Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ostracization and humor

N.B. The numbers present refer to a list of endnotes to be found at the bottom of the page. It was the best I could do, this format doesn't allow for footnotes, annoyingly.

A private joke I once played featured myself and a travel basketball team I was on in the 6th grade. The first practice, late afternoon, gym floor a little dusty, going through some drill while middle aged men looked on sternly, arms crossed, countenances grave I was asked, by one of my louder, less competent teammates whether or not I was British. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this question which I think can be attributed to a slight speech impediment spawned by the voracious thumb sucking of my infancy(1). Coupled with my transparently pale skin and freckles(2), the question, generally speaking, wasn’t entirely untoward. Moreover, given how obnoxious my teammate had already proved himself I was hardly surprised. When I answered yes though, I was surprised. His eyes widened and my other teammates, who had been loosely paying attention turn toward me, similar shock on their faces. I have no idea where the coaches were(3).
I felt reckless and invented a story about coming over in the summer of my 9th year as my guilty Irish(4) (American) Catholic conscience observed every worst case scenario, taking stock of how much trouble I might get in(5). I was convincing enough that most of my teammates believed me for the rest of the season(6), even after interacting with my seriously Midwestern father(7).
My family found my counterfeit hilarious as did I(8). But why? I think the type of humor taking place has a lot to do with what Sedaris is doing. I ostracized myself, not only by establishing myself as a foreigner in a very homogeneous area but also by lying about something I had no reason to lie about to people I had no reason to lie to. There is something hysterical in the irony this established. I was no different than my teammates in a number of ways yet I was separate from them, mistakenly other. I don’t love Sedaris. I don’t think he’s a great writer nor do I find him to be particularly funny but I think his humor is incredibly nuanced.
His humor can be derived, in part, from his ostracization. The story involving strip poker, mildly disturbing, meant to be very funny and it exhibits an older, wiser, more well adjusted Sedaris looking back, somewhat sardonically, on his otherness. Mine was contrived, his wasn’t, but they remain similar in that there’s something amusing about oil interacting with water.
I would go further and suggest that Sedaris ostracizes himself from the reader. He is the protagonist but he’s kind of infuriating, as is his family. None of them are characters that I cared about and I don’t think I’m supposed to. I think Sedaris is intentionally setting himself apart from the reader and from typical expectations. Everyone finds themselves sympathetic and for the most part they want other people to find them such as well. Though I think Sedaris finds himself sympathetic, I think that he thinks it’s funnier if you don’t consider him a character worth rooting for. This doesn’t make him less interesting but it does make him more comic and that’s kind of the point.

1: I can’t say with confidence that I’ve grown out of it today. I can only imagine how my 12 year old self sounded.
2: The likes of which are decidedly not common in the NBA or most high level college basketball. I did not think this mattered. I had decided to be an exception to the general rule. It wasn’t until like a year later when I realized, I would not be.
3: To the best of my knowledge there was never any question that I was British for them. I was pretty obviously an American pre-teen with a speech thing.
4: My maternal grandfather, patriarch of a massive brood, who had once said that upon his death he wanted his soul to “fly over Ireland,” wouldn’t have known whether to laugh or cry at a well loved grandchild of his professing any connection to the hated British.
5: The conclusion: None.
6: I can’t say that some, to this day, still don’t believe it.
7: To the best of knowledge, “tennis shoes,” is not how one refers to “sneakers” when speaking the King’s.
8: My younger brother as always performed a considerably more subtle variation of this by inserting meaningless, false, and slightly absurd information into people’s minds. E.g., he told a buffoonish high school colleague, his freshman year, that he’d asked like 8 members of the fairer sex to a dance and been turned down each time. This fellow took up on this and poked fun and spread it, only to eventually realize its falsehood and his foolishness. None of his friends found this particularly funny. He thought it hilarious (as do I).

No comments:

Post a Comment