The Charlie Hebdo comics raise a lot of questions. Is it acceptable to deliberately offend people? Does free expression trump hurt feelings? Should there be an exemption for faith, a place where speech should be limited?
But there’s an even more immediate question: are the comics funny?
Not being French, I’ll never understand the French sense of humor. It tends to be deep, biting, satirical, and … well, not exactly laugh-out-loud. Good satire is often not really funny as much as painful, after all. Then again, bullets are even more painful.
Was that last comment satirical or just in bad taste?
There is a famous routine in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” where Alan Alda’s character goes on and on how comedy is tragedy plus time. He elaborates that Lincoln’s assassination wasn’t funny at the time, but now we can laugh about it. What’s funny about the shtick is that it is painfully not funny as an analysis of what funny is in the first place. That makes it funny. It’s also in a Woody Allen movie, which isn’t really funny, so the not-funny jokes work at many levels.
This is as close as I get to understanding French humor.
There hasn’t been much time since the tragedy, so gags about it probably don’t work yet. South Park famously declared in “Jared has Aides” that it takes exactly 22.3 years for a tragedy to become funny, a point that AIDS activists disagreed with. Where the deep Gallic sense of satire has an advantage is that it probably is just about as funny right after a tragedy as it is after time (which is to say, not funny).
Which takes us to the issue at hands – images of Mohammad used for comedy. Outside of their shock value, the cartoons in question were not really all that funny on their own. It’s a lot like its rough American equivalent, South Park, in that the response is where the joke lies. You effectively write the punchline by imagining how upset someone else gets about it.
I watch South Park, I have to admit. When it hits, it his hard. When it doesn’t hit it’s really stupid and unwatchable. The parts that are offensive just for the purpose of offending? Sorry, I can’t go there. It seems really juvenile and pointless to me.
Ultimately, I can’t say that Charlie Hebdo comics work for me, either. It’s not a French thang, really, because in a perfectly American context I also don’t get that kind of humor.
Do I think it has a right to exist? Yes. And I have a right to not laugh at it and say, “This is really stupid.” They have a right to laugh at me for not getting it, too. And I have a right to … oh, nevermind. Humor is in the belly of the beholder, like the bullets are. Or is it still too soon? The way I’m rambling on I thought some time had passed.
Perhaps one day we’ll all be able to look back on this and laugh at how anyone ever found these comics offensive in the first place. That may be the ultimate joke, the one that really is tragedy plus time. Somehow, I doubt it. It’s hard to make jokes about World War II still, which is why “Hogan’s Heroes” seems even stranger with the passage of time. Whose idea was that show, anyway?
As the world comes closer together, we can probably guess that everyone will continue to become more sensitive about things until one day when we suddenly all stop caring about it and get over ourselves. The more we draw lines where people can’t go the more room there is for “satirists” to do things that aren’t funny in the name of being funny just because it all plays out that way.
I’d rather live in a world that doesn’t need satire, thank you. Until then, let the jokesters continue to fire their ammo.
(still too soon for bullet jokes?)