Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Friday, March 06, 2009


What follows is a long riff on humor. I just wrote it. It's still a bit raw, tries to be a poem, but doesn't make it (the "Humorland"/"Disneyland" tour metaphor not turning into anything worth saving), and it's conclusions are probably a bit obvious. However, it was fun to write, nostalgia value, and may prove fun to read as well. I hope so. (I keep thinking of favorite bits of humor I'd like to add!)


On your left you can see literary humor. There –
a white southern boy and a run-away black slave,
best friends, drifting up-river together on a raft.
They meet charming scoundrels, self-righteous
church folk – a whole world passes through
their odd, innocent, crookedly intersecting
universes. And just beyond you see
another boy getting others to help him
paint a fence by pretending to enjoy doing it.
(No, that's a different world, where two teen-agers
excite themselves ribaldly with the words "doing it.")
Perhaps the joke is, the fence-painting boy
begins to believe his own pretense.

Ah, now here's something you don't see
every day: This ordinary fellow has woken up
to discover that he is inhabiting the body
of a giant dung beetle, and all he can thing of
is that he'll be in trouble if this makes him
late for work. Later, he dies, shrivels up,
and his parents (relieved) sweep him up
into a dust pan, and the next day, on the bus,
they notice with pleasure that the sister
of the man who changed into a beetle
is also changing, becoming a woman.
This doesn't terrify them, which is (how
can this be?) funny.

Now this one shows Mr. Pickwick, a sanguine fellow,
plumb, benevolent (with a stubborn streak), who,
despite age, spectacles and all the exterior trappings
of dignity (if absent-minded dignity), gets himself
into the rudest slap-stick messes...and there's
a sober fellow, speaks in platitudes, of all things,
a Jew in Dublin, a little guy – but we have been
listening to his thoughts, which are brisk,
energetic, humorous, interested in everything,
missing nothing. In this scene, we see him
from the point of view of a lush in a bar, where
a huge anti-Semitic Irish Patriot condemns all Jews,
and this meek, dapper little man dares to speak up,
telling the Citizen that his savior was a Jew
and so was Christ's father and...but the burly one
snarls (as does his huge slavering dog, at his side)
that Christ had not father, to which our hero cries out,
Well...his UNCLE was a Jew! – and is chased
from the bar, which amuses the lush and all
the good company, this mating of courage
and ridiculousness.

But we mustn't savor this too long – there's
too much more to see, the pomposity
of the Rev. Mr. Collins rejecting, with formal
and self-congratulatory prissiness, the woman
who has already turned him down. And there
(Oh Lord, can such things be funny?)
the ultra-civilized pedophile, all asimmer,
who cannot quite bring himself to violate
his innocent Lolita (because, somehow,
love has gotten mixed up with his compound
of lust, romantic ideals and world-weariness,
but he doesn't know that yet), until she offers
to show him what Charlie taught her at camp...

and there, in a Georgia swamp, an alligator
puffs on his CEEgar while admiring his beret
and false beard in a mirror (funny how a good-lookin'
man look good in anything...), while an owl
and a turtle troubador argue as idiotically
as the bar patrons on Amsterdam Avenue
in Manhatten (where crooks meet in a back room
to plan capers as complex as the Manhatten Project
[which is still no joke?]), but, to get back
to the swamp, this time the last word goes to
one of the three bats in silly, suspendered trousers...

and there's the boy with his tigeer – everyone else
sees no tiger, just a small, bedraggled tiger doll,
but we, seeing both, cannot unsee the REAL tiger
and all the other cavorting dreams this child visits –
often catastrophically – upon this world of ordinary
snowmen that just stand there until their three globes
become a dirty puddle. And way over there,
behind the boy and his tiger and his scary
snowmen, an elderly Spanish gentleman
in rusty armor on a swaybacked, spavined horse,
accompanied by a fat, vulgar peasant with ten
homey proverbs for every situation – the old man
is attacking a windmill! And here's one
you might have missed: He looks something like
Sancho Panza, has the street smarts and the bulk,
but every minute of every day he feels he's attacking
windmills. His name is Andy Sipowisc. He's a cop
in New York. He's uncomfortable with this stuff –
you can tell by the way he wipes his forehead.
It makes you laugh, it does! Sometimes sad things
are funny. Witchcraft.

There's much much more to see – look,
a man called issa locks the wooden gate
by placing a snail on it! But it's not just
literature: What about that angry duck?
I can't understand a word he's saying!
And the nearly blind blusterer who denies
he can't see a thing, supported by a Providence
Who always provides something – anything! –
at the last moment, a turtles back in a stream,
a falling board that, just in time, lands across
the gap between two beams high in the sky
just in time for our hero to stride, blithely across
that narrow bridge between where we see
he is and the heroic world he imagines
he is conquering.

