Contents copyright 1997 by Thomas G. Digby, with a liberal definition of "fair use". In other words, feel free to quote excerpts elsewhere (with proper attribution), post the entire zine (verbatim, including this notice) on other boards that don't charge specifically for reading the zine, link my Web page, and so on, but if something from here forms a substantial part of something you make money from, it's only fair that I get a cut of the profits.
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A friend mentioned that someone at his office had been telling ethnic jokes, and someone else "had to laugh" because of the work relationships involved. I asked if they were good jokes, and he said that they weren't especially funny. Just thinly disguised hostility and racism.
That got us into discussing some of the foundations of humor. I see at least two, or maybe three, depending on how you count.
One type of humor is misfortune happening to the Other, or perhaps to anyone at a safe distance.
I'm reminded of the cartoonist who intended to make a joke about Devil's Island, but momentarily slipped a mental cog and lettered in "Dachau" instead. That made the piece considerably less funny. Why? Because to most of us, inmates of Dachau are less Other than inmates of Devil's Island, and Dachau is at less of a safe distance.
Supposedly only "real criminals" got sent to Devil's Island. But ordinary people got sent to Dachau through no fault of their own because their society was, by our standards, insane. Had we lived in that place and time many of us would have been candidates for Dachau. As it is, some of us know people who know people who lived through the horrors of Dachau or similar places, or who died there. So by several different measures people at Dachau are less Other than people at Devil's Island.
Further, those most familiar with Dachau believe it at least faintly possible that our society may some day fall victim to some similar type of insanity unless we are constantly on guard to prevent it. Thus Dachau is not at a safe distance even if Devil's Island is.
So while Devil's Island may be sort of funny, Dachau isn't.
The pair of elements that are at least related to each other and may even be the same thing are cognitive dissonance and overthrow of the established order.
A cartoon character who walks off a cliff but doesn't fall until he looks down is funny because we know our world doesn't work that way. That's cognitive dissonance. Another example is the ability of cartoon characters to obtain such unlikely objects as anvils or bass drums or giant carnivorous plants on a moment's notice, sometimes literally pulling them out of a hat. (The element of surprise helps here too.)
Or some effect that exists in real life can be wildly exaggerated: An opera singer who in real life can break a wine glass by singing at it may, in cartoons, be able to demolish buildings that way. It's funny because we know it's not "right".
The other aspect of this is "breaking the rules". A food fight is funny, in its crude way, because it breaks rules about neatness and proper table manners and not wasting food. The established order is overthrown, at least for a while.
Notice that food fights and potty jokes (another taboo broken) tend to appeal more to children than to adults who consider themselves mature. I wonder if that's a clue to what our proto-human ancestors laughed at when they were first inventing laughter.
Anyone who dreamed of someday becoming leader of the pack would have had to overthrow the established order to do it. So maybe we evolved some neural circuitry that sometimes made us like to see the established order overthrown?
And when the pack needed to defend itself against outsiders, a circuit that made us rejoice at seeing the Other come to grief could have been useful. It would have provided a short-term tactical goal as a step toward the longer-term goal of defending the pack. In the heat of battle you could evaluate actions such as rock-throwing by their immediate effect without having to take time to think out long-term strategy.
And when an enemy pack is leaderless and in a state of chaos, it's less effective in combat. So again we have an incentive to see order overthrown.
But we couldn't go around doing nothing but spreading chaos. If we were to be successful social animals, we would need to take care of our own and to maintain order most of the time. So we evolved these countervailing drives toward order and chaos, and various triggers that could bring one or the other to the fore. And we have compassion toward our friends while laughing at the troubles of strangers.
And that's why today we have societies that usually function in a more or less orderly and compassionate manner, but we also have humor.
Something reminds me that alcohol shuts down the higher mental functions first. So might we gain some clue to how our distant ancestors might have felt and acted by studying modern-day drunks?
I've long thought that when cyber-cash gets to be a working system in common use I'd put up a virtual donation bucket on my Web site. "If you like the kind of stuff I'm doing, please give whatever you feel like giving." No set price, no registration required, no bar to free entry. Just "Give if you feel like giving." Sort of like the street musician with the instrument case open for people to toss money into. And I'd hope to be able to make a good part of my living that way.
Of course I also enjoy working with tech stuff like computers. I do enjoy doing both left-brain and right-brain things.
But whether by structured work contracts or by something less formal, I want to be getting my money from people who think that what I'm giving in return, tangible or otherwise, is more than worth it. I believe in win- win deals.
Are there enough people out there willing and able to make something like this possible? And how do I reach them?
As I first-draft this in mid-morning my friend is still shut up in his room, with his modem having been online all last night. Is he asleep, downloading dreams?
Asleep, downloading dreams. There's almost an idea for a poem there. It doesn't seem to have quite jelled yet, but maybe, maybe, if I give it time, there may be something there. Or there may not. I never know.
Speaking of ideas I may or may not ever do anything with, one song I heard about the Fairies enticing mortals to dance with them forever resonated with yet another news item about Dr. Kevorkian. Maybe someone whose life is constant pain and who has nobody dependent on them sees the endless Fairy dance as Escape. So they find the empty wheelchair in the morning, but never find the person (or their body).
Are the people enticed into the circles happy with their lot? This story would work for me only if they were.
Forever? What if it's for a hundred years instead? Then they come out into a world of much improved medical science. Maybe they left a note or something, so people will be waiting for them. This would be good if they've always wanted to see what the world of the future will be like.
