When the humor died

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David Grossman's latest book, A Horse Walks into a Bar, focuses on an aging stand-up comedian who turns his act into a heart-rending confessional.
Photo: Wikipedia

Laughter is the antidote for self-pity, but self-pity is poison to humor. Once the Left shifted its attention from social progress to support for self-pity, it was lost to humor. The Left now is so humorless that we make self-referential jokes about its lack of humor, for example: “How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb?” “One – and it’s not funny.”

Saturday Night Live” would not dare to re-do Eddie Murphy’s “Black History Minute” sketches of a generation ago. The greatest comic talent of his generation broke into the big time with send-ups of black cultural warriors at Saturday Night Live, prosperity-gospel preachers in “Coming to America,” and street hustlers in “Trading Places.” Murphy, sadly, stopped making us laugh 20 years ago. It isn’t just Murphy. Even the potty-mouthed scriptwriters at “Southpark” would think twice about repeating their send-up of transsexuality in the celebrated “Transpecies” episode.

There are still some laughs in standup, wrung at great risk from unsuspecting audiences — as when Louis C.K. says that abortion is no different than a bowel movement, unless, of course, it’s murdering a baby — it has to be one or the other. But this is the painful laughter of existential anguish, not light-hearted laughter at ordinary silliness. Once we decide to wear our silliness as a badge of identity and proclaim, “Silly Lives Matter!,” humor dies. We are like the man with a sore throat who takes laxatives so that he will be too afraid to cough —except that we are too afraid to laugh.

These glum thoughts came to mind as I attempted to read David Grossman’s celebrated but utterly humorless novel about an Israeli stand-up comedian, A Horse Walks Into a Bar.  (The bartender says, “Why the long face?) Grossman is an icon of the Israeli left, a peace activist whose political views seep out between the lines of his novels. He has also lived through Israel’s national distress. His son was killed in the last moments of the 2006 Lebanon War.

Despite the prestigious Man Booker award, I found Horse dreadful. Its action transpires on the stage of a nightclub in the coastal town of Netanya, where an aging stand-up comedian turns his act into a heart-rending confessional. The device is promising, the execution execrable. The bathos of the final self-revelation might have worked in contrast to something funny at the beginning. But the jokes aren’t funny; they are simply smutty, or nasty. Here’s an extract from the stand-up routine:

There’s an Arab walking down the street next to two settlers in Hebron. We’ll call him Little Ahmed.” The whistles and stomping die down. A few smiles here and there. “All of a sudden they hear an army loudspeaker announcing curfew for Arabs starting in five minutes. The settler takes his rifle off his shoulder and puts a bullet through Little Ahmed’s head. The other one is a wee bit surprised: ‘Holy crap, my holy brother, why’d you do that?’ Holy Brother looks at him and goes, ‘I know where he lives, there’s no way he was gonna make it home in time.’ ”

That’s an ancient joke, told about Russian sentries, British soldiers in Northern Ireland, the military government of Ethiopia, and so forth; it wasn’t that funny to begin with and does Grossman poor service in his dotage. Perhaps there should be a rule that prospective novelists first have to serve an apprenticeship as comedy writers.

More mawkish still is Grossman’s attempt to introduce the subject of God in the Holocaust. His comedian complains that the nightclub’s management didn’t bother to put up posters about his appearance:

“F—–s didn’t even stick a bill on a tree trunk. Saving your pennies, eh, Yoav? God bless you, you’re a good man. Picasso the lost Rottweiler got more screen time than I did on the utility poles around here. I checked, I went past every single pole in the industrial zone. Respect, Picasso, you kicked ass, and I wouldn’t be in any hurry to come home if I were you. Take it from me, the best way to be appreciated somewhere is to not be there, you get me? Wasn’t that the idea behind God’s whole Holocaust initiative? Isn’t that really what’s behind the whole concept of death?” The audience is swept along with him.

I doubt any audience, let alone an Israeli one, would be “swept along with” this heavy-handed, pedantic attempt to blend less-than-amusing comedy with the theological issues of God’s presence in the death camps. Perhaps the jury for the Man Booker Award found this sort of thing deep; more likely, they felt an affinity for Grossman’s self-pity. I didn’t quite finish the book. Dorothy Parker’s encomium came to mind: “This is a novel that should not be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” I am very sorry that Grossman’s protagonist had a traumatized childhood, but it really is more than I wish to know.

Most of the other jokes in Grossman’s stand-up routine are quite as unfunny, but cannot be quoted in a family newspaper. Not one of them is characteristically Jewish. Jewish humor about horrific situations has a different function entirely: It displaces the listener’s vantage point away from the blunt impact of the horror. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book on the subject is highly recommended. Holocaust humor is a case in point.

For example (and I paraphrase Telushkin): During the Polish government’s anti-Zionist campaign of the late 1960s, when the Communist regime hounded Jews out of government jobs, Cohen is walking through the winter streets of Warsaw, cold and hungry. He meets an old acquaintance, Silverstein, who is wearing a fur coat and smoking a Cohiba. “Silverstein,” exclaims Cohen, “How do you manage in such awful times?” His friend replies, “Remember that Polish couple that took me in during the Holocaust and saved me? I’m blackmailing them!” The bitter humor helps the listener look at his predicament from the outside in.

There was a time when leftists knew how to laugh. Dashiell Hammett, creator of the modern detective novel as well as a lifelong Communist, wrote in “Red Harvest” a tale of internecine slaughter among gangsters in a Montana mining down that Andre Malraux characterized as “Grand Guignol.” Bertolt Brecht, a Communist from his youth and a pillar of the postwar East German regime, wrote one of the funniest and nastiest works of the 20th century, “The Threepenny Opera.” That was when the Left still upheld a standard of the New Man by which humanity was to be redeemed — even it meant killing very large numbers of undesirables, as in Hammett, or “bashing man on the head until he’s good,” as in Brecht’s “Song of the Unattainability of Human Striving.”

Today’s left, by contrast, occupies itself with sheltering the fragile identities of “marginalized” peoples, which excludes the possibility of laughing at them. The left used to say with Voltaire, “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Now it says, “If a marginalized personal disagrees with you, I will defend to your death zhe’s right not to hear it.” Zhe, of course, is a gender-neutral pronoun introduced by the Newspeak censors of the totalitarian left.

Underneath the shell of every Social Justice Warrior who tries to fight Islamophobia by defending female genital mutilation while fighting misogyny by requiring written rules of sexual engagement at universities, there is a very frightened and lonely being. This being nurses a fragile and ephemeral sense of identity, often complicated by some degree of what is now called “gender fluidity.” The left defends marginalized groups as they wallow in their own self-pity because individual progressives like to wallow in their own personal self-pity. That is no laughing matter and probably explains why David Grossman’s novel about a comedian has plenty of self-pity but no humor at all.

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