The Numbers:13 Project
Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak’s dignitaries, “Go back to your own country, for the LORD will not let me go with you.” Numbers 22:13
A long time ago, when gentle ethnic humor was still funny, there was a joke which was told about an immigrant – alternately Eastern European Jewish, Arab or Indian – who was sued by an African American for verbal assault. The judge asked the complainant what happened. “Your honor,” he stated, “I was walking down the street looking for a particular restaurant. This gentleman was walking toward me, so I asked if he could direct me to the establishment. In response, he pointed at me and said, ‘You’re a black bastard. You should go back where you came from.’”
The judge said to Mr. Epstein/Ahmadi/Singh, “Sir, I am surprised at you. You have come to this country and been treated as family, without regard for your country of origin. How dare you invoke one of the worst statements of bigotry imaginable!”
The defendant replies, in the accented English he worked so hard to master, “Excuse me, your honor, I believe I was misunderstood. This gentleman was walking in the wrong direction, already beyond his destination. All I did was point the right way and say, ‘You’re a block past it. You should go back where you came from.’”
I haven’t re-piloted this joke in live performance, but I am guessing it wouldn’t get too many laughs today. Instead, I would be met with a furrowed brow, a sigh and perhaps a remark about my own latent prejudices.
Laughter is good for the soul and also for the body. The reason we laugh is not well understood, but not for lack of trying. Theories include the Ontic-Epistemic approach, the Computational-Neural approach and Benign Violation (which is likely considered oxymoronic these days), among many others. I have always subscribed to the notion that laughter comes at the sudden realization of the unexpected, a definition also used for epiphany, which I find delightful.
But this much is true: if you have to explain it, it’s not funny. And if you explain why something ought not to be funny, if laughter isn’t a casualty, a relationship very well might be.
What we are left with, if we want to laugh, is not so much humor as outrageousness. Albert Brooks, long one of my favorite comedians, has an old routine about being unable to generate laughs at a concert until he deployed the s-word. After that, he says, they wanted to put up a statue of him in the town square. Since then, the use or inference of profanity has become an almost necessary ingredient in humor, not including the benign violation caused by Dad Jokes.
Humor always depends on insult or injury, but not really. The depiction of someone slipping on a banana peel should provoke concern or empathy. A word manipulated into a pun deceives the listener who insists on being literal. Even a game of peek-a-boo with a toddler plays on the child’s perception that something has suddenly disappeared and reappeared which is, of course, false and therefore a cruel exploitation of inferior cognition.
Humor can be cruel if deployed with cruelty, and laughter “at” rather than laughter “with” can conceal the intent to bully.
But laughter is also the most potent force in combating oppressive behavior and defusing the fear it produces. The aggressive way in which public provocateurs are lampooned in society today – by late-night comedians, by caricature balloons, by fighting Twitter with Twitter – is the only alternative to bile and brimstone until the next election. In my life and community, it is a familiar tool in the box, used in the past and present against medieval kings, petty tyrants, genocidal maniacs and physical disease. Laughter does not need to be licensed or registered and has a negligible record of fatalities, despite the undocumented claims of those who have “almost died laughing.”
The little phrase from the little verse from this little column is not, in and of itself, funny at all. But when it is lampooned in the little joke, it loses its power and its offense. Lots of people have been injured by the challenge to go back where you came from. Defusing it can reduce the sting. So, among the many things of genuine consequence that deserve condemnation and resistance having spewed out of the mouth of the insulter-in-chief, let me add my trifle.
He recklessly spoiled a useful and perfectly good joke.