Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Now that it's over, I can get back to work. The novel is still in editorial limbo and I have another story incubating, and I wanted to say something about irrational voice and humor.
A lot of people in the writing community think there's no place for offensive/edgy humor, or humor that exploits political/social/ethnic stereotypes, and I'm sympathetic to that position. Minorities of any stripe are subject to myriad forms of cultural alienation, especially in the media, and are often represented as broad, generalized archetypes that do little to address the complexity of their communities and individual identities. Therefore, the call to explore and develop a wider appreciation for art/writing is one I support - after all, Langston Hughes means as much to American literature as Poe or Whitman.
However, the radical end of this viewpoint can't appreciate anything that isn't a wooden morality play perfectly mirroring their specific beliefs, and can be humorless, pedantic, and uncivil in their rejection of material that isn't the vanguard of whatever revolution they're interested in. Which is where I get off the bus - I think that offensive humor works when the voice is irrational.
For example, I was once in a parody radio play called Sorry, You've Got My Wrong Number, in which some of the comedic material came at the expense of the handicapped. While all of it was funny, in the sense that it was cleverly phrased and well-timed, it certainly edged the line of good taste. What made it work was the very clear authorial intention that every character making fun of handicapped people was incompetent, crazy, or otherwise not to be taken seriously. Their beliefs and statements were ultimately to be laughed at, mocked, etc. The book A Complete Guide to Racism is another good example, in that it is a hilarious book-length jab at modern racist attitudes, complete with a chapter on Merpeople to make sure the reader understands how loopy the narrator is. Hell, Stephen Colbert has made himself a very wealthy man doing pretty much the same thing. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
Understand, too, that this is a very limited window for making this kind of humor work, and that it is different from "ironic" racism, which is much shallower and less effective. It's also a tricky balance to pull off, but gifted satirists (i.e. not Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern) can still do it. My point is that being able to challenge, to offend, is an important function of humor, and art in general. Not the most important one, of course, but it is nonetheless a vital part of the human experience and a fantastic release valve that, to a certain extent, reaches across cultures.