How Humor Can Help Us Face Difficult Times:
Life Lessons Learned from the Craft of Comedy and Satire

Philip Shackleton

At the age of thirty-two I started to lose weight quickly. I have never been overweight, so this became a serious issue. In less than a year I’d dropped to under a hundred and thirty-five pounds. I am over six foot three and my sister had to call search and rescue when I walked behind a pole. I took to carrying rocks in my backpack because I was living in Oregon and did not want to blow away in the famous Willamette Valley wind.

The first thing I’d like to say about these jokes is they are damn funny.  Others have tired of me telling them, but I haven’t. Some get offended because they think I am making light of a serious issue. My health issues were real, though, as I have what is called celiac disease. It was complicated by a mental health treatment which involved powerful medication I never should have been taking, as well as another issue which would last long past this period and was unknown to me at the time. If people prove too annoying, I make them deal with The Sister. She is also real. Anyone can ask our Mother.

As I write this in the library of the Gary Moore Library on the campus of Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpellier, my phone messages me with the news that Disneyland has closed, both the men and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments have been canceled, and several pro-sports leagues have suspended their seasons because of the worldwide virus that WHO has declared a pandemic. I’m pretty sure they cancelled the men’s NCAA tournament—known nationally as March Madness—because the University of Vermont was on course to qualify. Outside of hockey and maple syrup, Vermont having a national presence on a stage this big must have been well … maddening.

I of course can’t help but think about our current president, who is well known to be a germaphobe. I believe a good course of action would be to hack into those social media accounts he loves so much and post pictures of germs—really disgusting, bigly germs—with the caption “We’re coming to get ya!”  He is completely over the map in his response to this crisis. (At times he can’t even find the map). Times like this require us to neither understate or exaggerate the threat we are facing, because we need to be able to make decisions based on the most accurate information available. Panic nor bravado are never our friends.

Many of my favorite comedians and comic writers have commented on the troubles of the world, the nation, and their personal troubles. We shall now talk about why I think comedy is beneficial for both the reader and the writer. 

But first we shall touch on why the light comedians of the golden age were never built to last, despite the fact that Bob Hope and a couple of others refused to die.  In the annals of drug addiction, which your author was once a proud practitioner but has not been involved in for almost two decades, it is well known Hope was the worst drug of all. Don’t ever smoke Hope.

Lenny Bruce was the first to break with the golden age of the frivolous giants. Bruce was a Jewish comedian from New York City who rose to fame in the late 1950s and died of a heroin overdose in 1966 while waiting trial for an obscenity charge. He is widely credited as a groundbreaking comedian who paved the way for acts like Richard Pryor and George Carlin in the 1970s. Popular comedy before Bruce and had been gentle and afraid to take on more serious subjects. Bruce clearly changed our culture, for both male and female comedians. 

 On the nature of his humor he once said, “All my humor is based upon destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I’d be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover.” 

This suggests to me that for him the act of humor was a defense against the darkness he found in the world and that which he carried along with him.  Bruce would not be alone among comedians here, and this might explain why so many (outside of those frivolous giants who refused to take the mortal plunge) die early and painful deaths. Their defenses break down and the humor they depended upon to keep the darkness at bay is no longer effective.

For many, however, humoras any art form can be—is an effective coping mechanism. Bruce explains why this may be for some when says, “The only honest art form is laughter, comedy. You can’t fake it … try to fake three laughs in an hourha ha ha hathey’ll take you away, man. You can’t.” 

I am reminded of the current situation when my nephew texts me expressing his relief that dogs cannot contract the Coronavirus. At times like these my humor gets immature.  “Yeah, those chronic bum sniffers would have a difficult time with social distancing” is my response as I watch a lady walking a couple of the beasts outside my dorm room.

 

Comedy I believe has more in common with Jazz than most forms of literature. I have heard over the years that Lenny, as many stand-up comedians do, sketched out a map of the subject matter he wanted to address in each show. He had an order in which he was going to cover the material, but he always left himself room for digressions as they came up, or improvisation on the material. He wanted to leave room to surprise himself. If you look at Jazz lead sheets, they are written much the same the way. The performer is given the chord progressions, often the melody and maybe a few other directions, but there is always plenty of room for them to bring themselves to the performance. 

The associative nature of both Jazz and comedy also allows the artist to gain an understanding of the value of what they might have believed to be unrelated concepts through the art of improvisation, and broadens our perspective in valuable ways. For the Jazz musician it might be a chord progression they otherwise would not have thought of, which can be similar to the juxtaposition of opposites for the sake of humor by the comedy writer. Planning too much can kill the art form.  

