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Sunday Night Journal—July 16, 2006

The Laughter of Contempt

I’m writing this on Monday night, having thought better of publishing what I wrote last night, a somewhat dark meditation on the subject of accidents and the problem of evil. Maybe some other time.

Instead, I’ll say something brief on a question I’ve been thinking about for a while: the meanness of much contemporary humor. To start with, I had to satisfy myself that it isn’t just my own quirk that detects this excess of meanness, and I’ve run across several instances lately of people pondering the same or a similar question. There was, for instance, this post by Anthony Esolen on Mere Comments, which makes an excellent case for the connection between humor that does not despise its object—“the laughter of fellow-feeling,” he calls it, in a nice phrase—and Christian culture.

Humor at another’s expense always involves a certain amount of malice, I suppose, but there are degrees, and there is the question of the fundamental attitude of the mocker toward the mocked. It seems to me, for instance, that there is a significant difference between the humor of, say, the Marx Brothers, which I love, and that of a contemporary effort such as the cartoon Family Guy, which is indeed sometimes funny but spoiled by a coldness, a sense that at bottom the writers of Family Guy genuinely despise the middle-class American families they caricature, and not for any particular harm they do or malice they bear, but simply because they aren’t cool. They aren’t the right sort of people; they are the sort of people who inspire disgust in hip show-business people.

In contrast, when Groucho Marx makes fun of the vain rich lady played so well by Margaret Dumont, it isn’t an attack on a set of social markers. It’s predominantly a mockery of her vanity, her fatuousness, her pretensions, and the gullibility into which these other faults lead her, faults which are encouraged by her social station but hardly unique to it. And perhaps it’s only their skill at work, but we always sense that the various parasites and hucksters played by Groucho and the others are exaggerations of their own foibles. The target of the mockery is the array of absurdities into which greed, pride, and miscellaneous other sins lead people, especially those who are eager to follow.

Moreover, there’s the spirit of sheer anarchic delight, the spirit of play, that bursts out of the Marx Brothers in, for instance, the passport scene in Monkey Business. I can’t think of any comedy of recent years that has anything of that spirit—the ironic smirk has long since replaced both Harpo’s grin and Groucho’s over-the-top leer.

There’s not a clear line here. Some of the best satire is the most savage (Swift, Waugh). But I think there is a useful distinction to be made between mocking the proud, the unscrupulous, or the foolish, and sneering at someone because you think he’s beneath you. A witty snob is still a snob. The laughter of contempt is dry and hollow.

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