And the exquisite suffering of two musicians
in drag (they join an all-girl bad) to save their lives,
who must control their hormones while being best buddies
with the sexiest blonde who ever turned out to be
(and somehow this is funny, desperately funny)
dreamily sad – oh, she's far too good at being
dreamily sad. But, we learn, nobody (and no body)
is perfect.

And there's a nervous, croaky-voiced young man
in bed with the neurotic wife of his Dad's partner,
and after sex, they can find nothing to talk about --
which suits her, but bothers him, because he's
still alive, so he tries valiantly, asking --
as foolhardy as the Dublin Jew -- "What
was your major?" It was art. Art? – what happened?
he asks this sullen drunk, which turns out to be, er,
a non-starter.

Say, look at how that little, raggedly dapper fellow in the derby,
so pertly mustached, walks, a cartoon amalgamation
of anxiety, self-assurance, bluff, leeriness and obliviousness,
ready at any instant to find himself terrified or exhilarated,
a walk that somehow impel him forward, while moving
in every direction at once, not so much a funny walk
as an expectancy of funny, so much that is jerky
and mechanical welded so tightly to what is
only alive.

Enough! Yes, yes, there's much more to see –
it takes days, weeks, years, lifetimes to get through
all of it, but we must save time to see HUMOR,
not what great artists have made of it, but the real thing,
as raw as a poke in the funny bone, a dead fish
in the face, Joe Miller's joke book, the last pages
of Boy's Life magazine (where the blacksmith
tells his apprentice, "I'll hold the horseshoe,
and when I nod my head, you hit it with the hammer,"
thus teaching his apprentice the importance
of clear syntax in which the correct antecedents
for pronouns cannot be mistaken), the "ADULT"
jokes that make little boys squirm with delight...

but let's have a look, here, to you right: something
ou rarely see -- a minister, a priest and a rabbi
are walking into a bar together. Over there
the same by is entered by a man with a dog,
who will be refused service, even though the dog
can talk. And there the same unlikely clerical trio
are on an airplane that is breaking apart – who
gets to use the only parachute? And who knew
that rabbis, priests and ministers spent so much
quality ecumenical time together!

Here are similar scenarios featuring an Englishman,
a German, a Frenchman, an Italian, a Spaniard,
maybe a Swede or Russian or Scot – and sometimes
a Jew (nationality not specified), none of them clerics,
each reacting differently to such things as writing
books about elephants (inspired, no doubt,
by the six blind men, in the future to be replaced,
perhaps, by tales of how Five Gay Men
redesign the elephant), jumping out of that
plummeting parachute-challenged airplane
(most of them valiantly and without a chute) –

by the way, we never do find out if that plane crashes.
Perhaps not, for it's used in joke after joke.
Anyway, our United Nations prototype shows us
again and again that Englishmen are cold, stiff-upper-lipped
and practical, Germans verbose and abstract, French
lecherous, Italians excited, Scotsmen cheap, Jews
sly, Americans crude but savvy – I don't know
why any of this is funny, but it is, it is.

(The funniest humor is the kind of humor people
of which you don't like very much would say,
"THAT'S NOT FUNNY!" But it is, and it's
so much funnier when someone insists it isn't.)

Even though Hitler's minions killed 6,000,000 Jews
for their exaggerated, imaginary Jewishness, yet
exaggerated Jewishness can be funny, not to mention
unexpected Yiddish words. Even though these same Nazis
(and Nazis too can be funny – Ve haf vays uf making zem
funny) justified the enslavement of millions of Poles
because they were, after all, slavs, destined to be slaves
of un-ironic Aryans, yet that "Polock" over there,
the one getting married in his best bowling shirt,
and there he's slapping his forehead, and there,
on his honeymoon, naked on the bed, he's waiting
for the swelling to go down — even this fancied
stupidity of all Polish people (don't think of
Chopin, for example – think only of how stupid
you feel when you try to pronounce the names
of Polish athletes) is funny, don't deny it! Art can
play with or against that, but already (as crude oil
is oil, as rough diamonds are diamonds, as trite similes
are similies) – already what's funny is funny, even
the black man (descended from the end man on the right
of the Minstrel Show troupe), the one who is so easily
terrified, who, with saucer eyes and squeaking voice,
must be forced to walk past a graveyard, and
if wind in the trees rises to shrillness, will –
before fleeing – tell his feets to do their thing.

