A votive offering to Thalia

17-Oct-08

     There must be a word to describe the combination of phobias that I have. I would imagine some hideous Greco-Latin monstrosity with an indecent number of prefixes. I’m not in the mood to start scouring http://www.phobialist.com at the moment but I have no doubt that it would furnish me with the answer. To tell the truth, now that I come to think about it it’s probably something quite short and pithy, because what I have is by no means unusual. Just pathetic.

     The truth is that I’m afraid of change. I abhor any alteration to the routines I’ve laid down for myself. I am the fuddiest of duddies and the muddiest of sticks. For a stinking wreck of neuroses, though, I can still coin the occasional euphonious phrase.

     I’m sorry – this is misleading. It sounds as though I’m either going to relate some amusing anecdotes about my aversion to change or provide you with a fool-proof guide to emotional stability and mental openness. I’m afraid I can’t do either. My own psyche is still a construction site, and far be it for the man with builders in the attic to give out DIY tips with any degree of confidence.

     There is, however, one remarkable product that can be acquired safely and legally and is guaranteed to help. It’s been around for a while, but the modern-day ultra-refined version has lost none of its power. I’m talking about Humour. It’s a phenomenal concept with a fascinating history and incredible, almost instantaneous results.

     It is no coincidence that we humans simultaneously have a sense of humour and an (albeit superficial) understanding of the Universe: the two unquestionably go hand-in-hand. The Universe is an inherently ridiculous place: I don’t need to quote Douglas Adams at you to make my point. The more complete our awareness of our mind-boggling insignificance, the more ridiculous our existence seems. This is enough to drive some to despair, others to madness, others still to religion, some to science, some to philosophy and a large proportion of all of the above to humour.

     I am a great uplifter-onto-pedestals. I am also unusually fond of hyphenation, but that’s a different issue. For me, comedy is on a par with science and art. Not a subdivision of either but equal to both. The Universe is a mysterious, terrifying, incomprehensible and thesaurus-burstingly vast place for things as insignificant as us to find ourselves in. We are grossly underequipped to dealing with it, but we’re doing pretty well for the grandchildren of apes.

     Our genuine attempts to fill in the black hole-like gaps in our knowledge take the form of scientific investigation and artistic expression. The quest to find the logical order behind why external reactions and behaviours are as they are, and the equally insatiable need to find the order behind our internal reactions and behaviours. Many less talented or original souls attempt to garner some understanding from religion – wasting their time on lazy and stultifying acts of self-deception and truly futile re-interpretations of the original work of others.

     But comedy ranks up there with both science and art. It came as a relief to me earlier this week to discover that the Ancient Greeks had a muse of comedy, as well as the more well-known muses of history, tragedy, dance and astronomy. Their priorities, as ever, were spot on. Because it literally is vitally important to find things funny. Take away a sense of humour and you remove a sense of perspective. Funny things might not necessarily be less evil or unpleasant than unfunny ones, but at least we feel that we understand them. The ability to summarize a situation in a joke or an amusing cartoon effectively neutralizes it, strapping it to the operating table where you can examine it without fear. Laughing at something means you can tell where its limits are; that you can see the places where it borders on the ridiculous. That gives us the feeling of certainty and control we desperately need.

     Life is so mind-bogglingly absurd that all you can really do about it is laugh. The more nervous and uncertain you are, the more hilarious everything becomes. Hence the fine line between a baby’s tears and giggles, the frenzied sex jokes that plague high school sex ed teachers the world over, and the obsession with paedophilia, death, sexual fetishes and genocide that characterises the humour of young adults. These last few are the things that scare us most. We are too old to lock the bogeymen in the closet and pretend they don’t exist, but also too young, in many cases, to have experienced them directly. We float in a pristine pool that we are desperate to prove is as muddied as anything that surrounds us.

     I am tremendously lenient when it comes to borderline jokes because I know and share the motivating force behind them: our attempts to make some sort of sense of the randomness of existence, to categorize and explicitly describe the things we are too scared or uncomfortable to directly confront. There will always be idiots with no sense of comic timing, cretins who have no idea what audience is appropiate for what sort of joke, and bigots who genuinely find racey jokes funny for the wrong reasons. Ignore them. Examine the context. The world of comedy should not have heavily-policed borders, but rather well-defined ceasefire lines we recognize and get giddy thrills from treading.

     We’re scared. We’re alone. There is evil out there as well as genuine apathy, which is infinitely more frightening. Humour is what allows us to get through unspeakable trauma and face up to our own inevitable brutality and decay. At the end of the day, it’s all we have.

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