Monday, October 13, 2014


I've spent the last handful of months dipping into and out of Martin Amis' The War Against Cliche anthology. As a cultural critic I think Amis is close to unmatched as far as his combination of staggering perceptivity and lacerating humour. It was a great pleasure then, to recently crack open my Everyman's edition of Lolita (a very kind gift by way of my bookish sister), and read Amis' introduction to the colossus novel.

My favourite part of the essay was reading Amis' take on the humour of Lolita. The money quote reads like this:

'What makes human beings laugh? Not just gaiety or irony. That laughter banishes seriousness is a misconception often made by the humourless - and by that far greater multitude, the hard of laughing, the humorously impaired or under-gifted. Human beings laugh, if you notice, to express relief, exasperation, stoicism, hysteria, embarrassment, disgust and cruelty. Lolita is perhaps the funniest novel in the language because it allows laughter it's full complexity and range. '

This dichotomy between the humorous and the serious is one I've been thinking of a lot recently. The deeper I dive into the early period Zappa/Mothers oeuvre, the more astonished I become at Zappa's modern day reputation as a heavily goateed comedy-rock bozo, the kind of zany character most easily filed next to Weird Al and the like. The Mothers output is steeped so thoroughly in such an acidic brand of satire, that I suspect the full historical scope of their musical... erm, invention and depth of exploration is corroded by a funny aftertaste for many.

Similarly, I've been surprised to see so little highbrow engagement with the new Tim & Eric series Bedtime Stories. It would be impossible not to grant that their aesthetic is one defined by the puerile, the gross, the crass and obscene but is it not evident to anyone who encounters their brand of humour just what a violently effective debasement of television culture it is? Tim & Eric's own description of their work as an extension of TV's condescension and obscene stupidity to a nightmare peak is perfectly aimed, and goes a long way towards illustrating a consensus objection to their brand.

Nightmares are unpleasant. Laughter has more pleasant associations than not, so a reluctance may exist to co-opt our sources of laughter into an engagement with those multitude troubling aspects of life. The 'exasperation, stoicism, hysteria, embarrassment, disgust and cruelty' that Amis speaks about represent a litany of transgressive places ripe for humour's cohabitation. A cultural stigma towards inviting laughter into these crevices is a short sighted one. It is largely through humour that these nightmare states can be salvaged. There is much use to the emotional data that can be harvested from the unpleasant, though it remains hard work to till. Humour might offer an accessible key to this work.

The serious would do well to take on more humour, there exists already much seriousness unrecognized in the adeptly humorous.

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