Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be. We weep at what thwarts or exceeds our desires in serious matters; we laugh at what only disappoints our expectations in trifles. We shed tears from sympathy with that which is unreasonable and unnecessary, the absurdity of which provokes our spleen or mirth, rather than any serious reflections on it.
The piece is an attempt to explain Freudian humor theory, especially the idea that humor stems from disguised hostility. “Most humor is a refined form of aggression and hatred,” Spiegelman writes. “Our savage ancestors laughed with uninhibited relish at cripples, paralytics, amputees, midgets, monsters, the deaf, the poor and the crazy.” I’ve taken this idea as a jumping-off point in my own work. Whenever I’m considering why something’s funny or not, I always tell myself: find the victim. Humor is targeted. It may be aimed at an individual, at an institution, or the entire superstructure of rational thinking. But something is always being skewered. ¶ The leadoff joke of “Cracking Jokes” is one case in point — finding the victim helps us articulate why the joke is funny. We’re laughing at the patient. Despite the doctor’s well-meaning (and self-assured) intervention, the patient can’t escape his delusions. It’s a vision of humanity as impervious to logic, impervious to rational thinking, impervious to progress. That’s a pretty bleak notion. And yet the depiction of humanity as this series of malfunctioning bumper cars, forever careening about and crashing into each other and failing to make any kind of progress—well, it’s delightful. It skewers the very idea of progress as the natural order, of learning as the natural order. What better target for one’s disguised hostility than the whole institution of education and progress? These normalizing societal forces constrain us, keep our ids forever hamstrung. And so — through humor — we fight back.
Of course the answer to my question about Middle Easterners is that all people are crazy and always have been. Just look at the pyramids, which are as crazy a structure as anybody would ever care to realize. The ancient Egyptians weren’t Middle Easterners in our modern terms. They were a civilization all on their own with a different language and a different culture a gazillion years ago. But they acted as perfectly mad as anything modern. There’s a deep streak of psychosis that runs through human beings, no matter what their culture.
The source of the word “humorist” is one who regards human beings in terms of their humors, you know, whether they’re sanguine or full of yellow bile, or whatever the four classical humors are. You stand back from people and regard them as types. And one finds, especially by the time one reaches one’s fifties, that there are a limited number of types of people in the world, and you went to high school with every single one of them. You can visit the Eskimos, you can visit the Bushmen in the Kalahari, you can go to Israel, you can go to Egypt, but everybody you meet is going to be somebody you went to high school with.
Often, notwithstanding, was I blamed, and by half-strangers hated, for my so-called Hardness, my Indifferentism towards men; and the seemingly ironic tone I had adopted, as my favorite dialect in conversation. Alas, the panoply of Sarcasm was but a buckram case, wherein I had striven to envelope myself; that so my own poor Person might live safe there, and in all friendliness, being no longer exasperated by wounds. Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the Devil; for which reason I have long since as good as renounced it. But how many individuals did I, in those days, provoke into some degree of hostility thereby! An ironic man, with his sly stillness, and ambuscading ways, more especially a young ironic man, from whom it is least expected, may be viewed as a pest to society.