Andy Borowitz, editor of the New York Times bestselling anthology The 50 Funniest American Writers, is a pretty funny guy. Last night, he was joined by Sloane Crosley and David Rakoff CC ’86, two of the writers included in the collection, for an evening of reading and riffing in Miller Theatre. Pun Professional Clava Brodsky was there to report.
If brevity is the soul of wit, then Friedrich Nietzsche was one funny dude. And even if he wasn’t the 19th century’s best stand up comic, he certainly thought a lot about comedy. “Laughter,” he wrote, “means being schadenfroh, but with a good conscience.” To laugh, it seems, is to laugh besides yourself. To tell a joke, then, is to mock successfully. Comedy is the counterpunch to insults—not turning the other cheek. In short, it’s impossible to laugh after really reading Nietzsche.
Inconveniently, Columbia scheduled the presentation by comic writers Andy Borowitz, Sloane Crosley, and David Rakoff immediately after Bwog’s CC class. Bwog came prepared to perceive the speakers’ jabs masterfully swathed in the silky robes of humor. And yet, Borowitz disarmed all of our Nietzschean stockpiles on hand when he opened with a few quips at Columbia’s expense. “I was so honored that Columbia would invite me,” he began, “I told them I would do it for free. Good thing Columbia had the very same idea!” Borowitz then continued to recount a few anecdotes about his hometown, Shaker Heights, Ohio. It was established by the Shaker religious community, which, Borowitz said, is known for two things: furniture and “never having sex.” “Growing up, my experience mirrored theirs…though I didn’t make any furniture,” quoth Borowitz. When the conversation later turned to politics, Borowitz remarked that MSNBC is “Fox for vegans.” (Just yesterday, Borowitz wrote an article in which he claimed that FOX won the Pulitzer for Fiction.)
Yet, just as Bwog was slipping into the seductive clutches of Meister Humor, Borowitz introduced Sloane Crosley, author of I Was Told There’d Be Cake, and David Rakoff, another writer who has contributed to This American Life. The two additions to the panel shed light a darker dimension of laughter. They disrobed the joke, revealing bare schadenfroh. Crosley began by remembering the humor in her family. “My sister was funny without meaning to be,” Crosley reminisced, “she would walk into walls…I would still find that funny.” Ouch! Her jokes, however, were the ones that seemed to bump up against a wall as she read an excerpt from her story Up the Down Volcano. She recounted her trip to Ecuador and her continuous cultural misunderstandings with her driver, Edgardo. Her jokes, funny as they were, betrayed the less-than-funny truth of the situation: Edgardo is some poor guy, trying to scrape together a meager living.
When David Rakoff began to read through his writing sample, The Writer’s Life, he had the audience at his fingertips. After he described his pencils as “those steadfast wooden soldiers,” the audience emitted a collective chuckle of satisfaction. And yet, once Rakoff had finished his recitation, the blond beast of sinister humor slithered back onto the stage. Crosley explained that her family had changed their last name upon arriving in America because they feared their own Jewish name would keep them from succeeding in business. To which Rakoff sarcastically retorted, “Jews and business—bad fit.” Perhaps we laugh, but beside ourselves, for it seems that this joke only boosts a pernicious stereotype.
So what’s going on with laughter? Should we laugh? Should we cry? What’s a Bwog to do? Sarcasm always returns to its Greek roots—to tear flesh. But the question remains: whose flesh? A joke at the expense of MSNBC and FOX—you’re fine. A joke at the expense of an impoverished Edgardo—seems questionable.
Pile of bones via Wikimedia Commons