“If you fall down a manhole, that’s comedy. When I do, it’s a tragedy.” –Mel Brooks
Is it really funny when a grown man falls down a manhole? What is funny? What is tragedy? We have to imagine that most who fall down a manhole don’t fall clean. If all they did was chip a tooth, it might be funny, but what if they took a nasty knock on the head? What if they ended up breaking an ankle, and they required Emergency Medical Technicians to free them? Does that qualify the incident as a tragedy, or does it only make it more humorous?
The initial sight of Jed lying in the sewer might be funny, unless he’s screaming. Is he hurt? How can he not be? We laugh. We didn’t mean to laugh. We don’t find this funny, but we can’t stop. Some of us wait to find out if Jed’s okay before we laugh, and some of us wait to laugh until he’s not around when we can retell the story of his fall. Most of us will laugh at one point. It can be an impulsive reaction to something tragic.
Laughing, or otherwise enjoying, another person’s pain is so common, that the Germans, developed a term for it: schadenfreude. Is this impulse based on some sick and twisted instinct that we cannot control, or do we enjoy all others’ pain in one way or another? Is our laughter fueled by the relief that it’s not happening to us, or is it the result of comedies and comedians shaping and reshaping our definition of what’s humorous by twisting dark, tragic themes into something funny? Whatever the case is, incidents such as these reveal the relative nature of humor, the fuzzy line between tragedy and comedy, and how we find comedy in others’ tragedies. The purposeful melding of the two even has its own genre: tragicomedy.
My personal experience with the fuzzy line between comedy and tragedy, didn’t involve falling into a manhole, but licking a pole. I was in the fifth or sixth grade, old enough and smart enough to know better, but young enough and dumb enough to do it anyway on one of the coldest days in February. I didn’t know the philosophical details of the symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy, but I knew people would laugh if they ever found out about my embarrassing faux pas. I knew there wouldn’t be an “At least you’re okay” sentiment among my classmates. I knew this wasn’t one of those types of mistakes. I didn’t know a whole lot about human nature, but I knew that certain people live for such moments of pain and humiliation. We all know those types, and we know they never forget. We could win the Pulitzer Prize, or become a world-renowned adventure seeker, and they will say, “Wasn’t that the kid who got his tongue stuck on a pole in fifth or sixth grade?”
I didn’t think about all those things while stuck in the moment of course. The only things I thought about were how am I going to rip myself free and how much is this going to hurt? After tearing several layers of my tongue off, the pain lived up to my greatest fears.
I’ve since read stories of others suffering a similar embarrassment, calling in civil servants to help them get free. The first question I have for these people I’ll never meet is, what were you thinking?
The idea that one person might see me stuck on this pole compelled me to pull my tongue off as quickly as possible. The pain was a secondary concern to the idea that someone else might find out about this. I knew the chance of someone seeing me in this embarrassing position increased exponentially with each second I remained stuck to the pole, and the prospect of calling someone over to help me, and that person calling another person over, until they all gave up and called in a rescue squad makes me so uncomfortable that I still cringe when I think about it.
I have to imagine that the victim who had someone call in a rescue squad was younger than I was at the time, or that the severity of their incident was worse than mine. For if all of the circumstances were even somewhat similar, then I have to ask them why they didn’t just rip themselves free? My empathy goes out to those who feared how painful it would be, but they had to consider how much unwanted attention they would attract by doing everything but ripping off several layers of their tongue.
After suffering a similar situation, my question to anyone who later complained about that unwanted attention is, were you ever teased, ridiculed, or bullied prior to your episode? I will make some exceptions for age, as I say, but most kids have been introduced to these reactions, and they should do whatever they can to avoid having these elements of human nature rain down upon them.
Even when I was still stuck on that pole, I knew certain people would be waiting for the details on my tragedy with baited breath. I also knew that my bully’s audience wouldn’t be able to restrain themselves from laughing at his displays of cruel and clever creativity. I didn’t know what nicknames or limericks he would develop, but I knew he would develop something. He was our class clown, and he was always developing material on someone. I realized that all of the pain I experienced in the aftermath of the toe curling rip of my tongue was worth it, because at least I didn’t give him any ammunition.
We’ve all heard talk show guests say that they were the class clown in school. We all smile knowingly, picturing them as children dancing with a lampshade on their head and coming up with the perfect response to the teacher that even the teacher considered hilarious. Those of us who knew a class clown saw some of that, but we also saw what happened when they ran out of good-natured and fun material. I knew the minute the class clown ran out of material he would begin looking around for victims, and I was always one of his favorite targets.
We all enjoy making people laugh, but some have a psychological need to make people laugh, and they don’t care who has to get hurt in the process. Based on my experiences with class clowns, I can only guess that those who would fashion a career out of it, such that they were so successful that they ended up in a late night talk show chair talking about it, probably learned early on that no matter how you slice it, if someone falls down a manhole, or gets their tongue stuck to a pole there’s comedy gold there waiting to be excavated. They may be too young to know anything about the complexities inherent in the symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy at the time, but at some point they realized that anyone can get a laugh. The former class clown-turned-successful standup comedian probably spent decades learning the complexities of their craft, as everyone from Mel Brooks to the Ancient Greeks did. They also learned for all of the complexities involved in comedy, there is one simple truth if one wants to achieve side-splitting laughter from the broadest possible audience: someone has to get hurt.