For the writer of both comedy and satire the same concept is true. If you plan too much, you kill the humor. The basic concept of why this is true is simple. Has anyone ever told you a joke where you knew the punchline was coming and still found it funny? Maybe, but those are rare. If laughter is elicited in this case it’s the polite form, which is faked in hopes the teller of the joke will not take offense.  An experienced jokester can tell the difference. This is not the laughter which Bruce referred to that could not be faked. I believe there is something close to a Universal Truth in comedy writing: The writer of comedy has to leave room in their process to surprise themselves. If we can genuinely surprise ourselves, then we can surprise our readers as well. So, throw out those detailed plot outlines, and do what Ken Kesey would have advised and “junk our way through.”
I’ll be the first to admit that this process often leads to messy drafts, and the parts that surprise you will often come out at the wrong time and you will have to move them to another part of your story. But when you finally get the order right it is worth it.  

I remember a couple of years ago I was writing a draft of a satire based on a rather odd piece of Alaskan history, set during the period where the federal government tested nuclear weapons in the state. This was mostly prior to 1950, before Alaska gained statehood. My POV character was a teenaged girl who was a well-practiced smart ass. Most self-respecting characters in fiction will take being called a smart ass as compliment, as sincere acknowledgement of how truly smart you find them. Otherwise us writers would use the term “a simple ass.” 

Often the great comedic characters will take on life of their own. When you start to have amusing discussions with your character off the page and literally out loud, sometimes in public, you’ll have reached the stage of comedic genius or complete lunacy—depending entirely on the perspective of your audience.

I remember drafting this story in Oregon. I was born in Anchorage but have not lived in the state for many years, and I flashed on a documentary I once saw about the cold war where children were told to climb under their desks during a nuclear safety drill. I of course put the scene in my story, and included Angela’s, the smart-ass lead in my drama, commentary on how truly pointless such a drill would be:

Interrupting Miss Murray’s lecture was a loud bell. Neither the fire alarm nor the school bell. 

“Okay, kids. We’ve talked about this drill. We know what to do?”

The whole class crawled under their desks, curled up in tight balls, and grabbed hold of their ankles. Angela thought of kindergarten and naptime. While growing up in the time of nuclear threats, it seemed to Angela the leaders of her exceptional country treated all citizens as if they had the emotional capacity of an elementary student whose mother had showered them with praise the after the first time, they’d gone to the potty for themselves. This did not seem to change no matter how old she got.

Some kids were seen whispering to themselves. 

Miss Murray got under her desk. After a few moments a second bell, similar to the first sounded, and everyone got out from under their desks. They awaited Miss Murray to retake her position.

“Does anybody know what that bell was for?”

Billy’s hand shot up while Erica leaned over and whispered to Angela, “This should be fun.”

Angela smiled.

“It’s for nuclear defense. To protect us from a nuclear attack.” Billy used the same tone and manner he’d use to give a book report.

Angela and Erica started to laugh, a little too loud. The whole class turned to look. Eyebrows were raised.

A flush in his face, Billy was upset and gathered a most serious tone, “Why are you nincompoops laughing? Do you think nuclear war is funny?”

“Yep, hilarious,” Angela said.

“But we’d die.”

“Want to know the most hilarious thing, Billy Bob?”

“What?’

“In a nuclear attack we’re all going to die, and that stupid drill won’t do anything to stop us. The reason for the drill is that our parents and other adults want us to die curled up in neat little balls.  It makes them feel swell. But I will die however I please. I do love the world swell. I could say it all day long …”

This scene goes on for a bit and we learn that Angela has a long history of making fun of her more sensitive classmates, and irrational classmates. When they were in elementary school, she attempted to convince Billy Santa Clause was a Soviet spy.  

I eventually moved this scene to the beginning because I believe that in comedy, as in many forms of fiction, it works well when you throw the reader into something chaotic, but surprising (you get their attention) and hope they stay with you long enough to see how you sort out the tangled mess you are creating. However, one needs to try and stay away from creating stories that read like a cat chasing its own tail so it can chew the bugger off. Half-eaten cat tails don’t read well. But don’t despair dear reader, you’ll learn to recognize this when it happens. 

