In the Weeds:
Examples of Humorless Experiences

By R. D. Flavin


     It's conjecture, of course, but prehistorians, historians, and anthropologists suggest that humor has been around for a wicked long time.  When a cave-dude stumbled on a hunt, he was ridiculed with a nasty series of inarticulate grunts and groans (var. proto-language; see: Klein 2009, Diller & Cann 2009).  If you're a Catholic you subscribe to “original sin,” that is, deity disobedience, which has caused many (irreverent) chuckles over the years.  Sure, we try (and sometimes do) laugh in the face of adversity, yet many hurts and hardships are beyond even the most well-intentioned of comedians.  Some situations and events are simply not funny.  Human nature by its complex diversity is problematic to understand, let alone define, and one may easily find one's self unsure and overwhelmed, feeling inadequate and failing, or “in the weeds,” to borrow a phrase.  I'm going to discuss examples of humorless experiences because I believe it to be necessary.  I hope you agree.

     The following isn't a dilettantish diatribe about speech which could be considered inappropriate, sacrilegious, taboo, or even illegal.  There's plenty of discussions around which echo the sentiments of a blogger who recently wrote: “In fact, the more horrible something is, the more it should be joked about.  I apply this to pedophilia, 9/11, the deaths of service members, the deaths of children, murder, and yes…even rape.”  I came of age with the napalm-prose of Michael O'Donoghue's “The Vietnamese Baby Book" in National Lampoon (January 1972, Vol. 1, No. 22), I was bemused (but not quite offended) when I heard a joke about Christa McAuliffe the day after the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, and I'm so tired of Republican gaffes that last week's Tweet from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)) comparing Iran's Ahmadinejad to a monkey merely tickled my apathy.  It's not about the shock and awe of the ridiculous, but rather the humorlessness of certain aspects of life.

1970 Earth Day poster by Walt Kelly

     As I've mentioned elsewhere, I was surprised (and somewhat embarrassed) when on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, while in seventh grade down in the Panama Canal Zone, the PA system at my junior high school crackled first thing in the morning with an announcement of this new “Earth Day,” and then a student read a short poem about a hunter with a deer in his rifle sight.  And, just before the trigger was pulled, the hunter noticed a tear trickling down the deer's cheek.  The student announcer then credited the poem to someone named “Rick Flavin.”  All eyes in the classroom turned to me, I gave a long stare of confusion at my English teacher (who was the “homeroom” teacher at the time), and to this day I wish I would have had a little advance notice...  Anyhow, that's how I remember my introduction to the social movement and responsibility of environmentalism.

     My dad retired from the Army, we moved to Michigan, and I recall that every eighth grade classroom was decorated with these garish and threatening posters predicting an impending population explosion.  The posters were all promoting Zero population growth, itself a reasonable social aim, but with harsh and horrible images.  As a reader of science fiction, it almost seemed as if our education system had accepted an inevitable dystopian future.  Honestly, at the time, I thought the school just got some free posters and put them up to occupy wall space.

Image from Keep America Beautiful's 1971 "People Start Pollution. People can stop it" commercial.

     However, during that same period (late 1971 to early 1972), I became particularly moved by a television commercial about littering.  The now famous (some would say “infamous”) “Crying Indian” commercial which showed a Native American weeping at the poor treatment modern Americans have shown the land (i.e. America) troubled me greatly.  Yeah, I know the “Native American” was actually an Italian-American actor and the 'tear' was in reality a drop of glycerine added by a make-up artist, but the message was undeniable.  Don't desecrate the land!  I started smoking cigarettes in eighth grade and rather than flick the butts into the street, I began to “field strip” the filters, as I'd been taught by my dad and his Army buddies.  I know, it was still littering, yet I began to make a conscious effort to reduce my bad environmental behavior.

     Years passed, recycling became in vogue (I thought the profits were supposed to benefit public schools?), en masse everyone began to drink bottled water, and currently we're faced with the “D'oh!” challenge to address climate change.  Yes, the Industrial Age made a mess of things, toxic dumping by unscrupulous corporations are still a major concern, but we can and should do our best to protect the land.  It's our home (even if we did steal it from the Native Americans) and it deserves better.  Tree-hugger jokes and eco-porn slurs may amuse some, but there's nothing funny about pollution.

