Falling Down Manholes


“When you fall down a manhole, that’s funny. When I do, that’s a tragedy.” –Mel Brooks

Is it funny when a healthy adult falls down a manhole? It’s funny when it happens to someone else, and by someone else we mean a person with whom we have no association. It might be funny if it were a story on the local news, but what if we have some sort of attachment to the victim? Does familiarity affect how we view such an incident? If it does, how much familiarity do we have to have before the incident becomes tragic, and is there a middle ground that reveals the unusual relationship these two reactions have? If we find a tragic incident like that funny, what is funny, what’s tragedy, and what’s the difference?

Laughing at other people’s pain is just kind of what we do. We can call those who do heartless, but we also need to recognize how prevalent this is in our society. We can also say that such laughter represents a dark side of humanity, but we should also recognize it as part of human nature. I’ve found few exceptions to this rule, but those who are tend to be in professions that experience other people’s pain on a daily basis. Do they develop an emotional immunity to such moments, because they hear about them so often? If that’s the case, is our laughter an impulsive reaction to something we find shocking? We’ve all heard the phrase, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. If we worked with other people in pain on a daily basis, would we develop something of an immunity to these moments that might lead us to deal with them in a more compassionate manner?

Most people who fall down manholes don’t fall straight down the manhole clean, like Yosemite Sam, and most of them aren’t mumbling comedic swear words to themselves as they fall. They 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 it’s not funny to them.

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 that he required Emergency Medical Technicians to free him? Does the severity of the injury make the incident more tragic or more humorous? Before you answer, think about how you might tell the story of the incident. Any time we tell a story, we want a punctuation mark at the end. What better punctuation would there be 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 it isn’t hilarious, it’s at least so noteworthy that we’ll have a great story to tell our friends.

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 might wait to find out if Jed’s okay before we laugh, and some of us might wait until he’s not around, so when we can retell the story of his fall and laugh with others. Most of us will laugh at some point. It’s often our 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 our laughter fueled by the relief that it’s not happening to us, or is it the result of comedies and comedians molding 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 now: tragicomedy.

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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 saw me stuck there. I knew there would not be a “Well, 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 stories 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 he the kid who got his tongue stuck on a pole in fifth or sixth grade?”

I didn’t stand there and think about all this 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, though, 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. The pain involved in ripping several layers of my tongue off led me to believe I should’ve given it more consideration, but I still didn’t regret it. I still considered the physical pain secondary to the mental and emotional pain I would’ve endured if I hadn’t ripped my tongue off the pole.

I’ve read stories since 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?

These unfortunate victims had to know that the chance of someone seeing them in that embarrassing position increased exponentially with each second they remained stuck to the pole. They had to know that calling someone over would lead them to call another over, until they all gave up and called in a rescue squad. The very idea that that many people might know about it, still makes me so uncomfortable that I cringe when I think about it. With that many people involved, the chances of this information making it to their peers is so great that it’s not even worth considering.

I have to imagine that this victim was either younger than I was at the time, or that the severity of their incident was much 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 them if they feared how painful that would be, but they had to consider all the ridicule, teasing, and bullying they would endure in the aftermath. Even if they feared the pain so much that they wanted an adult to come along and find a less painful solution for them, I would ask them if it was worth it. Even if that adult went inside and retrieved a cup of hot water for them and prevented the kid from knowing the pain I did, I would wager that the physical pain I endured paled in comparison to the emotional abuse this kid endured from his peers.

Even when I was still stuck on that pole, I knew my bully would be waiting for the details on my tragedy with baited breath. I also knew that his 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. 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 material 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 our 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 deep 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 that 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 possible audience, someone has to get hurt.

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