In literature, comedy seems more associated with satire.  Satire, because of its ability to take on more serious subject matter, tends to work better because it lasts.  A counterexample would be PG Wodehouse. Many of his jokes are so stale they make no sense outside of the historical period in which they were originally told. He was not taking on deep enough subjects. (I am specifically thinking of one classic bit of stale humor, where Wodehouse makes great light of a young lad who loses his fiancée because he carried a suitcase for the wrong girl. Outside of the very restrictive social setting of pre-WW1 England that story is boring.)  This is why the comedy writer must accept what may be one of the only rules about fiction writing, “You cannot please everyone.” And dive into deeper material. If you are too afraid to offend, you will probably fail.

All comedy is circular and begins also where it ends. I don’t really know about that, I just thought it sounded cool (which is also why I love comedy because you can get away with writing things that you’re not sure make any sense, if they sound cool enough. I think many of the Jazz greats would have liked this idea).  We are going to return to the beginning of this essay to conclude with more about comedy for troubled times. Or is it comedy over troubled waters?

But first one last digression and it’s not exactly about comedy but does bring something to light. I saw a choir version of the great Nirvana song, “Smells like Teen Spirit” on YouTube the other night. I have now seen and heard many arrangements of what I consider one of the greatest songs ever written. But one question remains, and I have had this since the original debuted and I was a teenager: What does Teen Spirit Smell like? I know my mother, as any mother who has raised teenagers, would have a rather horrifying answer. I do not believe that answers the question. Great art—and comedy certainly fits into this mold—does not have to answer every question it asks, if it provides long lasting fascination.

 

Now back to our subject. This Coronavirus has put me in a bit more of a fix than most people. At the beginning this essay I alluded to the health issues I’d faced, and mentioned one had lasted beyond the time period I spoke of. It is still with me, and I was due to have surgery to correct it in Boston when this pandemic struck. The actual issue is something called achalasia, which is extremely rare and can be hard to treat. How the condition affects me is I essentially have a nonworking esophagus. This causes the act of swallowing even water to be quite painful.  It has gotten to the point that talking has become painful, and I now communicate in mumbles and half gurgles because the swelling esophagus is affecting my vocal chords. We have to be very careful as food can get stuck in the esophagus and bring on an infection, which can trigger a type of pneumonia called regurative pneumonia. I obviously want nothing to do with this new virus. Ironically the surgery I need—to avoid such extreme measures as doctors having to take out the esophagus (I don’t want to think about that possibility)—is called P.O.E.M.  

I was scheduled to have the procedure done in Boston (there are only six hospitals in the United States which perform this surgery), but the situation in that city has made it impossible to safely travel to for such purposes. I left Vermont for my mother’s home in Oregon a couple of weeks ago. I’ve taken my place in line to see the doctors at The Mayo Clinic, and prefer and believe it is safer to wait this pandemic out in a familiar and comfortable setting. She has a couple of those dogs who don’t understand the social distancing thing, and that is just fine with me.  If nothing else goes wrong, I will see the doctors at Mayo in eight weeks and will be just fine. 

Until then I will indulge on organic Oregon ice cream (Mocha Chocolate Chip from the Lochmead Dairy in Junction City comes highly recommended by anyone who has had it and is quite easy to eat in my condition) and continue to make fun of the Universe until it stops this nonsense.

On my flight home I was able to add to my list of surreal experiences, a cross country flight (from Boston to Portland on a Saturday morning) on a 737 jet operated by Alaska Airlines and populated by twelve passengers.  In a rather lengthy conversation with the stewardess who I practically had to myself, I mentioned where I was coming from and why I was headed to Oregon, and that the whole situation would require me to fall back on my skills as a classically trained vagrant, which I gained from years of playing music and not making much money at it (but many friends).  I of course was improvising and had never really never thought of what a classically trained vagrant was before, but have now assigned myself the task of exploring. I will have the time.

I try to limit my intake of news. But it is hard to get away from the fact that what would have been a serious situation under any administration has become absurd by this administration’s inability to tell the truth and accept any responsibility. It is clear that the “Stable Genius” did not cause the pandemic, but his minimization of the threat early on and constant need to undermine and attack those who he believes might undermine him somehow have put us in a much worse situation as a country.  I am reminded of what I mentioned to a classmate toward the end of last semester, “A true stable genius would not have to convince us of their worth. Their actions would speak plainly. What we have is an erratic imbecile masquerading as something more.” 

Philip Shackleton is first year Writing and Publishing MFA candidate at VCFA. He was born in Alaska, and has lived in the Pacific Northwest since receiving  his undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon in political science and English. Before coming to VFCA he worked a various jobs in mass media. He considers fiction is focus but will write creative nonfiction and poetry. Most often with a humorist angle. He has published in smaller regional journals as well as various journalistic organizations. Other than writing he is also and avid musician and hopes to create thesis which combines literature and music.