     Too much of America, and most especially her Members of Congress, are civically manic when it comes to gun control and reform.  Any argument for the continued legality of the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines to the general public is premised on a perverted interpretation of our Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.  It's about local militias being able to defend against foreign enemies and domestic insurrectionists.  There's no mention of hunting for either food or sport...  Today we have structured police forces at local, county, and state levels.  Our federal government now provides umpteen different law enforcement agencies (some, ...cough, more effective than others), yet combined provide services necessary and laudable.  And, it should be well established that we are protected by the greatest military ...ever.  Now, background checks?  A reasonable waiting period?  Perhaps a simple test for mental stability?  It shouldn't be about who has the better lawyers and the bigger wallets; gun control and reform is a civic responsibility.  Science and science fiction tell us that crime will likely always exist in one form or another.  We can and should immediately enact gun control and reform.  There's no humor here, move on...

     Those born after World War II, the “Baby Boomers” and all subsequent Generations X, Y, Z, and etc., are truly “Children of the Atom,” that is, those who grew up with the threat of nuclear war.  Of all possible (and impossible) apocalyptic scenarios, those atomic “bombs bursting in air” have remained a constant dread.  Yeah, there was the “Cold War” and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and we got through it.  Well, that was then and this is now...

Federation of American Scientists' current estimate of the world's nukes.

     According to the best estimate (var. guess) by the Federation of American Scientists, there are presently some 4,100 operational nuclear warheads and around 17,000 functional nuclear warheads in the world.  I've never really been afraid of the Big Guys (i.e. the "nuclear-weapon states" -- United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China), however the Little Guys (i.e. those not party to 1970's Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons -- India, Pakistan, North Korea, and ...cough, Israel) cause me to question whether or not biological nihilism is an abstraction or a possibility.

     While I enjoyed the puppetry of 2004's Team America: World Police and its characterization of Kim Jong-il, the recent North Korean propaganda video showing the nuking of New York City, combined with this week's underground nuclear test and promises of further testing, unquestionably makes this laughing matter.  Chatter from South Korea and Japan that they too might wish to join the “nuclear club” is, hopefully, just that: chatter.  And Iran?  With its ongoing commitment to build a nuclear bomb and for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” Iran has chosen ...unwisely.  This will not end well.

     Though I'm genuinely disturbed by the terrorist posturing of North Korea and Iran, my candid dread is reserved for Pakistan.  Despite the various Indo-Pakistani wars and conflicts involving Kashmir (as well as the contentious creation of Bangladesh in 1971), such deadly border disputes have never devolved into a nuclear confrontation (var. atomic conflagration) and the potential, contrary to the opinions of the dedicated paranoids, seems slight if not wholly unwarranted, as both nations share much history and social composition in common.  However, with the recent rise in Muslim extremism in Pakistan (inclusive of independents, those sympathetic to the Taliban, and the presence of Al-Qaeda), combined with a corrupt military and police force barely answerable to Pakistan's dubious political leaders, impels me to advocate that Pakistan be confined and not allowed to develop free range.  I fear the situation in Pakistan, with its considerable nuclear arsenal, more than any other region or country beset with crisis and turmoil.

     1964's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was a satirical comedy, and while watching Major T. J. Kong (actor, Slim Pickens) ride the bomb was a hoot, the reality of nuclear war is humorless.  Please forgive my honesty, but of all the rules and restrictions demanded by governments and traditions, I abide by only one true law: Don't do anything that threatens the planet (var. Earth, Mom Terra, and the 3rd Rock from the Sun).  The Doomsday Clock is currently at five minutes to midnight, and though it's been closer, I take no comfort and find no humor in our behavior.  Our lives and our world depend on what we do next.

     The above sober enterprise exploring a few examples of the humorless has furthered my typing skills, but little else.  I enjoy humor in all its many forms, yet confronting the humorless has left me with an unexpected chagrin.  The poet and literary critic, Prof. Judson Jerome (Antioch, Associate Professor of English) ended his “On Decoding Humor,” a charmingly erudite essay (Jerome 1961, p. 493), with the suggestion that “we need more subtle instruments than our hearts to tell us when we've got it right.”  So, please be as merry and as ribald as you choose.  I'm waiting to hear Sirius bark...

Diller, Karl C. and Rebecca L. Cann. 2009. “Evidence against a genetic-based revolution in language 50,000 years ago.” In The Cradle of Language edited by Rudolf Botha and Chris Knight. See pp. 135-149. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Jerome, Judson. 1961. “On Decoding Humor.” The Antioch Review. 20, 4: 479-493.
Klein, Richard G. 2009. The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins. Third edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



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