Speaking of blacks, listen to these kids on a street corner
finding new ways to describe the promiscuity, ugliness
and obesity of one another's mothers, insults worthy
of ancient Greeks and Trojans to be hurled across
the lines before battle, and surely these kids
will kill one another...but no, they insults are too
incredible, and they are laughing! (And their mothers
would laugh too.)

Over here elephants (though threatened with extinction)
become jokes – what, for example, is gray and
ejaculates in large quantities? (Oops, sorry, I mean
"...gray and comes in quartz," though
I don't see what difference it makes...OH! Comes in
QUARTS! OK, now I get it.)

In this next scene, someone (perhaps a news lady)
asks Mrs. Lincoln if, apart from THAT, she enjoyed
the play. We are not told Mrs. Lincoln's answer, a serious
fault to be found in many jokes – the most important things
are left unsaid or drowned out by laughter.

Here are thousands of similar scenes, traditionally
used for sex education before there was sex education,
all involving a traveling salesman, a tough old farmer
and the farmer's plump and eager-to-please and lonely
daughter. These scenes usually include a barn, straw,
a cow, a bedroom, maybe a shotgun. And always
the salesman gives or at least offers the farmer's
daughter (and sometimes his wife and even a cow or two)
a free sample of his generically bodified seed (pure –
or impure – corn), that is, he fucks her or tries to.
The farmer disapproves. And what's funny about that?
But it is, O all the instruments (mostly male tools)
nod in agreement – it's funny. I guess you had
to be there.

That crowd over there? They are watching a chicken
cross the road, each (and they are mostly well-known people,
their views flavored by celebrity) – each explaining
why the chicken is crossing or has crossed the road,
all opinion, no double-blind, randomized studies here.
And behind them we have (and this was once funny enough
to fuel a thousand variations) and older, simpler statement
that the chicken is crossing the road to get to the other side.
(But why did the moron throw butter out the window?)
Nearly as funny as being promised (by one's grandfather,
perhaps0 to be told a dirty joke, then being told
that a pig fell in the mud. To make such jokes funnier,
we have the elaborated form...see those shaggy dogs
over there? It seems a stupid punchline is funnier
if it takes forever to get there (we wait in line).

Well, not forever, but a long time. Taking forever
to get to a punchline is over on the art-side (or outre side).
There, that cadaverous guy – one of the funniest writers ever,
told us about man who woke up a beetle. That man
had a cousin, Mr. K, who was told a story about another man
(or another cousin) who waits for an answer. (He dies,
unanswered, but that doesn't mean he's not still waiting.)
He can't get through to the person in the palace who has
the answer, because there are huge guards at the gate
to prevent him from entering, so he sits by the gate
day after day, waiting. As he's dying, the guards
close the gate. "Why?" he gasps. Because, he is told,
this gate is no longer needed. It was put there
especially for him. So is that an answer after all?
And, in any case, is it funny? Isn't it funny
to have to ask if it's funny when one is laughing
(really, not just writing LOL, but laughing)?

But we lapse again into art. Let's keep it simple.
There's an English word for sexual intercourse
(or intercoarse) that derives from the German "ficcan" –
to beat, and that old joke, the similarity in appearance
and often in fact between one love-making and one person
beating another, reverberates through the ages
to make that four-letter word funny when some comedian
comes right out and says it again and again
(like poking out the angry purple head of an erect penis,
silly jack-in-the-box) – we just can't get enough of it.
Perhaps the word is no longer funny, but it is still funny
how we can't get enough of it – the word, that is.
The action itself we only think we can't get enough of,
as when we haven't had pizza for a long time,
we order more than we can eat. That's funny too,
like craving cream pie and getting one in the face –

Careful, don't get too near those pie-slingers!
And watch out for explosions (though they'll just
turn you temporarily black), slashing swords,
unexpected abysses, even banana peels.
That cartoon cat, sliced like a loaf of bread,
recovers in an instant, but you might not
That coyote falls a thousand feet into sharp rocks,
but recovers with only a bad headache (represented
by birds tweeting and stars), but you might not.
You probably wouldn't even be able to run on air
for a long second before plunging. But you can see,
can't you, how if we were able to recover
from anything, it might be fun to fly off cliffs
or get blown up (whee!) or to blow up others –
what sport! ZAP! POW! kaBOOM!

(Some say we CAN recover from anything,
even the loss of bodies, because we're spiritual beings,
but that's silly, because if we were really
spiritual beings, EVERYTHING would be fun.
And it's NOT. Live is NOT FUNNY!)

