Dare to Laugh! Dare to Win!

By Bertell Ollman

What has happened to the humor that pulls the rug out from under the rationalizations of the rich and squirts lemon juice into the eyes of the powerful, that is to truly radical humor? Somewhere between Mark Twain and Art Buchwald, between Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen, somewhere in this tragic century our funny men have made their peace with power and no longer try to enlighten us—except about misused words, or psychiatrists, or the schlemiel that lurks in us all.

An example of what we are missing can be seen in the story of the young reporter who asks a leading capitalist how he made his fortune. "It was really quite simple," the capitalist answers. "I bought an apple for 5¢, spent the evening polishing it, and sold it the next day for 10¢. With this I bought two apples, spent the evening polishing them, and sold them for 20¢. And so it went until I amassed 80¢. It was at this point that my wife's father died and left us a million dollars."

A serious weakness in this joke is that it isolates the capitalists from the workers. Until this link is established, we cannot know whether the barb is intended for an individual capitalist or for his class. Humorous assaults on individuals, no matter how highly placed, do not further our understanding of the conditions that determine their interests and power, and hence pose no real threat to their position. How else can Nixon, Kissinger and Carter laugh so heartily at jokes which make them look ridiculous?

Most people possess power and wealth as members of a class who share a common function, which for the capitalists is owning means of production and employing workers. Since functions can only be exhibited as parts of a system, defining "capitalist" must proceed through describing their system, or at least its core relations between workers and capitalists. These relations are aptly captured in Fred Wright's famous cartoon of a whiskey sipping capitalist lying on a hammock. On one end the hammock is tied to a tree. The other end is tied around the neck of a straining worker. "Do you know what these damn communists want to do?" asks the capitalist. "They want to take away our tree."

The unsettling force of this cartoon comes from the stark manner in which it portrays capitalist exploitation and the slightly veiled allusion to what it would take to alter things. In this instance, the workers' power remains to be activated. The most radical form of humor bridges the gap between understanding and action, making humor itself a form of insurrection.

Consider Carl Sandburg's story of the worker who asks his boss for some of his wealth. "That's preposterous," says the capitalist, "It's mine. I own it." "And where did you get it?" asks the worker. "Why, I inherited it, " answers the capitalist. "And where did your father get it?" asks the worker. "He inherited it, of course." "And he?" persists the worker. "Great grandfather established the family fortune. He fought for it." "Well then," says the worker, " I'll fight you for it."

Funny? Well, it depends on which side you're on. These jokes have put me in stitches, and I am sure that most workers would find them funny. But I suspect that the capitalists who feel themselves targeted by these remarks have ceased laughing early in this escalation. Radical humor teaches radical lessons. That's why its bite hurts or should hurt those in power.

No one expects our leading humorists to leave tooth marks on the hand that feeds them, but Christmas breeds optimism. And radical humor is a matter of degree, I have included the following in my annual letter to Santa Claus: "please give Safire enough works by Buchwald to acquire a social conscience, even a little one; give Buchwald enough Baker to help him get below the surface of events; and give the gentle Baker a large enough dose of Safire to develop a killer instinct. Most important Santa, please find room for them all on you sleigh when you deliver "Class Struggle" and other needed toys to the South Bronx this Christmas."