Butchering the Sacred Cow: Why We Need To Laugh at Everything
I’ve often raised eyebrows among friends and strangers alike for my admittedly dark sense of humor. For me, nothing – and I really do mean that I can’t think of a single thing – is off limits. Not racism, not poverty, not cancer, not Alzheimer’s, not Nazis or Communists or Democrats or Republicans or religion – including my own Catholic faith.
I know that just the mention of these topics in anything but the most earnest, delicate voice leaves many aghast, and I definitely understand why there is a reflexive, negative reaction to what some call black humor and others simply call insensitive, politically incorrect humor.
But to me, black humor is deeply misunderstood.
I believe the hostility stimulated by farcical, often morbid jokes that make light of what are unquestionably very serious, painful subjects has to do with the misconception that the person making those jokes is somehow mocking the pain of a given people or situation. The imagined result is the further infliction of grief on an already damaged being – a child, a slave, a man born grossly disfigured perhaps.
But in true black humor, the only mockery is of the absurd, the tyrannical, the sanctimonious. It’s meant to slay the boogieman and allow nothing – not a hateful word or heartache – to hold power over an individual.
I was reminded of this when a friend of mine sent me a link from the New York Times that chronicled a new Czech reality TV series called “Holiday in the Protectorate.” In it, three generations of a real-life contemporary Czech family are sent “back in time” for a reality show reenactment of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. The show’s “contestants” are made to live in a remote area of the Czech Republic that was the first part of the country to be invaded and annexed by the Nazis at the onset of World War II.
There, according to the NYT feature, “They must not only survive the rigors of rustic life with outdated appliances and outdoor plumbing [circa late 1930s Czechoslovakia], but navigate the moral and physical dangers of life under Nazi rule.” Some of these dangers include air raids, having their doors kicked down and property searched by the Gestapo (played by actors), being betrayed by snitches, having to scavenge and traverse the black market in order to have enough food to simply keep from starving.
If they perform well, in everyday tasks such as cooking over a chalet stove and milking cows, as well as in life and death challenges such as managing not to get shot, they stand to win about forty grand.
Naturally, I was all over this. I immediately posted the link to the article on Facebook, writing, “Move over, Kardashians, this is my kind of reality show.” To me, this much-maligned genre was finally taking on something of real, historical significance; a welcome antidote to the mere peeling back of the curtain on the lives of the shallow and pampered. I thanked my friend by name and within minutes received a note from her in the comment box saying, “I’m not endorsing it, Vic!”
In fact, not a single one of my 887 Facebook friends liked or commented on the article, except for my mother – a mischling who was actually born under the Nazi occupation, and whose parents concealed their own racial secret while hiding and smuggling Jewish friends.
But to everyone but my mom, the article was like Kryptonite.
And I can understand why. The show itself, while getting a lot of attention, has been denounced by critics around the globe as trivializing a “brutal and dehumanizing period.” Much offense has centered around the title of the show, as Nazi rule was “no holiday.”
The Czech director of the series, herself a very earnest woman in her thirties, by the looks of her, says she is surprised at not only the volume of attention her show has received, but the often sight-unseen condemnation. Couldn’t people understand, she told the reporter, that the title was meant ironically? That the episodes, in and of themselves, were meant to educate modern viewers about a time in history, make it real for them in a way that also happens to entertain and keep their attention?
And this is the crux of black humor, is it not? The fact that through irony, juxtaposition, comedy and yes, even amusement, we are able to look into, past, under, over and through the most agonizing, unimaginable events both in our lives and in the world at large.
Look, I know that my innate sense of the dark and the funny coming together like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup isn’t for everyone. Much of it comes from my Czech culture, so it’s no shock my people would come up with something like this: a Nazi-themed reality show that’s darkly humorous in concept if not context and execution.
Of course, my husband shares my sensibility and he’s Irish, so this is not a trait specific to the Slav. But the Irish are no strangers to making light of an inherently awkward, gut-wrenching or just plain ole bad luck set of circumstances either. (Anybody out there ever read Jonathan Swift’s pitch-black masterpiece “A Modest Proposal”?)
And we’re not the can dish it out, but can’t take it type, either.
A few minutes after our infant daughter received her cancer diagnosis eight years ago – and on my birthday, no less – my husband and I were faced with even more bad news. In addition to the potentially deadly chemo, our daughter would require more surgery to assess her damaged liver. Basically, we were told, if the liver biopsy came back bad, she was dead. Somehow, without missing a beat, I turned to the doctor and said, “So let me get this straight. If the liver’s ok, we get to try our luck in a gulag; but if it’s not, a rusty iron ingot will be driven through our eyeballs?” My husband doubled over. What started as a snicker for me became an all-out crack-up. I was shaking, my eyes were tearing – I couldn’t even look at my husband without dissolving into yet another fit of laughter.
Even our daughter’s surgeon wasn’t immune to the contagion. He held it together – barely – and said, “Well, that’s one way of putting it.” The good doctor was no stranger to gallows humor. He’d already heard worse – from us, no less – and deeply understood how badly we needed a laugh. We’d been dealing with our daughter’s health problems since right about my second ultrasound in my fourth month of pregnancy and her birth had taken us to a new level of stress. And now, he was telling us, the stakes had just been raised once again. A knock-knock joke just wasn’t going to cut it. The situation demanded a heinous and ballsy comparison to the pits of despair. It required unbridled insanity and a complete re-framing of our circumstances. Something that would carry us into the next day, or just the next hour. To help us even understand, for the love of God, what we were experiencing.
Because black humor, like prayer, takes some of the weight off. It can make us smarter about the real goings on – spiritual, political, metaphysical. It leads us into asking unorthodox questions and drawing unexpected conclusions.
Laughter, we forget, is also a teacher.
I always think of reading about when Robin Williams busted into Christopher Reeve’s hospital room shortly after the Superman actor’s devastating spinal cord injury. Disguised as a doctor and wearing an earloop surgical mask, he began describing in cringe-inducing detail how he was about to perform an extensive and invasive rectal exam on his paralyzed friend.
Christopher Reeve credited that laugh with helping him want to live, and with giving him insight into his own reserves. That bit of tasteless humor showed him that joy was still possible – even if he would never hold his wife or children again, or feel the warmth of their skin and their hearts beating against his chest. He would not walk, run, make love, caress, tickle, or be tickled. But damn it, he would laugh. Laugh so hard that he couldn’t catch his breath. Laugh until it was dangerous and his doctors had to intervene. And after he was done laughing, he would teach us all a little bit about what true resilience means.
Oh, and here’s a link to the original NYT article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/06/world/europe/czech-reality-tv-show-makes-a-game-of-life-under-nazi-rule.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0