Sunday, May 16, 2010

How White Men Do Humor That Isn't Oppressive: Andy Samberg's "Great Day"

[I actually have no idea what Andy Samberg's sexual orientation is, in part because I've not read this interview with him from Out magazine. I'm assuming he's het, because I'd probably have heard about it if he was gay. Regardless, the cover image is from here.]

I am currently reading the book Dry, by Augusten Burroughs. He wrote the very successful Running With Scissors. RWS is about his mother's decision to give him to her male psychiatrist, to live in that man's home with his own family and a few of his patients. This is a memoir, a true story, written with the kind of humor people need to survive really traumatic experiences that aren't shared with a whole community. Writing has saved Augusten's life, I would imagine, but this white not-poor gay man almost didn't make it, as he was drinking so much that many don't live to discuss it, let alone remember it sufficiently to write a memoir about it. Dry is that memoir, that chapter of his early adult life, when he recognises how his drinking was impacting him, getting help, and figuring out how to live without alcohol.

To me, it is a classic Western white man's story. Because it is so centered on one person's life only tangentially about other people's lives. White men often live this way, I think. And the ubiquitous drinking and drugging that white men do does nothing to ensure they will have meaningful connections to others, but they will, no matter what, have their race and gender privileges. I find Augusten to be racist and misogynistic, and of course I am not at all surprised at either. I am only surprised when a white man isn't overtly racist and actively sexist. I am utterly shocked when I find out a white het man is accountable, really, truly, to the women in his life.

It is said, by those who do not know or do not have a sense of humor, that radical feminists don't have one either. Every radical feminist I know has a robust sense of humor that is rarely used to put other people down. I personally like women's humor about men, such as Rosanne Barr's early work, but the radical feminists I know are not prone to find other people's pain hilarious. Very generally speaking, men, it seems to me, find other people's pain hilarious. Men laugh when men get hurt, not women. Men laugh when frightened; women, not so much. Men make jokes about prison rape, not women. I've never heard a feminist woman laugh about prison rape. I've heard many antifeminist men laugh too many times about it to count. Who, then, is callous to men's pain? I'd argue it is men, not women, again, very generally speaking.

So many forms of suffering are abstract to men, that men can be extremely and normally callous. But some men get how some suffering has potential for humor, without exactly making fun of the person who is, really, in trouble.

Andy Samberg is a U.S. white, early thirtysomething LA/NYC kind of guy. Raised on the comically extreme antics of Mel Brooks, Andy is best known for his short films made for a program that needs all the help it can get, Saturday Night Live. What the show needs is non-white, non-male writers, and to stop their ridiculously racist skits. And to have female actors write their own comedy that is not just about wacky women or sidekicks for men's misogyny to bounce off of, or bluntly hit.

Andy does something else, often enough to catch my attention and warrant this post. Andy observes white het men and white het male culture with a keen eye for what's tragic, pathetic, and humorous about it. And there's PLENTY that's rife with pathos and humor, with atrocious undertones. Beneath white men's lives, however comical or tragic, is the river or sea of blood of all the people our people beaten, whipped, raped, tortured, and killed in generations past. Well, some of my people. Not so many of Andy's, actually, as he's Ashkenazic, so his family's history is probably escaping pogroms, as is part of mine. Well, unless some of our European Jewish family have gone to Israel and have behaved as white het male supremacists do, trying to control or succeeding in killing people of color, usually Palestinian, and by being misogynistic in all the horribly usual ways to women of several ethnicities.

But his family and mine don't come from Israel, and no one in my family has ever lived there. Which is no reason to not oppose Israel's racist apartheid policies. I do oppose them. Not much because I've never been there and don't know anyone who is Israeli or Palestinian. Well, that's not entirely true. I have met and had some deep conversation with one guy whose dad is U.S.-Palestinian (his mom is white/european). He is a DEVOUT Christian, in a really oppressive way--a basically white missionary preacher of The Truth of The Gospel According to him. He's recognised the utter arrogance of his ways, actually, and has stopped being so preachy. Thank G-d. (I've written all about that talk, here.)

Andy's humor has distinctly U.S. Jewish male elements; self-deprecation, never taking oneself seriously, mocking one's own life or the lives of those with similar privileges and social status. Which brings us to something that I think is both highly disturbing and very funny. What I often find funny about people's humor is  imagining them coming up with the material. The details, the building of little moments to tell one small story in a skit lasting only a couple of minutes or so. His humor has a certain quality that might also be termed "post-modern". I know too much about postmodernist philosophy and make a point to virtually never write about it, because its terminology is so annoying and boring to me. I don't think I've used "bodies" to mean people, or "discursive" to mean talking about something on this blog. I hope I haven't, anyway. What makes Samberg's humor quite different than what stand-ups do is that he's telling stories using so many elements--temporal and visual ones especially, that are as revealing as the words that accompany them. It's this fusion of words and images through an imaged period of time that strikes me in a piece like the borderline-sardonic "Great Day". Feel free to let me know what you like and don't like about this. In a later comment, if I remember to, I'll tell you what I see him saying about white het men. The video that follows is from here.

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