I’m delighted at you

That title is the latest amusing pronouncement from my friend’s adorable two-year-old, whom I got to see yesterday via the wonders of Facetime. I found myself laughing even after we hung up, until my stomach seized up, until it had nothing at all to do with a child’s charming phrasing. I haven’t been laughing a lot of late, given the state of the news (see yesterday’s post), and a much-needed moment of levity unleashed something else: hard, uncontrolled laughter, a strange kind of catharsis.

This got me thinking about how much humor is bound up with tragedy, both in life and in writing. I know that isn’t a new or particularly profound observation, yet I still find it arresting. For example, just this morning, I was on another long-distance call with a dear friend whose family is grieving the sudden loss of a close friend. She told me that after the funeral, family and friends converged on a local bar, where they told funny remembrances about their beloved girl and found themselves laughing hysterically, ducking aside to cry for a moment, and then coming back to laugh some more. Similarly, nineteen years ago, my father died suddenly after a three-day illness; hours after I walked out of the hospital into the glaring light of a world that kept moving without him, my family and I proceeded to watch Tommy Boy (starring David Spade and Chris Farley), possibly one of the stupidest movies every made. For 97 minutes, we laughed ourselves sick, keeled over onto our knees, gasping for air. In a newsroom, in the wee hours when editors are trying to get the paper to bed, you will hear some of the worst jokes known to humanity (as editors work on the worst news, perpetrated by humanity). In all of those circumstances, no one is forgetting about grief; the laughing is part of the grief. Humor, dark and light, is one of our ways through tragedy, even if it feels disruptive or transgressive or inappropriate. Especially then. After all, physiologically, laughing isn’t much different from crying– just a quick hitch from one to the other. Unhinged laughter wondrously combines both.

And so it is in storytelling. After all, theater’s tragedy and comedy masks, seeming opposites, are depictions of the same face. This isn’t to say that all stories must blend the two, but good stories often work in more than just one mode. Something offsets the comedic or dramatic; I think of this as the “counterweight.” Dramatic stories can find balance with humor but also in other moments of lightness– “breathing spaces,” along the lines of how Aristotle envisioned tragedy’s choral rests. The counterweight in comedic writing needn’t be tragedy or heavy sadness, but again, something makes us stop laughing, suck in our breaths, pause. On both sides of the tragedy-comedy writing face, we want complexity, a fuzzier line between those so-called disparate emotions.

Of course, if it fits with a story, humor can be one of the greatest tools a writer has. This includes satire and absurdity, but also humor that intertwines with the serious. I’m a fan of George Saunders for his ability to make us laugh and weep in the same story. Here’s what he says in a recent excerpt of an interview in The New Yorker:

What I’ve come to realize is that, for me, the serious and the comic are one and the same. I don’t see humor as some sort of shrunken or deficient cousin of “real” writing. Being funny is about as deep and truthful as I can be. When I am really feeling life and being truthful, the resulting prose is comic. The world is comic. It’s not always funny but it is always comic.

In The Poetics, Aristotle says that tragedy includes a purgation of emotion for the audience — catharsis — through the effects of pity and fear. In modern writing terms, I think of pity as sympathy or understanding, and fear as terror/horror but also worry. Nowhere does Aristotle mention humor in this mix, but I believe that humor can be a crucial means of access to deeper emotions. Just as with crying, laughing opens us up, makes us vulnerable for emotion to sneak in. While we recognize crying as a way to release emotions, laughing is a surprise, the old cross-double cross, a sucker punch in the gut. Humor is both the way in and the way out.

Speaking of exits (which we weren’t): I wish I had a kicky way to end this or could have been kickier all the way through — practice what I’m a-preaching in the ol’ humor department. Alas, I’m still tonally off, my voice flat with sadness and stiff with lack of practice.

Tonight: I have some delightfully stupid movies to watch. Tomorrow: try again.

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