In writing a column that hopes to deliver many a true word spoken in jest, I am often contacted by readers lacking any obvious sense of humor. Sadly, they take everything I write literally and with deadly seriousness. They would be shocked to learn that leg pulling is not restricted to chiropractors.
This leads to comic results, although sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It is certainly depressing to discover that large parts of society appear to have become humor-free zones. Perhaps warning signs should be erected in such mirthless areas; say, pictures of clowns or whoopee cushions with a diagonal red line through them.
An alternative explanation is that I am simply not funny - that is, the problem is not that some readers are humorless but that I am deadly to the droll. Yes, it could be that, which is why I reject the suggestion out of hand.
All of which serves to show why I was taken by the recent optimistic comments of Bob Mankoff on the subject of American humor. If he is right, Elvis has not left the building and taken the jokes with him, as I have long suspected from reading my emails.
Mankoff may not be someone you recognize, but he has the best job in the world. He is the cartoon editor of The New Yorker magazine, the sophisticated precinct of the seriously funny.
Mankoff has held the job for 18 years, a distinction that puts him at the center of an HBO documentary on New Yorker cartoonists, “Very Semi-Serious,” which is to air this month. As a prelude to this, The New York Times Magazine interviewed him for its Nov. 29 edition.
Cartoon editor is a funny sort of a job. When I say it is the best job in the world, I am forgetting my own past dealings with cartoonists, which were generally unsatisfactory for both parties. Cartoonists tend to be touchy. If you tell them that perhaps it is not the best thing to portray local politicians in bed with farm animals, they don’t take this advice well for some reason.
To deal with cartoonists and still be able to laugh makes Mankoff a remarkable authority on the national funny bone. Pleasingly, his observations in the Times interview were very interesting in a semi-serious and semi-laughable way.
For example, when asked by the interviewer if we are “funnier than we used to be or just more aware of how funny we are,” he replied, “I think we’re funnier. You can’t exist in this society without at least having the appearance of a sense of humor, even if you don’t really have one.”
This is an attractive notion that I want to believe but don’t. Society has never been more ridiculous. It would be great if everybody was humorously aware enough to see the widespread comedy and cackle uproariously whenever Donald Trump approached the podium.
Instead, clownishness is taken seriously. From this I deduce that hordes of people exist who are perfectly content not to have a sense of humor or the appearance of one. Not getting the joke - or not even realizing there is a joke - is endemic in the land. As for irony, you could do the Heimlich maneuver on it all day and not raise a breath visible to some folks.
This is no surprise. The general tenor of the times is sullen and bitter. These days a priest, a rabbi and an imam could walk into a bar and it wouldn’t even be the makings of a joke.
I have a regular correspondent who signs himself in his emails as a “right-wing humorist.” He is a jolly fellow, except for the interludes of bitterness and delusion. I have tried to explain to him gently that there is no such thing as a conservative humorist. It’s an oxymoron.
True humor depends on sympathy for the human condition, a grasp of reality and an ability to see things on several levels at once, all of which are in short supply in conservative circles. And it’s not just conservatives. Ideologues of the left are every bit as unfunny. No one is more bitter than the guy who doesn’t get the joke and he doesn’t get it because he is bitter. Extremism is no soil to nurture humor.
So when the cartoon editor of The New Yorker says we are funnier now, I take that as cause for hope. But I have to say, “Are you kidding me?”