What’s so funny about …?
Oh, let’s say, a Muslim guy walking through the airport, or the bride of Frankenstein … or saliva. It’s all there — and more! — at an exhibit called “What Makes Us Smile?” at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum, which I saw with my daughter a few days ago. Even though the world is still caught in the jaws of hell, I decided to write about this raw celebration of humor because the tears of amazement and joy that flowed as I walked through it felt like my definition of peace.
God, terrorism and flatulence all get more or less the same treatment at this deceptively named exhibit. What makes us smile? Come on. The show, co-curated by Rebecca Hoffberger, Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”) and Gary Panter (“Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”), might more accurately have been called, as per a Garrison Keillor quote on the exhibit wall, “What Makes Us Laugh So Hard We Start Snorting Food Out Our Nose?”
And the answer is irreverence — at least that’s the quick answer, and there’s plenty of it on display in the multi-media exhibit: irreverence of all sorts, beginning with an assault on the dignity and seriousness of art museums. One room, for instance, is devoted to the artistic history of flatulence and other gross bodily functions, and if you want to sit down to admire the works on display (e.g., a miniature of Rodin’s “The Thinker” in serious contemplation on the toilet), you must do so on a bench full of Whoopee Cushions.
But there’s more going on here than zany idiocy. I began to sense a serious inquiry into the human condition taking place amid the shocks and raspberries. Is the preservation of our dignity and pretenses worth the cost of isolation? As we laugh, we flow into community.
“Laughter,” said Victor Borge, “is the shortest distance between two people.”
And then there was the exhibit’s fascinating account of a gorilla who bridged the inter-species gap by being smart: “From laughing to tickling to cracking wise, we are not alone. Koko, a signing gorilla, was once asked to identify the color of a white towel held up by her teacher. Three times she incorrectly signed in answer ‘red.’ Then Koko grinned, plucked off a piece of red lint from the towel and held it up in triumph!”
Laughter is nothing less than spiritual gold. Babies and toddlers laugh with love, undivided from themselves, innocent of pretense. As they commune with the universe, their laughter flows in natural harmony with life. But as we grow up, as we cross the bridge of innocence, our focus narrows. We become fortified, locked more and more tightly into the prevailing beliefs and certainties of our culture. We no longer have such natural access to our spiritual gold.
For most adults, laughter occurs only with the temporary shattering of dignity and certainty. It requires — at least if there aren’t any babies around to reconnect us with ourselves — jokes, Whoopee Cushions, irreverence toward something. Sometimes laughter is bitter, squeezed out of pain and hopelessness. Sometimes it’s vicious, gleaned from cruelty. Nothing about such laughter is healing.
But clearly the laughter summoned by the exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum was meant to be healing — which doesn’t mean the humor lacked an edge, or wasn’t, sometimes, outrageous.
The late John Callahan, one of the prominently featured artists at the exhibit, was outrageous in every direction — pushing at religion, pushing at psychology, pushing at niceness. He scribbled childish cartoons. Christ on the cross, for instance, saying: “TGIF.” The sign on the door of a psychiatric ward: “Do Not Disturb Any Further.” Two heads on wagons, panhandling. One of the heads has a patch over one eye. The other head, with both eyes intact, says: “People like you are a real inspiration to me.”
Callahan was himself a quadriplegic, following a car accident when he was 21. He had lots of “handicapped” cartoons. Two cowboys in wheelchairs. One says to the other: “This town’s not accessible enough for both of us.” This isn’t exclusion humor; it’s the opposite. It doesn’t isolate a “them” but makes them an “us.” It co-opts shallow pity for the disabled, vocalizes a repressed public aversion, yanks our secret fears and embarrassments into the open — where they suddenly become funny.
Such humor ignited the exhibit, jumping out at the viewer again and again. The tape of a show called “Allah Made Me Funny” looped continually in one hallway. Azhar Usman — dark-complected, long hair, full beard — riffs about walking through the airport, feeling heads turn. People stare in horror. It’s one of them. He walks past a security guard, who whispers into his radio: “Ten-four! Mohammed at four o’clock!”
This is the world we live in — the secret world, full of shame and fear that churns deep in our reptilian brains. Shhh. Don’t talk about it. Just look down at your feet.
Afraid of death? George Carlin warns us sternly: “Death is caused by swallowing small amounts of saliva over a long period of time.”
And suddenly we can’t help ourselves. We burst into laughter — and realize that everyone else is laughing, too.