I have spoken before about the science fiction book, A Stranger in A Strange Land, which I have been reading for a number of years now. I probably should concede to the fact that I am not going to finish it. But I hold the book as dear to me because the novel – at least the part I have read thus far – helped me to better understand why we laugh.
In the book, the main character is a man from Mars visiting earth for the first time. Incapable of feeling, he slowly learns the earthly customs of all human emotion – well, except for humor. He just does not get what’s funny. That is until the day he witnesses several monkeys hurting another monkey in a cage. He is so disturbed and saddened by it all, yet he also finds it absurd in a funny way. The latter realization becomes an epiphany for him. He rushes back to his living quarters and shares with his friend his new awareness:
“I’ve found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts-because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting-of course it wasn’t funny; it was tragic. That’s why I had to laugh. I looked at a cage full of monkeys and suddenly I saw all the mean and cruel and utterly unexplainable things I’ve seen and heard and read about – and suddenly it hurt so much I found myself laughing.”
Hurting so much that I found myself laughing is one of the main reasons I found an ounce of humor at the awkward behavior of my family at my great-grandmother’s funeral a few years back. And hurting so much that I found myself laughing is the reason I could crack a joke at the lady in a blue uniform from the Water Department, threatening to turn my water off right there on the spot if I didn’t give the PWD a check. It’s all so ridiculous that I end up laughing at my own pain.
Not even Bill Cosby, who is regarded as one of the cleanest and most wholesome comedians around, was immune from laughing as he regularly joked about the ridiculousness of his own family. It was light mockery, but we were still invited to laugh along with his often unflattering depictions of them. The truth is that it is impossible to tell a nice joke that doesn’t offend, mock someone or tap into pain.
I tried to keep all of that in mind yesterday as I watched the Funny or Die comedy sketch, “Cop v. Black Guy,” which was written by “Key & Peele” cast members Colton Dunn and Phil Augusta Jackson.
In the video, a black man is jubilantly eating his ice cream cone on the front stoop when he is threatened by a cop who demands that he explain what he is doing in the neighborhood. Things get pretty ridiculous rather quickly when the cop pulls his handgun on the black man eating the ice cream cone as he radios-in to patrol that there is a robbery in process. The black guy tries to explain that he is just eating an ice cream cone. However, the cop, who has now morphed into a fully dressed member of a SWAT team and is pointing a double barrel shotgun at the ice-cream wielding black man says, “You have an ice cream cone you tried to kill me with. That will stand up in any court of law. There is not a court in this land that will convict me from blowing your head off…”
He does a few more morphing bits before the video ends with the cop, who has now morphed into a stormtrooper, shooting the hand of another black man with an ice cream cone who walked into the situation at the wrong damn time. As bizarre a sketch as it sounds, the message at the end is poignant: White folks with guns around black people really need to “Just Calm the Fuck Down” – a PSA from the Unarmed Black Men in America. The morphing bits were pretty hilarious, but still, it’s probably the least comical Funny or Die video I have ever seen.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing more absurd and unexplainable than white people walking around scared to death over black people, when statistically, they are more likely to be harmed by another white person – as well as more likely to be saved from harm by a black person. In fact, the only other thing that could be just as absurd and unexplainable is the fact that very few “courts of the land” have been willing to properly hold these trigger-happy white people with guns, who engage in such irrational racialized hatred, accountable. But neither of those truisms – as well as others presented in the video – inspire me to chuckle.
Perhaps some things are just too absurd to laugh about?
I don’t know if this Funny or Die skit is the perfect illustration of “too soon.” Or maybe it’s more evidence of how disconnected white people – as well as those who write for mostly white audiences (as some of our own people can be pretty tone-deaf as well) –are from the absurdity of being a black person in this country. As far as I am concerned, it is likely a combination of both. But the hard reality that police killing black people is being sanctioned by the state (which we pay taxes, help maintain and also pledge allegiances to) does not call for mockery. Likewise, as personally therapeutic and rewarding as it may feel, mockery has never changed a bill or helped to get an officer charged for murder. Especially not when some in the black community struggle immensely to show children how to value and have respect for their own lives out here on these streets.
What is needed in this instance is anger or even action. Any other reaction just seems to minimize or even soften the importance of these conversations, which we need to be having. And to me, that’s just not funny.
But what do you think? Is this Funny or Die sketch comical to you? Is it cool in general to laugh or mock police brutality or other ways that black folks are being targeted out here?
UPDATE: Colton Dunn has responded to this essay, with a thoughtful response of his own. You can check it out here.