And those three guys with the weird haircuts,
poking one another's eyes, yanking ears and
swatting heads – they're funny too, but not nearly as funny
as the skinny dopey guy who, with a flick, lights his thumb
as if it were a cigarette lighter, and his fat, pompous pal
who, unbelieving, tries to do the same thing –
and it WORKS! so he freaks out. There's another
fine mess his friend has gotten him into. Oops,
we've blundered into art again.

Well, there's much more to see here, but
I think we've had enough for today. So what's funny?
(I'll try to explain it to you in case you're a blonde.)
Let's see, cruelty, violence, promiscuity, hypocrisy,
racism, obscenity, excrement, farts, boogers, bad smells,
injuries, death, greed, sexism, cannibals boiling missionaries,
people on couches talking to shrinks who aren't listening,
husbands and wives and mothers-in-law hating one another,
farmers, salesmen, daughter, cows, bestiality, lawyers,
chickens, elephants, snot, clerics, God talking to St. Peter,,
the Devil addressing someone newly arrived in Hell, St. Pete
addressing someone approaching Heaven, heresy,
poverty, wealth, heroic idiots, insanity, pain, the last man
on earth, genitalia, bird poop on statues, an ashtray, a hairbrush...
but this is a list of everything that's NOT funn. But it IS funny.

Funny – pertaining to fun. Making fun of serious things.
Are there serious things? Are they serious because they're things,
the too too solid things whose solidity becomes contagious,
so that we would have them melt, resolve into a
dewy laughter? Would it be fun to make fun of –
that is, make fun OUT of – death? Not to mention
marriage! (Who was that lady I saw you with
last night?) The man – over there, between art
and "the dozens" (I'm the indecent docent of the dozens) –
another guy is pointing a gun at him and saying,
"Your money or your life!" and he (a Jew, by the way)
says nothing for a long time, so the gunman yells,
"I SAID your money or you life!" to which the famous
Jewish comedian says in an exasperated tone
(annoyed by this interruption of his calculations),
"I'm thinking! I'm thinking!" – well, that same guy
would often say in that same tone, "That's not funny,
Rochester" or "That's not funny, Mary," or
"That's not funny, Dennis" – and it would be funny,

and millions of people would laugh and are still laughing,
because it was funny the way it was not funny,
and that's where humor goes right, goes wrong,
you see, because some things (like the Holocaust?)
just aren't funny, and it's a terrible thing
to make fun of that Jew's cheapness (Let's see,
my money or my life...?) or even Falstaff's fatness!

But terribleness is funny too (ah, the terrible too's).
Even a pun can be funny. I myself heard a funny pun

But some humor makes me feel good, while some doesn't,
even though I'm laughing, like a child tickled beyond
where it's fun, but he can't stop laughing – and when
the tickling stops, he's pissed off at the tickler or in tears.
There's a difference between Hitler's jokes about Jewishness
and Jack Benny's (DUH!)

The humor that most delights and haunts me
makes the agreed-upon world look ridiculous
in the light of a better, livelier world,
a more compassionate, varied, witty and noble world,
perhaps one invented by Calvin and Hobbes
or Don Quixote, perhaps one vaguely stirred up,
like the ache of a fading numbness, by Kafka.

This I prefer to the sour humor that seeks to mock
and reduce a world already ridiculous (I won't say
"absurd," because the word has been used to death
by joyless people) with no motive other than
to be of that world, one of the gang, mocking a well
the dreamers, unable to see them as other
than their world. Is this a serious thing? Not really.
See over there, the man on a tree branch
sawing off the branch on which he sits?
He is one of the mockers. He will fall.
This is funny. But it would be even funnier
if the tree fell over, leaving him sitting on his branch
in mid-air, supported by nothing, nothing at all,
not a mocker of dreams after all,

Dean Blehert
short poems at http://deanotations.blogspot.com

The War Between Form and Creation

Here's a recent poem, followed by the essay it suggested to me:

Funny how the thought of starving to death
bothers me less than the thought
of my poems vanishing.

What I will not lose, whatever the economy,
is I. Even if I forget myself, even if I try
to lose myself, I will survive as what haunts me.

but I have relearned how to know myself
as the creator, not what I create.
Poems may perish, those ripples
in the stream of creation, standing waves
of varied configuration, depending upon
the forms (boulders, pebbles, rhymes, meters
ideas, words, experience) through which
I direct that stream. They mark the joy
we create as perishable as poems,
but not our ability to create it, not
the joy of creating, not a mark
on me.

