The “progressive” urge to improve society from top to bottom—first flourishing in modern times early in the last century—could manifest itself in the strangest places.
Here an editorialist complains of America’s lack of both an appreciation of satire and a good satirist to give it expression—truly ironic, when you think of how America’s greatest satirist, Mark Twain, would pass away the very next month.
Artemus Ward said that a comic paper was no worse for having a joke in it now and then, and his words have ever since been quoted as embodying the gospel of wit and humor.
The great form of American mirth is the joke. “It is to laugh”—that’s our creed in a sentence. Misplaced capitals, awkward spelling, impossible grammar, infinite incongruity of situation, endless word-play, grotesquery of action and character, heightened by pictures equally funny, these are the things that make us laugh.
We are quick to catch the point of a cartoon, to enjoy the exaggeration of a caricature. But to smile at the mock-serious, to be amused by satire, is a refinement as yet beyond us.
But our condition in this respect is not hopeless. When political freebooters solemnly plead with misguided reformers, newspapers, ministers, and college professors not to injure the fair fame of their common dwelling-place by pointing to its shames; when experience-hardened experts in statecraft with uncontrollable moral indignation denounce attacks upon one of their number, in the thrilling period, “It isn’t right!”—when such things as these can be, it is impossible to deny the existence of American humor, however unconscious.
He would be a rash reasoner, nevertheless, who concluded that self-revelation was the key to the storehouse of humor. While there would undoubtedly be those whose unconsciousness of humor was merely apparent, the great mass of the really unconscious would only be rendered fatally shy.
Self-revelation would but kill the precious goose.
The clue, however, does lie in this lack of perception. What is needed is the awakening of those who are not humorous, even unconsciously, to the presence of this quality all about them.
The obstacle in the way of the creation of a national sense of humor is the stubborn fact that humor is fundamentally serious. We have an ingrained notion that some things, as business, society, and sport, are serious, while others, as books, Sunday supplements, and theatres, have no excuse for existence except as they furnish fun.
To suggest to your casual neighbor in the train that there is such a thing as serious humor would be to invite an incredulous stare; to insist that there is no other kind would be to incur the risk of unpleasant suspicion of your mental equilibrium. You might get your companion to admit that in Greece or in some group of dryasdust intellectualists your queer idea could possibly find assent, but never with him. And he would be only too nearly correct.
A serious argument for the recognition of humor as a not unimportant element of civilization, even of morality, would be regarded as only a heavy way of trying to be amusing, far less entertaining than a real joke.
But this is only part of the difficulty. Convince your supposititious acquaintance of the validity of your contention that humor is serious.
You would merely have brought yourself to face the conclusive inquiry, why be serious? Isn’t life serious enough? In that question lie the threads to a thousand ways of thought and character in American life. Making a living is serious business. All else—literature, drama, music—is recreation. If art cannot entertain, it is stupid. Never was there a richer field for a great humorist than this.
Our solemn devotion to the primal necessities, our patronage of the past, our contented unconsciousness of shallowness, our toying with the fringe of culture, our desperate efforts to persuade our public servants to do some part of what we elected them to do, our joyful surprise when they do it, our method of punishing them when they don’t do it, our inconsistent but no less eager manifestations of satisfaction when a generally chosen Executive endeavors to force his will upon our specifically chosen representatives, our strange mingling of ideality and practicality, with its suspicion of professions of unselfishness, its worship of success, and it glorification of moral courage—but why extend the list?
The great American novelist may be an absurd conception, but a great American humorist is a positive need. Nor should we fear lest his revelations might convert us to seriousness or to consistency. There would be no danger of our doing anything that would threaten the sources of our exhilaration.
In that spirit, then, perhaps today’s social improvers would find it agreeable if the current administration—in conformity with its uncontrollable urge to enlarge government unconstitutionally—were to create an Office of Humor, with [insert any loud-mouthed, profane comedian’s name] as Comic Laureate.