I first came across Thalia sobbing her eyes out in a corner of the stacks at the Library of Congress. She looked like any other neurotic graduate student whose grades were slipping because her lover was grazing greener pastures. Bedraggled, red-nosed, and puffy-faced she obviously needed a sympathetic ear.
“I’m dying,” she moaned. “I can’t go on like this. It’s just too hard.” I nodded sagely but said zilch while scanning for the emergency phone. “They just don’t understand, nobody understands any more. Four thousand years, and suddenly I’m an outcast! It’s just not FAIR!” she wailed.
Wait a minute! 4,000 years? What was this? I sat down next to her on the floor. “Tell me about it,” I soothed. “Just take your time and tell me what you mean.”
“Well, “ she gulped, blowing her nose heartily on the only paper I had on me, the latest list of regulations governing public forms of address to avoid offending minority persons. Ma’am, Sir, Miss, and even Ms. had all been cut this time for being sexist or elitist, or both, leaving only “Citizen,” and “Fellow Human” as preferred forms. “Hey, you” had survived, for despite its lack of civility it was found to be sexless, non-culturally diminishing, and consequently politically correct and publicly acceptable. But I digress.
“I’m called Thalia,” said Thalia again, “Do you know what my name means?”
“Not really,” I replied. “Give me a hint, OK?”
“I’m the muse of comedy,” she said. “That’s what Thalia means.”
“You’re named for the muse of comedy,” I said, practicing for my Active Listening seminar later that evening. “No-no-no,” Thalia said. “You don’t get it. I’m not named for the Muse of Comedy, I am the Muse of Comedy. And I’m finally out of a job. I can’t stand it!”
“My job has always been to help people see what’s funny about life and find ways to express it. And now the Thought Police are trying to convince everybody that half the things people have laughed at since Plautus slipped on a banana peel are no longer funny. But they are funny. Politically incorrect, but funny! That’s why I feel so bad. I’m done here. I’m finished. Maybe Outplacement can get me a job as a news anchor,” Thalia sobbed.
I wanted to stem the waterworks before the valves stuck open, but with the new Personal Invasion statutes just taking effect, I could get fired or go to jail if I even patted Thalia’s shoulder. So I tried distraction. “OK, tell me a joke” I challenged her.
“Comedy isn’t just jokes, or even mainly jokes,” she answered. “To understand why I’m so upset, you have to know where comedy comes from and what makes it work. Tell me, how do people deal with stuff they aren’t familiar with or don’t understand?”
“Make jokes about it?”
“Sometimes they do,” said Thalia, “but what they ALWAYS do is compare what they don’t know to things they’re already familiar with. People try to fit the unknown into their model of the known, their paradigm. It’s a survival trait. You don’t want to try to figure out if a small, round object coming at you is dangerous or not. There’s not time to think. You just assign it to the class of “rocks” and duck. It might turn out to be a water balloon or a snowball, but why take chances? Duck first, analyze later.”
“What’s this got to do with comedy? I’m lost,” I admitted.
“It’s like this. People create the same kind of models for SOCIAL stuff that they do for PHYSICAL stuff. And we always assess what we know less well in terms of what we’re more familiar with. Socially and psychologically, we’re most familiar with the people most like ourselves.”
I nodded encouragingly. I figured I was wrong about the grades. This Thalia was pretty smart, even if she was a whacko, uh, acting in non-reality-based modalities.
“So what we do,” she continued, “is classify people. All the time. Instantly. In lots of ways. The first class division is JUST LIKE US and NOT LIKE US. If they’re not like us, we look for ways to understand them, and grab the most obvious characteristics. They might be racial or cultural or educational or religious — whatever. We create classes like Garlic Eaters, or Hindus, or Technicians and assume that every member of the class has ALL the characteristics of the class.”
“That’s pretty unfair,” I said. “It leaves out too many things about people and it makes their culture just a stereotype. I don’t do that. I’m careful to respect everybody.”
“What did you assume about me when you first saw me?” asked Thalia.
“I thought you were a lovelorn grad student,” I confessed.
“See,” she said, “you put me into a class you think of as Lovelorn Graduate Students. You weren’t meaning to be unkind, and really, you’ve been nice as can be. You just did what people ALWAYS do until they know someone pretty well.”