The War Between Form and Creation

Natively, creativity knows no barriers. It is a "Let there be_____!" that instantaneously puts there what is intended. But the game of art, as it is played, depends on barriers. In a way, a work of art is a form created where one's creativity plays over (lambently licks over, sprays over, bounces about on, dances over) an apparent barrier to creativity.
Why do artists nominate stones and sounds and other energy forms to be barriers and then pretend that creation is an exertion of energy against energy to create energy patterns? Why sculpt, laboriously, a David or a Venus from stone? Why not simply "let there be" a marble David, a bronze Venus?
Because we have forgotten how to create, become habituated to energy games? Or because we have all agreed to be unable to perceive one another's creations, called them "dreams" and, worse, called them "mere"? Because we've called it an "invasion of privacy" to perceive the dreams of others? Perhaps, more basic: To make a game out of creating, we pretend to be unable to perceive one another's creations – a joke: "Image of a palace?...nope, can't see it...are you sure you're not imagining things?"
And after playing that game – and having it played on us – for a long time, we become persuaded that it is hard to see the creations of others, and that our own creations are hard for others to see, and that we cannot even see our own creations ourselves – because we've agreed (despite our having a greed for creations) that they are hard to see.
How often do we, thus, create, unaware of our own creation? (That is what a mind is!) For example, I notice a tune running "in my mind," noticing also that it has been doing so for hours (since I created it this morning in the shower?). And for that long time, I didn't perceive it. It became the carrier wave for all my conscious perceptions during those hours. And what has been running through your mind, unperceived, for years? (Centuries?)
In the absence of the ability to perceive a simple creation, we all agree to perceive physical energy and mass. That becomes the legal tender of art. To play in this universe, one must agree to perceive it and be affected by energy and by that condensation of energy we call matter. So now we must WORK to create – hence works of art, which are oxymorons, really works of play, where we direct the play of creativity onto or against the creations we have agreed to call "real" or "physical." And where our energy (for we now identify our creativity with the energy we employ in order to create) meets physical energy, and, as permanent-seeming ripples and purls and eddies form on the surface of a stream, passing over obstructions and irregularities, so energy forms we call art are created where our energy meets barriers (also energy).
The complexity here is hard to unravel: We create our creative energy. We create (by agreement) the permanence of the energy forms we consider to be barriers to creativity. The we use the interaction of these created energies to create a form -- a form that we could simply have, instantaneously "dreamed" into existence and probably did, in order to use that dream (already as perfect and as real as we cared to make it, like the picture of a stream you saw and felt when I mentioned ripples, eddies and purls) -- to use that form as a pattern for our energy games.
As a further elaboration (though we tend to mistake it for simplification), we blind ourselves to our own intentions and let the physical forms seem to tell us what to create. We do "action" art, droodles, random words on a page, find all sorts of ways to persuade ourselves that the rock is telling us what form to extract from it (as if we were peeling a fruit), that the physical universe is doing all the creating, leaving us to be the bemused spectators or, at most, facilitators. Energy is the wizard. We are the wizards apprentices, doing the mickey-mouse work. If we imagine ourselves creators, we'll get in trouble. Beware of brooms bearing water. If you could make a lightning bolt stream from your pointing finger, it would melt your arm.
And yet, we choose the medium, direct the effort and choose to perceive (a form of creation in itself) the art in what results.
I'm In a room with many paintings on the walls. There's also a window – as rectangular as any painting, but with more light, more motion and more depth (though each painting emerged from a creation full of light, motion and depth). What an amazing painting I've just created, right there, where a moment ago, there was a hole in the wall though which I could view a tiny cut-out of a large scene. Now there's a whole in the wall, complete unto itself.
If there's a window where you are now, and you are inside, looking out into daylight, see how long it takes you to create such a painting by considering that window a work of art.
In a way, art is love: We grant to physical universe objects and energies everyone has agreed to call "real" – we grant them that reality and enhance it by agreeing that our creativity cannot do without it, cannot, without effort, pervade that stuff. Our creativity cannot own stuff except via more stuff of the same sort (the agreed-upon physical energy we call "work" or "effort").
Ah, but an artist's love is also love for our creative potential. He isn't only enhancing or decorating an agreement not to perceive each other's dreams. Onto the carrier wave of physical effort, he can heterodyne admiration, a frequency too fine to be blocked by any barrier, a pervasion that haunts matter with the joy of instantaneous creation, a kind of calling card that says a creator has been here, a subversive reminder, camouflaged by the complexities of the game called art, that reminds us of the nature of the game, a golden thread that one can tug upon to unravel the game, when (because we have grown) it no longer fits us, begins to strangle us.