“When you fall down a manhole, that’s funny. When I do, that’s a tragedy.” –Mel Brooks
Is it really funny when a grown man falls down a manhole? It’s supposed to be a tragic moment, but some of us can’t help but laugh. If we find a tragic incident like that funny, is there something wrong with us, or is it funny? What is funny, what’s tragedy, and what’s the difference? Most people who fall down manholes don’t fall straight down, clean, like Yosemite Sam, and most of them aren’t mumbling comedic swear words to themselves as they fall. Most of them will likely damage something precious upon entry, and depending on the depth of their fall, they’re probably going to be screaming. They might not have enough time to fear death, but anyone who has fallen from a decent height knows that it’s such a scary experience that we don’t consider it funny.
If our friend walks away from the fall with some superficial bumps and bruises, that might be funny, but what if he chipped a tooth? What if he took a nasty knock on the head, or broke an ankle? What if his injuries were so severe they required Emergency Medical Technicians to free them? Does the severity of the injury make the incident more humorous? Before we say no, think about how we tell the story of the incident. Any time we tell a story, we want a punctuation point at the end. What better punctuation point would there be to this story than a prolonged hospital stay that involves tubes and machines keeping the victim alive? “They’re saying that the nasty knock on the head could leave him mentally impaired for the rest of his life?” If isn’t hilarious, it’s at least so noteworthy that we’ll be repeating this story to everyone we know.
The initial sight of Jed lying in the sewer might be funny, unless he’s screaming. What if he’s hurt? How can he not be? We laugh. We don’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 before we tell the story of his fall, because we’re afraid we might laugh. Most of us do laugh at some point, it’s our 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 all enjoy 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, and the fuzzy line between tragedy and comedy. 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 so 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 saw me stuck there. 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? When I thought about the pain I would endure, I knew it would be worth it to prevent anyone from finding out about this. The idea that one person might see me stuck on this pole compelled me to pull my tongue off as quickly as possible. I considered the pain a secondary concern to the idea that someone else might find out about this. 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?
While still stuck on the pole, 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 how many people would’ve been involved and how much material they would have on me in the aftermath.
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. They had to consider the amount of teasing, ridicule, and bullying they would experience once the severity of the incident was over. We must make exceptions for age, as I say, but even young kids have had some experience with 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 cruel and clever displays of 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 he wouldn’t have this ammunition to use on me.
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 often 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. To separate themselves from that pack, former class clowns-turned-successful standup comedians would have to spend decades learning the intricacies and complexities of their craft, as everyone from the Ancient Greeks to Mel Brooks did. They would also learn for all of the complexities involved in comedy, one simple truth they learned in fifth to sixth grade remains: if one wants to achieve side-splitting laughter from the broadest audience possible, someone has to get hurt.