In the filmed opera Annette, conceived and written by the perpetually-failing-and-suddenly-hip band Sparks (brothers Ronald and Russell Mael), the protagonist, Henry McHenry, is a perpetually failing comedian played by Adam Driver. He’s asked over and over again by his audience “Why did you become a comedian?” He eventually answers “Why? I’ll tell you why. To disarm people. Make them laugh. It’s the only way I know how to tell the truth without getting killed.”
In this fraught time, when the US harbors far and away the most armed civilians,* where enough of them are willing to fire their guns on people they don’t like…it’s no joke. And since comedian Mike Birbiglia sagely noted that you can’t tell a joke without offending someone, we’ve come to acknowledge the occupational riskiness of comedy. May the bullet of the crazy armed American never meet up with the comedian. Fortunately, and despite doctrinaire decisions that limit opportunities for comics to perform on college campuses, whatever truth standup humor conveys continues to get across. Still, the comedian does risk physical harm. Just ask Chris Rock.
Let’s get to the truth of the matter. We live in a world of hierarchies. Given the spawn of those hierarchies—the inequalities of the world, the problems we have the means to solve yet don’t (poverty, hunger, war, -ism’s of hate)—we intuitively sense that this is not the best of all possible worlds, and in some abstract way, we try to imagine a better one. We get comedy’s flash of hope as expressed by the comedian—the court jester, the caged trickster. From the relative safety of the stage, they speak truth, they mock power and sound the call to overcome it, they touch our intuitions and plant the seed of justice wrapped in a joke that makes us laugh; and once we examine that laughter, we may discover a truth that sets us free.
Take this example where Richard Pryor gets deep into Trickster magic. In Richard Pryor: Live in Concert,taped in 1979 at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California.
Pryor narrates the murder of George Floyd forty years before it occurs. He states a raw, painful fact of racism decades before the general American population began its reckoning with it…he states truth to power in the context of a joke and the safe space that surrounds the jester comedian. He psychologically and politically prepares Americans to come to terms with the structures that lead to the kind of brutality unarmed Black men experience.
Pryor describes how, in drunken anger and distress over his wife leaving him, he shot his .357 Magnum at his own car. And here’s the no-joke joke:
Then the police came. I…went in the house. ‘Cause they got Magnums too. And they don’t kill cars. They kill n**-*ars. [loud applause]
Police got a choke hold they use out here, though. Man, they choke n***as to death. That mean you be dead when they through. Did you know that? Wait, n***as goin’ “Yeah, we knew.” White folks, “No, I had no idea.” Yeah, two grab your legs, one grab your head, and snap. [Cop voice]: “Oh, shit. He broke. Can you break a n***er? Is it okay? Let’s check the manual. Yep, page 8. ‘You can break a n***er.’ Right there, see?” [loud laughter and applause].
Why does this mostly white audience laugh so? Not because the murder of Black men by cops is funny, but because it’s so wrong, absurdly wrong, and that’s what Pryor’s signifying. Pryor’s performing Trickster magic, knowing that the laughing crowd is now with him and that righting this absurd injustice is the act of love, the better world, that he’s preaching.
Justice feels right. We intuitively recognize it when we see it or hear its call. Thus, it is the trickster, often in the role of comedian, who sees the disparity between reality and justice, and bridges that difference with humor. Lacking the power to make it right, tricksters have as their tools the insight and the language to craft that bridge in the form of a joke that raises awareness, and fights the fight not with guns, but on the battlefield of our psyches.
The reason some jokes don’t work anymore, like sexist quips about wives (Take my wife . . . please!), for example…is because the first ten thousand times they were told they DID work, folks laughed because they intuitively knew it was the wrong way to view their spouse, but there was enough truth there to get a laugh. It was funny until it wasn’t, and it was the joke that helped to move society along and compel comedians to up their game and move to a higher plane of exposing injustice once that one wasn’t funny anymore. And if the injustice wasn’t undone, at least it was laid bare so as to be more effectively addressed.
Thus opens the portal. Through jokes, where the audience buys a lie and laughs when the lie is exposed, greater truths are revealed. The trickster’s role is to bring such humor to the fore, humor that matters, that gets people thinking, that gets them talking about the way the world could be. Humor’s power is elusive, slippery, ineffable. But a better society can be built out of the truths that humor reveals. And here, we’re talking about the difference between humor that makes you laugh in order to forget your troubles, and humor that makes you laugh as you solve them.
Dr. Shepherd Siegel, a descendant of oil barons and bootleggers, emerges from Northern California’s utopian promise. A former musician, he earned his doctorate at Berkeley with studies in anthropology and special education. With over thirty publications, his 2018 book “Disruptive Play” garnered awards from Foreword Reviews and the CIPA.
In his new book, Tricking Power into Performing Acts of Love, Dr. Shepherd Siegel, PhD., examines the grownups who have retained the ability to be playful as they were when a child as they view and behave in the world. Such a grownup will consciously or unconsciously engage with the Trickster, and Tricking Power into Performing Acts of Love is about what could happen if society made more of that animating force (and “animating” can be literal, in the case of one of the original American Tricksters: Bugs Bunny!).
* In the US civilian population there are 120.5 guns for every 100 people. The next highest nation is the Falkland Islands, with 62.1, https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/gun-ownership-by-country
 Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, directed by Jeff Margolis (United States: Special Event Entertainment, 1979), film.
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