I recall one "Twilight Zone" episode of a mass escape from a nursing home. The main difference was that it was some kind of time-warp back to childhood, no Fairies involved. Or maybe it was Heaven or something. Whatever it was, they never came back.
So maybe I'll write my version, and maybe I won't. It's not "my" decision, but that of some Muse or some part of my subconscious or something. If it does happen, will it be a short story? A free-verse poem? A more structured poem, suitable for setting to music? Or maybe even a song? It seems to still be trying to decide.
Most of you know the song "Kumbayah" (which I'm told means "Come by here" in some language or other). It's often sung in Sunday School and at church parties. Verses go something like:
Someone's singing, Lord, Kumbayah. Someone's singing, Lord, Kumbayah. Someone's singing, Lord, Kumbayah. Oh Lord, kumbayah.
Other verses are similar but substitute other two-syllable words like "crying" or "hungry" or something else that may indicate a need for God's attention.
But many of us are tired of the song or something, and now comes the urge to get silly:
[with hands covering ears to block out sound] Someone's snoring, Lord, Kumbayah. Someone's snoring, Lord, Kumbayah. Someone's snoring, Lord, Kumbayah. Oh Lord, kumbayah. [making little fanning motions with your hands near your face] Someone's smoking, Lord, Kumbayah. [x3] Oh Lord, kumbayah. [miming driving a car] Someone's speeding, Lord ... [probably no gestures needed] Someone's horny, Lord ...
But you soon run out of two-syllable words, and all pretense of scansion flies out the window, gradually at first:
Someone's being silly, Lord, Kumbayah. Someone's being silly, Lord, Kumbayah. Someone's being silly, Lord, Kumbayah. Oh Lord, kumbayah. Someone's taking too many items in the express line, Lord ... Someone's formatting the hard drive, Lord ... Someone's singing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," Lord ... Someone's paper didn't come, Lord ... Someone hasn't cleaned the catbox, Lord ... Someone's trying to balance their checkbook, Lord ... Someone's standing on the corner blowing bubbles, Lord, Kumbayah. Someone's standing on the corner blowing bubbles, Lord, Kumbayah. Someone's standing on the corner blowing bubbles, Lord, Kumbayah. Oh Lord, kumbayah.
And so on, until the campfire finally dies to embers or the school bus gets to its distant field-trip destination ...
As I sit here free-associating there are birds singing outside. Or at least what sounds like at least one bird. Could it be fake? Whatever it is, it's stopped. Could the bird fakers have decided people in this neighborhood are too easily fooled, and are going on to more challenging audiences? Or are the real birds in the area too much competition for them, so they're going someplace where they have a monopoly? This area does seem to have real birds, or at least what look like real birds. That could be fake too, although that hardly seems plausible. I've seen cats catch and eat things that look like real birds, and I would think birds would be hard to fake well enough to fool a cat. Or are the cats in on it? Maybe the cats are also fake? There was a tabloid article about how some large percentage of all pets are space aliens. So maybe that's who's doing the fake birds? Maybe space aliens ate all the real ones and are faking it so we won't notice? And all seems well for years, until some tabloid reporter out hiking in the woods blunders into Bird Central, and there's a big scandal about it. So if you think the birds in your neighborhood may be fake, keep watching the tabloids.
Speaking of spaceflight, there's a Mars probe due to land the day this issue is due to go out. I have a relevant poem, but I ran it back in Silicon Soapware #19. Check out SS0019.txt on the same site this is on. Or wait for the HTML version of this issue to appear on my Web site and click on the link I'll have here.
We're coming up on the 50th anniversary of the crash of Something in New Mexico. Maybe it was a flying saucer (a term that's also 50 years old this year) full of space aliens, or maybe it was a weather balloon full of parachute test dummies from a few years in the future, or maybe it was something else. But whatever it was, it has since captured the popular imagination. And it reminds me of this:
Take Us to Your Poets I came upon them by a lonely road Deep in the wilderness With something strange hovering overhead. They'd learned my language, not important how: "Standard procedures, like hundreds before; no big deal." But they did have a favor to ask. "A favor? Like taking you to our leader?" "Your leader? Eventually. We should exchange assurances of good faith, Agree on ground rules, mark the traffic lanes, Stuff like that. All quite necessary. But there's plenty of time for attending to that, And we have more urgent needs. So take us to your poets, Your dreamers, Your dancers in the moonlight. Those your leaders cannot speak for Because they make their own worlds No others can invade or conquer." (awkward pause) "Uh, ... that's all well and good, But not quite what I was expecting. Maybe first I should take you to our scientists?" "Your scientists? Eventually. We should cross-check our knowledge against yours, Finding where each can fill the other's gaps And what each can learn from the other. But there's plenty of time for attending to that, And we have more urgent needs. So take us to your poets, Your dreamers, Your dancers in the moonlight. Those the physical cannot limit Because they see beyond beyond And do not stop at 'That can't be'." (awkward pause) "Uh, ... that's all well and good, But not quite what I was expecting. Maybe your ship needs something? Our ship? Eventually. We are a little low on fuel And before we leave your world Certain items will want minor repairs. But there's plenty of time for attending to that, And we have more urgent needs. So take us to your poets, Your dreamers, Your dancers in the moonlight. For we are dangerously low on dreams And need to relight our inner fires Without which all worlds are dark and empty." Thomas G. Digby entered 1635 hr 4/11/92 -- END --
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