Laughter and the art of
I’m afraid of blank paper and the death of a loved one. I like to overcome the emptiness before starting a project as much as when it is finished. You can know someone by what their fears are, because these fears are also the root of their deepest satisfaction. They are the entrance to the maze; the door that must be crossed before the free fall. It’s all about overcoming the bitterness that often involves being in the middle of a path. Think of ourselves from the present standing in the past and trusting that your future self will manage to take us to a good shore. That’s the way to advance in time and stop pushing it up the hill.
I like the image of Sisyphus, and that Camus begins his book questioning himself about suicide, as a starting point for life. Because, for humans life does not just happen, it is a decision. Who’s capable to endure life, despite knowing it will end? It also reminds me of that image in Rayuela, where Oliveira speaks with nausea about a pink sunset, and it ceases to be the stereotype of life’s drive, but a disgust of being alive:
I woke up and saw the light of dawn through the tiny holes of the blind. I was leaving the night from such depth that I had nausea of myself, the horror of glimpsing at a new day with its same presentation, its ever mechanical indifference: awareness, sense of light, opening your eyes, shades, dawn […] In that second, with the omniscience of half-sleep, I measured the horror of what wonders and excites religions: the eternal perfection of the cosmos, the unending revolution of the globe on its axis. Nausea, that unbearable feeling of coercion. I am forced to tolerate the sun that rises every day. It’s monstrous; it’s inhumane.1
Luckily the moment passes, but every day happens exactly the same. It is inhumane because it brings us closer to the animal. We do have a mind, but we’re nothing and to nothingness we tend. Hence that Sartre devoted a book to talk about the feeling of nausea before the existence, nothingness; that the Theater of the Absurd makes us laugh at times, but also shares with us the anguish of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot when recovering consciousness of how long they have been there, trapped in that limbo, where Samuel Beckett built eternity with mastery in only two acts. The characters generate tenderness and laughter with their actions, but their situation set us apart and we feel grief and despair for what they are experiencing.
We have to live daily with the discomfort of being us, the good days and the worst days, as well with the joy of not being the other when we see him having a bad time (unless it is a loved one) and the sorrow of not being able to do anything to relieve their pain. We’re still alive waiting for something. Immersed in the absurdity of existence as such, of being alive, of knowing that one day we will die and having to find in each gulp a reason to go on. As Camus develops in The Myth of Sisyphus, we are beings condemned to climb a rock up a hill for all eternity. How to live, how not to commit suicide, knowing that existence is just that? Thanks to that awareness.
For Louis C. K., the best comedy aims to the uncomfortable, to the absurd, to the nothingness. The uncomfortable, on the one hand, often lies on taboos, on those issues we all see there and nobody wants to touch. Almost all of them are linked to sex, religion or politics (the comedy in Mexico avoids at all costs talking about these issues, and perhaps that’s why it’s so bland, no one wants to sink his teeth into anything that makes us really think).
Therefore The Simpsons’ success is no surprise, for example, based on the daily life of American families, their stereotypes, but also on the universal of being a family, a community. And on all cultural, social and religious references which someone can relate to, not only in the U.S. but anywhere in the world. In comedy, we laugh at others but in the end we laugh at ourselves, and the more we stop being the protagonist, the harder we approach the tragedy: we feel regret over what happens to others because we do not want that to happen to us, but we feel relieve (or we might even laugh) seeing what happens to someone else (“It’s funny because it didn’t happen to me,” says Homer). In the same way, Woody Allen never tires of exploring in his films the diluted boundaries between tragedy and comedy (turning them to literal, unforgettable examples like Melinda and Melinda , or mixing them with irony, as in the great Crimes and Misdemeanors , and in its almost remake Matchpoint ).
In addition to their fears, you can know a person by what makes him laugh: awkward situations, the pain of others, poetic justice, double meanings, and dark humor. And that which really makes us laugh, focuses on an act of empathy: between which we see and which we recognize ourselves as a part of.
If we laugh at our stumbles because the vertigo it produces being about to fall, or if we laugh at a stranger that tripped on the street, what is the limit to laugh at ourselves? What is the limit to laugh the other? And when does the pain, ours and of others, becomes a little funny? When does it become distasteful to laugh out loud? At what point does laughter mixed with pain is underpinned on the throat as a way of crying, of nausea, of pleasure?
Louis C. K. recalls a Fred Greenlee’s joke that goes: “Have you ever felt a fray while having a gun in your mouth? Don’t you hate when that happens”? This joke denotes several possibilities. The narrator of the stand-up is the first person, the self, which in this particular story speaks of that moment when he decided to kill himself. If the one who tells the joke is still there, does that mean that after the fray he decided to go on living? Does that uncomfortable feeling when the metal touches his teeth made him feel alive again or it just stopped the action from taking place? Is someone dead talking to us from beyond?
