Joking about our personal trauma has always been a preferred coping mechanism, but one that comes at a hefty cost. Read further to see how comedy becomes a cruelty.
People have always used dark humour to mitigate their suffering. On one hand, it’s a commendable effort. Jokes can potentially be a tool for opening up dialogue around difficult topics in a non-confrontational way. If you make a self-deprecating joke at the family dinner, nobody has to take it too seriously. People just let out a chuckle, pass the salt and move on. In that way, jokes can help people regain their agencies by allowing them to share pain without causing instant alarm to those around them. Jokes – at the cost of your pain – can actually be a breathing space, a port in a storm, a place of safekeeping. Who isn’t guilty of this?
I have used jokes to talk about uncomfortable topics. Problems with sexuality, eating disorders, death of a close friend, domestic toxicity, sexual assault – all of this hurt has been turned into comic matter at some point. When I present such weighty information as a throwaway joke, what it does is ease the tension for my audience and, in turn, myself. It defuses the glare of human suffering – one that can seem too straightforward to be bearable – and makes it so.
“…if you slit your wrists while winking – does that make it a joke?” Hera Lindsay Bird asks in one of her poems. The question is this: How long can human pain be sold off as comic matter before it gets unavoidably cheapened, diminished, impossible to talk about without the suggestion of self-ridicule and inhuman nonchalance? How long before comedy becomes cruelty? In our time, it is an admittedly common tendency to stage mockeries of our pain. Or more simply, to humorize it. It seems to be a generational quirk, pooled by most Gen-Zs and late Millennials that generally unnerves anyone who is not classified in this core demographic.
But here’s the thing: when you continually joke about personal issues, it can eventually become difficult to give them a serious treatment. After a point, this can translate into interpersonal relationships where you don’t know how to console someone because you never did it for yourself. Always joking about stuff can make you anaesthetised to it, disallowing any possibility for sincere expression. This can attack one’s humanness – the very ability to connect through which one can subsequently manage their personal suffering.
David Foster Wallace, the American writer, talked about this exact lack of human sincerity in the postmodern era, where irony had overridden sincere expression. This has been effectively rendered in the 1975 – the British indie-pop band – song, Sincerity is Scary, where Matty Healy sings: And irony’s okay/I suppose culture is to blame, you try and mask your pain/In the most postmodern way’. Of course, joking about your pain is a good thing, as discussed earlier, if channelled in moderation. But it rarely is. If you’re self-harming next to your friend and both of you laugh it off as a messed up quirk, is that funny? If your friend hasn’t had a full meal in six days, is her admittedly witty pun about anorexia still rib-tickling stuff?
Deriving cues from the dominant culture, people have, over time, adapted their own coping mechanisms, and have ways of dealing with their personal trauma. (This calls for a cultural/ideological shift more than individual reform.) We need to respect people’s boundaries and let them share their pain however they want, if at all. But at the same time, we need to let people know that there is a conceivable scenario where sensitive information may be disclosed without being reduced to comic substance. In an archived essay titled, ‘Traumatic Comedy and Comic Trauma’ on the website Rookie (read here), Bethany Rose Lamont talks about Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, Nanette, in the following words:
This work is a conscious contradiction of the comic, as Gadsby begins with typically self-deprecating jokes, follows them with a deconstruction of the art and entertainment worlds’ histories of abuse and oppression, then retells those same jokes as stories of trauma, then disavows comedy as a way to relieve audiences of the tension that accompanies hearing about someone else’s trauma, abuse, and oppression. She wants to stop rewriting her own history as a joke. She hopes the audience will feel her pain, not laugh at it. She concludes by arguing that “laughter is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure.
Maybe we can all benefit from being thoughtful storytellers of our pain, and not the ad-libbed comics we think we are. One must learn to treat their pain with openness, gradation, and subjectivity it very much deserves. I think, in the end, comedy does not necessarily make pain more comfortable – only somewhat laughable. But the gags choke out on their running time; the pangs, yet, go on. After a point, you have to ask yourself – who’s laughing? So, I think the attempt should not be directed at humorizing our suffering, but rather humanizing it, and therein lies our recovery. But haha…. I’m jk… unless?
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