Posted by: coloradokiwi | March 4, 2009

In Defense of Bad Taste

The previous post reminded me about all the stuff out now that seems to be overtly nostalgic of the Cold War, the USSR, or both.  Clothes from the era (particularly military surplus) have of course been hip since pretty much the first sledgehammer hit the Berlin Wall.  But in recent years the uptick in almost VH-1-style adoration of such things is noticeable.  Some of it is fairly innocuous and deals directly with the real world problems associated with the era, like the film Goodbye Lenin.  However there have also been humor-oriented bits of culture, which are, how shall we say, a bit harder hitting.  

First there is the seemingly innocuous Rolcats, which is basically lolcats who wax poetic about the hardships of life behind the Iron Curtain.  Then there is the much more saucy Partial Compendium Latvian Humor Jokes.  Jokes about famine, poverty, rape, and military occupation is obviously taking it up a notch.  

But this last bit in particular gets at something that’s simultaneously sick and refreshing about all this nostalgia, which is to say the humor directed at this unseemly part of our past:  

1.  It’s remembering that which many people would sooner forget, which is that for roughly fifty years (give or take), hundreds of millions of people lived beneath the thumb of austere authoritarianism, and the whole planet lived under the very real and constant threat of nuclear annihilation and/or nuclear winter.  Further, in the race to build up economies and weapons to assure mutual destruction, the environment was trashed and we now have the constant threat of terrorists seizing one of the thousands of nuclear arms produced, which are not as well looked after as they should be.

2.  Isn’t that hilarious?

Although there is a fine line between dancing on people’s graves and “dealing with” such serious issues, dwelling seriously on such horror will only drive one to insanity or depression.  It is a perfectly human, in fact humane, reaction to make jokes about things that really are not at all funny—it is incumbent upon us to allow gallows humor to flourish.  This, in my view, extends well beyond the macro-horrors of things like the Cold War (and I’m sure if we look, we can find jokes about the Holocaust not produced by Holocaust deniers or anti-Semitic fucktards).

Let me give you a couple more examples, a bit smaller scale so it doesn’t seem quite so callous.  I remember that probably within a week of the Challenger shuttle blowing up, I heard this joke:  

Q:  What color were Christa McAuliffe’s eys?  

A: Blue all over.  (Say it out loud—get it?)

As other national tragedies struck,  you could hear jokes like this:

Q:  How many Branch Davidians can you fit in the new Ford Taurus?

A: Five in the seats and thirty-seven in the ashtray.

And so on.  Are these jokes in very bad taste?  Yes.  Do they make light of unspeakable tragedy?  Yes.  That’s the point.  The thing is, some things are too huge and too terrible to really contemplate or deal with.  Death and suffering are a fact of life.  To dwell too seriously, to linger too long, on such things brings only further misery—the ghosts of the past will continue to ruthlessly haunt.  And yet, we must remember—we must always remember.  And what a joke does for us is remember, and if it’s told really well, and it lands particularly hard, it in fact highlights just how horrible it all was.  A joke in really bad taste is in fact a monument to the event’s tragedy and horror, which in the telling simultaneously robs the event of its horrifying power while conferring on it the status of something that we would wish to avoid or fight against in the future. 

Now look again at the jokes I listed above.  You may remember the Challenger shuttle blowing up (if you were like me, you were in grade school and watched it live—yowza).  But have you really thought about the fact that someone’s mother, wife, daughter, was literally blown to bits?  You probably remember the tragedy at Waco, Texas, but have you thought much about the fact that not only were some people killed, they were trapped and incinerated?  You probably remember the fear and doubt in the Cold War, but have you thought much about the lives ruined by Soviet-style communism, and how in reaction people risked absolutely everything for the idea of freedom?

This is the genius of the joke told in bad taste.  It allows us to act as humans are supposed to act—to laugh.  Yet it also confers upon its subject a kind of weight—the weight of memory—that otherwise tends to lighten over time.  Rather than diminish something, it highlights it.  Rather than allow the dead to become mere numbers, or the nature of their deaths to become banal factoids, it renders the dead intimately and describes their deaths in intimate detail.  Rather than hide from it or forget, the joke faces it down.  This is something that Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, understood well.

A joke told in bad taste is, in short, a bawdy ode to all the worst and best of humanity.

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