Comedy can shoot you in different directions, like a great image. When someone explains a joke to you, just like a powerful image (graphic, poetic, poignant), the poetic experience does not occur in the same way, the work does not arouse us and we remain the same, while in fact we feel more stupid. When one finally gives up and asks for a joke’s explanation, like a puzzle that we are too eager to understand, to know the end, we lose a blow to the heart that may or may not happen, just like love. We all know that if after certain time it has not been resolved (the joke, the riddle or the infatuation) we can only suffer. There are always two ways: order a helicopter to carry us to the end of the maze, or walk it calmly, knowing that we might never get to the other side.
To C. K. the best jokes are those that you come back to, like places that one revisits in memory or books and movies which story gets us on so many levels, that it is necessary to repeat and repeat. Like a man carrying a rock every day to the top of a mountain, like a story that every time tells us something different about itself and about us, like a new opportunity to make sense of the world every day, only to lose it again in the end.
Therefore, to do comedy (and this may well be apply to any creative act), we must learn to live with discomfort. The discomfort of being in constant pursuit of our element is what allows us to place ourselves in situations where it is possible to learn without losing the sense of being there. We live misplaced and waiting to find that place that every day decomposes once again.
Real laughter comes from a deep thought that manages to get connected with others, being just this unique artistic matter: no explanation or justification involved. It is all about this: about being crushed with a piece without intermediaries. Therein lays the creator on one side and the reader on the other, and the work comes directly, as one who throws a rainbow to the other end. We are the Elf, or at least that is what we aspire to be, be on that other side waiting for the multicolored light to reach us completely in order for us to form the perfect arch.
And one throws messages like bottles into the sea. And it depends on the light, the moisture and the reflection, and who knows if we’ll be able to connect. The reasons for creating are vast. I’ve heard of those who just want to illustrate in order to be famous, a child at a presentation asked us how much do we earn, to see if he chose to do books or not as a grown up; there are those who create as if there were no tomorrow and do not show their work to anyone, or only to a few, or destroy it as soon as it’s finished. Perhaps the least important thing is the result. At its precise time, at that outburst of concentration where time no longer matters, and we know nothing about us, the result is always the least important. That sense of absence is the aspiration of many, which is not only achieved by writing a novel, painting a mural or dancing. It can happen while washing the dishes, chopping vegetables or meditating. This abandonment of the body in order to become nothing has also a Zen side, which calms anxiety, and takes us back to that inhuman whole, perhaps animal, where we are in this nothingness, but we do not care at all. The art comes next, and what the mind needs is to annihilate the self for a moment, ironically, letting it flow without filter. But that unconsciousness should be connected with some talent and expertise with an instrument. Perhaps only then what results is art.
Louis talks about how a good comedian is not only armed with good stories, he must be a great actor, able to go tearing the fabric with a precise rhythm in order to engage the audience, just like a writer or an illustrator; if the first one does not dominate the grammar or the second doesn’t know the basic materials to draw, it will be difficult to communicate their ideas. Acting is to the comedian what drawing is for the technical illustrator. And the tool should be overlooked when the public is faced with the work. As they say, an editor should be invisible in a book.
“The best jokes do not seem jokes; not completely. The punch line of a joke can take it to a climax and make people laugh, but that does not solve the joke, does not stop it, so the joke can go on and on and on and on… to nowhere.”2 The same happens with a good image, a metaphor tends to grow and grow until it becomes an allegory. Hence, there are imaginary worlds and fictional characters that we know better than many real ones (as Chesterton says, “Fairy tales go beyond reality: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us they can be defeated”).
We have survived blank paper, rain at night, first day of classes, missing a penalty, apologizing, running one kilometer, being alone in a foreign country, and even public speaking. And the courage needed to carry out the worst deed imaginable, to overcome that instability, would not exist if it were not for the fear, that cold that moves us into action. And the primal fear is no other than the one we feel towards death. Seeing death in the eye (as in the other one that we feel towards death). Seeing death in the eye (as in Greenlee’s joke), life comes accompanied by a horrible feeling to hit a dental nerve; then, nothingness. And that’s what puts us tirelessly in the present, in the unique and unrepeatable moment, in the absurdity of existence, in the sensation of being alive. And so, the brilliant idea comes like sparks and after much nausea.
Good jokes and large pictures do not stop in themselves, they generate others: first, in the viewer’s mind and then (in the best scenario) when he decides to bring his reading to the outside world: to digest it, transform and create new works. So, a good joke, or good illustrations are triggers, rocks in search of an infinite slope that never stops.