Laughter 4. Audience
A first approach to the essence of jokes, through the ruination and semblance of that essence.
When you make whatever jokes are funny, the laughter writes the joke. Before I met with Art the only thing I thought about was the laughter–an actor told me once that, during a skit for a Microsoft Gala, Dana Carvey went off script when a joke fell flat. He ad-libbed another dud, and panicked; desperate he blurted : “So, Mr. Gates, how’s Mrs. Gates in bed?”
When Paul came to visit me here in Berlin, I enjoyed once more how damned funny he is. In philosophical conversations, his scorn reveals. “I see no reason why death should be more complicated than, like, falling asleep or eating nachos later.” And in certain circles death was profound! I laugh.
Scorn reveals: Paul stands somewhere. He says often where he stands: “As a utilitarian, of course, I see no reason why…” He stands there when he reveals. Scorn has to stand somewhere. His jokes do not begin from laughter, but from a fixed, defiant worldview.
I do not share his worldview. My laughter was not that tastelessness that marked Democrats during the Bush years: a sense of humor closer to insult, unmeaning, vulgar disrespect; and a laughter that salutes, as if a slogan chanted. Such laughter waits on a joke as if on the signal to fire–if this were the only sort of laughter there’d be nothing to add, no questions unanswered about comedy. If this were the only sort of “laughter,” it couldn’t even borrow such a name.
This is not the only kind of laughter: my laughter surprised me, and Paul’s joke perplexed me. But it would be premature to divine from Paul’s joke the essence of laughter. First we must note something about salute-laughter and pandering jokes.
A true joke–we leave unsaid what makes it so–draws up true laughter, which laughs at something we still cannot name. A true joke is written for that unsaid something, the genuine at-which of laughter. But a comedian writes for the audience. Whatever he does when making his joke, aims directly at the laughter–not at that at which it laughs. Does this mean that the joke is no longer a true joke? Not necessarily–the joke must be a true joke, it must get at that unsaid at-which, so long as the laughter, as true laughter, can laugh at it. After all, Dana Carvey’s jokes could still fail.
Once laughter is guaranteed, though, that laughter no longer refers to a genuine at-which that it finds funny. Salute-laughter is so vulgar because it’s so easy to pander to. But does this mean that the mysterious at-which has disappeared? Again, not necessarily! The fact that laughter has hardened and no longer knows what it’s about does not mean that there isn’t something funny at bottom, forgotten. But salute-laughter takes away the one refuge for deciding whether a joke is truly funny. All comedy becomes deeply ambiguous with respect to its own essence–it becomes undecidable whether it has an essence at all.
When the laughter writes the joke, it can no longer decide autonomously about itself. And once the laughter has hardened into salute-laughter, the comic has closed itself irremediably as semblance.
Perhaps we have discovered something about the comic after all: it is what can become semblance.