers of dreariness have mobilized enforcement cells to penetrate the hotbeds of mirth & re-zone areas known as breeding grounds for “mad laughter & jubilant iniquity.” Their plans call for disruption tactics, hooliganism, preferential treatment, reverse quota systems, withholding of legitimate promotions & raises, photo-documentation, context humiliation, blackmail & infiltrations by agent provocateurs [purportedly recruited from the burgeoning ranks of unemployed actors & comedians from the 50 worst sit-coms of all time].
The 3M claims that most Mirth Guerrillas are “Jewish, black, homo, bi or asexual, liberal to leftist with smatterings of anarchists, humanists, pacifists & neo-Dadaists – those groomed on the W.C.-Fields-Lenny-Bruce-Marx-Brothers-Richard-Pryor-Ernie-Kovacs-Krazy-Kat-orgiastic axis, which has always sought to overthrow the inalienable rights of those who live under the law of God & government.”
Young Anti-Mirth Soldiers [YAMS] recently attacked the editorial offices of university & post-university satire magazines; The Harvard Lampoon has been hard hit by pooper-scooper-toting YAMS hurling feces from frat house catapults. Mad, Weirdo, Screw & The Journal of Irreproducible Results have all been strategically shoplifted or mysteriously ignited on newsstands. Distributors have begun to cancel orders.
Self-help TV therapists for unrepentant gigglers have popped up on the major networks. Gruesome tales of mirth-addicts laughing themselves to death have found mass-media circulation. Reefer Madness-style Public service messages link typical laughter-related tragedies, which emphasize clichés such as “gallows humor,” “splitting one’s sides,” “burst with laughter,” “die laughing” as the slippery slide from laughter to death at its almost inexorable. The stories feature techniques developed by anti-drug campaigns as they warn of comedy troupes weaving evil hallucinatory spells of ribald aspersions & insidious wackiness to produce rollicking types of involuntary laughter. Hypnotized by the black humor, audiences collapse into “tear-the-house-down-style” chaos!
As James Thorberg, director of Mirth Intervention Enterprises & author of the bestseller Hard dee HarHar: Radical Christian Intervention Strategies to Combat Unwelcome Mirth, categorically stated on the Oprah Show: “We are at war & war requires extraordinary & awesome responses. Let me be clear: The laughter of man is more terrible than tears & takes more hollow, heartless, mirthless, & maniacal forms.”
The Moral Militia seem determined to create “the obvious links” between laughter & every social ill – atheism, masturbation, Married with Children marathons, incest, alcoholism, obesity, diet pill abuse, involuntary laughter, & the high incidence of “mirth infection” [contact highs]. This, in turn, produces “a chain reaction of cerebral anarchy where credit cards, Christian logic, carnivores & family life are trashed through chortling as well as an unfeeling, brash disregard for humanity.” Henri Bergson, a frequent source of inspiration for the 3M, said that “laughter has no greater foe than emotion.”
And so, our contemporary world stage is fraught with the global struggle for the funny-bone of humanity. The LL continues with its press releases describing puritanical mirthocalypse while governments favor some restrictions on “mad laughter.” Meanwhile, the Mirth Guerrillas & Liberation Mirth Monks believe that laughter emancipates body & soul from the tyranny of the mundane & temporal & are most effective in their propaganda because the young, in search of deserved gratification, can easily see that they are the ones having fun & if fun is the ultimate revenge, laughter is its soundtrack because, as Mark Twain pointed out over 100 years ago, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”
1. “Renaissance physicians continued to prescribe mirth as a therapy useful against the epidemic illness called melancholy, & thus the noted writer-editor Norman Cousins in 1976 was simply invoking an ancient tradition when he described how Marx Brothers’ films & comic television reruns helped him recover from a debilitating illness. Like tragedy, comedy seems to be an enduring response to the dehumanizing powers of pain & suffering.” “Voice, Genre, & Moral Community,” David B. Morris in Daedalus vol. 125, no. 1, Cambridge, MA, 1996.
2. Lord Chesterfield in the 18th century wrote a letter to his son: “I must particularly warn you against laughing … there is nothing so ill-bred, as audible laughter … nobody has ever heard me laugh.”
3. “Johannes Chrystomos expressed the opinion that Jesus never laughed. Later in the twelfth century, Petrus Cantor felt constrained to admit that maybe he had, but the only reason was that together with the guilt of mankind, Jesus had also taken upon himself human failings.” See R. Warnung, Funktion und Struktur [München, 1974, p. 109].
4. Jeroen Brouwers in Sunken Red: “I remember that at home, long after the war, there would be screams of laughter when my parents, my brothers, other relatives or friends, raked up memories from their camp years. The history of those camps has been washed away on waves of hilarity.” quoted in Jolanda Vanderwal Taylor, A Family Occupation: Children of the War & the Memory of World War II in Dutch Literature of the 1980s [Amsterdam: AUP, 1997].
5. They believe that “God laughed seven times to create the world. The first laugh to create light, the second created water … & the seventh laugh bore the soul.”
bart plantenga is also the author of Wiggling Wishbone and Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man both published by Autonomedia. His book YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World received worldwide attention. He is currently [not] working on a new novel, Paris Sex Tete, which lies around like an apathetic, half-clad, dissheveled paramour while his new book on yodeling Yodel in HiFi, will no doubt be a bread-winner of epiglottal proportions. He is a “nonfiction novelist” and is also a founding member of the New York writing group, the Unbearable Beatniks of Light.
His life has been defined by women, undignified employment, migration, lack of money and writing. His writing focuses on inequity, unempowerment, insatiable desire, the unentitled, the under-regarded, ignored and ineffable, which has led to a life of luxurious suffering and indellible indifference to profit.
His radio show Wreck This Mess has been on the air since 1986, first on WFMU [NY], then Radio Libertaire [Paris], and finally Radio 100 and now Radio Patapoe [Amsterdam], the world’s most untamed and oldest pirate radio station. He lives in Amsterdam.