Al Gini’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING FUNNY and the Connection Between Freedom and Creativity

Ladies and gentlemen, when the Founding Fathers sat down in a sweltering room in Philadelphia to devise a new system of government, they had a lot of weighty decisions to make.  They needed to ensure that the people maintained the power, but that government at all levels could ensure domestic tranquility and protect the general welfare.  They had to decide what it meant for the people to have representation and how best to make it as fair as possible.

Most of all, they needed to decide which rights would be guaranteed by the government.  Think of that word choice: rights.  Not “privileges.”  A right is guaranteed to you, no matter what.  A privilege must be earned.  Then they needed to decide which right deserved to be mentioned first.  What did they come up with?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Isn’t the First Amendment beautiful?  Those few words are the most important in the entire document because they protect all of the other rights and laws that make up our system of government.  Think about it: you’re not happy with the American health care system and you want to tell your elected official that a change is in order?  Can’t do that without the First Amendment…

Rights apply to everyone; this is the best thing possible, but it can also be frustrating.  We’re only human.  We’re all petty at times and think it would be pretty cool if the people we don’t like had fewer rights than we do.  A good person may, to paraphrase Voltaire, disapprove of what another says, but they will defend to the death that person’s right to say it.

Why do I bring all of this up?  I love humor and admire its power to lift spirits and expose truths.  Al Gini does, too.  In fact, I’m sure we agree on the vast majority of things.  I read his new book The Importance of Being Funny: Why We Need More Jokes in Our Lives, and thought he did a good job of suggesting why humor is important and describing the place it has in a free society.  (The book can be purchased from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield.)

Mr. Gini says the following late in the book:

I am convinced unethical jokes border on and are analogous to some aspects of hate speech.  in our society, the First Amendment right to freedom of speech is a sacred concept in our democratically based form of constitutional government.  However, our collective affirmation of the principle that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” is not an absolute.  The courts have acknowledged that certain forms of speech, especially those that cause harm, are not protected by the First Amendment.  Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium in the absence of fire is a classic example of an exception to the rule, and hate speech is another.

Friends, I submit with great respect that Mr. Gini is simply incorrect.  (We’re all incorrect at times.  I’m mistaken six times before breakfast.)  “Hate speech” is absolutely protected by our precious First Amendment.  But don’t take my word for it.  Here’s what the American Bar Association says:

In this country there is no right to speak fighting words—those words without social value, directed to a specific individual, that would provoke a reasonable member of the group about whom the words are spoken. For example, a person cannot utter a racial or ethnic epithet to another if those words are likely to cause the listener to react violently. However, under the First Amendment, individuals do have a right to speech that the listener disagrees with and to speech that is offensive and hateful.

The ACLU says the following of free speech on campus:

The First Amendment to the Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution. Such restrictions deprive students of their right to invite speech they wish to hear, debate speech with which they disagree, and protest speech they find bigoted or offensive.

First Amendment attorney Ken White wrote the following in the LA Times:

“We must balance free speech and other interests.”

Censorship advocates often tell us we need to balance the freedom of speak with the harm that speech does. This is arguable philosophically, but it is wrong legally. American courts don’t decide whether to protect speech by balancing its harm against its benefit; they ask only if it falls into a specific 1st Amendment exception. As the Supreme Court recently put it, “[t]he First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits. The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs.”

So I’m not trying to be a jerk about it, but it’s true: “hate speech” is protected speech.  It just is.  Mr. Gini and I both despise and disapprove of the kind of statements that come to mind when most of us think of the concept of “hate speech,” but the speaker is allowed to express his or her thoughts, no matter how vile.

Another of the problems with the concept of “hate speech” is that defining such speech is incredibly subjective.  In theory and in practice, no two people can agree on a definition.  Mr. Gini defines “hate speech” thus:

Hate speech is speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of gender, ethnic origin, race, disability, or sexual orientation.  It is a form of speech that intends to disparage, humiliate, or intimidate an individual or group.  It is a form of speech that may invite violence or prejudicial actions against an individual or group.  Bottom line, freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to denigrate a person’s sense of dignity, terrorize individuals, incite hatred, or encourage violence.

With all respect, “attack” is a subjective word unless you’re talking about “attacking” someone, for example, with a hatchet.  What does it mean to “disparage?”  What does it mean to “humiliate” or “intimidate?”  If you look into the legal precedent surrounding free speech, you’ll find that it’s rightly illegal to burn a cross in an African American’s front yard.  That is not protected speech because it’s an action and can very easily be determined to be a threat of physical violence.  It is rightly illegal to send a bomb threat to a synagogue, mosque, or church.  Even though the letter consists of words, the actual threat of violence turns words into an action: a threat.

And I must say with great respect that the final sentence conflates a couple very different concepts.  “Terrorizing” is an action that inherently implies the threat of violence to achieve political goals.  “Denigrating a person’s sense of dignity” is not.  It’s a bit confusing to see those two concepts side by side.  In fact, denigrating a person’s sense of dignity is the basis of a great deal of comedy.

Why is “slipping on a banana peel” a classic comedic gag?  It’s precisely because the slipper loses dignity.  There he is, just walking along, trying to get to his destination, when someone else’s carelessness (or cruelty) causes him to flop to the ground and dirty his clothing as onlookers chuckle.  He becomes a fool, a spectacle of public ridicule.

The reason that I’ve begun this craft essay/review with such a respectful but strident opposition to one of Mr. Gini’s points is that writers simply don’t have creative freedom if they lose the right to offend.  

