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Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, and the Importance of Comedy

I'm of the opinion, as Marx once said, that comedians "are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world."

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 7:08 PM EST

Chicolini Really Is an Idiot

Laughter follows from the misalignment of a reality and a virtual reality, and the getting of the joke is the recognition of which is which. The notions of what is true or beautiful or proper held sacred by the other people in the caucus or the clubhouse set up the punch line—the sight of something where it's not supposed to be, the story going where it's not supposed to go, Groucho Marx saying, "Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot."

Groucho's appeal is to the faculty named by Bergson as "intelligence, pure and simple," and I laugh out loud for the reason given by Arthur Schopenhauer: "simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real object."

Being in or out of the loop is not only a question of separations in space and time, it is also a matter of the distance between different sets or turns of mind. Sudden and happy perceptions of incongruity are not hard to come by in a society that worships its machines, regards the sales pitch and the self-promotion as its noblest forms of literary art. What Twain understood to be the world's colossal humbug enjoys a high standing among people who define the worth of a thing as the price of a thing and therefore make of money, in and of itself a colossal humbug, the true and proper name for God.

"There are," said Twain, "certain sweet-smelling, sugarcoated lies current in the world which all politic men have apparently tacitly conspired together to support and perpetuate…We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going and then go with the drove. We have two opinions: one private, which we are afraid to express, and another one—the one we use—which we force ourselves to wear to please Mrs. Grundy."

It is the Mrs. Grundy of the opinion polls from whom President Barack Obama begs the favor of a sunny smile, to whom the poets who write the nation's advertising copy sing their songs of love, for whom the Aspen Institute sponsors summer and winter festivals of think-tank discussion to reawaken the American spirit and redecorate the front parlor of the American soul.

The exchanges of platitude at the higher altitudes of moral and social pretension Twain celebrated as festive occasions on which "taffy is being pulled." Some of the best of it gets pulled at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York when it is being explained to a quorum of the monied elite (contented bankers, corporate lawyers, arms manufacturers) that American foreign policy, rightly understood, is a work of Christian charity and an expression of man's goodwill to man.

Nobody pulls the taffy better than Dr. Henry Kissinger, the White House National Security Advisor in 1970 who by way of an early Christmas greeting that year to the needy poor in Cambodia secured the delivery of thousands of tons of high explosive, but as often at the council as I've heard him say that the nuclear option trumps the China card, that the lines in the Middle Eastern sand connect the Temple of Solomon to the Pentagon, that America under no circumstances is to be caught holding Neville Chamberlain's umbrella, I seldom find the hint of a sign that the other gentlemen in the room know or care that Chicolini here really is an idiot. Even if the gentlemen had their doubts about Chicolini, where would be the percentage of letting them out of the bag? Chicolini is rich, and therefore Chicolini is wise. To think otherwise is an impiety; to say otherwise is a bad career move.

Mocking the Gilded Age

Twain was careful to mind his manners when speaking from lecture platforms to crowds of Mrs. Grundys in both the western and eastern states. He bottled his ferocious ridicule in the writing (much of it in newspapers) that he likened to "painted fire," bent to the task of burning down with a torch of words the pestilent hospitality tents of self-glorifying cant. He had in mind the health of the society on which in 1873 he bestowed the honorific "The Gilded Age" in recognition of its great contributions to the technologies of selfishness and greed, a society making itself sick with the consumption of too many sugarcoated lies and one that he understood not to be a society at all but a state of war.

We have today a second Gilded Age more magnificent than the first, but our contemporary brigade of satirists doesn't play with fire. The marketing directors who produce the commodity of humor for prime-time television aim to amuse the sheep, not shoot the elephants in the room. They prepare the sarcasm-lite in the form of freeze-dried sound bites meant to be dropped into boiling water at Gridiron dinners, Academy Award ceremonies, and Saturday Night Live. "There is a hell of a distance," said Dorothy Parker, "between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it." George Bernard Shaw seconded the motion: "My way of joking is to tell the truth. It's the funniest joke in the world."

Twain didn't expect or intend his satire to correct the conduct of Boss Tweed, improve the morals of Commodore Vanderbilt, or stop the same-day deliveries of Congress from Washington to the banks in New York. Nor did he exclude himself from the distinguished company of angry apes rolling around in the mud of their mortality. He knew himself made, like all other men, as "a poor, cheap, wormy thing…a sarcasm, the Creator's prime miscarriage in inventions," easily seduced by the "paltry materialisms and mean vanities" that made both himself and America great.

A man at play with the life of his mind overriding the decay of his matter, his laughter the digging himself out of the dung heap of moralizing cowardice that is the consequence of ingesting too much boardwalk taffy. His purpose is that of a physician attending to the liberties of the people shriveled by the ambitions of the state, his belief that it is the courage of a democracy's dissenting citizens that defends their commonwealth against the despotism of a plutocracy backed up with platitudes, billy clubs, surveillance cameras, and subprime loans.

Which is why in times of trouble I reach for the saving grace of the nearby Twain. Laughter in all of its conjugations and declensions cannot help but breathe the air of freedom, and in the moment of delight and surprise that is my laughing out loud at his Extracts from Adam's Diary or "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," I escape, if only briefly, from the muck of my own ignorance, vanity, and fear, bind up the festering wound inflicted on the day I was born with the consolation of the philosophy named by Charlie Chaplin: "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot."

Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham's Quarterly and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper's Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, slightly adapted for TomDispatch, introduces "Comedy," the Winter 2014 issue of Lapham's Quarterly, soon to be released at that website.

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