Seeking the Sad in Funny

It seems to me that blogging can be a lot like a Jerry Seinfeld standup routine (“What’s the deal with Marshmallows??”). Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I just want to be careful, is all. In place of any kind of real organizational system, I keep a list in several different places at once (on my phone, in a text editor, in my email inbox) of “interesting” topics for discussion. Many of them strike me as ridiculous a few days later. This is why I haven’t written in three weeks.

Last week something struck me in a news snippet on NPR. It came in the last ten minutes of the morning news, when a pleasant and jovial man reads financial and tech highlights. Although it was unclear to me how this had anything remotely to do with tech or finances, a story was related about a bank robbery. The would-be criminal went into a bank and demanded the teller dump her cash into a bag and hand it over. The problem? She didn’t have a bag. And, sadly, neither did he. Ed (as we will call him) then fled the scene. He was caught shortly afterwards while attempting to escape on a bicycle. Ed is 61 years old.

At the time I was sitting on the floor with my eight-month old, showing him a stuffed animal of some sort, and hoping he might dazzle me with a new word, like, I dunno, maybe DADA. The smug reporter had just finished up this hilarious bit of newstelling and I caught myself chuckling. Then I stopped myself.

Why the fuck is this funny?!?

A 61-year old man attempted to rob a bank without the means to hold the cash. He is arrested. For all I know he is in prison now. Perhaps not. Maybe he was released on probation. Maybe he received six months community service. I don’t know. But it’s not the first “Look at what this dumbshit wannabe bank robber did today, what a moron!” news story I have heard. I have heard many. And I always laugh. Criminals get what they deserve, right?

I am now stuck trying to recall when these things became funny to me (and perhaps most people). As a child, criminals are scary or exciting at various points, depending on our stage of development, the kinds of media we have digested, and whether or not we identify with Zorro or the Lone Ranger. But these things were never funny to me. And if a criminal was arrested for doing something bad (regardless of how stupid), I was, I imagine, pleased.

So, why now, am I having a philosophical debate with myself about whether laughing at this man’s plight is somehow deplorable? (or at the least, morally strange).

Many things are now sad to me that wouldn’t have been a long time ago. Somehow, I have gone from seeing the funny in the ridiculous, to seeing the sad in almost everything. It might just be about identifying. Growing older, you begin to identify more with those around you. You are no longer the aggravated, contrary youth you once were, spitting on everything and feeling superior. You now work a job like everyone else, pay your bills, come home exhausted, shove food into your mouth, and turn on the television to dissolve for an hour or two before climbing into bed.

If the circumstances were different, you might be Ed.

Then again, perhaps the circumstance that would enable you to become Ed doesn’t exist. Maybe Ed is just a fucking idiot and we should laugh at him. What I know is that for some reason I stopped myself from completing the chuckle. It ended mid “ha.” I looked at my son and thought about his life, the long trail of experiences that will soon turn him into a man, father, grandfather, great grandfather. My son will never be an Ed. I know this for a fact. But I am not so sure I would like him to laugh at Ed or anyone like him.

What I mean to say is this: sure, let’s have a laugh. But it is easy to laugh from this side of things. Of course, I want my son to laugh at dumb shit. That’s a majority of the joy we receive in life. But I do want him to always remember that he is fortunate. And that before or after he laughs at the misfortune of others, he realizes that not everyone is given the proper tools. Not everyone is given the privileges of an education, or even the capacity for keeping up with a good education.

Still, picturing a 61-year old Ed fleeing a bank on a bicycle, perhaps a few stray dollars escaping from his pants pockets is still fucking hilarious.

So is the guy chased from an elderly man’s home with a World War II Marine’s saber.

Or the teenage burglar who left his facebook page open on his victim’s home computer after fleeing the scene.

I could go on. But I don’t want to keep crying. I have work to do.

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4 thoughts on “Seeking the Sad in Funny

  1. I think one's empathy develops more as they grow older, allowing people like you and I to see the "sad" in the funny, whereas a teenager might not. The latest issue of Wired Magazine had a great article about the "science of funny" that relates pretty well to this topic why we find certain things funny and how psychology and evolution play into it. Really an awesome read. Check it out here:http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/04/ff_humorcode/

  2. Wow. That is a fantastic article. A "benign violation." What a perfect way of describing humor. Sad, gross, disturbing, whatever — as long as it is far enough removed from our lives we can laugh. Although, I would say, Louis CK has the opposite affect — he talks about his children as "assholes" and milk comes out my nose. And kids are close to my heart, so WTF?

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