CNN Senior Executive Producer
Tonight, Barack Obama will appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Will President Obama be funny? "As funny as the times allow," said a White House official. How funny do these times allow one to be? We asked a similar question after 9/11. When can we laugh again? Following are some answers from Aristotle to Ackerman.
You can't get funnier, given the times, than New York Congressman Gary Ackerman. Read what he said yesterday at the congressional hearings on the insurance giant AIG. He's hilarious about the investment device that helped bring AIG and so much of the world economy to its knees - the credit default swap, based on collateral from subprime mortgages, which was pitched as a form of insurance.
"There's a great company called I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. . At least they have the decency to tell you it's not butter."
Ackerman continues: "I mean, this is insurance without being insurance, because if they called it insurance, they'd have to have money to pay you off. But they don't have the money to pay you off. And they're calling it credit default swaps, because if they called it I Can't Believe It's Not Insurance...)... maybe nobody would buy it."
The laughter had just died down when Ackerman brought us back down to earth. "It's a funny joke I made up," said Congressman Ackerman. But "it's not funny, because all of us who are laughing are crying."
LAUGHING & CRYING
Aah – but that's exactly what makes Ackerman's joke so funny, according to Professor Lou Ruprecht, an expert on both laughing and crying. He teaches a popular class in ancient Greek tragedy and comedy at Georgia State University.
"First and foremost, we get it wrong when we separate tragedy and comedy," says Professor Ruprecht. "They're joined at the hip. You laugh about the same stuff you cry about." What stuff is that? "The things over which we have no control," answers Professor Ruprecht. Aristotle was clear about this. "Both tragedy and comedy play on reversals of fortune," says the professor. And our society is going through a huge reversal of fortune.
Comedy and tragedy have traveled together for more than 2,400 years. Professor Ruprecht describes how ancient Greece responded to the 30 year war, which began in 432 B.C. The people of Athens suffered horribly. And yet, Professor Ruprecht points out, for every one of those 30 years, despite the suffering, Athens held an annual comedy festival. “One character in the show would call out the names of prominent people in the audience and he would make fun of their leadership. This was a horribly destructive war that Athens ultimately lost." The comedy survived until the very end. The world’s first democrats felt keeping humor alive was a civic duty.
Some feel that keeping humor alive is a Biblical duty too.
I remember being surprised more than a decade ago by how much the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel made me laugh during his lectures at New York's 92nd Street Y. Speaking about the importance of humility in the stories of the Bible, he opens with a joke. I paraphrase. Two old religious men are discussing the value of humility. One says: "I'm the most humble person I know." The other says: "How can you compare your humility to mine."
As for the Biblical imperative to keep humor alive, Wiesel addresses this through the horror of how Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac. He calls Isaac "the first survivor." And yet, says Wiesel, think about the significance of naming the first survivor Isaac, Hebrew for "the laughing one." The comic commandment.
THE BANANA PEEL
I grew up with a man whose life was dominated by the comic commandment. My father is a retired stand-up comedian named Bobby Shields. The tragedy of Parkinson's disease makes it impossible for him to shed fresh light on this story. But I remember, years ago, dabbling in stand-up myself, getting feedback from one of my father's comedian buddies. He told me my humor was too gentle. "Someone's gotta slip on the banana peel," he said.
As for President Obama on Leno, Professor Ruprecht advises: "It's important that he express a certain populist moral outrage. But that's not funny. For comedy to do its work well – it's gotta be mean," he says. "Comedy is meaner than tragedy. Comedy gives us a glimpse of all these things we're enslaved to – to all the things that are out of our control. The bigger the pain the bigger the punchline."
These times will provide many punchlines. Right now, I can't think of any.
Reporter's Note: Go here to find Professor Ruprecht's blog and find his new book here. My thanks to Professor Ruprecht's former student and current CNN Researcher Emma Lacey-Bordeaux for her insights.