Last week, people died because of some jokes: five cartoonists, defending their work, and over a dozen others, collateral damage in a grotesque war. Stéphane Charbonnier, Charlie Hebdo’s editor, in a bit of bravery that has been quoted dozens of times in the past several days, once said that “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
A lot of people have trumped what has happened in France up to freedom of expression. That’s not not true, but at the end of the day, Charlie Hebdo is satire, and the cartoonists and their colleagues were murdered over punchlines.
Jokes could be vain, extraneous to society’s real work, a mere luxury or distraction. Or, as Charbonnier seemed to believe, they could be worth dying for.
Now more than ever, it’s clear that the ways that people have been hurt, betrayed, and oppressed are vastly complex and deeply rooted. Addressing the world’s brokenness is challenging, but comedians do it all the time, gracefully. Jokes tell us the truth in a way that is surprising and approachable. I think back to this past fall, and the way that Saturday Night Live handled the devastating events in Ferguson and New York. Or, much more recently, to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s opening act at the Golden Globes, which dealt with things like society’s double standards and Bill Cosby. These comedic platforms all take these tricky issues and kind of just put it all out there, bypassing (or sometimes embracing) the awkwardness and wallowing in the absurdity. Because they’re funny, it’s easy to miss how profound and honest jokes often are. But, this also makes these truths, while typically uncomfortable, temporarily entertaining and appealing. Jokes compel us to interact with those bits of ourselves and our society that we’d otherwise avoid.
I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time thinking about humor and the fundamental of jokes, and I’ve narrowed it down to a couple basic things. Namely, jokes require us to know our language and culture intimately. Puns aren’t funny ever when the audience doesn’t understand words and wordplay. Pop culture parodies will flop if the audience has been living under a rock. To produce and enjoy humor, one needs to participate in her world. On a much deeper level (yeah, I’m taking it there) it can be argued that language and culture, the basis of most jokes, are two of those things that make us human, without which we’d be apes or Siri or something. Would I go so far as to say that jokes are vital to our very humanity? Yes. I just did.
It follows then, that jokes unite us. Nothing brings people together like an inexplicable tragedy or a side-splitting punchline (irony! There it is). Here, I could whip out some statistics about the millions of people who tune into the Emmy-winning comedies on network television, and how they probably don’t have much in common beyond that. But, I’m going to take the anecdotal route instead. Most people reading this have met me, so you probably know that I’m pretty funny. I typically find myself making jokes with people within moments of meeting them, even if the context is inappropriate or they’re really important or something. It’s probably a desperate social survival mechanism. But I like to think that I do this to make people comfortable and even the playing field with them. No matter who they are, and who I am in relation to them, we can find something to laugh about together.
So yes, jokes can be filed under “things worth dying for.” Let’s not let this tragedy in Paris be in vain – let’s keep laughing.