Let’s take a case in point.  Blazing Saddles, directed by Mel Brooks, is a classic film in which the dastardly Hedy…I mean Hedley Lamarr wants to clear out the town of Rock Ridge so he can purchase the land for peanuts.  His plan?  Appoint a black sheriff.  Of course, Sheriff Bart is a good man; he teams up with a jittery gunslinger (played by Gene Wilder) to right the wrongs, both personal and against the town of Rock Ridge.  The film being a western, Bart rides off into the sunset, just like any other hero in the genre.  Now, you might think that the film (partially written by the great Richard Pryor), a film made by a Jewish WWII veteran who literally fought Nazis and knows all too well the evil of discrimination, would be seen as progressive.  Not anymore.  For the film contains “hate speech.”  Here’s just one example.

Bart and Charlie are clearly being denigrated on the basis of their race.  One of the jokes in the scene literally hangs on the fact that the white racists value the lives of the black workers less than the $400 handcart.  So we have a choice: do we send out angry tweets and boycott a man in his nineties who fought Nazis, as some might do?  (I certainly don’t include Mr. Gini in that group.)  Or do we laugh because we all know that the white racists are in the wrong and we know Bart will get his comeuppance?  Because our sympathies are with him?

Another example:

Uh oh.  The evil white racist uses racial slurs that, sadly, were frequently used at the time.  He then goes on to stereotype the African Americans and remind them of the times when their ancestors were, sadly, often enslaved on this continent.  His friends engage in cultural appropriation, singing a song that was specifically composed for minstel performers.  Should we write a hundred silly essays about how all copies of Blazing Saddles should be burned in the time of Trump?

Of course not.  The whole comic underpinning of the scene is that the white racists are silly and are bad people and are not very smart.  While the white folk can only bray the songs they sing, the black workers are clearly skilled performers who entertain the audience with a beautifully harmonized version of a song written by a gay white man.  (Yes, the song is an anachronism and yes, on purpose.)

Humor is especially in need of First Amendment protection because it is by nature irreverent.  Humor speaks truth to power.  Humor jostles people out of prejudicial thinking and tricks them into living in a new reality, if only for a moment.  Humor brings people together…have you ever been to a roast?  As Roastmaster General Jeff Ross says, you only roast the ones you love.

Here’s where I pivot to talking about the rest of the book, one that I found entertaining and insightful on the whole.  I don’t need to belabor the point by going into detail about the many uses of humor because Mr. Gini knows about them.  His introduction outlines the semi-scholarly tone of the work and outlines the structure:

Chapter 1: A brief, highly selective, and somewhat fallacious history of humor and joke telling

Chapter 2: How do you make funny?  So, what’s a joke?

Chapter 3: Comedy and coping with reality

Chapter 4: Dirty Jokes, tasteless jokes, ethnic jokes

Chapter 5: A conversation with a colleague about humor and ethics

Chapter 6: Philogagging: Humor in the classroom and beyond

Mr. Gini wisely begins with a satisfying but brief history of humor.  And what do we learn?  Times may change, languages emerge and die, but humor remains pretty much the same.  Writers must bear in mind that the classics never die.  Farts will always be funny, particularly in the right place and the right time.  You have to admit that this bathroom graffiti from Roman times is pretty funny:

Defecator, may everything turn out okay so that you can leave this place

Why are the classics, poo-related and otherwise, always funny?  Because, as that classic episode of The Twilight Zone reminded us, people are alike all over.   On the physical level, we all sleep and eat and breathe.  On the intellectual level, we all dream and love and cry.  Great writing and humor appeal to these constants, changing only superficially according to societal peccadilloes.

Mr. Gini must have had a fabulous time finding examples of jokes to include in the book.  (Yes, he scrupulously cites their origin when possible.)  He peppers the book with all kinds of jokes, from Rodney Dangerfield one-liners intended to make a crowd howl to Ronald Reagan’s homespun works of self-deprecating humor, designed to distract from Iran-Contra.  As the author admits early on, you’ll kill humor if you overthink it.  The same goes for all kinds of writing.  Yes, prose writers and comedy writers agonize over every word choice and every bit of punctuation, but we must always remember to keep our first responsibility in mind: to please the reader.   What it means to “please the reader” may change–particularly if you’re writing a racy romance novel–but at the end of the day, our goal should be to make the audience member laugh or to evoke the intended emotional reaction in the reader.

Mr. Gini made an interesting choice in Chapter 5, the whole of which is an interview with one of the author’s friends.  (The friend is not, I must mention, one of Mr. Gini’s blurbers.  Thomas Lennon is apparently one of the author’s friends…he’s also one of my favorite all-time comedy people.  I’ve been following the guy’s work for more than two decades.  He killed it in The State…then in Viva Variety…then he started writing movies with the equally awesome Robert Ben Garant…then he donned short shorts to protect the mean streets of Reno as Lieutenant James Dangle…then he stepped into an iconic role in The Odd Couple…okay, enough gushing.)

Mr. Gini engages in conversation with “Ronald M. Green, former director of Dartmouth College’s Ethics Institute.”  It’s interesting to have two people so dedicated to the study of philosophy and thought engage in discussion about something as simultaneously frivolous and crucial as humor.  The two men discuss the purpose of humor and the ethics of joke-telling, and I think one of the lessons is a reminder of the importance of considering one’s audience.  Of course, the concept has its limits, but it is important for writers to know the segment for whom they are writing so they can at least bear these folks and their needs in mind, even if they sometimes ignore these needs for the better good.  

Mr. Gini gives us a work that is at once scholarly and accessible and will, I suspect, find its way into the hands of many young men and women in college who may have joined the school improv troupe and want to hone their craft.  The book is not a comprehensive treatment of all things ha-ha, but that’s okay; it wasn’t intended to be.  Mr. Gini uses humor as the backdrop for some thoughtful analysis of the psychology that comedians must understand before they can kill, whether on open-mic night, or in an arena.

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