The theater is dark. I arrive late to a showing of Night at the Museum or some equally banal film, generally unfunny film driven there by familial obligation. Heads turn to the door swinging open, the light spilling in, I think I see one of my younger sisters. Blond haired, long haired turning her head away from me to stare at the screen. I take a seat next to her. I plunge an anticipating hand into her popcorn. I stare at the screen. I do not notice the rest of my family, I do not notice my father, behind me, laughing so hard he can’t breathe, let alone tell me that I’m one row off. That the little girl to my left, is in fact, not my sister, and thus obligated to by the same ties that brought me here to share her popcorn with me.
I beat a hasty, predictably red faced retreat into the intimate, and therefore comforting, but nonetheless enthusiastic laughter of my family, watching the movie, begging for the distance required for me to laugh at this, admittedly hilarious mishap, myself.
I bring up this example, antiquated though it may be, (Night at the Museum came out like 10 years ago, although it might have been its even worse sequel which was released three years later. Suffice it say, I was at least twelve, possibly fifteen, I hope to god I wasn’t nineteen, the third one was released in 2014, but I can’t be sure. And yes, I did see the Night at the Museum trilogy in theaters, what are you gonna do about it?) because it is the type of humor addressed by Hobbes, Kant and Kierkegaard, the third of whom’s theory connects this story, bizarrely enough to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the inherent contradiction in a socially aware comic.
According to Hobbes, implicit in my family’s reaction to my mistake was a sense of superiority, not only a relief that it wasn’t them who mistook a small, blond haired girl in a dark theater for one of the brighter spots of my family’s future, but also a smugness that they did, in fact, not make that mistake. Simultaneously, it incorporates Kant’s understanding of humor, that expectation is strained, but more importantly, that it ultimately dissipates into nothing (Kant 48). One may look to Kierkegaard, however, in order to note a correlation between my own embarrassing anecdote and MLK’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham jail. As he states, “wherever there is life there is contradiction, and wherever there is contradiction, the comical is present,” (Kierkegaard 83). Certainly, there is contradiction addressed in “Letter” (as there is in my anecdote) namely through the desire for peace but refusal to do anything about it. In the hands of a caustic enough comic (think:Louis C.K. or Dave Chappelle) this contradiction could be, and potentially has been, the basis for a joke. But, Kierkegaard makes an important distinction within contradiction, delineating that as the comic can exist in it, so too can the tragic. While the former exists when contradiction is painless (at least, relatively speaking, it was certainly a shot to my ego when I ate somebody else’s popcorn), the latter is inspired by suffering in that contradiction, just as Dr. King suffered in a Birmingham jail in the midst of fighting for basic human rights, attempting to explain what appears basic human logic. In other words, the almost condescendingly simple language and reason he is forced to use in order to communicate to, apparently well meaning, educated Southern whites, the very real plight of colored people in America renders the letter tragic. Presumably, should Louis C.K. or Dave Chappelle use the aforementioned premise for a joke they wouldn’t be speaking to white Southern segregationists in the heat of the Civil Rights movements. Their condescension would be theoretical, used in order to highlight the contradiction but also imbue the audience with a sense of superiority. They (the audience) agree with Dr. King and the comic standing before them. They can see how difficult it was/is.
And, I think, herein lies the great struggle of socially aware comics. Naturally, they have to be ingratiating if they want an audience at all. However, there is a tension between the need to highlight the ills of society of which many, if not all, of the audience members are at least complicit in, to make them urgent without ostracizing the audience. The comic ought to be expected at a comedy show but many topics are not painless. If the comic makes them painless, the point risks being missed, if the comic does not make them painless, are they really a comic? Talk about civil rights, talk about imperialism, talk about sexism, talk about xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, the audience may laugh but in their very laughter they may not get it. There is an overarching and tragic contradiction to the socially aware comic. In order to communicate his/her views, which can be intelligent and deeply insightful, people have to laugh. But, while they laugh, at the clown pointing out the clowns of society (none of which are in their number) they miss, or able to avoid the larger point, the humorous version of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”