“Once we know someone as a person,” she went on, “we stop thinking of them so much as class members. Until then, we go by what we think are their class attributes. And here’s why we laugh at folks who are different than ourselves: when threatened by the unknown, we protect our sense of US by laughing at the NOT LIKE US.”
“I’m extremely careful to respect the rights of every group,” I rejoined. “Why do you assume all people are bigots and prejudiced against outsiders?”
“Because the sense of territory and tribe are built-in. They seem to be genetically hard-wired,” said Thalia. “That’s not a popular point of view, but more and more evidence suggests it’s correct. Did you know that chimps have over 98% of their DNA in common with us, and they’re the only animals that will seek out and kill members of other bands?”
Thalia was on a roll. “Besides laughing at differences, or people’s social customs, people like to laugh at comic personalities. In Shakespeare’s day this was called Comedy of Humors. It’s based in the idea that one major trait dominates each person’s personality. Take somebody and exaggerate some aspect of personality, and that’s funny. So we get Edith Bunker (the Dingbat) or George of the Jungle (the Schlemiel) or even Mr. Magoo (befuddled old man). It’s amazing how psychological research into personality styles matches up with the old Four Humors popular in the Renaissance.”
Thalia had finally gone too far! “You’ve done it again,” I accused her. “You’ve taken people’s individuality away from them and reduced them to psychological types. And you think it’s funny!”
Thalia shook her head sadly. “That’s the whole point! Comedy doesn’t aim at people as whole individuals... it aims at their traits and blows them out of proportion. It’s the distortion that’s funny! So we can laugh at Mr. Magoo or the Ellie Mae Clampett (the Ingenue) where we wouldn’t laugh at old Mr. Stimmer in the next apartment or your niece Sally. Comedy ALWAYS deals with types more than with individuals.”
“Are you saying it’s a good idea to put people down and slam them for their class characteristics or their individual, ah, differences?”
“No!” she thundered. “Comedy of Humors and Comedy of Manners are based in social paradigms, or stereotypes, and don’t have much to do with individuality. You can’t stop people from stereotyping. It’s fundamental to the way we process information. Individuals are ALWAYS bigger and more complex than the classes they belong to. If you stop at the stereotype, you’re going to be a bigot. But you don’t stop there. You have to consider individuals one at a time, person to person. That’s how to really be fair to everyone. Of course some people have fallen into this trap and PREFER to see themselves as group members rather than as individuals…but good grief! Enough’s enough.”
“Comedy comes from a place that’s immune to political correctness; it’s linked to our basic drives like sex and aggression and tribal identity. Some humor can be intellectual and witty, but pratfalls make ‘em laugh every time. Stuff that’s coming out of our darker levels can’t be legislated out of existence, can’t be permanently shut away like crazy Aunt Jane in the attic. Sooner or later it erupts. And it’s far better for all of us if comedy is around to defuse these drives. It’s far better to laugh at M.A.S.H than to send real soldiers into Iraq, or shoot people coming out of clinics, or blow up peoples’ churches.”
I shook my head. This was getting confusing, and it didn’t seem very funny.
“Look,” said Thalia, “what is definitely NOT funny is to apply negative class terms to individuals. It isn’t funny to call someone a retard, or a bitch, or whatever, especially if your intention in doing it is to hurt the individual. That’s not in Comedy’s job description. But the Thought Police have made everybody afraid of honest laughter. That’s why I’m out of work! Maybe I can try for work with the IRS. They have more need for Comedy there than at the Post Office, even. ”
Thalia got to her feet. And as she wearily shuffled away into the stacks, I looked at the books shelved around us. And it seemed to me that as she left, the bright gilt lettering on their spines faded to murky brown as the spirit of Comedy was drained from them. Volumes of Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Johnson, Swift, Fielding, Smollett, Pyncheon, Vonnegut, Shaw, rank on rank, an army of unutterable guffaws.....
As I left the library the overcast streets of Washington looked grayer and more drab than ever. I shrugged, and headed off to my job in the Bureau of Social Sanitation. It was time to go back to work making the world a better place to live.