Joan Rivers and the Invaluable Purpose of ‘the Joke’

Jack Kerwick

7/15/2014 12:01:00 AM - Jack Kerwick

Joan Rivers made news recently when she walked off of a CNN set during an interview with Fredericka Whitfield.

When Whitfield suggested that Rivers could be “mean,” the latter informed the former that under no circumstances should she be interviewing someone, like Rivers, for whom comedy is a calling.

Whatever else may be said of Joan Rivers—I, for one, have never had much to say about her at all—this much seems certain: The woman knows that of which she speaks when it comes to her craft.

That is to say, she is acutely aware of the purpose, the invaluable purpose, served by humor. Far from being “mean,” the value of the joke lay precisely in its ability to neutralize life’s sting, to siphon off some of the tragedy of the circumstances into which Earthly existence seems hell-bent upon thrusting us.

Maybe, just maybe, this is the point.

As Jesus said of Hell, in it there will be constant “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Hell is a laugh-free zone, a boiling cauldron of tears. Heaven, on the other hand, may also admit of tears. But the tears of Heaven are the fruits of joy, and the laughter that it calls forth promises to be as hearty as it is irresistible, for the inhabitants of Heaven will at long last recognize the seriousness with which we treated our lives on Earth for the folly—the joke—that is has always been.

And here we may be getting to the heart of comedy’s import.

This world of ours is an uneasy mix of dust and divinity, evil and good, suffering and delighting. In short, it is an endless supply of intimations of both Hell and Heaven. Humor, I believe, is a hint of Heaven, an emblem of eternity.

Humor is every bit as much of a divine gift as any other, and an even greater gift than some. The Joke permits us to come as close as possible, in this life, to arresting the relentless flow of time by transforming a situation that would otherwise paralyze those who are at its mercy into an object of ridicule. It permits us, in other words, to defang and declaw the demons that haunt us, and to do so effortlessly, with a laugh.

The Joke makes the humorous into caricaturists. But while caricaturists select for their portraits specific individuals, the humorous, in contrast, focus their attention not just on individuals, but upon whole sets of circumstances—including and especially that most peculiar set of circumstances that we know as the human condition itself.

However, as Fredericka Whitfield revealed in her exchange with Joan Rivers, all of this has been lost upon this most humorless generation. For certain, much of life demands seriousness, but our culture’s prevailing zeitgeist—what we commonly refer to as “Political Correctness” (PC)—demands not seriousness, but deadly seriousness.

In no place and at no time has the Joke been more needed than it is needed in a culturally, ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse society like the United States. Yet it is just such places—contemporary, incorrigibly PC, Western societies—that have essentially banned it.

The Joke diffuses intergroup tensions. Whitfield couldn’t have been further of the mark in suggesting that Rivers’ jokes foster mean-spiritedness. Just the opposite is the case: it is precisely in the Joke’s almost unique power to deflate mean-spiritedness that its value is to be found.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, racial, ethnic, and religious “stereotypes” are most decidedly not fictions sprung from thin air. They reflect enduring patterns among a significant number of a group’s members—even if (as is almost always the case) it is only a significant minority. When these stereotypes reflect positively on a group, all is good. When they are negative, though, there is no end to the inter-group conflict that they can so easily fuel.

The Joke extinguishes the match before it reaches the fuse. It fumigates the air, so to speak, by allowing us to laugh at, rather than hate, one other. There was a time, not all that long ago, when people, particularly Americans, took this fact for granted.

Times, sadly, have changed. Still, what has not changed is that peaceful inter-group co-existence is much better served by the Joan Rivers than the Fredericka Whitfields of our world.